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Nero had his court astrologers, who predicted his rule of the east, including sovereignty over Jerusalem. Sergius Paulus had his court prognosticator, Elymas (13:7). And today it is not unheard-of that world leaders consult astrologers as they schedule key events. But what happens when the power of the gospel confronts the power of the occult? The contest on Cyprus and its outcome show us.
Highlighting the divine initiative in the church's proactive Gentile mission, Luke describes the church's "release" of Paul and Barnabas (13:3) as sent on their way by the Holy Spirit (compare Lk 4:1, 14). Traveling to Seleucia, a Mediterranean port of Syrian Antioch, sixteen miles west and five miles north of the mouth of the Orontes, the missionary band embarks for Cyprus.
They land at an eastern port and administrative center, Salamis, some 130 miles west of the Syrian coast. Cyprus, 132 miles northeast to southwest, is traversed by two mountain ranges that enclose a fruitful central plain. The island itself is situated on shipping lanes between Syria, Greece and Asia Minor. From Ptolemaic times a large Jewish colony has been present (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 13:284, 287; 1 Macc 15:23; Philo Legatio ad Gaium 282), and a Christian witness appears to have been born there early (Barnabas is a Cypriot--Acts 4:36; compare 11:19-20).
There in the Jewish synagogues Saul and Barnabas "began to solemnly proclaim" (compare 4:2; 13:38; 15:36; imperfect ingressive action--Kistemaker 1990:460) the word of God, that is, the gospel, God's message of grace and salvation (13:7, 44, 46, 48; compare 13:12, 26, 49; 14:3, 25). John--that is, John Mark (12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37; Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Philem 24; 1 Pet 5:13) is there as "an assistant."
Frequent references to the word of God throughout the account of this first missionary journey show us that communicating the message of salvation must be the main activity of missions. In a day when specialist short-term work, humanitarian relief and support services are all being called missions, and rightly so, the church needs to make sure it does not shift its primary focus away from the central purpose of missions--the communication of the gospel.
Traveling west across the island, Saul and Barnabas arrive at Paphos, ninety miles away. This was the senatorial province's official capital. In the governor's court a Jew, Bar-Jesus (transliteration of the Aramaic "Son of Salvation"), operates as a sorcerer and false prophet. Sorcerer (magos) was a venerable term for students of the metaphysical, including members of the Median priest class (Mt 2:1), possessors and users of supernatural knowledge and ability (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 10.195, 216), magicians who used demonic magic (Acts 8:9-10), and charlatans and deceivers (compare 19:13-16; Delling 1967:356). Bar-Jesus is probably a court astrologer with demonic powers (Haenchen 1971:397; contrast Krodel [1986:229], who calls him part of the world of "religious con-artists who practiced quackery and interpreted dreams"). As a false prophet, Bar-Jesus--also called Elymas--claims wrongly to be a medium of divine revelation (Bruce 1988:249). As a sorcerer he claims to know magic formulas by which he can break the bonds of fate and give the governor control over the future. When faced with the truth of the gospel, Bar-Jesus actively opposes the missionaries (compare Lk 21:15; Acts 6:10). He makes every effort to "completely turn aside" the governor from the faith (compare 13:10; 20:30).
In sharp contrast, Sergius Paulus, the proconsul (the correct title for the governor of a senatorial province, which Cyprus became in 22 B.C.), wanted to hear the word of God. Luke calls him intelligent, probably complimenting him for his inquiring mind. His desire to hear the word of God is not simply a matter of administrative prudence (as Longenecker 1981:419). Rather, Luke holds up this Roman official from the highest levels of society as a positive model of the proper response to hearsay about Christianity. The proconsul's interest would surely impress Theophilus and his fellow inquirers, just as a political, entertainment or sports celebrity who declares openly his or her spiritual hunger for the gospel would draw attention today.
Filled with the Holy Spirit (compare 4:8), Saul (here first called Paul) [looks] straight at Elymas (compare 3:4; 14:9) and delivers a verdict that reveals the sorcerer's true character, stance and activity. All that fills Elymas is deceit and the trickery of wrongdoing (contrast 1 Thess 2:3). He is a child of the devil in his stance as an enemy of everything that is right, literally "of all righteousness" (compare Lk 8:12). He perverts the right ways of the Lord in that he twists the path that would lead to salvation (taking tou kyriou as an objective genitive; Hos 14:9; compare Ps 119:1; Is 40:3, 5; Lk 1:79; Acts 8:21).
The divine sentence is that the sovereign hand of the Lord, which directs his saving purposes in history (Acts 4:28) and otherwise acts in healing and salvation blessing (4:30; 11:21), will be against Elymas, placing temporary physical blindness on him. Is the blindness to picture his own spiritual blindness (compare 9:8; 26:18)? Since it is temporary, is it intended to bring the sorcerer to repentance?
By juxtaposing the judgment to Sergius Paulus's faith response, Luke clearly shows how the gospel's power is greater than the power of the occult. Immediately, though not instantaneously, the sentence is carried out. The blindness comes on gradually as a gathering mist and in the end becomes total. Elymas finds himself groping about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand.
In Luke's account, the church's evangelists consistently meet overt demonic opposition through practitioners of occult arts when they first thrust into new ethnic or geographical territory: Samaria (8:9-24); Cyprus, first missionary journey (13:4-12); Philippi, thrust into Europe (16:16-18); Ephesus, third missionary journey (19:11-20). There is no culture today where, to one degree or another, such a spiritual battle is not joined. Not presumptuously, but confidently--by prayer, filled with the Spirit--we must boldly proclaim the gospel and, as the Lord directs, confront hostile spiritual powers.
The power encounter yields saving results: the governor comes to faith (2:44; 4:4, 32; 11:21; 13:39). But Luke is careful to let us know the necessary interdependence of gospel word and mighty act. He says Sergius Paulus believed, for he was amazed (literally, "struck out of his senses"), not at the miracle but at the teaching about the Lord. With this last little phrase Luke informs us about the proper role of miracle in evangelistic witness (see comment at 9:35). Sergius Paulus, the first totally pagan Gentile convert and a representative of the upper echelons of Roman society, stands as a model inquirer and convert for Theophilus, his fellow seekers and all since their time.