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New Years [2013]: How to Know God’s Will (Acts 21:1-14)

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December 30, 2012

With the New Year just ahead and because it relates to our most recent study in Romans 15 concerning Paul’s plans to go to Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain, and because many Christians often wonder about this practical matter, I want to talk about how to know God’s will. All Christians want to know God’s will for their lives, both in major and minor decisions. But it’s not always easy to figure it out and there are conflicting views on how to do it. So I want to help you think biblically about this.

Much of God’s will is revealed in the commands and principles of His Word. You don’t need to pray for guidance in these areas. In fact, you’re sinning if you pray about whether you should do something that God’s Word forbids. We just need to understand and obey the commands and principles that are in the Bible.

But what about the decision to marry Jane or Sally, when both girls love the Lord? What about deciding your major in college, or which job to take, or where to live? There are many such decisions where we want to know God’s will, but there are no verses that relate directly to the decision at hand.

Some depend heavily on subjective feelings, signs, a thought which they interpret to be God’s voice, or a verse out of context. A girl was praying about where to go to college, when she came upon the Lord’s words to Jacob, “Arise, go to Bethel.” Since her denomination had a college of that name, she decided that God was telling her to go to Bethel College. I hope that once she got there she didn’t read Amos 4:4 which says, “Go to Bethel and sin”!

On the other side of the spectrum, Garry Friesen wrote Decision Making and the Will of God [Multnomah Press, 1980], in which he argues that God does not have a specific will for the details of your life. Rather, as long as you act within the moral will of God and follow the principles of biblical wisdom, you’re free to decide as you wish. Thus, if Jane and Sally are both dedicated single Christian women, you’re free to marry whichever one you choose. You’d be wasting your time to ask God to reveal His will, especially through some sign or inner impression. In effect, God would shrug His shoulders and say, “They’re both fine girls. Get wise counsel and do as you please.” Friesen wants to eliminate all subjective feelings, impressions, and “inner peace” from the process of determining God’s will.

Although Friesen levels some valid criticisms against what he calls the traditional view of finding God’s will, I don’t agree with his primary thesis. My main gripe is that if we don’t need to seek God’s guidance for our decisions, then we don’t need to rely on Him in prayer about those decisions. If Friesen is correct, it would undermine many of the examples of answered prayer in the life of George Muller, where he asked God to provide a specific amount and God put it on the heart of a donor to give that exact amount at that time to meet Muller’s need. If Friesen is right, God doesn’t do that. I think that his view moves us toward Deism, where God isn’t directly involved with our daily lives. So, why pray?

But, then, how do we know God’s will? The bad news (or good news, depending on how you look at it) is that there is no simple formula in the Bible for how to know God’s will in situations that are within His moral will. If there were, we would probably apply the formula without seeking God Himself. The good news side of it is that God primarily guides us through our relationship with Him, as we grow to understand His Word and learn to walk in dependence on the Holy Spirit. But since even the best of us (including Paul) are imperfect sinners, it’s an imperfect and often uncertain process at best. But even when we miss God’s will due to our lack of understanding or sin, He is sovereign and gracious to overcome our mistakes.

The uncertainty of this process is revealed in the difference of opinion between godly scholars over whether Paul was right or wrong to go to Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had repeatedly revealed to Paul that he would encounter “bonds and afflictions” if he went there (20:23). Some commentators, such as Donald Barnhouse, Ray Stedman, and James Boice, argue (in light of 21:4) that Paul was either deliberately sinning or making a foolish mistake to continue his journey in light of these warnings. But most commentators argue that Paul was right to go. Our text and the history of Paul in Acts reveal some principles on how to know God’s will:

We should walk so closely with God that we discern His guidance as we live in obedience to His Word, in dependence on His Holy Spirit.

With that as a brief summary, I want to work through seven principles for how to know God’s will, some of which are in our text and others which come from Paul’s walk with God.

1. To know God’s will, you must write God a blank check with your life.

It’s futile to speculate about God’s will for your life unless you are totally committed to obeying it. God isn’t a travel agent who arranges your itinerary and then asks, “What do you think?” You say, “I’d prefer not to go to that Muslim country as a missionary. Could you change that to a few years in Hawaii, please?” He is the Lord, and it’s true that He loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life! But you must yield your entire life to Him up front, trusting that His will for you is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom. 12:1-2).

Paul had long since done that. In Acts 20:24 he said, “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so 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.” In Acts 21:13 he again says, “I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Paul was totally committed to do God’s will, whatever it required.

Signing your life over to God may strike you as a bit scary. What if you do it and He tells you to go to some jungle as a missionary, when you don’t even enjoy camping for a night or two? But, remember, He is your loving Father and He is all-knowing and all-wise. His purpose is to be glorified through you by blessing your life. So you’ve got to begin by trusting Him.

Granted, His path for you may include some severe and difficult trials, including martyrdom. But you can trust that even in these, He will bless you in ways that you cannot imagine if you will trust Him and submit to Him. No one, including the martyrs in heaven, ever wrote God a blank check with his life and later regretted it. You must begin there if you want to know His will.

2. To know God’s will, grow to know Him intimately through His Word and His Spirit.

Paul had known the Lord and walked closely with Him for years at this point. This fact, along with the fact that there is no hint in the text that Paul was being disobedient, leads me to disagree with those who say that Paul was knowingly sinning here. I do think he made a mistake by going to Jerusalem and submitting to the elders’ plan to offer a sacrifice in the temple (see my message on Acts 21:15-40). But Paul’s aim for many years now had been to know Christ (Phil. 3:9-10). He knew God’s Word well, and he walked by the Spirit, not by the flesh (Gal. 5:16). While that doesn’t always prevent us from making mistakes, it is a key factor in determining God’s will.

I’ve been married to Marla for almost 39 years now. On many matters I could tell you what she would want without asking her opinion. I know her will because I know her. In the same way, knowing God’s will in a specific situation is very much bound up with knowing God Himself.

There are no shortcuts or easy formulas to knowing the Lord. It’s a process that requires diligently seeking Him in His Word and in prayer over time. For some reason, God has designed life so that you have to make some of the biggest decisions (career, marriage partner) when you lack the maturity that you will gain later in life! That’s one reason that you should seek the wise counsel of those who have followed the Lord for many years, including your Christian parents! In other words, if you haven’t walked with God long enough to know Him well, take advantage of the wise counsel of those who do know Him well.

If you’re a relatively new believer, you should probably postpone major life decisions, such as marriage, until you get a basic grounding in God’s Word (1 Cor. 7:17-24). You need to know the godly character qualities to look for in a mate. And, if you want a godly wife, you’ve got to be a godly young man, which requires some time in the faith. Don’t make major decisions rashly!

3. To know God’s will, act on biblical principles, not human wisdom.

I’m expanding here on the previous point to say that at times, God’s wisdom and ways are opposed to man’s wisdom and ways (Isa. 55:8-9). Not usually, but sometimes, God wants us to do something that goes against human logic. Earlier in his life, Paul had fled from Damascus to avoid persecution (2 Cor. 11:32-33). But here he is determined to go to Jerusalem even if it means martyrdom. While I think that Paul was wrong to ignore repeated warnings from the Holy Spirit (20:23; 21:4, 11), he was acting on what he believed to be biblical principles.

One biblical principle that governed Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was his strong conviction that in the church there is no Jew or Greek, but we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). He was taking the collection that he had raised from the Gentile churches to the Jewish church as a demonstration of love and unity. Luke hardly mentions this collection (24:17), but from Paul’s epistles we know that it was a big deal to him (Rom. 15:25-32; 2 Cor. 8 & 9). James Boice suggests that Luke’s silence about it may reflect that he was not in favor of the idea (Acts [Zondervan], p. 358). But the principle behind it, the unity of the church, is an important biblical doctrine (John 17). Paul was willing to walk into the face of danger on the basis of his commitment to this truth.

Also driving Paul was his heart’s desire for the salvation of the Jews. This was such a compelling force that Paul said that he would be willing to be cut off from Christ for eternity if it meant the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 9:3)! Because of this compelling desire to see the Jews saved, Paul was willing to sacrifice his life, if need be.

I must add, though, that at the same time, Paul seemed to be going against the biblical principle of submitting to one another (Eph. 5:21) and trusting that the Holy Spirit was speaking through other gifted members of the body. In my judgment, Paul fell into the trap that we all are prone to: his greatest strengths were at the same time his greatest weaknesses. He was strong in his commitment to preach the gospel whatever the cost. But that strength also made him stubborn and unwilling to submit to the godly counsel of others. So when we seek to follow some biblical principles, we need to be careful not to violate other biblical principles.

4. To know God’s will, analyze your gifts, motives, and desires in light of God’s sovereign purpose of being glorified among the nations.

It is possible to be committed to doing the Lord’s will, but to be in the wrong place or position. For example, perhaps Paul could have sent some delegates with the collection, but stayed away himself, and still have accomplished his desire of unifying the church. A key question, which is not always easy to answer, is, “Where can I be the most effective in furthering God’s kingdom in light of my gifts?” For example, I have a heart for missions, but I know that I’m not an evangelist. I’ve asked myself, “Am I more effective to stay in America and instill in God’s people a heart for missions or to go myself?” That’s one reason I’m near a university campus, because I want to see God raise up young workers for the harvest in missions (Matt. 9:38). If I ever sense that I can be more effective by going myself, I’ll be out of here!

Paul was admirable in his commitment to be willing to suffer and die for the name of Christ. But I can’t help but wonder whether someone should have asked him which would be more effective: to be in prison or dead; or to be free to continue ministering as he was? It’s not always God’s will for us to be so committed that we ignore our own safety. As I said, earlier in his life, Paul fled Damascus for his safety, which wasn’t wrong. He escaped from angry mobs in Thessalonica and Berea. He listened to counsel and didn’t go into the arena in Ephesus, where he could have been lynched (Acts 17:10, 13-14; 19:30-31). So I question why he didn’t change his plans in light of the repeated warnings of danger awaiting him in Jerusalem. I can’t help but think that he was unwise.

In addition to our gifts and how we can best be used, we need to examine our motives and desires. Am I truly seeking God’s glory and not my own? Is my heart open before Him, with no secret sins? If I can honestly answer yes, then I should ask, “What are my desires? What do I enjoy doing?” If I’m delighting in the Lord, then I can trust Him to give me the desires of my heart, either by confirming my current desires, or by changing those desires to be in line with His purpose (Ps. 37:4). He is a loving Father who delights in blessing His children by granting their holy desires. So if I’m delighting in Him, it’s legitimate in seeking His will to ask, “What do I enjoy doing?” That may be where I should serve Him.

5. To know God’s will, listen to and prayerfully evaluate the counsel of godly believers.

This is not always easy to do! Our text says that “through the Spirit” these believers told Paul not to set foot in Jerusalem (21:4). As I said, some think that Paul sinned by disobeying the direct word of God. But most commentators soften the phrase to mean that through the Spirit, the believers were expressing their concern and love for Paul. Or they say that the Spirit was warning Paul of the hardship that he would face, so that he would be prepared to endure it. But they don’t see it as the Spirit telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.

After Agabus’ prophecy, even Luke and Paul’s other traveling companions (“we,” 21:12) joined in with the locals in trying to persuade Paul not to go to Jerusalem, and Paul’s response shows that they were getting to him. But he was so strongly persuaded that God wanted him to go to Jerusalem that he resisted their appeals.

As I said, my (minority) view is that Paul’s zeal for Christian unity and for the salvation of his fellow Jews, coupled with his exemplary resolve (which also caused him to be stubborn at times), in this instance caused him to make a mistake. He should have heeded the repeated warnings of the Holy Spirit through other believers. At the very least, he should have paused to consider prayerfully the counsel of these godly believers. If Paul had not gone, he could have gotten to Rome and Spain much sooner than he did. He could have stayed focused on his calling to preach to the Gentiles.

We probably can’t know for sure this side of heaven whether Paul was right or wrong. But it is comforting that even if he made a mistake, God was still at work through Paul to accomplish His sovereign will. Through Paul’s arrest and incarceration, he got to preach the gospel to both the Roman and Jewish leaders. His prison epistles teach us much about enduring persecution and hardship with strong faith and joy in God. But the principle is, we must listen to and prayerfully evaluate the counsel that we receive.

Thus to know God’s will, write God a blank check with your life; grow to know Him intimately through His Word and His Spirit; act on biblical principles, not human wisdom; analyze your gifts, motives, and desires in light of God’s purpose for His glory; and, listen to and prayerfully evaluate godly counsel.

6. To know God’s will, prayerfully evaluate the circumstances that God providentially brings into your life.

Again, this is not easy! For example, God had now brought into Paul’s life repeated warnings against going to Jerusalem from many different sources. Should he have taken these warnings as God saying, “Don’t go?” Or, could they be to test his willingness to obey God’s will? Perhaps the warnings were to help both the saints and Paul stand firm after he was imprisoned, knowing it to be God’s will in advance. Perhaps Paul’s other circumstances, such as being able to get on ships that got him to Jerusalem in time for Pentecost, showed God’s approval for his going there.

As you can see, the same set of circumstances can be interpreted in a number of ways, and so we need to be careful in how we evaluate them. It’s usually not wise to “put out a fleece” to try to know God’s will. Sometimes closed doors do not mean “no,” and sometimes open doors do not mean “yes.” Finally,

7. After prayerfully following all of the above, in dependence on God, follow your best judgment, conscience, inner peace, and convictions, submitting to the consequences.

Ultimately, each person must determine God’s will for himself or herself. You can’t blame others for the decisions that you make. If Paul was right here and his friends were wrong, it illustrates the point that sometimes bad counsel comes from loving motives. It was because these people loved Paul that they pled with him not to go, but he had to go against the wishes of his friends to do what he thought God wanted him to do. But if Paul was wrong (as I think), then he had to submit to the consequences of ignoring the warnings that he had been given.

Although some (such as Friesen) argue that it’s wrong to rely on “inner peace,” I disagree. I grant that having peace about a decision is not an infallible guide. I’ve known Christians who “had peace” about a decision that was sinful! But if the decision is morally neutral and you have followed the steps above in dependence on God, there is a place for His peace to guide you.

The biblical basis for this is in 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, where Paul had an open door for the gospel (he lived for open doors for the gospel!), but he had no rest for his spirit because Titus had not arrived with news from Corinth. On the basis of his lack of peace, Paul walked away from an open door for the gospel to go look for Titus. Thus I believe there is a place for inner peace, even though it is subjective and not infallible.

Conclusion

What if you make a mistake in determining the will of God? If you come to realize that your mistake was due to stubbornness, self-will, or pride, confess it and ask God to overrule your mistake. I don’t think that Paul sinned by going to Jerusalem, but I do think that he made a mistake. But God used Paul’s prison years for His glory, and He can use our mistakes and even our rebellion if we submit to Him and seek to please Him.

Remember, the process of finding God’s will begins when you trust Christ as Savior and when you write Him a blank check with your life, being willing to do whatever He calls you to do. If you’ve never repented of your sins and trusted in Christ, you are clearly out of the will of God, because He wants you to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).

Discussion Questions

  1. Is feeling a peace (or lack thereof) about something a valid factor in determining God’s will? (See 2 Cor. 2:12-14.)
  2. Do we need to seek God’s will for relatively minor decisions (what we wear for the day, etc.)? Why/why not?
  3. How can we know when to go against the counsel of godly people? What principles apply?
  4. Why is putting out a fleece (or asking for a sign) not a good practice when seeking God’s will?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Christian Life, Discipleship, New Year's, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Spiritual Life