In addition to the warnings to Paul found in verses 4 and 11 against going to Jerusalem, I want to put one other bit of data with this. I acknowledge at the start, however, that it is somewhat ambiguous. If we turn a chapter further on, from chapter 21 to chapter 22, we find an account of Paul’s speech before the crowd in Jerusalem. In that speech Paul refers to a special revelation God had given him when he was in Jerusalem. He says, “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ he said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me’” (v. 17).
I consider that ambiguous because Paul had been speaking about his conversion on the Damascus road, and the verses immediately before this tell how Ananias, God’s servant in Damascus, was instrumental in restoring Paul’s sight. It is after this that Paul says, “When I returned to Jerusalem.”
We know that after Paul had been in Damascus there was a brief time when he did go to Jerusalem. So it may be that it is this visit he is speaking of—in other words, something that had happened years before. He would be saying, “I was in Damascus. I was converted there. I came to Jerusalem. While I was in Jerusalem, the Lord spoke to me, saying, ‘Go to the Gentiles.’” This may be all the words mean. On the other hand, when we look back to what we have already been told in Acts, we do not find anything that suggests such a warning at that earlier time. So it is far more likely, and I would say that it is almost certain, that when Paul told the crowd that the Lord told him to leave Jerusalem, he meant that it was at that time, the time of his final visit to Jerusalem, and not earlier. This second possibility fits the context of these chapters best.
So there seems to be a pattern of increasingly intense warnings. God seems to have told Paul not to go to Jerusalem and then, when he did go, not to linger there but to leave at once and go to the Gentiles. In spite of these warnings, Paul yearned for the salvation of the Jews so much that he disregarded what he had been told and went to Jerusalem and did the things we will consider in this study.
I want to say several things in defense of Paul, however, because this is something that should not be gotten out of proportion.
First, if this is what Paul was doing, then it is at worst merely the exercise of a very strong, obstinate and determined personality. We often use those words as if to be like that kind of person is an extremely bad thing. But we have to remember that if Paul had not had that kind of a personality, he would not have been the kind of aggressive, pioneer missionary he was. It took more than a Casper Milquetoast to evangelize the Roman world, and that is what Paul did. Paul was a great man, a man of great determination. When things got tough, he did just what our little saying says: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Paul persevered in a tough job for many long years in spite of opposition, persecution, and even physical abuse. If Paul had not had the kind of personality he had, he would not have achieved what he did achieve in his ministry. God had given him his personality.
Second, Paul certainly had a love of people and particularly of his own people, the Jews. If we doubt that, we need only turn to the ninth chapter of Romans, where he writes of the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” of his heart caused by Israel’s unbelief (v. 1).
Paul was a missionary to the Gentiles; God had called him to that. But he was still a Jew, and he had a heart for the Jewish people. He even says in Romans 9: “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (vv. 3-4). I do not know that I would say that. I doubt if there are many Christians today who could say that and actually mean it that they would be willing to be sent to hell for the sake of their own people, whoever those people might be. Yet that is what Paul said. He meant it. He loved his people and was concerned for them. If he had not been concerned for them, he would not have gone to Jerusalem for this final time, particularly after having received the many warnings he did receive against going.