Acts 13:1–12 . . .
“Barnabas and Saul, from Antioch to Cyprus”
The scene shifts back to the church in Antioch, where men who'd been scattered by persecution in Jerusalem had the audacity to speak the gospel to Gentiles (Acts 11:19). The hand of the Lord was with them and many got saved. At the end of chapter 12, Luke reports that Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, where they'd taken their gift for those affected by a famine. They brought back with them John Mark, which sets the stage for a major shift in the focus of Acts. From now on, it is the "Acts of Apostle Paul," the story of the church in Antioch's missionary thrust, resulting in the planting of many churches in the Gentile world. Just as the founding of the church in Antioch was a radical turn, with Jews and Gentiles getting saved and joining together on the basis of the cross, so is chapter 13 another turning point. The gospel goes out into Gentile territory, as the church in Antioch responds to its rightful business.
After the miraculous events of chapter 12, this next chapter might seem a bit more ordinary. Chapter 12 began with Luke’s description of the miraculous deliverance of Peter from death at Herod's hand; it ends with the amazing account of the death of Herod. How can you top stories such as those? Be encouraged! You'll soon see what Luke presents in today's study and discussion.
The Spirit Sets Apart Barnabas and Saul (13:1–4)
Having read the four opening verses, let's make note of the plurality of gifted teachers in the church at Antioch. From that church's birth, Barnabas and Saul (shortly thereafter) taught new believers. There were probably other leaders who'd initially gone to Antioch familiar with the good news of the gospel. But now, not much later, we find that there were five gifted men who were capable of teaching and leading the church. Unlike some churches today, this church wasn't dependent upon one man. In God's providence, there were enough gifted leaders to send two of them away without harming the mother church.
Today's text is very important, for it describes the birth of what we might call “foreign missions.” Up to this point, evangelism had occurred, but it wasn't done as a "mission." The persecution following Stephen's death scattered the saints from Jerusalem; many of those saints did share their faith. But, had you asked any of those saints why they were leaving Jerusalem, they wouldn't have told you that it was as a part of a massive missions program developed by the church in Jerusalem. They fled to save their lives, not to save souls. Now the church, prompted by the Holy Spirit, made a conscious decision to send forth Barnabas and Saul for one purpose: “missionary activity.”
Realize that these first 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 this church to have great diversity as a whole. Many mega churches today grow because of their homogeneous makeup. But the Church should reflect a broad range of diversity. It's our "unity in the midst of diversity" that demonstrates the gospel's power.
Luke tells us in v. 1 that there were both prophets and teachers in that church: quite possibly, the first three men were prophets, while the last two were teachers. Barnabas is listed first; Saul is listed last. One can hardly doubt that the order of reference is significant, especially since Luke's subsequent ordering of Barnabas and Saul's names will reverse in our text.
We know from what we've already been told about Barnabas that he was highly regarded by the apostles. When news of the new church at Antioch reached them, they sent Barnabas, who then sought out Saul and brought him to Antioch to help in the ministry. Make note of the fact that Paul didn't “start at the top.” He served where God led him; in God's good time he advanced Paul to having greater responsibilities and authority.
The Spirit didn't specify where Barnabas and Saul were to go (v. 2), 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 entail? The answer might not be as difficult as it may seem: First, God told Paul about his future ministry when he was saved (9:15–16); second, the ministry to which God had called Barnabas and Saul was that which they'd already been doing together (11:23–26) and were now simply led to do in other places; third, the guidance of the Holy Spirit didn't come to Barnabas or Saul alone or jointly — the Spirit’s guidance came to the church, through its leaders, such that neither Barnabas nor Saul had a dominant hand in this process because the Holy Spirit and the church played the most dominant roles.
Proclaiming God’s Word in Cyprus (vv. 5–12)
It seems that an established evangelism program was already set in motion. The apostles would go to those cities having a synagogue where they'd preach God's Word. They were enabled to preach the gospel “to the Jew first,” but they also connected with Gentile proselytes and God-fearers who were already knowledgeable of the Old Testament and the promised Messiah, many of whom were prepared to receive Jesus as their Messiah.
Crossing the island of Cyprus from east to west, Barnabas and Saul reached Paphos where they encountered two men: Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus, and Bar-Jesus, who attended Sergius Paulus. This proconsul, Luke informs us, was an “intelligent man” (v. 7). Sergius Paulus kept Bar-Jesus around and about, hoping to learn from him about the Jews' faith. Bar-Jesus, known also by his Gentile name "Elymas," was a Jew who was a magician. More importantly, he was a Jewish false prophet. Although his name, Bar-Jesus, meant “son of Jesus,” he wasn't a true believer.
There were many other “non-orthodox” Jews, like Elymas, in and about the Roman Empire. Some of these Jews opposed the church from without, such as Elymas, but others actually sought to penetrate the church and corrupt it from within. Proconsul Sergius Paulus seems to have been attracted to Elymas because he claimed to represent Judaism, and because he may, through his association with the magic arts, also appeared to have supernatural powers at his disposal. But the proconsul seems to have been especially attracted to the “Jewish” dimension of Elymas’s teaching. So when Barnabas and Saul appeared on the scene, the proconsul must have seen this as a golden opportunity to learn more from both about the Jewish faith. He therefore invited them to meet him and share their message with him.
Elymas saw the handwriting on the wall. He knew that Barnabas and Saul would in no way teach and practice what he did. And he knew that Sergius Paulus was an “intelligent man” who'd realize the contradictions in his own theology. He saw these two men and their teaching as a threat to his own. Thus, he began to aggressively oppose them.
Finally, it was simply too much for Saul, who, filled with the Spirit, strongly rebuked Elymas. (Watch the video clip linked below!) He exposed him as a fraud. He demonstrated the powers of God and of the gospel by casting a spell on this “magician” because Elymas was a deceiver and a fraud. He didn't seek to lead the proconsul in the way of truth; he became a perverter of it; his motivation was selfish, seeking to improve his own lot, at the expense of the proconsul. Saul — now Paul — had some very strong words of indictment against Elymas. Note the accusations: Elymas was a man who was “full of deceit and all kinds of trickery,” . . . a “child of the devil," . . . the “enemy of everything that is right,” . . . “perverting the right ways of the Lord.”
What a strange feeling must have come over Paul as he cast his spell of blindness on this misguided Jew. (1) It was so much like his own three-day blindness, which was also temporary. (2) It, too, was a gracious act, in that it gave him reason and time for contemplation. (3) It, too, was a testimony to the truth of the gospel and to the error of his own Judaism. (4) And it had a great impact on those who beheld this man of power, now immobilized; this “blind guide” was now being led about by others. The teachings of Barnabas and Saul were clearly made evident, like those of our Lord — they were to not only be true but powerful. As a result, the proconsul believed, amen! Note the irony (v. 12): The man who sought to keep the proconsul from the knowledge and faith of God actually became the instrument by which God brought the proconsul to faith.
In the developing argument of the volume of Acts, a very significant step has been taken: Leadership has been changing hands: (1) We've moved from the twelve apostles, with Peter as their leader, to Barnabas and Saul, with Paul now the leader who'll continue to be called Paul; (2) we've moved from the church in Jerusalem being the sending and supervising church to the church at Antioch; (3) we've departed from Jerusalem and are on our way to Rome; (4) we've seen the salvation of many of the Jews, and are about to enter into the “times of the Gentiles” when the church will be made up more of Gentiles than Jews; and (5) we've seen the evangelism of the world move from the providential working of God through men, in the scattering of the saints from Jerusalem (8:1ff.) to the purposeful sending forth of missionaries by the church (13:1ff.).
The sending out of Barnabas and Saul was the beginning of a new era in the carrying out of the Great Commission. Instead of many missionaries being providentially thrust out by a wave of persecution (8:1), two missionaries were sent out by the Holy Spirit to and through the church at Antioch. From this point on, we'll see very little of Peter or the other apostles in Jerusalem. Paul will become the dominant personality throughout the remainder of this volume. The gospel would soon be on its way to Rome.
Let’s keep our main business in focus: We're to obey the Holy Spirit in promoting God’s glory among the nations by going out and serving as workers called by God to preach the gospel. We're to be hearty harvesters. As Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37–38).
- Q. 1 How can a person know if he or she is being called to go to another culture to serve as a missionary?
- Q. 2 What are some ways that those who don't serve as missionaries can involve themselves in the cause?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 13.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 13:1–14:9, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
13 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2While 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.” 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
4The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.
6They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10“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? 11Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”
Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.