Awhile back I had addressed this in a blog entitled Did Paul Disobey the Holy Spirit. I haven’t changed my mind about what I said there, but I do believe I need to address certain implications that were perhaps not addressed in that blog. For example, the text says in Acts 21:4 the disciples in Tyre “said to Paul through the Spirit that he should not go up to Jerusalem.” This certainly seems like a direct command from God. Is it, and if so, why wouldn’t Paul be disobedient to the Holy Spirit by continuing on to Jerusalem?
Obedience to God is much more complicated in the New Testament than it was in under the Old Testament. Under the Old Covenant we had the word of God written in stone, but under the New it is written in our hearts. It is one thing to obey the voice of the King, it is quite another to act on the King’s behalf, representing him in such a way that one gives expression to the King’s will. For example, notice how this same prophecy concerning Paul’s going to Jerusalem is represented by Agabus the prophet from Jerusalem who spoke with Paul at Caesarea:
And as we tarried there many days, there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus. And when he was come unto us, he took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. (Acts 21:10-11 KJV – emphasis mine)
Under the Old Testament it was “Thus saith the Lord…” (cp. Exodus 11:4; Joshua 7:13; 1Samuel 10:18; Isaiah 7:7 etc.) or in some places it is “The Word of the Lord came unto me…” (Jeremiah 1:4, 11,13 etc. and compare this with John 1:1, 14); but Agabus says: “Thus saith the Holy Spirit…” Is there a difference? I believe there is.
It appears that under the Old Covenant the word of God was given in an audible voice, perhaps even in a vision of sorts or the appearance of the Angel of the Lord (who was God manifest and would later become Jesus). In other words the audible word was unmistakable, not so the “still small voice” within us today. Discernment of the spirits is needed (cp. 1Corinthians 12:10). In fact, 1John 4:1 warns us to be wary of the spirits (of the prophets) because some are false prophets. John, of course, was speaking of someone who was not Christian, but 1Corinthians 14:29 tells us that though one or two prophets may speak, another judges what is said. If the word of God that comes through the Holy Spirit were as clear as the audible voice in the Old Testament, why would another have to judge what was said? Couldn’t we understand Paul’s reaction to the prophets at Tyre (Acts 21:4) as his own discernment of the spirits?
Moreover, in 1Corinthians 14:32 we are told that the spirits of the prophets (i.e. what was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit) is subject to or in control of the prophets. He could speak or remain silent. This was not so under the Old Covenant. Jeremiah claimed that when he tried to hold his peace, the word within him was like a burning fire that had to burst forth (Jeremiah 7-9). It simply could not be held back.
Under the Old Covenant God’s word was very clear to the prophet, because it was audible. If the prophet of God made an error by giving the wrong command, God corrected his prophet (cp. 1Samuel 7:3 with 1Chronicles 17:3-4). God’s will was very clear under the Old Covenant and had to be so, because it was not in a man’s heart to obey him (Jeremiah 17:9; Ecclesiastes 9:3). However, under the New Covenant clarity of God’s will is sacrificed in giving man a new heart. Under this proposition, the spirits must be discerned (1Corinthians 12:10). It needs to be this way in order to give man a choice to obey God and subject himself to the authority of Jesus our King.
It seems evident that after all was said and done at Tyre and Caesarea, the disciples conceded to Paul’s own commitment in the Spirit to continue on to Jerusalem. In their own words: “The will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14). I cannot conceive of the disciples of Jesus, if they truly understood the Holy Spirit to be commanding Paul not to go to Jerusalem, to bring a curse upon Paul by saying “The will of the Lord be done” upon the one who is disobedient. Therefore, if they didn’t understand the prophecy to be a command by the Spirit of God, why should we?