Act 21:4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
This is one of those verses that forces us to stop and think for a while and compare to other passages. There are at least a couple of questions that arise. First of all, for the last few chapters it is clear that Paul is headed for Jerusalem and no less “through the Spirit” as well, Act 19:21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, "After I have been there, I must also see Rome." So the first question is what does perceiving through the Spirit mean in these verses and second, why did Paul not let himself be persuaded since these men told him not to go through the Spirit?
Without getting into the gifts of prophecy I think we can rule out that the Holy Spirit told these men specifically that he didn’t want Paul to go to Jerusalem. If this was a “word” from the Lord then Paul clearly is sinning by going to Jerusalem and the rest of the book is merely an account of Paul in disobedience and clearly that is not the case.
I think we get some light on this beginning in verse 10. While staying with Phillip, Agabus visits and had a prophecy of his own. Just as with some OT prophets he acts out the word of the Lord, Act 21:11 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.'" Notice that the Holy Spirit does not say that Paul shouldn’t go to Jerusalem but merely lets them know what is going to happen when he gets there. As we read further, while everyone was telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem, he is even more determined even if it means imprisonment. He says “Let the will of the Lord be done”, showing that he understood God’s message of what was going to happen.
I think this explains the verses above. While these men did receive a word from the Holy Spirit, it was not that Paul was not to go but merely revealing what was going to happen. One good benefit for this revelation would be that when they saw this actually come to pass then they would have to give glory to God for his sovereign direction in all things and they would be built up in their faith. It also certainly showcases Paul’s faith for even after repeated warnings he is happy to go and suffer for the Lord.
It is interesting that in my study Bible for instance it is assumed that the prophecy of vs. 4 was inaccurately understood and so these men were wrong in telling Paul not to go. They then go on to apply it to those who had the gift of prophecy and that even with that it is possible to misinterpret it and so the early church had to be really careful, etc.
The problem I have with that is it makes God the author of confusion. I find it unacceptable that the Holy Spirit would go to the trouble to give these revelations to his people only for them to completely miss the point. A lot could be said how this applies to supposed gifts of knowledge and prophecy today but we will refrain.
I see no reason to assume anything other than that the Holy Spirit very clearly told them that Paul was going to suffer in Jerusalem and they did what anyone would expect them to do, warn Paul not to go. But Paul was responsible to do what he believed he needed to do for the cause of Christ and so he did the right thing for him. If anything this teaches us that at the end of the day each one of us is responsible to serve the Lord directed by our own conscience, guided by the Word of God and not to follow someone else’s opinions on what you should do.
I believe that for us today the “through the Spirit” instances are when we are led by our knowledge of the completed canon of Scripture. After considering all the information, as Paul did, we must make up our minds as to how best to obey. For this to work well we must have a heart full of Christ and not ourselves and Paul is a great example of this. This is New Covenant living.