Was Paul the Apostle Right or Wrong in Going to Jerusalem, or Is It Even Relevant?
Updated: Apr 21
Does the Bible tell us whether it was or wasn’t God’s will for Paul to go to Jerusalem? I believe it does and I believe it does so actually quite clearly. Is it irrelevant because somehow Paul was still doing God’s will, even though we know God is not the author of confusion? I don’t think so. That’s definitely not true. That would be like saying that God’s will is irrelevant. God gave us His Word, which is perspicuous (Pr 8:8-9), so we can understand it, which comes through the Spirit of God, the Teacher of absolute truth who indwells the saved (2 Jn 1:2).
The Book of Acts, the Acts of the apostles both good and bad, presents the clear truth that it wasn’t God’s will for Paul to be in Jerusalem. I believe it is relevant since it is found in God’s Word and we can learn from it.
The erroneous teaching that it was okay for Paul to go, which inevitably leads to further errors in places like Acts 21, is mainly derived from commentaries. There is nothing wrong with reading good Biblically sound books outside of the Bible, but vast majority of commentaries are unsound and one of the pitfalls of relying on them for sermons is multi-conflicting interpretations and then building false doctrine or false interpretation from there. Majority of the most widely-used (incl. Matthew Henry) contain distortion of Scripture and false interpretation by approaching prophetic scripture (which is 2/3 of the Bible) from an amillennial and allegorical perspective, that is, spiritualizing scripture. This is heretical however and corrupts 2/3 of the Bible.
I momentarily digress. Why would someone use commentaries to preach? Does God lead a pastor to prepare sermons that are primarily based upon other mens writings, some of which is contrary to His Word, instead of mining the treasure fields of God’s Word? Is the Holy Spirit not teaching and leading them by Scripture? The Bible is very clear on the importance for the pastor and preacher likewise to be taught by the Holy Spirit (1 Jn 2:20-21, 27), so as to teach “sound doctrine” and allow “no other doctrine” (Ti 2:1; 1 Tim 1:3). This is a very critical issue and one of the reasons why so much error is being preached from pulpits today.
Preaching must always be judged by its absolute faithfulness to the text. People think that God works in a way that circumvents the Bible. He doesn’t. Scripture has one meaning, one interpretation. When the preacher is done, we should know what God said. That is God's Word—what God said. The meaning of the text is a basic, a fundamental, in that. We shouldn’t “be carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph 4:14).
Where am I heading with this? The Bible specifically tells us it was against God’s will for Paul to go to Jerusalem. The Bible actually says that. We should believe it. The repercussions proved that further. Consider some Biblical evidence for it.
1. God had witnessed to Paul on multiple occasions that he shouldn’t go to Jerusalem.
This is the clearest and really the only proof required. During his journey, in Ac 20:22-23, Paul tells the Ephesian elders “that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me” in Jerusalem. In every city. Over and over God the Spirit was telling Paul the consequence of continuing but he wouldn’t listen. He allegedly wanted to go and die there and nothing could stop him (Ac 20:22-24; 21:13).
As he journeys closer to Jerusalem, there were disciples in Tyre “who said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.” (Ac 21:4). Thats pretty plain. God the Spirit was telling Paul not to go. How then can someone interpret this as saying it wasn’t against God’s will for Paul to go there? Is “the Spirit” not God?
But Paul didn’t listen, he departed and went on his way (Ac 21:5), set to keep the passover in Jerusalem. God’s grace extends even further, and He actually sends a prophet to Caesura all the way from Judaea to warn him on his last stop prior to arriving in Jerusalem (Ac 21:10-11), along with Luke and others including those of that place joining the invocation and beseeching (Ac 21:12) but Paul couldn’t be persuaded (Ac 21:14).
God said no but Paul said go.
The truth of this matter is, God repeatedly warned Him during the entire journey, and then as if that wasn’t enough, God graciously warns him one last time while Paul is in the temple during his purification, which account he recites in his testimony in Acts 22: “And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance; And saw him saying unto me, Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me. . . . And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.” (vv 17-21).
The Holy Spirit worked through the disciples, then prophets and then God Himself, to warn Paul not to go.
2. Paul was “appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentile,” not of the Jews (2 Tim 1:11; 1 Tim 2:7) — as free and not in chains.
Understandably, he greatly loved his brethren according to the flesh (the Jews), even willing to go to hell for them (Rom 9:3), but does that love bypass God’s will? No. It was actually because of his zealous desire to keep the feasts at Jerusalem, that compelled him to go. This yearning had gone on for some time, with an attempt made some years prior with an unfulfilled vow for it (Ac 18:18-21), which likewise was his motive in this case, aiming “to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost” (Ac 20:16), even avoiding visiting certain cities to expedite, and keep the journey on schedule, even constraining the Ephesian elders to come to him (Ac 20:16-17).
God tried to stop Paul’s journey, multiple times in fact, because it wasn’t His will, and soon Paul would reap the consequences of not obeying His very clear and expressed will. I would add here, God does work everything out for good to them that love Him (Rom 8:28) but disobedience frequently comes at a cost. Our Lord is very gracious and forbearing even when we do wrong and that is clearly demonstrated in Paul (read Ac 23:11) even though he disobeyed Him. Sadly Paul would spend the remainder of his life in prison, including years in Caesarea (Ac 24:27) where God had last warned him (Ac 21:8-14).
3. A further reason we know it wasn’t God’s will was because Paul had lost his great and almost unmatched boldness and bravery.
Paul’s boldness and bravery as good soldier of Jesus Christ was frequently demonstrated in the times prior to this, for instance: Ac 9:29; 13:8-11; 15:2, 7; 17:17; 19:8-9; 2 Cor 7:4. This is possible become of being filled with the Holy Spirit, meaning to be fully yielded to Him (Ac 4:29-21; Eph 3:12).
But certain things occurred at Jerusalem which potentially reflect a lack of boldness and bravery on Pauls part. Consider some of these:
(a) Firstly, he doesn’t refute the serious salvation error taught by James in Ac 21:21 and rather agrees with James’ demands, even though it completely contradicted what he had written in Galatians, and then exercises repentance by the vow over something he should’ve never repented over (Ac 21:21-27). Paul greatly compromised in complying with James error, to gratify the lost law-bound Jews. He agreed to something contrary to what he had preached in the Gentile nations, something he’d even fought against years earlier with Jews from this area that had brought this very same false teaching to the church at Antioch (Ac 15:1-2). His response now is very different. Compare Acts 15:1-2 and 21:21-26. Paul wouldn’t listen to the Holy Spirit telling him not to go to Jerusalem but now listens to a man who is telling him the opposite of what the Holy Spirit had always taught him. As invariably the case with compromise, in spite of giving agreement to something that contradicts the true gospel and what he knew was true and what he had always taught and fought against, all in opposition to his conscience, he would still go on to pay the price that these unBiblical men sought (Ac 21:26-31).
I digress momentarily again, concerning James teaching in Acts 21. Some claim that it was good and not contrary to Scripture Paul,/ consent to James. This is far from being true. James is tolerating a cursed works-gospel (Gal 1:6-9) and Paul is assenting. These so called “thousands of Jews . . . which believe” according to James (Ac 21:20), that were “zealous of the law” and hadn’t forsaken the law of Moses (referring to keeping the ceremonial laws, “walking after the customs” and circumcision of their children — Ac 21:21), were not true believers (Gal 5:2-3). They were embracing the same false gospel entertained for years in this church (read Ac 15:1, 5).
Paul speaks to this in Gal 5:2-3, “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.” The Jews were putting the law into justification (Ac 21:20-21) just like they had for centuries. These were “justified by the law” and Christ was of no effect unto them; for they were not under grace (Gal 5:4). Ceremonies under the law were not necessary anymore after they were fulfilled by the perfect Lamb of God which took away the sins of the world (Jn 1). Jews that were truly saved, just like Paul and the other Apostles (they were all Jews), are not zealous of the law anymore (Rom 2:28-29; Gal 1-5) and Paul of all people was a Pharisee of the Pharisees! If zealousness of the law was required or praised, undoubtedly we would have seen that in Paul. But he refutes that in Phil 3, counting it as dung. Well he doesn’t count it as dung anymore in this situation ok Acts 21.
So here at the church in Jerusalem, they were teaching the Gentiles were free from the Mosaic law but the Jewish converts were required to keep the law (Ac 15; 21:20-21). What these law-keeping Jews were essentially doing was denying that the Messiah’s death fulfilled the law and that His perfect bloody sacrifice was sufficient. They were denying Christ’s words: “it is finished.” (Jn 19:30). It was contrary to what Peter had concluded in Ac 15:7-11 and contrary to what Paul had written to the Galatians (Gal 2:16-21; 3:1-25). No person was bound to the law anymore but they do “establish the law.” (Rom 3:31). There is a big difference there. The saved fulfill “the righteousness of the law” (Rom 8:4) but that isn’t referring to the ceremonial laws which were taken away (Heb 7).
The law itself has no more power over the true believer since the believers condemnation by the law (Rom 3; Gal 3) was put on Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:28-29). Ironically, the epistle to the Galatians was specifically written to combat the Jewish false teachers and their teachings infiltrating the churches at Galatia (e.g. Antioch—Gal 2:11-14).
The Jews were attempting to put Paul back under bondage, and of such he had consistency and boldly denounced as “false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.” (Gal 2:4-5). What they had now pressured Paul to concede to, was what he had preached against his entire post-conversion life. E.g. “And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased.” (Gal 5:11).
Sadly, boldness usurped by compromise, Paul consents.
Paul had unfailingly preached that circumcision availeth nothing (Rom 2:28-29; 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; 6:15; Col 3:11) and keeping the law availeth nothing (Rom 4; Gal 3). They cannot add one iota to salvation. If someone claims these were true believers and there was nothing wrong with what they were embracing and what Paul agreed to, he is not speaking the truth. He is corrupting the Scriptures and the gospel. He is ignoring the very words being used here and coming up with a conclusion contrary to the plain truth of Scripture. These Jews didn’t embrace the true gospel without works. Their faith was spurious. They didn’t rest upon Christ’s righteousness but their own (Rom 10:1-8).
Many professing “believers” in the Bible were not. Jn 2:23 says many Jews believed, but Jesus says they were unsaved (Jn 2:24-25). Jn 6 speaks of the many Jewish disciples that followed Christ (obviously professing believers), but they there lost (vv 2, 60-66). Jn 8:30-31 same thing, “many believed on him” but the “many” were actually lost (Jn 8:32-59). Simon the sorcerer, a deceptive power seeker, “believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip,” (Ac 8:13) but he was a false power-seeking wolf in sheep’s clothing, an unrepentant wicked sinner who attempted to buy the Holy Spirit (Ac 8:18-24). Just because someone “believes” doesn’t mean they are saved (Jam 2:14-26; Ti 1:16; 2 Tim 3:5-9; etc).
It is a very serious error to confirm false believers trusting in a works-salvation as being true, to give them that false assurance; all in support of the error that James and Paul were okay in Acts 21. The Bible surely doesn’t do that (Rom 3:19-28; 4:1-5; Ti 3:5; Gal 2:16-21; 3:1-25; Eph 2:1-9). Tolerating a false gospel of law justification because of where they come from, their thousands of years of ancestry, is heretical at best, yet it is heard from pulpits, even personally heard preached by the pastor of a church we recently attended in Northern Alberta. This pastor because of his refusal to believe what the Bible says about God not wanting Paul to journey to Jerusalem, had to change what Acts 21 is clearly teaching and give credence to supposed believers still embracing false teachings because of where they came from. The Bible was running on contradiction to what he wanted it to say. So he had to give justification as to why these Jews were still following after and enforcing Mosaic law traditions. I would ask, what about the Moslem, or the Buddhist, or the Hindu — is it also okay if they continue following their false gods after their supposed profession of faith? What this actually does is completely deny true salvation in what it is, what it does and what it continues to do. It also denies “the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power,” (Eph 1:19).
Although there were many false teachers among the Pharisees and Sadducees, leaders, etc, a Jew (or anyone else for that matter) that embraced the truth, knew the truth and loved the truth (all of which describe the true believer, for without these things you cannot be saved: 2 Th 2:10-12) thus being genuinely regenerated will never embrace the law again as a medium for salvation (Rom 3:19-31). Not one truly converted Jew in the Bible did that. They didn’t even do that in the OT! It’s “another gospel” (2 Col 11:4). Heresies and apostasies and idols, etc, from ones past are turned from for salvation, part of what it means to repent. The saint has a new nature in completion, not a new one added to the old (2 Cor 5:17; Mk 2:17-22; Eph 2:1-5). Old things are passed away. All things have become new.
(b) Secondly, whereas he boldly once wanted to go and die in Jerusalem, unafraid, repeated multiple times to different audiences (e.g. Ac 20:22-24; 21:13)—and we certainly do not doubt Pauls’s sincerity in the matter at all—was Paul truly ready and not afraid to die when the time came for it? Maybe he was, but we also note that thought actually escaping him when his life hung in the balance. Whereas he had never once before appealed to his Roman Citizenship over his Heavenly Citizenship, on this occasion it is reversed when Roman soldiers are about to examine him by scourging which is deadly (Ac 22:24-26). His response is much different than his previous encounters with Roman soldiers, such as in Philippi (Ac 16).
Back in Philippi, no one knew he was a Roman, until after he had been whipped, beaten, openly condemned, and cast into prison. It was only upon his discharge did he claim his Roman citizenship, not in the midst of persecution but in freedom and because of integrity; they had beaten innocent and un-condemned humans and now merely sought to cast them out of the city, privily, not openly (Ac 16:37).
Later when given the option of being judged before the Jews in Jerusalem, he once again used his Roman citizenship and appeals to Caesar in order to flee the persecution and guaranteed death that would await him in Jerusalem (Ac 25:8-11), which the Jews had already attempted once while he was a prisoner (Ac 23:12-21). He proclaimed in Ac 25:11, “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar." Had Paul been “an offender . . . or committed anything worthy of death" in all the times the Jews sought to kill him during his missionary journeys? No he hadn't but yet he was more often than not willing to die (Acts; 2 Cor 11:23-27), once even having possibly died. He never appealed to Caesar back then in all those near-death incidents, not even when he was whipped mercilessly in Philippi (Ac 16).
So Paul did not lay down his life or stand up for the truth as he normally always did (Ac 9:29; 15:1-2; 17:17; 19:8-9; Gal 2:11-15) because his boldness and bravery appeared to be weak, which means he wasn’t filled with the Spirit as per usual. Righteous boldness only comes through the Spirit of God (Ac 4:13, 29-31; 9:27-29; 13:46; 14:3; 19:8-9; 2 Cor 7:4; Eph 3:12; 6:19-20; Phil 1:14; 1 Th 2:2), which is the very same Spirit that Paul resisted in his desire to keep the feasts in Jerusalem (Ac 21:4, 10-14). God had called Paul unto the Gentiles, not the Jews. The Lord didn’t want him in Jerusalem, stated very plainly in Ac 22:17-21, “for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me.” Ac 22:22-23 then bears witness to that very fact.
4. Concluding questions and remarks on Paul’s journey to Jerusalem.
(a) So was it wrong for Paul to go to Jerusalem? Yes it was and only because it wasn’t God’s will for Him to be there. To whom had the Lord sent Paul? The Jews or the Gentiles? He went directly against God’s will, when He said not to go. Was it sin? Not a sin of commission, for there was nothing sinful in his motivations, but a sin of omission; which is failing to do something God has commanded (Rom 14:23; Jam 4:17). For the true believer, both are equally sinful. Additionally, the fact Paul never went against what James was telling him to do but rather agreed with it, nor reproving the false gospel as he would’ve previously (Ac 15), was also sinful because it disobeys Scripture and contradicts the gospel, some of which was penned by Pauls very own hand. Ironically, what Paul agreed to in Acts 21 is very similar to what he had reproved Peter over in Gal 2:11-14.
(b) Did God know what would happen in Jerusalem? Of course! Nothing catches Him by surprise. The very fact that God knew, is why He didn’t want Paul to go (Ac 21:4, 10-14). Paul disobeying God’s will in going to Jerusalem is NOT irrelevant. That would be equivocal to saying that doing God’s will is irrelevant. Yes God can turn a bad situation into good, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to disobey God’s will. He can use whatever and whoever for His own purposes, but does this then give license to disobey His will? Thats a ridiculous concept contrary to scripture. Saints do God’s will because they love Him: De 13:3-4; 1 Sam 15:22-23; Eph 2:10; 1 Jn 2:3-6; 3:24; 5:1-3; 2 Jn 1:5-6; Rev 22:14-15; etc. Paul loved God and he loved his own people, but a steadfast desire to do something that wasn’t in itself sin, changed the course of Pauls life.
Listen to what Jesus says about this philosophy of doing our own will in opposition to God’s: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:19). Saying God’s will is irrelevant is worst than “breaking one of these least commandments”! Not listening to the Spirit resulted in Paul losing his earthly freedom entirely. He was a prisoner until he died at the hands of Rome. God sent Paul to the Gentiles, which he had been doing, and to Rome (Ac 19:21), as it so occurred, but it wasn’t God’s will for him to go in chains (Ac 21:4, 11), as the Lord declared plainly to Paul (Ac 22:17-22).
(c) Is it irrelevant because it is wrong to judge Paul (and James) on this matter? Is that true? It’s not. It is a straw man. Paul himself commanded and commended the saved (the wise) in judging him. In 1 Cor 10:15 he said, “I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.” Thats what I’m doing here. Paul loved his teachings judged. In Ac 17:11, he said those in Berea “were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” That means they searched the scriptures to test whether what Paul was saying was true. Judging. Testing. Discerning. Proving. Paul said the saved will judge all things (1 Cor 2:15; 10:15). He also repeatedly beseeched believers to follow his words and ways (1 Cor 4:16-17; 11:1; Phil 3:17), and I am certain that Paul would not have someone follow him if what he was doing was wrong but rather be reproved.
5. Rejecting the plain truths of Scripture for something else.
So there is enough evidence to say that it was wrong for Paul to be in Jerusalem, some of which is very plain, but some people reject the plain truths of scripture for something else. Twisting and manipulating scripture or ignoring what the texts say and then creating logical fallacies does not actually booster any claims that it was Gods will for Paul to go, as I have heard by a pastor close to home where we attended. We don’t privately interpret Scripture, nor do we falsely divide God’s Word, which is both unwise and shameful, for no scripture is of any private interpretation (2 Tim 2:15; 2 Pet 1:21). God takes this very serious and equates wilful false interpretation of Scripture with that of false teachers (2 Pet 1:16-2:22; 3:16-17; 1 Jn 2:20-21, 27; Rom 16:17-18).
Sound doctrine is to be the teaching and preaching of the ministers of God, and nothing less to be expected (Ti 1:9-16; 2:1). Doctrinal error plants destructive seeds of false doctrine and must always be dealt with and can never be left unchecked or unexposed. It must never be ignored or tolerated or swept under the rug. Unsound doctrine must be dealt with speedily (Rom 16:17; Gal 5:9; 1 Tim 6:3-5; 2 Tim 4:2-4; 2 Jn 1:9-11; etc). Scripture is clear that no lie must be left unexposed. It would be unloving to God to not stand up and contend for and defend His truth. And that truth is found absolutely everywhere in Scripture.
With that all said, I love the apostle Paul. He is the greatest missionary that ever lived in my estimation, besides, of course, Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour Himself. And if this is the only mistake that he made that we read of post-conversion, then he is a giant above me and I am utterly ashamed. At the end of his life, Paul could say,
“For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (2 Tim 4:6-8).
I would amen that!