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.