Online Bible Commentary
Discerning the Holy Spirit
Acts 21:1 Now it came to pass, that when we had departed from them and set sail, running a straight course we came to Cos, the following day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And finding a ship sailing over to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had sighted Cyprus, we passed it on the left, sailed to Syria, and landed at Tyre; for there the ship was to unload her cargo. 4 And finding disciples, we stayed there seven days. They told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem. 5 When we had come to the end of those days, we departed and went on our way; and they all accompanied us, with wives and children, till we were out of the city. And we knelt down on the shore and prayed. 6 When we had taken our leave of one another, we boarded the ship, and they returned home. 7 And when we had finished our voyage from Tyre, we came to Ptolemais, greeted the brethren, and stayed with them one day. (NKJV)
The time is spring, 57 A.D. The Apostle Paul is on his way back home from his third missionary journey. Paul has sailed to Miletus, Asia where he has taken time to meet with the elders of the church in Ephesus.
Now, in this passage, he has said a sad farewell to the Ephesian elders, informing them that he would not be returning to Ephesus. So he “departed” from them, along with his traveling party, and sailed southward along the coast of Asia Minor from Miletus to the island of Cos, where they spent the night (v. 1a). We note Luke uses the term “we” in this verse, indicating that he himself was a part of the traveling party.
The next day Paul and his party sailed southeast to the island of Rhodes (v. 1b) and then eastward to Patara, Asia Minor (v. 1c). At Patara the Lord provided a ship that they could take back home to Phoenicia (Syria) (v. 2a). The party immediately boarded the cargo ship and “set sail” for the port of Tyre in Syria (vv. 2b-3a). As they sailed southeastward across the Mediterranean Sea, they passed south of the island of Cyprus, the home of Barnabas (v. 3b).
Upon landing in Tyre the party immediately sought out disciples with whom they could stay. They spent seven days in Tyre, allowing them to spend a Sunday of worship with the disciples (v. 4a). They made new friends of these disciples.
The disciples in Tyre, concerned for his safety, pleaded with Paul not to go to Jerusalem. They believed that the Holy Spirit was telling them not to allow him to go there (v. 4b). However, Paul discerned that the Holy Spirit was calling him to Jerusalem and did not heed their pleadings.
So, after the seven days, Paul had to say another sad farewell, this time to his new brothers and sisters in Christ in Tyre (v. 5a). The bonds were so close that the families accompanied the party to the ship, where they had prayer on the beach before departing (vv. 5b-6).
Paul and his party then sailed southward down the coast towards Jerusalem, landing in Ptolemais (v. 7a). They spent “one day” there, staying with fellow Christians (v. 7b).
This passage reminds us of the ways that the Holy Spirit speaks to us. He speaks to us in many ways, some of which are prayer, scripture, circumstances, other Christians, and that “still small voice” experienced by Elijah (1 Ki. 19:12). He never instructs us contrary to Scripture.
Paul experienced direction from the Holy Spirit in all of these ways. Even though his fellow Christians in Tyre advised him not to go to Jerusalem, Paul felt convicted to do so.
When we seem to be receiving opposite messages from the Holy Spirit, discernment is needed. In this case, Paul discerned that he needed to rely on the entirety of his personal experience with the Holy Spirit.