Today we’re beginning our final approach through the book of Acts, we’re hitting the home stretch if you will. The focus shifts from the ministry of the Spirit in the life and the mission of the church, to a far more personal journey of the Apostle Paul as he resolves in the Spirit to make to back to Jerusalem and then on to Rome. There’s no doubt that Luke is setting in parallel this journey of the Apostle Paul in Acts with the journey of Jesus in Luke Gospel, as they both set their face toward Jerusalem and the destiny that awaited there of imprisonment and suffering.
The personal journey of the apostle Paul begins in chapter 21 with Paul faced with a choice. You see, Paul knows precisely where the Spirit is leading him, yet all along the way strangers, friends, even his closest coworkers try to dissuade him from the path set before him. Even more difficult is that they seek to persuade him through so in very convincing, even spiritual means. And these first verses of chapter 21 are a bit foreign to us, a bit frightening to us, because they speak to a level of spiritual discernment, that quite frankly I don’t know how many of us would be well-prepared to sift through. What do you do when you believe the Spirit is telling you one thing, and everyone else - people you spiritually admire - is telling you something else? Remember last week I told you a story of that missionary who turne down a full ride to Harvard to get Bible College training, and I mentioned that even his own pastor we trying to dissuade him from the call, because if the Lord let you get into Harvard, that obviously has to be his will for you. To make it more difficult, what if people start coming up to you - people you don't even know - with prophetic words from God telling you the exact opposite of what you’ve heard the spirit say to you? Wouldn’t you at least question your resolve? That’s where we find Paul in Acts 21. But before we get to Acts 21, it might be important to remind ourselves of how we got here. The seed is planted way back in Acts 19 when Paul was still in Ephesus. We skimmed over these verses when we looked at this chapter, but they come to importance now.
Acts 19:21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”
Now that seems like such an insignificant verse when you read it on a page, but you know that when you come to those points in life that will determine where you live and what business you will conduct - future plans - type of stuff, those are not insignificant moments. They might set your course for years, even decades, to come. And this is one of this moments for Paul. The plans he makes here set the course for the next years of his life, and you see him following that course through the next chapters of the book of Acts. And notice that this was no light decision. He resolved this in the Spirit. We’re not given any other details of how Paul confirmed in the Spirit that this is the plan laid out ahead of him, but the entire book of Acts has demonstrated that Paul was keenly adept at discerning the Lord’s will for the future of his ministry. So by the time we get to Acts 21, Paul has already been following this plan of the Spirit for at least a half year, maybe longer. And that’s what makes chapter 21 so difficult for him and for us.
Acts 21:1 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed 6 and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.
Acts 21:7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. 8 On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.
10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he 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.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 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.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”
So what’s happening here? There is a conflict between what Paul has resolved in the Spirit to do, and what others are telling him in the Lord to do. Paul had resolved in the spirit to go on to Jerusalem and then to Rome. As he travelled, the Spirit had already been speaking to him that suffering and imprisonment awaited him in Jerusalem. We know this because he told the Ephesian elders in 20:22:
“And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
And so Paul already knows what awaits him in Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit has been telling him these things to strengthen his resolve, to show him that his life is not his own, and that he must finish the course of the ministry he received from the Lord Jesus.
So when Agabus takes his belt and says “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.’” it is not inconsistent with what Paul has already heard from the Holy Spirit all along the way. Agabus is not wrong.
That’s really important to understand that Agabus is not wrong. There is a debate today about this passage, and some people hold up Agabus as an example that New Testament prophecy is not as infallible as Old Testament prophesy was, and so a New Testament prophet like Agabus could be wrong. There are people today who want to have a lowered standard of prophecy so that they can fool the ignorant and continue to make prophetic statements that are wrong wrong and wrong and when people call them out on it and say, you’re a false prophet, they say, no New Testament prophesy is different, not as clear. It’s like Agabus, he was wrong.
Agabus was not wrong. The word he told Paul was exactly what the Spirit had been testifying to Paul in every city. Suffering and imprisonment awaited Paul in Jerusalem. And if Agabus and the others would have stopped there, they would have faithfully delivered the message that the Lord had shown them.
Yet they did not stop there. They didn’t merely tell Paul what the Lord had shown them, they went further and made application for Paul, going beyond reporting what the Lord had shown them and inserting their own interpretation and meaning to what the Lord was saying. They said the Lord is showing us this, THEREFORE don’t go, whereas Paul responds, yes the Lord is showing us this, that’s why I must go! Now I don’t think Agabus was trying to manipulate Paul, nor is Luke presenting him as a false prophet, but it seems that out of love for Paul the people around Paul were trying to protect him, and their desire to protect him, led them to twist the word they had received.
This is where so much of the abuse enters when people dabble in the prophetic. Many people mistake prophecy for a power trip, setting up a “Thus says the Lord,” mentality in which the prophet now begins to demand that everyone do according to he says. You can see how easily this can be abused. The biggest joke is the guy who tells the pretty girl in the class that the Lord told him that she was to date him. Spiritual manipulation is very dangerous. The did ache is an early church manual, probably dating back to the second century, and while it encourages the churches to welcome prophets and teachers, it warns the churches about travelling prophets who will in the spirit ask for money, or prophecy for bread, or teaches truth, but does not do what he teaches - that’s a false prophet, a manipulator, a Christ-monger. And so prophesy is to be weighed and tested. This is the instruction Paul gives the Corinthian church:
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
And again he writes to the Thessalonians: 1Th. 5:20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good.
Now What’s The Point of All This? I think this episode with Agabus is recorded for us to warn us about how easy it is to take revelation from the Lord and twist it toward our own application. Agates and Paul’s friends were trying to protect them, and so they twisted the meaning of the Word spoken through them.
We can do this with prophetic words, and I know some of you might be sitting there seeing, see that’s why prophetic ministry is such a sham, look how easily it can be manipulated, and twisted. Yet, beware, for we can do the same thing with the prophetic word of Scripture. We have the Lord’s word on divorce, but we can twist the application of it when its our marriage or our friend’s. We have the Lord’s word on sexuality, but its a different time now, right and things change. We have the Lord’s word on suffering, but God really loves us and his plan for our lives can’t include anything really hard. We know the Lord’s will on who we should date, but maybe God want’s me to date her so that she will come to know the Lord. For you continualists out there who believe that God still speaks through prophetic words, test them test them test them - compare them to the prophetic word made sure, the Bible, and hold your interpretation with great humility until it is confirmed. And to you cessationists out there who believe that the age of prophecy has passed, do not arrogantly think that you are exempt from the command to test the spirits, or that your heart will not do all it can to twist the word to serve your whims.
There’s one more application: Not only are we apt to twist scripture to suit our desires like Agabus did with the prophetic word he was given, but at times we may be in Paul’s shoes. We know the right thing to do, we know what God’s will is, what God’s word has said to us, but our friends are tempting us to choose the easy path, the path of comfort, the path of self.
13 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.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”
I will not choose to path of self if I have already died to self. I can’t imagine the temptation that some of you university students may have already faced this week. Often if your a Christian in a dorm room, you may have a roommate that make it their goal to see you give in morally, get drunk, get high, get laid. Your friends, a ofter they see that you won’t give in, they will give up.
Finally, follow Christ. Remember, this journey of Paul is set to mirror, Jesus’ own journey toward Jerusalem. And Here we see Paul, picking up his cross and literally following Jesus.
Luke 9:23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
Jerusalem is the city of death. Jerusalem is the city of life.