Paul has been hastening to get to Jerusalem, constrained by the Holy Spirit. He has an unnamed burden to get there by Pentecost. Luke seems to be copying notes from his travel journal adding details about what was happening at some of those stops.
Read Acts 21:1-16
Have you ever heard of Walter Houston?
“Man, 91, Dies Waiting for Will of God”
Tupelo, Miss. – Walter Houston, described by family members as a devoted Christian, died Monday after waiting seventy years for God to give him clear direction about what to do with his life.
“He hung around the house and prayed a lot, but just never got that confirmation,” his wife Ruby says. “Sometimes he thought he heard God’s voice, but then he wouldn’t be sure, and he’d start the process all over again.”
Houston, she says, never really figured out what his life was about, but felt content to pray continuously about what he might do for the Lord. Whenever he was about to take action, he would pull back, “because he didn’t want to disappoint God or go against him in any way,” Ruby says. “He was very sensitive to always remaining in God’s will. That was primary to him.”
Friends say they liked Walter, though he seemed not to capitalize on his talents.
“Walter had a number of skills he never got around to using,” says longtime friend Timothy Burns. “He worked very well with wood and had a storyteller side to him too. I always told him, ‘Take a risk. Try something new if you’re not happy,’ but he was too afraid of letting the Lord down.”
To his credit, they say, Houston, who worked mostly as a handyman, was able to pay off the mortgage on the couple’s modest home.1
This was actually reported in the fake news website Larknews, but what makes it so funny is that it is almost believable.
Paul also faced the dilemma of understanding God’s will in our passage this morning.
Who Is Confused? Why the Warnings? How Resolved Is Paul?
Who Is Confused?
There are two plausible ways to interpret this passage:
- Paul arrogantly refusing to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
- The disciples wrongly interpreting the Spirit’s warning.
On the one hand, it would be easy to side with the disciples who discouraged Paul. Luke tells us the disciples spoke to Paul “through the Spirit” (v.4). This is a compelling argument. It appears to be the 1x Paul is ignoring the Holy Spirit. Has Paul’s determination to visit Jerusalem hindered his ability to heed the Spirit’s warnings?
On the other hand, Paul has been hastening to get to Jerusalem for awhile:
- 19:21 It was “in the Spirit” that Paul resolved to go.
- 20:22 Paul told the Ephesian elders that he was constrained by the Spirit to go.
- 20:23 The Spirit had already warned Paul that dangers await there, but that never discouraged him from going.
Think about those pivotal moments in your life. You have a major decision to make that will have a tremendous impact upon others. You pray about it. You seek direction from God’s word. You talk to others. And what is the result? Confused? It isn’t always easy for us to determine what to do. The bigger the decision the greater the internal conflict.
It is clear that the Holy Spirit is warning Paul, but is Paul supposed to avoid Jerusalem or prepare for the suffering that awaits? What is more likely, that Paul is ignoring the Holy Spirit – for the first time – or that the disciples are misunderstanding the purpose of the warnings?
So maybe you’re asking…
Why the Warnings?
Now, Paul receives two additional warnings:
- Disciples in Tyre (v.4)
- The Prophet Agabus as well as the disciples in Caesarea (vv.10-11; cf. 11:28-30). He acts out the prophecy in a fashion similar to Old Testament prophets like Isaiah who walked through the city naked (Isa. 20:2-6), or Ezekiel who had to eat bread defiled by cow dung (Ezek. 4:1-17).
v.14 The will of the Lord isn’t always easy to discern. The same prophecy was interpreted in different ways.
- On the one hand, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisors they succeed” (Prov. 15:22).
- Yet, on the other hand, “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30).
- Had Paul followed the counsel of his “many advisors” he would not have gone to Jerusalem – at least, not when he did.
WLC Q.192 What do we pray for in the third petition?
- Acknowledge that by nature we are unable and unwilling to know and do the will of God (we rebel instead).
- We pray, that God would take away our weakness and make us able and willing to “know, do, and submit to his will in all things…”
Some of you are quick to seek wise counsel for your decision-making. Are you too quick to agree with the advice of others? Or do you tend to completely ignore the advice of others?
Paul’s example corrects both kinds of people. He was not flippant about the urging of the disciples. It was very difficult for him to disagree with them (it broke his heart v.13). But his interpretation was always consistent. Jerusalem was where he knew he was supposed to be.
What was God doing? You might think these warnings would be a means of putting everyone on the same page. But obviously that is not what happened. Instead of working to bring encouragement to Paul, the warnings forced Paul to strengthen his resolve.
BINGO! Paul’s resolve was being tested (vv.4, 10-14).
How Resolved Is Paul?
We have seen Paul heed the warning of the disciples and Asiarchs in Ephesus (19:30-31), but at this time he remains convinced that he must follow through with his plan. Notice, he is not rejecting the vision. Nor is he ignoring it. Paul has always known what awaited him (20:23).
I love the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego speaking to King Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 3:16-18). “God will deliver us… But if not…”
There comes a point where we must trust that God will accomplish everything he intends to accomplish. In the end, Paul and the disciples were on the same page. They all wanted God’s will to be done (v.15). Of course, Jesus came to that same conclusion after an intense time of praying in Gethsemane.
Submitting ourselves to the will of the Lord, whatever it might be, is not a lack of faith -> It is the result of a strengthened faith.
Luke intends for us to be encouraged by a portrait of Paul’s courage. We need examples of Christians who are completely resolved to honor God.
We are surrounded by compromise. We are filled with temptation from our own flesh to satisfy our own desires. We see Paul as holding some impossible standard. But he was a man just like you and me. He had his sin nature to contend with just like all of us (Rom. 7). And yet, he confounds us with an incredible consistency to die to himself and live for God. We need more people like Paul. Those ready to die.
Paul was following in the steps of his Savior whose ministry was essentially a long courageous march to Jerusalem and his inevitable death on the cross (Luke 9:51, 53; 13:33; 18:31; 19:11).
We need to be encouraged by the courage of saints who faithfully follow their Savior.
How does this passage speak to you? Do you know what God wants you to do? Is your resolve at an all-time low? Are you avoiding God, waiting for an excuse or something to distract you?
All of us make significant decision that affect others. This passage reminds us that godly people will often differ about important decisions. We cannot neglect the means of grace God has provided. But we can also trust that the decisions we make are not the final authority. God might choose to close a door even after we have made up our mind to walk through it. Or, for instance, after years of planning and praying, He might give you twins!
The question is: Do we trust him to guide our steps?
God provides plenty of opportunities to strengthen your resolve to do his will. Do you take advantage of them? Do you trust him to provide for you?
Paul was ready to die for the name of the Lord Jesus! Are you able to say that? Has pleasing God become more important to you than your own life (i.e., health, safety, reputation, finances, etc.)?
- Larknews Report. Quoted in Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung. ↩︎