Decisions, decisions. How many must we make in a day? How many have we agonized over in a lifetime?
Some decisions, of course, are relatively minor in terms of their long-term consequences. You can wrestle over the choices on a restaurant menu — Chicken or fish? My usual, or the special? Full fat bacon cheeseburger or a healthy salad? — but chances are, in a few days you won’t even remember what you ate.
Other choices, however, are much more consequential. There comes a point, for example, when many a bride- or groom-to-be, no matter how much they’re in love, suddenly realizes the import of what they’re about to do. Hang on a second: I’m committing to this person for the rest of my life? Am I ready for that? Ditto for new parents, holding for the first time a tiny human being whose very life depends on their love and care.
For the more privileged among us, there are relatively few decisions to make where someone’s life is at stake. But when those decisions come, we may want some help and counsel. Do we have friends we trust with whom we can talk things through? Do we know some wise people we could consult?
And of course, as Christians, we’d want to go to God in prayer. Surely God knows the right thing to do! If he would just speak to us through his Holy Spirit, we’d know which way to turn.
I think it’s safe to say that with the exception of Jesus himself, no one in Scripture was more attuned to the leading of God’s Spirit than the apostle Paul.
And even for him, things were not always as clear-cut as we might want them to be.
. . .
At the beginning of Acts 21, in Miletus, Paul and his companions had to tear themselves away from their Ephesian friends. Paul, you’ll recall, was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem by Pentecost with the collection he had taken up from the Gentile churches.
Thus he, Luke, and the others boarded a ship and sailed away. When they put into port at the city of Patara, they found a merchant vessel bound for Tyre with its cargo. Smaller ships had to hug the coastline, but this larger ship could sail the open seas, making the trip more direct and saving time. Paul and his companions booked passage, and landed at Tyre with time to spare — so much so that Paul could afford to spend a whole week with the believers there and still make it to Jerusalem by Pentecost.
Earlier, in Miletus, Paul had already told the Ephesians that he knew by the Holy Spirit that trouble was awaiting him in Jerusalem. The Christians in Tyre echoed that foreboding: “Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4, NRSV). They probably didn’t know Paul well, but had come to love and care for him even in the short time he was with them. When it was time for Paul to move on, entire families crowded the beach to pray with him and say goodbye (vss. 5-6).
When Paul’s entourage landed in Caesarea, they stayed with Philip the Evangelist, whom we last saw explaining the gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch. Philip had continued his preaching tour until he reached Caesarea (Acts 8:40), and apparently settled down there. By the time Paul arrived about twenty years later, Philip had married and had four daughters who were all chips off the old block — they all had the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:8-9).
But it was Agabus, not Philip’s daughters, who had a prophetic word for Paul. Luke mentions Agabus only briefly in Acts 11:28. Here, he returns, acting very much like the prophets of old:
He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” (Acts 21:11)
Hearing this, the believers in Caesarea added their voices to the believers in Tyre: Paul, please, please don’t go to Jerusalem. But Paul, also compelled by the Spirit, had made up his mind to go no matter what. Stop breaking my heart, he told them. I’m going, and I’m ready not only to be bound, but to die for the name of Jesus if I have to (Acts 21:13).
What could they say? “The Lord’s will be done,” they muttered, and fell silent (Acts 21:14).
It’s right for believers to seek God’s will. But I suspect that we often have too thin an understanding of what this means. We don’t like ambiguity or uncertainty, especially when there’s a lot at stake. We want to know what to do. Give me a sign, Lord. Do I go left or right?
But note what happens in Paul’s story. He’s going to Jerusalem in obedience to the Holy Spirit, despite the fact that the Spirit has also told him he will suffer. His friends in Tyre, under the guidance of the Spirit as well, beg him not to go. Agabus appears and announces that the Holy Spirit has told him what will happen to Paul. But as Luke’s story continues, we’ll see that the prophet gets the details wrong (e.g., Paul is bound, but not by the Jews).
Shouldn’t the Holy Spirit speak with one voice? Shouldn’t the guidance be more clear?
We’ll try to make sense of all this in the next post.