There are times we must obey what God shows us even though He has not revealed it to others. There are paths we must walk alone. Pauls decision to go to Jerusalem is an example of this. At first glance it appears he was being unnecessarily stubborn, almost as though he had some sort of death wish. Time and again he had been warned prophetically. In place after place believers saw in the Spirit what was going to happen and tearfully begged him not to go. Yet he refused to turn aside. Why? Are we observing in his reaction a weak, foolish part of Paul, or are we seeing someone with the courage to obey a voice others have not heard? Are we watching a man walk out a lonely obedience?
Everyone seemed to know what was going to happen to Paul, and everyone, except Paul, agreed on how he should respond. The difference lay in the interpretation of what they saw, not in the revelation itself. And who can blame Pauls friends for their conclusion? If God showed us a life-threatening persecution ahead, who wouldnt take that as a warning to flee? How many times in the Bible did God warn His servants this way? Yet, Paul had a different interpretation from everyone else, and each time another word came, he felt more resolved to go. In this passage, were watching some very mature believers have a profound difference of opinion
and everyone is trying to do the right thing. Yet, only one person interprets the revelation correctly.
From Miletus to Jerusalem (Ac 21:1-17)
Paul did not expect to die in Jerusalem. He had already made plans about where he would go after he left. While still in Corinth, months earlier, he wrote to the church in Rome to notify them that he intended to visit their city after being in Jerusalem, and hoped they would sponsor him on a mission trip to Spain (Ro 15:24-29). He was very aware of how dangerous his upcoming trip would be and urged believers in Rome to pray for him (Ro 15:30-32). His appeal for prayer made it clear he believed it was possible for things to happen in Jerusalem that would hinder Gods plan, and his response to this possibility was not to fall back on the notion that God was in control of everything and would do whatever He would do, but to enlist prayer warriors to cover him while he was there. He clearly saw the possibility of danger and recognized he could even be killed, but felt he was supposed to go anyway.
Paul was convinced God wanted him to go to Jerusalem (Ac 20:22-25), and it turns out he was right. Later on, after his arrest and trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus appeared to him and removed all doubt. Heres what happened:
But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome (Ac 23:11).
Pauls arrest was not a mistake or failure of prayer, it was part of Gods plan to make it possible for him to witness to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and then go to Rome to witness to people in the government there. This aligns with the call he received when he first believed. Jesus said to Ananias: Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel
(Ac 9:15). Paul would witness to a king and governors in Caesarea, but at some point he also stood in front of Caesar Nero himself (Ac 25:11,12, 21). Is it possible Jesus sent Paul to Rome to witness to Nero before he would begin his horrific persecution of Christians? Is it possible Jesus gave Nero a chance to be saved and avoid becoming an instrument of monstrous evil, even though Jesus knew what Nero would do? Remember, the Lord doesnt deal with us based on negative things we havent done yet. Regardless of Neros response, Pauls time in Rome was very profitable. While he awaited trial, many in the imperial household came to faith, (Php 4:22) and he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.
Years in jail
Many people assume that after Paul was arrested in Jerusalem he spent two years in Caesarea (Ac 24:27) and was then taken to Rome where he awaited trial for at least two years (Ac 28:30), after which he lost his appeal before Caesar and was executed. But his letters to Timothy and Titus describe circumstances that must have taken place after his imprisonment in Rome. Either Nero pronounced him innocent at his first trial or his accusers never appeared in court. Somehow he was released and spent another five years in ministry before being re-arrested and executed during Neros vicious persecution of Christians. Listen to Paul:
But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was rescued out of the lions mouth (2Ti 4:17).
In other words, Paul was right. He would go to Rome, just later than he thought, and for all we know, he may have made it to Spain (Ro 15:24). So as he walked toward Jerusalem, he was entering a season of being a prisoner that would last, apparently, about five years. Yes, it was a painful assignment, but he would witness to people he could reach no other way, and in time, he would be released. God knew these things but youll notice He didnt reveal all of them to Paul or the prophets. He only showed them a part of His plan, and then required them to trust Him.
Discerning Gods will
If you knew you were going to be arrested and persecuted if you obeyed a prophetic word, would you go? What would you have to know to make such a decision? Here are five things Paul knew:
1. This is Gods will. He had determined this for himself and it was settled in his heart.
2. Suffering is the only way I can accomplish what God needs me to do.
3. I will have prayer covering while I endure this.
4. I cannot let fear control me. I cannot be afraid to die.
5. I expect God to deliver me out of this persecution. I believe His plans for me extend beyond this trial.
Youll notice Jesus knew these same five things as He went to the cross. At that point Jesus did not have divine knowledge of the future. He had laid that privilege aside (Php 2:6, 7). And none of His disciples supported His decision. He too had to walk a lonely obedience.
Interpreting a word
How did Paul view all these prophetic words? He believed God sent them to prepare him for what lay ahead, not warn him to avoid it. Everyone else had just the opposite interpretation. Obviously, interpreting a word accurately is as important as receiving a word. Pharaoh had very vivid dreams, but he didnt know what they meant (Ge 41:1-8). Joseph had to get the interpretation from God (Ge 41:14-16), and then express a word of wisdom to show Pharaoh what actions needed to be taken (Ge 41:33-36). Nebuchadnezzar, in Babylon, had a dream and then couldnt remember it or interpret it (Da 2:1-6). Daniel had to see the dream again and interpret it for him (Dn 2:19-45). These, and many other examples in the Bible, show us that when we receive a revelation from God:
1. We must be very careful to distinguish between what God says and what He didnt say.
2. We must humbly seek the interpretation and not allow our emotions or opinions to shape it or add to what was said.
3. We must carefully ask God what action is required of us. Each of us must ask, How am I to obey what has been shown? Its good to look for confirmation from others, but we can never abdicate our responsibility and let others decide for us.
Though God speaks through His church, ultimately each of us is responsible to interpret and apply a word for ourselves because we are the ones held accountable (2Co 5:10). This is where the I was just doing what they told me to do defense breaks down. Jesus will ask each of us, But what did I tell you to do?
Well-meaning people, out of a desire to protect us, or less-well-meaning people, who have their own agenda for us, may try to steer the interpretation of a word toward what they think it means or want it to mean. And they may be wrong!
We may so desire to see you safe, we cant entertain any thoughts to the contrary.
We may be so afraid of upsetting you, we cant bring ourselves to tell you something that might alienate you from us.
We may be so convinced our plan for you is the right one, our mind bends everything to fit.
Interpreting a prophetic word properly takes integrity and courage. And it takes great humility. We must recognize that our flesh or compassion can distort what were hearing or saying. So when all is said and done, each of us must determine within our own conscience what we believe God said, what we believe He meant, and what we believe He wants us to do about it. Then we must do it. And even if it turns out that we were wrong, if we did what we did in an attempt to obey Him, He will go with us into our mistake and cause it to produce something good. Thankfully, it is our desire to please Him that pleases Him.
Pauls example challenges each of us. It makes us ask ourselves, Am I doing what I believe God asked me to do? Or, have I let my own feelings or the opinions of others overrule what I know God said? And the example of Pauls friends also challenges us. They too make us question ourselves: Have I confused my opinion with Gods will and discouraged someone else from obeying a difficult word? Have I put my opinion in the place of Gods opinion in someones life?
These are very delicate questions to ask ourselves. Yet, if we recognize that at some point we did, innocently enough, confuse our own will for Gods guidance, the best thing to do would be to repent and ask Him how to undo the damage. He wont humiliate us, Hell simply give us the strength and wisdom to take the next step. And remember, were in good company. Luke, Philip, the four prophetesses, Agabus, the entire team of church representatives, and who knows who else, had to do the same thing!
1. Has God ever told you something that you rejected at first, and only later on recognized was true?
2. Have you ever had to do something you know God told you to do, while other people were convinced you were wrong? How did it work out in the end?