If you are just joining us today for the first time, we have been working our way through the book of Acts for the past several months. Most recently we have been following the missionary journeys of Paul as he travels the known world preaching the Gospel and planting churches. But today in Acts chapter 21, Paul will be traveling the final leg of Missionary Journey #3.
Now in some ways, this will be the last of his missionary journeys – because he will soon be arrested, put on trial, and eventually be taken to Rome to testify before Caesar! But his journey to Rome, while not really intended to be a ‘missionary journey’ per se, in many ways, was!
All along the way to Rome, Paul preached the Gospel to everyone who would listen – testifying to Kings, governors, soldiers and sailors all along the way. And once he got to Rome, he spent two years under house arrest, not only writing many of the letters that have become part of our New Testament today, but also, according to Acts 28:31…
“…boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. And no one tried to stop him.” Acts 28:31
And so it could be that this fourth “missionary” journey that brought him to Rome may well be the most important of all his journeys! But ironically, this was also the journey that many well-intentioned believers tried to prevent!
This morning, as we read through Acts chapter 21, we’re going to see how, when warned by the Holy Spirit that arrest and imprisonment awaited Paul in Jerusalem, almost everyone in Paul’s life tried to persuade him not to go. But of course, Paul insisted on going – ready to be jailed and even to die if necessary for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So this is an interesting passage. Were Paul’s friends wrong to try to persuade him not to go to Jerusalem? Was Paul wrong for ignoring the warnings of the Holy Spirit? And how does all that apply to us today – specifically as we try to discern the Lord’s will for our lives and the lives of the people around us?
Well, let’s read the passage and try to find out!
Our passage begins in Acts chapter 21 – starting at verse 1.
After saying farewell to the Ephesian elders, we sailed straight to the island of Cos. The next day we reached Rhodes and then went to Patara. 2 There we boarded a ship sailing for Phoenicia. 3 We sighted the island of Cyprus, passed it on our left, and landed at the harbor of Tyre, in Syria, where the ship was to unload its cargo.
4 We went ashore, found the local believers, and stayed with them a week. These believers prophesied through the Holy Spirit that Paul should not go on to Jerusalem. 5 When we returned to the ship at the end of the week, the entire congregation, including women and children, left the city and came down to the shore with us. There we knelt, prayed, 6 and said our farewells. Then we went aboard, and they returned home.
So most of this passage is fairly straight forward. It’s a step-by-step summary of Paul’s journey – recording even the littlest details like how they passed the Island of Cyrus on the left! I’m not sure why that was an important detail for Luke to include – but if nothing else, it gives further credibility to the historical accuracy of the book of Acts. Luke is clearly an author who pays attention to the details – so we can trust that what he has recorded for us is accurate!
But Luke’s careful recording of the facts is also what makes verse 4 such a challenge to understand! You see, when they arrived in Tyre, Luke records that…
“4 We went ashore, found the local believers, and stayed with them a week. These believers prophesied through the Holy Spirit that Paul should not go on to Jerusalem.” Acts 21:4
Now hold on a minute! This seems like a contradiction to what we just read last week in chapter 20! You’ll remember how Paul told the elders in Ephesus:
“And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead.” Acts 20:22-23
It would certainly seem in chapter 20 that the Holy Spirit was compelling Paul to go to Jerusalem – even though jail and suffering may well lie ahead. Paul says he is “bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem”. But now in chapter 21, we read that the “believers prophesied through the Holy Spirit that Paul should not go on to Jerusalem.”
So is the Holy Spirit sending mixed messages? Did he change His mind? Did Paul or the believers misunderstand the message? What’s going on here?
Well, I think the key to understanding this passage is for us to keep reading!
And by the way, that’s a really good principle for understanding anything in the Bible. If you just look at one verse in isolation, it can be very easy to misunderstand what is being said – because the Bible was never intended to be taken in pieces – it was meant to be taken as a whole! It’s like eavesdropping on someone’s phone conversation – if you just hear one sentence, you can totally misunderstand what the whole conversation is all about!
This is especially true when it comes to those controversial passages or apparent conflicts in the Bible. It’s so important that we look at the larger context. How does this verse fit in with the rest of the chapter? How does this chapter fit in with the rest of this particular book? How does this particular book fit in with the rest of Scripture? We need to have a good understand of the entire Bible to accurately understand the individual pieces and passages that make up the Bible as a whole.
That’s why Greg & Nicole have issued this Bible reading challenge to the youth and why Mike issued us a similar challenge to read through the entire Bible in one year! We want to have a full working knowledge of God’s Word so that we can accurately understand what God is saying to us through each part!
So with that in mind, let’s continue reading and I think verse 4 will gain a little clarity as we do. So reading now in verse 7
7 The next stop after leaving Tyre was Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed for one day. 8 The next day we went on to Caesarea and stayed at the home of Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven men who had been chosen to distribute food. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.
Now I’ll pause here – not because we’ve been given the answer to our earlier question from verse 4 – but just to make a couple quick notes.
If you remember way back when we first started going through the book of Acts, there was a time when the Apostles were doing every bit of ministry in the church. The church was still very young and hadn’t really spread much beyond Jerusalem at this point – but the church was growing and the ministry demands on the Apostles were increasing. It all came to a head when the Apostles found themselves spending all their time distributing food to the various widows in the church, rather than preaching the Word of God (which was kinda their primary role and purpose!)
And so, the Apostles suggested that seven godly men be chosen to oversee the care for the widows so that the Apostles could spend their time preaching and praying! This man Philip that we read about here was one of those seven men. Of course, this was many years ago – we are now probably close to 25-30 years after this all happened. Since that time Philip has moved from Jerusalem and settled in Caesarea and has raised a family – four daughters to be specific and they all had the gift of prophecy we are told.
But the thing that I noticed most about Philip here in this passage is that he has earned the title “Philip the Evangelist”. That’s how people know him – Philip the evangelist! I think that’s pretty cool.
Even way back when he was first chosen to help distribute food to widows, Philip was always proclaiming the Gospel message! You’ll recall that he was the first person that we’re told of who left Jerusalem to preach the Gospel in Samaria. He was also responsible for leading the Ethiopian Eunich to the Lord and thus was the first to send the Gospel to Africa!
And apparently he keep right on sharing the Gospel throughout his life because now everyone just knew him as “Philip the Evangelist!”
And just as a little bit of food for thought for us this morning – what do people know you as? When I was a teenager, I spent several summers working at Camp Harmattan in the dish room – and so at camp, eventually I became known as “Dishman Dave”. Quite a distinguished title, I know! But that’s really not what I want to be remembered for. I hope I’m not remembered simply as “Dishman Dave” or even as Dave the Yak Rancher or Dave the berry guy… Those are all fun and enjoyable parts of my life – but I hope people don’t see those parts as the core of who I am!
Like Philip, I hope that ultimately I’ll be remembered for how I’ve loved and served God. That’s how I want to be known! And I expect that’s your desire for your life as well!
But if that’s the case, then we need to start now being the person that we want to be remember for. Philip was known as “the evangelist” because he spent his life evangelizing! Likewise, if I want to be known as a man who loves and serves the Lord, then I need to make sure that that’s what I’m doing with my life – today!
Here’s a potentially scary thought: if you were to take this last week as a sampling of your life – if your actions and attitudes and character of this last week were to be multiplied over a lifetime – if who you were in this last week was how people would know you for the rest of you life… Is that how you’d want to be remembered?
If your legacy as a person was defined by what you did and who you were last week… is that the legacy you want to leave?
And if not, then what can you do this next week to change that? Because our life is just the sum of our days and weeks. What we do with our ordinary days and weeks – who we are in those moments – is really, who we are.
And if that’s not the person that we want to be, then we need to ask God, and allow God to transform us into the person that He created us to be. I certainly don’t want to be known as Dave the grumpy or Dave the critical or Dave the too-busy-for-his-kids…. I want to be the Dave that God created me to be! And so I need to invite God to transform me into that person.
I guess that’s a bit of a rabbit trail… Something to think about, anyways!
But to get back to our passage, as Paul spends a few days with Philip the evangelist and his family in Caesarea – we read in verse 10:
10 Several days later a man named Agabus, who also had the gift of prophecy, arrived from Judea. 11 He came over, took Paul’s belt, and bound his own feet and hands with it. Then he said, “The Holy Spirit declares, ‘So shall the owner of this belt be bound by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and turned over to the Gentiles.’”
Now there are several little points to note in these verses. First of all, we are reintroduced to the prophet Agabus whom we met earlier in the book of Acts. Back in Acts chapter 11, Agabus prophesied that a famine was coming that was going to impact the entire Roman world, and so in preparation for that, the church in Antioch put together a gift to help the churches in Judea. This gift was brought to Jerusalem by Paul and Barnabas – although at that point, Paul was still known as Saul – as this was very early on in his life and ministry.
But it’s important to note that this prophecy by Agabas came true during the reign of Emperor Claudius. The famine actually happened – and so Agabas was shown to be a true prophet of God. That’s how you know if a prophet is a true prophet or a false prophet – the prophecies of a true prophet always come true!
God gave this criteria to the children of Israel back in Deuteronomy 18:21. The Lord said:
21 “But you may wonder, ‘How will we know whether or not a prophecy is from the Lord?’ 22 If the prophet speaks in the Lord’s name but his prediction does not happen or come true, you will know that the Lord did not give that message. That prophet has spoken without my authority and need not be feared.
Likewise, we read in Jeremiah 28:9…
9 So a prophet who predicts peace must show he is right. Only when his predictions come true can we know that he is really from the Lord.” Jeremiah 28:9
In other words, if anyone claims to speak for the Lord, but what he says doesn’t come true, you know that person is a false prophet and need not be listened to!
But Agabus had a proven track record of speaking from the Lord – because his prophecies had come true. And in a dramatic illustration, similar to what we see from many of the Old Testament prophets, Agabus binds himself with Paul’s belt and prophesies that the owner of this belt would likewise be bound by the Jewish leaders and turned over to the Gentiles.
But notice what this prophecy doesn’t included: It doesn’t say anything about whether or not Paul should still go to Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had only revealed what would happen to Paul in Jerusalem – He did not give any instruction as to what should happen now because of this information.
And I believe that’s because the Holy Spirit had already told Paul that he needed to go to Jerusalem. We read earlier from Acts 20:22…
“And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead.” Acts 20:22-23
It’s clear that the Holy Spirit had already revealed to Paul that He was to go to Jerusalem and he should fully expect jail and suffering ahead!
So this prophecy from Agabus was not news for Paul. In fact, I don’t think this prophecy was really ever intended for Paul. But rather, it was intended for the believers. There was something keenly important for them to learn from Paul going to Jerusalem – fully expecting to be arrested and handed over to the Gentiles.
And I’ll talk more about what that lesson was in just a minute – but first I want to show you how both the believers and then Paul reacted to this prophecy. Continuing in verse 12…
12 When we heard this, we and the local believers all begged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
First of all, you’ll notice that Luke says “we and the local believers all begged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” This is the advice of Paul’s entire entourage! Luke, Timothy, Gaius, Aristarchus – and all those others – all godly men – leaders in the church – and they are all begging Paul not to go to Jerusalem.
Now remember that the message given through Agabus only stated what would happen to Paul in Jerusalem – there were no instructions given by the Holy Spirit in this case as to what Paul should do because of this information.
This advice by the believers for Paul not to got to Jerusalem is the product of their own conclusions. The believers concluded that if jail and suffering awaited Paul in Jerusalem, then Paul should not go.
And this is what I expect was also happening back in verse 4. Remember how we read:
“These believers prophesied through the Holy Spirit that Paul should not go on to Jerusalem.” Acts 21:4b
Based on the context of everything else we’ve looked at today, I would imagine that the Holy Spirit gave a very similar message to these believers in Tyre as he did through Agabus (that jail and suffering awaited Paul in Jerusalem) – and so they in turn, arrived at a very similar conclusion as the believers in Caesarea – namely that Paul should not go to Jerusalem.
But I’m not convinced that the Holy Spirit ever gave such a conclusion. And Paul didn’t think so either.
Look how he responded in verse 13.
13 But he said, “Why all this weeping? You are breaking my heart! I am ready not only to be jailed at Jerusalem but even to die for the sake of the Lord Jesus.”
In Paul’s mind, the threat of jail and suffering – even death for that matter – was no reason to stop doing what He knew God wanted him to do! God had told him right from the beginning of his ministry that he would know what it meant to suffer for the Lord Jesus.
You’ll remember right after Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus… Acts 9:15 says..
15 But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. 16 And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” Acts 9:15-16
So all along, Paul has known that he was going to suffer for the sake of Jesus. Already, Paul has been jailed several times, beaten, whipped, stoned, ridiculed, run out of town! He already knows what it means to suffer for the Lord. And he was willing to do again – even if it meant dying – if that was God’s desire for his life.
You see, I think Paul understood something about following Christ that perhaps the other believers did not yet fully grasp. And this is the lesson that I think the Holy Spirit was trying to teach them through these prophecies. That is, the aim of our life is not to avoid suffering, but rather to glorify God. Or to say it another way, the purpose and point of our lives is not simply to enjoy a life-time of comfort. (We may or may not experience that in this life.) But rather, the over-arching purpose of our life is to glorify God in every circumstance!
Paul understood that going to Jerusalem would likely result in his suffering – perhaps even his death – but he also trusted that His obedience to God in going to Jerusalem would ultimately bring much glory to God. And so for him, going to Jerusalem was the obvious and really the only choice – even though his friends didn’t see it that way!
Paul was looking at things with an eternal perspective – while his friends were primarily concerned for Paul’s life here on earth.
This very same thing happened with Jesus when he was about to go to Jerusalem just prior to his crucifixion. We read in Matthew 16:21…
21 From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead.
22 But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. “Heaven forbid, Lord,” he said. “This will never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.”
There are a lot of similarities in these two passages. In many ways, Paul was re-living the experience of Christ. Like Paul, Jesus knew he had to go to Jerusalem – even though suffering and death would await him! His closest friends – including Peter – tried to persuade Him not to go!
But Peter was only seeing things from a human point of view – not from God’s. Jesus, on the other hand, knew that going to Jerusalem would bring much glory to God. This was the only way to bring salvation to the entire world!
Now of course, Paul’s call to suffer in Jerusalem was a little bit different than that of Christ’s – but it certainly was a key part of God’s plan of Salvation for many people!
As we’ve already mentioned, as a direct result of Paul’s obedience in going to Jerusalem, Paul would then go on to Rome and preach the Gospel to countless people who would then spread the Gospel throughout the Roman world! As a further result, he would also write a good portion of our New Testament – which continues to impact people and bring glory to God even today – some 2000 years later!
Now I’m sure Paul didn’t foresee all of that happening – but God certainly did! And Paul trusted that God’s way was best and that God would use these circumstances to bring glory to Himself – even if it meant suffering and death for Paul!
Paul was not focused on his earthly life, but he was focused on what God accomplishing through his life for eternity. Paul would later write (as he was imprisoned in Rome) to the church in Colossae. He writes to them:
Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.
Paul had lived this advice. He was not focused on his own comfort or his own personal well-being in this life. In essence, Paul had died to this life. And now the life he was living was for Christ – working towards the realities of heaven – working towards that moment when Christ would be revealed to the whole world and Paul would have the privilege of sharing in all His glory!
To bring glory to Christ was of far greater importance to Paul than staying out of jail or even remaining alive for a few more years on planet earth! Paul had set his sights on the realities of heaven!
And so he insisted – despite the pleadings of this friends – to be obedient to the Lord and travel on towards Jerusalem. Verse 14 says..
14 When it was clear that we couldn’t persuade him, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” 15 After this we packed our things and left for Jerusalem. Acts 21:14-15
It almost seems that the believers never fully accepted that going to Jerusalem was God’s will for Paul – but they did seem to trust that God’s will would be done one way or the other!
Perhaps they thought – if Paul was right, then God’s will would be done. And if Paul was wrong – well, God would work all things together for good and His will would be done that way too!
We’re not told exactly what they were thinking, but we do know that in the end, they put their trust in the will of God.
And that’s the point that I want to end on today. We talked earlier about how the over-arching purpose of our life is to glorify God in every circumstance – even in those circumstances that may cause us to suffer – and perhaps one day, even to die!
But we have to trust that God knows what He’s doing! If we truly believe that we are living for eternity – and not just for these few years on planet earth – and if we truly believe that our greatest purpose in this life is to glorify God – then we have to trust him even when he leads us through circumstances that are less than ideal.
Is that easy? Certainly not! But is it worthy it? Well, Paul seemed to think so. Listen to what Paul writes at the end of his life.
6 As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. 8 And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:6-8
Once again we see that Paul has set his sights on the realities of heaven – not the temporary things of earth. And I would encourage all of us to do likewise! Let us keep in mind that we are living for eternity – and not just for these few years on earth.
The difficulties and the trials that we go through here and now will not last forever – (though they may seem like it) – but if we remain faithful to Lord, seeking his glory and his will in every circumstance – We can look forward to joining with Paul in receiving the crown of righteousness – given to us by our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, on the day of His return.
I encourage you – stay the course. Remain faithful to Him! And do all things for His glory!