Scripture in Focus: Acts 21:4-14
The twenty-first chapter of the Book of Acts presents what at first is a somewhat confusing picture of the warnings Paul received, apparently from God, regarding not going to Jerusalem – where he was arrested and eventually taken to Rome and executed.
On first arriving back in Palestine, we are told that “… through the Spirit [the disciples] were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). Further, “…a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”’ When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:10-12).
So it is clear that through the Spirit of God, Paul was warned repeatedly that going to Jerusalem would result in his arrest, and that the disciples, also being led by the Spirit, told him not to proceed. But to understand this situation we need to go back to Acts 20 where Paul says specifically:
“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:22-24).
This fact, that Paul was apparently warned before going to many cities that he would be endangered (as Acts clearly shows he was), helps us to understand the situation in Acts 21. It is as though God warned Paul before each dangerous situation he entered. This was a First Century “Your mission, if you choose to accept it …”. Paul was given clear warning before each danger but chose to accept the mission he was given. Notice that in Acts 19:21 and Acts 20:22 Paul specifically states that “through the Spirit” and “compelled by the Spirit,” he was going to Jerusalem.
With this in mind we can better understand Paul’s reply to the disciples urging him not to go to Jerusalem in Acts 21: “Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? 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).
So while the disciples may have understood the warning as a prohibition, Paul understood that he had, in fact, been led to go to Jerusalem. He was certainly not disobeying the influence of the Spirit of God, rather, with great faith and courage, he was accepting the Spirit’s mission, despite the warning of impending danger that came with the mission.
* For explanation of other difficult scriptures, see other posts in this series.