What happens when two leaders have conflicting visions and convictions? Is only one of them discerning God’s will?
While praying through a long stretch of unemployment in 2006, I received an impression that I would get paid to go to Bangkok and write a movie in June of that year. So when a producer contacted my writing partner and me on June 1, 2006 with an offer to go to Bangkok and write a movie, I saw this as an incredible answer to prayer.
To me, it seemed obvious that God was behind it. But a member of my Bible study group disagreed.
I was a recent convert and had been planning to get baptized in early June of 2006. This brother, whom I’ll refer to as “Andrew,” felt that I should have put God ahead of career and gone through with my baptism before agreeing to take the job.
I wasn’t putting my career ahead of God, I argued. If anything, this movie gig in Bangkok was handed to me by God Himself, as I could not have engineered this rather miraculous turn of events on my own. I assured Andrew that I would get baptized after my return, but this only made him more adamant that I was prioritizing work over God.
Who was right? Who was wrong? If one of us were truly discerning the will of God, would that mean that the other was misguided – or worse, under the influence of some ungodly spirit?
Or, what if we were both right?
In the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul “decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. ‘After I have been there,’ he said, ‘I must visit Rome also’” (Acts 19:21 NIV). Later in his journey, while staying with disciples in Tyre: “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4).
But Paul was eager to go (Acts 20:16). He continued on to Caesarea, where a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.
Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:11-14 NIV).
So what happened next?
Paul arrived in Jerusalem (v. 17), where he was welcomed warmly at first, but then, an angry mob swarmed Paul, dragging him out of the temple with the intent to kill him. The Roman centurions rushed over and arrested Paul, binding him in chains (vv. 30-33).
Was Agabus right?
Agabus said that the Jewish leaders would bind Paul and hand him over to the Romans, but the Romans were the ones who bound Paul, and they actually saved him from the angry Jewish leaders (vv. 34-36). Though the details were a little off, Agabus got the gist of it right – the point was that Paul would be seized in Jerusalem and held captive by the Romans.
Agabus didn’t get the complete picture, but he got parts of it. Those with prophetic gifts, or the God-given ability to receive insight into events that have yet to occur, “know in part and prophesy in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). No one gets the whole picture, and because of this, it takes multiple members of the community of believers to discern what God might be trying to show His people. “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Cor. 14:29). It’s like having a group of people who each hold pieces of a puzzle: you don’t get the full picture unless everyone works together to assemble the pieces and allow the Holy Spirit to speak through the process.
Paul was repeatedly warned not to go to Jerusalem by multiple leaders, but he believed he was doing the right thing and went anyway. Sure enough, he was taken into custody there, almost as Agabus had foretold.
So was Paul wrong? How could he be right if the disciples and Agabus, speaking by the Holy Spirit, warned him this would happen? Was he contradicting God by rejecting these warnings? Paul himself felt that it was the Holy Spirit compelling him to go to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22).
Might it have been God’s will for Paul to go to Jerusalem and be captured by the Romans? His captivity in Caesarea granted him access to audiences that would normally be beyond his reach, such as Felix the Governor, his successor, Festus, and King Agrippa. And it was during his captivity that he wrote the letters to the Colossians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, and Philemon.
Whether Agabus or Paul were right or wrong becomes immaterial in light of this: that God is sovereign, greater than any of us, and His will shall prevail in spite of us humans getting in the way.
We sometimes act as though the execution of God’s will is wholly dependent upon us and what we do. So the God who created the heavens and the earth by simply speaking it forth cannot get anything done unless we perfectly discern His will and do things for Him? Would this mean that our failures could ultimately doom the universe?
Thank God that He is greater.
Don’t be crippled by fear of making a mistake. Do the best you can to discern God’s will and live a life that reflects the image of Christ. Stay humble and be open to hearing God speak through other members of the Christian community, even when we might be challenged by what they say.
At the end of the day, we can surrender it all to God, lifting everything in prayer, and entrust the outcome to Him.
The conflict I had with Andrew dragged on for months. We reconciled only after the Holy Spirit put it on both of our hearts, independently, to humble ourselves and make peace with one other.
In hindsight, I agree that I should have postponed my trip to Bangkok until after my baptism. (I ended up getting “baptized” anyway, in a murky Thai swamp.) And I’m sure Andrew would agree that God’s purposes prevailed even though I decided to go when I did: it was during that trip that I connected with our senior pastor, leading to a series of meetings and connections that led to my first job in full-time ministry, at a church that I’m still serving at, ten years later.
It didn’t matter which one of us might have been right or wrong.
God is big enough to win at the end.
Stephen Bay is the Newsong Kids Pastor. You can check out more of his writing at www.ransomedlife.com.