Have you ever done your devotions and had a passage of Scripture puzzle you? That’s what happened to me today as I read in Acts. Does this passage teach that Paul was disobedient to the Spirit? Does God reveal contradictory things to different people? Here is what Gleason Archer has to say about it in The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties:
“Was Paul obedient or disobedient to the Spirit when he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem?
Acts 20:22–23 expresses Paul’s confidence that he is in the will of God as he journeys back to Jerusalem to fulfill his vow as a pilgrim: “And now, behold, bound in spirit [or ‘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 bonds and afflictions await me” (NASB). But in Acts 21:4 the disciples at Tyre “kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem” (NASB). Likewise, at the home of Philip the evangelist in Caesarea, the prophet Agabus took Paul’s belt from him and symbolically wound it around his own hands and feet, saying, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’ ” (Acts 21:11, NASB). After this warning, all the local believers and friends strongly urged Paul to desist from his purpose; but he answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (v.13, NASB).
It is clear that the Holy Spirit did everything to warn Paul of the danger and suffering that awaited him if he went back to Jerusalem. The statement in Acts 21:4 that the disciples told Paul “through the Spirit (dia tou pneumatos) not to set foot in Jerusalem” makes it sound as if Paul was acting in disobedience by persisting in the fulfillment of the vow he had taken at Cenchrea (Acts 18:18). W. L. Pettingill states his definite opinion that “Paul was forbidden to go to Jerusalem at all. It is therefore evident that he was out of the Lord’s will” (Bible Questions Answered, ed. R.P. Polcyn, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979], p. 332). But this is a rather difficult position to maintain in view of God’s continued faithfulness to him through all his trials. As Paul stood before the Sanhedrin, before Felix and Festus, and even before Herod Agrippa II, he enjoyed opportunities for witness that would never have come to him had he not become a cause célèbre.
If Paul was really out of the will of God, would he have been so marvelously delivered from the violence of the mob at the temple? Would he have been so notably used as a preacher to governors and kings? Back at the time of Paul’s conversion, the Lord had told Ananias of Damascus, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15–16, NASB). It certainly looks as if Paul’s arrest and trials at Caesarea, and his later appeal before Nero Caesar at Rome, were God’s means of bringing to pass the purpose He announced to Ananias so many years before.
Paul’s attitude in regard to the dangers and sufferings awaiting him in Jerusalem is not too dissimilar to that of our Lord Jesus as He too faced the prospect of His last journey to Jerusalem, there to meet His humiliation and death on a cross. There is something almost Christlike about the way Paul spoke of his impending sufferings in the presence of the Ephesian elders: “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (20:24, NASB). He gladly laid his life on the altar, as one who was completely expendable for the Lord Jesus.
All things considered, then, it seems best to understand Acts 21:4 as conveying, not an absolute prohibition of Paul’s journey to Jerusalem, but only a clear, unmistakable warning that he is not to set foot in Jerusalem—if he wants to avoid danger and stay out of serious trouble. But Paul had counted the cost, and he was willing to risk everything in order to fulfill his vow and set an example of fearless courage before the whole church of God. From the sequel it seems quite clear that he was indeed following God’s good and acceptable and perfect will for his life.”
Let’s assume that Archer is correct. Verse 14 says, “When it was clear that we couldn’t persuade him, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.'” Was this some sort of fatalism, with them thinking that Paul was being disobedient and prideful? Or, does it mean that they realized that they might not have the full picture? It could be seen either way, and it should serve as a warning to us today. Are there times when we might not see the full picture? Could it be that we don’t always have a right or complete understanding of what God is doing? Could it also be that sometimes the more difficult way is the more God glorifying and kingdom building way?
Oh Lord, protect us from our own vanity and pride. Help us to better understand your ways, and to take the hard road and the difficult path if it will bring glory to you.