Last night I asked our Bible study group to do the impossible. Well, at least the impossible from a perfect standpoint. I asked them to act as judge and determine whether the Apostle Paul was in or out of the will of God as he sought to go to Jerusalem against the exhortations of practically everyone and their grandmother. There are some judgments that are quite easy to make. For example, if I said that I needed some money to pay my bills and I decided that the best way to obtain the money was to rob a bank, you could very easily determine that I would be out of the will of God in so doing. But not all judgments are so easy, and consequently not ours to make.
Such was the case with the Apostle Paul. He was determined to go to Jerusalem for the purpose of providing an offering to the help with the needs created by a famine (Acts 24:17). This act, in and of itself, can certainly be in the will of God. But simply because an action is within God’s will does not mean that it is in the will of God for everyone. Paul could have sent the gifts by other trusted men and accomplished the same purpose.
Paul’s motivation for going to Jerusalem was also noble. According to Romans 10:1, Paul had a great love for the nation of Israel. A benefit of him personally bringing the offering to Jerusalem would be that the Jews who were constantly persecuting him would recognize that his preaching was not meant to harm them, but that he truly cared for them. But no matter how noble one’s intents may be, if the action is not within the will of God, the motivation will not sanctify it.
There are some indications that Paul’s desire to go to Jerusalem was generated by the Holy Spirit. According to Acts 19:21, Paul, “purposed in the spirit” to go to Jerusalem. The KJV has the word “spirit” with a lower case “s” indicating it was Paul’s spirit and not the Holy Spirit who prompted the thought. However, the original Greek did not use upper and lower case letters and the use of the lower case s was simply a determination of the translators. It may very well be that the translators were wrong and the s should have been capitalized. This may be corroborated by Paul’s statement to Felix in Acts 24:16 that he constantly exercised his conscience to be void of offense toward God. It seems that Paul was consistently sensitive to the Spirit’s direction in his ministry and life. But sometimes, even the most sensitive of people can convince themselves that what they want to do is the will of God, even when it is not.
There are also indications that what Paul wanted to do was not in the will of God. According to Acts 21:4, there were disciples in Tyre who told Paul, “through the Spirit” that he should not go to Jerusalem. A few days later, when Paul was in Caesarea, the prophet Agabus prophesied that Paul would be bound and delivered into the hands of the Gentiles by going to Jerusalem (Acts 21:11). All that were there tried to persuade Paul not to go, but he persisted and consequently, “we ceased saying, the will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14). This indicates that all but Paul had determined with certainty that it was not the will of God for Paul to go to Jerusalem.
So at the end of our Bible study time, the group basically threw up their hands and said, “We can’t make this judgment.” The reason, although we had some indication of Paul’s motivation, we did not have perfect knowledge of all of his heart. While we had some indications of the direction of the Holy Spirit, our understanding of it was far from perfect. To make a perfect judgment in this case was impossible with imperfect information. It’s hard to be God when you’re only human. And so, to judge another’s actions (unless they violate a clearly revealed commandment of Scripture) is not our prerogative. But God knows perfectly and His judgement will be perfect. May we all have the same desire as Paul that we have a conscience void of offense toward God.