Discerning Church Learning to discern the movement of God's Spirit

Mixed Messages

As I spend considerable time in the book of Acts each week, I am confounded by the movement of the Holy Spirit. Just when I think I understand His movement, I encounter a surprise. In Acts 21, Paul journeys to Jerusalem. He has been warned of trouble in the city. He is apparently following the Spirit into dangerous places. Last week, I wrote of his courage to go where the Spirit leads.

On his way to Jerusalem, he has several layovers.

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. (Acts 21:3 NIV)

Paul finds believers in this place. Luke’s recording astonishes me.

Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. (Acts 21:4 NIV)

Is the Spirit leading Paul or stopping Paul? How does Paul know what to do? Is Paul on a suicide mission or is he going with the Spirit?

When he reaches Caesarea, an equally astounding event takes place.

After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11) 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.’” (Acts 21:10–11 NIV)

Even Paul friends plead with him to heed the warnings.

When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. (Acts 21:12 NIV)

Yet, Paul is unflinching; he is bent on going to Jerusalem.

Then Paul answered, “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.” 14) When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” (Acts 21:13–14 NIV)

Paul’s friends interpret the Spirit’s leading in one way, Paul another. Other Christians, prompted by the Spirit, tell Paul to avoid the danger; Paul seems determined to step into the danger. Who is discerning the Spirit appropriately? These are not easy questions.

As I wrestle with the issue of discernment, these passages reveal an important truth. The Spirit’s will is often discerned in varying ways. Equally authentic Christians often hold diverse views. Discerning can be messy; it is not a neat and tidy process.

Was Paul’s journey to Jerusalem in obedience to the Spirit? It would be difficult to question this. So were Paul’s friends and companions dissuading him inappropriately? I don’t think so. Actually they were right, Paul encountered angry Jews in Jerusalem. They discerned the Spirit’s warnings as “stay away”, Paul discerned the warnings as “go, but know what you are getting into.”

As we work together to discern the Spirit, know that there will be differences. The Spirit is not intentionally confusing; he desires unity and clarity. However, it sometimes takes us a while to get there.