Recently I had a conversation wherein the subject came up of the Apostle Paul’s ill-fated trip to Jerusalem. It was one of those instances where I had my own frame of reference regarding that incident and assumed the other person shared it, though as the conversation progressed things were said that didn’t quite mesh with my understanding.
It was two days before I remembered: there are two interpretations of Paul’s motivations in going to Jerusalem. One that he was bravely risking imprisonment and death for the sake of testifying to the Jews about the Lord, and the other that he was arrogantly stuck on going to the Jews, despite the fact he had specifically been called and “sent to the Gentiles” and in the face of all God’s warnings to him not to go.
I hold to the second opinion, and have for years, ever since I heard Col Thieme’s interpretation and exposition of the relevant passages. In light of the conversation, though, I reread the section in Acts that deals with this, and came away more convinced than ever that this interpretation is the one most solidly supported by Scripture. However, recalling my own surprise when I first heard it years ago, I wondered if it might not be the standard opinion.
So I checked our commentary (Eerdman’s New Bible Commentary Revised) and discovered there that the author of the section in Acts did indeed hold to the notion that what Paul had done was the Lord’s will, despite all those warnings from the Holy Spirit not to go — from the Holy Spirit himself as well as from numerous Spirit-filled brethren, including Luke, the Spirit-inspired writer of Acts, Philip the Evangelist, Agabus, already established as a genuine prophet, and Philip’s four daughters all of whom were said be be “prophesying,” ie, in this case giving a message from God (albeit one that is not recorded) — despite all these warnings, when Paul ignores them, the writer says, “We must not infer that Paul was wrong here…”
And I’m thinking… why in the world not? It sure looks wrong. Is there some reason to think that Paul was infallible? He was human like the rest of us. He had to be given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from getting arrogant (2 Corinthians); in Romans 7 he lamented that the good things he wanted to do he didn’t and the bad things he didn’t want to do, he did. In Galatians he says the flesh wars continually against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh. Why would we think he was any “holier” than the rest of us and that it was impossible he could have made a mistake? Sure he was an Apostle, but he still had a sin nature.
Here’s the commenter’s justification for why “we must not infer that Paul is wrong” in this:
“These friends tried to dissuade him because they foresaw the risks to which he would be exposed at Jerusalem…”
This makes it sound as if it’s merely the friends’ human opinions and discernment that motivated them to speak, rather than God. That they had no opinion on whether God wanted him to go or not, merely that it was “risky.” But that’s not what Scripture says:
“After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.” (Acts 21:4)
That seems pretty clear. First the message itself: “telling Paul … not to set foot in Jerusalem.”
And second, the source of the message: “through the Spirit.”
The Spirit said to him, “Don’t set foot in Jerusalem.”
The commenter ignored this and focused, apparently, on the fact that because Paul was wanting to do a “good” thing (witness to the Jews), and was willing to give his very life to do it, and that, when he refused to relent despite his friends warnings and they said, “The will of the Lord be done,” this indicated their recognition that “Paul’s movements were divinely guided.”
That is, because he wanted to do a good thing, even if it meant his death, and wouldn’t be persuaded to abandon the plan, that must have been God guiding him. Even when a few verses earlier it says the Holy Spirit was telling him not to go there.
Perhaps the problem is the commenter is not taking into account the fact that there are three basic categories of God’s will: directive, permissive and overruling.
His directive will was “Do not set foot in Jerusalem, Paul.”
Like all of us from time to time, Paul had his mind set on his own good plan, and refused to heed God’s instruction to the contrary. He probably thought if only he could tell all those Jews in Jerusalem, (many of them no doubt former friends and colleagues) what had happened to him, if only he could show them how the Hebrew Scriptures overwhelmingly pointed to Jesus of Nazereth as their Messiah, they’d believe.
So God let him continue. Because there were many things Paul needed to learn, and many things we can learn from it as well. That’s God’s permissive will.
The same permissive will that allowed Abraham to go in to Hagar, Jonah to set off for Spain when he was supposed to go to Nineveh, and Adam to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We have volition and God will honor it.
Then there’s God’s overruling will where He just steps in and intervenes. In this case, it was when the Jews blew up in outrage as a result of Paul’s testimony and refused to listen to him further. At that point God moved in, motivating the Roman authorities to have him brought back to the barracks for questioning, at which point they found out he was a Roman citizen. From then on he was in their protective custody, all the way to Rome, which I believe is where God really wanted him to go. (Romans 15: 15, 16)
I love God’s impeccable timing in this, as well. In Acts 22 Paul gets up before the “Brethren” and starts out by reminding them all of his background, how he was born in Cilicia but brought up in Jerusalem, trained there under the best teachers, a Hebrew of Hebrews, blameless before the Law, yada yada. Then he recounts his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and how he was blinded and went to Ananias who restored his sight and told him he was to be a witness for Him to all men. After that Paul says,
“It happened when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance, and I saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.’
“And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in You.
‘And when the blood of Your witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the coats of those who were slaying him.’
“And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'”
Note that Paul is recalling what the Lord said to him in the Temple in Jerusalem back when he was first saved: “Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.” And after Paul protested that surely his own personal experiences and reputation would convince them: “Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”
I do not consider this to be a “coincidence,” but a HUGE CLUE as to what is going on and what the Lord wants.
He allowed Paul to repeat His initial instructions to him with his own mouth and then, the moment Paul repeated the part about being sent far away to the Gentiles, his Jewish audience erupted, cutting him off. End of Testimony.*
They started screaming and shouting and tossing cloaks and dust, until the Roman commander intervened and brought him back to the barracks.
That was all Paul really got to say to them. He never got to the Gospel, or the Hebrew scriptures. Mostly he talked about himself, not the Lord; about his amazing experience, which the Jews had no use for.
And even though on the next day the commander brought him back to the Sanhedrin “wishing to know for certain why he had been accused by the Jews,” he still got nowhere.
In that incident, he’d barely opened his mouth before the high priest ordered “those standing beside him to strike him.” At that point he got into a petty argument with said high priest (that “white-washed wall!”) about protocols of the Law, then tried to appeal to the Pharisees for support, based on his own former membership in their ranks. But that only led to another shouting match, wherein the Sadducees and Pharisees were at each other’s throats over whether or not Paul had seen “an angel or a spirit.”
Not whether he’d seen the risen Christ, not whether Jesus was the Christ, nothing but bickering about irrelevancies.
So once again the commander came to his rescue and from there on Paul witnessed to Roman soldiers and officers — Gentiles — while the Jews kept coming up with various plots to kill him. The entire episode was a wash when it came to witnessing to the Jews….
Thankfully God still had His hand on things (having known in eternity past that Paul was going to defy Him by going to Jerusalem) and used it to accomplish His will in spite of Paul’s disobedience.
Which is one of the coolest things about our God, and about this story — that even when we blow it royally, and Paul did, He’s always there to protect us from our idiocy, and then pick up the pieces and get things back on track. Often He uses our failures to accomplish His will in spite of us, and, if we let Him, in the process teach us much about ourselves, about Him and about His amazing grace plan for our lives.
*As I wrote this it occurred to me that the Lord was also telling Paul what He was going to do with him right there in that very situation — “send him far away to the Gentiles.” Not that Paul would have picked up on it at the time, merely that we can look at it and see that that’s exactly what He did.