Acts 21:1-16 - To Go or Not to Go - What did the Holy Spirit say?

Acts 21:1-16 – To Go or Not to Go - What did the Holy Spirit say?

Diving Deeper Lesson Outline for Acts 21:1-16

This lesson begins with some basic observations concerning the Holy Spirit’s role in Paul’s trip to Jerusalem.
After the observations, we will try to understand an apparent contradiction involving the will of the Holy Spirit.
Along the way we hope to gain further insight into Paul’s commitment to the Gospel and the humanity of his disciples.


Beginning mainly with Paul’s meeting with the Ephesian elders, the Holy Spirit made a number of proclamations using a number of people.

To Paul at Ephesus & Miletus:
Acts 19:21 - Now after these events Paul resolved (tithemi – set apart) in the (ho – the, not his) Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”

Acts 20:22-23 - And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained (bound or compelled) by the (ho – the, not his) Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.

Paul believes it is God’s will for him to go to Jerusalem.
Apparently this is confirmed in “every city” Paul visits.

Through the disciples at Tyre:
Acts 21:4 - And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.

The word “through” means “by means of” or “by reason of” the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s disciples apparently believed that it was God’s will for Paul to not go to Jerusalem.

Through Agabus at Caesarea:
Acts 21:10-11 - While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ”

Agabus’ prophecy presupposes that Paul will be in Jerusalem, otherwise it makes no sense.
So it is reasonable to assume that this prophecy, like the testimony the Spirit gave Paul in “every city”, can be taken to mean that Paul is to go to Jerusalem.

POI - This wasn’t the first time Paul had met Agabus.
Acts 11:27-28 - Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius).
As a result of this prophecy, Paul and Barnabas brought relief to Judea from the church at Antioch.
Paul, then, saw first hand the accuracy of Agabus’ prophecies.


Acts 21:12 - When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.
And, as previously mentioned in Acts 21:4, they also said, “not to go” in response to the leading of the Spirit in them.

Acts 21:14 - And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”

The disciples reacted to Agabus’ prophecy, no doubt also influenced by their Spirit led conviction in verse 4, by asking or telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.
Interestingly, however, they conceded that because Paul would not be persuaded that his going must be the will of the Lord.


Acts 21:13 - Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Very similar to what he said to the Ephesian elders:
Acts 20:24 - But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

Paul made two things clear at this point.
The first relates to our current line of thought so we will unpack it first.

The first thing Paul made clear:
His main consideration was to finish the course of his ministry which was “to testify to the gospel” regardless of the consequences.
Therefore, he did not consider the Spirit lead prophecies describing his bleak future as a MESSAGE from God to refrain from going to Jerusalem.
They were merely descriptive of the cost of obedience and of finishing the mission.

If you or someone else believes they have been called by God to go or do something, the duration or legitimacy of the call cannot necessarily be called into question because of the possibility of a bad ending.
Paul demonstrated that he loved Christ and the gospel more than himself.
In view of this, our love of Christ may pale in comparison to Paul’s love.
What would it take for us to love Christ more than our life?

Now back to the main point.

Our observations thus far lead us to the following:
Apparently, the Holy Spirit lead the disciples to believe that Paul should not go to Jerusalem.
The Holy Spirit lead Paul to believe that he should go to Jerusalem.
And Paul’s adamancy about going, then led the disciples to conclude that God’s will was for him to go.

This leads us to a tough question:
Was the characterization of God’s will conveyed by the Holy Spirit to the disciples in verse 4 true or not?
If we say it was true, then it contradicts both what Paul believed (making him disobedient) and what the disciples conceded in verse 14.
If we say it was false, then why would the disciples (unless crazy) believe it to be true and act as if it were true.
And also if false, it would give us reason to doubt the accuracy of what Luke wrote.

How do we account for this apparent contradiction?

To start:
We can say that the disciples believed the Spirit, in verse 4, was telling them that Paul shouldn’t go to Jerusalem.
We know this to be true by their attempts to keep him from going.
We can also say that Paul believed the Spirit was calling him to go to Jerusalem
We know this to be true by his not being persuaded by the disciples or the prophecy of Agabus to stay put.

We also know the following:
Acts 9:15-16 - But the Lord said to him (Ananias in Damascus), “Go, for he (Paul) is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

This is important because it lines up exactly with Acts 19:21, Acts 20:22-23 and Acts 21:10-11.
In these verses God “shows” Paul how much he must suffer.

We also know from the “Feed the Flock” lesson:
Paul was experienced in knowing the leading of the Spirit – see Acts 13:2; Acts 16:6 and Acts 20:28.

Therefore it is my opinion that Paul was correct in his assessment of the Spirits leading and the disciples were incorrect.
The disciples were being led by something other than the Holy Spirit.

If true, that leaves us with the problems addressed above:
Why did the disciples think they were being led by the Spirit?
Why did Luke make a mistake in his account of the story?

The second is the easiest to address.
The disciples believed their revelation to be from the Spirit and Luke merely represented what he and they believed and he did so accurately.
In fact, this makes Scripture even more authoritative and believable to me.
If the New Testament was a scam, this and all the other possibly condemning and embarrassing passages would have been fixed.

Now, the first can be reasonably explained using our second POI insight earlier in the lesson.
It is my opinion that the disciples confused the Spirit’s warnings of persecution to mean that Paul should not go.
And I think all of us could understand why this could be easily done.
It is a perfectly reasonable instinct for them to protect the leader of the Gentile mission – Paul.

I think further evidence for this can be discovered from the discussion of “The second thing Paul made clear” below.
There we see that Paul gave insight into the point of view of Luke and the disciples.
The view Paul describes is one that stems from personal and subjective motivations not God-centered ones.
And it is from these motivations that they drew the wrong conclusions.

In other words, they were being lead by themselves and not being led by the Holy Spirit.

Before we move to the second thing Paul made clear in Acts 20:24, we should consider a few things from what we have learned thus far.

It is worth noting here that two godly men (Luke & Paul) had a difference of opinion.
(I am assuming here that Luke, because of his later actions, agreed with the disciples in verse 4.)
Both believed they were right based on the leading of the Holy Spirit, but obviously they both couldn’t be right.
So understanding why Luke and the other disciples were mistaken will help us immensely as members of a church.
Our feelings (a subjective point of view) and potential consequences (like Paul’s persecution) are not necessarily confirmation of the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Any “leading” should be accompanied by biblically based evidences to be considered a leading of the Holy Spirit.
As well, to confirm the “leading” it should be considered in context of our Biblical Unity Principals from chapter 15; especially the one dealing with making God honoring judgments – objectivity, humility, etc.

Now the second thing Paul made clear deals with a different, but no less significant, point.

The second thing Paul made clear:
To put it kindly, Paul was not enthused with the response of Luke and the disciples towards the news that he was in fact going to Jerusalem regardless of the consequences.
He tells them they broke his heart.
The word “breaking” is “to deprive of strength for enduring trials”.
In other words, this was the complete opposite of the encouragement – parakaleo – that Paul had taught them to give.
Instead of “redirecting Paul’s affections to God” they were redirecting Paul to their fear and Paul’s coming pain.
Not only were they wrong but they were discouraging too.

A caveat: the position of this lesson is not the only explanation but it is, in my opinion, one of the more reasonable.