Learning From an Apostle’s Failure

There is a tendency within us to project the faultless character of the inspired scriptures onto the fallible vessels used by the Holy Spirit to write them. Upon reflection, we might remember that the apostle Peter was rebuked for his error by the Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, for his hypocrisy in separating from Gentile believers for fear of the reaction it might cause among Jewish Christians (Galatians 2).  But while Paul was singularly used of God in the revelation of His mind as to the mystery of Jew and Gentile believers being united in one body by the cross of Christ, we can discern his failure in not wholly following the Spirit’s direction during one period of his ministry.

In Acts 16, we read of the clear direction of the Spirit of God forbidding Paul and his company from preaching the gospel in Asia. While we may not at first understand this restraint by the Spirit in the spread of the gospel of God’s grace, we must bow to the implied truth that the time is not always ripe for the gospel message to be proclaimed in a particular place or to certain people. Paul came back to Asia later, as seen in Act 19, and his labor was rewarded in Ephesus with many believing souls. But first, the Spirit uses the vision of the man from Macedonia to lead Paul into Europe, where many were saved in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth.

It is in Acts 18:18 that we first find an indication that Paul’s former devotion to law-keeping had not completely fallen away to give way to walking by the Spirit on the principle of grace.¹  He had taken a vow that apparently ended with his head having to be shorn. We find no defense of this practice in all of the New Testament’s doctrinal teaching, nor for the vows and offerings that Paul later becomes party to in Acts 21:20-28, after arriving back in Jerusalem for the final time. God mercifully intervenes before Paul, at the behest of James and the elders, carries out the animal sacrifices that would only serve to compromise the Christian testimony with non-Christian ritual.

On his way back from Corinth to Jerusalem, Paul stops briefly in Ephesus, but though it might have seemed to be of the Spirit that he stay there for a while longer, for the Ephesian Jews desired that he stay, he is determined to “keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem” (Acts 18:21). Paul had a real love for his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3), and being with them in Jerusalem for a “feast of the Jews” still tugged strongly at his heartstrings.

We read of him purposing “in his spirit” to return to Jerusalem again for the feast of Pentecost, after traveling again to Ephesus and Macedonia on his third missionary journey.² We find no indication that he was being led of the Holy Spirit to return to Jerusalem, and we find further that the Spirit used certain prophets to specifically warn him against going there at that time. He sailed to Tyre and tarried there for seven days, during which some disciples “said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.”³

Paul had a heart that was true to his Lord and Savior, and no one should doubt his devotion to the glory of Christ. His zeal for God after his conversion is perhaps unmatched in the history of the church, and yet he failed for a time in this, that he was deterred from fully following the Spirit’s direction because of love for his Jewish brethren and an understandable hesitation to give up the trappings of the law of Moses. The words of Jesus in Luke 5:39 even applied in part to Paul: “No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth the new: for he saith, The old is better.” It took the Lord’s chastening hand upon him in what befell him there in Jerusalem and afterwards to bring him to the point where he could write to his fellow Hebrews: “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle . . . Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:10-13).

Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians, who were Gentiles in danger of being led astray by Judaizers, that “if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit”.*  This is perhaps the greatest practical truth of Christianity, and we all fail in it often. And there are a few lessons we can learn from the temporary failure of the dear apostle Paul, to whom we owe so much for being used of the Lord in making known the surpassing truth of Christianity:

  • The “honey”° of natural affection, family ties, or ethnic loyalty often become hindrances to following the leading of the Spirit.
  • The “old wine” of Judaism, as well as any other religious tradition, may also hinder believers in walking by the Spirit.
  • If we fail to wait on the Lord’s counsel or follow our own desires or natural affection, the Lord will send leanness to our souls (Psalm 106:13-15), and may chasten us in various ways to bring about the “peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11).
  • A man may have a heart exercised unto godliness and an irreproachable walk before others, yet still fail to walk by the Spirit in certain matters where the faith to do so would take him down a lonelier path of reproach for Christ’s sake.
  • While we may be persuaded in our spirits that we are walking according to the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the matter of worship and ministry, we must learn to take care not to set at naught or make little of other godly believers who may not yet be similarly exercised.

While Paul was in custody before the high priest after his arrest in Jerusalem, he uttered a few more hasty comments that he regretted later, giving evidence that he was not in the state of soul that would make it natural for him to take the spiritual high road.°° But after the Lord worked to bring about restoration and redirection, Paul seemed at the end of his path of service to take a softer approach toward those saints who fell short in walking by the Spirit in Christian fellowship and ministry.  He simply sorrows that “all they which are in Asia” had turned away from him (II Timothy 1:15). He grieves that “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present age”, and then asks for the Lord’s mercies upon those that forsook him: “At my first defense no man stood with me, but all deserted me. May it not be imputed to them” (II Timothy 4:10 & 16, Darby translation).

May we by the grace of God learn from Paul’s failure to distrust our flesh and natural desires in seeking to follow the Spirit’s guidance, while we have long patience with and loving care for all our brethren seeking in any measure to walk by faith.


¹    Galatians 5:16-25; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 13:9

²    Acts 19:21 (Darby trans.); Acts 20:16

³    Acts 20:22-24; 21:4-14

*    Galatians 5:25 (Darby translation)

°     See Leviticus 2:11

°°    Acts 23:2-10; 24:21

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