Did the Apostle Paul Miss God’s Will?

Did the apostle Paul miss the will of God in one of the most important decisions of his ministry? Such a question might seem ludicrous to those who rate Paul barely a notch below Jesus, but some sincere students of the Bible believe there really is a case to be made that Paul missed it. See what you think.

The debated decision involves Paul’s last trip to Jerusalem, a trip in which he ended up arrested. Following the arrest, he languished in legal limbo for nothing short of two full years. Finally, he appealed his case directly to Caesar and was transported to Rome for trial. But even that voyage wasn’t without peril as the ship on which he was transported got caught in a terrible storm, foundered, and eventually ran aground on Malta (Acts chapter 27). If you think all that sounds like a nightmarish two years or so, you’re right. It gets even worse, though, when you learn that God had given Paul several warnings beforehand about what would happen to him if he made that trip to Jerusalem. Consider the following passages:

# 1: “And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me.” (Acts 20:22-23)

# 2: When we had sighted Cyprus, we passed it on the left, sailed to Syria, and landed at Tyre; for there the ship was to unload her cargo. And finding disciples, we stayed there seven days. They told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem. (Acts 21:3-4)

# 3: And as we stayed many days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 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.'” Now when we heard these things, both we and those from that place pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem. (Acts 21:10-12)

It isn’t hard to see how these passages might lend support to the idea that Paul missed God’s will in forging on ahead to Jerusalem. And it’s because of them that some prominent Bible-teachers have maintained that Paul got it wrong at this crossroad in his life. Let me name a few of those men and share what they had to say on this subject.

James Montgomery Boice wrote:

…though Paul was driven by high motives, what he did at this time of his life was wrong. Being wrong, it had unfortunate consequences for him and perhaps also for other people.

John R. Rice expressed the same view when he wrote:

Those warnings of impending imprisonment and persecution were given only because Paul ought not to have gone…..the warnings of God about Jerusalem meant that he should not go…..Thus he went on to imprisonment, two or three sad and relatively empty years before he got to Rome and before he could resume a large ministry.

Donald Grey Barnhouse came down even more harshly on Paul’s decision. He wrote:

By this time Paul was an opinionated, stubborn man and was determined to have his own way. It’s a great, yet sad, picture of what happens in the lives of far too many Christians…..Believe me, my friends, God sometimes has to deal sharply with those of His people who defy His will. So, with Paul. He was determined to do things his way, no matter what God wanted.

And then there was Harry Ironside, who also left plenty of room for the possibility that Paul might have stepped outside God’s will with the decision in question. He said:

Did he make a mistake in doing so? Did Paul really disobey the voice of the Lord? It is hard for us to say. We may be sure of this, that if he did make a mistake, he made it from the best of motives. If he blundered here, he blundered out of an overpowering love for the Jewish people. I am afraid that some of us cannot say of our mistakes that they have always been motivated by love…..we are apt to think of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ as though they were men of a much higher caliber than ourselves, and therefore there is no possibility of our being used as they were. But we learn as we study the book of Acts that these same men were of like passions as ourselves. They had the same fallible judgment that we have. They could be misled as we are misled.

But, now, before we pronounce the verdict “Guilty as charged” upon Paul and conclusively slam down the gavel, let me point out that there are plenty of other noteworthy Bible-teachers who have taught that Paul didn’t miss God’s will in this decision. For example, G. Campbell Morgan wrote:

My conviction is that Paul was right. His conviction was one resulting from the guidance of the Spirit of God.

Chuck Swindoll concurs. He writes:

How easy it would have been for Paul to rationalize not going to Jerusalem. “My friends need me. I can preach the gospel better as a free man. I think I’ll stay away from Jerusalem.” Had he made that decision, regret and disappointment would have wreaked havoc in his soul. A foreigner called compromise would have invaded his heart and eaten away his zeal for the Lord. He couldn’t allow that to happen – he had to go to Jerusalem.

Along these same lines, William MacDonald wrote:

It seems far more probable that Paul interpreted the advice of his friends as calculated to save him from physical suffering or even death. In his love for his Jewish countrymen, he did not feel that his physical well-being was the important consideration.

And then there is John Phillips, who wrote:

He was a godly man, spiritually sensitive and guided by the Holy Spirit. It hardly seems possible that Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem was a case of stubborn, deliberate, and willful defiance of the Holy Spirit. He must have had some inward permission from the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, or he would not have gone.

And so what is the correct answer to the question, “Did Paul miss God’s will in making that fateful trip to Jerusalem?” The debate will no doubt continue among Christians until we all get to heaven. It’s like the exact identification of Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh.” There will continue to be different opinions until that time when all answers will be revealed.

As for me, in my humble and possibly wrong opinion, Paul missed it. Since I’ve built this post around various quotes from noted Bible-teachers, let me close with an extended quote from Oliver B. Greene. Frankly, of all the things I’ve ever read concerning this question these words make the most sense to me. Whether you agree or disagree with Greene’s assessment, please give a hearing to what he wrote:

We cannot but admire the zeal of the Apostle Paul, the strong determination he had; but his disregard of the warning in this instance cost him two years of valuable opportunities. He was not in Jerusalem long before he was bound as prophesied.

Paul was touched by the concern and the entreaties of his fellow Christians. But his love for the Jews was so great that he answered, “I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” This man possessed courage seldom matched in others. He never turned back from his duty as an apostle – but as if often the case with men of that caliber, his unusual strength was his weakness. On more than one occasion the apostle’s love for souls was mistaken for guidance, and his zeal drove him into cities and places where God did not lead him to go.

God called him as minister to the Gentiles, and he was faithful to that ministry; but he could not hide the disappointment of his heart. He obeyed the call to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles, but it would appear that he sincerely believed he was the man to win the Jews to Christ. It was always his custom when he entered a city to go first to the synagogue to reason with the Jews, expounding the Word of God, preaching the Gospel of God’s marvelous grace. When we compare spiritual things with spiritual, we are faced with the question as to whether or not Paul was justified in doing this. His burning passion to see Israel saved led him into many hardships, much suffering, and persecution…..even though I still believe the Apostle Paul was God’s most dedicated servant, in this instance he disregarded the warning, refused to change his plans, and stubbornly held to his determination to go to Jerusalem.

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9 Responses to Did the Apostle Paul Miss God’s Will?

  1. Good debate. I believe I come down solidly in the middle of the waffle iron on this one. I think Paul genuinely believed he was in God’s will. I also believe as the last writer states, that Paul was a man who was desperate to see his nation won. As a Pharisee’s Pharisee, I would expect no less.

    • russellmckinney says:

      Like I said, my opinion could be wrong, but if Paul did miss God’s will it was no doubt because of what Greene touches upon in his quote. Greene puts his finger squarely down on a point that had vaguely floated around the edges of my thinking for some time before I read what he wrote. It just strike me a bit odd that Paul, a man whom God had called to take the gospel to the Gentiles, spent so much of his time arguing with and dealing with Jews. Yes, Acts 9:15 says that Paul was to bear the Lord’s name to the Gentiles and to the children of Israel, but I see that as akin to Peter (the Lord’s primary apostle to the Jews) evangelizing Cornelius and the other Gentiles in Acts chapter 10. Obviously the lines of evangelism weren’t so cut and dried with either Paul or Peter. Anyway, I think Greene makes a very valid point that perhaps Paul’s first stop in most towns shouldn’t have been the local synagogue.

      I didn’t include everything that Harry Ironside wrote on the subject, but he also mentions the fact that Peter was wrong at Antioch when he separated himself from the Gentiles and refused to eat with them (Galatians 2:11-13). That story shows that a man greatly used of God can be wrong in his decision-making. Ironside also points out that Paul and Barnabas had a fallout over John Mark and separated because of it (Acts 13:13, 15:36-41). Who was in the right in that argument? As things turned out, it was probably Barnabas. This seems proven out by 2 Timothy 4:11 as well as the mere fact that Mark wrote the gospel of Mark.

      Donald Barnhouse also throws in a word about Paul settling for God’s “second-best” (going to Jerusalem) when he could have had God’s “first-best” (staying clear of the city). John Phillips, whom I quoted in Paul’s defense, gets into that same area when he says:

      Perhaps Paul concluded that the visit was not part of God’s directive will but was still part of His permissive will. He was sure that Romans 8:28 still held good. No matter what happened at Jerusalem, God would overrule all things for the furtherance of the gospel.

      Such talk about “second-best” as opposed to “first-best” and “permissive will” as opposed to “directive will” only muddies the waters for me. Something is either God’s will or it isn’t. If you go ahead and do something that isn’t His will, and He allows you to go through with it, that doesn’t create a new category called God’s “permissive (allowed) will.” Instead the allowance should be classified under God’s grace, mercy, longsuffering, patience, and love.

      • Excellent points. I might add that the belief that you are in God’s will is certainly no absolute assurance that you are. It is very likely that Paul’s greatest attribute of single-minded determination was also an obstacle at times when he mixed in a little too much Paul and not enough God. I suffer from that (too much me) constantly.

  2. David says:

    Acts 23:11 demonstrates God’s opinion on the matter of whether Paul should have gone to Jerusalem.

    • russellmckinney says:

      David, I’m glad you wrote this comment because the Acts 23:11 verse does need to be a part of this debate. And you may well be right that it proves that Paul was in God’s will going to Jerusalem. However, I don’t think that one verse trumps all those other passages so conclusively that it gives us an irrefutable answer on the question. Keep in mind that the Lord also appeared to Hagar following a time in which her choices hadn’t been His will (Genesis 16:1-14). He did the same for Peter too (John 21:1-19). So, perhaps His appearance to Paul was in this same kind of vein. After all, the emphasis of the assurance is on the fact that Paul would bear witness at Rome, which was Gentile headquarters. Like I said, I don’t think we’ll know the answer for sure until we get to heaven. But thanks for your input. It added a very relevant verse to the dialogue.

  3. growingsouls says:

    I was looking for the quotes from these men who thought Paul made a mistake or was disobedient to the Spirit. Could you include the references for those quotes? I was going to use them in an important paper. Thank you!

    • russellmckinney says:

      James Montgomery Boice, “Acts: An Expositional Commentary” p.356

      John R. Rice, “Filled With the Spirit, A Verse-By-Verse Commentary” p.451,454

      Donald Grey Barnhouse, “Acts: An Expositional Commentary” p.190,191

      H.A. Ironside, “Acts” p.266

      Oliver B. Greene, “The Acts of the Apostles (volume IV)” p.24

  4. Do you know when discussion of this first appears in church literature? I come down squarely on the side of this being a very costly and spiraling error. The salvage operation was certainly one of the greatest recorded. The fact that Luke wrote it this way with the benefit of hindsight in his wonderfully western historical investigative way is one of the most compelling factors. It seems to offer a great deal of light on how church leaders should be governed by an elder system. it would be interesting to know what some of the early church fathers thought of this. Phillip Comfort is currently leading our Sunday School class through these chapters and there is a wide range of perceptions. Inconsistent methods in some translations seem to exacerbate the problem of clarity. Capitalization of Spirit is more commentary than translation. The notion that this cannot possibly be considered because Paul could not have made an error this serious is very disturbing. We are quick to see Peter’s foibles but not Paul’s. I find this most curious. Thanks for your balanced treatment.

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