Trust and Obey (Acts 21:1-16)

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The issue of guidance is a major one for the Christian, and understandably so. After all, Christians believe that God is sovereign. Christians desire to please God. We want His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. And so we are concerned to live obediently to the Lord. We want to know His will and to walk in it. The apostle Paul no doubt desired this. And the book of Acts reveals this desire.

It is interesting that as soon as Paul was converted he had a pretty good idea concerning what his life was to look like (Acts 9:15-16). Specifically, he was to be God’s missionary to the Gentiles. He was to be God’s voice of warning to his kinsmen, the Jews. And he was to suffer by doing all the above to the glory of Jesus Christ.

There are occasions in the book of Acts where the Lord gave some specific word of direction to Paul, but in most cases he simply went forth seeking to obey what the Lord had generally revealed to him. He knew that his calling was to proclaim the gospel to the Jew first and also to the Greek, and so he quietly went about his business without depending on constant direct revelation from the Lord. He went from town to town preaching the gospel and trusting the Lord for the results along the way. Sometimes the doors were more open than at other times and places, but he did not seem to fret too much. He just kept obeying. And while in some places (Corinth, for example) he received special communication from the Lord, which empowered him to stay in a difficult place, for the most part his ministry consisted of trusting and obeying.

For Paul, the issue of guidance was probably not as big a deal as it is for many in our day. That is, he simply believed in God’s decreed will, acted upon God’s desired or revealed will, and gave little thought to what we might call God’s directive will. That is, he did not seem to concern himself too much with waiting upon the Lord for directions about where to go or what to do next. To borrow the title of Kevin de Young’s excellent book of guidance, Paul’s ministry approach was to “just do something.”1

It is probably true that there are some people who are overly active and the best counsel to them would be, “Just don’t do something!” But for far too many the opposite is the problem. Too many Christians sit on their hands just waiting for a word from the Lord before they do anything. Such Christians seem intent on waiting for the proverbial opened door as a sign to do anything rather than paying heed to the words of Proverbs, which implores us to get a heart of wisdom and then wisely step out.

Then there are others who are sometimes discouraged from doing something because well-meaning Christians warn them that difficulties are signs of closed doors.

I say all of this because our passage before us has some lessons for us with reference to this matter of guidance.

If someone in our day had a similar experience as Paul did in our present text, they may well discern that it is not the will of the Lord to make such a journey. As a result, they would, unlike Paul, avoid the discomfort of being jailed and might even live a lot longer. But they would also miss out on a lot of blessings both in time and for eternity.

Erdman notes, “This brief story fixes the thought upon two great facts which prepare us for the closing scenes of The Acts: first, the deep affection in which Paul is held by his friends, and second, the matchless courage with which Paul faces the trials which are so certain and so near.”2 Coupled with this is the fundamental principle undergirding the issue of guidance: We are to simply trust and obey.

In this study, I desire to pastorally help us to think through some issues of guidance and the will of God.

The Context

It has been some time since we have been in Acts, and so a brief reminder of where we are will prove helpful.

Paul was on his way to Jerusalem to take a love gift to the struggling church in that city (20:1-16). He was compelled in his spirit (and by the Spirit?) to do so (20:22-23). Having met with the elders in the church at Ephesus, which church was evidently facing some difficulties3, Paul then headed for Jerusalem (see 20:17-38).

Luke recounts, beginning in 21:1, the journey that would take Paul to the holy city of Jerusalem.4 In this study, we begin to consider Paul’s journey, and we will learn several lessons about guidance as we do so.

Paul’s Commitment

Verses 1-6 highlight Paul’s commitment.

Now it came to pass, that when we had departed from them and set sail, running a straight course we came to Cos, the following day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. And finding a ship sailing over to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we had sighted Cyprus, we passed it on the left, sailed to Syria, and landed at Tyre; for there the ship was to unload her cargo. And finding disciples, we stayed there seven days. They told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem. When we had come to the end of those days, we departed and went on our way; and they all accompanied us, with wives and children, till we were out of the city. And we knelt down on the shore and prayed. When we had taken our leave of one another, we boarded the ship, and they returned home.

(Acts 21:1-6)

We see in this passage the great affection in which Paul was held. According to Longnecker, the word translated “departed” in v. 1 literally means “to tear away.” “The passive participle,” says he, suggests “emotional violence in the parting.”5

It would seem from the description in vv. 1-3 that the ship they took travelled during the day and stopped at night at each of the named ports. Interestingly, the famed William Ramsay discovered that there was a maritime reason for this pattern. Apparently the winds in that region came up in the morning and then died down each evening, making sailing difficult at night. Ships sailed close to shore and each night docked until the morning. Once again, we find Luke’s history to be credible because accurate, which simply adds evidence to the case for biblical inspiration.

Once the ship arrived in Tyre the cargo was unloaded. Presumably, new cargo was loaded, seemingly over a period of seven days. During this time, Paul and his companions (note the “we” of v. 4) stayed with some believers in that city.

The word “finding” in v. 4 is a strong one, which implies that Paul searched for these believers. I love the picture here: The mighty apostle, who had such an intimate relationship with the Lord, had a strong desire to be with other disciples of the Lord. I imagine that Paul desired to share with them what the Lord was doing in other parts of the world. He no doubt wished to be a blessing to them and so sought them out. But I am equally certain that Paul wanted to hear from them what the Lord was doing in their midst. He would have wanted to know of their blessings and challenges. He would have wanted to know how he could pray for them.

We learn from this the importance of fellowship and the value of both encouraging the church as well as the value of being encouraged by the church.

While they were in Tyre, Paul was exhorted by the local disciples not to carry on in his desired travel to Jerusalem. The text tells us that “they told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem.” What should we make of this? After all, Paul told the Ephesian elders that he was “bound in the spirit” to make this journey, all the while knowing that the Spirit had clearly told him of the persecutions to expect (20:22-23).

When we looked at those verses in chapter 20, we considered the very real possibility that the word “spirit” in v. 22 could be capitalised, being a reference to the Holy Spirit who was compelling Paul to make this journey. If that is correct, then we have here a seeming contradiction, for these believers exhorted Paul not to go to Jerusalem “through the Spirit.” But, of course, we know that the Bible does not contradict itself, and so there must be another explanation. In the words of Longnecker,

the Spirit’s message was the occasion for the believers’ concern rather than that their trying to dissuade Paul was directly inspired by the Spirit. So in line with 19:21 and 20:22-24, we should treat this not as Paul’s rejection of a prophetic oracle but as another case of the Spirit’s revelation to Christian prophets of what lay in store for Paul at Jerusalem and of his new friends’ natural desire to dissuade him.6

Though I believe that 20:22-23 and 19:21 refer to Paul’s spirit, he was nevertheless a man who was filled with the Spirit, and so there is no appreciable difference in the outcome. Paul was indeed obeying the Lord.

So how do we explain the plea in v. 4 of the believers in Tyre “through the Spirit”? We will look at this further when we get to v. 11 and I will offer a further explanation there. For now, be sure that the Spirit did not change His mind, and neither was Paul guilty of sheer stubbornness. In fact, Paul was doing something—something that pleased the Lord—while imperilling his own life at the same time. He was trusting and therefore obeying.

It is quite clear from vv. 5-6 that, as much as Paul appreciated the expression of their concern, he at the same time was undeterred. So the disciples walked to the harbour with Paul, prayed with him, and watched him board the ship. It is to be noted that these disciples, whose counsel was rejected, did not write off Paul. Rather they supported him in his determination.

In the history of missions, many young (and not-so-young) people who have given of themselves to go to the mission field have been often counselled by well-meaning but wrong-headed advice. In some cases, when the pleas to live a life of comfort and safety have been politely rejected, those who showed concern have been known to manifest a critical and even caustic spirit. The disciples in Tyre had a commendably different approach. They supported their brother even though they did not necessary understand.

The possibility should be admitted that Paul responded to their loving concern by explaining to them that, though this action did not make a lot of sense in the light of merely human considerations, nevertheless for the glory of God this was necessary.

Perhaps they listened to Paul’s reasoning and doubtless he shared with them the words of the Lord upon his conversion (9:15-16). And so, realising that Paul was merely living out God’s revealed plan for his life, they conceded that they were wrong to try and deter him from his plan. Perhaps they grew in their own understanding of discipleship and therefore had a better understanding of what it means to take up one’s cross and follow the Lord. It is quite possible that they supported Paul because, in fact, they had a change of mind. In other words, they may have come to see that “the warning was divine while the urging was human.”7

When “they returned home” (v. 6) it is quite possible that they returned different than when they initially left home. Such should be the goal of meaningful fellowship.

Let us learn from this that comfortable and common sense counsel is not always correct counsel. Let us learn in our counsel to others that we ourselves might need to be counselled in return.

Paul’s Communion

In v. 7 we read more of Paul’s communion: “And when we had finished our voyage from Tyre, we came to Ptolemais, greeted the brethren, and stayed with them one day” (v. 7). Their journey brought them to Ptolemais, where they stay a day and, once again, were with “the brethren.” Paul just could not get enough fellowship with Christians!

I would imagine that travel on a ship in those days was a far cry from comfortable, and so for him to actively search out Christians (rather than just taking a rest) meant that it was a major priority for him. In fact, I wonder if the warnings that he had thus far received about his trip to Jerusalem were a major factor in him seeking the fellowship of the churches in these cities. Such visits would offer opportunity to say his farewells and would afford him the opportunity to be encouraged and strengthened, and to garner prayer support for what the trials that he knew that he would face.

We can learn from this the value of missionaries having the prayer support of others and the encouragement that this can be for them.

Paul’s Courage

Verses 8-14 highlight something of Paul’s great courage in his ministry.

On the next day we who were Paul’s companions departed and came to Caesarea, and entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who prophesied. And as we stayed many days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” Now when we heard these things, both we and those from that place pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” So when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, “The will of the Lord be done.”

(Acts 21:8-14)

This passage is full of interest, for a number of reasons.

Once Paul and his companions departed from Ptolemais, they headed for the port city of Caesarea. King Herod had built this as the major port for Jerusalem. It was approximately 50 kilometres overland from Jerusalem.

For some twenty years Caesarea had been the home of the evangelist Philip. This was not the apostle Philip but the deacon whom we first met in Acts 6. He was “of the seven” (v. 8).

The term “evangelist” has been redefined over the years. Currently, it has the idea, in some parts of the world, of an itinerant Bible teacher. Originally, it was probably more akin to a missionary who was used in a unique way to reach the yet unreached, the unevangelised. Evangelists were probably much like church planters. “As used here the meaning is a travelling missionary who ‘gospelized’ communities.”8

You will recall how the Lord used Philip in a remarkable way in Samaria and then in the life of the Eunuch from Ethiopia (Acts 8). Apparently, after his ministry in Samaria and the Gaza desert, he steadily worked himself out of a job in several cities, evangelising them until he came to Caesarea (8:40). It had now been perhaps some twenty years since that time. Now he was the father of four daughters.

This is merely theory, but it may be that Philip was unmarried in Acts 8. After that, he met and married his wife and settled down in Caesarea, where he served the Lord while raising a family—which was blessed with four girls.

At this point in the narrative, Philip’s daughters were yet unmarried,9 but had the spiritual gift of prophecy. What was this?

Prophecy was the gift of the Spirit that enabled the gifted to proclaim the Word of the Lord directly from Him. In other words, it was a revelatory gift by which the word of the Lord was communicated. One with the gift of prophecy would say “declares the Lord” and the hearers were to heed what was spoken. Evidently, as we learn from this passage and from 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, this gift was sometimes given to women. Philip’s four daughters were a case in point.

Without getting sidetracked, the point needs to be made that this in no way implies that women with this gift could exercise it in the office of elder (pastor). First Timothy 2 makes this abundantly clear.

I must also note in passing that, in my view, this gift is no longer in operation, since all revelatory gifts have been made redundant with the completion of God’s more sure word of prophecy (Scripture) and with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. That cataclysmic destruction assured the end of the old order and was the final confirmation of the transition to the new order under the new covenant. The old covenant order of prophets has been fulfilled.

In summary, I would say that we should not be expecting to raise our daughters (or our sons for that matter) to be prophets. But we should be raising our children so that they will be lovers of God’s Word and skilled to proclaim it to others. That goes for both sons and daughters. Let us raise a godly seed that knows and loves God’s prophetic Word!

The question must be asked, however, why does the text tell us this characteristic of these daughters? I believe the reason is due to the prophetic context which follows.

While Paul and his companions were with Philip, another prophet arrived. It was Agabus, the prophet whom we met in 11:27-30. Perhaps he frequented this “prophetic house” whenever he was in town. In typical Old Testament symbolism, Agabus he too Paul’s belt (a long piece of cloth or leather) and bound his own hands and feet to figuratively prophesy what Paul could expect when he arrived in Jerusalem. Paul could expect a rough time. He, like his Lord, could expect to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. He could expect further confirmation of the Lord’s prophecy that he would suffer many things for His name’s sake. And perhaps—though this is pure speculation—the four prophetesses confirmed Agabus’ word.

In v. 12 Luke that “we” and the Caesarean believers (Philip’s family—including the four prophetesses?) “pleaded” (begged) Paul not to go to Jerusalem. This, of course, is completely understandable. They loved this brother and did not want to see him suffer. But note Paul’s response.

Paul asked them rhetorically why they insisted on “breaking” his heart with their pleadings. The word literally means “to crush.” It bothered Paul to see their heartache (suffering) over his suffering. What a loving man of God!

Nonetheless, Paul asked them to support his intention to keep marching towards Jerusalem. “Like Jesus before him, he set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem, and (like Jesus again) the divine predictions of suffering did not deter him. What fortified Paul in his journey was the Christian fellowship which he and his travel companions experienced in every port.”10 He was more than willing to suffer for the Lord. In fact, he was willing to die for Him. “Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem came from an inward spiritual constraint that could not be set aside. It had come to Paul by the Spirit’s direction (cf. 19:21; 20:22).”11

In v. 14, the believers prayerfully conceded. Barclay powerfully observes, “There is the sheer determination of Paul to go on no matter what lay ahead. Nothing could have been more definite than the warning of the disciples at Tyre and of Agabus at Caesarea, but nothing could deter Paul from the course that he had chosen.”12 Paul’s bold, courageous response was such that they conceded, with confident resignation, “The will of the Lord be done.” “Since Paul would not let them have their way, they were willing for the Lord to have his way.”13 They could rest in God’s sovereignty even though God’s sovereign plan included Paul’s certain suffering.

Paul’s Companions

Verses 15-16 record that, when it was time to depart from Caesarea, Paul and his companions packed their belongings and headed for Jerusalem.

And after those days we packed and went up to Jerusalem. Also some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us and brought with them a certain Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we were to lodge.

(Acts 21:15-16)

Among their companions was a brother by the name of Mnason from Cyprus whom, we are told, was “an early disciple.” This probably means that he was one of the earliest Jerusalem disciples—perhaps one of the initial three thousand converted in Acts 2. We know that he was a Jerusalem disciple because Paul and company were due to “lodge” with him in Jerusalem. Apparently he had a home in Jerusalem, which provided lodging for Paul and his friends. Note a few observations about this.

For one thing, these brothers were also courageous. They knew that Paul was heading for hardship and yet were willing to accompany him thereby identifying with them. Such companions are a great blessing to those whose very ministry puts them in the way of trouble. I think of missionaries and preachers who confront a godless culture. Rather than shying away from such we must identify and help them.

Note also that God kindly provided a man—Mnason—who understood the lie of the land in Jerusalem. One of Jerusalem’s earliest converts was here used of the Lord to help Paul as he faced certain hardship.

Some Conclusions

Having surveyed the text, we must now draw some important conclusions from it.

Common Sense

First, we need to consider the matter of the will of God and common sense. We need to consider the matter of guidance. How do we know the will of the Lord?

It is clear that, on at least two separate occasions in our text, some of Paul’s friends thought that they knew the will of God: Escape from certain trouble. But they were wrong. Stott asks an important question, one that we need to be asking ourselves when faced with similar situations in which God calls our own to leave for hardship ministry: “Are we to blame Paul for his obstinacy or admire him for his unshakeable resolve?”14

In Tyre, dear brothers were certain that the Lord was telling them to tell Paul not to put his life at risk. But the text does not lead us to the conclusion that this was the will of the Lord. What we can conclude is that the Sprit had confirmed to them that Paul would suffer, but it was their suggestion that he should therefore not go to Jerusalem. The same can be said of the occasion in Caesarea. Yes, the prophetic word was to be heeded. But the prophecy did not prohibit Paul from going forward. It simply warned him of what he would face when he arrived.

We can learn from this that hardships are opportunities to trust and obey more often than omens to stay put. We need to consider this matter of difficulties and the will of God. Luther once said, “Though devils be as many in Worms as tiles upon the roofs, yet thither will I go.”15 This is to be our attitude. As John Bunyan said concerning Christians in affliction, “Christians are like bells: The harder you hit them the better they sound!”

Obedience is risky, but this does not mean that it is contrary to the will of God. In most cases, it is perhaps to be seen as confirmation of His will!

We play it too safe. And we do so because we have lost sight of what is ultimately important. The glory of God is what matters in the end, and so we should have the fortitude of a Paul who says, “I am willing to die for the name.” And we should expect that our co-workers will respond with the amen of, “The will of the Lord be done.”

I so appreciate these words of Everett F. Harrison, “Paul, like his Master, refused to be moved. He stood on the will of the Lord so doggedly that his friends came to recognize in his very determination, based on commitment, that the trip to Jerusalem was in the divine plan, unlikely as this seemed to human reason.”16 If we are serious about the Great Commission, we need to be willing to risk our lives—and allow our children to risk theirs—for the sake of the gospel.

The Great Commission

Second, we need to consider the fact that the book of Acts, and the New Testament for that matter, is very heavy on the theme of the Great Commission. It assumes that believers and the local church are committed to proclaiming the gospel. It assumes that Christians love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love, which will be their theme in glory.

Our study in Acts must unapologetically focus on God’s will, which is His glory through the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ who saves sinners. This is what the Christian life is about. For many, that may sound like an overstatement but I assure you that it is not.

Some argue that the purpose of the Christian life is to glorify God. Others insist that it is to worship God. I would suggest that these two things are intimately connected to one another and to obedience to the Great Commission.  The Great Commission is about producing worshippers of the true God, and we glorify God by obeying Him—including His command to make disciples of all nations. Obedience to the Great Commission glorifies God and produces worshippers. When a church loses sight of this purpose, it will decline.

This is all very important when it comes to the matter of guidance, particularly as we see it here in Acts 21. The Great Commission calls for hardship. We must not shy from this reality. What price does our Lord expect you to pay?

Christian Fellowship

Third, we need to consider the value of Christian fellowship in the Great Commission. As Stott notes (see above), Paul was like his Lord in his steadfastness to head to Jerusalem, and it was Christian fellowship that fortified his resolve.

If we will resolve to glorify God by producing worshippers through obedience to the Great Commission, we can never underestimate the importance of Christian fellowship. We need it to fortify our determination to obey in the face of opposition.

Just Do Something

Finally, let us learn from this text that, sometimes, the most spiritual thing to do is to just do something and trust God for the outcome. God knows what He is doing, and sometimes hardship and rejection are a part of His plan to fulfil His plan. As Erdman notes, “It was the rejection of the message brought by Paul which sealed the fate of the nation ad resulted in sending the gospel to Rome and the Gentile world.”17 In other words, the suffering of Paul meant the salvation of others.

Believer, let us keep the Great Commission before us and go forth with an attitude of trust and obedience.

Show 17 footnotes

  1. Kevin de Young, Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009).
  2. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 158.
  3. Interestingly this missionary did not think he had to sort out all the problems himself.
  4. Sadly, the apostle would find the city no holier than any other city.
  5. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:516.
  6. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:516.
  7. John. R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 333.
  8. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:362.
  9. Note how the Bible assumes that an unmarried woman is a virgin.
  10. Stott, The Message of Acts, 333.
  11. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:517.
  12. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 168.
  13. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:366.
  14. Stott, The Message of Acts, 332.
  15. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:365.
  16. Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 342.
  17. Erdman, The Acts, 160.