Did Paul Miss It?
Rev. Tony Cooke
I was recently asked this question while teaching on Paul’s ministry in the Book of Acts. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked this, and the question has typically been connected to the interaction that Paul had with certain disciples in Acts 21 while he was en route to Jerusalem.
Acts 21:4 says, “And finding disciples, we stayed there seven days. They told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem.”
Paul did not submit to or comply with these warnings, but continued on his journey to Jerusalem. From an observational and circumstantial standpoint, what happened when he arrived there seems to have been nothing short of disastrous.
30 And all the city was disturbed; and the people ran together, seized Paul, and dragged him out of the temple… 31 Now as they were seeking to kill him, news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. And when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.
Later, Luke referred to a “tumult” and said that Paul, “…had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob” (Acts 21:34-35). After this, Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem, then transferred to prison in Caesarea, and ultimately to Rome. In considering the circumstances, Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem seems like a great mistake, but was it? To answer this question, it would be helpful to back up and look at the big picture. We must examine Paul’s calling and assignment. What was Paul called to do, and who was he called to reach?
In order to begin to evaluate whether Paul made the right decision in going to Jerusalem, it is important to step back and explore the exact nature of his original calling and assignment from God. After Paul’s Damascus Road experience, Jesus spoke to Ananias in a vision and told him to go and pray for Paul (Saul of Tarsus). Knowing Paul’s violent background and hostile intentions toward the church, Ananias protested this directive, and the Lord spoke to him (Acts 9:15-16) and said: "Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake."
Notice that there were three distinct target audiences for Paul’s ministry:
*The children of Israel.
Notice that Jesus also indicated there was going to be some suffering involved in the carrying out of his ministry assignment.
Paul later re-told his conversion experience, and in summarizing the experience, used different wording. However, his summarized accounts would still have accurately captured the gist of the original experience.
Quoting Ananias’ words to him, Paul later said (Acts 22:15): For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.
Notice here that the specific breakdown of people groups (Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel) is not articulated as it was in Acts 9. It simply refers to Paul’s assignment to share the gospel with “all men.” This summarized version in Acts 22 does not contradict the way it is related in Acts 9; it simply provides a simpler, overview description as opposed to an itemized listing.
Then in Acts 26, Paul is relating his conversion experience to King Agrippa. Paul begins by quoting Jesus and then discusses his response to the calling:
16 But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. 17 I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, 18 to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’ 19 "Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance. 21 For these reasons the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 Therefore, having obtained help from God, to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come — 23 that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles."
Notice that Paul believed strongly that Jesus had commissioned him to reach both the Jewish people and the Gentiles with the gospel. Having done so, he was able to say that he had not been “disobedient to the heavenly vision.” In short, we can see that Paul’s preaching to the Jews and the Gentiles was not his own idea, but rather, it was a clearly defined assignment from Jesus.
Paul’s calling seemed to have some priorities built into it. As time progressed, the Gentiles seemed to be his primary target audience. In speaking about his interaction with the leadership of the Jerusalem church, Paul said (Galatians 2:7-9):
7 “…when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter 8(for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), 9 and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.
In saying this, Paul apparently did not believe that these assignments (Peter to the Jews and himself to the Gentiles) was in some way mutually exclusive. Obviously, Peter preached to the Gentiles in Acts 10, and Paul preached to Jewish audiences on numerous occasions. From this, we could conclude that ministers may have a primary target audience, but they are not entirely restricted to that audience; they may have secondary target audiences as well.
Consistency in Paul’s Methodology
As a matter of fact, Paul’s typical pattern was to go into a city, share the gospel in the synagogues to the Jews and the Gentile “God-fearers” first. Those who believed from that group became the nucleus of a new church in that city. That fledgling body of believers then served as the platform from which other Gentiles were reached with the gospel. We see this pattern over and over again in the book of Acts.
Consider the following examples:
Acts 13:4-5 (Cyprus)
4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 And when they arrived in Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.
Acts 13:14-16, 42-48 (Antioch Pisidian)
14 …they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. 15 And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, "Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on." 16 Then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, "Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen…
42 So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. 43 Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.
44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. 45 But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. 46 Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’"
48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.
Acts 14:1 (Iconium)
1 Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed.
Acts 17:1-4 (Thessalonica)
1 …they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ." 4 And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.
Acts 17:10-13 (Berea)
10 Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men. 13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds.
Acts 17:17 (Athens)
17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there.
Acts 18:4-8 (Corinth)
4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. 5 When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. 6 But when they opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, "Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." 7 And he departed from there and entered the house of a certain man named Justus, one who worshiped God, whose house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized.
Acts 19:8-9 (Ephesus)
8 And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. 9 But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.
The consistency of Paul’s pattern is very obvious. As he was concluding his time in Ephesus, Paul made a determination regarding the future direction of his ministry:
21 When these things were accomplished, Paul purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, "After I have been there, I must also see Rome."
Jerusalem, then Rome. These are the two places Paul determined to go. Not to present Paul as infallible, but I believe that Paul knew how to be led by the Holy Spirit. I also believe that he was able to interpret God’s will for his life better than I can nearly 2,000 years later.
With all Paul suffered in Jerusalem (and in the events that followed his trip there), we might be inclined to ask if Paul had any inclination of how difficult that situation was going to be for him. Would going to Jerusalem lead to comfort and convenience? As Paul bade farewell to the Elders of the church at Ephesus, we see that Paul had a strong realization of the difficulties that his trip to Jerusalem would generate, and yet he chose to go anyway, believing that this trip was part of finishing his race and completing the ministry he had received from Jesus.
21 testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. 24 But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 "And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.”
Paul was clear to point out that he had excluded no one in his ministryÅhe had testified both to Jews and Greeks. Apparently, Paul felt that reaching “all men” with the gospel was part of his ministry responsibility and assignment.
So Paul begins his journey, knowing that “chains and tribulations” were awaiting him. As he travels toward Jerusalem, he has an interesting encounter with some believers in Tyre (this takes us back to the Scripture we used at the beginning of this article).
4 And finding disciples, we stayed there seven days. They told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem.
This statementÅthey told Paul through the Spirit not go to up to JerusalemÅis a key point at the core of the argument that Paul missed it in going to Jerusalem.
If a person understood this communication to be some form of “dictation,” that God, through these disciples, was ordering Paul not to go to Jerusalem, it would lend credence to the idea that Paul did, in fact, err in going on to Jerusalem and getting into all the trouble that he experienced.
However, the New Testament idea of prophecy does not lend itself to undertanding this encounter involving a rigid command from God for Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Regarding prophecy, Paul himself (inspired by the Holy Spirit) said that we “know in part and prophecy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). Concerning inspired utterances, Paul also said, “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21-22).
Paul, no doubt, would have judged this prophecy. I believe he would have asked if God was really speaking to him through these believers. He would have asked if there was human emotion filtering into the prophecy that would have affected its presentation.
The Williams translation of the New Testament (Acts 21:4) would lend support to the latter possibility. It reads: “Because of impressions made by the Spirit, they kept on telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.”
If this interpretation is correct, it simply means that these disciples were well-meaning people who cared about Paul. They had the right impression (that Paul was heading for trouble), but they made the wrong interpretation (that he wasn’t supposed to go to Jerusalem). It’s hard to fault these believers. They loved Paul, and didn’t want to see him suffer, but it would appear that human sentiment entered in and influenced their communication.
In actuality, these disciples were simply picking up on the same impression that Paul hadÅthe one he expressed in Acts 20:23 (“chains and tribulations await me…”). These believers and Paul simply arrived at different conclusions of what this impression meant.
A Prophet Speaks
Shortly, another experience happened that speaks to the whole issue of Paul’s journey to Jerusalem.
8 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. 9 Now this man had four virgin daughters who prophesied. 10 And as we stayed many days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 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.’" 12 Now when we heard these things, both we and those from that place pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 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." 14 So when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, "The will of the Lord be done."
There are three things that are very important to notice here:
*Agabus (a prophet), in verses 10-11) did not tell Paul not to go to Jerusalem; he simply told him what was going to happen when he arrived there.
*Agabus (in verse 12) was not identified as one of those who encouraged Paul not to go to Jerusalem. The ones doing that were those identified as “we” (that would have been Paul’s own team) and “those from that place” (that would have been those from Caesarea, and Agabus was not from that place; he had come there from Judea).
*Once they saw Paul’s determination, they said, “The will of the Lord be done” (verse 14). Apparently they came to the conclusion that even though they didn’t like the idea of heading into a situation that involved suffering, they resigned themselves to the idea that Paul must have been following God’s will.
It would be appropriate here to ask the question: “If Paul wasn’t missing it, then why all these warnings? Wouldn’t these have simply been discouraging to Paul?” In one sense, these warnings could have helped Paul prepare for what he was going to face. It would have been part of “counting the cost” in continuing in the journey he was in the process of making. Paul had already taken his stand (Acts 20:24), but these warnings served as opportunities for Paul to reinforce, and to perhaps even deepen his resolve.
From this point, Paul proceeds to Jerusalem, and the previously-mentioned riot takes place, nearly resulting in Paul’s death (Acts 21:15-40). Paul then addressed the crowd (Acts 22:1-21) and later the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1-10). What is recorded next in the book of Acts brings us to a very important key to understanding whether Paul had missed it in going to Jerusalem.
Did Jesus Think Paul Had Missed It in Going to Jerusalem?
Interestingly, the very first verse after Paul is detained following the Jerusalem incident involves Jesus appearing to and speaking to him. Acts 23:11 says, “But the following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome.’”
In saying this, Jesus seemed to strongly validate Paul’s journey to Jerusalem and the testimony he gave there. Jesus did not rebuke Paul for not having listened to the disciples who spoke to him “through the Spirit” back in Tyre or for having over-ridden the pleading of his friends following the prophetic utterance of Agabus.
Had Paul missed it in coming to Jerusalem, then Jesus would have, in essence, been commending Paul for his disobedience. He would have been saying, “Be of good cheer Paul, for as you have disobeyed me in coming to Jerusalem, you must also disobey me by going to Rome.” That doesn’t make sense, does it? Remember, there was a connection (especially in Paul’s mind) between the trip to Jerusalem and the trip to Rome. It was in Acts 19:21 that Paul Paul purposed in the Spirit… to go to Jerusalem, saying, "After I have been there, I must also see Rome." Now Jesus is apparently validating both legs of the journey.
It was Paul’s trip to Jerusalem that set in motion a chain of events that enabled him to stand before kings and other rulers, a group that had been mentioned in Paul’s original calling (Acts 9:15) along with the Gentiles and Jews. It was the trip to Jerusalem that facilitated Paul testifying before:
*Felix (Acts 23:23 – 24:27)
*Festus (Acts 25:1-12)
*Agrippa (Acts 25:13 – 26:32)
*Ultimately, according to long-standing tradition, before the Roman Emperor, Nero.
Paul apparently never felt his journey to Jerusalem was a mistake. During his first Roman imprisonment, he said, (Philippians 1:12-15) But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
In another prison epistle, Paul said, (Phil. 4:22), All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household.
Far from bemoaning a mistake in direction, the Apostle Paul capitalized upon and made the most of the problems which began in Jerusalem. His imprisonments became platforms and opportunities, not only for testifying to guards and officials, but also to write several of the epistles that have been cherished through the ages.
One of the officials that Paul appeared before was Agrippa (Acts 25:23 – 26:32). At the end of Paul’s testimony, Agrippa said (Acts 26:28), “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.”
As Paul was recounting his calling to King Agrippa, he again articulated that it was his calling to reach both Jews and Gentiles with the gospel, and he told the king that he had not been “disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). Paul said this specifically in the context of his trip to Jerusalem (see Acts 26:21). In Paul’s mind, for him not to have gone to Jerusalem on this particular journey would have been, in essence, disobedience to his calling.
It is understandable that Paul had both the Jewish people and the Gentiles on his heart, as all men were the intended recipients of God’s grace that had come in the person and the work of Jesus Christ. Peter and Paul were in agreement that everyone, both Jews and Gentiles, needed the gospel. Peter, who had first preached to the Gentiles in Acts 10, gave this summary of his understanding of the universal need for the gospel:
Acts 15:9, 11
9 and [God] made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they."
Paul shared and taught the same concept in the book of Romans.
28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. 29 Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, 30 since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
Rom 10:1-3, 12-13
1 Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved."
BACK TO THE ORIGINAL QUESTION
The original question was, “Did Paul miss it in going to Jerusalem?” To me, the overwhelming evidence is that he did not. His going to Jerusalem before going to Rome was consistent with:
*His calling to testify of Jesus to the Jewish people, as well as the Gentiles, and kings (Acts 9:15).
*His pattern of ministering the gospel in the synagogue first before more specifically focusing on the Gentiles in a given city.
*His overall philosophy of ministry (1 Cor. 9:19-22)
19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law(not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; 22 to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
Paul’s journeys to Jerusalem and to Rome were certainly not conducive to his own personal comfort and convenience. We must be on guard against falsely believing that if something is God’s will, it will automatically be easy… that if a particular direction is God’s will, there won’t be any problems. That might be wishful thinking, but it isn’t biblical thinking.
Paul did not choose what was best for himself, and he certainly didn’t take the path of least resistance. While I hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, I do not believe that Paul, as a man, was infallible (e.g., Acts 23:1-5). We must guard against exalting him as a person or deifying him in some way. However, I am not comfortable second-guessing Paul from centuries away. I believe he understood his calling and assignment better than I do, and I believe he knew how to be led by the Spirit of God. The testimony of Jesus and Paul’s personal reflections lead me to believe that when Paul “purposed in the Spirit… to go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome,’" that he was, in fact, accurately following the plan of God for his life.