Am I a crazy (wrong) to disagree with Tom Schreiner, D.A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, and others in my interpretation of Acts 21:4?

Why does Acts 21:4 say, “And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” What does that mean in light of the fact that Paul wanted to go to Jerusalem (20:16; 21:13) and even says, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there… (20:22)”?

I think there are a few possibilities of what these texts taken together mean: (1) the Spirit was confused and sending mixed messages unaware; (2) the Spirit changed his mind from 20:22 to 21:4; (3) the Spirit told Paul to go and told the disciples in 21:4 that Paul would suffer, but did not tell them that Paul should therefore not go, which they inferred (interpreted) independently of the Spirit (Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 363; cf. Gempf, New Bible Commentary, ed. by D.A. Carson et. al., 1099; Marshall, Acts, [TNTC] 338-9; Longnecker in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary); (4) the Spirit led both Paul and the disciples to want what they wanted as part of God’s plan and both parties were faithful in expressing their desire; (5) the disciples were right and Paul was wrong; or (6) Paul was right and although the disciples were prophesying by means of the Spirit, their prophecy was to be rejected (Carson, Showing the Spirit, 97 and Grudem, Gift of Prophecy, 79-82 as cited in Carson).

I think the first two are wrong. The Spirit is not unaware or confused about what he wants his people to do and though God can change his mind, the only times I know God changed his mind is when the text clearly says so. I like #3 because it solves the problem while honoring the Spirit, the scene beginning in 21:7 fits his description of the current scene in discussion, and Tom Schreiner is one of the scholars I deeply respect, admire, and listen to in understanding Scripture. But I don’t take this view because 21:4 says that through the Spirit they told Paul not to go. The Spirit was the one through whom they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. To say that it was through the Spirit they knew Paul would suffer but not necessarily through the Spirit they told Paul to not go is to read into the text something that is not there, goes against a straightforward reading of the text, and squeezes this verse into the mold of the following scene (21:7ff). Humble Christians want to say that the prophecy was right but their interpretation was wrong. In 21:4, the interpretation, what they told Paul, was “through the Spirit.” Since options 5 and 6 mean that someone is wrong by the Spirit (disagreeing with Carson, who I even less like disagreeing with [though his case for this begins with “perhaps”]), I think the solution to these texts is that the Spirit led both Paul and the disciples to say things that were against each others’ desires, and yet neither of them were wrong for desiring and acting on those desires.

The disciples telling Paul not to go through the Spirit meant that the Spirit, producing in them love (Gal. 5:22) led them to tell Paul this out of their love for him and love for the world through his apostolic ministry. They were not sinning in wanting these things. They were actually wanting these things through the Spirit who led them and was warring against their flesh (Gal. 5:16ff). In 1 Corinthians 12:8 the same phrase, “through the Spirit,” is used saying that people are given “the utterance of wisdom through the Spirit.” In short, I look at the disciples telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem through the Spirit as the Spirit giving them an utterance of wisdom, not a command, compelled by love which is borne by the Holy Spirit in their lives. Paul, on the other hand, not knowing what would happen or presumably why he was to go to Jerusalem, was constrained by the Spirit to go (I have no idea how he was constrained) and so he was resolved to obey because he trusted the Spirit. So both parties were wanting different things for God-glorifying, Spirit-leading, Spirit-produced decisions. And yet, it was the sovereign will of God that humanly speaking it is Paul’s decision to make, and therefore Paul goes to Jerusalem under the providence of God and the personal leading of the Holy Spirit in his life.

An illustration might help to grasp how the Spirit can be leading both of these. Suppose a group of elders at CrossView Church pray and deliberate over a decision on whether to plant a church in downtown L.A. this year. There are good reasons to do it and there are also good reasons not to do it. The elders deliberate and give their reasons why to plant now and why not to and neither pathway is inherently sinful. All the elders except me think that the Spirit is leading us to do it. If I think, as best I can tell in humble submission to Scripture and the Spirit and careful listening to the elders’ reasoning, we still should not go, I’ll vote against it. I would have done this in submission to the Spirit as best I can tell out of love for CrossView Church and love for God and love for L.A. The rest of the elders vote that we do plant this year as they submit to the Spirit’s leading. Well, as elders we (I included) will propose to the church that we plant a church this year in downtown L.A. I will believe at that point that the Spirit led us to that decision and that the Spirit led me to vote against it. But since the decision is the group of elders and not me individually, I will understand that the Spirit led our group (including me) to lead the church in planting a church in downtown L.A.

I feel very weary of not finding anyone else who holds to the view I’m taking, but the only other two options that can be taken (Schreiner’s or Carson’s) in my view don’t take the fact the “through the Spirit” is tied directly to what they told Paul and therefore was not wrong or sinful.  I find Schreiner’s words encouraging and then uneasy (given my view): “No easy solution to these two apparently contrary words fromthe Spirit is available [encouraging]… At least two different solutions are possible [uneasy since neither is my solution] (Schreiner, New Testament Thelogy, 447).The key for me is that them telling Paul this was not a command, but a plea and exhortation springing from a Spirit-borne love.  What do you think?  Am I crazy?  I’m preaching on this text tomorrow when CrossView Church gathers.

[1] F.F. Bruce, in The Book of Acts, in the NICNT, (Eerdmans: 1954), 421-2, leans toward view 3 but doesn’t explicitly state the case like these other authors.


About pjtibayan

I love Jesus Christ and live to share life and share Jesus together with First Southern Baptist Church of Bellflower primarily to Southeast Los Angeles County.
This entry was posted in Christian living, CrossView Church, Friday Bible Study & Sunday Sermon, questions pondered. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Am I a crazy (wrong) to disagree with Tom Schreiner, D.A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, and others in my interpretation of Acts 21:4?

  1. Andrew Ho says:

    yeah your crazy.

  2. Andrew Ho says:

    just kidding mon.

  3. Rick Zaman says:

    Hey PJ,

    Sorry, I couldn’t respond before Sunday, but you’ll find here it wouldn’t have mattered much anyway. I preached this text less than a year ago or so and honestly don’t remember and can’t find in my notes how I handled the issue (shame on me!).

    In short, I think I took Schreiner’s position. I think it pictures, not so explicitly, what is going on in 21:7f. (which you noted) and 20:22-23. In short, Paul is willing to fulfill his ministry to Christ, no matter the physical suffering.

    I do appreciate your attempt, however, to wrestle with the significance of “through the Spirit” in 21:4. However, I am not sure I find your distinction much more helpful when you say, “In short, I look at the disciples telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem through the Spirit as the Spirit giving them an utterance of wisdom, not a command, compelled by love which is borne by the Holy Spirit in their lives.”
    This, in my understanding, would still set up contradictory revelation (though by different titles: prophecy and utterance of wisdom) given by the Holy Spirit. I think this is something you were trying to avoid, and rightly so. I think it is still better to see 21:4 referring implicitly to the coming imprisonment/persecution for Paul awaiting in Rome as indicated by the Spirit in 20:23 and 21:9f.

    Now if I take your summary statement and change it in the following way, I like it quite a bit: In short, I look at the disciples telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem through the Spirit as the disciples being compelled by love which is borne by the Holy Spirit in their lives. That is, I removed the aspect of revelation direct and emphasized the New Covenant work of the Spirit in sanctification as explanatory for the disciples compelling love. Though again, I think the surrounding context makes better sense of Schreiner’s option.

    At least, we can take comfort in our collective puzzlement and that the central message of the gospel is not this unclear.

    With all that said, how did it go and did you handle it like you posted?

  4. pjtibayan says:


    Sunday went well. I handled it actually the way you modified my conclusion. The reason I went with utterance of wisdom is because that is another phrase with the exact construction “through the Spirit” which might show in what sense they told Paul “through the Spirit” and also show that Paul is not disobeying the Spirit since wisdom is often not a sin/no sin category as we who are in pastoral ministry often are faced with. Thanks for your input brother. I know that you wouldn’t get back by Sunday since I sent it Saturday night! But I appreciate your thoughts and it helps me want to think about it more…

  5. You’re not crazy! People disagreed with Jesus and continue to disagree with him on numbers of issues. These guys are just humans; their words on paper are not infallible. It is just another interpretation, another way of looking at this issue! Finally, who says they have the correct interpretation?

  6. Bob Roberson says:

    This is a tough verse but when taken literally and according to the Greek, the disciples clearly tell Paul “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem. Paul, however, has already decided to go because he feels it is the right thing to do. God tells him again in Acts 21:11 not to go but Paul has already decided he is going. He wants to be in Jerusalem by Pentecost–THAT IS WHAT HE WANTS. Maybe God’s plan was for Paul to go to Jerusalem but maybe not right then. Paul, however, had decided he was going no matter what. How often do we try to outrun God? I can only imagine the good Paul could have done had he lived another ten years–how many more letters he could have written for us to have, etc. But, no, Paul made up his mind and nothing anyone said was going to change it. I think it clear Paul ignored warnings from the Spirit but was going to do what he wanted anyway. Sort of sounds like us sometimes, huh?

  7. Chris Harbin says:

    Thanks for posting this article. I have been struggling with interpreting this verse, and most of my commentaries don’t seem to deal with the text too well. About the most helpful discussion I found follows:
    “It is interesting that the narrator has allowed to surface at least a superficial contradiction in the divine guidance that Paul is receiving, and indication that it is seldom easy to separate divine revelation from human interpretation.” (Robert Tannehill in J. Bradley Chance, Acts: Smyth & Helwys, 2007)

    I have to wonder if it is not that Paul has an unfettered choice which is here illuminated by the Spirit. He is warned, even as he feels compelled to continue to Jerusalem. We often have what is perhaps too static a perception of God’s will. God’s plan is larger than our own. God is able to use various instruments to accomplish his purposes. Might it not also be that Paul is free to choose his next step, yet the Spirit intervenes to make sure he understand the risks/costs associated with his proposed plan of action? By the Spirit, perhaps he can serve God’s mission with or without going to Jerusalem.

    When my son signs up for a sport a VBS this summer, it will matter little to me whether he chooses soccer or basketball. Along either path, he will learn from God’s word. Along either path, he will interact with others and may serve God’s purposes. I have no problem allowing him to make his own choice, for it does not negate my will for his life. When it comes to choosing a major in college, I will have some suggestions, make sure he understands the implications/consequences of his choices, encourage him to seek God’s guidance, yet most likely there will be room for him to choose without opposing either my will or God’s.

    Could this not be part of what is going on in Paul’s life here? Paul is being warned of consequences, yet later he is assured that God will honor and make use of Paul’s decision to journey to Jerusalem.

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