Avoiding the Surprise of Suffering – Paul, the Road to Jerusalem, and Warnings of Pain in Acts 21

The last chapters of Acts detail Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and eventual transport to Rome, where he is believed to have been beheaded during the reign of Nero. Acts chapter 21 tells of Paul’s journey from Ephesus to Jerusalem, his final journey before his arrest.

One particularly interesting thing about Paul’s journey to Jerusalem is that the other believers he meets along the way weep for him and/or warn him of serious harm—first the Ephesians, then the Tyrians, then the Caesareans.

Take the most detailed example from Caesarea, where a prophet names Agabus presents a dramatic depiction of Paul’s capture in Jerusalem:

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.” (Acts 21:10-14)

Suffering and Surprise

What struck me about this chapter in Acts is that though multiple people accurately warn Paul through the Spirit (Acts 21:4) that bad things will happen to him in Jerusalem, Paul does not see these prophetic words as something God has sent to turn him from Jerusalem and spare him from harm. They are rather just a true picture of the hardship he faces.

This raises an interesting question—why would God send prophetic words to Paul of the harm that would come to him?

Clearly it was not to turn Paul from Jerusalem. The subsequent events in Jerusalem and Rome form a central part of Paul’s testimony. Is it possible, rather, that the prophetic words about the suffering that Paul will face are to protect him against the surprise and discouragement that hardship can bring?

Tim Keller, in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, writes, “…so many people’s misery and distress in suffering is doubled and trebled, coming not from the trouble itself but from the shock that they are suffering at all” (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, page 198).

Although the Bible paints a clear picture that those who follow Christ will suffer, yet even for the mature Christian, suffering still presents a major jolt (“Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” – 1 Peter 4:12–13).

The surprise and discouragement that comes from unexpected suffering is a particularly significant challenge for Christians in the modern Western world, for never before have we been so buffered against the daily experience of deep suffering—from illness, famine, persecution, war, and the countless adversities that have frequently affected humans for millennia.

The Preparation of Paul

I do think, in part, that the prophetic warnings given to Paul served to prepare his mind for the trials that awaited him in Jerusalem. In our own lives, when we see signs indicating the absence of recovery and the expectation of suffering, may we be mindful that God may be preparing us in similar ways. When Paul ultimately leaves Caesarea for Jerusalem, he can confidently say, ‘For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 21:13).