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.
 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.