Man’s Word or God’s Word?
On April 14, 1521 Martin Luther was on his way to the Diet of Worms. The emperor Charles the 5th had forbidden the sale of all the reformer’s books and ordered them to be seized.
Martin Luther’s life was in great danger. His devoted friend and confidant, George Spalatin, had sent word through a special messenger not to come to Worms lest he suffer the same fate as John Hus. Luther comforted his fearful friends, saying, “Though Hus was burned, the truth was not burned, and Christ still lives.” Then he sent Spalatin the now famous message, “I shall go to Worms, though there were as many devils as tiles on the roofs.”
On April 16 Luther entered Worms at the dinner hour, and 2,000 people were present to observe his entrance. On the following day at four o’clock Luther stood before “Charles, heir of a long line of Catholic sovereigns were there. He stood before all the mighty emperors when Most men of God would have been intimidated.
After an exchange between the Archbishop of Trier, Johann Eck, and Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, overwhelmed by the immensity of what he was doing, requested and received the night for prayer and consideration. We can be sure Luther really prayed that night.
On April 18 a larger hall was chosen but was so crowded that scarcely any save the emperor could sit down. Finally came this famous dialogue:
ECK: Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of the martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, defined by the Church in which all our fathers believed until death and gave to us as an inheritance, and which now we are forbidden by the pope and emperor to discuss lest there be no end of debate. I ask you, Martin—answer candidly and without horns—do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?
LUTHER: Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
It was the greatest moment in the modern history of the world! How did Martin Luther come to such heroics—standing alone before the world, risking his life for the sake of God’s truth? He knew God’s will.
He knew through the examination of God’s Word while a monk in Wittenberg and through his subsequent encounter with God on his knees in Pilate’s staircase in Rome that “The just shall live by faith.”
He knew that it was God’s will for him to go to Worms and declare the truth to the world regardless of the consequences. Furthermore, Martin Luther did God’s will, and this is what set him apart from ordinary men.
The Apostle Paul too was a man who knew and did God’s will, which in this instance was to go to Jerusalem and minister to the church there even though such service would bring him into bonds and afflictions.
Not everyone agrees on how to interpret . Some might title this section of Scripture “Paul’s Bravery,” while others call it “Paul’s Mistake,” arguing that Paul went against the Spirit’s direction when he went to Jerusalem.
Certainly Paul was human and made mistakes, but here I believe he is a great example for Christian believers today.
Some of us are wrestling with crucial or thorny decisions. We may wonder what God’s will for us is, or we may think we know God’s will but are not sure we can do it.
The story of Paul’s struggle offers us helpful insights in how not to be derailed in following God’s directions for us.
Paul had just experienced a tearful farewell with the Ephesian elders—tearful because tough times lay ahead for the apostle. “What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again” (20:38).
The Holy Spirit had told Paul that “prison and hardships” (20:23) were awaiting him in Jerusalem. It was a wrenching good-bye.
“After we had torn ourselves away from them…” (21:1)—this was a traumatic, emotional experience. And yet Paul did not proceed toward his difficult date with destiny reluctantly—he sprinted to meet it!
Like Luther, he gave God’s plan for him higher priority than anything or anyone else. Such joyful abandon to the divine will would go neither unchallenged nor unrewarded.
But I want you to notice a few things and I will be finished!
Pressure to Turn from God’s Will
Verses 1–3 describe Paul’s hurried journey.
After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Cos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. 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.
In summary, he endured a routine journey filled with time-consuming stops on the way to the port of Patara, then booked passage on a nonstop 400-mile voyage until he landed in the port of Tyre, Syria. Danger lay ahead, but he wanted to be home for Passover when he could have the biggest effect. Trusting God, he did not fear the consequences. Once in Tyre, Paul came under some unexpected pressure to alter his plans.
Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. After saying good-by to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home. (vv. 4–6)
Tyre was a major port, and the trans-Mediterranean merchant ship laid over for seven days delivering and receiving cargo. So Paul did the natural thing—he went looking for some Christian brothers and sisters—“disciples” to encourage. And when he found them, there was immediate bonding relationship.
The apostle and these new acquaintances all spoke the language of the heart and immediately became part of each other’s lives. We all have had this experience—hardly a word spoken, yet a spiritual oneness. “I’m so glad to be a part of the family of God.”
There was only one wrinkle: “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (v. 4b). Did Paul sin by resisting their repeated warnings? I think not. For one thing, Tyre was not the first place in which he had heard such predictions. He had heard them in “every city” (20:23).
Second, as Richard Longenecker and others point out, “through the Spirit” means that the Spirit told them that Paul would undergo suffering for Christ, a message that naturally gave the believers deep concern. The Spirit did not tell them to inform Paul he was not to go to Jerusalem. The Spirit predicted persecution against the apostle, and the people’s love for Paul caused them to beg him not to go.
This was rough on Paul! He was in Tyre for only seven days, and yet when he left, they “all,” along with “their wives and children,” escorted him out of the city and knelt with him on the beach for prayer (v. 5b)! They loved him! I would not be surprised if some of those prayers were a bit aggressive. “Lord, we thank you for bringing Paul to us. He has ministered to us mightily. We believe you want him to stay here a while longer. Keep him safe as he goes his own way. We all have our faults, Lord. Overrule the apostle’s wrong decision.”
Paul must have experienced a confusing emotional mix—already missing his new friends in Christ, but also relieved to get away from their negative messages. But that relief did not last long because he came under more pressure in Caesarea, as seen in verses 7–12.
We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ ” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.
After a day in Ptolemais, Paul arrived in Caesarea, the port city of Jerusalem. He could now enter Jerusalem anytime he wished but wanted to wait until Pentecost. Philip the evangelist, his gracious host, was the man who first took the gospel to Samaria and then baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. God had blessed him with four gifted daughters, who may have further prophesied of Paul’s difficult future.
Agabus now came along with all the drama of a pre-exilic seer. Ezekiel had foretold the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem by assaulting a model of the city (.), and Agabus foretold Paul’s imminent future by tying himself up with Paul’s belt. Agabus did not interpret the prophecy or say whether Paul should or should not go to the Holy City, but Paul’s friends did! “When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem” (v. 12). “We”—even Dr. Luke was pleading with Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
The pressure upon Paul must have been unbearable—months, perhaps years of vague prophecies about future persecution; the wrenching farewell to the Ephesian elders; the heart-tugging love in Tyre; Agabus’ dramatic prophecy; and now everyone, even trusted Luke, was begging Paul to turn back. The apostle finally cried out, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 13).
Paul acknowledged that they were tearing him apart, that what Satan and his forces could not do was happening through his brothers and sisters! But then, like the Lord himself who “resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem” (, nasb), the great apostle renewed his resolve and continued on God’s path for him, regardless of the potential cost! What a man of God!
Seeing the apostle’s determination, his friends acquiesced. By acquiesced I mean they concented.
When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” After this, we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples. (vv. 14–16)
“The will of the Lord be done” can be said either with frustration or with conviction. Paul’s friends undoubtedly meant both.
So ends the epic third missionary journey of Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, missionary general of the apostolic church. Refusing to compromise because of coming affliction, he was going to Jerusalem “though there were as many devils as tiles on the roofs.”
Why the Pressure?
Why did Paul encounter such pressure from his friends to go against what he knew to be the will of God? First, Paul’s acquaintances demonstrated the all-too-common inclination of being quick to know God’s will for someone else. We need to avoid making snap judgments or offering spiritual formulas. What matters is God’s will for us, not what others think we should do.
Second, the well-meaning believers were trying to make God’s will conform to their preconceptions. “If Paul goes to Jerusalem, he is going to suffer, and we will be deprived of his ministry. This cannot be God’s will.” This speaks powerfully to our American culture. As Herbert Hendin says, “It is no accident that at the present time the dominant trends in psychoanalysis are the rediscovery of narcissism. The society is marked by self-interest and ego-centrism that increasingly reduces all relations to the question, ‘What am I getting out of it?’ ” We see similar trends in the church. “God wants me to be happy. If I am not happy, I am not in his will.” “God does not want me to suffer pain. I am in pain. Therefore I am not in God’s will.”
Oswald Chambers expresses the proper approach perfectly:
To choose to suffer means that there is something wrong; to choose God’s will even if it means suffering is a very different thing. No healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.
We must not make our understanding of God’s guidance conditional on our own happiness or sense of completeness. We are not to preach because we enjoy it, but because it is God’s will. We should not serve as elders or deacons because it is always fun, but because God wants us to. We should not work with a special ed Sunday school class because it is fulfilling (though it is), but because God had led us to do so.
Third, in attempting to turn Paul away from Jerusalem, his friends demonstrated that their spiritual focus was more horizontal than vertical. Their love and loyalty were commendable—they wanted to preserve Paul. But their motives, though noble, were shortsighted. These Christians were not seeing God’s ultimate purposes. They were looking out for Paul’s good but not God’s.
To his credit, Paul survived all of this. How did he remain steadfast?
Withstanding the Pressure
Paul was victorious because he approached life the same way Christ did. In fact, his going to Jerusalem is remarkably parallel to Christ’s: the plots of the Jews, being handed over to the Gentiles, a triple prediction of coming suffering, his steadfast determination, a trusting surrender to God’s will.
Paul held firmly to God’s revealed will and did it! He had a longstanding inward constraint to go to Jerusalem and suffer if need be, a resolve that went all the way back to his conversion when Christ said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (9:16). Paul refused to be deterred from God’s revealed will.
Further, he was not a man-pleaser.
Am I not trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. ()
Paul would have loved Eric Liddell—the runner who placed spiritual conviction and loyalty to Christ above Olympic or national glory! Paul played to an audience of One.
Also, Paul trusted in God’s sovereignty. He believed God knew what he was doing when he sent him to sure persecution in Jerusalem. As Oswald Chambers said so powerfully in his classic devotional My Utmost for His Highest:
God plants His saints in the most useless places. We say, “I should be here because I am so useful.” Jesus never estimated His life by the standard of greatest use. God puts His people where they will glorify Him, and we are not capable of judging where that is.
Paul withstood the pressure and followed God’s will. May we all do the same!
A Final Word
Regarding knowing God’s will, certain classic explanations are very helpful. For example, the “Four Councils”—the councils of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, conscience, others—taken together, often reveal God’s will. A heart that is saved, Spirit-filled, sanctified, submitted to God can know God’s will. Augustine’s advice, rightly understood, is also pertinent: “Love God and do what you want.” Christians who really do want to know God’s will, will know it.
In seeking God’s will and doing it, a few practical reminders are in order.
Seek good advisers. Be discerning as you choose those from whom you will accept advice.
Spend time with God regularly. A certain young woman, trying to decide God’s will regarding a marriage proposal, took a week off work and vacationed with her Bible and her Lord. She was a wise woman.
Realize that God’s will may not be what you want. Many of us are like the little girl who wrote an honest thank-you note: “Thank you for your present. I have always wanted a pin cushion, but not very much.” This is humorous in children but sad in God’s children.
Finally, and most importantly, if we know what God wants us to do, we must do it. For most of us, the problem is not that of knowing God’s will but of obeying it. There were undoubtedly others in Luther’s day who knew God’s will, but what made him a great man who changed history is that he did it. If you know you should take an ethical stand with your associates, do it! If God wants you to admit you are wrong, do it as soon as possible. When God calls you to give, preach, do volunteer work with the infirmed, or go to the mission field, do not settle for merely knowing his will—do it, in his strength and for his glory!
The final words of Richard Baxter say it all: “Lord, what thou wilt, where thou wilt, and when thou wilt.”