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28. Appraising Advice and Doing the Will of God (Acts 21:1-16)

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1 After we tore ourselves away from them, we put out to sea, and sailing a straight course, we came to Cos, on the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went aboard, and put out to sea. 3 After we sighted Cyprus and left it behind on our port side, we sailed on to Syria and put in at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. 4 After we located the disciples, we stayed there seven days. They repeatedly told Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem. 5 When our time was over, we left and went on our way. All of them, with their wives and children, accompanied us outside of the city. After kneeling down on the beach and praying, 6 we said farewell to one another. Then we went aboard the ship, and they returned to their own homes. 7 We continued the voyage from Tyre and arrived at Ptolemais, and when we had greeted the brothers, we stayed with them for one day. 8 On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 (He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.) 10 While we remained there for a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 He came to us, took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it, and said, “The Holy Spirit says this: ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will tie up the man whose belt this is, and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, both we and the local people begged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be tied up, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 Because he could not be persuaded, we said no more except, “The Lord’s will be done.” 15 After these days we got ready and started up to Jerusalem. 16 Some of the disciples from Caesarea came along with us too, and brought us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple from the earliest times, with whom we were to stay.1

Introduction2

In Acts 21, we come to the “home stretch” of the Book of Acts. It is here that Paul enters Jerusalem against the counsel of many saints, including his traveling companions. In chapter 21, Paul will be falsely accused, nearly killed, and then arrested (and thereby rescued) by the Roman authorities. This is the first in a series of appearances and trials before various authorities, and thus it is an occasion for Paul to proclaim the gospel. It will end (so far as the Book of Acts is concerned) in Rome, with Paul awaiting trial before Caesar.

In chapter 19, we are told that Paul had resolved to go to Jerusalem:

Now after all these things had taken place, Paul resolved to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. He said, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21).

One of the reasons Paul was intent on going to Jerusalem was that he intended to bring an offering from the Gentile churches to meet the needs of the saints in Judea:

25 But now I go to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia are pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do this, and indeed they are indebted to the Jerusalem saints. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are obligated also to minister to them in material things (Romans 15:25-27).

As Paul was on his way to Jerusalem, God made it clear to him, and to the saints in the cities where he visited, that suffering and imprisonment awaited him in Jerusalem:

22 And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem without knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit warns me in town after town that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. 24 But I do not consider my life worth anything to myself, so that I may finish my task and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace (Acts 20:22-24).

Twice in Acts 21, Luke will speak of the same matter, of the suffering that awaits Paul in Jerusalem (Acts 21:4, 10-14).

Luke informs us that Paul rejected the advice of his brethren and pressed on to Jerusalem, where he is accused of a high Jewish crime and nearly put to death on the spot. While I have always read this text with the greatest admiration for Paul, I am amazed to find that some godly scholars – men whose writings I highly regard – have reached the conclusion that Paul was wrong, both in his decision to continue on to Jerusalem, and in choosing to follow the counsel of James and the other Jewish leaders of the church in Jerusalem.3

I understand why some good students of Scripture conclude that Paul did the wrong thing in our text. They point out what Luke has written in verse 4:

After we located the disciples, we stayed there seven days. They repeatedly told Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem (Acts 21:4, emphasis mine).

For some, these words are enough to indict Paul for wrongdoing. I want to be careful not to speak badly of those with whom I differ, for these are good men, men who have taken the text literally. My interpretation and application of our text would be greatly different in this lesson if I agreed with their conclusions. It is my intention to show that Paul did the godly thing in our text, and then to point out some of the lessons that Paul’s actions contain for us.

From Miletus to Tyre
Acts 21:1-6

1 After we tore ourselves away from them, we put out to sea, and sailing a straight course, we came to Cos, on the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went aboard, and put out to sea. 3 After we sighted Cyprus and left it behind on our port side, we sailed on to Syria and put in at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. 4 After we located the disciples, we stayed there seven days. They repeatedly told Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem. 5 When our time was over, we left and went on our way. All of them, with their wives and children, accompanied us outside of the city. After kneeling down on the beach and praying, 6 we said farewell to one another. Then we went aboard the ship, and they returned to their own homes (Acts 21:1-6).

In Acts 19, we were told that Paul purposed to go to Rome after first visiting Macedonia and Achaia (Acts 19:21). After visiting Macedonia (Acts 20:1-5), Paul and his traveling companions made their way to Troas, and then to Miletus, where Paul gave his final face-to-face exhortations to the Ephesian elders. In a tearful farewell, Paul informed them that he would not see their faces again because imprisonment and persecutions awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-24, 38).

Luke then records in the early verses of chapter 21 the course they took on their way toward Jerusalem. Sailing from Miletus, they first made port at the island of Cos. They then continued on to the island of Rhodes and to the port city with the same name. From here, they would have turned eastward as they made their way to Patara, the capital city of the kingdom of Lycia. At Patara, they boarded a larger ship which, rather than hugging the coastline, set out to deeper seas for the 400-mile journey past Cyprus to Tyre on the Phoenician coast.

When they reached the city of Tyre, they had seven days until their ship departed. Paul and his companions made good use of this time by looking up the believers in Tyre. One would imagine that something similar to Paul’s meeting with the elders (as recorded in Acts 20:17-38) took place in Tyre as well. No doubt Paul taught these saints and gave a similar exhortation to that in chapter 20. He likely warned of false teachers and exhorted the saints to remain vigilant and devoted to our Lord. But we are not told this. We know that, like his departure from Miletus, Paul and his companions were escorted out of town and to their ship. We know that they knelt together on the beach and prayed and said their farewells (Acts 21:5).

What we are told is recorded in verse 4:

They repeatedly told Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem (Acts 21:4b).

Let’s all admit that these are difficult words for us, and that it is easy to see how some good men could conclude that Paul was wrong to go to Jerusalem. The text appears to inform us that a number of the saints in Tyre, inspired by the Spirit, prophesied of the difficulties Paul would face in Jerusalem, and then they urged him not to visit Jerusalem at all. How do we deal with a difficult text like this?

Here in summary is my approach to this problem and the conclusions I have reached.

(1) I assume that what we read in verse 4 about the Spirit’s revelation to Paul in Tyre is the same message that God gave Paul in every city (compare Acts 20:24 with Acts 21:4, 10-14). In other words, nothing different happens in Tyre than anywhere else that the Spirit has revealed what awaits Paul in Jerusalem.

(2) I observe that Acts 21:4 is a very brief account, while Acts 20:22-24 and 21:10-14 are more detailed. I assume that the more detailed accounts best explain the abbreviated accounts, that Acts 21:4 is best explained by Acts 20:22-24 and 21:10-14.

(3) From Acts 21:4, one might conclude that all of the believers in Tyre prophesied in the Spirit that Paul should not set foot in Jerusalem. Luke’s account of the events in Caesarea in Acts 21:8-14 paints a different picture:

8 On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 (He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.)

10 While we remained there for a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 He came to us, took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it, and said, “The Holy Spirit says this: ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will tie up the man whose belt this is, and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, both we and the local people begged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be tied up, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 Because he could not be persuaded, we said no more except, “The Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:8-14).

Here we see that there were at least four people in Caesarea who were known to be prophets (to be more precise, prophetesses). These are the four unmarried daughters of Philip. But when God spoke, He did so through Agabus, a prophet who came down some 60 miles from Jerusalem to Caesarea. My point here is that God did not prophesy about Paul’s troubles in Jerusalem through all who were present (as verse 4 might appear to indicate). Indeed, God did not even foretell Paul’s troubles in Jerusalem through all the available prophets in Caesarea. God apparently spoke through but one prophet – Agabus. When Agabus prophesied of Paul’s sufferings in Jerusalem, then virtually every Christian responded by urging Paul not to go. Even Luke did so,4 along with Paul’s other traveling companions (Acts 21:12).

I am inclined to understand verse 4 of our chapter in the light of verses 8-14. I believe that at Tyre, only one prophet revealed virtually the same message that we find in Acts 20:22-23 and 21:8-14: imprisonment and persecution awaited Paul in Jerusalem. In response to this divinely-inspired prophecy, the saints in Tyre, just like the saints in Caesarea, sought to convince Paul not to continue on to Jerusalem, and thus to avoid the suffering that awaited him there.

I do not believe Paul is rejecting any direct words of divine prophecy. He is rejecting an improper interpretation and application of what God has revealed. Just as it is possible to misinterpret and misapply Scripture, so it is possible to misinterpret and wrongly apply prophecy. Notice that when Paul insisted on going to Jerusalem, all of those who had sought to dissuade him from going on ceased their resistance with the words, “The Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:14). Does this not indicate that they had mistakenly discerned God’s will for Paul’s life, and that his sense of God’s guidance prevailed? Now allow me to cite some other evidences that would support the conclusion that Paul was right to continue on to Jerusalem.

(4) In Tyre, the entire group escorted Paul to his ship. Why would the church commend Paul in this manner if he were stubbornly acting in disobedience to the Spirit of God?

(5) What the Spirit revealed about what was to happen to Paul in Jerusalem, God had already revealed to Paul at the time of his conversion:

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

(6) The chapters which follow in Acts serve to document that the prophecy Paul received at the time of his conversion, and now on his way to Jerusalem, was true. It happened just as the Spirit revealed, at Paul’s conversion and at the cities where Paul visited on his way to Jerusalem.

(7) Nowhere are we told that what Paul did was wrong. The chapters which follow our text do not indict Paul for wrongdoing; they honor him for his faithful stewardship of the gospel. Paul presses on to Jerusalem, convinced that his suffering is the will of God for him, and that it will be done in the name of the Lord. He is not only willing to suffer, but also to die for Christ.

(8) In 2 Timothy 4:7-8, Paul’s words to Timothy would strongly imply that Paul had not departed from God’s will for him, but that he had fulfilled God’s will for him:

7 I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! 8 Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day – and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

(9) Our Lord’s words of commendation are even more impressive than Paul’s words above:

The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Have courage, for just as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).

Think about this for a moment. Paul has been falsely accused, resulting in a riot in which he was nearly killed. He has been placed under arrest and has shared his testimony with the Jerusalem Jews. This resulted in another riot. In chapter 23, we find Paul standing before the Sanhedrin. Realizing that there will be no justice here, Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee, thus resulting in even more tumult. Paul is then confined to the military barracks for his own protection and until they can decide what to do with him. That night our Lord Himself stood beside Paul and spoke the words recorded in verse 11 as an encouragement to him.

These are not words of rebuke, severe or mild. These are words of commendation. Our Lord commends Paul for faithfully testifying about Him in Jerusalem. Paul has done well. There is not so much as a hint that Paul should not be where he is at this moment. And then our Lord assures Paul that just as he has been faithful to testify of Him in Jerusalem, he will likewise do so in Rome. Indeed, Paul now learns (probably for the first time) that he must go to Rome.

(10) The resistance of Paul’s brothers and sisters to his journey to Jerusalem seems to be based on the premise that Christians should avoid suffering at all costs. Paul, on the other hand, was convinced that suffering and persecution were a normal part of the Christian experience:

21 After they had proclaimed the good news in that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch. 22 They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions” (Acts 14:21-22).

(11) Acts has provided us with more than sufficient evidence that God can deliver His saints from suffering and death, if He chooses to do so (see Acts 4; 5:12-42; 12:1-17; 16:19-39; 18:12-17; 19:23-41). Acts also teaches us that God sometimes uses the suffering and death of His saints to accomplish His purposes (for example, the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and the death of James in Acts 12:2). God can deliver Paul from adversity if He chooses to do so, but sometimes God purposes the suffering of His saints. Paul has been chosen to suffer for His Lord, and thus going to Jerusalem is consistent with God’s will for him.

(12) If Paul was wrong to press on to Jerusalem, what wrong reasons do you find for him doing so?

A Most Important Question

These are most of my reasons for concluding that Paul did not sin by rejecting the counsel of his well-meaning brethren and pressing on to Jerusalem. That leaves us with a very important question:

Why does Luke include (in fact, emphasize) the warnings Paul received in every city and the fact that Paul nevertheless continued on to Jerusalem?

I believe Luke provides us with the answer. In his two-volume history (Luke and Acts), Luke has sought to show us how Christ continues to live and to work through His church. Just as the Jews rejected Jesus and sought to kill Him, so they have rejected the gospel and have sought to kill those who proclaim it. At this point in the Book of Acts, Luke is showing us the similarity of Paul’s ministry and mission to that of our Lord.

Like Jesus, Paul set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing full well what awaited him there:

Now when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).

Now after all these things had taken place, Paul resolved to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. He said, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21).

Paul, like Jesus, would be falsely accused in Jerusalem, and put on trial. Paul, like Jesus, would be pronounced innocent, and yet not released. Paul, like Jesus, would be urged not to go to Jerusalem by his most devoted followers, yet he would go anyway.

21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:21-24).

10 While we remained there for a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 He came to us, took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it, and said, “The Holy Spirit says this: ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will tie up the man whose belt this is, and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, both we and the local people begged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be tied up, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 Because he could not be persuaded, we said no more except, “The Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:10-14).

Luke’s purpose is not to show us that all the saints have “feet of clay,” even Paul. He is seeking to show us that Paul is like our Lord, and that unbelieving Jews continue to reject the gospel and to persecute Christ as they persecute the apostles.

Application

Our text has much to teach us, so let us consider some of the ways we should be instructed from what we have seen. These applications are based on the assumption that Paul was right to press on to Jerusalem, and that his brethren were wrong to discourage him from going.

First, our text informs us that bad advice can come from our best friends. There are many texts in the Bible which warn us about the company we keep. We are to avoid association with evil men, who seek to turn us from the path of righteousness (see Proverbs 1:8-19). There are numerous examples of bad counsel coming from bad people. Jonadab counseled Amnon how to seduce (rape) his half-sister, Tamar (2 Samuel 13). Rehoboam’s “friends” counseled him to deal harshly with those he ruled (1 Kings 12:8-11).

But our text reminds us that bad counsel can come from our most intimate and trusted friends, those who greatly love us and care about our well-being. We see examples of this elsewhere in the Bible. For example, Nathan’s initial response was to encourage David to build the temple he aspired to construct (1 Chronicles 17:1-4). Job’s friends’ counsel was intended to end his suffering and to restore him to blessing, but they were all wrong (see Job 42:7-9).

Why is it that those who love us deeply, who want our best are sometimes the very ones who give us bad counsel? It may be the same reason that we pray the surgery of a good friend will go “smoothly” and without complications. It may be the same reason that we ask God to completely heal a fellow believer of cancer, rather than use them powerfully in death. At this very moment, I feel tension when I pray for missionaries who are serving God in very dangerous places. Should I pray that God would enable them to be evacuated from their place of service? Or should I pray that God would supernaturally deliver them from all harm? Or must I also leave room for God to glorify Himself and promote the gospel by their faithfulness even unto death?

We are currently praying for a young man who appears to have been falsely accused, wrongly convicted, and now awaits death before a firing squad. During his time in prison, he has conducted Sunday worship, Bible studies, and prayer meetings. I believe some have come to faith because of his incarceration. Do I pray that God will deliver this young man from death, and even from his cell; or do I pray that God will use him in his affliction?

In our text, I believe it all boils down to one’s attitude toward suffering in the Christian life, and Paul puts his finger on it:

22 And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem without knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit warns me in town after town that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. 24 But I do not consider my life worth anything to myself, so that I may finish my task and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace (Acts 20:22-24, emphasis mine).

10 While we remained there for a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 He came to us, took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it, and said, “The Holy Spirit says this: ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will tie up the man whose belt this is, and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, both we and the local people begged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be tied up, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 21:10-13, emphasis mine).

Paul understood that his best friends did not want him to suffer. It was prophesied that in Jerusalem he would suffer. Thus, if your goal is to avoid suffering, you will avoid going to Jerusalem. If your desire for one you love is to escape suffering, then you will counsel accordingly. And this is what Paul’s friends urged him to do.

Many times I have seen this same counsel repeated today by well-meaning Christian friends. A Christian woman finds herself in a painful marriage relationship, and some “Christian friend” will give counsel such as, “I wouldn’t put up with that; you’re entitled to be happy.” Such counsel assumes that God cannot change lives and heal broken marriages. It also assumes that the primary goal in life is to be happy and to be free from pain. God’s Word makes it plain that we live in a fallen world, one in which all creation suffers and groans (Romans 8:18-25). Such counsel assumes that God is not in control of our circumstances, or that He never sends suffering our way. But God often uses suffering in the life of the Christian:

3 Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow toward us, so also our comfort through Christ overflows to you. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort that you experience in your patient endurance of the same sufferings that we also suffer (2 Corinthians 1:3-6).

17 For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

7. . . Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me – so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse. 19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. 21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25).

10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death (Philippians 3:10).

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body – for the sake of his body, the church – what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24).

Paul knew he would suffer in Jerusalem. God revealed this to him so that he would be prepared for what lay ahead, not so that he could avoid it. Paul understood this and was willing not only to suffer in Jerusalem, but if need be, to die for the name of the Lord Jesus, who died for him. As an unbeliever, Paul had undoubtedly watched many suffer joyfully at his own hand. He was likewise ready to suffer in the same way.

Second, our text instructs us regarding the will of God for our lives. When you stop to think about it, our text isn’t just about taking advice; it is about knowing God’s will for our life. Going to Jerusalem was about fulfilling the prophecy revealed to Paul at the time of his salvation. This prophecy revealed the will of God for Paul’s life:

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

Going to Jerusalem was as important for the life and ministry of Paul as going to Jerusalem was for the life and the ministry of Jesus.5 It was God’s will for Paul. To heed the well-intentioned but incorrect counsel of his friends would have been to turn away from God’s will.

If I were to ask you what book of the Bible came to your mind when I mentioned wisdom, I am quite sure that most of you would think of the Book of Proverbs. Rightly so, as terms for “wisdom6 occur well over 100 times in the Book. In Proverbs and elsewhere, “wisdom” is referred to as a “way” or as a “path.” In the New Testament, Jesus and others speak of faith in Jesus as a way. Thus, Jesus calls Himself “the way” (John 14:6) and He calls men to “follow” Him (for example, Matthew 4:19; 8:22; 9:9). Satan seeks to distract us and to divert us from the path to which we were called.

Paul knew the path. The day of his salvation, that path was spelled out for him (Acts 9:15-16). Subsequent events only served to confirm this path. When Paul proclaimed the gospel in Damascus, the Jews there sought to kill him (Acts 9:23). Likewise, when Paul went to Jerusalem, the Hellenistic Jews there wanted to kill him (Acts 9:29). On his first missionary journey, Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra (Acts 14:8-19). No wonder Paul encouraged these new believers by speaking of the need to endure persecution and affliction (Acts 14:22).

Likewise, on his second missionary journey, Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned at Philippi (Acts 16:16-40). Everywhere Paul went there was opposition to him and to the gospel he proclaimed. And thus when Paul purposed to go to Jerusalem, it was far from shocking to learn that persecution and imprisonment awaited him there. This was the path to which he had been called.

I am saying this because some appear to approach “finding the will of God” as though each decision in life were, so to speak, a blank slate, as though each decision in life regarding God’s will is made as though it were independent of all other decisions. I see Paul’s decision regarding God’s will for him as a convergence of factors, all of which point in the same direction. Think about this in the context of the Book of Acts.

Take the theme of suffering, for example. From beginning (for Paul, this would be Acts 8) to end, Paul experiences great opposition and thus great suffering for his identification with Christ. No surprises here, for Paul or for any other Christian (Acts 14:22; 2 Timothy 3:12). When Paul came to faith, he chose to identify with our Lord Jesus and to follow Him. Jesus pressed on to Jerusalem, against the wishes of His disciples, to face rejection, suffering, and death. And so why would Paul expect otherwise when he went to Jerusalem? One aspect of the good news of the gospel is that Jesus rose from the dead, and because of this, we will also be raised from the dead to spend eternity with Him. When Paul was saved, he saw a vision of the risen Lord Jesus. Why would death terrify him? We know it did not (Philippians 1:19-24).

In addition to these things, the Book of Acts has a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God. God sovereignly works to assure us that the Great Commission of Acts 1:8 is fulfilled. The harder the Jews work to oppose the gospel, the more effective it is, because salvation is God’s work (Acts 13:48; 16:14). On various occasions, God delivered His servants from the grasp of the Jews, of Gentiles, and even of Rome (Acts 5:17-20; 12:1-23; 16:16-40). On the other hand, God sometimes used the death of a martyr to advance the cause of the gospel (Acts 6:8—8:2). Paul knew that God could rescue him from death, but he was also assured that God might use his suffering and death to bring glory to Himself.

When taken altogether, it is fairly easy to see why Paul would recognize that avoiding Jerusalem would be a departure from the will of God for his life. We may discern God’s will for our life in a similar way, even using the same truths that may have guided Paul. Discerning God’s will is not as difficult for me as being willing to do His will. It was God’s will for Paul to face opposition and imprisonment in Jerusalem. That is what He revealed to Paul (and others) in every city. The question was, “Will Paul persist on the path God has placed him when doing so will involve great suffering and sacrifice?” Thank God, Paul was persistent.

One Final Thought

When we were discussing this passage at our Friday morning breakfast group, my friend Bruce Beaty made this observation: “Paul’s decision to press on to Jerusalem is like the apostles’ decision to replace Judas with Matthias in chapter 1 – Luke does not pronounce judgment on the decision.” It has taken me awhile for this to sink in, but here is my delayed7 response.

I believe that it was very important for Paul to remain on the path that God had set out for him. My interpretation of this text and the applications I have made rest on my conviction that Paul rightly rejected the counsel of his beloved friends and companions to avoid Jerusalem. But even if Paul was wrong, it would not have overthrown or overruled God’s plan to take the gospel all the way to Rome. And it was God’s plan to take the gospel to Rome:

7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Have courage, for just as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).

There are those who would flatter themselves by supposing that the fulfillment of God’s plans and purposes is dependent upon their faithfulness. Our joy and our rewards are certainly the result of faithfulness, but God’s purposes do not hang in the balance of our obedience. Thank God for that! Peter denied his Lord, and he deeply regretted it, but that did not keep our Lord from going to the cross, dying for lost sinners, and rising from the dead. Judas’ betrayal did not thwart the purposes of God, either. The choice of Matthias did not in any way prevent God from raising up Paul to become the apostle to the Gentiles. Even if Paul’s decision to go to Rome was wrong (and I do not think it was), God’s purposes were realized anyway. The gospel did go on to Rome. Our unfaithfulness affects us, but it does not sabotage the plans and purposes of God. What a wonderful and comforting thought that is.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 28 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on July 23, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 See, for example, James Montgomery Boice, Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1997), pp. 355-362. He titles chapter 41 in his commentary, “When a Good Man Falls.”

4 Notice the “we” in Acts 21:12.

5 Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. The work of our Lord at Calvary was vastly more important than Paul’s work, the consummation of which commenced in Jerusalem. I am saying that for Paul, his life’s work was consummated as the result of his journey to Jerusalem, just as our Lord’s work was consummated at Calvary.

6 Here I’m including several related terms such as “wise,” “wisdom,” and “wiser.”

7 “Delayed” as in, “This came to me after I preached this message!”

Related Topics: Spiritual Life