The In-Between Years Part - 60
Series: The In-Between Years
February 27, 2022
The In-Between Years — Part 60
Last time we saw the official launching of phase 3 of God’s great witness projection plan as given by Jesus in Acts 1:8. Everything has been leading up to this in Luke’s second volume…
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8 (ESV)
Phase 3 begins with the commissioning of Saul and Barnabas as missionaries to the Gentiles…
1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While 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.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1–3 (ESV)
Today we get to join this dynamic duo, Barnabas and Saul, as they set out on their first missionary journey. Let’s pick back up in verse 4…
4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. Acts 13:4 (ESV)
Seleucia ( sih LYOO shih uh) was a port city. They went there they so they could take a boat to Cyprus, the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily and Sardinia.
Like always, I look for questions begging to be answered, and the question here is why Cyprus? I think a clue may be found if we go back and look at our first encounter with Barnabas…
36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Acts 4:36 (ESV)
Barnabas was born and raised on Cyprus. Maybe Barnabas thought it best to start with a place and people he was most familiar with. Maybe he had family he thought Saul might reach. Or maybe he hadn’t been to “mama ner ems” for a while.
Apart from that, Cyprus was a bustling island “replete with nearly every kind of settlement known to the Late Roman world … small farmsteads, villas, agricultural villages, and mid-sized commercial harbors … below the threshold of major urban sites” (Caraher, Moore, and Pettegrew, “Surveying Late Antique Cyprus,” 86–88). In other words, it was incredibly quaint and as good a place as any to start sharing the good news.
5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. Acts 13:5 (ESV)
Salamis (SAL uh miss) was, as you would imagine, a significant port city and point of entry for the island. They wasted no time in sharing the good news, going straight to the synagogues. Evidently, there was a significant Jewish population there. So right from the start, Saul sets a pattern for his missionary endeavors, one he’ll keep more or less his whole career. Try and reach his own first, then the Gentiles. He admits as much in…
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Romans 1:16 (ESV)
Note there was a thrid companion on their journey, in verse 5 Luke adds “and they had John to assist them.” John, AKA John Mark, AKA the author of the Gospel of Mark and Barnabas’ cousin.
6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. Acts 13:6 (ESV)
Paphos is another big city on the island. This will also become part of Paul’s pattern. Hit the big cities almost exclusively because the population concentrates there. More people to share the gospel with at one time. And, of course, the bigger the city, the more likely there are Jews present.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In Paphos they encounter a “magician” (air quotes) named Bar-Jesus, or son of Jesus (Jesus was actually the same name as Joshua and very common. It means God saves). Bar-Jesus was Jewish — no doubt with a name like that — and according to Luke a false prophet.
My goodness the debates over who exactly this fellow is. That’s why I put air quotes around “magician.” It’s incredibly odd that a magician or sorcerer would be Jewish. Jews are forbidden to deal in the dark arts.
The Greek root word for magician is used here, but it’s also a word with close ties to some of the most famous fellows in all Scripture. Think, Christmas story. Yep, the wise men or the magi. They weren’t magicians as much as they were scientists, astronomers, and sages of sorts. After reading quite a few commentaries and consulting the works of more than a few Bible scholars (I sound so smart, don’t I?), I’m convinced that Bar-Jesus wasn’t a sorcerer dealing in the occult as much as he was a sage, a wise man who gives advice. This makes a lot of sense when you see who he’s connected with…
7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. Acts 13:7 (ESV)
Bar-Jesus was with a very important man, the Roman appointed governor of the whole island, Sergius Paulus. Now we see the connection. One commentator writes, “That Bar-Jesus is called a false prophet strongly suggests that he was being used as a consultant of sorts by the [governor], part of his official… entourage. We should not be surprised that a Roman might use such a person with associations with Judaism. We know that Jews had a reputation in the Empire for depth of religious insight and understanding.”
So Bar-Jesus is the governor’s right hand man. The one who advises him in important matters. Back to verse 7…
7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. Acts 13:7 (ESV)
The governor called for Saul and Barnabas because he desired to hear the word of God. That also begs a question. Why? Sergius Paulus was a Gentile. The island he oversaw was known for its association with the goddess Venus AKA Aphrodite. Surely he took a risk in entertaining two men whose message was in direct opposition to the island’s religious bent. Rome did not like it when their provinces had turmoil.
Evidently he was open minded. He had a Jew for a wise man after all. But even more than that I think he had been searching. He was like Cornelius. Remember him? A gentile, a Roman soldier of some means searching for truth. Barnabas and Saul lived out their faith in such a way that Sergius Paulus was drawn to them. He sought them out.
Makes me think about something that happened recently you may have heard about. My hero, Tim Keller, posted a clip on his twitter of Stephen Colbert interviewing the pop star Dua Lipa on his late show. Out of the blue Dua Lipa asks Colbert to share about his faith. Colbert, though certainly not a conservative, is Catholic and often talks about his faith. Colbert gave a pretty compelling response.
Keller tweeted, “This is a brilliant example of how to be a Christian in the public square. Notice the witness, but in a form the culture can handle. We should desire to have more Christians in these spaces and give them grace as they operate.”
You would have thought Keller had praised the antiChrist. He was attacked not by the secular world but by those who call themselves Christians. Here’s the thing I’d like to ask all Keller’s and even Colbert’s critics. How often has someone in the marketplace come up to you, sought you out, because they saw your faith and were attracted to it, wanting to know more?
Oh that I might be like Barnabas and Saul (and even Colbert), living out my faith in such a way that people in the marketplace would seek me out wanting to know more.
Here’s what happened next…
8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Acts 13:8 (ESV)
Bar-Jesus, AKA Elymas (EL ih mass), wasn’t having it. I guess he saw Barnabas and Saul as competition. Or maybe as a good Jew he couldn’t handle a teaching making a man from Nazareth the Messiah. He used his influence over Sergius Paulus to turn him away from the faith.
One commentator writes, “One obvious lesson from all this is that when a new work of God is going ahead, you can expect opposition, difficulty, problems and confrontation. That is normal. How God will help you through (and how long he will take about it!) is another matter. That he will, if we continue in prayer, faith and trust, is a given.”
We should not be surprised when we face opposition. Jesus warned the disciples and us of this…
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. John 15:18–21 (ESV)
If we are doing things right, we should expect resistance. Sometimes I think we forget about that. Sometimes I think also we either don’t step out on faith for fear of antagonism or give up too early when it comes. We don’t seek it or produce it, but natural opposition can be a sign we are right on target
So now Bar-Jesus the sage stands between the gospel and Sergius Paulus. Here’s what happened…
9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Acts 13:9–11 (ESV)
Whoa! That’s intense. Saul does not play around. At first this seems reactionary, even harsh, that Saul curses Bar-Jesus with blindness. But think about Saul’s story. He too was a Jew who opposed the faith, even to the point of imprisoning and murdering Christians. On the road to Damascus he met Jesus and the encounter left him… blind. It was kind of a spiritual statement. Saul had to be blinded and led around by the hand to see that Jesus was and is the true Messiah and King of all Kings. That blindness brought him to repentance. Maybe it would Bar-Jesus too.
So, if anything, I think what Saul did was an attempt to save Bar-Jesus. We aren’t told if it worked. But we do know what happened to Sergius Paulus.
Before we find out, though, we have to note something in verse 9. A subtle but important change Luke records…
9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him Acts 13:9 (ESV)
Saul who was also called Paul. There it is. The shift from Saul to the name we all know him by, Paul. Why the change? One scholar gives a possible explanation…
…the name ‘Saul’ didn’t play well in the wider non-Jewish world. Its Greek form, ‘Saulos’, was an adjective that described someone walking or behaving in an effeminate way… It was, to put it delicately, not a word that would help people to forget the messenger and concentrate on the message. So, like many Jews going out into the Greek world, Paul used a regular Greek name, whether because it was another name he had had all along, which is quite possible, or because it was close to his own real name, just as some immigrants change their names into something more recognizable in the new country. One thing was certain. Paul was serious about getting the message out to the wider world. When you even change your own name, you show that you really mean business, even if it will lead you into confrontation.
Saul changed his name to Paul so he might be more effective as a missionary. This would not surprise me at all. Reminds me of what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth…
19 I am not anyone’s slave. But I have become a slave to everyone, so that I can win as many people as possible. 20 When I am with the Jews, I live like a Jew to win Jews. They are ruled by the Law of Moses, and I am not. But I live by the Law to win them. 21 And when I am with people who are not ruled by the Law, I forget about the Law to win them. Of course, I never really forget about the law of God. In fact, I am ruled by the law of Christ. 22 When I am with people whose faith is weak, I live as they do to win them. I do everything I can to win everyone I possibly can. 23 I do all this for the good news, because I want to share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 (CEV)
What a testimony to Paul’s desire to win people to Christ. I served under a pastor years ago whose slogan was, “We’ll do anything short of sin to win people to Jesus!” I think Paul might agree.
So what about Sergius Paulus? Who is also named Paul BTW.
12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord. Acts 13:12 (ESV)
That’s a sweet ending to an exciting story. Paul’s first missionary journey is off to a great start.
Conclusion: As we close I can’t help but think about the relationship between the men and the message. The good news of Jesus and his kingdom is life changing and revolutionary all its own. I mean, the gospel stands all by itself and doesn’t need anyone or anything to prop it up. Yet, it is inextricably linked to the life and witness of those who proclaim it.
Some will reject it regardless, for sure, like Bar-Jesus, but others, many others will receive the good news, and a big part of this is not just what’s being shared but who’s sharing it. The way Paul and Barnabas carried themselves (and will continue to), they way they lived out their faith in word and deed (even to the point of changing their names if need be) was just as important as the good news they were commissioned to share. The proconsul was open to the gospel because he was attracted to the life and witness of the men proclaiming it. That’s what drew Dua Lipa to Stephen Colbert.
That’s what draws us to the Christians in the Ukraine right now. They make their faith look so appealing. It holds up under pressure. It shines brighter even. I have to ask myself. Do I make the faith look appealing? No one answer that.
Can’t go without noting it works the other way too. We can make the gospel incredibly unattractive by how we act and live.
Look past me and any hurt you’ve received from or hypocrisy you’ve seen in the church this morning and know that the good news Paul and Barnabas took to Cyprus 2,00 years ago is just as powerful and effective today. Today, if you will call upon the Lord, he will save you…
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13 (ESV)
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