Acts 13:1-12. Mission and Magic

1In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Symeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen from the court of Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul. 2As they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the holy spirit said, 'Set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' 3So they fasted and prayed; and then they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

4So off they went, sent out by the holy spirit, and arrived at Seleucia. From there they set sail to Cyprus, 5and when they arrived in Salamis they announced God's word in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their assistant. 6They went through the whole of the island, all the way to Paphos. There they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. 7He was with the governor, Sergius Paulus, who was an intelligent man. He called Barnabas and Saul and asked to hear the word of God. 8The magician Elymas (that is the translation of his name) was opposing them, and doing his best to turn the governor away from the faith. 9But Saul, also named Paul, looked intently at him, filled with the holy spirit.

10'You're full of trickery and every kind of villainy!' he said. 'You're a son of the devil! You're an enemy of everything that's upright! When are you going to stop twisting the paths that God has made straight? 11Now see here: the Lord's hand will be upon you, and you will be blind for a while; you won't even be able to see the sun!'

At once mist and darkness fell on him, and he went about looking for someone to lead him by the hand. 12When the governor saw what had happened, he believed, since he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

Jim was full of enthusiasm when he left college. From his earliest memories he had been passionate about justice, about fairness, about people respecting one another and being able to live together in harmony. He had always admired the police (in England, this used to be quite easy) and had seen himself as a pillar of the community, helping society to get along, warning those who were messing about, and himself gaining respect all round.

On his first day in the police station, an older officer came up to him.

'Now then, young man,' he said. 'Let's not have any of that "grand ideal" stuff round here. We don't want anyone making a fuss where there's no need. We'll tell you who to go after and who to turn a blind eye to. If we all just blundered ahead with this crazy notion of justice, we'd never get anywhere! People are watching, you know. Think of your family, think of your pension. You'll learn.'

And Jim realized he had a choice. Compromise or confrontation. A safe passage to mediocrity, or a dangerous route to getting the job done.

Many Christians in the Western world today simply can't bear to think of confrontation (except, of course, with 'those wicked fundamentalists'!). There really isn't such a thing as serious wickedness, so they think, or if there is it's confined to a small number of truly evil people, while everyone else just gets on and should be accepted and affirmed as they stand. Christian mission then consists of helping people to do a little bit better where they already are, rather than the radical transformation of life that, as we have seen, was happening all around the place in the early chapters of Acts. And so, when we come to this great turning-point in Luke's story, the start of the extraordinary triple journey that would take Paul right across Turkey and Greece and back again, and then again once more, and finally off to Rome itself, we would much prefer the story to be one of gentle persuasion rather than confrontation. We would have liked it better if Paul had gone about telling people the simple message of Jesus and finding that many people were happy to accept it and live by it.

But life is seldom that straightforward, and people who try to pretend it is often end up simply pulling the wool over their own eyes. It's a murky world out there, and though the choice of compromise is always available in every profession (not least in the church), there is in fact no real choice. What's the point in trying to swim with one foot on the bottom of the pool? You're either up for the real thing or you might as well pack it all in. And Saul and Barnabas were up for the real thing.

They had to be, after that send-off. Luke introduces 'the church in Antioch' with something of a flourish of trumpets; Antioch was on the way to becoming a second major centre of Christian faith after Jerusalem itself, and its leadership team was well known, with Barnabas and Saul among them. We get a fascinating glimpse of their regular devotional life: fasting and prayer surrounding the worship of the Lord, waiting for the spirit to give fresh direction. Whether they had been expecting something like this, we don't know. But to be told, suddenly, that two of the main leaders were wanted elsewhere must have come as something of a blow. (At the time of writing, I have just lost a close colleague who has been called to new ministry, and I am feeling the loss quite keenly.) But there are times, when you have been praying and waiting on God, when a new and unexpected word comes in such a way that you have no choice but to obey. And it's just as well that this is how things happen, because when you then run into problems, and especially confrontation, it would be all too easy to think, 'Oh no, we shouldn't have come.' But the answer, again and again, is, Yes, you should have come; and it is precisely because the gospel needs to make inroads into enemy territory that you need that constant support of fasting and prayer. (One might speculate and suggest that, since the holy spirit hadn't mentioned John Mark, whom Barnabas and Saul took with them [as in verse 5], we shouldn't be surprised that he got cold feet early on in the trip and went back home; but this may be stretching the point.)

We are not told that the spirit specified Cyprus as their initial destination, though Luke omits many details and it's quite possible that the direction was clear. In any case, Barnabas came from that island himself and it was a natural first port of call. There seem to have been Christian missionaries at work there already (see 11:19), but we should never imagine that a few quick visits and a few early converts meant that a whole town, still less an entire island, had been 'evangelized'. There was still plenty to do, and Barnabas and Saul were not simply going to try to persuade one or two people. They were going to take the message to the heart of the Jewish community on the island, and then to the heart of its Gentile community. They sailed from Seleucia, the port of Antioch (Antioch, like Rome, sat a few miles up river from the sea), took the short crossing to Salamis, at the east end of Cyprus, and travelled along the main road round the south of the island until they came to the capital, Paphos, at the western end.

Straight away they established a pattern which would be repeated in place after place. People have sometimes imagined that, because Paul styled himself 'apostle to the Gentiles', that meant he didn't bother any more with his fellow Jews, but nothing could be further from the truth. In Romans 1:16 he describes the gospel as being 'to the Jew first, and also, equally, for the Greek' ('Greek' here means, basically, 'non-Jewish'); and that describes, to a T, his practice as set out in Acts. Luke doesn't tell us what they said in the synagogues in Salamis and elsewhere, because he is saving that for when they get to the Turkish mainland, and because he has something sharp and important to report. When Barnabas and Saul arrived in Paphos, they met two people in particular: the Roman governor, and a local magician.

Both of these are important, as well as in themselves, for what they signify, for Luke and for us. We have already seen that Luke is very much aware of the larger Roman world for which he is writing, and though Roman officials in his book sometimes do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons he wants everyone to be aware that he will give credit where credit is due, and is not prejudiced, or eager to regard all officials, and especially all Romans, as automatically a danger to God's world and God's people. This is not unimportant for us to remember in our own world, where political polarization easily leads people into simplistic analyses and diagnoses of complex social problems, and to a readiness to dismiss out of hand all authorities and anyone in power, whether locally or globally. In this case, the fact that Sergius Paulus had heard about Barnabas and Saul indicates well enough the kind of impact they had been making in his territory. The fact that he wanted to give them a fair hearing—and ended up apparently believing their message—is a wonderful start for their work.

But there is no advance for the gospel without opposition. Indeed, so clear is this truth that sometimes, paradoxically, it's only when an apparent disaster threatens, or when the church is suddenly up against confrontation and has to pray its way through, that you can be quite sure you're on the right track. On this occasion the gospel was invading territory which was under enemy occupation, and the enemy was determined to fight back. The enemy in question was the power of magic, which has already come up in Acts 8 and will recur in chapter 19. We who live in the curious split-level world, between modern scepticism on the one hand and the rampant culture of horoscopes and many other kinds of attempted raids on the supernatural on the other, would do well not to give a superior smile at this point. There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed of in modern Western philosophies, and some of those things are very dangerous.

The confrontation comes to a head as the Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus, also known as Elymas (Luke says this is a 'translation', but it's clear he really means 'alternative name'), tries to persuade the governor not to listen to what the apostles are saying. But now it is the turn of Paul to do what Peter had done in chapter 8. Notice the 'looking intently' in verse 9, a feature we've observed before. Sometimes, in a context of prayer, it is possible to see right into someone's heart, even if we would rather not. When that happens, the only thing to do is to take the risk and say what you see. And what Paul saw was ugly indeed, though not (alas) uncommon: a deep-rooted opposition to truth and goodness, a heart-level commitment to deceit and villainy and, as a result, an implacable opposition to the good news about Jesus. Paul reacts sharply, declaring God's judgment on him in the form of temporary blindness (which he himself had suffered, of course, in chapter 9; did Paul hope that in Elymas's case, as in his own, this would lead to repentance and to embracing the gospel?). The result is that the governor believed the gospel. Luke says that he was astonished at the 'teaching of the Lord'; this clearly doesn't just mean the theological content of what was being said, but the power which it conveyed.

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.

One final note. Luke switches in this passage from the name 'Saul' to the name 'Paul', which he will now continue to use. 'Saul' was a Hebrew name, most famously used for the first Israelite king, whose noble and tragic story is told in 1 Samuel. Paul seems to be aware of this; he, like that king a thousand years earlier, was from the tribe of Benjamin, and on one occasion he quotes, in reference to himself, a passage about the choice of Saul as king (Romans 11:2, quoting 1 Samuel 12:22). Paul also mentions the king in Acts 13:21, in the speech we are about to hear. But 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: 'mincing' might be our closest equivalent. 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.