1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. 6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immeiately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord. – Acts 13:1-12 ESV
At the close of the previous chapter, we saw that Peter had left Jerusalem for parts unknown, while Saul and Barnabas headed back to Antioch in Syria, with John Mark as their traveling companion. In the opening verses of chapter 13, we get a glimpse into how God communicated with His church in those early years. He had equipped the church with prophets, teachers and a variety of other leaders. Paul would later include these very same offices or positions in his list of those through whom God had gifted the church.
11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-13 NLT
Both Barnabas and Saul are included in Luke’s list, indicating that they were each either a prophet or a teacher, or perhaps both. Some believe, because of the way the list is configured in the Greek, that there are two groups of individuals listed; one being the prophets in the church in Antioch, with Barnabas being one of them. The second group is made up of the two men with the gift of teaching: Manaen and Saul. It is impossible to know who had what gift, but it is clear that God was speaking to and through these men in order to give His divine directions for future ministry. We have already seen how God used the stoning of Stephen and the increased level of persecution against the church to spread the gospel by forcing the Christians to disperse from Jersusalem. We have also seen God use a dream to communicate His will to Peter, commanding him to go to Caesarea and minister to Cornelius and his household. Now, we see God speaking through men whom He had endowed with the gift of prophecy. But notice that there was not any one man who stood up and spoke up, acting as the voice of God and proclaiming His will to the rest in the room. It seems from the text, that these men were gathered together for prayer and had been fasting, most likely seeking God’s direction. And it would appear that God gave them a unified, corporate manifestation of His will by speaking to them through His Holy Spirit, who told them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2 ESV). These two men, who were both part of the group that had gathered to pray and fast, were set apart by God for a specific task. This was the call of God, not that of men. Somehow, through the voice of the Spirit, God had communicated to these men that Saul and Barnabas were to being given a specific, God-ordained assignment, and Luke records, “after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3 ESV).
Both of these men had become huge assets to the church there in Antioch. But the leadership recognized the clear call of God on their lives and, in spite of the loss of their services, gladly sent them on their way, having commissioned them by the laying on of hands. They didn’t allow their own needs or desires to get in the way. I am sure they would have loved to have kept both Saul and Barnabas there in Antioch, but God had other plans. And Luke makes it clear that those plans were being directed by the Spirit of God. Their next destination was the island of Cyprus and, as would become their habit on the rest of their journeys, they made it their first priority to visit the local synagogue before they did anything else. While recognized as the apostle to the Gentiles, Saul never lost his deep desire to see his fellow Jews come to faith in Christ. Years later, in his letter to the Roman believers, he would write: “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1 NLT). In that very same letter, he will go on to say:
13 I am saying all this especially for you Gentiles. God has appointed me as the apostle to the Gentiles. I stress this, 14 for I want somehow to make the people of Israel jealous of what you Gentiles have, so I might save some of them. 15 For since their rejection meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance will be even more wonderful. It will be life for those who were dead! – Romans 11:13-15 NLT
And one of the most powerful indicators of his love for his fellow Jews and his deep desire to see them saved, is found in an earlier portion of his letter to the Romans:
I would be willing to be forever cursed–cut off from Christ!–if that would save them.
– Romans 9:3 NLT
So, we will see Saul and Barnabas make it a habit to visit the synagogues within each city they visit, focusing a good portion of their efforts in attempting to persuade Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah.
Having visited the local synagogue, the three men made their way across the island, eventually running into a man named, Bar-Jesus, described as a magician and a Jewish false prophet. It’s interesting to note that Saul and Barnabas are on the island of Cyprus because God spoke truth to men who were real prophets of God. Now, two of these men, Saul and Barnabas, one or both of whom were gifted by God as a prophet, run into a false Jewish prophet. This man is described by Luke as a magician, a fairly innocuous term that sounds a bit non-intimidating to us. But in that day and age, it had a far more robust meaning. A magician could refer to a wise man, teacher, priest, physician, astrologer, seer, interpreter of dreams, soothsayer, or sorcerer. In many cases, their so-called magic had direct ties to the occult. Like the magicians in Pharaoh’s court who had opposed Moses, Bar-Jesus most likely utilized demonic powers to perform signs and wonders. Interestingly enough, his name literally means, “son of a savior.”
Luke indicates that Bar-Jesus had some kind of relationship with the local proconsul, a man named Sergius Paulus, who held the distinction of being the highest-ranking Roman official on the island. Sergius Paulus, upon hearing of the arrival of Saul and Barnabas, summoned them to appear before him, but Bar-Jesus, also known by his nickname, Elymas (Sorcerer), tried to intervene, seeing these two men as competition. He had the ear of the Roman proconsul and was not interested in having Saul and Barnabas interfere by sharing “the faith.” But Saul, now mentioned as Paul for the first time in Luke’s account, confronts this man, declaring in no uncertain terms his disdain for Bar-Jesus and his unholy agenda. “You son of the devil, full of every sort of deceit and fraud, and enemy of all that is good! Will you never stop perverting the true ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10 NLT). Paul saw this man for what he was: an enemy of the gospel. Out of jealousy and motivated by selfish ambition, he was attempting to dissuade Sergius Paulus from hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. And Paul, under the indwelling influence and power of the Spirit of God, struck Bar-Jesus blind. This man, who supposedly had the power to provide insight and wisdom by way of his sorcery, was suddenly without sight. The one who claimed to be a Jewish prophet, with the power to see into the future and declare the will of God, could not see his own hand in front of his face. His physical blindness became an apt representation of his moral and spiritual blindness. No longer would he mislead people with his lies. Instead, he would have to be led by the hand just to make his way around the city of Paphos.
And while Paul’s display of Holy Spirit induced power left one man blind, it opened up the eyes of another. Sergius Paulus “believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:12 ESV). Paul had not just shut down Bar-Jesus, he had opened up the Scriptures to the proconsul, revealing to him the truth regarding Jesus and His offer of salvation. This Roman official believed. He heard the good news and received the gift of eternal life made possible through Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. There on the island of Cyprus, Luke records only the salvation of a single individual: a Roman proconsul. His emphasis seems to be less about how many were saved, than about who. The nature of the evangelistic efforts of the church was dramatically shifting. It was moving out of Jerusalem and Judea and away from the Jews. Bar-Jesus had been a Jew, but he had been struck blind because of his unbelief and opposition to the gospel. He is an apt representation of the entire Jewish nation at this point in time. He was mired in deceit, selfishness, idolatry and evil. He saw the gospel as competition, not a means of salvation. But Sergius Paulus, a pagan with no prior knowledge of Yahweh or any concept of who the Messiah might be, was miraculously converted to the faith. His eyes were opened and his life was irrevocably changed forever.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.