The ministry to the gentiles continues to grow and Saul (Paul) and Barnabas embark on their first missionary journey. The journey is the first formal mission outside the borders of Palestine. The gospel has spread beyond Palestine – there are believers in Africa and Cyprus, and Paul lived for several years in Tarsus after his conversion – but this is Luke’s first account of a trip away from its shores embarked upon for the sole purpose of spreading the gospel.
Luke rejoins the story of Saul and Barnabas taking aid to the church in Jerusalem that he first mentioned at the end of Chapter 11. Nothing is said about the actual trip other than that they went and now return. They come back to Antioch from Jerusalem and bring Mark – the cousin of Barnabas whose mother had the house where the believers met to pray for Peter while he was imprisoned (12:12) – who will assist them in their upcoming journey.
The gospel came to Antioch through believers fleeing the persecution that broke out in Jerusalem after Stephen’s death. And it came to gentiles in Antioch through the witness of believing Jews from Cyrene (modern day Libya in northern Africa) and Cyprus (11:19-20). Thus it is not surprising that the leadership of the church in Antioch is diverse. Of the five men mentioned in verse 1, Barnabas is from Cyprus (4:36), Simeon is a black man (called Niger) likely from Africa, Lucius is from Cyrene, and Manaen is likely a prominent Jew from Judea since he was brought up with Herod the tetrarch (Antipas – the one who ruled Galilee during Jesus’ ministry and executed John the Baptist – Matt 14 – it is amazing that someone raised like a son of Herod the Great is a leader in the New Testament church). Saul, of course, was born in Tarsus and studied in Jerusalem.
As the leaders minister in the church the Holy Spirit instructs them – possibly through one who is a prophet as mentioned in verse 1 – to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. The Holy Spirit does not say what specifically He wants Saul and Barnabas to do or where they are to go. He simply says to set them apart for the work He has called them to. Both men have been involved in spreading the gospel already (11:22-26, Gal 1:21-24) and both seem to understand their calling as missionaries. Thus the call is understood and probably welcomed even though they may not know yet where He wants them to go.
Ministering to the Lord and fasting are presented matter-of-factly as if they are the normal actions of the five men as they live their lives and lead the church. This speaks to the discipline of the believers and their view of their responsibilities as leaders. These men take their roles in the church seriously and understand their dependence on God for wisdom and direction. It also shows they have a role in their sanctification and that they do not become greatly used of God just by sitting back and waiting for Him to change them (I Cor 15:10).
Even after hearing directly from the Spirit the believers still fast and pray before sending Saul and Barnabas away. They naturally go to God for direction and do not stop doing so even after hearing from Him. It is perhaps at this time that they find out where the two missionaries are to go. They presumably pray for safety, direction, and boldness for the two men. These men are so close in their walk with God that His Spirit audibly speaks through them, and that closeness is a product of and informs their understanding of their total dependence on Him. The closer we get to God the more we appreciate how finite and frail and dependent on Him we are. Maturity equals dependence.
Saul and Barnabas – and Mark – leave Antioch and board a ship in Seleucia for Cyprus – Barnabas’ homeland and a place the gospel has been preached by believers scattered from Jerusalem after Stephen’s execution (11:19 – perhaps Barnabas wants to both proclaim the gospel to those who have not heard it and check on the places where it has already gone). Once there they begin to proclaim the word of the Lord in the synagogues of the Jews. They do not go to the gentiles initially – they follow the tradition of taking the gospel to the Jews first before going to any other people (although they perhaps reach out to God-fearing gentiles who attend services in the synagogues).
The three men travel throughout the whole island – presumably preaching only in the synagogues – until they reach the capital city of Paphos. There they encounter two men. One is a Jewish magician named Bar-Jesus (son of salvation). The other is Sergius Paulus, the proconsul (the Roman governor of the province). Sergius Paulus is described as a man of intelligence. No further commentary is given as to how Luke knows this or what it is about Paulus that makes this evident.
Sergius Paulus summons Saul and Barnabas so he can hear the word of God. Their work throughout the island has apparently been successful enough to attract the proconsul’s attention and he desires to hear what it is that causes people to believe and change. He also is likely familiar with at least some Jewish teaching (albeit false teaching) because of his exposure to Bar-Jesus, so perhaps the opportunity to hear more from these Jewish evangelists interests him (he has an inquiring mind as a man of intelligence). The magician, however, opposes Paul and Barnabas and advises the proconsul to turn away from the faith (unlike Simon the magician he does not pretend to believe – 8:9-24). He apparently is an advisor to Sergius Paulus (he is with the proconsul – vs 7) and likely fears for his position if the governor becomes a believer and no longer depends on his magic.
Nothing is said in the text that this summons intimidates Saul and Barnabas. They have boldly proclaimed the gospel to gentiles in Antioch and throughout the synagogues of Cyprus and now are asked to proclaim it to the most powerful Roman on the island. In none of these situations have they balked at their calling. They were called and sent out and preach through the power of the Holy Spirit. They are not in Cyprus at the urging of men and their message does not come from men and their preaching is not through the power of men. Thus they do not fear any man and in the power of the Spirit will preach anywhere in any situation and to anyone. There is no room for the fear of man in the one who is filled with the Spirit.
In verse 9 Luke mentions for the first time that Saul’s Roman name is Paul (Paul is a Roman citizen – 22:22-29 – and so has a Roman name to go along with his Jewish name) and then refers to him this way for the remainder of the book (and really the remainder of the New Testament as Paul refers to himself using this name in all of his Epistles). Note that this has nothing to do with his conversion or any change in him at all. It seems to be simply a matter of referring to him by the name that makes the most sense now that he ministers mainly among Roman gentiles (he certainly would have introduced himself to Sergius Paulus as ‘Paul’ instead of ‘Saul’).
Paul fixes his gaze on the magician (this is quite a scene) and condemns him and tells him rather than being the son of salvation he is the son of the devil (perhaps referring both to his opposition to the gospel and the source of his magic power). He tells him he is full of deceit and fraud – also likely a reference to his magic and its ability to make people listen to him. He pulls no punches and effectively tells him he is the personification of all that is evil because he stands in the way of the gospel (remember that Paul is in the court of the proconsul and taking on one of his personal advisors, yet he does not flinch at all and goes after him directly and aggressively – this is the power of the Spirit!). He then curses him and tells him he will be blind for a time – much like Paul was after he saw the glory of Jesus on the road to Damascus. Immediately the magician becomes blind and goes about seeking those who would lead him by the hand. The one who makes crooked the straight ways of the Lord can no longer see to walk at all.
Paul is extremely harsh with Bar-Jesus and seems to react with great anger to his opposition. But notice what it says in verse 9 before Paul speaks – he is filled with the Holy Spirit (in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to His disciples that He would give them the words to say when called before authorities to defend the faith – Matt 10:19). He does not simply react – he reacts in the power of the Spirit. What he says he says by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and in His power. Paul is ultimately angry because the magician opposes the proclamation of the gospel. He is the enemy of all righteousness and makes crooked the straight ways of the Lord. Paul does not say Bar-Jesus is his and Barnabas’ enemy or that Bar-Jesus opposes them. Paul is angry over someone standing against God and standing in the way of His word. His anger is a righteous anger because it is centered on God and not himself.
When Sergius Paulus witnesses the confrontation between Paul and Elymas (another translation of the magician’s name) and the magician going blind, and then considers the teaching he has heard (apparently Paul and Barnabas presented the gospel before Bar-Jesus opposed them), he believes. The combination of the sign and the witness convince him the gospel is real and he joins the new movement. Thus Bar-Jesus ends up in the worst shape possible from his perspective. He is blind and Sergius Paulus is a Christian.
Notice the facts of this conversion. Sergius Paulus is in the upper echelons of Roman government. He is the main authority on the island and likely lives very well amidst power, prestige and wealth. He is a man of intelligence who apparently likes to learn but nothing in the text would lead us to believe that he is searching for God. And yet God sends two anonymous missionaries to his island to bring him the gospel and reinforces their teaching with a sign of His power. The proconsul seems to be the first documented case of a non-God-fearing gentile coming to Christ (Cornelius was a devout man of prayer and worship – 10:1-2). God reaches out and grabs him and brings him to Himself. Sergius Paulus’ role in his own salvation is simply to be there.
In that way his conversion – though miraculous because of Paul’s sign – is similar to all others. The Holy Spirit called Paul and Barnabas. The Holy Spirit sent Paul and Barnabas to Cyprus. The Holy Spirit gave them the words to preach throughout the island. The Holy Spirit moved Sergius Paulus to want to hear the word of God from them. The Holy Spirit gave Paul and Barnabas the boldness to proclaim the gospel to the proconsul. The Holy Spirit infused Paul with the words and boldness to condemn the magician. The Holy Spirit gave Paul the power to strike Bar-Jesus with blindness. And though the text does not say it – we know the Holy Spirit opened Sergius Paulus’ heart to accept the gospel message and believe that God struck the magician blind. Nothing in this account speaks to man’s responsibilities or man’s strength or really anything man did at all. The proconsul became a believer through the power of the Holy Spirit and in that way shares his conversion with every other soul who has been or ever will be converted.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. -Ephesians 2:8-9