We’ve been looking at the importance of following God and the many ways God speaks to us (His audible voice, visions, dreams, and prophecy, to name a few). We’ve seen that doubt can prevent God’s plan from coming to pass in our lives, but, more often, it seems to be something God can work around.
So today I wanted to look at what happens when one gets a prophecy that warns of something bad happening…and yet one goes, headlong, into that very thing. Because this is exactly what we find happening in the life of Paul the Apostle.
The Prophecy. Paul is finishing up a missionary trip and trying to make it back to Jerusalem by Pentecost. He’s had great success and many signs and wonders have followed him, but now he wants to go back to the very heart of Jewish culture and religion, even though he’s encountered nothing but trouble from the Jews on his travels as they’ve fought him and discouraged new believers at every opportunity. And we see his heart in Romans 9:3-4, when he says, “For I wish I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my own flesh and blood, the people of Israel.”
Yet, as he is sailing back, he stops at Tyre. Acts 21:4 says, “And finding disciples, we tarried there seven days; who said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.” This seems pretty clear. God tells Paul not to go, yet he keeps going.
So then, when they had reached Caesarea and were just north of Jerusalem, Agabus the prophet comes to where Paul is staying. “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” (Acts 21:11).
The Decision. When those around Paul heard this, they understandably encouraged him to give up his trip to Jerusalem. God had now spoken, not once but twice about the subject. He’d told Paul not to go, and now, He’s told Paul what will happen if he persists. Acts 21:13-14 gives Paul’s response: “Then Paul answered, ‘What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, ‘The will of the Lord be done.'”
And this raises an interesting question. When God has indicated that He doesn’t want Paul to go, and warns him further of what awaits him, how can one say “The will of God be done” when clearly that will isn’t being done? I think these fellow believers were using it as an expression of trusting that God would work, despite Paul’s stubbornness, and not as though God was condoning Paul’s actions. I think it was more of a “May the will of the Lord be done” concept, and not as an encouragement to Paul to think that his tenacity was from God, because I have yet to find an example of where God gives a prophecy saying not to do something and takes it back, commending the person for persevering in the face of His command.
We have Isaac and Abraham, where God commends Abraham for being willing to offer up Isaac upon His direction, but not once does God reward disobedience and say, “I was only testing you to see how much you cared.” Paul is basically saying that he cares more about the salvation of his fellow Jews than about following God, and even though he knows it’s going to get into trouble, he’s sticking to his guns. He may be hoping that God will do something miraculous, as He did in Acts 14:19-20, when Paul was stoned and taken out of the city, believed to be dead, but God raised him up. Having experienced such rescues in the face of death, he may be hoping he can be a dramatic witness to his fellow Jews and really get them to see the truth by dying and coming back to life.
The Aftermath. Just as Abagus foretold, Paul gets arrested once in Jerusalem. He’s dragged from the temple and about to be put to death when the Roman soldiers come to his rescue (Acts 21:31-32). He speaks to the people (who had just been beating him), trying to defend himself from their accusations that he taught people to disregard the teachings of Moses, and he shares his testimony. But, according to Acts 22:22, “they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices and said, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live.'”
So the Roman soldiers take him away for his own safety and put him in the castle. When they discover that there’s a plot to assassinate Paul, they send him with two hundred soldiers back to Caesarea to see the governor, so that he could sort out the case and determine if Paul should be imprisoned or not (Acts 23:23-24). In the midst of all this, “The Lord stood by him, and said, ‘Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also in Rome.” God tells him that, even though he disobeyed, his journey isn’t over and he will be taken to Rome.
But the Roman governor keeps him in prison for two years, hoping to be bribed into at last releasing him (Acts 24:25-26). The Jews try to get him back to Jerusalem, to be judged there, but Paul refuses to go and appeals to Caesar, so at last it’s determined that he’ll be sent to Rome (Acts 25:12). Before he goes, he defends himself and speaks before the new Roman governor and his visiting dignitaries, one of whom says that “This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar” (Acts 26:32).
So not only has Paul spent two years in prison, preaching to a Roman governor that never converts, but he has lost his chance of being freed more expeditiously by appealing to Caesar. He has ensured that he will get to Rome, but one can’t but wonder if this was the route God had in mind to get him to Rome. He ends up on a boat and later says, “I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also of our lives” (Acts 27:10).
Yet ultimately, God sees him through and he reaches Rome. He remains a prisoner for the rest of his life, but God shows him grace throughout the experience and he is able to live “In his own hired house, [receiving] all that came in unto him” (Acts 28:30) for at least part of the time. But never again would he travel freely, preaching the gospel throughout the world. When he wrote Romans, he’d indicated that “whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you: for I trust to see you in my journey…But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints” (Romans 15:24-25). He never took that trip and thus, never made it to Spain, and one can’t help but wonder how much of God’s plan for his life was altered because of his choice to go to Jerusalem, despite what God said.
Conclusion. Paul’s story is a great example of how God doesn’t give up on his people, even when we go directly in the face of God’s commandments, the wisdom of others, and God’s prophecy. God still used Paul mightily, and He still used Paul to accomplish great miracles in the lives of others. Paul was bit by a poisonous snake but its venom didn’t harm him (Acts 28:4-6). He prayed for a man and he was healed (Acts 28:8). He preached to many people, and he wrote much of the New Testament from prison (all of his “prison letters” came about because he couldn’t just go and speak to the various churches in person).
And similarly, even when our lives go “off the tracks” and we do something we know we shouldn’t have done, God can redeem it. Next week, we’ll look at how opposing God’s direction can end in disaster, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. Something may have been lost, but our whole life needn’t be a failure, because, like Paul, God can still use us even when we’ve gone our own way. He can reroute us to another, positive destination when our hearts are open towards Him. Like He did with Paul, God can go to a profitable Plan B, using Paul right until the end to where Paul could say “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith, From now on the crown of righteousness is laid up for me, which the Lord, the Righteous judge, will award me on that day–and not only to me, but to all who crave His coming” (2 Timothy 4:8).
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by RNgraphics and Limp182, Creative Commons