8 Mar 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 13:4b-12. 2). Barnabas and Saul in Cyprus.
*The two of them*, missionaries from the church of Antioch *sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia*, the port near the mouth of the River Orontes, about fifteen miles away *and sailed from there to Cyprus* (4). We are not told why Cyprus was chosen as their first destination, although we know that Barnabas was a Cypriot (4:36). In what follows Luke is inevitably selective. To begin with, he concentrates on Paul’s exploits to the west and north, with his eyes on Rome, and says nothing about the church’s expansion east and south, or about the missionary adventures of other apostles, for example of Thomas who, according to the Syrian Orthodox and Mar Thoma churches of Kerala, travelled from Syria to India. Even in Paul’s travels Luke is selective, according to both his available sources and to his editorial purposes. Thus in the first missionary journey, although he sketches the whole itinerary, he focuses on three main incidents. He portrays Paul evangelizing the proconsul and confronting the sorcerer in Paphos, the provincial capital of Cyprus, preaching the gospel in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch in South Galatia, and addressing a pagan crowd in the open air in Lystra. They illustrate the extraordinary versatility of the apostle in adapting himself to different situations; he appeared to be equally at ease with individuals and crowds, Jews and Gentiles, the religious and the irreligious, the educated and the uneducated, the friendly and the hostile.
*When they arrived in Salamis*, a commercial city on the east coast of Cyprus, *they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues* there. But Luke tells us no more than this, except that *John (i.e. Mark, 12:25) was with them as their helper* (5). We would like to know what kind of help he gave them, and whether we are correct in supposing that, whereas Barnabas and Saul had been specially chosen and sent by the Holy Spirit, John Mark had been chosen by them, without a similar direct divine call. All we can say is that the word *hyperetes* was used of a servant or assistant of doctors, army officers, priests and politicians, and does not tell us whether Mark’s service was pastoral (e.g. instructing enquirers and nurturing converts) or practical (e.g. cooking and cleaning).
On leaving Salamis, *they travelled through the whole island until they came to Paphos* (6a). This took them from the east coast to the west coast, a journey of about ninety miles, which Ramsay argued from Luke’s use of the verb *dierchomai* was ‘a preaching tour through the whole island’. *There*, in Paphos, *they met* a man whom Luke immediately charactorizes as *a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus*, ‘son of salvation’ (6). By profession he was an attendant of (literally just ‘with’) the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, that is, a kind of court wizard. *The proconsul*, whom Luke describes as *an intelligent man*, in spite of his evident fascination for superstitious and occult practices, *sent for Barnabas and Saul because* in his intellectual and spiritual hunger *he wanted to hear the word of God* (7). Without doubt the missionaries responded to his summons, and we are free to imagine Paul the Christian apostle sharing with Paul the Roman proconsul the good news of Jesus Christ.
*But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them*. Luke now refers to him by a different name, and the words in parenthesis have perplexed the commentators. JB may be right to translate them simply ‘Elymas Magos – as he was called in Greek’. Alternatively, if Luke is explaining the meaning of the word ‘Elymas’, it may have been originally an Arabic word for somebody ‘skilful’ or ‘expert’, in other words a *magos* or wise man. At all events, Elymas saw in the Christian missionaries a threat to his prestige and livelihood. So he *tried to turn the proconsul from the faith* (8). This attempt the apostle saw as an extremely serious attack by the evil one, so that he now confronted Elymas Magus as Peter had confronted Simon Magus in Samaria (8:20ff.). Luke chooses this moment to inform us that *Saul…was also called Paul*. It was common for Jews to take a Greek or Roman second name, like Joseph Barsabbas (1:23) and John Mark (12:12, 25), and it was appropriate for Luke to mention Saul’s now as he moves into increasingly non-Jewish contexts. He does not call Paul ‘Saul’ again. Next, he tells us that Paul was freshly *filled with the Holy Spirit*, to show that his boldness, outspokenness and power in condemning Elymas were all from God. Thus endowed, he *looked straight at Elymas*, fixing him with his eye, *and said (9): ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun’* (10-11a).
Paul’s condemnation of Elymas was that he belied his name. ‘Bar-Jesus’, being rather a child of the devil than of salvation, and that he was the enemy of both goodness and truth, being an ‘utter impostor and charlatan’ (NEB, 1961 edition). In keeping with his character, he made crooked the straight paths of the Lord, and was guilty of causing ‘perversion’ (*diastrepho*, 8,10), instead of ‘conversion’ (*epistrepho*, e.g. 9:35; 11;21; 14:15).
God’s judgment of him was fitting. For those ‘who put darkness for light and light for darkness’ (Is.5:20) forfeit the light they originally had. *Immediately*, therefore, *mist and darkness (Dr Luke uses two contemporary medical terms) came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand* (11b). Paul must have remembered the day not many years previously when he himself had been blinded, albeit by the glory of the Lord, and been led by the hand into Damascus.
*When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed* (‘deeply impressed’, NEB; ‘shaken to the core’, JBP) *at the teaching about the Lord* (12). What astonished him was the combination of word and sign, of the apostle’s teaching and the sorcerer’s defeat. There is no need to argue, as some have done, that because no baptism is mentioned the proconsul was not truly converted, or that the missionaries ‘may have mistaken courtesy for conversion’. The statement that *he believed* is plain enough and is in keeping with Like’s general usage elsewhere (e.g. 14:1; 17:34; 19:18). He gives no indication, as he did in relation to Simon Magus (8:13, 18ff), that the proconsul’s faith was profession without reality. No, he brings before his readers a dramatic power encounter, in which the Holy Spirit overthrew the evil one, the apostle confounded the sorcerer, and the gospel triumphed over the occult. More than that, Luke surely intends us to view Sergius Paulus as the first totally Gentile convert, who had no religious background in Judaism. Paul’s direct approach to Gentiles was ‘the great innovative development of this first missionary journey’.
Tomorrow: Acts 13:13-52. 3). Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.