Scripture: Job, chapter 16; Acts, chapters 21-23
Acts 21:1-14 (NASB):
Now when we had parted from them and had set sail, we ran a straight course to Cos, and on the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara; and having found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we came in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we kept sailing to Syria and landed at Trye; for the ship was to unload its cargo there. After looking up the disciples, we stayed there for seven days; and they kept telling Paul, through the Spirit, not to set foot in Jerusalem.
When our days there were ended, we left and started on our journey, while they all, with wives and children, escorted us until we were out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach and praying, we said farewell to one another. Then we boarded the ship, and they returned home.
When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and after greeting the brothers and sisters, we stayed with them for a day. On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses.
As we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And he came to us and took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And since he would not be persuaded, we became quiet, remarking, “The will of the Lord be done!”
The story is familiar. Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. His friends try to convince him not to go, because they believe he will be in danger there. That was not news to Paul. In our reading from yesterday, Paul told his friends: “And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that chains and afflictions await me” (20:22-23).
But the phrase which caught my attention today is in 21:4: “After looking up the disciples, we stayed there for seven days; and they kept telling Paul, through the Spirit, not to set foot in Jerusalem.” What does that mean? They were speaking “through the Spirit.” Does that mean that Paul disobeyed the Spirit when he went on to Jerusalem? I don’t believe that.
Speaking Through the Spirit
So what does it mean? How could his friends be speaking through the Spirit and be wrong in their advice to Paul?
I think there’s a fine line to walk here, but I’m going to try. I believe that the Spirit revealed to these friends of Paul that he would face persecution and danger in Jerusalem. That message is consistent with what the Spirit had already told Paul (see above). It is also consistent with what the prophet Agabus says later in this passage. But his friends took that message from the Spirit and interpreted it as a warning not to go. However, that is not consistent with what the Spirit had told Paul previously. Also, Agabus didn’t tell Paul not to go to Jerusalem; he merely prophesied what would happen when he did.
After Agabus made his statement, all of Paul’s friends begged him not to go up to Jerusalem (v 12). Paul was moved by their pleas – but not enough to change his plans. I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. God had followed this pattern with Paul throughout his ministry. When God spoke to Ananais and told him to go to Paul, God said, “I will show him how much he must suffer in behalf of My name” (9:16). Paul realized that following God’s will would result in much pain and suffering; but because he knew that it was God’s plan, he understood that God would be glorified through his obedience. Ultimately, his friends understood that too: Since he would not be persuaded, we became quiet, remarking, “The will of the Lord be done!”
God is trying to teach us that there is a difference between hearing from him and completely understanding. Peter heard from God when Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:16-17). Jesus said that the Father had revealed to Peter that Jesus is the Messiah. That didn’t mean that Peter fully understood what that meant. In almost his next breath, Peter tries to correct Jesus when Jesus talks about the suffering and death that he faced. Peter thought he understood that if Jesus is the Messiah, he must also understand everything about Jesus’ mission. WRONG!
And the same is true for us. There are times when God reveals things to us – perhaps a promise about His future work, or a vision of something to come. If we’re not careful, we can take what He reveals to us and make it out to be much more – based on what we want and what we think, rather than on God’s will. Paul’s friends heard from the Spirit that Paul would be bound and would suffer, and they assumed that meant they should warn him. Instead, God apparently wanted them to recognize that what was going to happen was all part of His plan.