Spirit vs. Spirit: Paul’s Dilemma (and Ours)

For years I’ve wondered about something my husband recently read again to our family from the Bible, but I’ve never explored it before now and am kind of blown away.

In Chapter 20 of the book of Acts, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) says Paul and his companions are “bound by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem (verse 22). On the way, Paul and company stop at Tyre. Acts 21:4 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.” So was Paul supposed to go to Jerusalem or not?

In his excellent commentary Ray Stedman writes, “The Greek is very strong here–much stronger than our English text. Literally they said, ‘Stop going up to Jerusalem!’”

Notably, in both verses above, “Spirit” is simply pneuma, without the designation of hagios meaning “Holy.” So were both Paul and the disciples led by their own spirits rather than the Holy one? Is that why they opposed each other?

Acts 21:10-14 (NASB) says that Paul leaves the Tyrian disciples amicably and spends a day with brethren in Ptolemais, but the next group he meets in Caesarea is even more adamant about him not going to Jerusalem:

As we were staying there for some days, 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, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, “The will of the Lord be done!”

Was the Lord’s will done when Paul went to Jerusalem? Yes and no: Paul went to the right place, but maybe not at the right time.

The word for begging in the passage above comes from parakaleo, literally, “call near,” also translated “beseech,” sometimes paired with “greatly.” Weeping, Paul’s companions and the Caesareans heed Agabus’s warning and beg Paul not to advance to Jerusalem. Paul replies that they are breaking his heart and that he’s ready to suffer anything at Jerusalem, including death. Paul didn’t die in Jerusalem, but he did suffer. Did he have to?

Romans 8:28 (NASB) says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Paul loved God, and many good things came of his perhaps untimely visit to Jerusalem. God used Paul mightily before, during and afterwards. As Pastor Bourland writes in “Did Paul disobey God by going to Jerusalem (Don’t let the fear of making a wrong decision paralyze you),” fear shouldn’t hinder us from making a decision. If we love God and are called according to His purpose, God will work all things out for good–but some things may be easier on us than others.

Earlier, in Acts 19:21, we’re told, “Now after these things were 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’.” Two red flags instances of “I” plus a “must” in this short quote made me wonder if Paul also purposed in the flesh.

Journalist Paul Kroll wondered the same thing about Paul’s similar statement in the next chapter:

Paul said he was “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem (20:22). It’s not clear here who was doing the “compelling.” The Greek construction allows us to take this as Paul’s own spirit compelling him to go to Jerusalem, in the sense of his being determined to go—or feeling some great need to do so. Or we can take the phrase as telling us Paul was being moved by the Holy Spirit, who was impelling him to make the trip.

The New International Version has taken this phrase to be a reference to the Holy Spirit. But others understand this as indicating Paul’s own human spirit. Perhaps it is best to understand the phrase as representing a combination of the two ideas. That is, Paul may have felt himself to be divinely compelled to go to Jerusalem.

Were Paul’s feelings wrong?

His actual missionary journeys do follow Paul’s Acts 19 purposing. Earlier, in the King James Version (KJV) of Acts 16:6-10, Paul obeys the Holy Spirit as well, altering his journey in response:

Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not. And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us. And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them.

Astonishingly, the word “assayed” is translated from peirazo: used only 38 times in the Bible, usually translated “tempted” and sometimes “tried” in the sense of testing. It is rarely translated as it is here. Literally, Paul and company were “tempted” to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit, (again pneuma without hagios, though with “of Jesus” in some translations) did not permit them.

Why did Paul want to go to Jerusalem? Acts 20:16 (NASB) says, “For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.” In Paul’s hurry, did his spirit disregard the Holy Spirit?

Ray Stedman concludes that Paul succumbed to a martyr complex: He saw himself as Jesus with his face set toward Jerusalem. Paul urgently wanted to be part of the work started at Pentecost, which Paul thought would end with Christ’s imminent Second Coming. I’m not willing to conjecture that much but do agree that Paul probably jumped the gun by forging ahead to Jerusalem.

Edward L. Bromfield points out in “Did Paul Disobey the Holy Spirit?” that Agabus’s prophecy was not fulfilled when Paul reached Jerusalem: Instead of the Jews binding Paul and handing him over to the Gentiles, the Jews mobbed him and were trying to kill him when the Romans snatched him away and bound him. In fact, the Romans rescued Paul from the Jerusalem Jews. Repeatedly. So was Agabus’s prophecy wrong? Or would it have been fulfilled had Paul gone to Jerusalem at a different time?

Prophecy is a tough nut to crack. It’s far more fluid than time, and parts may be fulfilled chronologically or not, sometimes by multiple actors and actions in separate seasons and centuries. God is not bound by time as we are; why should prophecy be any different?

Paul proves to be a pretty accomplished prophet himself. In his hurry to reach Jerusalem, he skips past Ephesus but Acts 20:17 (NASB) tells us, “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.” When they come, he gives them quite a speech, which is the context for Paul’s being “bound” to go to Jerusalem (Acts 20:18-24 NASB):

You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing 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. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.

It does seem that Paul expected to die in Jerusalem.

At the very least, he never expected to see his beloved Ephesian elders again. The next verses charge the elders with what has been called Paul’s last will and testament for them (Acts 20:25-32 NASB):

And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face. Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

In this passage, Paul also speaks particularly of the Holy Spirit.

After the Romans rescue Paul the second time, Acts 23:11 says, “But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.”

The Lord was not finished with Paul. After more (mis?)adventures, Acts ends with Paul testifying to large numbers who come to him while he is under house arrest in Rome.

Scholars disagree about what happened to Paul after this and I’m in no position to comment. At least, not yet.

  • Scripture quotations taken from the NASB (New American Standard Bible) Copyright by The Lockman Foundation http://www.lockman.org

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