In case you missed it, here is Part 1.
(Context: Paul is told by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, where he would suffer; others receive the same prophecy about him, but interpret it as a bad omen, that he should not go to Jerusalem because he would suffer. Who is right?)
I distinctly remember discussing this seeming contradiction a few years back at a Bible Study. My argument was that Paul had made a mistake and that God had not called him to suffer in Jerusalem, but that even through Paul’s error, God was still glorified. My point had been to point out Paul as a sinful man, like all of us, who could easily make a mistake. If I’m not mistaken, by the end of the discussion most everyone was agreeing with me. Now it is important to show Paul as a great sinner, having already become a Christian, for otherwise we are not listening to his very words. Yet this isn’t the point of the conundrum we find in Acts 20 and 21, for Paul is not wrong here, and while reading through this passage recently I realized my error.
There does seem to be a contradiction between Acts 20:22-4 and Acts 21:4, for the same Holy Spirit speaks and first tells Paul to go, then seems to tell him not to. Clearly there is some personal interpretation at play here, and while both Paul and his brothers in Tyre take some liberties here, Paul’s proves to be the right one as further context will show. The call was two-fold: the first was to go to Jerusalem, the next was to suffer there and elsewhere to the glory of God. Paul accepted both challenges, while the brothers in Tyre, even the disciples among them, only accepted the first part and interpreted the second as a bad omen to not go through with the first part.
When Paul comes to Caesarea, the prophet Agabus “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”’” (Act 21:11).
In their minds, if Paul were to go to Jerusalem, he was to suffer and possibly even die. How could they take that chance and loose such bulwark, one of the very pillars of the early church? Surely the Holy Spirit was issuing a warning to Paul not to go, for there he would suffer.
Paul, on the other hand, saw the call not as a bad omen, but as marching orders. He agreed with their assessment that it would be dangerous, but nonetheless he must continue on, he must face Jerusalem and head straight into the fire. To not go to Jerusalem, was to disobey God, and part of God’s will was for Paul to suffer and even die for his faith, that others might be drawn to the Gospel and to the future world. This world was simply the stepping-stone into a greater and most glorious eternity, in the light of which all else seems “as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).
To me Paul’s attitude here reminds me distinctly of Christ, as a typology of things already past. When Isaiah prophecies of the coming Messiah, this distinctive is included: “But the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7). In the Gospels, towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, we see this prophecy being played out as Luke insightfully notes: “And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (Luke 19:28). The context for this detail includes Luke 18, and correlates directly to Matthew 20 and Mark 10. It is here that Jesus expresses what God’s will is for Him: the first is to go to Jerusalem and the next is to suffer and die there. Does this sound familiar? It is exactly what the Holy Spirit called Paul to do.
Paul had been called to suffer and even die for the sake of the Gospel, and while this upset his beloved brothers and sisters in the faith, he half relished and half hated such a choice. To him the new prophecy was simply a repetition of what he had already heard, so it was simply a confirmation of his calling:
When we heard this, we and the people there urged 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 imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. (Act 21:12-3)