Bible study: Acts 21-24 – Freewill and predestination

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Why didn’t Paul listen to the prophecy not to go to Jerusalem?

The observant of you will notice that I’ve read more than one chapter tonight. The story has really got some pace now, and I just didn’t want to stop reading!

Anyway, at the beginning of chapter 21 we have two instances of people telling Paul through the Holy Spirit not to go on to Jerusalem, warning him that he would be imprisoned if he did so. In both cases, Paul ignores the warning from God and goes to Jerusalem anyway. And, lo and behold, he almost immediately gets into trouble and is arrested. It’s quite an exciting story, actually, what with crowds, false accusations, court room scenes, relevations about connections with Rome, and an escape from a trap.

But the bit that puzzles me is Acts 23:11: “That night the Lord stood near [Paul] and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.'” Nothing wrong with that in itself, except that previously God had told Paul not to go to Jerusalem at all! So did those other Christians get the prophecy wrong? Was it God’s plan that Paul went to Jerusalem or not?

When I was at university there was a running joke about never mentioning “freewill” or “predestination” because they were too divisive and you’d never get people to stop debating about it. Personally, I thought that was a bit of a shame, because I like meaty discussions! At the root of the joke, though, was the understanding that you either accepted the concept of freewill OR you accepted the concept of predestination – the two were mutually exclusive. I never quite bought that, and following those uni years I thought more about it, and concluded that actually we need both. God allows us to have freewill because he knows the outcome; put another way, God knowing the outcome doesn’t stop us from having freewill.

Apologies if that sounds a little tangental, but it links back into the reading because Paul had freewill. God’s plan, by the sounds of it, was that Paul should bear witness in Rome. When Paul decided to ignore God’s plan and go to Jerusalem, events transpired that meant that Paul would go to Rome after all. Same destination, different route. God’s plan is perfect, but it’s more than just a carefully crafted Gantt chart or a colourful spreadsheet – God’s plan is achieved even when we have the freewill to change parts of it.

That’s both humbling and terrifying. On the one hand, I’m blown away by the grace in God’s plan, that even if we mess up and go our own way, God doesn’t give up on us. God’s plan is too big and too important to be derailed by my decisions, and yet he allows me to choose my own actions anyway. What love he has for us, that he would trust us so much, despite our track record. At the same time, I feel the weight of responsibility to listen to God more closely, knowing that he has graciously given me responsibility for my part in his plan, and I don’t want to mess it up. It’s freewill AND predestination, both at work together. And yes, that fries my brain sometimes.