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Pursuing the Lord's Will When It's Hard

March 10, 2024 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 21:1–16

Pursuing the Lord’s Will When It’s Hard – Acts 21:1–16


As Jesus prepared his disciples for his death and resurrection and their own struggles with it, and for his bodily departure from their presence, one of the things he prepared them for was for hardship as his followers. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation.” But then he also said, “Take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) ‘I’m telling you this in advance so that in me you may have peace.’ In other words, you will at times suffer like me, some of you may even die for it like me, but the world does not have the final say. God will have the final say, and he has already spoken by the work of Christ on your behalf through his death and resurrection.

Peter would say, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” (1 Pet 2:21)

Paul would say to Timothy, “all who desire to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12)

But what does it look like to live faithfully through such hardship, when experiencing suffering, when decisions are difficult, when pursuing the Lord’s will is like climbing a steep incline with great struggle, like follow Jesus into the desert, like resting on him through the storm.

We have an example in Acts 21 from the life of the Apostle Paul of what it’s like to pursue the Lord’s will when you know it is leading into hardship, even suffering. And we have an example too from the Christians around him how we might properly support one another in such times.

Acts 21:1–16 ESV

1 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed 6 and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home. 7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. 8 On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” 15 After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. 16 And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge.

As usual, Luke is fairly specific about the travel details, especially in the sections with Paul’s missionary travels, and this last leg of the third journey is no exception. [map]

Now let’s focus our attention on what we learn from following Paul’s example, and from those around him how we can help (and what not to do).

When following the Lord’s will is particularly hard, sincere affection in God’s family is prominently displayed. (vv. 4-7, 20:36-38)

Hard - It the midst of these sad farewells and ominous forebodings, notice the display of  the love of God’s people for Paul. 

Explain affection: 

Romans 12:10 ESV

10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Love one another dearly with familial affection. The meaning of this is to have genuine care for and loyalty towards one another.

The sincere affection shared by those who are in Christ, and especially when we have strived side by side for the gospel.


Sincere affection in God’s family is uniquely displayed in exceedingly difficult goodbyes.

Hard goodbyes, difficult separations, provide a unique opportunity for sincere affection.

Acts 20:36–38 ESV

36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.

Sincere affection in God’s family makes us wish that we could always protect one another from hardship.

Verse 4 requires some explanation. At face value it sounds like the Spirit is prompting them to discourage Paul from going to Jerusalem, which would mean that he’s being stubborn and not listening.

But the context tells another story. Before this, it has already been made clear that Paul knows about the impending suffering but the Holy Spirit has confirmed to him that he must go. Acts 20:22-24

Acts 20:22–24 ESV

22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

So Paul is constrained in the Spirit to go, even though in every city the Holy Spirit is confirming by his people that he will suffer. What takes place in Tyre is no different. The disciples there are receiving prophetic confirmation from someone in their midst that problem await Paul in Jerusalem.

In the context that follows, we learn that although they are sincerely affectionate for Paul’s safety, the brothers and sisters ought not to be discouraging him to continuing forward in the path that the Spirit has confirmed.

What’s tricky here then, and later, is that evidently they have clear information the Holy Spirit has given, but their interpretation can be wrong of what should be done with that information. In context, that seems to be the only way to understand verse 4.

But notice again that sincere affection in God’s family really does make us wish that we could always protect one another from hardship.

Although we wish we could do this, we must realize that we cannot, and instead…

Sincere affection in God’s family ultimately means we prayerfully entrust one another into God’s care.

As we saw when Paul parted from the Ephesian elders at Miletus, so we see again here. They all, including the wives and children (the whole Christian community), accompanied Paul and his partners outside the city. And before saying farewell, they knelt on the beach together in prayer. (Nicely done, Luke… bringing us right into the narrative. I can see it, feel it, hear it.)

The point, in the midst of sad farewells and ominous forebodings, they prayerfully entrust one another into God’s care, even as Paul himself had done: Acts 20:32

Acts 20:32 ESV

32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

[In the next section…]

We can be certain of what Christ has done and is doing, even when it’s abundantly clear that trials lie ahead. (vv. 8-11)

Philip and his prophetic daughters demonstrate confirmation of what God is doing in the present age, and the prophecy of Agabus gives specific clarity to what Paul is soon to face in Jerusalem.

Philip and Paul in fellowship confirms that Christ transforms our relationship not only to God but also to one another.

By faith in Christ (in his sacrificial death and resurrection, by which he provides forgiveness of sin and therefore peace with God), we are transformed from God’s enemies to his friends, his children.

Whatever differences we’ve had, and whatever conflicts, when we become God’s children, our relationship to one another is transformed as well. Philip was one of the seven: Remember, in the early days in the Jerusalem church when the number of believers was growing so fast that they Apostles needed to focus on preaching and prayer, so they (and the church) chose 7 other godly servant leaders to help do a lot of other shepherding tasks that the Apostles just couldn’t possibly cover them all. The main one was the need to be good stewards and equitably distribute to the needs of the widows and the poor.

Stephen was another one of these close coworkers with Philip, and Paul had been their enemy, giving his approval when Stephen was stoned to death. But how God has changed Paul, and even grown significantly Philip’s ministry. The only one to specifically be called “the evangelist” like it was the primary way to remember which Philip we’re talking about. (not Philip one of the twelve apostles, but Philip the evangelist, who had first preached Christ in Samaria (with great success by the Spirit), and to an Ethiopian eunuch, an official in the court of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians)

Philip now welcomes Paul and his companions to stay in his home for “many days.” In Christ God transforms our relationships; we become family in Him.

And there is a familial bond of love in which you will go to the greatest lengths (as far as it depends on you) to secure that which is best for another family member (so long as in doing so we are harming or neglecting other family members). But the point is our desire and willingness.

Another matter confirmation at Philip’s house in Caesarea:

The surprising number of believers prophesying is confirmation that Christ has ushered in a new era.

Luke made clear from Peter’s early sermon in Acts that the OT prophecy from Joel is being fulfilled at the present time in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s people (Peter’s explanation to the crowd of what they were seeing happening at Pentecost by the Spirit). Acts 2:17-18

Acts 2:17–18 ESV

17 “ ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

So Philip’s four daughters are an example of this. They are unmarried, which may indicate either that they are young still and that this period of prophesying in the Spirit (in their own lives) may be of limited duration; or their unmarried status and prophesying may indicate that they’ve essentially committed themselves entirely to this ministry in the Spirit for as long as God desires to use them this way. We don’t have enough information to know for sure.

But I would submit to you that in Acts Luke has clearly made an effort to show that because Christ inaugurated a new covenant, we are living in the last days of Joel’s prophecy. The point is that all this prophesying, not just in Tyre but in every city Paul is traveling through, is confirmation that Christ has ushered in a new era, in which the Holy Spirit of God indwells Christ’s people and empowers them for service.

Speaking of prophets…

Agabus prophesies with complete clarity that Paul will face arrest in Jerusalem.

This is now the second time in Acts that we learn of Agabus having a quite specific prophecy of something that was going to happen in the future (according to the will of God), and it does take place. The first was when he came down from Judea to Antioch and prophesied about a coming famine. The church in Antioch responded by preemptively sending relief to the brother in Judea over this impending concern.

The manner of this second prophecy from Agabus in Acts is even more specific and uniquely played out. In dramatic OT fashion, Agabus acts out the prophecy, tying his own hands a feet with Paul’s belt, and explaining that the Jews in Jerusalem with do this to Paul and turn him over to the Gentiles. (Man, does that ever sound exactly like what took place with Jesus as well!)

We must admit that we do not have absolute clarity/certainty on how this NT prophesying is similar and dissimilar from OT prophesy. The ministry of Agabus in particular seems a lot like OT prophecy, not only speaking on behalf of what God says but sometimes telling what will take place in the future (within the sovereign will of God). But it doesn’t seem like this is what all those who prophecy are doing, which is perhaps more like explaining and teaching the revealed will of God rather than being selected by God for this appointed role for life, and receiving  unique tidbits of specific revelation. I don’t claim to be an expert on this, but it’s at least safe to say that some of this prophecy was similar and some of it evidently was different in the early NT church, not to mention in the present church with the completed NT revelation in writing.


Especially when doing so is already difficult, we must not dissuade one another from pursuing the Lord’s will. (vv. 12-16)

Determining not to dissuade one another from following God’s will, even out of personal, affectionate care for them. (their safety and (even harder) desiring what’s best for them)

We cannot be motivated primarily by protecting one another from perceived harm.

Our motive cannot be to simply keep one another from perceived harm.

We must listen well.

…both directions.

Not to dissuade, not to inhibit, not to become a stumbling block. *So listening well.

We must pursue what God wants above what we think we want.

Paul would not want to suffer. These dear friends do not want him to suffer. And there were plenty of times where escaping arrest and imprisonment was the correct path. But there will be times when the hardship we face is truly unavoidable; it is the Lord’s will that we should walk in it. In such times, we must support one another to do what God wants.

Which in some cases will mean…

We must (ultimately) allow one another space to follow the Spirit’s leading.

We must be absolutely certain that our motivations are not selfish for moving forward with a course of action. Going against the advice of godly friends should be taken with utmost care and certainty.

And then we should be as supportive and caring as we can.
  1. 15-16 - Some would accompany him to Jerusalem and even bring him to someone who could host them there, a friend and a believer from the early days, Mnason of Cyprus.

Rather than dissuading one another from following God’s will, especially when God’s leading seems confirmed, we must be supportive and caring.


Here’s one things we can be sure of…

Conclusion: Let us help one another pursue the Lord’s will, especially when it’s hard.

Paul said… “I am ready be imprisoned and even die.” And it wasn’t just empty talk.

He knew that he must live it, because Jesus had said…

Matthew 10:32–33 ESV

32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

John 12:25–26 ESV

25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

How will we help one another… to remember this and to live it?

Pray with one another.

Ease any burden we can. (Gal 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.) Generosity, hospitality, coming alongside to help with the smaller details (the travel plans).

Share God’s own words with one another to keep our eyes fixed on the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

2 Corinthians 4:16–17 ESV

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,

Pray with one another. Come alongside one another to do what we can. And say to one another what God has said, because God’s word can always be trusted.



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