Chapter 8: Paul’s first missionary journey: support then opposition
1 Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ 3 Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.
4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 And when they arrived in Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. They also had John as their assistant.
6 Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, 7 who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who also is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, ‘O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? 11 And now, indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time.’ And immediately a dark mist fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand.
12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
Saul and Barnabas sent on their first missionary journey
Saul and Barnabas come back from Jerusalem to Antioch with John Mark.1 They renew their friendship, fellowship, worship, work and witness with the church. We are not told where it meets. Is it at the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother where they met to pray Peter out of prison?2 The church is not a building, but people saved from sin and judgment by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. One church is described as ‘all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons’.3 ‘Saints in Christ Jesus’ are those who believe that Jesus Christ has died for their sins and who have repented and received Christ in their hearts as Saviour. They are forgiven and dedicated to Jesus. ‘Bishops and deacons’ describe leaders and servants. ‘Deacons’, or ‘servants’, serve the church and its members in certain practical areas of church life. The two words ‘elders’ and ‘bishops’ are interchangeable and mean ‘overseers.’4 They form a leadership team of mature, gifted equals. The words ‘at Philippi’ give the church’s geographical location.
In a similar church at Antioch, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, Saul and Barnabas are now appointed and commissioned to do specific work. In this church are ‘prophets and teachers’. They are Simeon (also called Niger), Lucius from Cyrene, and Manaen (who was brought up with Herod). Being convinced of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the church prays and fasts. It identifies with Saul and Barnabas, and separates them to the work of God. They commission the two men by laying their hands on them and send them away on their first missionary journey.
On to Cyprus
Saul and Barnabas travel to Seleucia, a town that acts as Antioch’s port. Then they sail to Salamis, the port and commercial centre of Cyprus. Although they will share the good news of Jesus with Gentiles, they start by preaching God’s word in the synagogues of Salamis. They will meet Jewish people and also discover more about the island. They will be able to share the gospel with established Jews and with seeking Gentiles. Saul has every right and reason to contact fellow Jews in the synagogues. Some Jews will refuse to listen to the gospel if it is presented first to non-Jews. The principle of making Christ known to the Jew first5 does not prevent them from telling Gentiles of their need of forgiveness through the only Saviour of sinners.6 Saul and Barnabas’s example will encourage Christians to be ready and willing to share the good news of Christ with all. An undeserved but glorious home in Heaven is reserved for unworthy sinners who have been saved by personal faith in the Lord Jesus,7 but a deserved lost eternity of judgment awaits those who have not turned from sin and trusted Christ. How important to make all this clear.
John Mark is helping them. He learns on the job from his two experienced senior workers. It is good for younger Christians to learn how to work for Christ first-hand from keen older Christians. If you are a younger Christian, seek out an older Christian mentor whose Christian life is an example and a challenge to you. If you are an older Christian, make sure you live to please Jesus in every way, so that you can be a help and blessing to younger believers in Christ. There are no age barriers in real Christian fellowship and work.
The conflict with a sorcerer
Paphos is the administrative centre from where the Romans govern Cyprus. It is the religious and business hub of the island. All that is bad about capital cities, such as rampant immorality and lack of self-control, is in Paphos. This is made worse through the worship of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. She is also known as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty, love, pleasure and fertility. Against this dark background the light of the gospel of forgiveness and new life in Jesus shines through the witness of Saul and Barnabas. A Jewish sorcerer and false prophet, Bar-Jesus (or Elymas), is an associate of the influential and intelligent Roman official, Sergius Paulus, who governs the province as its ‘proconsul’. He is obviously seeking God. Probably he has realised by now that there is no truth or reality in what Elymas tells him. He wants to hear the word of God and so asks Barnabas and Saul to share it with him. But Elymas resists Saul and Barnabas. He wants to hinder the proconsul from trusting in the crucified but risen Saviour, who alone can reconcile him to God and enter his life by the Holy Spirit to change him.
From this point in the book of Acts Saul is known as Paul. From now on he is only referred to as Saul when dealing with his pre-conversion life. So ex-persecutor Saul has now received three new things since trusting Jesus. First, he possesses a new nature through becoming ‘born again’.8 Second, he has a new mission to present the Lord Jesus Christ as the only Saviour of lost sinners.9 And third, he now has a new name—Paul. Interestingly, any sinner who believes that Christ has been punished for his or her sins on the cross, and has turned from those sins to receive Jesus, becomes ‘born again’ and possesses ‘new life’ in Him.10 He or she is commissioned to share with others the good news of sins forgiven, peace with God and a home in Heaven.11 God graciously trusts each new believer with the precious name of Christ: they are called ‘Christians’—or ‘Christ’s ones’.12 Do you have that new life? Are you engaged in that new mission to make Jesus known? Do others know from your changed conduct that they should call you ‘Christian’?
Paul never seeks confrontation. But he will not shrink from it if the truth of the gospel, the honour of the Lord Jesus, or the saving of lost sinners is concerned. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, now confronts the false prophet. He ‘looks intently’ at the man who would deceive Sergius Paulus, and so have him go to a lost eternity. Like a law court clerk, he identifies Elymas and puts the charges to him. Under the Spirit’s influence Paul declares him to be the ‘son of the devil’, and the ‘enemy of all righteousness’. His sins are against God and also against his intended victim. The indictment is that ‘he is full of all deceit and all fraud and that he does not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord’. Elymas is evil to an unusual degree, but we all are lost and in the devil’s grip unless and until Jesus saves us.13 We have all acted unrighteously. We have sinned against him as enemies.14 Though different from Elymas, we are deceitful too. We have perverted God’s ways by our sinful words and living. We need a Saviour, just as he does.
Paul tells the wicked sorcerer that he will be blinded temporarily. He will be ‘unable to see the sun for a time’. Straight away ‘mist and darkness fall’ on Elymas. He who led others in darkness now seeks others to lead him around in his darkness. All this confirms God’s authority and word through His apostle. Elymas’s immediate physical judgment points him to the far deeper eternal darkness of Hell’s judgment that awaits those who are blinded by their sin and who will not repent and put their faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice for them.15 That everlasting judgment awaits Elymas too, unless he turns to Christ.
The conversion of an important man
But there is good news, too. Sergius Paulus observes what happens. He is ‘astonished at the teaching of the Lord’ through Paul. Then he believes. God uses the empty opposition of a false teacher to bring an honest and intelligent seeker to know Christ through His word. Are you like Sergius Paulus? Have you come to believe in the Lord as your Saviour yet through His word?
Questions on Chapter 8
Acts 13:1–12 Paul’s first missionary journey: Support then opposition
Why can Paul and Barnabas be sure that they are in God’s will to preach the gospel in Salamis
Acts 13:1–5, Mark 16:15, Romans 10:14, Acts 1:8
How many reasons can you find to explain why Paul spoke so straightforwardly and strongly to Elymas? Was he right to do so?
Acts 13:6–11, Galatians 1:6–12, 2 Timothy 4:2–5
What helped Sergius Paulus to believe in Christ, and what could have hindered him?
Acts 13:12, Acts 26:18, Romans 1:16–18, 1 John 2:18–23
- Acts 12:25 ↩
- Acts 12:12 ↩
- Philippians 1:1 ↩
- The office, work and dress of a ‘bishop’ in Roman Catholic and Church of England churches today differ greatly from elders or bishops overseeing New Testament churches. ↩
- Romans 1:14-17 ↩
- John 14:6, Acts 4:12 ↩
- John 14:1-3 ↩
- John 3:3, John 3:7, 1 Peter 1:23 ↩
- Acts 26: 16–18 ↩
- Romans 6:4, John 10:10, John 17:3 ↩
- 1 Peter 1:1–9 ↩
- Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16 ↩
- John 8:44. Like the Pharisees, the sins of those without Christ show that they are lost and are still in the devil’s family. ↩
- Romans 5:10, Colossians 1:21, Romans 3 23 ↩
- Hebrews 9:27, Romans 1:18, John 5:40, Colossians 1:13, 1 Peter 2:9 ↩