Does Paul Disobey the Holy Spirit?

In the last Acts post we said that the Holy Spirit being at work is a key feature of the journey that Paul and his team took from Miletus to Jerusalem. Its a matter that has caused a lot of confusion trying to tie up the loose ends of what was going on. Look at the verses:

1. To the Ephesian elders Paul says that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers of the church (20:28). But the Spirit is compelling and saying something different to Paul - to go to Jerusalem. The Spirit testifies to him that in every city afflictions await (20:22-23)

2. When they reach Tyre, the disciples in that town urge Paul not to go to Jerusalem "through the Spirit" (21:4)

3. When they reach Caesarea and stay in the prophetically-gifted household of Philip, Agabus prophecies that the Spirit says that Paul will be bound and delivered to the Gentiles (21:11), and the disciples - both from Caesarea and from Paul's own team - urge him not to go. He won't be dissuaded and finally they cave in saying "let the will of the Lord be done." (21:14)

What is going on here? Did Paul hear right to start with but the Spirit say something different later? If Paul heard right, why do the Tyre disciples urge Paul "through the Spirit" to do the opposite? Some have concluded that Paul pressed on in blind and foolish zeal, ignoring what the Spirit said. 

Agabus' prophecy is the easy one to figure out, because he is simply reiterating what God has already revealed to Paul - the imprisonment and affliction await. The people are worried for him and, interpreting it as an indication that he shouldn't go, urge him. But at no point in Caesarea does the Spirit forbid him to go. It is an interesting example of people hearing the Holy Spirit correctly but applying what they have heard incorrectly.

But Tyre is more interesting because it seems that the the disciples were being guided by the Spirit when they told Paul not to go. John Stott says that the prediction was divine while the urging was human, and I think that's an OK distinction to make. But David Gooding adds a very helpful comment, to the effect that while the Holy Spirit constrains Paul to go, the Tyre account shows that he is not a robot, and that the Spirit leaves whether to do so up to Paul's free choice. "He didn't have to go if he didn't want to", Gooding concludes. He also says how inclined we are to receive positively guidance not to do something that we don't want to do! Paul was given a get-out clause if he wanted it, and didn't take it.  

I think there are some interesting thoughts from here on how to receive prophetic guidance today. 

1. People in the passage give genuine prophetic urging from the Spirit, but don't apply it correctly. There is as much or more prayerful wisdom needed in how to apply a prophetic word than there is in receiving one

2. The prophetic urging in Tyre wasn't finally morally binding on Paul. He was free to not do it, and that wasn't disobeying God

3.  Extremely well-meaning people, godly, biblically literate people (Luke includes himself in 21:12) can get the application of prophetic words wrong - but in very good faith and eagerly desiring God's best. For Paul their application wasn't combined with his faith and therefore they graciously drop their application of Agabus' prophecy. They don't confuse his prophecy with their application, thus making disobeying them tantamount to disobeying God


For a whole host of reasons I conclude that God gives prophetic words today, but that they are not the primary means of revelation: scripture is. And prophetic words need to be tested by scripture, by scriptural tests of authenticity and by submission to wise, biblical leaders. Prophetic words are not inspired or inerrant in the same way the Bible is. Scripture is final and sufficient. John Piper has some great stuff on why prophetic words can be prompted and sustained by the Spirit, but not carry intrinsic divine authority (because that is the implication of Acts 21). Inevitably he says things much better than me, so go have a look, at least here , and here (he largely agrees with Wayne Grudem. So do I)