A cursory reading of the accounts of Paul’s intention to go to Jerusalem and the desires of others for him not to go to Jerusalem in Acts 21 might leave some readers thinking that the Holy Spirit has conflicted His own directions and work. But such is not the case, as John Stott explains:
Thus at last, after many weeks of travel and suspense, and in spite of dire warnings, Paul arrived at his destination. But was he right to brush aside his friends who implored him to abandon his plan? What about those messages of the Holy Spirit through prophets? Are we to blame Paul for his obstinacy or admire him for his unshakeable resolve?
At first sight the promptings of the Spirit appear to have been in direct conflict with each other. In Miletus Paul told the Ephesian elders that he was going to Jerusalem ‘compelled by the Spirit’, in spite of the ‘prison and hardships’ of which the same Spirit warned him (20:12-13). In Tyre, however, it was ‘through the Spirit’ that certain disciples urged him (the imperfect [verb] implies ‘again and again’, JBP) not to go on to Jerusalem (21:4), while in Caesarea Agabus began his prophecy with the formula ‘the Holy Spirit says’ (21:11). But Paul ignored both messages. Refusing to be dissuaded (21:14), he continued on his way (21:5).
How can we resolve this problem? Certainly not by concluding that the Spirit contradicted himself, telling Paul to go in chapter 20 and countermanding his instruction in chapter 21. Luke has too high a doctrine of the Holy Spirit to portray him as changing his mind. Even if 20:22 should be understood as referring rather to the compulsion of his own spirit than of the Holy Spirit, Paul still appears to go against the voice of the Holy Spirit in chapter 21.
I think we should begin by affirming that Luke believed Paul to be right in going to Jerusalem. Probably he attributes to the Holy Spirit both the decision of 19:21 and the compulsion of 20:22, since both of them were…‘in the Spirit’. In addition, we have already suggested that Luke sees Paul’s journey to Jerusalem as the disciple following in his Master’s footsteps. What then are we to make of 21:4 and 11? Some have argued that the references to the Spirit here simply mean that the speakers were claiming inspiration, without necessarily being inspired. But then we would have to interpret other references to the Spirit in the same ambiguous way. The better solution is to draw a distinction between a prediction and a prohibition. Certainly Agabus only predicted that Paul would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles (21:11); the pleadings with Paul which followed are not attributed to the Spirit and may have been the fallible (indeed mistaken) human deduction from the Spirit’s prophecy. For if Paul had heeded his friends’ pleas, then Agabus’ prophecy would not have been fulfilled! It is more difficult to understand 21:4 in this way, since the ‘urging’ itself is said to be ‘through the Spirit’. But perhaps Luke’s statement is a condensed way of saying that the warning was divine while the urging was human. After all, the Spirit’s word to Paul combined the compulsion to go with a warning of the consequences (20:22-23).
So Luke surely intends us to admire Paul for his courage and perseverance. Like Jesus before him, he set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem, and (like Jesus again) the divine predictions of suffering did not deter him.