A reflection on Acts 13:4-12 for October 11, 2020 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
So they, being sent by the Holy Spirit, went down into Seleucia, and from there into Cyprus. Arriving in Salamis they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. With them – to assist – was John.
After they travelled the whole island – as far as Paphos – they met a magician who was a Jewish pseudo-prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an educated man who called Barnabas and Saul wanting to hear the word of God. Elymas the magician (as his name is translated), however, opposed them attempting to turn the proconsul from the faith. Saul, however, also named Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, stared at him and said, “You are full of all deceit and all villainy, a son of the devil and an enemy of all righteousness! Won’t you stop bending the straight paths of the Lord? Now, see, the Lord’s hand is against you – for a season – and you will be blind and unable to see the sun! At once mist and darkness fell upon him and he groped about for someone to guide him by hand. When the proconsul saw what happened he believed, astonished by the teaching of the Lord.
Acts 13:4-12 (Own Translation)
I find what Barnabas and Saul – and the sending church leaders – don’t do most surprising.
Compared to modern missionary enterprises, there is very little planning here. No garnering of support. No systematic learning of culture or language. No recognising of an unreached people-group.
Barnabas and Saul, it seems, just go to the nearest sea-port and board a boat.
Of course, there is evidence in the text of a little more planning. John is introduced. His role-description is simply ‘to assist’. It implies some attention to preparation – perhaps packing or some recognition of physical need. Even John’s role, however, seems somewhat undefined.
It may not be that there was no attention to detail, however. We do well to remind ourselves that Luke is a careful and selective writer who certainly has the capacity to discuss and understand life’s necessities.
Luke is, however, choosing not to do this here. The emphasis of our author is clear: ‘So they, being led by the Holy Spirit…’ As we saw in the sentences leading up to this, this journey was initiated by the Spirit of God. Luke does not want his readers distracted from this reality.
How easy it is for us to take over that which God begins. A prompt by the Spirit and we take over from there. Easy – and sad.
Their first port is on the eastern side of the island of Cyprus. There in the Salamis synagogue Barnabas and Saul offer the ‘word of God’. This mission, like the church itself, is to the Jews first.
Most of the recorded action, however, takes place on the opposite side of the island. In Paphos, Barnabas, Saul, and John are summoned by Sergius Paulus. Whatever they have been doing, they are now expected.
Sergius Paulus is educated and apparently successful enough to have an entourage. Included in this is a magician of Jewish descent named Bar-Jesus. Luke identifies him as a ‘pseudo-prophet’. A Jew. A Magician. Something of a prophet and a magician.
Miracles, it seems, would be part of this man’s realm and contribution. They are his specialty. His field of expertise.
Perhaps this leads us naturally to this man’s opposition to Barnabas and Saul. Has he heard something of the renowned miracle worker these messengers represent? Is their coming seen as a threat to territory? Does Elymas have a reputation already heavily invested in? We can only really speculate.
Elymas’ opposition, however, seems to be targeted at the proconsul himself. He is not opposed to Barnabas and Saul in general, but seems to be interested in protecting Sergius Paulus for himself.
Saul is quick to recognise this – and then to speak with an unexpected boldness: “You are full of all deceit and all villainy, a son of the devil and an enemy of all righteousness! Won’t you stop bending the straight paths of the Lord? Now, see, the Lord’s hand is against you – for a season – and you will be blind and unable to see the sun!”
Saul is the perfect one to utter such a prophecy. Elymas’ opposition must have stirred memories of Saul’s own. This temporary blinding also has loud echoes of Saul’s revelation on the way to Damascus.
Perhaps it is deliberate. After all, there is a clear element of ‘coming of age’ here for Saul. The man, being re-named Paul in this very passage, is finding his own voice.
People often find the necessary voice and gifting in the going – not before.
Even as Elymas gropes for someone gracious enough to lead him the proconsul’s decision is confirmed. He is ‘astonished’ – an exemplary response to the miracles of Jesus throughout Luke’s gospel – and now in his account of the early church. ‘Marvelled’ or ‘astounded’ could also suffice.
Significantly, however, Sergius Paulus is not amazed at Paul. Rather, this miracle points him to ‘the teaching of the Lord.’ Elymas’ jealousy points to a magic that served only his own needs and ego. The wonders done as Paul speaks point to Jesus.
Perhaps that is another characteristic of great mission – it always points away from the messenger to the message.
In what ways are you prone to over-plan the things God starts?
Have you ever experienced a moment when you spoke, like Paul, with a boldness beyond your own?
Have you ever stepped into the mission God calls you to without feeling sure of the necessary gifts? Has this uncertainty ever prevented you moving forward?
Do the missions you are closest to point to the Kingdom of God and away from themselves?