Hard & Painful Decisions

This is session two of my study on Decisions: Seeking God’s Guidance. This section looks closely at Acts 20:17-21:14

The purpose today is to observe a case study of how God enabled a person to follow his will even when it was painful.

“We are not necessarily doubting,” said C. S. Lewis, “that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

Describe a time when God’s best has been painful for you. How has this experience affected you?

Do you ever fear God’s will? When and why?

The apostle Paul made a momentous decision to return to Jerusalem. Even though many Christians urged Paul not to go and warned him that he would be arrested in Jerusalem, still Paul remained convinced that this was what he should do. As he traveled, he made several brief stops to visit friends, explain his decision and say farewell.

1. If you had been in Paul’s position, would you have gone to Jerusalem? Why or why not?

2. For Paul, what were the issues involved in his decision to go to Jerusalem?

“His overriding concern is not at all costs to survive, but rather that he may finish the race and complete his Christ-given task of bearing witness to the good news of God’s grace” (John R. W. Stott).

3. What do you find admirable about Paul’s convictions? The words of Thomas a Kempis may be helpful in answering this question. He wrote:

“Jesus hath now many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross. He hath many desirous of comfort, but few of tribulation. He finds many companions of his table, but few of his abstinence. All desire to rejoice with him, few are willing to endure anything for him. Many follow Jesus unto the breaking of bread; but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. . . . Many love Jesus so long as adversities do not happen. Many praise and bless him, so long as they receive comforts from him.” (The Imitation of Christ).

4. How are your convictions similar to or different from Paul’s?

5. What price have you had to pay for your convictions?

6. If God wanted Paul to go to Jerusalem, why did the Holy Spirit give so many warnings not to go?

The warnings were given not to discourage Paul, but to warn him. John Stott draws a distinction between a prediction and a prohibition:

The better solution is to draw a distinction between a prediction and a prohibition. Certainly Agabus only predicted that Paul would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11); the pleadings with Paul which followed are not attributed to the Spirit and may have been the fallible (indeed mistaken) human deduction from the Spirit’s prophecy. For if Paul had heeded his friends’ pleas, then Agabus’ prophecy would not have been fulfilled! It is more difficult to understand Acts 21:4 in this way, since the “urging” itself is said to be “through the Spirit.” But perhaps Luke’s statement is a condensed way of saying that the warning was divine while the urging was human. After all, the Spirit’s word to Paul combined the compulsion to go with a warning of the consequences (Acts 20:22-23).

7. How did Paul’s meetings with various communities of disciples encourage and prepare him to enter Jerusalem?

Even though Paul’s friends mistook the prophecy of hardship and imminent suffering for a sign that God did not want Paul in Jerusalem, they were still used as God’s agents of encouragement. They gave a message from the Holy Spirit that confirmed the one Paul had already received, they demonstrated that Paul was deeply loved by them and by God, and they prayed with him.

8. How has God encouraged and prepared you for difficult times in your life?

9. Many Christians expect God’s will to be the most pleasant and trouble-free alternative, but from Paul’s experience, that is apparently not so. What would be better criteria for interpreting God’s will?

  • First, to know God’s will we must first accept God’s salvation in Christ. It is God’s will that none should perish.
  • Second, to know God’s will we must be obedient to God’s word as recorded in the Scriptures. We find 90 percent of God’s will right there.
  • Third, to know God’s will we must pray and earnestly seek His direction.
  • Fourth, to know God’s will we must listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. (George and Donald Sweeting)

10. In your decision-making process, have you usually been more concerned about personal comfort or following God? How has this been shown?

11. Acts 21:14 says that in the end, the disciples “gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.'” Why is it so often difficult to give in to the Lord’s will?

When the people said, “The Lord’s will be done,” they were making a positive affirmation, not a stoic resignation. To make such a statement is a cry of faith and trust that “God is good, all the time!”

12. What are you having difficulty giving up to God’s will?

Pray for each person in your group who is facing a difficult or painful decision.

Now or Later: A vivid description of someone facing a painful decision is found in the story of Jesus at Gethsemane. Read Mark 14:32-42.

  1. Compare and contrast Jesus’ decision to go to the cross with Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem.
  2. What encouragement do Jesus’ and Paul’s examples give you for facing your own painful choices?
  3. What do you learn from these stories about how to encourage a friend who is facing a painful decision?


Acts 20:22-23 Having reviewed his past conduct among the Ephesians, the apostle now looks ahead to the sufferings that await him. He was constrained in his spirit to go to Jerusalem. It was an inner compulsion, which he was apparently unable to throw off. Although he did not know exactly what the turn of events would be in Jerusalem, he did know that chains and tribulations would be a regular part of his life. The Holy Spirit had been making this fact known to him in every city, perhaps through the ministry of prophets, or perhaps by the mysterious, inner communication of divine intelligence.

Acts 20:24 As the apostle weighed this outlook in his mind, he did not think that his own life was the great consideration. His ambition was to obey God and to please Him. If in doing this, he would be called upon to offer up his life, he was willing to do so. No sacrifice he could make would be too great for the One who died for him. All that mattered was that he finish his race and complete the ministry which he received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. No title could better express the good news which Paul preached—the gospel of the grace of God.

Acts 21:4b It was during this time that these disciples told Paul through the Spirit that he should not set foot in Jerusalem. This raises the age-old question as to whether Paul was deliberately disobedient in going to Jerusalem, whether he unwittingly failed to discern the mind of the Lord, or whether he was actually in the will of God in going. A casual reading of verse 4b might seem to indicate that the apostle was willful and headstrong, acting in deliberate defiance of the Spirit. However, a more careful reading might indicate that Paul did not actually know that these warnings were given through the Spirit. Luke, the historian, tells his readers that the advice of the Tyrian disciples was Spirit-inspired, but he does not say that the apostle knew this as a definite fact. It seems far more probable that Paul interpreted the advice of his friends as calculated to save him from physical suffering or even death. In his love for his Jewish countrymen, he did not feel that his physical well-being was the important consideration.

Acts 21:10-11 During Paul’s stay in Caesarea, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. It was the same prophet who came to Antioch from Jerusalem and predicted the famine which took place during the reign of Claudius (Acts 11:28). Now he took Paul’s belt and bound his own hands and feet with it. By this dramatic action, like many of the prophets before him, he was acting out his message. Then he gave the meaning of the object lesson. Just as he had bound himself, hands and feet, so would the Jews of Jerusalem bind the hands and feet of Paul and deliver him over to the Gentile authorities. Paul’s service for the Jews (symbolized by the belt) would result in his being captured by them.

Acts 21:12-14 When the apostle’s companions and the Christians in Caesarea heard this, they pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem. But he could not sympathize with their concern. Their tears only served to break his heart. Should the fear of chains and imprisonment restrain him from doing what he considered to be God’s will? He would have them know that he was ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. All their arguments proved of no value. He was determined to go, and so they simply said, “The will of the Lord be done.”

It is difficult to believe that Paul’s parting words were spoken by a man who was knowingly disobeying the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We know that the disciples in Tyre told him through the Spirit that he should not go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). But did Paul know they spoke through the Spirit? And did not the Lord later seem to approve his trip to Jerusalem when He said, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome” (Acts 23:11)?

Two things are clear:

  1. First, Paul did not think his personal safety was the main consideration in serving the Lord.
  2. Second, the Lord overruled all these events for His glory.

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