As Paul’s 3rd Missionary Journey draws to a close, the text states, “After looking up the disciples [at Tyre], we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). At first glance it would seem that the Holy Spirit is instructing Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Is that what the passage means?
Every passage of Scripture has a context. Previously Luke recorded, “Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21, ESV). Then a few verses later, ” And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there” (20:22, ESV). We know that capitalization is supplied by the translators but you see that the English Standard Version, along with many others, indicate this is the Holy Spirit, not Paul’s spirit, in these texts, Who is directing Paul. Further, that Paul’s journey to Jerusalem was clearly endorsed by the Lord is seen in 23:11, “The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (ESV). Additionally, when Paul and his companions were forbidden by the Holy Spirit (on the 2nd Journey) to preach in Asia, Mysia and Bithynia, they did not resist the Spirit, but passed through those regions on to Macedonia (Acts 16:1-10). These passage furnish the surrounding context in which Acts 21:4 must be viewed.
J.W. McGarvey wrote, “We are not to understand that these entreaties [in our opening text, 21:4] were dictated by the Spirit; for this would have made it Paul’s duty to desist from his purpose; but the statement means that they were enabled to advise him not to go, by knowing, through the Spirit, what awaited him. The knowledge was supernatural; the advice was the result of their own judgment” (A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p.255).
Bob & Sandra Waldron explained, “The Spirit is telling Paul there will be trouble, but it is the people who are begging him not to go” (Go Tell the Good News, p.184).
I do believe that this gives the best explanation of Acts 21:4, as any other view would contradict the related texts immediately before and after the passage. I’m convinced this must be the approach when approaching a challenging text–explanations must be ruled out which contradict other plain passages of scripture.