This report of Saul’s first missionary journey has some of the elements of a typical church/mission report today: an outreach activity and an interesting conversation. On the other hand, linking the Spirit to the blinding of a man and a preacher undergoing a name change are rather more unusual. So we need to think about why Luke made these the focus of this important new venture.
These events probably take place around 48AD. Barnabas is the leader of this mission that he and Saul have been sent out on by the Holy Spirit, working through their church in Antioch (Ac 13:3-4). Along with his cousin John Mark (Ac 12:25; Co 4:10), they travel the 150 miles to Salamis on the east coast of Cyprus (v5). Working their way across the Mediterranean island, they visit Jewish synagogues to preach God’s word. But why, given the mixed congregation in Antioch, is there such an apparently single-minded focus on the Jews? Luke doesn’t explain. But it may be that they were taking careful steps at the beginning since the issues surrounding the incorporation of Gentiles into the kingdom of Christ were far from settled, as we’ll see in Acts 15. Though the early church was filled with the Spirit, that did not mean they were all of one mind, all the time. They had to work hard at discerning the will of the Lord through his teaching, his life, the prophecies they received and their discussions. This teaches us to take care when we are seeking the way forward for our own church. What might seem obviously Biblical to us, may not be so clear to others; and we could be biased by our own preferences. So it’s vital we pray for God’s grace to help us act with humility, love and wisdom (Ph 2:1-16).
So Barnabas and Saul meet with the Jews on Cyprus. However, one particular man causes them a lot of problems and the confrontation with him becomes, in a way, a token of Saul’s future work. This is Bar-Jesus, who claims to know magical ways and to speak for God (v6). He is an advisor to the Gentile governor, Sergius Paulus (v7). The proconsul is a thoughtful man and calls for the missionaries to tell him their word from God. The false prophet, however, who has woven a web of superstition around himself (he uses the name “Elymas” which is connected in some way to this) to gain power, is utterly opposed to the idea (v8). In this he becomes a picture of all that is wrong in the Judaism of this time: mixed with rubbish; looking to the pagans for power; speaking falsely of God. Barnabas and Saul will face similar opposition throughout their coming journeys. But to see it here is, for Saul, a defining moment at the start of his great work. The Holy Spirit fills him (v9) to face this crisis and he condemns forthrightly the wickedness of this man of lies, tricks and lawlessness, calling him a son of the devil (v10 cf Jo 8:44). He then, in the name of the Lord, enacts one of Israel’s covenant curses upon Elymas (v11; De 28:28-29). Meanwhile, the governor is struck with the power of Saul’s gospel and believes. Thus Saul sees clearly that he has more in common with this believing Gentile than the unbelieving Jew. Therefore, from now on he will be known by his Roman name of Paul (v9) – Luke will not call him Saul again.
From this point, Paul will take the lead role in the mission (v13) and though he will go to the Jews wherever he travels, he will also always speak to Gentiles too. That is his clear task. The Lord has revealed to him the truth of his kingdom: that it must unite Jew and Gentile in Christ (Ep 3:2-6). This will be Paul’s passion and so he will be the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (Ga 2:8). Luke’s report of the mission to Cyprus, with its unusual elements, captures that truth.
However, in this unique tale we can find lessons for ourselves. Firstly, we see here Christian motivation. Our desire is for God’s kingdom to come (Mt 6:10) in all its richness into the world and that will override our personal desires and preferences – Paul loved his people (Ro 9:1-4) but he knew he had to go to the Gentiles for Christ. That motivation then, secondly, guides what we do. That’s not just evangelism but a passion for anything which will strengthen what the kingdom should be. We learn from this passage to see God’s kingdom in all its richness.