Did Paul disobey the Holy Spirit? (Lessons on guidance in Acts 21)

In Acts 21, we are told about Paul’s final journey to Jerusalem.  It’s an illuminating case study on interacting with God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit. Paul travels from Miletus where he has met with the Ephesian elders and given them the commission to provide for and to protect the flock. He has spoken there about his commitment to be faithful to the commission God has entrusted him with.  From there, the apostolic team sail to Caesarea via Tyre where they spend a few days with the believers. Eventually they get to Jerusalem.

The journey is punctuated by explicit and implicit indications of the Holy Spirit guiding Paul.  First, the disciples in Tyre are prompted by the Holy Spirit about what is to come and so urge Paul not to go to Jerusalem.  Then Paul spends time with Philip, one of the seven deacons of Acts 6, so a man full of the Holy Spirit. Luke chooses to mention here that Philip has four daughters who prophesy. The information would be superfluous except that it serves the emphasis that sense of a journey under the Holy Spirit’s watch. 

In Caesarea, a prophet called Agabus approaches Paul with a message from the Holy Spirit. He enacts out Paul being bound and imprisoned in Jerusalem. Agabus stops short of advising Paul what to do about this. However, Paul’s friends see this as another prompt to warn him against going on.

Finally, in Jerusalem itself, the leaders of the Jerusalem church, whilst welcoming Paul warmly and trusting him are concerned about the rumours that others have been putting about him. They urge him to try and do something about this to counter the gossip and accusation.  As you will find out next week, Paul’s compliance with this last bit of advice doesn’t work out so well and in fact the earlier prophecies are fulfilled.  You’ll notice that here there isn’t so much emphasis on Holy Spirit direction and this looks like human advice. Whether or not the advice turned out wise or not you can decide for yourself.  My own experience is that if people have started out to gossip against you and slander you then usually the things people suggest you try to kill off the gossip don’t work because the gossipers aren’t much interested in truth and more in causing malicious harm.

So, what should we make of Paul’s response? He seems to be warned about danger in Jerusalem and urged to turn back at least twice if not more. Yet he insists on pressing on. He accepts there is danger ahead but he says that he is willing to keep going?  Was Paul wrong?  Was he disobedient?

Well, the clue to the answer is back in Acts 20:22. There it is clear that the Holy Spirit had already spoken to Paul and directed him that he must go first to Jerusalem and then on from there to Rome. Where others saw warnings about danger from the Holy Spirit as a reason to turn back, Paul had a clearer picture of what was happening. He knew that God intended to use those dangers for good, to fulfil his purpose.

And there is an important point there, a side note if you like about how we handle this kind of guidance.  Some of you will be sensitive to more intuitive forms of guidance.  You’ll be alert to gut feelings, premunitions even. You may even have experienced dreams, visions, prophetic words. The best thing to do with those things in my opinion is to share them exactly as we experience them without trying to modify them to suit an audience or fit or own presumptions and to be cautious about interpretation. It seems that the people in Tyre had clear information from the Holy Spirit about what was to happen but they mingled the revelation with their application about what Paul should do about it. In Caesarea, we see the distinction between revelation (the image of Paul being bound), interpretation (that this means he will be arrested in Jerusalem) and application or advice, that therefore he shouldn’t go.  The final part is added by Paul’s fellow disciples bur he settles on a different application -that he must go.

Paul, therefore doesn’t ignore or disobey the Holy Spirit.  Rather, he is aware of an earlier word and a final destiny that enables him to make difficult decisions.  He is able to press on towards the goal he has been called to. The revelations which discourage others from that goal only serve to encourage him to keep going.

So, Paul knows that he must do something even though he also knows that pursing the course of action will lead to trouble for him.  Yet he also knows that this is all part of God’s purpose for his good and God’s glory.  You may identify with that. I know I do. There have been times when I’ve known that taking a course of action will cause me pain but I’ve also known that it was necessary. The crucial point is knowing that God will work those things for our good and his glory.

That’s the important thing for us. We have firm anchor points set in place. We know what Scripture has to say about us about the Gospel, that Christ has died for us and that our lives are hid in the risen Christ.  We know that “the sky and not the grave will be our goal.”  This enables us to press on, even when we know through our circumstances, the advice of others and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we can press on in obeying God’s calling on our lives.

“But I have decided
I’m gonna follow Jesus
And there’s no turning back (There’s no turning back, oh no)
There’s no turning back, no

Whatever my lot (Whatever my lot)
You have taught me to know (Taught me to know)
It is well
It is well with my soul (With me soul)

‘Cause You have reached down to me, You have rescued me
You have shed Your blood for my soul
And I live now knowing that the sky and not the grave will be my goal
And just as in life, also in death, this truth will comfort and console
That soon I will see Your face and hear Your voice
And I will know that it is well

Whatever my lot
You have taught me to know (You have taught me to know)
It is well (It is well)
It is well with my soul (It is well, it is well)”

   Brenton Brown, Well with my soul


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