As you can probably tell, I don’t believe Paul missed God or sinned in any way by rejecting the counsel of his well-meaning friends and pressing on to Jerusalem. However, that does leave us with a very important question: Why does Luke include (in fact, emphasize) the warnings Paul received in every city and the fact that Paul nevertheless continued on to Jerusalem?
Well, that’s a good question and I think Luke gives us with the answer. In his two-volume history (Luke and Acts), Luke attempts to show us how Christ continues to live and to work through His Church. People rejected Jesus and murdered Him, and now they reject the gospel and seek to kill those who proclaim it. At this point in the Book of Acts, Luke is showing us the similarity of Paul’s ministry and mission to that of our Lord.
Look at the comparison: Both Jesus and Paul set their face toward Jerusalem, knowing full well what awaited them there:
“Now when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem” —Luke 9:51
“Now after all these things had taken place, Paul resolved to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. He said, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome’” —Acts 19:21
Paul, like Jesus, would be falsely accused in Jerusalem, and put on trial. Paul, like Jesus, would be pronounced innocent, and yet not released. Paul, like Jesus, would be urged not to go to Jerusalem by his most devoted followers, yet they went anyway.
“From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: ‘God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.’ [I bet that shook Peter up a bit] Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me’” —Matthew 16:21-24
“While we remained there for a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us, took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it, and said, “The Holy Spirit says this: ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will tie up the man whose belt this is, and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ When we heard this, both we and the local people begged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul replied, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be tied up, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ [That’s not quite, ‘Get behind me Satan,’ but close] Because he could not be persuaded, we said no more except, “The Lord’s will be done” —Acts 21:10-14
Luke wasn’t trying to show us that all the saints have “feet of clay,” even Paul. He was trying to show us that Paul is like our Lord, and that unbelievers will continue to reject the gospel and to persecute Christ as they persecuted the apostles.
There is a lot we can learn here. Now this presumes I am correct that Paul made the right decision to press on to Jerusalem, and that his friends, although were well intentioned, were wrong to discourage him from going.
I know the friends meant well and were concerned for Paul’s life and safety, but bad advice can come—even from our best friends. We know about the texts in the Bible that warn us about the company we keep. We are to avoid association with evil men, who seek to turn us from the path of righteousness (see Proverbs 1:8-19). There are numerous examples of bad counsel coming from bad people. Jonadab counseled Amnon how to seduce (rape) his half-sister, Tamar (2 Samuel 13). Rehoboam’s “friends” counseled him to deal harshly with those he ruled (1 Kings 12:8-11).
But none of that applies here. What we can see here is that bad counsel can come from our most intimate and trusted friends, those who greatly love us and care about our well-being. We see examples of this elsewhere in the Bible. For example, Nathan’s initial response was to encourage David to build the temple he aspired to construct (1 Chronicles 17:1-4). Job’s friends’ counsel was intended to end his suffering and to restore him to blessing, but they were all wrong (see Job 42:7-9).
Why is it that those who love us deeply, who want our best are sometimes the very ones who give us bad counsel? It may be the same reason that we pray that the surgery of a good friend will go “smoothly” and without complications. It may be the same reason that we ask God to completely heal a fellow believer of cancer, rather than use them powerfully in death. Even right now, I feel a little tension when I pray for missionaries who are serving God in very dangerous places. Should I pray that God would enable them to be evacuated from their place of service? Or should I pray that God would supernaturally deliver them from all harm? Or must I also leave room for God to glorify Himself and promote the gospel by their faithfulness even unto death? I’m thinking now of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming—whose deaths inspired thousands of other missionaries to follow in their footsteps. (For a couple of fascinating and inspiring books, read, Through the Gates of Splendor, and Shadow of the Almighty, both by Elisabeth Elliot).
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Story of Acts