How many times have you prayed, “Lord, your will be done” and thought little of it? The story in Acts 21:1–16 of Paul’s final approach to Jerusalem is built around this powerful phrase. And it can help recover for us the beauty of God’s will. God’s will is what he wants us to do—it is our calling. But it is also what he will do—it is our comfort, if we trust it.
The Lord’s Will Is Our Calling
Acts 21 reveals a man on a mission; Paul wanted to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost (Acts 20:16). He wasn’t morally bound to observe the feast. He would later write: “Let no one judge you … regarding a festival” which is a “shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Col. 2:16, 17; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7, 8). Rather, Paul considered it prudent to be in Jerusalem on a day that had spiritual significance for the people he was trying to reach with the gospel. Paul was a true opportunist. He strove to be faithful, but he also wanted results. And he believed that getting to Jerusalem by Pentecost would be fruitful for the gospel. Paul obeyed God’s will wisely.
Paul also followed God’s will at great cost. Paul committed to a difficult and frenzied travel route, having left behind people who loved him and anticipating trouble in Jerusalem. “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (Acts 20:23). The prophet Agabus dramatically predicted that the Jews would bind Paul in Jerusalem and “deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (Acts 21:11). So, out of sincere love for Paul, his friends tried to stop him from going. They told, begged, admonished, and warned Paul not to go (Acts 21:5, 12). Paul’s heart was breaking! But he was resolved, “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
Paul’s example is obvious: If you know God’s will, do it with all your heart (Col. 3:23)! Don’t waver between people’s opinions and God’s commands (1 Kings 18:21). Paul had a readiness and eagerness to follow God. We should follow Paul’s example as he followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). This applies to kids, too. I love how Luke tells us that children were present to witness Paul stand firm in his commitment to God’s will (Acts 21:5). What God wants for us must be the mission of our lives no matter our circumstances.
But there is another aspect of the Lord’s will in this passage.
The Lord’s Will Is Our Comfort
When the Caesarean believers saw that they could not dissuade Paul from risking his life, they said, “Let the will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14). Their embrace of God’s will was not a stoic suppression of feeling but a thoughtful and emotional submission to the goodness of God in the face of heartache. Similarly, the disciples of Tyre ceased offering Paul their advice and joined him in prayer (Acts 21:4–5). That is a faithful response to disappointment. Even when we disagree with the decisions of others, we can pray that the judge of all the earth will do what is right (Gen. 18:25). Especially when we are weak, we should pray for help from the Lord who sits enthroned forever (Ps. 9:7). Once, one of my small children could tell that my driving “shortcut” had gotten us lost. In a shaky voice the child blurted out, “There’s only one thing we can do. Pray!” So we did. In my mind there were several options. But the child was right. Prayer shouldn’t be the last thing that comes to our minds in moments of crisis. And we should not just ask for prayer or tell our friends that we will pray for them. Let’s truly pray together. Can you imagine Paul’s friends leaving him at the Jerusalem-bound ship with a mere reminder that their thoughts and prayers were with him?Some of Paul’s friends from Caesarea even accompanied him to Jerusalem knowing the dangers that awaited them. They questioned his decision but, out of love for him and trust in God, they helped him carry out his plan.
Where did these believers learn to talk about and trust in God’s will like this? They looked to Jesus. When Jesus obeyed God’s will, he committed to an immediate future of suffering followed by future glory. He purchased so great and so secure an inheritance for believers that we can follow God’s will through every difficulty. He drank the cup of wrath so that we could drink the cup of blessing however hard our lot. So we too can pray to God, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
Is there anything more clarifying in times of moral confusion than Scripture’s presentation of God’s holy will? Is there anything more hope-giving in times of uncertainty than to rest in the perfect will of our heavenly Father? Do God’s will. Always. No matter how hard or unpopular. And rest in God’s will. Always. No matter how much you think you know better. The Lord’s will is the best path and the surest hope for faltering believers.