Did Paul Disobey the Holy Spirit?

21 Jan

I have heard it said that Paul was disobedient to the Holy Spirit when he went up to Jerusalem and was thereby imprisoned and was threatened both by harm and life itself. Is this so? The reason for this claim comes from two prophetic reports on two different occasions in Palestine.

Acts 21:4 KJV  And finding disciples, we tarried there seven days: who said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.

Acts 21:10-12 KJV  And as we tarried there many days, there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus.  (11)  And when he was come unto us, he took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.  (12)  And when we heard these things, both we, and they of that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem.

Paul stayed with the brethren in Tyre for several days, during which time he was told “through the Spirit” that he should not go to Jerusalem. What is more, when he came to Caesarea and met with Philip, who was one of the Seven (Acts 6:5-6), a prophet named Agabus, who had already shown his accuracy in predicting the famine that came in Judea (Acts 11:28-30), confirmed what was already told Paul, saying the Jews would bind him and turn him over to the gentiles (Romans) at Jerusalem. So, what’s the story; did Paul disobey the Holy Spirit by going up to Jerusalem? No, he did not!

First of all, Paul himself seems to have had a revelation from the Holy Spirit that he should go up to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21; 20:22), knowing full well that persecutions would find him there (Acts 20:23-24). Evidently he did not understand through those revelations of the Spirit the intensity and the length of time those persecutions would entail.

What does this mean, that the disciples who told Paul that the Holy Spirit said not to go up to Jerusalem were false prophets? No, but it does mean that we must be careful how we interpret revelations from the Spirit. Evidently, just like Joseph concerning his dreams in Egypt and Daniel, concerning the dreams of the king in Babylon, some interpretation of what the Spirit says is needed, and the prophet can err in that interpretation, but the theme of the prophecy would prove true.

For example, the Holy Spirit could not have told Paul to go up to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22) and then tell him not to go up through the prophecy of others (Acts 21:4, 10-12). At least one prophet must have interpreted his vision incorrectly. What we find is that Agabus and by association the prophets in Tyre were not entirely accurate. While the prophecies of trouble for Paul were, indeed, true, the specifics were a little off. We don’t know the wording of the prophecy given in Tyre, but we do know that Agabus said the Jews would bind Paul and turn him over to the gentiles (Romans). While the Jews did serve as the occasion of Paul’s imprisonment, they did not turn Paul over to the gentiles. In fact, the Jews intended to kill Paul, but the Romans rescued him from death, but bound him in chains, not knowing the reason for which the multitude drove him from the Temple to kill him (Acts 21:30-33).

Therefore, what Paul had done was simply what all true leaders do. They take responsibility for their own actions however events transpire (Act 21:13). And, when the disciples understood that Paul could not be dissuaded from going up to Jerusalem, they submitted him to the will of God (Acts 21:14), which evidently was not written in stone with regards to the prophecies they had heard when coming to Tyre and Caesarea. The point is, God is true, but we need to be careful how we express what he gives us. We need to be aware that our interpretation of his word is not Scripture itself. May our Lord and Savior help us to understand this truth and submit to his Spirit.


Posted by on January 21, 2010 in Prophecy, Religion


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2 responses to “Did Paul Disobey the Holy Spirit?

  1. Eddie

    January 23, 2015 at 06:47

    Dear brother in Christ, Ian Chai,

    Let’s assume you are correct in basing your understanding on the rendering of many other translations. What would that mean?

    Acts 20:23 according to the NET says that the Holy Spirit in every place says imprisonment and persecution await him in Jerusalem. The next verse says Paul didn’t consider his life worth anything except to finish his course that the Lord gave him to do. We get the picture of the life of Christ in Paul. Jesus knew suffering and death awaited him in Jerusalem yet he didn’t consider his life’s safety but was bound in the spirit to finish his course (cp. Luke 12:50; 22:15). Paul’s spirit was the same as that of Jesus–he cared not what would occur to him; his foremost desire was to finish his course in the Lord.

    Notice that the message of the Holy Spirit, according to Paul in Acts 20:23, concerns only that imprisonment and affliction await him at Jerusalem. Acts 21:4 say the disciples told Paul “through the Spirit” no to go up to Jerusalem. What does it mean to say something “through the Spirit”? Later, in Acts 21:10-11 says that a well respected prophet named Agabus said that Paul would be bound by the Jews and turned over to the gentiles at Jerusalem. Strictly speaking, Agabus was wrong, yet he prophesied through the Spirit, otherwise he was a false prophet. The Jews wanted to kill Paul and would have succeeded if the Romans (the gentiles in Agabus’ prophecy) didn’t rescue Paul from the Jews. While it is true the imprisonment and persecution awaited Paul at Jerusalem, there is nothing conclusively said in Acts that the Holy Spirit told Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Acts 21:4 comes the closest, but when one compares it with the other scriptures it was the ‘disciples’ who told Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. In fact, if we wish to consider other translations, they say as much. The Amplified says: “prompted by the Spirit they kept telling Paul not to set foot in Jerusalem.” An Understandable Version of the New Testament (1994) says: “They advised Paul, through [inspired revelations from] the Holy Spirit, not [even] to set foot in Jerusalem.” Another translation, Williams New Testament says: “Because of impressions made by the Spirit they kept on warning Paul not to set foot in Jerusalem.” Finally, Rotherham says: “and they, unto Paul, began to say, through the Spirit, that he would gain no footing in Jerusalem.”

    It seems to be that the disciples in Acts 21:4 received the message of trouble from the Holy Spirit and advised Paul out of their own hearts, just as was done in Acts 21:12. The brethren advised Paul, but Paul was determined to finish his course well, just as we see Jesus was. Nowhere does it conclusively say that the Holy Spirit commanded Paul not to go to Jerusalem.

    In conclusion, even if we decide that Acts 19:21 and 20:22 is an idiom meaning Paul was bound up in his own spirit to go to Jerusalem, we cannot conclude that Paul had disobeyed the Holy Spirit, at least not according to what I am able to find in the corresponding Scriptures.

    Lord bless you Ian Chai, and thank you for reading my studies and for your well worded comment.

  2. Ian Chai

    January 23, 2015 at 01:46

    Dear brother,

    I respectfully suggest that those verses you cited, e.g. Acts 19:21, it is not actually the Holy Spirit that said to go to Jerusalem, but rather Paul’s own human spirit. If you look at parallel translations you can see that only some of the translations show it as “Spirit” while the rest showed it as “spirit” or even “Paul decided” or “Paul purposed”.

    Here’s what the translator’s note from the New English Bible says on this verse: “Paul purposed in [his] spirit” (an idiom). According to BDAG 1003 s.v. τίθημι 1.b.ε the entire idiom means “to resolve” (or “decide”): “ἔθετο ὁ Παῦλος ἐν τῷ πνεύματι w. inf. foll. Paul resolved 19:21.”

    So, in that context, it seems to me that Acts 21:4, where all the translations seem to agree is the Holy Spirit and not a human spirit, that Paul actually was indeed disobeying the Holy Spirit in this.

    However, Paul’s disobedience wasn’t the end of the story for him. God still used him mightily in prison, and this is a great encouragement to those of us who have messed up before God. Take heart, He can still use you even though you messed up before.

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