Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Facts and Conjectures

The facts are these: about 57 A.D., give or take, the apostle Paul traveled to Jerusalem, where he was arrested something less than seven days after his arrival. Initially at least, he was (falsely or mistakenly) accused by the Jewish religious authorities of profaning the temple. Later he was also accused of disturbing the peace, a charge more likely to be taken seriously by the Romans than any merely religious disagreement between members of a subject people group. His Roman custodians took him first to Caesarea and finally to Rome when he made an appeal to have his case heard by Caesar himself. He was imprisoned there for approximately two years.

Contrary to what I thought as a teen and young adult, Paul did not die in Rome. Not that time at least. I had my chronology muddled for years. In any case, even if martyrdom was not the result, we can reasonably conclude these four-plus years in Roman custody were not exactly fun and games.

And they were entirely voluntary.

In any case, these are the facts, assuming you believe Luke. I do. As with many historical matters recorded in the word of God, the Holy Spirit has not elected to weigh in on the subject. Luke does not offer editorial commentary to enlighten us as to whether Paul’s actions in going to Jerusalem were in any way a model to be followed by later Christian missionaries. It would not be wise to assert dogmatically what the Spirit of God does not, so I will refrain from offering a hard and fast opinion. All the same, we are certainly free to observe a few things about these events that may shed light on the way God deals with his servants, and therefore, very possibly, with us too.

Nobody Made Paul Go to Jerusalem

Paul was not under orders. We read that while in Ephesus, Paul “resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’ ” It is not certain whether he originally anticipated going to Rome in chains, but it’s also not unlikely he considered the possibility. Certainty came later.

The words “resolved in the Spirit” may just as legitimately be translated “resolved in spirit”, says Ellicott. Barnes renders the phrase “resolved in his mind.”

William Kelly says this:
“It is not correct to interpret ‘in the spirit’ here of the Holy Ghost. No more is meant than that the apostle purposed it ‘in his spirit’; a frequent phrase of his, not only in this Book but elsewhere.”
I tend to think Kelly is correct. Again, in Acts 20, when Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit,” this may legitimately be read “bound in spirit”. Again, Kelly, Ellicott and others agree. But even if one is convinced it is the Holy Spirit of God being referred to on both occasions, it remains true that Paul “resolved”. His human intellect and will were engaged. And he felt compelled to go to Jerusalem with every fibre of his being.

Constrained in Spirit

The Jews were Paul’s particular burden. We know the apostle was passionately concerned for their spiritual state and longed to see them come to know Christ not just in small numbers here and there across the Gentile world, but to benefit nationally from the gospel. His words in Romans bear this out:
“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
In any case, if the Holy Spirit had a preference about Paul’s decision it was not obvious to all, as it was in Acts 16 when Paul and Timothy “attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” When God is determined to make his will known, he leaves his servants in no doubt.

This does not necessarily mean that Paul was acting unspiritually; it simply means that with respect to this particular travel plan, the apostle was not operating under a specific set of marching orders. Nobody made him go. His own heart did.

The Holy Spirit Warned Paul What Would Happen if He Went

“Every matter must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses,” Paul once wrote to the church in Corinth. With respect to going up to Jerusalem, Paul certainly had fair warning of what would surely transpire, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. He had his three witnesses, and then some.

In Caesarea, the Holy Spirit testified through the prophet Agabus that Paul would be bound hand and foot and delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. It was not the first time. Earlier, the apostle conceded that “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.”

So not only was Paul not forced to go to Jerusalem, but he was also warned repeatedly about what would happen if he did.

In or Outside the Will of God

How are we to think about all this exactly? At one extreme, we could argue that Paul was acting outside the will of God, and that the warnings he received were designed to deter him from going to Jerusalem at that time. At the other end, we could reject the opinions of the expositors and argue that Paul was acting so completely under the direction of the Holy Spirit that he had no choice in the matter. I am not comfortable with either hypothesis.

What if, at least insofar as God’s will was concerned, Paul was perfectly free to go or not to go, according to the dictates of his conscience and the intensity of his desire to be of benefit to his fellow Jews? I don’t think this is a crazy idea at all, and it seems to me consistent with the picture of God I have from my own experience and from my reading of scripture: one in which a loving Father works together with his servants to produce the results that please him, but he works according to their own personalities, desires, gifts, dispositions and even personal quirks.

Paul speaks of “working together with him.” I don’t believe this is an idle statement. Jesus told his own disciples in the upper room:
“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
Surely this applied to Paul as well, though he was not present at the time. Dare I say it, it may even apply to you and me.

I Have Known Him …

After all, it is in the nature of God, going right back to his earliest dealings with men, to share everything he can about what he is doing with those who seek to please him. Of Abraham he said:
Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him …”
The question is rhetorical, the answer is no, and the word “chosen” is also legitimately translated “known”, as in “I have known him. He is my friend.” This is what James tells us. Thinking, perhaps, of a passage in Isaiah, he says Abraham was called a “friend of God”.

The picture that we find of our God in the pages of his word is not that of a tyrant on a throne issuing orders to disposable minions. Oh, God is indeed sovereign, and if he chooses to give us direction without explaining himself, as sometimes occurs in scripture, we ought to be delighted merely to be of service, whether or not we understand why we are doing this, that or the other. But where there is a cost attached, he often shows himself remarkably gracious about spelling this out in advance.

He did this for Peter, didn’t he: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” John adds parenthetically, “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God,” and then the words (to Peter), “Follow me.” Jesus left the choice wholly in Peter’s hands. Peter could easily have taken it as his cue to high-tail it in the opposite direction. But he didn’t.

So the idea that Paul was perfectly free to go or not to go to Jerusalem is not outside of the established character of God in dealing with his beloved children, nor is it outside of the character of the Lord Jesus himself as established in the gospels.

A Tentative Suggestion or Three

But it does leave us with one minor logical problem: Why the warnings?

Well, Luke doesn’t say. Paul didn’t say. We can’t say for sure. But here are a few possibilities:

On one level, the warnings were for Paul. The Lord wanted to be very sure his servant knew exactly what he was getting into. There were to be no surprises. “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” God told Ananias. Perhaps that means experientially; that Paul would find out precisely how bad things could get as he went along in his service for Christ. Could be. But perhaps a gracious God might keep his trusted servant informed all along the way. We cannot rule that out.

On a second level, I suspect the warnings were for the people of God. Paul’s conversation with the Ephesian elders makes two things very clear: (1) he knew in general what was coming (though not every detail), and (2) he was going to Jerusalem anyway, no matter what. Had this not been spelled out for the Christians Paul left behind him in every city for almost five years of imprisonment, imagine the confusion that might have resulted. They may have assumed that Paul’s suffering was an indication he was not truly an apostle of Christ, and that the things he had taught them were therefore false. But the fact that the Holy Spirit had testified in advance about what would happen was surely greatly confirming to the faith of those who had believed through Paul. They knew that what was happening to him, however scary, was both anticipated and voluntary.

On a third level, maybe the whole story is for us, as many stories in scripture are. Perhaps it serves as a reminder of the unsurpassed love of God for his children, of his care for us, and of his determination to use us not against our wills, but in full, harmonious, willing, grateful participation with him, even when the particular circumstances we encounter may turn out to be very ugly indeed.

I can’t say for sure, but I think that it may be something like that.

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