What’s going on in Acts 21:4? Is the Spirit giving conflicting revelation?

The Issue

There seems to be a contradiction between what these individuals are telling Paul “through the Spirit” and what Paul felt constrained to do by the Spirit (20:22-23).


1. Paul is disobedient to the Spirit.

The Spirit is telling Paul not to go, and he is simply being stubborn, disobedient, and determined to go to Jerusalem regardless.

  • However, the language in ch.20 is that the Spirit is constraining him to go (vv.22-23).
  • Paul’s attitude is not one of rebellion, but utter submission (v.24).
  • Furthermore, the rest of the book (chs. 21-28) outlines Paul’s path from Jerusalem to Rome as something positive and fitting the very programmatic design of 1:8.

2. “Soft prophecy.”

We have a case here of what might be called “soft prophecy,” i.e., it comes from the Spirit’s influence generally speaking, but is open to error and misconstrual. Therefore, what the disciples here are telling Paul to do in 21:4, as well as 21:10ff, is generally but not perfectly accurate (Wayne Grudem’s view, popular among many continuationists and charismatics).

  • It is troubling to surmise that prophetic revelation is not reliable or entirely accurate, or that God would fail to convey this information without it being intercepted by human fallibility. If it is true that prophecy can error, what does this mean for our ability to trust other prophecy / the Bible as a whole?
  • It is odd to expect a qualitative difference between OT prophecy (proper) and NT “soft” prophecy, especially in terms of it moving from infallible (better) to fallible (worse), especially when everything else about the New Covenant is better. Unless given really good reason, we should assume both forms of prophecy to be the same. And if there is a reasonable way to understand this passage along those lines (i.e., prophecy remains the same) that is to be preferred.
  • Many appeal to Agabus’ prophecy in 2:10ff as an example of such “soft” potentially somewhat erroneous prophecy, since Agabus predicts that the Jews will bind Paul when in fact it ends of being the Romans. However, this is surely to press the details too far. This is not how prophecy works elsewhere (consider Acts 2:36 where Peter accuses his Jewish hearers of killing Jesus, although it was in fact the Romans who in fact carried out the execution).  So here, although the Romans in fact arrest Paul, the Jewish crowds certainly play a role in his arrest (ch. 21).

3. It was a matter of timing.

Paul was constrained by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem in 20:22-23. However, for whatever reason the Spirit gave revelation to these disciples in 21:4 that Paul was not longer to go (or at least not now). And then at some point it became clear that he was then free to go again, at which point he began his journey again. There wasn’t a conflict or contradiction in what the Spirit was telling Paul or the believers. It was simply a matter of timing — at one point the Spirit gave Paul the green light; but at another time the Spirit told him not to, only to release him to go again sometime later (Dan Allen’s view).

  • This view has the advantage of being able to take “through the Spirit” very literally. There was nothing inaccurate about the messages from the Spirit.
  • A strength of this view is that it does not have to weaken the idea of prophecy to something less than totally reliable. What was revealed “through the Spirit” was totally accurate.
  • One might wonder why the Spirit would suddenly have Paul not go to Jerusalem for a season (21:4). Theories or suggestions can be made. The passage doesn’t say.
  • According to this view, why would Paul rebuke the disciples in 21:12-13 if he had listened to a comparable instruction in 21:4? Answer according to this view: In 21:4, the instruction not to go was from the Spirit. Here in 21:12, this comparable instruction is from the disciples though, not the Spirit. The Spirit, through Agabus simply says Paul will be bound when he goes to Jerusalem. The disciples then (incorrectly) infer from this that Paul therefore should not go.
  • A potential weakness of this view is that it gets rid of what might otherwise be seen to be an attractive unity throughout the passage of (a) Paul’s determination to go despite (b) repeated urging by believers for him not to go lest he get arrested. According to this view, in other words, what is happening in 21:4 is a bit different than what’s happening in 21:10ff. Some, however, maintain that these accounts are most naturally to be read together as repeating generally the same pattern and occurrence.

4. The Spirit spoke accurately & the people misapplied.

The Spirit accurately and infallibly revealed (“through the Spirit” – 21:4) that the Paul would be imprisoned when/if he went to Jerusalem. The believers, however, inaccurately inferred from this that Paul should not go. And in that sense they spoke “through the Spirit,” that is, they made a fallible human inference from this data and supplied Paul with an inappropriate conclusion and instruction based on what the Spirit had nonetheless infallibly and reliable revealed.

  • This view is by and large the consensus among commentators (see below).
  • A strength of this view is that it does not have to weaken the idea of prophecy to something less than reliable. What was revealed “through the Spirit” was totally accurate.
  • This view also maintains the seeming unity of the section where Paul is repeatedly determined to go notwithstanding believers urging him not to. In other words, what occurs in 21:4 is essentially the same as what occurs in 21:10ff. A nice pattern emerges.
  • A weakness of this view is that it requires reading between the lines a bit with respect to the meaning of “through the Spirit” (21:4). This view sees what occurs in 21:10ff as a grid for understanding what transpired in 21:4. There the Spirit informs Agabus that if/when Paul goes to Jerusalem, he will be bound. But the additional content — that Paul therefore shouldn’t go — is what the people (falsely) infer from that. It is said that a similar thing happens in 21:4 — when the people “through the Spirit” urge Paul not to go, it is to be understood that this urging is the inference of the people to the Spirit’s revelation that Paul will be imprisoned. However, the passage says, “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem,” making it sound like the very message from the Spirit, not the people, was for Paul not to go. “Through the Spirit,” according to this view, has to mean something more loose, like “having received the Spirit’s revelation,” or “on account of the Spirit’s revelation,” etc.


F.F. Bruce (New International Commentary on the New Testament)

“Among those Christians were some who had the gift of prophecy; as they foresaw by its means that grave danger awaited Paul in Jerusalem, they warned him to abandon his plan of going on there. But Paul’s mind was already made up, and he was not to be diverted from his purpose by such predictions. Tyre was not the first place in which indications of this kind had been given him of what lay in store for him at Jerusalem (cf. 20:23). It should not be concluded that his determination to go on was disobedience to the guidance of the Spirit of God; it was under the constraint of that Spirit that he was bound for Jerusalem with such determination (19:21; 20:22). It was natural that his friends who by the prophetic spirit were able to foresee his tribulation and imprisonment should try to dissuade him from going on….”

David Peterson (Pillar New Testament Commentary)

“[This phrase] refers to a revelation by the Holy Spirit of the dangers that lay ahead for Paul. Some have seen this as a Spirit-directed urging not to go, in conflict with the revelation already given to Paul about the need to visit Jerusalem (cf. 19:21 note) and to suffer in the process (20:22–23). However, Luke does not treat this as a different message, requiring discernment by the church. In three successive scenes, the Spirit speaks about the dangers awaiting Paul in Jerusalem, and his resolve is strengthened on each occasion (20:22–24; 21:4, 10–14). In this, the briefest reference, it is best to conclude that the Spirit’s revelation was the same. The Lord’s will was consistently revealed, and progressively Paul was shown what this might entail. As his friends became aware of the implications, they were moved by a Spirit-given love for Paul to urge him not to go (cf. Gal. 5:22). The Spirit did not to prohibit Paul from going to Jerusalem through their urging but continued to warn him of the dangers.”

Darrell Bock (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)

“As the parallel warning in Caesarea shows in 21:11–15, the Spirit seems to have revealed what Paul would face, and the warning [i.e., the believer’s application of this revelation?] comes out of the resultant worry about Paul’s well-being, what [can be] called “an inference” [application?] from the message.”

John Polhill (The New American Commentary)

“This note has already been struck in Paul’s Miletus address, where he indicated to the Ephesian leaders that the Spirit had alerted him to the fact that imprisonment and hardships awaited him in Jerusalem (20:23). Still, the same Spirit was driving him to the city (20:22). // The seeming conflict in the Spirit’s directions is even more pronounced here with the note that the Tyrians under the influence of the Spirit urged Paul not to go. Obviously the Spirit would not be giving Paul two contradictory messages at the same time. The most likely solution is to see… The words of the Tyrians are best understood as part of Paul’s preparation for the difficult events in Jerusalem. The Spirit’s role is best seen as informing them of those coming hardships for the apostle. Their very natural reaction was to urge him not to go.”

Howard Marshall (Tyndale New Testament Commentary)

“The simplest solution is that the Christians at Tyre were led by the Spirit to foresee suffering for Paul at Jerusalem and therefore of their own accord they urged him not to go.”

Derek Thomas (Reformed Expository Commentary)

“The disciples at Caesarea came to this conclusion based on what they saw as a probable outcome if he did go there (Acts 21:4). … the brothers possessed the gift of prophecy to the extent that they could see what would happen to Paul if he went to Jerusalem and, therefore, they drew the conclusion that he should not go! They “saw” the same possible future if Paul should choose to go to Jerusalem, but concluded that this was not God’s will for the apostle.”

C.K. Barrett (International Critical Commentary)

“His words taken strictly would mean either that Paul was deliberately disobedient to the will of God or that the Spirit was mistaken in the guidance given. It is unthinkable that Luke intended either of these. It is probable that what he meant but failed adequately to express was something like what is written in vv. 10–14. The Spirit acting through prophets foretold that the journey to Jerusalem would bring Paul suffering, and his friends acting under the influence not of the Spirit but of human concern sought to dissuade him from going there.”

Hans Conzelmann (Hermeneia)

“‘Through the Spirit’ does not imply that Paul is now commanded not to go to Jerusalem. The warning arises from the concern of those to whom the Spirit unveils the future.”

Mikeal Parsons (Paideia)

“This is their first warning not to go to Jerusalem, probably because they, like Paul, knew that suffering and persecution were awaiting him there (cf. 20:23).”

R. C. H. Lenski

“These disciples understood the Spirit’s word as a warning which they should transmit to Paul. Paul did not consider the Spirit’s word as a warning, for the Spirit never forbade him to go to Jerusalem; these revelations only forewarned and prepared him to be ready for what awaited him.”

John Calvin

“Here ariseth a question, how the brethren can dissuade him by the Spirit from doing that which Paul did testify he doth by the secret motion of the same Spirit? Is the Spirit contrary to himself, that he doth now loose Paul whom he held bound inwardly? I answer, that there be divers gifts of the Spirit; so that it is no marvel if those who excel in the gift of prophecy be sometimes destitute of judgment or strength. The Lord showed to these brethren, of whom Luke maketh mention, what should come to pass; yet, nevertheless, they know not what is expedient, and what Paul’s calling doth require, because the measure of their gift doth not reach so far. And the Lord would have his servant admonished of purpose, partly, that through long meditation, he might be better furnished and prepared to suffer whatsoever should come, partly that his constancy might more plainly appear, when as being certified by prophecies of the doleful event, he doth, notwithstanding, wittingly and willingly, make haste to endure whatsoever things shall befall him.”

3 thoughts on “What’s going on in Acts 21:4? Is the Spirit giving conflicting revelation?

  1. In my opinion view four doesn’t simply assume unity between the passages, it forces it 🙂 If Luke really meant for there to be a unity in the fashion of that view (i.e, both times the content of the Spirit was simply that Paul would be bound in Jerusalem, and the the people are the ones who made the call to therefore tell Paul not to go up in verse 4, then he could have easily said the content of the Spirit’s message the same way. But instead he seems to intentionally state things differently. The question is why.


  2. You could add to view #3:
    –the word translated as “constrained” (ESV) in 20:22 is the same word used throughout the next chapter usually translated as “bind” (21:11 (2x), 13, 33). This is important because of the imagery Paul is bringing up – he is bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem, meaning that he is under the full authority and mercy of the Spirit. This lends well to the idea that Paul understood that his timing (which was hurried in 20:16) is not what matters, and he must yield to the direction of the Spirit as to when Paul gets to Jerusalem.
    –this is something we see throughout Scripture, that God gives a promise or command, which from a human view point should be quick and seamless, but from God’s perspective is not as urgent. It may have seemed like a delay to Abraham when the promised child took 25 years to arrive, and a delay to the Israelites when they realized the route to the Promised Land was not direct. But to God the timing was as He planned.

    One other con for view #4:
    –the only other time the phrase “through the Spirit” is used in the book of Acts is in 11:28, and there is no confusion as to the content of the Spirit’s speaking. What was listed as the content as being through the Spirit in 11:28 was the actual content and it was clear. So views 1-3 hold this to be the case in 21:4.


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