Back to the book of Acts today, specifically Acts 21.
It has been a while since we read Acts 20, so when Acts 21:1 said, “After we had torn ourselves away from them...” we need to be reminded that Paul had been speaking to the elders from the church in Ephesus at the end of Acts 20. He was completing his third missionary journey and was on his way to Jerusalem with money collected from the Gentile churches for the Jewish believers struggling in poverty in Jerusalem. Here in Acts 21, we read repeated warnings for Paul not to go to Jerusalem:
- Verse 4 said that the disciples in Tyre told him not to go: “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.”
- Verses 10-11 told us that in Caesarea a prophet named Agabus “took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, ‘The Holy Spirit says, “In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.”’”
- Verse 12 recounted how Luke, the other traveling companions of Paul, and the Caesarean believers begged Paul to change his mind. The verse said, “we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.”
This is a tough situation to interpret. All of these people were speaking to Paul “through the Spirit” (v. 4), so it would seem that Paul went to Jerusalem in spite of God’s revealed moral will. Yet back in chapter 20, when speaking to the Ephesian elders, Paul said, “...compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem” (20:22a). He also knew that the result of his going would be personally painful: “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” (20:22b-23). So what caused him to keep going? Acts 20:24: “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.” And here in Acts 21: “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” His motives for going were pure and righteous and to the glory of God. The warnings about suffering, then, must have been to prepare him and the churches so that they would not lose faith in God when Paul was arrested.
And, sure enough, he was arrested (v. 33). We’ll see in the chapters to come what the results of that arrest were. For now, though, we should reflect on the warnings in Scripture. The Bible tells us that the way of following Christ is a narrow way. It tells us that there are few who go that way, so we will be in an uncomfortable minority throughout life if we follow Christ. Other passages tell us that following Christ means dying to ourselves and that it will cost some disciples their families, their homes, their inheritance on earth, and even their lives. These warnings were not given to tell us not to follow Jesus; they were written to prepare us in advance for the costs of following him. So, don’t be surprised or unhappy with God when being a Christian costs you something. Instead, understand that you are on the right path because what is happening to you is exactly what God said would happen to his children. So trust him to do his will (v. 14b) in and with your life.