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).

4 Views

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).

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Duane Garrett on the Nature of Biblical Prophecy

The following is from an excursus entitled “The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15” by Duane Garrett. He makes some helpful observations that are too often overlooked in much contemporary discussion regarding Biblical prophecy.

To put it more pointedly, did Hosea suppose that this verse looked ahead to the Messiah? It is, of course, difficult if not impossible to show that Hosea intended readers to discern from this passage that the Messiah would come out of Egypt. This question, however, is the wrong question to ask of Hos 11:1. The real issue is not, Did Hosea intend this verse to be read messianically? but What did Hosea understand to be the nature of prophecy? In answer to this question, we must assert that Hosea, like all biblical prophets, saw prophecy not so much as the making of specific, individual predictions (which are actually quite rare among the writing prophets), but as the application of the Word of God to historical situations. In doing this the prophets brought to light certain patterns that occur repeatedly in the relationship between God and his people [typologies]. These patterns or themes have repeated fulfillments or manifestations until the arrival of the final, absolute fulfillment. Thus, for example, the conquest of the land “fulfilled” the promises to the patriarchs but did not fulfill those promises finally or in their ultimate form. The inheritance of the “new earth” is the ultimate conclusion of this prophetic theme. All of the prophets were, to some degree, “like Moses” (Deut 18:5), but the ultimate prophet like Moses can only be the Messiah. Each of the kings of the line of David was a fulfillment of the promise that God would build him a “house” (2 Sam 7), but the Messiah is again the final fulfillment of this theme. Thus prophecy gives us not so much specific predictions but types or patterns by which God works in the world. We need look no further than Hosea 11 to understand that Hosea, too, believed that God followed patterns in working with his people. Here the slavery in Egypt is the pattern for a second period of enslavement in an alien land (v. 5), and the exodus from Egypt is the type for a new exodus (vv. 10–11).

Duane A. Garrett. Hosea, Joel. The New American Commentary. Vol. 19A. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997, 221-22.

We often think of Biblical prophecy as essentially predictions of the future. But is that accurate? It would be better to understand most of Biblical prophecy as actually the application of the past to the present and future. We might think of it like this–God’s past acts serve as models, paradigms, or types for His future dealings.