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 the one text, we most assuredly 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 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.
- 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.
- We should let scripture interpret scripture when we are uncertain about a particular verse.
- 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.
- 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.