Whenever I do premarital counseling with couples, I always talk about expectations. It underlies the whole process, because if a couple has unrealistic expectations about any aspect of marriage, they are sure to be disappointed when it does not work out as they had hoped. While a certain amount of infatuation is inevitable, the closer to reality that a couple is in their expectations before marriage, the less potential for severe problems later.
The same is true spiritually. Many people enter the Christian life with false expectations. They were told that trusting Jesus as their Savior would solve many, if not most, of their problems. They heard that the Christian life is an abundant life, full of joy and peace. What they didn’t hear is that it also is a life of mortal combat with the enemy of our souls, who is not only powerful, but also incredibly crafty. And, the combat intensifies when a person engages in some sort of ministry.
In our text, Barnabas and Saul head off on the first missionary journey. They had been sent out with the blessing of the church in Antioch; Luke expressly states that they were sent out by the Holy Spirit. No doubt there was a certain sense of adventure and excitement about the mission. It may be that this sense of adventure was part of the reason that John Mark signed on to accompany the two leaders. But they weren’t very far into the mission when they encountered a battle with the spiritual forces of wickedness. From this encounter, we learn that …
When we share the gospel, we engage the enemy of souls in spiritual combat, so we must be prepared for spiritual battle.
When we go out to do the Lord’s work, we should expect and be prepared for satanic opposition. Leading someone to Christ involves more than giving a sales pitch or using logical arguments. We are engaging in battle with Satan himself, who wants to keep the person in his kingdom of darkness. So the Holy Spirit sent Barnabas and Saul directly into this spiritual conflict. It reminds us of the early ministry of Jesus, where the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (see Luke 4:1, 2).
Before we jump to the spiritual lessons that are here, we need to understand Luke’s reason for including this incident here.
We have begun a new section in Acts (13:1 ff.) that shifts the focus to the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Here and in the next two chapters, we will see Paul and Barnabas leading this Roman proconsul to Christ. They go on to preach to the Jews at Pisidian Antioch, who reject the gospel, prompting the apostles to turn to the Gentiles. Then they preach directly to the Gentiles at Iconium and Lystra. On their return, they appoint elders at the churches in the cities where they have preached. They then return to Antioch and report what God had done with them, and especially “how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). This sets the stage for the Jerusalem Council (15:1-29), which approved this matter of the Gentiles becoming Christians without first becoming Jews. Then Paul and Barnabas split over the matter of taking Mark along on the second journey. Luke is establishing two important facts by narrating these events:
Although Peter had witnessed to Cornelius and the Gentiles in his home, the Jerusalem church never seemed to pick up on this as a precedent for further outreach to the Gentiles. It was left to the church at Antioch to see this direct approach bring many Gentiles to the faith without coming through the door of Judaism. When Barnabas and Saul begin their mission, they start by witnessing to the Jews in the synagogues of Cyprus. This was always Paul’s approach, to take the gospel to the Jew first, and then to the Gentiles (Rom. 1:16). Perhaps he did this because of his intense desire to see his own people saved (Rom. 9:1-5). He may have been following Jesus’ approach, of first taking the good news to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and only later mandating that the message go out to all the nations (Matt. 10:5-6; 28:19). Also, the Jewish synagogues would be a place where God-fearing Gentiles may be found, who already had a foundation, but just needed to hear about Jesus Christ.
But Luke quickly passes over the early ministry in the synagogues of Cyprus and focuses on this incident where the Gentile proconsul (the governor appointed by the Roman senate) gets saved. Ironically, he is almost prevented from believing by a Jewish false prophet. As a Jew, Elymas should have been helping this proconsul to know the one true God, preparing him to look for the Messiah. Then Paul’s ministry would have completed the process. But actually it was in spite of this Jew that the proconsul got saved. His conversion seems to be a turning point in Paul’s whole ministry (Richard Longenecker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 9:420-421). Even his name changes from the Jewish Saul to the Gentile Paul (the same name as his first recorded convert), and the Gentile name is used from here on.
Thus Luke is showing that because the Jews rejected the gospel and even opposed it, Paul was legitimate in preaching directly to the Gentiles. This is further underscored by the fact that God was pleased to save the Gentiles apart from their becoming Jews.
Since Paul was not one of the twelve, critics (especially Jewish critics) attacked his apostolic credentials. If he were discredited as a legitimate apostle, then his entire ministry to the Gentiles would be discredited as well. This would undermine the message of salvation by grace through faith apart from any works, such as the Jewish rite of circumcision. So it was important to establish Paul’s credibility as a true apostle.
Luke does this in several ways in these chapters. First, Paul was clearly called and sent out by the Holy Spirit, with the full backing of the church in Antioch (13:1-4).
Second, Paul performed the signs of an apostle, namely the ability to do miracles (see 2 Cor. 12:12). Striking Elymas blind was Paul’s first recorded miracle, and it was done in conflict with a Jew over preaching the gospel to a Gentile (Stanley Toussaint, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 2:388).
Third, we will see in the material to follow that Paul’s preaching was identical to Peter’s. Also, there are striking parallels between the ministry of Peter and that of Paul. Just as Peter confronted Simon the sorcerer, so here Paul confronts Elymas the sorcerer. Just as Peter’s success caused Jewish jealousy (5:17), so Paul’s success caused Jewish jealousy (13:45). Just as Peter healed a man lame from birth (3:1-11), so does Paul (14:8-18). Just as Peter’s shadow falling on people healed them (5:15-16), so handkerchiefs and aprons carried from Paul healed people (19:11-12).
Fourth, Luke establishes Paul’s apostolic credentials by signaling the shift from “Barnabas and Saul” to “Paul and Barnabas.” In 13:7, it is Barnabas and Saul. In 13:9, the name change is given, from Saul to Paul. In 13:13, it is “Paul and his companions” who put out to sea, and from then on, with just a few exceptions that can be explained in context, it is Paul and Barnabas (13:42).
Fifth, although it is more subtle, the defection of Mark, Paul and Barnabas’ split over taking him on the second journey, and Mark’s subsequent mission with Barnabas, establish the credibility of Paul as an apostle. Why Mark left is never stated, and so we must be a bit tentative here. There probably were multiple factors. But it is not difficult to surmise that a main factor may have been Mark’s disagreement over the strategy of Paul’s direct approach to the Gentiles. After the proconsul’s conversion, the team moved on to Perga, but did not preach there. It can be plausibly argued that they discussed the new approach of going directly to the Gentiles, and that Mark’s disagreement led to his departure. He may have been worried about how this approach would be received back in Jerusalem. This would explain Paul’s later strong opposition to taking Mark along on the second journey (15:37-39). Paul was not just opposed for personal reasons, but for doctrinal reasons (Longenecker, p. 421). The record of Acts stands with Paul, who along with Silas was “commended by the brethren,” whereas no such commendation is given for Barnabas and Mark (15:39-40).
So Luke’s purpose is to establish both the validity of direct witness to the Gentiles and the credibility of Paul as an apostle. What spiritual lessons can we learn from our text?
This is the second of four encounters with and victory over demonic powers in Acts (8:9-23; 16:16-18; 19:13-17). Luke also mentions Satan two other times in Acts (5:3; 26:18). Satan (= adversary) or the devil (= accuser) is an angelic being who rebelled against God and took with him many (perhaps one-third, Rev. 12:3-4) of the angels, who are now called demons. Satan and the demons are an unseen spiritual army that is at war against God and the holy angels. They can inhabit human hearts (5:3; Luke 8:26-39; and others). As believers, we are to put on the full armor of God so that we can stand against these evil forces (Eph. 6:10-20). Jesus taught that Satan is active in snatching away the seed of the gospel when it is sown, so that it does not take root in hearts (Luke 8:11-12). So here he uses Elymas, one of his sons (13:10), to try to keep Sergius Paulus from believing in Christ.
Note three tactics of the devil:
Paul calls him “the god of this world” and says that he “has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). We do not know why God allows Satan this amazing power of holding people in spiritual darkness and snatching away the seed of the gospel when it is sown. We do know that Satan’s power does not absolve people of their own responsibility for their spiritual blindness. Paul makes it clear that unbelievers will be judged because they did not love and believe in the truth, but rather took pleasure in wickedness (2 Thess. 2:10-12).
Since Satan holds people in spiritual blindness and tries to prevent them from being saved, we know that anyone or anything that keeps a person from receiving Christ is from the devil. A young woman is seriously considering the claims of Christ, when along comes a nice unbelieving young man who steals her heart (they’re always nice!). She falls in love with him and never solidifies her commitment to Jesus Christ. No matter how nice that young man may be, he is an instrument of the devil!
A young man has heard the gospel and perhaps has even professed faith in Christ. But along comes the job opportunity of a lifetime. He will make a pile of money and he can do what he has always dreamed of doing. The only catch is, the job will require him to set aside his commitment to Christ and it will compromise his Christian testimony. That job is from the devil!
Paul confronts Elymas as being full of deceit and fraud, an enemy of all righteousness. He makes crooked the straight ways of the Lord (13:10). “Deceit” is used of a snare to catch an animal, or of bait to trick a fish (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Scribners], p. 120). Fraud has the nuance of recklessness (Abbott-Smith, p. 396), or the loosening of all ethical restraints (Bauernfeind, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Eerdmans], 6:973). Elymas had posed as Bar-Jesus, which means in Aramaic, “son of Jeshua,” or son of salvation. He may not have taken the title with reference to Jesus Christ, but he was posing as one who could point people to the way of salvation. But he was a deceiver. By diverting people from the true righteousness that is found only in Jesus Christ, he was an enemy of all righteousness.
Satan uses deceit to undermine the necessity of the cross of Jesus Christ. In our day, there is a resurgence of “spirituality,” but it is a spirituality devoid of the substitutionary death of Jesus on behalf of sinners. It is a spirituality where each person makes up “truth” according to his own likes and dislikes. It even “works.” An article in the May, 2001 Reader’s Digest gives evidence that faith contributes to physical healing. But it doesn’t matter what your faith is in. For example, Hindus in India who pray regularly have 70 percent less heart disease than those lacking such faith. This is satanic deception, causing people who read it to think that it doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you believe in something. That road leads straight to hell!
Elymas had a position of influence, and probably financial profit, with the proconsul. He quickly realized that if Sergius Paulus accepted the gospel, he was out of a job and his access to this important and powerful man was over. So out of selfish reasons, he sought to turn the proconsul from the faith.
Most people who oppose the gospel do so out of selfish reasons. Often the person realizes that if the gospel is true, then he must repent of his sin, and he doesn’t want to repent because he enjoys his sin. He knows that if he becomes a Christian, he will have to give up his shady business practices, and it will cost him a bundle. Since he likes the things he can do and buy with his money, he rejects the gospel. Often those who argue militantly for evolution are not doing so out of purely intellectual reasons. If God is the creator, they know that they’re in big trouble because of their sins; so they use whatever arguments they can, however ridiculous (and some of them are simply ludicrous!), to defend evolution. Whatever the surface objections to the gospel, the root reason is always that the person wants to be his own god.
Thus when we share the gospel, we engage the enemy of souls in spiritual combat. Because of this, we need to be ready:
We could launch off at this point to Ephesians 6, but that would lead to a whole series of messages! Instead, I will point out five aspects of spiritual battle from our text:
Luke states that Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit before he launched into his denunciation of Elymas (13:9). This refers to a special empowering of the Spirit for the task of confronting this deceiver and for the power to strike him temporarily blind. To be filled with the Spirit means to be under the Spirit’s control. It means that we are not acting in self-will. Since we all are so prone to act in self-will, we need to be very careful, especially before confronting someone, to check our hearts. Our motives should be concern for the glory of God, the truth of the gospel, and for the souls of those who are lost. Any motives for our own glory, to prove that we are right, or to tear down someone else so that we will look good, are not from the Holy Spirit.
Not everyone who holds wrong doctrine is a false prophet. A false prophet is one who deliberately deceives other. Not all errors need strong confrontation. Some errors are more serious than others. Sometimes, a person in error just needs gentle guidance and time in order to come to the knowledge of the truth. But any error that keeps a person from believing in Jesus Christ for salvation is a serious error that needs correction.
The level of confrontation is a judgment call. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul instructs us to admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help (lit., “hold on to”) the weak, and be patient with all men. To obey this, we must have discernment as to whether a person is being unruly, fainthearted, or weak. Jesus reserved His most severe confrontation for spiritual leaders who professed to know the truth, but were actually hindering others from the truth (Matthew 23). If we see someone using false teaching to keep others from salvation, we are not being loving to remain silent. By the way, I would understand the prerogative of striking someone blind to be limited to the apostles! But the obligation to confront serious error falls on every believer when the occasion arises.
This is one reason Paul and Barnabas started in the synagogues. At least the people there showed enough interest in the things of God to be there. Luke describes the proconsul as “a man of intelligence.” Every other time that word is used in the New Testament, it refers to those who are shut out from the gospel because they thought themselves to be wise (Matt. 11:25; Luke 10:21; 1 Cor. 1:19). But here Luke seems to mean that Sergius Paulus was thinking carefully about spiritual matters, and that this was why he summoned Barnabas and Saul. Since no one seeks for God on their own (Rom. 3:11), whenever a person shows an interest in spiritual things, we can assume that God is doing something in that person’s heart, and we should be quick to talk about the gospel.
“The faith” (13:8) and “the teaching of the Lord” (13:12) both refer to Paul and Barnabas’ presenting the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. When Luke says that the proconsul was amazed at the teaching of the Lord, he may be including his amazement at the miracle of striking Elymas blind. But also he was amazed because God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” had now shone into his heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). When his eyes were opened to the simplicity of “the straight way of the Lord,” he was amazed at the grace of God and the love of Christ in going to the cross. The gospel is our great weapon that God uses to save all who believe. We must wield it accurately and clearly.
We don’t know what kind of response Paul and Barnabas received in the synagogues as they worked their way across the island, since Luke does not say. Probably they encountered others who opposed them. Apparently there was not a widespread acceptance of the message, or Luke would have noted it. But throughout Acts we see that some vigorously oppose the gospel, others are apathetic, and others believe unto salvation. But whatever the response, our job is to present the message as clearly and convincingly as we can and leave the results to the Holy Spirit.
Gary Larson has a Far Side cartoon picturing two deer. One has a giant target on his chest. The other deer says, “Bummer of a birthmark, Ernie!” You might be thinking, “If I’m going to get into a battle with Satan by presenting the gospel, I’m not sure that I want to do it! It’s like putting a target on me for Satan to aim at!”
Of course, that is precisely the response that Satan wants you to have! He does not want the gospel to go out, because he knows that God will use it to open people’s eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ (26:18). But your only real option is to go into battle, armed with the gospel of truth. With Paul at the end of his life, you will be able to say, “The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Tim. 4:18).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation