And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But 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. – Acts 20:22-24 ESV
One of the primary functions of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the life of a believer is that of direction and guidance. He is to provide insight into how we are to live our lives in accordance with God’s will. But His direction is useless if we choose to avoid it or ignore it. Each day, we face the choice of walking according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. We will obey one or the other. And the truth is, the Holy Spirit will oftentimes direct us to do things that seem difficult or distasteful – even dangerous at times. He may prompt us to act in ways that are contrary to our human nature and that appear to be counter-intuitive. After His baptism by John, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, where He went without food for 40 days and was subjected to the attacks of Satan himself. And while that may sound illogical to us, the entire episode of Jesus’ life was part of God’s plan for Him. The apostle Paul would remind us, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17 ESV). The key, he says, is to “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16 ESV).
And in this passage from the Book of Acts, we see Paul practicing exactly what he preached. Paul was on one of his missionary journeys and was attempting to return to Jerusalem. On his way, he stopped in Miletus and called for the elders of the church in Ephesus to come see him. When they arrived, he recounted to them his ministry to them, reminding them “how I lived among you … serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews” (Acts 20:18-19 ESV). And how he refused to “shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20 ESV). Then he shared with them the news that he was on his way to Jerusalem, “constrained by the Spirit”. That is an interesting choice of words by Paul. Some translations use the word “compelled”, while others use the word “bound”. But the Greek word Paul used literally means, “to bind, to fasten with chains”. It was often used in a metaphorical sense to mean “to put under obligation” or “to be bound to one” as in a sense of duty. Paul seems to be saying that he was bound to the will of the Spirit for his life, even though that very same Spirit had not revealed to him what was going to happen to him when he arrived in Jerusalem. All Paul knew was that, the Spirit repeatedly warned him “that in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me”. What Paul was doing was counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. His message was not politically correct and would not prove to be popular among those who lived blindly, yet happily according to their sin natures.
Paul was obligated to do what the Spirit told him to do. He may not have completely understood what the Spirit was saying and he may not have particularly liked what the Spirit was demanding, but Paul “under obligation” to do what the Spirit said. For Paul, obedience to the Spirit was non-negotiable. He would rather die than disobey the Spirit’s promptings. Even if obedience to the Spirit’s direction brought with it suffering, he was on board. He was okay with that. Paul’s focus in life was to do the will of God. Nothing else mattered. Which is why he told the elders from Ephesus, “But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God” (Acts 20:24 NLT). Paul had a God-given, Christ-conferred, Spirit-empowered mission to accomplish. It was not going to be easy. It was not going to be comfortable or conflict-free. To do what Christ had commissioned him to do, Paul was going to have to suffer rejection, ridicule, and even physical harm. He was going to have to go places where his message and his presence were not welcome. It would have been easy for Paul to stay in those towns where he received a warm welcome. It would have made common sense that he avoid the more dangerous locales, because if he got arrested, his ministry would be dramatically curtailed.
But we know that Paul’s determination to obey the Spirit at all costs DID eventually land him in jail. But it is from jail that Paul wrote the majority of his letters that we have contained in the canon of Scripture. Had he not listened to the Spirit’s promptings, he would have never had the time to sit down and pen the words that have played such a significant role in the building up of the body of Christ over the centuries. For Paul, life was not worth living unless it was lived in obedience to the Spirit of God. Life lost all meaning if it was lived for anything other than God’s will. Paul wanted to be faithful more than he wanted to be comfortable. Paul counted obedience as more profitable than his own convenience. He didn’t buy into the philosophy, “it’s better to be safe than sorry”. He was duty-bound and obligated to do the will of God as revealed through the leadership of the Spirit – for better or worse.