Paul and Barnabas have been called by God to a special work, distinct from the rest of the leadership of the church in Antioch, and certainly distinct from the work of the Twelve in the Jerusalem church. We are about to see a pattern of ministry that is distinctive to Paul. More about this later — for now, let’s just cover the story!
Sergius Paulus and Bar-Jesus (Elymas)
If you have not yet read the passage for yourself, please do so now.
v4 — Leaving from Antioch, Paul, Barnabas and John Mark (as we shall discover shortly) set out for the city of Seleucia (Seleucia Piera), the nearest seaport to Antioch on the Mediterranean coast. From there they sailed west to the island of Cyprus.
v5 — On reaching Cyprus, they apparently landed somewhere on the eastern end of the island, a region known as Salamis. (This is not to be confused with the island of Salamis on the Adriatic coast of Greece.) Immediately they began to proclaim the Word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John Mark’s presence is identified with them at the end of this verse.
If Paul’s message was different from that of the Twelve, why did they first proclaim it in Jewish synagogues? We have often explained that the Book of Acts is a transitional book between dispensations — from Israel’s prophesied Kingdom to the Gentiles’ unprophesied, mysterious Age of Grace. We are not far enough along in the transition for Paul to skip going to the Jews altogether and go straight to the Gentiles. God is still trying to reach out to His chosen people. By the time we reach the end of the Book of Acts, Paul will have given his Jewish countrymen opportunity after opportunity, always with the same result — rejection. And time after time, in the face of their rejection, Paul turns to the Gentiles in the same community. Some of the Jews believe Paul’s message and come away from the Synagogue to join with Paul and other Gentile converts. But the official position of the synagogues is rejection after rejection after rejection.
We’re seriously getting ahead of ourselves here. We are at the very beginning of this change in pattern. Suffice it to say that no representative of the Jerusalem church has ever turned to the Gentiles when rejected by the synagogue. To do so should have generated intense jealousy among the Jews — which, in the face of Israel’s rejection of God’s plan for them, was exactly what God wanted to do. Instead, it generated pure rage that caused Paul no end of trouble. God is still waiting for Israel to become jealous of what the Gentiles have received in a good and profitable way.
vv6-7 — Paul, Barnabas and John Mark passed through the entire island of Crete, eventually reaching the district and city of Paphos on the western end of the island. There they encountered two individuals, Bar-Jesus (translated Elymas in Greek), a Jewish magician and false prophet, and Sergius Paulus, the Roman governor of the area (a proconsul). Luke goes on to describe Sergius Paulus as a “man of intelligence”, who wanted to hear what Paul and Barnabas had to say.
According to Wikipedia, “In the Roman Republic, a proconsul (in Greek rendered as ἀνθύπατος, anthypatos) was a promagistrate (like a propraetor) who, after serving as consul, spent a year as a governor of a province. Certain provinces were reserved for proconsuls; who received which one by senatorial appointment…” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proconsul) This means that Sergius Paulus was almost certainly a gentile, and the summons indicates that their audience with him did not take place in the local synagogue! This entire episode is a fulfillment of what the Risen Christ told Ananias about Paul’s future, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel…” (Acts 9:15)
v8 — This verse begins with the word “but,” always an indicator of contrast with what has gone before. Luke’s description of Sergius Paulus’ summons leads us to believe that he was genuinely seeking to know about the God of the Hebrews, for this verse is in stark contrast. Elymas had the opposite attitude from Sergius Paulus, opposed their message and sought to turn the proconsul away from the truth.
vv9-12 — Once again, this verse begins with “but” (NASB), indicating contrast to the verse before. The opposer is about to be opposed himself. Paul turns his full attention to Elymas. (Luke notes here that Saul is also known as Paul — marking his use of “Paul” exclusively throughout the remainder of Acts.) He pronounces a judgement on Elymas, a temporary blindness that is symbolic of his spiritual state — blind and in darkness. As a result of this miraculous judgement, Sergius Paulus (a judge himself who had no doubt pronounced judgement on many with far lesser effect) believed Paul’s message in amazement.
Why does Paul use a miracle here? Aren’t miracles intended for a witness to Israel? Yes, indeed! Remember that Elymas was an Israelite, and would have been widely known to the resistant Jewish community on Cyprus. We are not far enough along in Paul’s journeys that his ministry has even been approved by the Jerusalem church. That comes at the end of this first missionary journey in Chapter 15. In the meantime, Paul is not only ministering to Gentiles, but is also validating his authority as an apostle in anticipation of that occasion. Not to mention, of course, that it was entirely appropriate in the circumstances!
Thus ends the story of Elymas and Sergius Paulus, and of Paul, Barabas and John Mark’s time on the island of Crete. In the next verse, they set out from Crete for their next destination. And it’s time for us to set out on another blog post!