The Time Paul “Disobeyed” the Holy Spirit
by Jacob Hudgins
“And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem”(Acts 21:4).
As Paul concludes his third missionary journey, an interesting problem develops. The closer he gets to Jerusalem, the more the Spirit testifies (usually through prophets) that he is going to suffer there. This verse even implies that Paul continuing to Jerusalem is direct disobedience to the Spirit.
A reading of the broader context helps us. “Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome’”(Acts 19:21). Paul’s plans are made in the Spirit and all of them will happen—just perhaps not as he expects. When he speaks to the Ephesian elders, he admits to them, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me”(Acts 20:22-23). Paul is being warned by the Spirit of what is coming, but he is also “constrained by the Spirit” (“compelled by the Spirit”, NIV) to go. He knows that the Spirit is warning him wherever he goes that difficult things are going to happen to him there. At Tyre the Christians tell him not to go “through the Sprit”(Acts 21:4). At Caesarea Agabus tells him he will be bound at Jerusalem and the brethren beg him not to go (Acts 21:10-12). Still Paul presses on. The Spirit is foretelling that Paul will suffer, yet the fact that he has planned this in the Spirit and is constrained by the Spirit to go means he is by no means disobeying the Spirit.
The interesting wrinkle here is that we mistake Paul’s courage for disobedience. Why does he insist on going to a place where he will be bound? “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”(Acts 20:24). Paul is going to finish strong, even if it hurts. He is determined. And again: “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus”(Acts 21:13). It is one thing to serve Jesus and know that persecution might happen. It takes a great deal of courage to walk directly into the lions’ den, knowing what is coming.
Christians today need the bravery of Paul. We are passionate about God’s work, even if it costs us personally. We want to finish our course well. We do not shrink back from fear. Knowing well the reactions others will have to our faith, we press forward. This courage is not against the Spirit; it is his work. May God bless us to have the courage Paul has shown in “disobeying” the Spirit.