Acts 21:3-4

After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.

– Acts 21:3-4, New International Version


After making his farewell speech to the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17-35), Paul and his traveling group left Miletus by ship. Then, after several stops and a change of ships in Patara, they bypassed Cyprus and landed at Tyre in Phoenicia. The ship unloaded its cargo in Tyre.

During the dispersion of the saints from Jerusalem, some of the saints went to Phoenicia (Acts 11:19). The church in Tyre may have been founded by them. Also, Paul went through Phoenicia (Acts 15:3) on his way to the Jerusalem Council. Whoever founded the church, there were disciples in Tyre. The traveling group looked up the disciples and stayed in Tyre for seven days.

Through the Spirit

The disciples at Tyre “kept telling” Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem. Luke uses the imperfect tense. Thus, we know that the disciples repeatedly told Paul “through the Spirit” not to set foot in Jerusalem.” They apparently felt quite keenly that he should not go.

Earlier, when Paul met with the Ephesian elders, he described himself as being “bound in spirit” (or Spirit) to go to Jerusalem. Then, Paul said (Acts 20:23), “the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me.” So, Paul knew there would be difficulty in Jerusalem but he did not conclude that he should “not to set foot in Jerusalem.” On the contrary, he was determined to go.

The Problem

This urgings of the disciples seem to pose a problem. Many believe that pneumati in Acts 20:22 means Spirit. In my view, Paul was bound in his spirit, which was inspired by the Spirit, to go to Jerusalem. Despite this, the disciples “through the Spirit” urged him “not” to go. How can these seemingly conflicting statements be reconciled?

One solution is that Paul was bound in his spirit but not in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. In effect, Paul misunderstood God’s command. According to Gangel (p. 363), “Some who take that position claim that Luke shows us what can happen to a man of God misled by an urgent hunger to accomplish a goal God has not given him.” Under this view, Paul was mistaken, and he should have listened to the disciples. Because I hold that Paul’s spirit was under the influence of the Spirit, this view seems weak to me.

Another solution is that the disciples went beyond what the Spirit said. They understood through the Spirit that Paul faced great danger in Jerusalem. Because they loved Paul very much, they did not want him to go to Jerusalem. So, they took it upon themselves to urge him not to go. Under this view, the feelings of the disciples were mixed with the warning by the Spirit. The problem with this view is that Luke directly says that the disciples “kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.”

A variation of the second view is posed by Horton. According to him, the disciples warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem “in consequence of” the warnings of the Spirit about his bonds and imprisonment. Horton (p. 244) writes:

The word “through” (Greek, dia) is not the word used in previous passages for the direct agency of the Spirit. (See Acts 13:4, where the Greek is hupo, a word used for direct or primary agency). Here the Greek is better translated ‘in consequence of the Spirit,” that is, because of what the Spirit said. The Spirit himself definitely did not forbid Paul to go on.

With this understanding of the preposition dia, Horton believes that the disciples urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem because of their concern for him. It was not the Spirit Himself who said not to go. This view is possible, but it should be noted that Luke uses the phrase “dia the Holy Spirit” in Acts 4:25 where the Holy Spirit clearly is the direct agent in speaking through the mouth of David.

A Conditional Prohibition

Another solution is possible. Let us assume that Paul was influenced by the Spirit (Acts 20:22) to go to Jerusalem and that the Spirit spoke through the disciples in Tyre. Given these two points, Paul probably understands that the warning or prohibition was conditional, not absolute. We could paraphrase the prohibition in this way: “Do not go to Jerusalem unless you are willing to endure the dangers and consequences that await you.” Obviously, Paul knew the disciples did not want him to go. However, he not only was willing, but he also believed it was God’s will for him to go.

This view is confirmed when we look ahead. The disciples in Caesarea had been begging Paul not to go to Jerusalem. He remained determined to go. He said he was willing to be bound and even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus. Then, Luke said (Acts 21:14), “And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, ‘The will of the Lord be done!'”


Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.
Fernando, Ajith. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Gangel, Kenneth O. Acts: Holman New Testament Commentary. General Editor: Anders, Max. Nashville: Holman Reference, 1998.
Horton, Stanley M. The Book of Acts. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1981.

© Copyright 2003. GMF.

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