Where the world comes to study the Bible

The First Missionaries (Acts 13:1-13)

Related Media

April 2, 20061

1 Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul. 2 While they were serving 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 they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off. 4 So Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.

5 When they arrived in Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. (Now they also had John as their assistant.) 6 When they had crossed over the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. The proconsul summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But the magician Elymas (for that is the way his name is translated) opposed them, trying to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him 10 and said, “You who are full of all deceit and all wrongdoing, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness – will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 Now look, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind, unable to see the sun for a time!” Immediately mistiness and darkness came over him, and he went around seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was greatly astounded at the teaching about the Lord.

13 Then Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia, but John left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:1-13).2

Introduction

A number of years ago two friends and I were going to travel together to India, where we would minister together. One friend was black, the other was blind. We were all together at a church just before we left this country. A friend introduced us as, “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” My friend Willie’s wife immediately called out, “My Willie is good!” Before I could respond, my friend Craig called out, “I’d rather be ugly than bad!” Some might have thought we were a pretty motley crew, but in the light of our text, I think we were just the right blend of culture and experience.

For some parents, the conception of a child has come as a complete surprise. The birth of the church at Antioch came as a complete surprise to the church in Jerusalem.

19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts (Acts 11:19-23).

New though this church may have been, it was showing encouraging signs of growth and maturity. Already there were five gifted men, capable of teaching the saints. This group of gifted men made it possible for the church at Antioch to send out the first foreign missionaries to the Gentiles. And how appropriate, because the salvation of Gentiles at Antioch was the result of certain unnamed saints who fled from Jerusalem, but who did not restrict their witness to Jews. Now this church would become the launching pad for missionary outreach that would result in many (predominantly) Gentile churches. Our text describes the first missionary journey.

I have to confess that I experienced something of a letdown as I was preparing for this message. It didn’t take me long to realize that after the miraculous events of chapter 12, this next chapter in Acts seemed a bit more ordinary. Chapter 12 begins with Luke’s description of the miraculous deliverance of Peter from death at the hand of Herod, and it ends with the amazing account of the death of Herod. How can you top stories like this? I will share the resolution of my inner turmoil at the end of this lesson.

Setting Apart Barnabas and Saul
Acts 13:1-4

1 Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul. 2 While they were serving 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 they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off [released them]. 4 So Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus (Acts 13:1-4).

Let us begin by noting the plurality of gifted teachers in the church at Antioch. From the time of its birth, Barnabas and (shortly after) Saul were teaching the new believers. There were probably other leaders who had initially come to Antioch with the good news of the gospel. But now, not much later, we find that there are five gifted men who are capable of teaching and leading the church. Unlike some churches today, this church was not dependent upon one man. In the providence of God, there were enough gifted men in leadership to send two of them away without harm to the mother church.

Here is the ideal for any church. Leadership by a plurality of gifted and godly men is definitely the ideal, and it paves the way for real church growth, the kind of growth that results from sending out missionaries and planting new churches. Plurality of leadership and gift is one of the things I have always appreciated about our church. It does not depend on any one man, and it has the stability of a number of very gifted teachers. We have been privileged to send out a number of missionaries3 to various parts of the world.

Let us also note the diversity of the leaders in the church. It is impossible to know all that we would like about these five men, but it is generally accepted that these men reflect racial, cultural, and socio-economic diversity. Barnabas was a Hellenistic Jew; in fact, he was a Levite. He was born in Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Barnabas was well-respected by the Hebraic Jewish apostles (Acts 9:27; 11:22-24). Simeon, who was called Niger, seems to have been a Black believer:

Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon ( called the black man), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul (Acts 13:1, New Living Translation, emphasis mine).

There was also Lucius of Cyrene. We should remember that it was men from Cyprus and Cyrene who first brought the gospel to Antioch (Acts 11:20). Perhaps Lucius was one of these men. Manaen (the Greek form of a Hebrew name) was likely a Hellenistic Jew. But Luke wants us to know that he grew up with Herod Antipas, the one who killed John the Baptist and before whom our Lord stood trial. One would have to say that he was a part of the upper levels of society. And then there was Saul from Tarsus in Cilicia, who had been trained at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

These five leaders in the church at Antioch represented a broad racial, cultural and socio-economic range. This diversity gave the church great strength. It was also the occasion for their unity to testify to the power and presence of our Lord in their midst. Having diversity among the leaders made it easy for the church at Antioch to have great diversity as well.

Many mega churches today grow because of their homogeneous makeup. “Birds of a feather flock together,” we say, and it tends to be true. But the church should reflect a broad range of diversity. It is our unity in the midst of diversity which demonstrates the power of the gospel (see Ephesians 2:11-22). Diversity, not only in leadership but also in the congregation is something I greatly desire to see. I am grateful that God seems to be granting diversity to us as a church.

Prophets and Teachers

Luke tells us that there were both prophets and teachers in the church (verse 1). The grammar of this verse may very well distinguish the first three men as prophets, from the last two men who are teachers.4 Prophets are listed first, teachers are referred to second (or last). Barnabas is listed first; Saul is listed last. One can hardly doubt that the order of reference is significant, especially since the order of naming Barnabas and Saul will reverse in our text.

We know from what we have already been told about Barnabas5 that he was highly regarded by the apostles. When news of the new church at Antioch reached the apostles, they sent Barnabas. Barnabas then sought out Saul and brought him to Antioch to help in the ministry. As I was reflecting on this text, the thought occurred to me that I could think of Saul as an apprentice to Barnabas. That is a very hard thing to imagine, but I believe it to be true to some degree.

We should not be surprised. Joshua was a helper to Moses, as Elisha was to Elijah. Timothy was a helper to Paul before he was sent out on his own.6 It was a number of years after Saul’s conversion that he became known as an apostle (indeed, the change occurs in our text). Can you even imagine Saul giving his first message and watching the saints whisper to one another, “I’d rather hear Barnabas any day.”?

My point is that Paul did not “start at the top.” He served where God led him, and in His own good time, God advanced him to greater responsibilities and authority. One of the things that gives me great joy is to watch the younger generation develop and mature in their ministry. This morning a young woman played for the offertory, and she did very well. In the years to come, she will do even better. Saul was still in his developing years when he went to Antioch to minister there. And develop he did! Thank God for a church that facilitated that development.

While they were serving the Lord and fasting. The term rendered “serving” is interesting. It is this Greek term that is used to depict the ministry performed by the Old Testament priests (see Exodus 28:35, 43; 29:30; see also Hebrews 10:11). I think this is significant because here we see Gentile ministry that is described by the Old Testament term for priestly ministry. This reminds me of Peter’s words in 1 Peter:

4 So as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God’s sight, 5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it says in scripture, “Look, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and priceless cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will never be put to shame.” 7 So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, 8 and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:4-9, emphasis mine).

I am likewise fascinated by the way Luke has linked “serving the Lord” with “fasting.” It was “while they were serving the Lord and fasting” that the Holy Spirit spoke to the church to set these two men apart. Almost every commentator and preacher I have ever heard or read has dealt with fasting here as though it were somehow in competition with serving the Lord. One approach is to view “serving the Lord” as a synonym for prayer. Thus, they were praying and fasting. I find this explanation unsatisfactory. If Luke meant that they were praying and fasting, why didn’t he just say so, as he will do in Acts 13:3? Another is to view “serving the Lord and fasting” as two separate activities – two things going on simultaneously.

We should probably begin with a brief definition of fasting:

Fasting is the setting aside of normal appetites or activities for the purpose of pursuing things of greater spiritual importance.

Thus, fasting is giving up something good and acceptable in order to pursue something even better. As I have observed elsewhere in relation to Isaiah 58:13-14,7 keeping the Sabbath is a form of fasting. One sets aside the pursuit of personal pleasure for taking delight in the Lord. In 1 Corinthians 7:5, we find yet another unexpected form of fasting:

5 Do not deprive each other, except by mutual agreement for a specified time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then resume your relationship, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:5).

The sexual fasting of a husband and wife is for the purpose of undistracted prayer, but it is to be for a limited time.

Finally, there is the most common form of fasting – the foregoing of eating – almost always for the purpose of facilitating prayer.8

Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off (Acts 13:3).

When they had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).

My point is that fasting is not done in isolation, but in conjunction with something else. It seems to be generally accepted that the fasting of the five men named (or of the entire church)9 was prompted by some sense of need or urgency. We are told that “they” felt some need for direction or divine guidance, and so they fasted. Some would say that “serving” was prayer.

It would seem that the nearest antecedent to “they” in verse 2 would be the five men who were just named. I would further take it that these five men were “serving the Lord” by exercising their gifts and functions in the church. I would suggest that it is at least possible that the fasting was that of the five men, and that it was related to their ministry. In other words, they devoted themselves to serving the Lord as they fasted. Fasting here, then, is related to service, rather than to prayer. Prayer was no doubt a part of their service because we recall that the apostles purposed to devote themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4).

My point for pressing this understanding of fasting here is that God spoke to these men while they were consumed in their ministry. Further, it seems likely that the Spirit of God spoke through one of the three men identified as prophets (verse 1). So what’s the difference? I think that Luke is telling us that God revealed His will for Barnabas and Saul while they (the other three) were fully engaged in ministry. I don’t think they were setting aside their ministry to fast, but they were fasting to facilitate their service. There is a time for waiting, but in my experience, this is necessary after God has revealed His will, and not before. For example, God revealed to Abram that he and Sarai would have a son (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6). Abram and Sarai had to wait 25 years for that son, but they did not need to wait to know that they would have a son. In fact, Abram first had to obey God by leaving his homeland and going to Canaan before God revealed that a son was to be born.

Too many Christians seem to think that they should sit on the sidelines of life and wait for God to tell them what to do. God has told us most of what we are to do in His Word. When special guidance is required, He will supply that as well, but this usually comes while we are busily engaged in ministry. This was the case when Paul and his team had set out on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:40—16:10). A few Christians may be working when they should be waiting, but many more seem to be waiting when they should be working.

Let me press my point further. The Spirit of God did not say as much as we might have expected:

While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).

The Spirit did not specify where Barnabas and Saul were to go, nor did He indicate precisely what their ministry would be. It was simply “the work to which I have called them.” How, then, were they or the church to know what that ministry would be? This is not as difficult as it may seem. First, God told Paul about his future ministry when he was saved:

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

Secondly, the ministry to which God had called Barnabas and Saul is that which they had already been doing, together:

23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, 24 because he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and a significant number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught a significant number of people. Now it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:23-26).

The ministry to which they were called was a ministry they were already doing. They were simply led to do it in other places. Not only had they been doing this ministry, but they had obviously been doing it exceedingly well. That is obvious by the growth and maturity of the church, and by the leaders that were named.

Third, the guidance of the Holy Spirit came not to Barnabas or Saul alone, or even to the two of them. The Spirit’s guidance came to the church and through the leading men in the church. In a way, we could say that neither Barnabas nor Saul had a dominant hand in the process by which they were designated and sent forth. It was the Holy Spirit and the church that played the most dominant roles:

2 While they were serving 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 they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off. 4 So Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus (Acts 13:2-4).

Review and Application

Let me pause for a moment to review what we’ve seen and to reinforce what the Spirit of God is teaching us here about divine guidance.

First, God’s guidance came to those who were actively engaged in ministry. If we wish to know God’s will, let us begin by doing what He has commanded in His Word.

Second, God’s guidance was revealed, in part, through the ministry in which they were already engaged. The “ministry to which He had called them” was, in effect, “the ministry to which He had already called them.” They knew what they were to do in the future because they were already doing it, and doing it well.

Third, God’s guidance extended the ministry of those who were doing their present ministry well. Sometimes it would seem that some consider full-time Christian ministry because they are not doing well in their present service and are frustrated because of this. They seek to find success elsewhere because they feel they are failing at what they are doing. My sense is that God promotes those who are doing well at what He has already given them to do (see Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-13).

Fourth, God’s guidance was not merely individual, but it came about through the church. Our culture is so competitive and individualistic that we think God speaks only to us. I’ve heard stories about preachers who were fired by the church board and who have responded, “God hasn’t revealed that to me.” (He will, when the paycheck stops.) Why do we think that God speaks and guides personally, apart from the wisdom and guidance of mature and godly church leaders? God’s guidance for Barnabas and Saul came to the church and through the church.

Fifth, God’s guidance was only for the next step, not for the entire future. God guides us on a “need to know” basis. He does not unfold the entire plan before us, for our approval; He reveals the next step for us. Our obedience to that next step will open the door to further guidance, as it is required. For example, the Spirit instructed the church to set apart Barnabas and Saul, but before the chapter is over it will be “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:1). God didn’t reveal this transition ahead of time, but only in time. We also know that Paul and Barnabas will split up into two missionary teams (Acts 15:36-41). In addition, Paul and Silas and the others will need further specific guidance when they reach Mysia (Acts 16:6-10). These things will be revealed in the proper time. For now, the church, along with Barnabas and Saul, knows all that is necessary for them to be obedient to the divine call.

After a season of fasting and prayer, the church sent off 10these two beloved leaders. The laying on of their hands conveys identification between the sending church and those being sent. Thus, when the first missionary journey is completed, they will return to the church with a full report and then remain on there for some time (Acts 14:27-28).

Having said this, it is important to take note of the fact that this laying on of hands did not imply the same kind of regular financial support we are familiar with today. In 1 Corinthians 9:1-23, Paul says that he and Barnabas set aside their right to be supported by those to whom they ministered, so that the gospel might be more effectively proclaimed. There were all kinds of “religious missionaries” who sold their gospel at a price. Paul wanted none of this. The gospel was the message of free grace, and he wanted his preaching to be free as well.

Paul did accept support from others, but this was very rare, and only from the church at Philippi. We find reference to this giving in Acts 18 and Philippians 4:

1 After this Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to depart from Rome. Paul approached them, 3 and because he worked at the same trade, he stayed with them and worked with them (for they were tentmakers by trade). 4 He addressed both Jews and Greeks in the synagogue every Sabbath, attempting to persuade them. 5 Now when Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul became wholly absorbed with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:1-5).

14 Nevertheless, you did well to share with me in my trouble. 15 And as you Philippians know, at the beginning of my gospel ministry, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in this matter of giving and receiving except you alone. 16 For even in Thessalonica on more than one occasion you sent something for my need (Philippians 4:14-16).

Paul was what is sometimes called a “tentmaking” missionary. In his case, he literally made tents for a living (Acts 18:3). He was determined not to be a burden on those to whom he ministered. Instead, Paul worked himself so that he could give to those in need:

33 “I have desired no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine provided for my needs and the needs of those who were with me. 35 By all these things, I have shown you that by working in this way we must help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:33-35).

This is not to condemn those who are legitimately supported in their ministry, but only to suggest that there are other ways to be a missionary besides the classical models with which we are familiar. In fact, modern missions may be forced to return to the “tentmaker” model as more and more countries are closing their doors to traditional missionaries. While traditional missionaries may be rejected, those who come with highly valuable skills will be welcomed, in spite of their commitment to Jesus Christ.

The church “released” Barnabas and Saul, but it was the Spirit who “sent them out” (Acts 13:4). Since Antioch was not a port city, these two traveled to Seleucia, a port about 16 miles to the west. There they boarded a ship and sailed for Cyprus. It was a logical choice for their first destination. Barnabas was born there, and it was on their way to other target cities. Since some of those who started the church in Antioch were from Cyprus, they may have had contacts there.11

A Sample Ministry in Cyprus
Acts 13:5-12

5 When they arrived in Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. (Now they also had John as their assistant.) 6 When they had crossed over the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. The proconsul summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But the magician Elymas (for that is the way his name is translated) opposed them, trying to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him 10 and said, “You who are full of all deceit and all wrongdoing, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness – will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 Now look, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind, unable to see the sun for a time!” Immediately mistiness and darkness came over him, and he went around seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was greatly astounded at the teaching about the Lord (Acts 13:5-12).

Salamas was an influential city on the eastern side of Cyprus. When they arrived there, Barnabas and Saul went to the Jewish synagogues where they began to proclaim the Word. There was good reason for doing this. In the first place, Paul (and Barnabas) were committed to the principle of preaching “to the Jew first, and then to the Gentiles” (see Romans 1:16). Another practical reason is that this is where both Jews and Gentile God-fearers congregated. It is apparent that visitors like Barnabas and Saul were invited to share a message with those gathered (see Acts 13:15), something Paul would never pass up.

It is right at this point that Luke chooses to inform his reader that John Mark accompanied Barnabas and Saul on this missionary journey (Acts 13:5). We should recall that Mark was the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). This reference to Mark’s involvement in this missionary journey will pave the way for Luke’s comment in verse 13 that John Mark forsook them at Perga in Pamphylia and returned to Jerusalem. Mark’s desertion here will be the occasion for a strong disagreement between Barnabas and Paul, and as a result, they will divide into two missionary teams (Acts 15:36-41).

When Barnabas and Saul passed through the island of Cyprus and came to the city of Paphos, they encountered two very interesting men; one a Jew, the other a Gentile. The Jew was a false prophet named Elymas, or Bar-Jesus,12 the latter of which means “the son of Jesus.” Jesus was a common name at the time so we dare not read too much into this name. On the other hand, his familiar name seems like a most interesting coincidence.

Elymas is also identified as a magician or sorcerer (verse 6). I had to ask myself, “Just how could a Jew become a magician (or sorcerer)?” Then I remembered the story of the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19:

13 But some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were possessed by evil spirits, saying, “I sternly warn you by Jesus whom Paul preaches.” 14 (Now seven sons of a man named Sceva, a Jewish high priest, were doing this.) 15 But the evil spirit replied to them, “I know about Jesus and I am acquainted with Paul, but who are you?” 16 Then the man who was possessed by the evil spirit jumped on them and beat them all into submission. He prevailed against them so that they fled from that house naked and wounded. 17 This became known to all who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; fear came over them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. 18 Many of those who had believed came forward, confessing and making their deeds known. 19 Large numbers of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them up in the presence of everyone. When the value of the books was added up, it was found to total fifty thousand silver coins (Acts 19:13-19).

These seven sons of Sceva were Jewish. Their father was a high priest! They attempted to exorcise demons from people by naming the “Jesus whom Paul preaches” (Acts 19:13). The demons knew Jesus all too well, and Paul also, but they did not know these Jewish exorcists. And thus these seven sons were overpowered and badly beaten by the demons.

There are three things about this incident that interest me most. First, these seven men were Jews. They seem to be only an example of what a larger group of Jewish exorcists are doing. Second, it would appear that they were seeking to earn a living (or more) by casting out demons in the name and power of someone they did not know. Third, the saints in Ephesus who heard of this were deeply impressed. A very large group responded by forsaking the practice of magic and burning their books on the subject (Acts 19:18-19). They understood that what these sons of Sceva were doing was practicing magic.

I think I can understand why some Jews were attracted (addicted?) to magic. Their religion had become a legalistic system of works: “If I do this, this, and this, God will do that.” That, my friend, is magic. Magic is man’s attempt to manipulate God to produce a desired outcome. Unfortunately, Christians are subject to the same malady: “If I pray this prayer (for example, ‘the prayer of Jabez’), then I can be assured of success or prosperity.” Or, “If I will send a gift of $10 to this ministry, God will reward me ten fold.”

Elymas had some kind of relationship with Sergius Paulus, the Gentile proconsul13 in Salamas. Sergius Paulus seems to have been influenced by Elymas, and he seemed to stick close to this political official. I am inclined to think that this Gentile official believed that true religion must be Jewish. Think of being able to worship and serve just one God, rather than a whole pantheon of gods. But then Barnabas and Saul arrived in town, and the proconsul summoned Barnabas and Saul, so that he could hear the Word of God from them. Elymas strongly opposed this meeting. Luke is very clear that Elymas intended to keep Sergius Paulus from the faith (Acts 13:8).

Suddenly and unexpectedly, Paul rises to the occasion. Notice the change of name that takes place in Acts 13:9. Also note Luke’s indication that Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 9). Paul is not acting on his own initiative; he is being prompted by the Holy Spirit. Paul seems to be able to look into the very soul of this man and to size him up spiritually – and it isn’t a pretty picture. Paul has some very strong words of indictment against Elymas. Notice the accusations. Elymas is …

… a man who is “full of deceit and wrongdoing”

… a “son of the devil”

… the “enemy of all righteousness”

“making crooked the straight paths of the Lord”

How strange it must have felt for Paul to cast a temporary spell of blindness upon Elymas. We cannot help but think of Saul’s three-day blindness. Paul’s blindness seemed to be a merciful thing, giving him time to reflect on his opposition to the gospel, and to consider repentance. Perhaps God was being merciful to Elymas as well.

Here is the irony – the man who sought to keep the proconsul from the faith actually becomes an instrument by which God brings the proconsul to faith:

Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was greatly astounded at the teaching about the Lord (Acts 13:12).

I am not surprised to read that some actually question the genuineness of the proconsul’s faith. I am both surprised and disappointed that any conservative evangelical scholar would give such a suggestion a moment’s thought. Think about it for a minute. Luke has given Elymas more attention than the proconsul. He has indicated to the reader that Elymas sought to keep the proconsul from the faith. Paul strongly rebukes Elymas and then casts a spell of blindness on him. The proconsul is amazed and is said to come to faith. Are we, for even a moment, to suppose that Elymas succeeded, but the gospel did not? Surely the proconsul came to faith, in spite of Elymas’ best efforts to prevent it, and through the opposition of Elymas.

A Change in Leadership
Acts 13:13

Then Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia, but John left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).

The first thing we observe from this verse is that Paul is now perceived as the leader of this missionary team. It is my opinion that Barnabas saw this as well and, like John the Baptist (John 3:30) and even our Lord (Philippians 2:3-8), did not grasp for the preeminence once possessed.

The second function of this verse is to report to the reader that John Mark went AWOL (absent without leave). When they reached Perga in Pamphylia, John Mark left Paul and Barnabas and returned to Jerusalem. We are not told why Mark did this, but it is clear that Paul saw this departure as abandoning his post. In Acts 15:36-41, Paul and Barnabas will disagree so strongly about whether or not to give John Mark a second chance on the second missionary journey that they will part ways (thus forming two missionary teams).

It does appear that the gospel is not preached in Perga at this time, but that Paul and Barnabas merely pass by (or pass through) Perga without proclaiming the gospel. It is only on their return trip that the gospel is preached in Perga:

And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia (Acts 14:25).

The ministry at Cyprus has ended, and the ministry in Asia Minor begins.

Conclusion

The sending out of Barnabas and Saul is the beginning of a new era in the carrying out of the Great Commission. Now the gospel is headed for the “farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Missionaries are not providentially thrust out by a wave of persecution (Acts 8:1); two missionaries are sent out by the Holy Spirit through the church at Antioch. Here is “missions” as we have yet to see it in the gospels or Acts. From this point on, we see very little of Peter or the other apostles in Jerusalem.14 Paul is the dominant personality throughout the remainder of the Book of Acts. The gospel is now on its way to Rome.

The sending forth of Paul and Barnabas (as we now have it) is instructive to the church today regarding the sending out of missionaries. I have suggested some possible areas of application above. This text also instructs us regarding how we may know the will of God. It is not exhaustive, but it is suggestive.

Of all the events that took place on the island of Cyprus, why does Luke choose this one incident in Salamas (concerning Elymas and Sergius) to report to his readers? I believe there are at least two reasons why Luke included this story. First, I believe that Paul’s confrontation of Elymas was a dramatic turning point in Paul’s ministry. It was at Paphos that Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit and took the lead in rebuking Elymas. And that is why the very next verse (13) begins, “Then Paul and his companions … .” From here on out, it will be Paul who will be named first.15 We can therefore see that God has sovereignly elevated Paul from that of being an assistant to Barnabas to becoming the dominant leader.

Secondly, I believe Luke uses Elymas as a prototype of the Jewish opposition that is to come. Luke makes a point of telling us that Elymas is a Jew. He is a Jew who strongly opposes Sergius Paulus hearing and embracing the gospel. In this case, the reasons for the behavior of Elymas may be self-serving. He seems to have had significant influence with the Gentile proconsul, and this would have been lost if Sergius Paulus embraced the gospel. But whatever the reason, Elymas, a Jew, resisted the conversion of Sergius Paulus, a Gentile. But his resistance was not effective. Because of the judicial blinding of Elymas, Sergius Paulus comes to faith. So, too, the resistance of the Jews to Paul’s preaching of the gospel does not succeed. Indeed, Jewish resistance opens the door to the preaching of the gospel (see Romans 11:25-32).

Let’s come back to the matter of the “letdown” I experienced when I left the dramatic events of chapter 12 behind and moved to our text. Chapter 12 did have some rather spectacular events – the dramatic deliverance of Peter from prison and from the jaws of death; and, the death of Herod. It reminds us of the story of Mordecai and Haman in the Book of Esther. Haman plots to execute Mordecai, but Mordecai is exalted, and Haman is hung on his own gallows.

Our text in Acts 13 does have a bit of drama – Paul casts a spell of blindness on Elymas, the Jewish magician who opposes the gospel. But it is not as spectacular as the events of chapter 12. Rather than comparing these two chapters in terms of their spectacularity, let us consider them in the light of their long-term results. Peter was dramatically spared, but he and his ministry definitely fade from this point on in the Book of Acts. Herod died, and he was not successful in dealing with Christianity as an illegal sect. This did have long-term effects, but they don’t appear to be dramatic at this point.

Now let us consider the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul in chapter 13. The Holy Spirit was instrumental in this new venture, but Luke is deliberate in his avoidance of the spectacular aspects of His role in thrusting forth a new missionary movement. And yet the results are spectacular. The gospel now goes deliberately and purposefully to the Gentiles. Many Gentiles come to faith and numerous churches are planted. The gospel goes from Antioch to Rome. This is spectacular, or if we wish to avoid that word, the events of our text are significant. Beyond this, a man who once traveled to various foreign countries to oppose the gospel is now traveling from country to country preaching that same gospel he once opposed.

Here is a lesson to be learned: We dare not gauge the significance of a life or of a ministry by its spectacularity. I am reminded of the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17-19. Elijah has a dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in chapter 18. They seek to gain the attention of their “god” but nothing happens. Elijah prays, and fire dramatically descends from heaven, consuming not only the sacrifice and the wood, but the rocks and water in the surrounding trench. Elijah then prays, and rain will soon follow – after 3 ½ years of drought (see also James 5:17-18). And yet when Jezebel threatens Elijah, he flees. He leaves his servant behind and goes into the wilderness to die. God then meets with Elijah on Mount Horeb. He does not speak through the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire; instead He speaks through a still, small, voice.

The lesson is quite obvious: Don’t always look for God in the spectacular. God was going to accomplish His work, but it would be through others than Elijah. It would be through Elisha, Hazael, and Jehu. Hazael and Jehu were hardly pious men. We should not gauge the significance of what God is doing by the “spectacularity” of the events.

By the way, this principle also applies to spiritual gifts. Some people in Corinth tended to equate spirituality and significance in terms of the practice of certain spectacular gifts. The apostle Paul made it clear that the more important gifts may not be the spectacular ones:

18 But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided. 19 If they were all the same member, where would the body be? 20 So now there are many members, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot, “I do not need you.” 22 On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, 23 and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, 24 but our presentable members do not need this. Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another (1 Corinthians 12:18-25).

If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that the least important gifts have the compensation of having more pizzazz than the more important gifts. Think about this in terms of the body. The most important organs in my body are those which are not visible – organs like my heart, liver, and kidneys. I can live with my arms or legs cut off. I can live with my eyes put out. I can live without my hearing. But I cannot live without my heart, liver, or kidneys. Let us beware of pursuing the spectacular on the false premise that significance and success are measured in terms of the dramatic.


1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 18 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on April 2, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 I use the term “missionaries” broadly because some have gone out as tentmakers, earning a living by some skill and then using their employment and location as an opportunity to proclaim and promote the gospel.

4 The great Greek scholar, Dr. A. T. Robertson (now deceased), wrote: “The double use of te here makes three prophets (Barnabas, Symeon, Lucius) and two teachers (Manaen and Saul).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (electronic version in BibleWorks 6).

5 See Acts 4:36-37; 11:19-30.

6 See, for example, 1 Timothy 1:1-4.

7 See “A Christmas Message in an Unexpected Text,” /article/christmas-message-unexpected-text-fasting-and-incarnation-isaiah-58-61-matthew-2-philippians .

 

8 See 2 Samuel 12:16; Ezra 8:23; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 9:3; Luke 2:37; 5:33; Acts 13:3; 14:23.

9 The “they” in verse 2 is not clarified, so that it could refer either to the five leaders named or to the entire church.

10 The term rendered “sent off” could just as easily be translated “released.” I think that this may better express the emotional bond that existed between these men and the church at Antioch. Remember Paul’s sorrowful parting from the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20:36-38).

11 This observation thanks to Ray Stedman, who taught on this passage some years ago:

http://www.pbc.org/library/files/html/0432.html.

12 Note that Elymas or Bar-Jesus gets more attention from Luke than does Sergius Paulus.

13 A. T. Robertson writes, “Luke used to be sharply criticized for applying this term to Sergius Paulus on the ground that Cyprus was a province under the appointment of the emperor with the title of propraetor and not under the control of the senate with the title of proconsul. That was true B.C. 30, but five years later it was changed to proconsul by Augustus and put under the control of the Senate. Two inscriptions have been found with the date A.D. 51 and 52 with the names of proconsuls of Cyprus and one is in the Cesnola Collection, an inscription found at Soli with the name of Paulus as Proconsul, undoubtedly this very man, though no date occurs.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament.

14 We do see them briefly in Acts 15, and again in Acts 21.

15 There are only a couple of exceptions to this (Acts 14:14; 15:12, 25).

 

8 See 2 Samuel 12:16; Ezra 8:23; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 9:3; Luke 2:37; 5:33; Acts 13:3; 14:23.

9 The “they” in verse 2 is not clarified, so that it could refer either to the five leaders named or to the entire church.

10 The term rendered “sent off” could just as easily be translated “released.” I think that this may better express the emotional bond that existed between these men and the church at Antioch. Remember Paul’s sorrowful parting from the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20:36-38).

11 This observation thanks to Ray Stedman, who taught on this passage some years ago:

http://www.pbc.org/library/files/html/0432.html.

12 Note that Elymas or Bar-Jesus gets more attention from Luke than does Sergius Paulus.

13 A. T. Robertson writes, “Luke used to be sharply criticized for applying this term to Sergius Paulus on the ground that Cyprus was a province under the appointment of the emperor with the title of propraetor and not under the control of the senate with the title of proconsul. That was true B.C. 30, but five years later it was changed to proconsul by Augustus and put under the control of the Senate. Two inscriptions have been found with the date A.D. 51 and 52 with the names of proconsuls of Cyprus and one is in the Cesnola Collection, an inscription found at Soli with the name of Paulus as Proconsul, undoubtedly this very man, though no date occurs.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament.

14 We do see them briefly in Acts 15, and again in Acts 21.

15 There are only a couple of exceptions to this (Acts 14:14; 15:12, 25).

 

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Missions