Did Paul Disobey The Spirit in Acts 21:4?

In Acts 21:4 Luke writes: “After looking up the disciples, we stayed there (Tyre) seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.”

Since the disciples in Tyre “kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem”, is Paul disobeying the Spirit, or is there another option?

If we isolated this text from the rest of Acts we might conclude that others were led by the Spirit to forbid Paul from going to Jerusalem. But if we concluded that Paul was disobedient to the Spirit from this one text, we very likely would be wrong.

Distinguished New Testament Scholar, F.F. Bruce, writes about verse four in his commentary on Acts: “It should not be concluded that this determination to go on was disobedience to the guidance of the Spirit of God; it was under constraint of that Spirit that he was bound for Jerusalem with such determination.”

I agree with Bruce and the reason I am convinced we are right is because the rest of Acts agrees with us. Or should I say, we agree with the rest of Acts? Several other verses in Acts help clarify the meaning of Acts 21:4.

  • Acts 9:16 – “For I will show him (Paul) how much he must  suffer for My Name’s Sake.” Paul did at times flee from suffering (Acts 9:25), but suffering was a part of God’s will for Paul.
  • Acts 19:21 – “Now after these things finished, Paul purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”  Paul is being led by the Spirit.
  • Acts 20:22-23 – “And now, behold, bound (captive) by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not know 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.” Paul is captive to the Spirit and the Spirit warns him of what is to come.

A few rules of interpretation apply here that we would do well to follow.

  1. We should let scripture interpret scripture when we are uncertain about a particular verse.
  2. If we find several verses that inform our understanding, it is better to go with the majority than with the one text that seems to say something the rest don’t.
  3. If we have several verses that are clear we should let the clear verses interpret the verse in question, understanding that the English translation/interpretation might not be giving us the intended meaning.

If Paul were disobeying the instruction of the Spirit of God that was made known through the disciples at Tyre, then why is it clear that on his way to Tyre that the Spirit is leading Paul toward this suffering that God has chosen for him? Paul is ready to die in Jerusalem for Jesus (21:13). To be ready to die for Jesus is to follow Jesus, whom the Spirit testifies about  (John 16:14; Mark 8:34-38; Philippians 1:21-26).

In summary, given the rest of the biblical evidence it is best to understand Acts 21:4 as a verse that affirms what the Spirit is telling Paul to do and what Paul will face. But the disciples at Tyre who the Spirit is affirming this through, out of concern for Paul, don’t want him to go. This is a natural human reaction that is echoed a few verses later in Acts 21:12. Also, remember that Peter rejected Jesus’ words when he told the disciples He must go to Jerusalem and suffer and rise on the third day (Matthew 16:21-23). Jesus was not as gentle as Paul (Acts 21:13) when he said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Paul, like his Master, “set his face to go Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

It is a natural human tendency to want to protect people from trouble, but sometimes we might be protecting them from the will of God, which includes trouble.

About brentprentice

Brent is the lead pastor and one of the Elders at Eagle Heights in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He has been married to Lacey for 14 years and together they love two sons, Luke and Elijah, and a daughter, Bella.

Posted on May 7, 2012, in Bible Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Quinn Schipper

    We “drilled” out Dwelling group (at Hillcrest) on the core principles of Biblical hermeneutics. Thanks for including these “rules of interpretation!”

  2. Preparing to preach on this passage this Sunday in Cape Town, South Africa. I was already of the same opinion as you, but looking for some input. You lay out the argument so clearly. Thank you.

    • Glad to be helpful. What kind of church are you a part of in Capetown?

      • My wife and I planted a Vineyard church here a year ago. It’s been a great journey. Been a Capetonian since birth and been part of other Vineyard churches here over the years. By the way, here’s another scripture to add to this particular conversation: Acts 23.11 – following Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem, “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.'”

      • Thanks for the reference. I have been to Jo-burg multiple times and have spent quite a bit of time in Lesotho. I hope God-glorifying things for you there.

  3. Dear brother,

    You said, “If Paul were disobeying the instruction of the Spirit of God that was made known through the disciples at Tyre, then why is it clear that on his way to Tyre that the Spirit is leading Paul toward this suffering that God has chosen for him?”

    I don’t think the verses you quoted support that conclusion.

    Acts 9:16 just says that Paul would suffer for Christ. He’s done that already by this point.
    Acts 19:21 is actually an artifact of the translation you’re using. Look over the many translations at http://biblehub.com/acts/19-21.htm and you will see that half of them do not interpret the “spirit” as the “Holy Spirit” but rather Paul’s own spirit, hence he himself resolved it, not guided by the Holy Spirit.

    Acts 20:22-23 Check out http://biblehub.com/acts/20-22.htm and http://biblehub.com/acts/20-23.htm and you can see the same confusion about “spirit” but Acts 20:23 especially shows that Luke contrasted Paul’s spirit in Acts 20:22 with the Holy Spirit in Acts 20:23.

    So, in that context, it seems to me that Acts 21:4, where all the translations seem to agree is the Holy Spirit http://biblehub.com/acts/21-4.htm and not a human spirit, that Paul actually was indeed disobeying the Holy Spirit in this.

    However, Paul’s disobedience wasn’t the end of the story for him. God still used him mightily in prison, and this is a great encouragement to those of us who have messed up before God. Take heart, He can still use you even though you messed up before.

  4. Ian, thanks for the alternative view. I will give it some consideration, I hope you are well.

  5. I’m somewhat not in support of this answer.

    If God was with him why did he shipwreck? Some say Agabus prophecy was not interpreted correctly because he said the Jew will “turn him” to the gentiles not fully understanding the phrase well. The Jew wanted to kill him and the gentiles took him so I think the prophesy came out straight.

    My VERY BIG question is, why did he shipwreck and why did his missionary journey end. In the case of David we attributed it to his flaw; in the case of Samson we say “Power without purity”. Are we, due to our frailty, trying to make Paul bigger than he really is?

    I know you are scholars and I’m no way a match to your knowledge of the scriptures but this ideology to me is one dimensional. GIVING SO MUCH CREDENCE TO PAUL AND HIDING HIS FLAWS AS THOUGH HE WAS FLAWLESS.

    I agree he went to Jerusalem based on his zeal to spread the word to ALL creature (and by his calling he was meant to) but we redefining rebellion or disobedience may end up obscuring the Scriptures.

    Acts 19:21 – “Now after these things finished, Paul purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” Paul is being led by the Spirit. (Take not of the “in the Spirit” not by the spirit) And believe me… the Spirit is subject to the prophet sir.

    I think these passages that talk about Paul going to Jerusalem is more of “SHOWING A MERCIFUL GOD” not about flawing some others interpretation of revelation and upholding another’s “stubborn” zeal against the initial plan.

    Cos somewhere I read that He was already fulfilling his ministry to the Jew even without going to Rome.

    In Berea (Acts 17:10-13); Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.
    In Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-4); they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.
    In Iconium (Acts 14:1), in Athens (Acts 17:17), in Corinth (Acts 18:4-8).

    I believe we’d understand it better by and by.

  6. I have wondered about this for a long time and your explanation is good and reasonable. I agree and also think the Spirit was giving Paul a heads-up about what was going to happen, which proved to be true. Praise God for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the gift of prophecy included. I think we have two lessons here: the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are real and we should not resist or suppress them in church settings, and, God’s (perfect) will for our lives will not always be pleasant and comfortable. May His purposes be worked out in all of our lives.

  7. Well said! AMEN!

    • I think we must make a fine distinction here. Jesus said his followers would have trouble in this world, He did not say that trouble is God’s will. God’s will is always good and perfect, it is men and the devil that cause trouble for Christians. It is unfortunate that trouble (persecution, isolation) follows the true believer, but it is never God’s will. God bless.

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