Did Paul sin by not obeying the Holy Spirit?

QUESTION:In Acts 21, Agabus was led of the Holy Spirit to warn Paul about the danger in Jerusalem, but Paul went anyway. Did Paul sin by not obeying the voice of the Holy Spirit?

Answered by Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.

ANSWER: It is important to examine God’s Word carefully to see what He is saying on its sacred pages and what He is not saying. Looking back a few chapters we find in Acts 16:6 that Paul and the brothers with him “were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the Word in Asia” (NKJV). Verse 7 adds: “They tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them.” These verses show plainly and simply that on this trip Paul and his companions followed the directions of the Holy Spirit and did not go where He forbade or did not permit them to go to preach the Word. Are we to think that they later were less subject to His leading?

In Acts 20 and 21 we find Paul toward the end of his next trip heading to Jerusalem. He and the brothers with him were carrying the love gift sent by the assemblies in Macedonia and Achaia for needy saints in Jerusalem. In various Scriptures we read of his love for his fellow Jewish countrymen and his great desire to see them saved. In fact, in Romans 9:3-4 he goes so far as to say, “I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites.” How he desired their salvation!

Again and again on this journey the Holy Spirit warned Paul what lay before him in Jerusalem. “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, but none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself,” he told the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts 20:22-24). The Holy Spirit was not forbidding him to go, but was warning him of the consequences his going would entail. Paul went on, not deterred by that which lay before him.

At Caesarea in the house of Philip the evangelist, Paul received his final warning (Acts 21:1-14). The prophet Agabus came down from Jerusalem and “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.”’” Notice, this was no prohibition. But, it was a very vivid demonstration of what would happen to Paul if he persisted in going on to Jerusalem.

Both the brothers traveling with him and those at Caesarea “pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem. But Paul was not to be dissuaded. Realizing what he was being warned about, he answered, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” The brothers then accepted his decision, saying, “The will of the Lord be done.” Notice again: There is no mention of any prohibition or of any disobedience on the part of Paul. Nor do we find any negative comments or reproaches addressed to Paul, nor is anything said in subsequent chapters that would indicate that Paul had sinned. He had made his decision and he was willing to suffer the consequences.

Plans Paul had made and shared with the Roman saints in Romans 15:22-33 to visit them and then go on to Spain after his visit in Jerusalem did not materialize as he had planned. He had asked for their prayers in view of the dangers before him and that his service in Jerusalem might be acceptable to the saints. Coming to Rome as a prisoner on appeal to the emperor may have seemed like a far cry from coming “in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ,” as he had wished. To what extent the saints at Rome got to enjoy this we do not know. But God’s saints down through the ages have benefited greatly for several of the choicest epistles in the New Testament stem from Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. For these we thank God.

Long before these events the Lord had told Paul, “Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning Me … Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:17-21). The Lord of the harvest knows where and why He assigns to every one of His servants his own particular place and work. It is always best to submit to His will when we know it. But who are we to call this honored apostle’s pressing on to Jerusalem in love for his people when warned of the consequences that would ensue from this, sin?

There are many things we do not understand, but we can agree fully with Paul who wrote that “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).