Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem …
… a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. (verses 4, 10-12)
Despite Spirit-inspired warnings about what awaits him if he travels up to Jerusalem, Paul refuses to be dissuaded. He continues his journey, arrives in Jerusalem, and shortly thereafter, runs afoul of the Jews and is arrested by the Romans, just as Agabus had foretold.
So, what’s going on? Had Paul been disobedient to the prophetic word?
It seems not. Indeed, by his own account, Paul is confidently following the Spirit’s guidance, travelling under the Spirit’s express direction. “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem” (Acts 20:22), is how he had communicated it to the elders of the church in Ephesus. How did he know? We’re not told, but the conviction is seen clearly in his unswerving forward march to that destination.
So what of the continual and clear Spirit-motivated warnings that imprisonment was coming if he continued to Jerusalem, warnings which ultimately proved true? Paul simply took them as that: warnings. “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me” (Acts 20:23). He didn’t receive these messages as a change in marching orders, nor as a corrective “voice behind … saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21) because he’d gotten off-track. No. Paul simply took them as God-given foreknowledge of what was coming.
We saw a similar thing in Acts 18 when Paul received a vision from the Lord, affirming that he should continue ministering in Corinth, even in the midst of hardship. It was a word of insight, given to strengthen Paul’s direction and resolve in ongoing mission. Paul clearly takes these Spirit-induced messages about Jerusalem in a similar vein, as clarification of what’s coming, rather than as a revised road-map.
So how did he determine the difference? It seems that Paul has employed his own instruction given to the church in Thessalonica. “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). Clearly, Paul openly received the prophetic messages given through brothers and sisters in Christ, not despising them in the least, but not taking them at face-value either. The messengers perceived them as clear directives for Paul to avoid Jerusalem at all costs. But Paul weighed what he received, perceiving the Spirit’s true insight (“imprisonment is coming”), yet setting aside the overlaid human message (“don’t go to Jerusalem”).
Because of his confidence in what the Spirit had already spoken, Paul wasn’t misdirected by the new messages that kept coming. Rather, he set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing what was ahead.
Dear Lord, thank you that you choose to speak, communicating what your people need to hear. You do it in a variety of ways, with grace and creativity. Thank you.
Please tune my ears to hear you well, being humble enough to receive from others, and confident enough to grip what you have already truly spoken.
In Jesus’ name.
Reflect: Consider the main calling on your time at the moment. What has the Lord spoken clearly to you about it? What more do you need to know? Ask him. Listen. Trust, even when you don’t hear as clearly as you’d like.