Paul’s Third Missionary Journey

Acts 18:23 begins by recording that Paul began his third missionary trip by leaving Antioch and travelling from place to place in the region of Galatia and Phrygia. Acts 19:1 reveals Paul went to the city of Ephesus.

                At first glance, it may seem that all of the above travels were purely human plans. But Acts 18:19-21 shows Paul had promised in his previous second missionary journey to return to Ephesus only if God revealed to him that it was God’s specific will: “And he came to Ephesus, and left them there; but he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to stay a longer time with them, he did not consent, but took leave of them saying, ‘I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing.’ And he sailed from Ephesus.”            


Unsure of God's specific will but desiring to know it


The Book of 1 Corinthians was written by Paul from the city of Ephesus on his third missionary journey. Paul had first preached in Corinth, the commercial seaport, during his second missionary journey (see Acts 18:1-18). 1 Corinthians 16:8 speaks of Paul being at the time of writing in Ephesus. 1 Corinthians 16:12 speaks of Apollos being at Ephesus at the time. This fits in with Acts 18:24-28 which occurred at the time of Paul’s third missionary journey.

            1 Corinthians 16:19 infers also that Paul was in Ephesus at the time. This is because Ephesus was in the Roman province of Asia and Aquila and Priscilla mentioned in the verse are said in Acts 18:18-19 and 18:26 to have been in Ephesus when Paul was there.

            We see in 1 Corinthians 16:3-9 that while Paul was at Ephesus, at first he was considering a number of possible plans: “And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will to bear your gift to Jerusalem. But if it is fitting that I go also, they will go with me. Now I will come to you when I pass through Macedonia (for I am passing through Macedonia). But it may be that I will remain, or even spend the winter with you, that you may send me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not wish to see you now on the way; but I hope to stay a while with you, if the Lord permits. But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”

            Verses 3-4 reveal that Paul was not sure whether to return to Jerusalem with a collection for God's people there or whether to just send the gift with some believers from Corinth. Verse 5 indicates Paul had planned to go to Macedonia. Verse 6 shows that Paul was considering returning to Corinth, but did not know for how long nor where he would go after there.

            But observe verse 7 indicates Paul believed that God had a specific will about these matters and that he would only travel to Corinth and stay there for a period of time “if the Lord permits”. Similar expressions to “if the Lord permits” were frequently used by Paul when discussing future possible plans. Acts 18:20-21 states Paul said, “I will return again to you, God willing.” 1 Corinthians 4:19 records that Paul said, “but I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills...” See also Romans 1:10 and 15:32.

            This usage of the expressions “if the Lord permits”, “God willing” and “if the Lord wills” reveals Paul believed that even when he had not received clear specific guidance, he needed continually to submit his human plans over to God so that he would be open for any total rejection of or amending of these by God.

            In 1 Corinthians 16:4, Paul said “But if it is fitting that I go also”. In this context, this expression “if it is fitting” means “if the Lord permits” as used in verse 7.

            As we will see later in Acts 19:21, towards the end of Paul's stay in Ephesus, God guided Paul what was his specific will about the various alternative plans Paul had been considering in 1 Corinthians 16:3-9.


Paul did not go purely by opened and closed doors


See also that 1 Corinthians 16:8-9 indicates that on this particular occasion at Ephesus, Paul accepted an opened door for his ministry and preaching of the gospel: “But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”

            But note Paul did not allow his ministry to be run purely on the principle of open and closed doors.

            When he was there previously, Paul told the Ephesians he would return to Ephesus to minister only if God specifically revealed for him to do so. This is evidenced in Paul's words in Acts 18:20-21: “When they asked him to stay a longer time with them, he did not consent, but took leave of them saying, ‘I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing.’ And he sailed from Ephesus.”

            Even though the people had asked him to stay there and minister, Paul declined their offer. Imagine this: Paul had a great open door to continue to preach the Gospel at Ephesus on his previous second missionary journey, but he declined and left. Paul did not regard all invitations to minister, even if they seemed great opportunities, as being those he would accept. A similar example of this occurred later at Troas, as we will see.


Paul's plan that God changed


2 Corinthians 1:15-17 records Paul had made a human plan to go first to Corinth in Achaia, then to Macedonia, then back to Corinth and then to Judea: “And in this confidence I intended to come to you before, that you might have a second benefit - to pass by way of you to Macedonia, to come again from Macedonia to you, and be helped by you on my way to Judea. Therefore, when I was planning this, did I do it lightly? Or the things I plan, do I plan according to the flesh, that with me there should be Yes, Yes, and 'No, No?”

            But note that Paul later changed this plan by going first to Macedonia, then to Athens, then to Corinth, back to Macedonia, then to Troas and then to Judea.

                Paul wrote his words in 2 Corinthians 1:15-17 and probably the rest of 2 Corinthians from Macedonia (see 2 Corinthians 2:13, 7:5, 9:2 and 4). Why did Paul later change his plan by going to Macedonia before he went to Corinth? The reason can be found in the supernatural guidance God gave Paul towards the end of his second recorded visit to the city of Ephesus. He ministered there for three months in the synagogue and then for two years in the lecture hall of Tyrannus (see Acts 19:8-10). Acts 19:21 reveals Paul received guidance to go to Jerusalem via Macedonia and Achaia, and from Jerusalem to later go to Rome. Corinth was the capital of Achaia. Acts 19:21 says: “When these things were accomplished, 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.’”

                There are two possible interpretations of the expression “purposed in the Spirit” in Acts 19:21. This phrase can either refer to “purposed in his human spirit” or “purposed in the Holy Spirit”. But it is certain that the expression “purposed in the Spirit” does not refer to a mere human plan. The human spirit of a born-again Christian is the place through which the Holy Spirit reveals God's will about many things to the person’s natural mind. So if Acts 19:21 refers to Paul purposing in his human spirit, it relates also to Him purposing together in conjunction with the Holy Spirit’s directing influence.

1 Corinthians 6:17 reveals the human spirit of a born-again Christian becomes one with the Holy Spirit: “But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” 1 Corinthians 2:11 reveals the human spirit can know things. Proverbs 20:27 teaches that our human spirit is the lamp of the Lord.      

            Romans 8:16 speaks of the Holy Spirit passing on information to our human spirit: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

            The various translators of the original Greek New Testament are unsure of how to translate the expression “purposed in the spirit”. The New American Standard Bible translates it as “purposed in his spirit”. The King James Version translates it as this also. The Amplified Version translates it as “determined in the (Holy) Spirit”. The Revised Standard Version translates it as “resolved in the Spirit”. The New King James Version translates it as “purposed in the Spirit”. In their Greek lexicon, Louw and Nida say that Acts 19:21 “may be translated as Paul, led by the Spirit, decided to travel through Macedonia”. [1]

            But the above makes little difference because of the fact that the Holy Spirit’s guidance is supernaturally imparted through the human spirit to the person's natural mind. So purposing in the born-again human spirit or determining or resolving in the (Holy) Spirit means virtually the same thing.

            Acts 19:22 reveals that after receiving this guidance recorded in Acts 19:21, Paul remained in Ephesus in the province of Asia a while longer. Then Acts 20:1 shows that Paul later left Ephesus for Macedonia.

            So Paul left Ephesus in obedience to God's guidance recorded in Acts 19:21. He ignored his original human plan to go to Corinth first, then to Macedonia, then back to Corinth and then to Judea. In 2 Corinthians 1:15-17, Paul tried to explain to the Corinthians that he did originally plan to come to them first.


 An open door to preach left because of God's guidance


On his way to Macedonia, Paul passed through the city of Troas. 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 reveals that at Troas, a door was opened for Paul to preach the Gospel. But note Paul did not base his decision-making here at Troas just on open doors alone. Nor did he base his decision-making purely on whether there was fertile ground here for preaching of the Gospel and his own ministry. 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 states: “Futhermore, when I came to Troas to preach the Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened to me by the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I did not find Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I departed for Macedonia.”

            Paul had no rest or peace in his human spirit about continuing to preach in Troas. Even though his preaching was successful and the ground was fertile for the Gospel, he had a witness of the Holy Spirit in his spirit which revealed to him not to stay there. This guidance told him to continue on his journey to Macedonia until he found the Apostle Titus.

            Some say that ministries should preach only where their ministry is successful and should stay there until their success ceases. But Paul did not run his ministry purely by this principle. He also sought the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Paul did not take success in ministry at a particular place as being his sole criteria in decision-making. He did not go by circumstances alone. He combined Biblical commands, Holy Spirit supernatural guidance, circumstances and a certain amount of human planning together.

            Paul did not operate his ministry just by human reason-commonsense methods of research. For example, he did not do research in Troas finding that there was much responsiveness to the Gospel there and then use this as his main criteria for deciding whether to stay there.

            Observe also that God's supernatural guidance in Paul's spirit, recorded in 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, about finding Titus was fulfilled in circumstances. 2 Corinthians 7:5-6 reveals Paul contacted Titus in Macedonia. This making contact with Titus was part of God’s specific plan: “For indeed, when we came to Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears. Nevertheless God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus.”


The inner witness is different from our human emotion


2 Corinthians 7:5-6 expresses another important point about guidance. In verse 5, Paul said that when he and his companions arrived in Macedonia, they had no rest in their flesh or “sarx” in Greek. He said they were afflicted on every side and had fears within. Here we see the difference between supernatural guidance in the form of a lack of rest or peace in our spirit by the Holy Spirit and mere human natural emotions caused by outward trials and afflictions.

            Note 2 Corinthians 7:5-6 reveals Paul was battling fear and had no rest or peace in his flesh because of the terrible outward troubles and conflicts that were occurring. But note he did not take this lack of rest or peace in his flesh as supernatural guidance suggesting he was out of God’s will. Compare this to 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 which says that when he had lack of rest in his human spirit, he took this as God’s guidance to leave an open door for ministry in which he had briefly operating.

            Paul went to Macedonia in obedience to the inner witness of the Holy Spirit which led him to leave an open door of ministry to look for Titus and to fulfil God’s original guidance recorded in Acts 19:21 about Macedonia. When Paul arrived in Macedonia, he had no peace in his natural emotions because of the very dangerous outward circumstances he faced there. Paul knew the difference between the witness of the Spirit and his human natural emotions.


To Corinth in obedience to God


Acts 20:2 reveals that after being in Macedonia for a while, Paul went to Greece. Verse 3 indicates he spent three months there. During this time, he was at Corinth in Achaia in obedience to the Holy Spirit’s guidance as previously recorded in Acts 19:21.

God's guidance mixed with human planning filling in gaps?


Acts 20:1-2 records Paul travelled from Ephesus in Asia Minor to Macedonia in Europe and then to Greece. Acts 20:3 expresses that Paul then planned to set sail for Syria. In this instance, he was aiming to obey God's guidance found in Acts 19:21 about going to Jerusalem. But after the Jews plotted against him as he was about to sail to Syria, Paul decided to return to Jerusalem via Macedonia. These events can be interpreted in the following various possible ways:


           God sovereignly permitted the Jews to plot against Paul so he would not return to Jerusalem immediately directly via Syria. In other words, God used sinful humans to close the doors for Paul because God wanted him to go to Jerusalem via Macedonia.

           As shown in Chapter 8 “Circumstances” of “How to Recognize God’s Voice”, not all closed doors in circumstances are signs of God’s will. Also Satan can close doors for a period of time even though God wants the doors eventually opened (see 1 Thessalonians 2:18). So possibly Paul permitted the Jewish plots against him to pressure him into deciding to go back through Macedonia out of God’s will.

           After the Jewish plot occurred, the Holy Spirit supernaturally personally guided Paul to go to Macedonia.

           God permitted Paul to make a purely human decision to go back through Macedonia to Jerusalem.


The Bible does not clearly reveal which of these alternatives is the correct interpretation.

            After going back through Macedonia, Paul then went in consecutive order to Troas, Assos, Mitylene, Samos and Miletus (Acts 20:5-15).

            Further possible human planning is recorded in Acts 20:16: “For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost.”

            If God had given Paul supernatural guidance to be in Jerusalem by the Day of Pentecost, it is doubtful that Acts 20:16 would have used the words “if possible”.


More human planning


The human element in planning is seen in 1 Corinthians 16:12. 1 Corinthians 16:12 reveals Paul urged Apollos, the teacher to go to Corinth, but Apollos did not want to go until later: “Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to come to you with the brethren, but he was quite unwilling to come at this time; however, he will come when he has a convenient time.”

            The difference in attitude between Paul and Apollos about this matter reveals either one or both of them were going by a human plan on this occasion.



It was God’s will for Paul to return to Jerusalem


            After arriving at the seaport of Miletus, Paul sent a message to the elders of the Church at Ephesus, calling them to come and see him (see Acts 20:15-17). Acts 20:22-24 reveals some of the words Paul told the elders of the Ephesian Church after they came to see him at Miletus: “And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”

            Various Bible versions translate the word “spirit” in Acts 20:22 in different ways. The Revised Standard Version translates it as “bound in the Spirit”. The Amplified Version translates it as “bound by the (Holy) Spirit” and the New International Version “compelled by the Spirit”. The King James Version and the New American Standard Bible both use “bound in the Spirit”.

            But all these translations virtually mean the same thing: The Holy Spirit imparted a supernatural longing to Paul's human spirit guiding him to go to Jerusalem. The expression “bound in the spirit” cannot be interpreted as a plan solely of the natural human mind.

            Acts 20:23 reveals the Holy Spirit had been warning Paul in every city that imprisonment and suffering awaited him in Jerusalem. Paul did not wrongly interpret all these Holy Spirit-given warnings as guidance for him not to go to Jerusalem. Therefore, it is unwise to suggest Paul misinterpreted all of this guidance found in Acts 19:21, 20:22, 20:23 and 21:11 to mean that God did not want him to go to Jerusalem. This is especially since Acts 20:23 records Paul said that in every city, the Holy Spirit had been speaking to him about this matter.

            To argue that Paul was insisting on going to Jerusalem against God’s revealed will is to accuse him of sinning against the Lord similarly to how the prophet Balaam did (see Numbers Chapters 22-24).

            In Paul’s case, there is nowhere in the New Testament which clearly says he disobeyed God in going to Jerusalem.

Acts 20:18-37 reveals the elders of the Ephesian church wept aloud when Paul told them he had to go to Jerusalem while knowing chains and great troubles awaited him there. The attitude of the Ephesian elders here helps to explain what happened later at Tyre (see Acts 21:3-4) and at Caesarea (see Acts 21:12) when two different groups of believers tried to persuade Paul not to go to Jerusalem. They all loved him and knew how greatly God had used him as an instrument of God's glory. It was perfectly natural for them not to want to lose him. How would you have emotionally responded if you lived in Roman jail times and God revealed that it was His will for a loved one of yours to be imprisoned in an horrific Roman jail and possibly be killed? The emotional response of the Ephesian elders and the disciples at Tyre can be seen in their weeping (see Acts 20:37 and 21:13).


At Tyre, some disciples added their own opinions to God’s prophecies


            While Paul was in Tyre, the Holy Spirit used some disciples to warn him of the great troubles he would face in Jerusalem. Acts 21:4 records: “And finding disciples, we stayed there seven days. They told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem.” In his “Bible Background Commentary”, Craig Keener says the following about the expression “They told Paul through the Spirit”: “…this phrase is not Luke’s usual description of prophecy and probably indicates that they were simply warning him not to go on the basis of their prophecies about what would happen.” [2] In his comments on Acts 21:4, the well-known commentator Matthew Henry stated, “foreseeing his troubles, from love to him and concern for the church, they wrongly thought it would be most for the glory of God that he should continue at liberty.”

            Acts 21:4 seems to be similar to the response of the disciples to the prophet Agabus’ revelation about Paul going to Jerusalem (see Acts 21:10-12). In both cases, the Holy Spirit gave guidance to warn Paul what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem but humans added their human element to the prophecies, trying to talk him out of going.


Agabus’ predictions and the different responses of Paul and others


Acts 21:10-12 records the God-inspired predictions which Agabus gave to Paul: “And as we stayed many days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ And when we heard these things, both we and those from that place pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem.”

                But note Paul’s reaction to Luke and the other disciples’ words: “Then Paul answered, ‘What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

            Paul did not think that he was disobeying God in going to Jerusalem. Acts 21:14 says that Luke and these disciples who tried to talk him out of going, even admitted it was possibly God’s will for him to go: “So when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, ‘The will of the Lord be done.’”

            Try to understand the reaction of Luke and the other disciples who tried to talk Paul out of going to Jerusalem. They may not have had personal guidance themselves that it was God's will for Paul to go to Jerusalem. Also, even though they had heard Paul say the Lord had revealed that he should go to Jerusalem to be bound and handed over to the Romans, they obviously knew that all believers can make mistakes in receiving God’s guidance.

            What may have confused Luke and the other disciples even more was the fact that they did not know the disciples at Tyre had previously added a human element to their predictive prophecies recorded in Acts 21:4 about Paul going to Jerusalem. Note Luke and some of these disciples had earlier been at Tyre and heard the disciples from Tyre give these prophecies.


More guidance about Paul going to Rome


After Paul arrived in Jerusalem and had ministered to the Jews, God gave him further guidance which confirmed what He had told him earlier in Acts 19:21 about him going to Rome. In Acts 27:23-25, an angel confirmed the same guidance. “For there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ Therefore take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me.”

            If we compare the mentions of Gaius and Erastus in Romans 16:23 to 1 Corinthians 1:14 and 2 Timothy 4:20, it seems that the Book of Romans was written while Paul was at Corinth on this third missionary trip. Romans 15:25-26 infers that Paul either wrote the Book of Romans from Corinth in Achaia on his third missionary journey or not long after he left there.

                One wrong [3]view of Paul's words in Romans 1:10-12 is that they are an example of human planning without any guidance from the Holy Spirit. Romans 1:10-12 says: “making request if, by some means, now at last I may find a way in the will of God to come to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established – that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.”

            In these verses, we see Paul was praying that his desire to visit the church at Rome may be fulfilled. Acts 19:21 refers to earlier at Ephesus the Holy Spirit put into Paul's human spirit a plan to go to Rome after he had been to Jerusalem. This revelation occurred before Paul arrived at Corinth in Greece (see Acts 20:1-2) and before Paul wrote the Book of Romans. Therefore, Romans 1:10-12 is Paul’s prayer based on his knowledge that God planned for him to go to Rome but God had not up until then revealed when and how. In verse 10, Paul was not saying he was unsure whether it was God’s will for him to go to Rome. Instead he was praying for a way in the will of God to go to Rome.

            Romans 1:10-12 is similar to when Daniel prayed that God's will expressed previously through the prophet Jeremiah about Jerusalem would be fulfilled (see Daniel 9:1-23).

Romans 15:28-32 also records that Paul prayed that he would go to Rome according to God’s will.


Paul desired to go to Spain


In Romans 15:24 and 28, Paul refers to his plan to go to Spain. Whether this was a purely human plan or guidance of the Holy Spirit is hard to determine. Also, the New Testament does not record if Paul ever reached Spain.




Paul's missionary trips reveal that:


         He believed that God has a specific will about personal decision-making.

         He was always open to receiving guidance about its details.

         He was given much supernatural guidance by God.

         Paul did make some human plans, but only made these to fill in any gaps that occurred in between the Holy Spirit’s various pieces of guidance.

         Paul committed his human plans to God and was always ready for the Holy Spirit to change these.

         When the Scriptures refer to believers making plans, sometimes these plans seemed to have been made without God’s guidance, but were not really.

         Paul did not regard all human requests for him to minister as being God's will.

         Paul sometimes left open doors of ministry, if given guidance by the Holy Spirit.

         We still need to pray that God’s will is fulfilled, even after He specifically reveals it.


[1] Louw and Nida, pages, 359-360.

[2] Craig Keener, “Bible Background Commentary”, I.V.P., Downers Grove, 1993, page 385.

[3] (no text in word document)

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