Tragic Hero (Part I) – Acts 21:1-16

by Roger McCay
1 November 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 21:1-16
Link to Audio Version

A tragic hero. You know them from literature and movies. Tragic heroes of Shakespeare include Hamlet and Macbeth. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit is a tragic hero, then William Wallace in Braveheart and Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator. Aristotle spoke of them, and tragic heroes can be seen in stories from over 400 years before Jesus was born, in Greek literature, such as Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (429 BC).

There are tragic heroes in the Bible. Many people include, in this list, Moses, Samson, Saul, and David among others. In his book How to Read the Bible as Literature, Leland Ryken defines a tragic hero of the Bible saying,

Ordinarily a tragic hero possesses something that we can call greatness of spirit. All of this grandeur is brought tumbling down by a final trait of the tragic hero-a tragic flaw of character. Aristotle’s word for it was hamartia (translated “sin” in the New Testament), a missing of the mark. Aristotle described it as “some great error or frailty,” some “defect which is painful or destructive.” In other words, tragedy always portrays caused suffering. The plot of tragedy focuses on human choice. The story begins with the protagonist facing a dilemma that demands a choice. Drawn in two or more directions, the tragic hero makes a tragic choice that leads inevitably to catastrophe and suffering. This means that a tragic hero is always responsible for the downfall (since it is the result of choice and action by the hero). [1]

So, was the Apostle Paul a tragic hero? Chapter 21 of Acts gives a strong impression that Paul was, indeed, a tragic hero. Yet, he was a tragic hero in a particularly Biblical way, which ends not in doom and hopelessness, but with redemption and hope in Jesus Christ—thus, a redeemed tragic hero.

But in Luke’s account of the road to tragedy that his good friend Paul followed going to Jerusalem, we learn a valuable lesson that we should heed in our own lives. James Boice describes this fallen condition focus saying, “We sometimes try to cover up disobedience in our lives by taking what seems a high spiritual road. We say, “I am willing to do anything, suffer anything, even die for Jesus.” But what we really mean by that is, “I want to do what I want to do regardless.”[2] And so we have the template for a road to tragedy.

Paul’s journey to Jerusalem has been the subject of much debate. There is a conundrum of language that can lead one, who does not carefully read the text, to conclude that the Holy Spirit gives conflicting guidance to Paul.

In Acts 19:21 there is a statement concerning Paul’s going to Jerusalem (ESV):

21a Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem.

Then in 20:22-23 Paul says,

22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.

Now, are these passages as saying, as some think, that the Spirit of God told Paul to go to Jerusalem? Was Paul’s journey one of obedience, undertaken knowing that he would suffer, as a result of the journey? In order to answer, the passages at hand must be understood in relation to the whole context of Paul’s journey.

So, we come to ch. 21. In ch. 21, Luke records that while in Tyre, the Christian’s repeatedly gave a message to him (v. 4b): “And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” The sense here is that they kept telling him (repeatedly) this message, which the Spirit of God was relaying to Paul through them. It was a command from the Spirit of God. Do not step foot in Jerusalem! Do not go to Jerusalem! There is then the warning of Agabus the prophet, in Caesarea, and the message he brought from the Holy Spirit starting in v. 10. Then there are the pleas to not go to Jerusalem given by the notable Christians in Caesarea, who saw what was happening including Philip, his prophetess daughters, and Luke. Yet Paul refused to let these things sway him from his course.

Do you see the seeming conflict of guidance? And, how are we to understand Paul’s actions? Well, there are a couple of typical ways scholars approach these issues.

One interpretive group sees Paul as having received his marching orders from the Spirit of God. Thus, he moves out according to those orders, even knowing he will suffer in Jerusalem. The warnings he received along the way from the Christians were well-meant, because they cared for Paul and didn’t want to see him suffer. But Paul, “constrained (or “bound”) by the Spirit,” was right to ignore them. A way this group gets around the command in 21:4 is to say that the Christians in Tyre prophetically knew about the suffering Paul would face, in Jerusalem. So, they gave a well-meaning interpretation of the prophecy, which was that he should not go—so, just another warning.[3] This group even likes to compare Paul’s journey to Jerusalem with Jesus’ final journey.

The problem with this interpretation is that it does not do justice to the text and the context of the entire ordeal, including the events that occurred in Jerusalem. Explaining away 21:4 seems wishful thinking. But it appears that many people just cannot stand to see this “über-apostle,” as he’s been called, this “hero,” make such a huge mistake—even be disobedient. The comparison to Jesus’ journey is rather off, too, since the urging that Jesus got from his disciples was likened to the temptations of Satan. Jesus rebuked Peter, saying “Get behind me Satan” (Mark 8:33). In total contrast, the command Paul received through the disciples in Tyre, and the prophetic warnings as to what would happen to him, if he continued on this path, were from the Spirit of God!!! In fact, Paul’s journey to Jerusalem can be seen, in some ways, as the antithesis of Jesus’ journey.

Thus, the other interpretation, positing that Paul “let his emotions overcome his reason.” Despite warnings against going that were given him by the Holy Spirit, the command passed on to him from the Spirit in Tyre, the urging not to go based on sound prophecy, and the wisdom of numerous notable Christians in the early church, Paul stubbornly refused to listen and continued going his own way. This second interpretation seems to better fit the text and context.

So, let’s look at the interpretation of Acts 19:21 and 20:22-23. Do these passages indeed say that the Spirit of God sent Paul on this journey? While that is an interpretation (like I’ve explained), considering the context of the following chapter, and some of what I’ve discussed already, the better interpretation seems to be that God did not tell Paul to go to Jerusalem. Rather, Paul decided to go despite warnings and direction from the Holy Spirit.

The NIV translates 19:21 as “Paul decided to go to Jerusalem” (a sound translation). Then look at ch. 20, vv. 22-23 (and please forgive my abridged explanation of the exegesis). Your ESV will have a capital “S” for “spirit” in v. 22. However, it seems the KJV gets this right by translating “spirit,” in v. 22, with a lower case “s,” based on the textual and situational context of the passage. Context is important here, because grammatically, this could be translated as “bound/constrained in the or my spirit” (with a lower case “s,” meaning Paul’s spirit). Or, it could be translated as “bound/constrained by the Spirit (with an upper case “S,” meaning the Holy Spirit). As the grammar has some flexibility, context is the determining factor in how to translate and understand whether Paul’s statement is referring to Paul’s spirit or the Holy Spirit. The distinction made between “spirit” in v. 22 and “Holy Spirit” in v. 23 is significant and deliberate—the text informing the reader that Paul is talking about his own spirit in v. 22. And, other contexts I’ve already mentioned and will touch on in a moment support this conclusion. As it is, the KJV seems to have a solid translation: “in the spirit” (with a little “s”).

Hence, in Acts 20:22, a probable understanding is that Paul was saying, as two prominent Greek lexicons suggest: I am “‘bound or constrained in my spirit,’ i.e. compelled by my convictions;”[4] That it was “In his own spirit. Constrained by an invincible sense of duty. Not by the Holy Spirit, which is mentioned in the next verse and distinguished by the epithet the Holy.” [5]

Further context verifies this conclusion, helping us understand what it means. Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, and in his spirit, he was bound and determined. He was bound and determined to go regardless of the warnings as to the dire consequences of going, which were repeatedly given to him personally by the Holy Spirit in various cities (Acts 20:23; also the events in 21:1-16). He was bound and determined to go regardless of the command from the Spirit of God, relayed through the disciples in Tyre, not to go to Jerusalem in 21:4. He was bound and determined to go regardless to the pleading of wise Christians, including Philip, the prophet Agabus, the prophetess daughters of Phillip, and even Luke himself, (people who were illuminated by the Spirit of God as to their urgings) along with the other Christians in Caesarea (21:8-12).

And think about it. The Spirit of God had told Paul not to go somewhere before. Remember how during his second missionary journey, in Acts 16:6-7, he and his fellow missionaries were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go into Asia and Bithynia? That’s what’s going on here. But this time, Paul didn’t heed the Spirit, as he was bound and determined.

Considering these things, we really have to ask, “Why was Paul so bound and determined to go to Jerusalem?” What on earth was he thinking!? From his own words and deeds we can get an idea of the answer.

In Romans, written in Corinth shortly before his journey to Jerusalem, Paul wrote in Romans 9:2-3: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Paul desperately wanted his fellow Jews to believe in Jesus and be saved, so much so he was almost willing to be damned to hell for their sake. In Acts 21:13, in response to the pleas of his friends not to go to Jerusalem, Paul expressed his anguish caused by their pleas saying, “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. Paul had even taken up an offering from the Gentile believers to take the Jews in Jerusalem, and, perhaps, he hoped this monetary gift might have helped towards healing the growing rift between Jewish and Gentile believers over the issues of law and grace.

Paul desperately wanted his fellow Jews to be saved. It is no exaggeration to say that he was willing to do whatever it took to that end. The threat of death was not even a hindrance to his resolve, as he had a conflicted death wish, expressed later from prison to the church in Philippi (Phil.1:23):“My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. [v.24] But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”

Now, with that said, everything we know of Paul paints the picture of a selfless, loving man (an admirable man) who was willing to suffer and die for the sake of his people and for the sake of the Lord. He possessed a great sense of fortitude, and although he underwent numerous beatings and imprisonments for the sake of the gospel and Jesus’ name, he was not deterred and pressed on with his mission, taking the gospel to the Gentiles.

Yet while these things are remarkably virtuous, taken too far away from center they can become a fault. Alfred Mortimer explains this concept in terms of the Golden Mean:

In the virtue of Fortitude considered actively, this will be courage, its excess being carelessness, and its defect cowardice. If the virtue be taken passively, the mean will be patience, the excess being insensibility, and the defect excitability. In a combination of these two, the golden mean will be perseverance, its excess obstinacy, and its defect fickleness.[6]

In Paul’s love and perseverance, he went too far from center into the excesses of obsessiveness and obstinacy. Thus, we have this hero’s fatal flaw.

And, as we’ll see, hopefully starting next week, Paul’s fatal flaw led him into an unnecessary compromise and right into the jaws of the very pain and misery of which the Holy Spirit and other believers had warned him. Yet the Lord’s plan did not spin into disarray. Our mistakes and disobedience do not leave the Lord wondering what he’s going to do now. Thus, the believers in Caesarea, resigned to Paul’s choice, knowing he was obstinately making a dire mistake, grieving for him, stated, “Let the will of the Lord be done” (v. 14). What else could they say?

Now, it is important, as we study the Scriptures, that we do not fall into hero worship. The only hero of the Scriptures we can worship is the Lord. The only perfect hero of the Scriptures is the Lord Jesus. Everyone else is a sinner, just like you and me. Paul himself admits he is the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15-16; and this is not false humility) but a sinner saved by the grace of God through faith, redeemed by the blood of the Lord.

In the humanity of Biblical heroes like Paul, the Scriptures give us warnings, along with hope, illustrated in their lives. In our own lives, similar to Paul, it can be really easy, in our zeal, to take up some mission or journey and think we are going forth in God’s will, and yet fail to heed the warning signs all along the road.

A pastor friend of mine commented one time on how he often had people come into his office convinced that God had told them to go do something. Yet, the evidence clearly pointed in a different direction.

Sometimes people even convince themselves that it is God’s will for them to do something that goes against his revealed will—something sinful. In the sermon last week, I mentioned one example—women who think God wants them to be a pastor or elder in the church.

Another example is that some, who are enslaved to the god of romance, convince themselves that it is God’s will they leave their husband or wife because they made a mistake in marrying him or her as evidenced by their love for the other person. Those feelings of love must be right, so it must be God’s will to be with that new and special person. So, they divorce their spouse and marry another, feeling justified in their own mind that they were following the Spirit’s leading based on their feelings. And while they may be following a god’s (little “g”) will, it is not the living and true God of the Bible’s will. We know this because of the Word of God – the Bible. Adultery is a sin. It’s commandment number 7 of the big 10 (Ex. 20:14). And the Spirit of God will not lead you into sin. This is why we are told to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1).

Ignoring warning signs is never a good thing. When you see a sign, as you ride down the road, that says, “Bridge out ahead,” it is best to find another route. Don’t convince yourself that continuing down the road you will somehow make it over the broken bridge. You will only end up falling into a chasm.

As we follow the Lord Jesus as his disciples, what warning signs are there for us that can help us know when we are heading out of God’s will? Three things: We have the Word of God; the promptings of the Holy Spirit; and the advice and counsel of other believers. Sometimes you or I might misinterpret what we consider the Spirit of God’s leading or what the Bible says (perhaps even interpreting them both according to wishful thinking). And sometimes, you or I might not like what other believers are telling us. But ignore the warnings of all three of these at your peril.

In the course of events it may come to pass that you may want something so bad, even justify it as good and holy (even God’s will), and maybe it is. But, maybe it isn’t. Even heroes fall.

Let us, by the power of the Spirit of God (Phil. 2:13), stay (or strive to become) disciplined, self-aware, alert, examining our motives, recognizing our own potential fatal flaws. As we follow after Jesus on the path of righteousness, there are warning signs all along the way to keep us, his disciples (saved by the blood of the lamb), centered. Let us humbly pay close attention to these gracious warnings of the Lord found in his Word, the Holy Spirit’s work, and the loving, wise, counsel of other believers. Because even heroes fall, Christians must heed the warning signs.


[1] Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 83-84.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 359.

[3] Cf. I. Howard Marshall, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 358.

[4] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, trans. Joseph Henry Thayer (New York: American Book Company, 1889), s.v. “δέω” 2.b., p. 131.

[5] Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), 561.

[6] Alfred Mortimer, Catholic Faith and Practice: Manual of Theology (New York: Longman’s, 1898), 286.