Here is a picture of an ancient Greek manuscript page from the Digital Walters (link opens new tab to view page) which are released for free under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (link opens new tab to view page) license for anyone who wants to use them:
This page is somewhere in Acts or the Epistles. It is written in Koine Greek. Notice the punctuation or lack of it rather. While there are lots of accent marks, what’s missing to us modern readers of English and other languages are periods, commas, dashes, and all of the other punctuation that we use to help determine what the line says. In this article, we will be discussing the importance of understanding the translations of words and punctuation.
So, what are we talking about and why are we getting into so much detail? In the previous post,
T 1.3 Tradition in Original Christianity, Part 3, Prophets and Prophecy Were Vitally Important,
we looked at Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem in the discussion of the role of prophets. This is a powerful topic. I have heard powerful emotions being expressed where pastors have praised Paul and extolled his bravery for going to Jerusalem in spite of prophecy that he would be captured and bound.
It is hard to change when you have been taught something and what you believe, even though possibly wrong, has inspired you in the past. But with so many differences on so many issues in the word of God, if we are ever going to get to the point of having one mind, some of us are going to have to be willing to change our thinking. Perhaps all of us will have to change our minds on different things.
So, this is a controversial topic and there are people on both sides as to whether Paul disobeyed the Spirit.[efn_note]Some sites that say Paul disobeyed the Spirit:
Some sites that say Paul didn’t disobey the Spirit:
[/efn_note] The majority of articles that I have read declare that Paul didn’t disobey in going to Jerusalem and that the believers that told him not to go were mistaken in telling him that even though it shows the great concern they had for him. Some go so far as to say that those speaking in the spirit misread the message from the spirit and the spirit wasn’t really saying not to go. One argument I read said that this is an example showing where prophecy in the New Testament is inferior to that of the Old Testament and this inferiority is reflected in the teaching of John Piper and the theology of Wayne Grudem. For example, in this argument, the people in Acts 21:4 were wrong in telling Paul not to go as they were just showing their concern, and in Acts 21:11 Agabus was wrong in the details of his prophecy because it doesn’t say the Jews specifically bound him with his belt while it does say that the Romans did, but with chains. Also, according to some, Agabus prophesied that the Jews would deliver Paul to the Gentiles while the text reads that the Romans came and arrested him. These arguments follow the modern-day tradition that says new Testament prophets were inferior and made mistakes like Agabus here.
As far as it is the majority argument I will say this; the majority of Christians in the world are Roman Catholics so if your argument is that the majority wins then you should be a Roman Catholic. Likewise, you would have been in the crowd that disagreed with Noah because the overwhelming majority of people thought Noah was a fool. No, siding with the majority can definitely lead you to places you don’t want to go.
As far as the people in Acts 21:4 being mistaken, the verse says they spoke “dia tou Pneumatos”, through the Spirit. It wasn’t their determination that Paul shouldn’t go. It was the Spirit’s! There is nothing about the peoples’ thoughts or feelings in Acts 21:4. The Spirit’s message was that Paul was not to go to Jerusalem.
As far as the mistaken Agabus, the text doesn’t say that Agabus prophesied the Jews will bind Paul with his belt, just that the Jews will bind the person who owns this belt and deliver him to the Gentiles. That the Jews specifically bound Paul with something themselves is not in the text, but the Jews laid (epiballo, to throw upon) hands on him (Acts 21:27) and took (epilambanomai, lay hold, seize) Paul to kill him (Acts 21:30). Thus Paul was bound by the Jews. Furthermore, he was being beaten (Acts 21:32), and that possibly requires the subject to be bound also for that to happen. And verse 33 says the Romans arrested him while the Jews had him so they must have handed him over. Agabus said the Jews would deliver (paradidomi, surrender, yield up) Paul to the Gentiles which is what they did. This is an example where the word used in translation isn’t necessarily the most accurate. So, I do not accept that Agabus “misread” the prophecy. His prophecy came to pass.
Finally, one verse that has been used to substantiate the Paul didn’t disobey argument is Acts 20:22. The Modern KJV reads:
And now, behold, I am going bound by the Spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall happen to me there, (Act 20:22 MKJV)
This looks like it is saying the spirit bound him to go to Jerusalem
But look at this:
And now, as you see, I am going to Jerusalem, a prisoner in spirit, having no knowledge of what will come to me there: (Act 20:22 BBE)
What the ESV version translates as “constrained in the spirit” is translated as “a prisoner of spirit” in the BBE version. “Dedemenos to pneumati” doesn’t have to mean that the spirit was forcing him to go to Jerusalem, rather that the spirit was telling him if he goes to Jerusalem he will be a prisoner! Paul was being told he would be a prisoner if he went to Jerusalem, just like Agabus prophesied. That might mean he couldn’t understand that he was being told not to go.
Also, this verse doesn’t say that the Spirit told Paul to go to Jerusalem. These are Paul words, his thoughts, giving his thoughts on what was going on. He was a prisoner in spirit, not knowing what was going to befall him there,
Now, it’s not that believers can avoid all persecution, trials and tribulations because the word of God says that there will be persecution and more. And there are martyrs in the word, the ultimate persecution. Paul is an awesome example of enduring persecution as evidenced by the list in 1 Corinthians:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. (2Co 11:23-33 ESV)
But this was not news to Paul as he was told that he would have to suffer many things for the Lord.
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Act 9:15-16 ESV)
There is no doubt that Paul endured incredible ordeals. While not in scripture historically the story is that after all these ordeals Paul died a martyr in Rome around the mid 60’s AD.
Martyrs are incredible. The first martyr in the Christian era after Christ is Stephen. The record of Stephen in Acts 7 is overwhelming to me as an example of someone dying for the love of God and his word. It is so inspiring. It is just glorious, and it must have appeared to the Sanhedrin as such:
And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. (Act 6:10 MKJV)
And looking intently at him. all those sitting in the sanhedrin saw his face as if it were the face of an angel.
(Act 6:15 MKJV)
Next, we read of the glorious testimony he gave which cut them to their hearts. Then here is the record of what happened after that:
And hearing these things, they were cut to their hearts. And they gnashed on him with their teeth. But being full of the Holy Spirit, looking up intently into Heaven, he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, Behold, I see Heaven opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. And crying out with a loud voice, they stopped their ears and ran on him with one accord. And throwing him outside the city, they stoned him. And the witnesses laid their clothes down at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen, who was calling on God and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And kneeling down, he cried with a loud voice, Lord, do not lay this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Act 7:54-60 MKJV)
Stephen laid down his life. There is nothing in this record that says that there was any way out. I have nothing but admiration for the bravery, courage, powerful spirit, and love of God he exemplified.
On the other hand, sometimes the Lord offers deliverance and people don’t take it or get it, for one reason or another. The first example I can remember is when Moses sent the spies into the promised land. The Israelites were on the verge of entering the promised land. But when the spies came back, all but two were full of doubt:
And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (Num 13:27-33 ESV)
Deliverance was at hand for the Israelites! They had been in captivity in Egypt for generations. Now they were walking in the desert without a home. They had the chance for deliverance, but they couldn’t see it. They were afraid! None of the Israelites save Joshua and Caleb who did welcome the chance to enter the promised land would get to go into the promised land. The rest didn’t accept deliverance and never got to go in.
Alternately, we have Jesus Christ himself who until it was his time to suffer and die for all of us, accepted deliverance, and walked out of one dangerous situation after another. See
Jesus Quietly Passed Through Those Trying to Kill Him for more. And Jesus said that the things that he did we would do also! Again, one of the things he did was escape danger. I’m not saying it will happen every time any more that than when someone prays for healing it doesn’t always happen because we know there are the same principles of believing involved, But it requires listening to and obeying the Spirit. And Paul was definitely told not to go to Jerusalem by the Spirit. He was given an escape. He just had to accept it.
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. (Act 21:4 ESV)
One thing that is very interesting here is that we have seen all the records where Paul has heard directly from the Spirit including miracles, healings and other deliverances for people, and also the abundance of revelation about the mystery and other things in his epistles, as well as guidance as in the Spirit telling him not to go Asia. Yet, apparently, he didn’t hear or couldn’t hear from the Spirit on this. Thus it was necessary for the Spirit to send other prophets to him with the message.
Paul rebuked the Spirit’s message through the prophets not to go to Jerusalem with his statement, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” After all, he had been told he would have to endure many things. But the key to deliverance is hearing the Spirit and following it. And when the Spirit tells you not to do something and you do it anyway, you are not following the Spirit. And you may not get the results you hoped.
Hebrews chapter eleven is an incredible record of believers who both were delivered and not delivered. The chapter starts off with the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah with their progeny, Moses, Rahab, and then it says this:
And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah; also David, and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the strangers. Women received their dead raised to life again, and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance [emphasis added], that they might obtain a better resurrection.
(Heb 11:32-35 MKJV)
Then the record lists terrible ordeals that believers withstood in faith.
“Not accepting deliverance” is very interesting. First of all, it indicates that they made a choice. Second, the choice was to be delivered or not. Yes, it does say the people mentioned did it to obtain a better resurrection. But not all deliverances are an ungodly way out. Peter and John spoke the words by the Spirit and wound up getting released in Acts 4? Peter was delivered, freed from jail, by the angel in Acts 12? So, what if it is the Spirit leading you to be delivered to allow the Word of God to further grow by your actions? Now, that’s a deliverance somebody should accept.
Now, let’s go back to the record of Paul being told not to go to Jerusalem. Let’s look at some of the unpunctuated Greek and the word for word translation of some of those verses[efn_note]Interlinear verses and translation come from Greek New Testament (Public Domain, available in the E-sword program) and The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament, George Ricker Berry, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1974 p.378-379[/efn_note].
Here is Acts 21:4
This is pretty much what the translations say, that disciples said by the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem.
Here is Acts 21:9:
That looks pretty straight forward. The ESV translates that as “He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.” Well, that is pretty easy. Looks pretty good too. right? Here is the next verse:
The ESV translates above as “While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.”
You can see how the above verses line up with the translation of the words. A lot of verses are straightforward like that. But not all of them are.
This one is trickier:
So, rearranging the words as translated just to make it more readable the translation of this Acts 21:14 reads “And since he was not being persuaded we stopped saying the will of the Lord be done.” In other words, the prophets and believers stopped telling Paul to do the will of the Lord. But this is where it gets tricky. Tradition evidently had grown to the point where the translators believed Paul followed the will of the Lord here so a straightforward translation of 21:14 doesn’t fit with that. So, if you add some commas you can change the meaning of this verse. Look at this verse:
“And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, the will of the Lord be done.” That could mean that they reversed their position, or that they were saying that the will of the Lord is going to happen here even though Paul was warned.
So, without the punctuation, the disciples around Paul stopped saying “the will of the Lord be done. But, with the punctuation, the disciples said it one last time. The punctuation completely changes whether “the will of the Lord be done” was said or not.
If Paul was told by the Spirit not to go and he was in 21:4, then it wasn’t the Lord’s will that he be captured and bound. It is important to note that the decision to go to Jerusalem marks a sharp change in Paul’s activity. Yes, he got to stand before kings and rulers but he could have done that anyway in his travels. What did happen is that he spent years in prison, at least two years with Festus and his successor, and then a couple of years under house arrest in Rome, probably five years in all. Yes, Paul did a miracle or two after this but Paul was indeed captured and bound, and his missionary journeys were stopped. I submit the Spirit told Paul not to go to Jerusalem to avoid this and enable him to be free to continue his missionary journeys.
Its so amazing that a few commas completely reverse the meaning of the text. Just remember there are no commas in the manuscripts that this verse is translated from.
The lesson here is that the translator has a lot of power just by adding punctuation.
The situation with Paul is so unique. Yes, we remember that there is an example in Acts where the Spirit forbade Paul to go into Asia, and Paul obeyed. But the book of Acts is the story of the apostles and disciples following the spirit for the most part, but not all. There are miscues by believers in Acts and also confrontations. Ananias and Sapphira held back part of the price of the land they pledged. Part of the believers criticized Peter at first for teaching the word of God to the Gentiles before accepting it as God’s plan. Peter and Paul had a big confrontation about the food laws because certain believers challenged Peter and he stopped eating with non-jews, leading to the Jerusalem council about 48AD. That was in Acts 15. Also in Acts 15 Paul and Barnabus split up because Paul didn’t want to take Barnabus’ cousin John Mark with them after John’s leaving the mission field in Pamphilia. Despite the abundance of righteous activity, not everything in Acts is somebody doing the right thing.
If what I say is true and Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem is a story about a powerful man of God with gift ministries who made a foolish, stubborn mistake then the lesson is that the rest of us should be on guard for that. What thinking are we stubbornly holding onto while the Lord is trying to tell us not to do something we want to do? What teaching is the Lord trying to show us is just a tradition other than the apostles’ tradition and stopping us from knowing the full truth of God word that the Apostles taught and practiced? That God still worked with Paul after this decision is not proof that it was what God wanted in the first place. You know, I have heard the argument that what some group teaches must be right because they have seen healings or miracles. But I have seen miracles and healings, or at least what looked to be valid claims of them in groups that teach different things on some issues. God rewards believing on the part of imperfect people everywhere. In other words, it is not a requirement for someone to be doctrinally perfect or even perfectly holy for prayers to be answered, or the spirit to be manifested.
Jesus was the only sinless man. The rest of us have fallen short, including Paul. Everybody will quickly admit that Peter was impetuous and on occasion dead wrong. But Paul is treated differently after his conversion. But remember he was very hard-headed and it took a miraculous event for him to be converted. Remember he heard Stephen speak with such power and he wasn’t phased. Is it so inconceivable that he could make a stubborn, foolish mistake at some point in his ministry? Do you think that 1 John does not apply to men and women of God?
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1Jn 1:8-10 ESV)
There are a number of lessons in this post. One is that translation from one language to another is not simple. There are differences in the punctuation from the original language to the language it is translated to. There are also problems with meanings of words in the original to meanings of words in the translation. Second is that because of the difficulty in translation we need to acknowledge that the translators used punctuation that was not in the original to give the meaning they believe the original contains. But translators can be influenced by what they believe as doctrine so as to influence how they translate. Next, what people perceive as blown prophecies need to be examined carefully. And lastly, while we should be ready to endure whatever persecution comes our way, if the Spirit gives us direction to avoid something, then we should listen and obey.