A Study on the Will of God Part 5: The Apostle Paul
The Apostle Paul
Before we conclude and summarize our study of the nature of God’s unique, personal will, notice the Biblical record of Paul’s general decision making. Acts 15 says that after Paul, and Barnabas were made aware of doctrinal tensions in the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch, the church of Antioch, “determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” The decision to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem was based upon special God given revelation on the debated issue, God’s moral will, and the collective godly wisdom of the leadership of the local church. These men weighed not only God’s moral will on the issue, but what man would be best to send to Jerusalem to address the issue, and whether or not the issue should even be brought to the attention of the Jerusalem church. These decisions were primarily made based upon the godly collective wisdom of the church leadership. At the end of Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas had a practical ministry differences that caused them to part ways. Acts 15:37-39 says that, “Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus.” In this situation, Paul chose the man he believed most qualified to travel, but Barnabas wanted to give John Mark a second chance. Acts 16 tells us that Paul chose Timothy to travel with him based upon his godly testimony. Paul also had Timothy circumcised because he knew that his un-circumcision would be an offense to the Jews and a hindrance to their ministry. In verses 6-10, Paul desired and thought it best to go into the Roman province of Asia; however, they “were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, And a vision appeared to Paul in the night.” God miraculously intervened in this situation, by sending Paul to a different region, leaving Paul with the conclusion that God must have a special calling for Him in that second region. In verses 14-15, God used the heart of a new convert who desired to help Paul to care for Paul and Silas. Acts 17:2 tells us that Paul went into the synagogue to preach the gospel because this was his habit or custom. Acts 17:16 says that, Paul preached in Athens because his spirit was moved as he saw and heard the idolatry of the people. He also left the city when he saw it was no longer profitable to continue preaching a message that the people has rejected. Acts 18 says that the key components in Paul’s decision making were pure motives, God given wisdom, and God given desires, in light of God given opportunities, and the providential orchestration of events. Acts 18:9 says that again God encourages Paul to stay faithful in this city, through miraculous means. Acts 19:21 says that, “After these things were ended, Paul purposed in the spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, After I have been there, I must also see Rome. So he sent into Macedonia two of them that ministered unto him, Timotheus and Erastus; but he himself stayed in Asia for a season.” Acts 20:1-3 says that, “After the uproar was ceased, Paul called unto him the disciples, and embraced them, and departed for to go into Macedonia. And when he had gone over those parts, and had given them much exhortation, he came into Greece, And there abode three months. And when the Jews laid wait for him, as he was about to sail into Syria, he purposed to return through Macedonia.” Acts 20:16 says that, “Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost.” I Thessalonians 2:17 says that we, “Endeavored the more abundantly to see your face with great desire. Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us.” Romans 15 says, “Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation: But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand. For which cause also I have been much hindered from coming to you. But now having no more place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come unto you; Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you: for I trust to see you in my journey, and to be brought on my way thitherward by you, if first I be somewhat filled with your company. But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things. When therefore I have performed this, and have sealed to them this fruit, I will come by you into Spain. And I am sure that, when I come unto you, I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.”
These passages do not give us all the factors in Paul decision to go to certain cities, rather they simply say that he purposed in his heart to go. I would assume that the same factors that caused him to make previous decisions factored into these decisions. Please notice that it was very rare that God through “miraculous” means restrained Paul or encouraged Paul to make the decisions that he made, yet clearly, God was personally involved in these decisions, and was obviously accomplishing His unique will in and through Paul’s life. If God generally worked in Paul’s life through “natural/providential” avenues when Paul was an apostle who received direct/special revelation from God, and was used to pen the majority of the New Testament, how much more would he use these same means for believers who live in a time when His Word is complete, and the temporary gifts of the early church have ceased. In reality, God’s providential means are no less personal or miraculous than His special/miraculous means like visions or angels that prophets, apostles, and some others received from God.
We do not see Paul putting our fleeces, praying that God would give him peace about a certain decision, looking for signs to confirm his decision, following a still small voice inside his heart, claiming a verse, or waiting for a vision from God. We also do not see Paul following a formula for proper decision making. Paul walked with God, and purposed to do what seemed best to him. Those who have a fascination with the unique miraculous means that God has used in the past, and seek these same means as norms today in decision making, misunderstand God’s general means even during times when Scripture was still being penned. This fascination or dependence upon signs, fleeces, special peace, the personal interpretation of events, or misguided applications that flow out of Scripture with no legitimate hermeneutical grounds, can be very dangerous, and is not encouraged by command or example in Scripture. Those who make decisions this way do not always get themselves into trouble, but can confuse others, become indecisive as they look for “clues,” or make unwise and even ungodly decisions based upon their interpretation of events, fleeces, “peace,” or misguided interpretations of Scripture. In most situations, God accomplished His unique, personal desires through “normal” means. God gave wisdom through His Word and godly counselors, providential provided opportunities, developed godly desires through His Word and exposure to needs, and uniquely gifted and providentially placed people to accomplish His unique personal will in their lives. Those who did not walk in obedience to God’s Word at times disqualified themselves from opportunity, and others missed potential blessing and opportunities. Others were able to see God’s grace overcome their folly. Yet others who missed opportunity in one point of their lives were presented with others later in life. God has a unique and personal will for people’s lives, and it is co-operative in nature, and He generally accomplishes it through “normal” providential means. I encourage you to humbly walk in obedience to God’s Word, and trust Him to put you where He wants you, and to use you as He sees fit.
I do not view this aspect of God’s will as a perfect plan in heaven that we are to discover, or one among many plans ranging from the perfect plan, a good, plan, and an acceptable plan. God’s unique, personal will covers a broad spectrum of unique personal circumstances and events. His will was for one to be king in Israel, for another safety and success in travels, for another to suffer persecution for the cause of Christ. I see it as God’s personal work in the lives of people, whom He has sovereignly given a degree of freedom, as He works to accomplish His unique desires in the various changing seasons of their lives. I do not think that we can fully wrap our minds around this concept, because of the limitations of human perspective, and reasoning, but I do believe that we can and must choose to relate correctly to it.