1. Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
Now we begin the important thirteenth chapter of the book of Acts, and begin to examine the ministry of the man named Paul. Some have made much of this chapter and its significance regarding truth for today. There can be no doubt that this chapter marks a significant point in God’s work in the book of Acts. Whether it marks the beginning of God’s work today, however, we would have to question. We will examine what is actually written here, and see what it is that God tells us through this chapter.
Now our attention is focused on the church or the ekklesia that was at Antioch. As we saw before, Antioch was a major city in Syria. “Antioch” means “driven against.” As we have discussed, the ekklesia were those who had a position out of the Lord Jesus Christ. Among these, there were both prophets and teachers.
Prophets were men of God. The modern conception is that these are men who could foretell the future, yet that is not what is meant in the Scriptures by a prophet. Rather, a prophet was one who could speak God’s words. A prophet, speaking by the word of the Lord, might speak of events that took place in the past. He might speak of things that are taking place now in the present. Or he might speak of things as they will yet be in the future, for God knows the end from the beginning and can speak of the future that He knows will be and that He will bring about. Yet the important thing about a prophet is that he speaks God’s words.
We know what a teacher is, yet we need to realize here what a God-given teacher is. Some people seem to think that a God-given teacher would simply have a real gift for making words clear and helping people understand what he was trying to teach. Yet the gift of teaching was not just about being good with words, or getting people to understand your points. Rather, the gift of teaching was in what was taught. One who was a God-given teacher had his curriculum given to him by God, not just his ability to teach. Thus, a God-given teacher would teach God’s truths without any mixing in of error.
Now we learn the names of these various prophets and teachers. First we have Barnabas, our friend from chapter 4, chapter 9, and chapters 11 and 12. Then, one Simeon (meaning “Hearkening”) who was called Niger (meaning “Black.”) Next, a man called Lucius (meaning “Light,” “Bright,” or “White”) from Cyrene (meaning “Supremacy of the Bridle,”) a large city in Lybia. Then, one called Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch. Apparently this one was related somehow to Herod, and no doubt was a man of some influence in government, or at least had been before he joined the believers. The Companion Bible suggests that he was Herod’s foster-brother. Now, however, he is a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, and a prophet or teacher. Last, we have listed Saul. We do not know which of these were prophets and which were teachers. It may be that some were one and some another. However, they all had positions out of God, whichever one they held.
Now in Greek, the word that appears first is the one that is emphasized. Thus, in this list we have our two familiar characters Barnabas and Saul. Barnabas is first, and having been one of the original unity at Jerusalem, no doubt held the highest position among them at this time. Saul, however, is listed last, and therefore in the position of least importance. He has been listed last when paired with Barnabas before, both in Acts 11:30 and Acts 12:25.
2. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
These men are ministering to the Lord. The Greek word here is leitourgeo, similar to our word for liturgy. We are not told how they were ministering, but in Hebrews 10:11 this same word is used for the priests ministering in their service. It is certainly not easy for anyone today to figure out just how to serve God. To serve men we are most capable, but how does one go about serving God today? This is a question that has no easy answer. However, these men were serving God, and while they were doing it they were fasting.
Now, the Holy Spirit speaks to them. Notice He speaks as a Person, and in Greek here this is to pneuma to hagion, or “the Spirit the Holy (Spirit).” Thus this is the Person of the Spirit Who is speaking, not just His power. Some try to make out that the Holy Spirit is just a power, and that there is no Person of the Spirit behind it. However, here the Spirit speaks as a Person, demonstrating that the Spirit is God. It is wrong therefore to make out that the Spirit is just a power.
Now we could ask how the Spirit communicated this message to these men. We know that the Spirit does not have a mouth, vocal cords, and things such as this with which men make words. However, the Spirit is God in action, and He certainly is capable of producing a voice if He wants to. This did not have to be an audible voice, however, but could just have been a message communicated to the minds of these men. We do not know that these five were alone. There may have been others with them at this time, and yet these five are the only ones who received the message. Certainly, any prophetic message would seem to be most strongly confirmed if five prophets received the message at once!
Now what the Spirit commands is that Barnabas and Saul be separated. The ekklesia in any city like this would have worked together like a unit. Each one operated interdependently with each other, and they were all subject to the commands of God given through each other. Yet in this case, Barnabas and Saul are to be separated out from the group. They are no longer under the control of the rest of the ekklesia in Antioch. Now, they are separate from the rest, and are to be controlled only by God. The reason for this separation is that the Spirit has a work to which He has called them. To do this work, they must be separate from the rest of their brothers in Antioch.
3. Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.
The leaders in Antioch respond in obedience to the command the Spirit has given them. First, they fast and pray, seeking any further light the Lord might give them on this. Fasting was a very symbolic thing for Israelites, indicating a seeking after God. Praying, of course, was speaking to God and directing your requests to Him. No doubt they asked for His guidance and help for their brothers Barnabas and Saul as they were now to be separated from them for this very important ministry.
Now having sought the Lord, they lay hands on Barnabas and Saul. This was not ordination, as we think of it today. The laying on of hands in the Bible had to do with identification. They are basically expressing their solidarity with and approval of these men. They do not know where Barnabas and Saul will be going. They do not know precisely what they will be doing. And yet, they are confident in their support of these men, and are willing to identify themselves with them no matter what their actions might be. This was a wise thing to do, for though these two were no longer to be under their control, they were going out under the control of the Holy Spirit, and as such they could be certain that their actions would be appropriate, and that they would be of God.
Now they send them away. This is neither the word apostello, nor the word pempo, those two important words for sending that we have been tracking throughout the book of Acts. Rather, this is the Greek word apelusan. Lusan comes from luo which means to loose, and apo is a preposition meaning “from.” Put together, they mean to set free, let go, or release. Remember, the Spirit had called upon them to separate Barnabas and Saul. This would put these men out of the control of the ekklesia of Antioch altogether, and would put them under the direct command of God. This the ekklesia at Antioch did not fail to do. They released these men to the Lord, confident that He would oversee whatever great task He had for them to do.
4. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
Sent out in this way by the Holy Spirit, they depart from Antioch and go down to Seleucia. Seleucia means “white light.” This was a city in Syria, about 16 miles from Antioch. It was on the Mediterranean Sea near the mouth of the river Orontes. As such, it would have been at a lower elevation than Antioch, and thus they went “down” to it.
From Seleucia, they apparently set sail, and came to the island of Cyprus. This was a very fertile and pleasant island off the coast of Syria in the Mediterranean Sea. The name means “love: a blossom” according to Strong’s Concordance. This island was the birthplace of Barnabas, and as such was probably an obvious place for the Lord to send them first.
The word “sent” here is the Greek words ekpemphthentes, derived from ekpempo, which is pempo with ek added as a prefix, meaning to send out. Pempo is a simple sending, as opposed to apostello, which is a sending with authority. Certainly these men would do their work with authority, but this is just emphasizing that they went because they were sent.
The words “the Holy Spirit” here have the articles in front in Greek, reading tou pneumatos tou hagiou, or the Spirit the Holy. Thus this is emphasizing the Person of the Spirit, not just His power, and thus is telling us once again that they were sent on this journey by the Spirit Himself.
5. And when they arrived in Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. They also had John as their assistant.
Now they arrive at Salamis. This city name means “salt.” This was a principle city of Cyprus on the east side of the island, which sailing from Syria would have been the side of the island they would have landed upon from the ship. They immediately go to the synagogues of Salamis and proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.
Notice now that this was what they did. Many people would like to imagine that Barnabas and Saul were sent with a new mission to preach the word of God to the Gentiles, and so they started this work at once when they were sent out. The actual picture we have here is exactly the opposite. Barnabas and Saul did not seek out the Gentiles in Cyprus. Instead, they went straight to the synagogues of the Jews. Remember that they had been sent by the Spirit Himself, and He certainly knew how to direct them. This was what He wanted them to do. Though they are eventually to go to Gentiles, they have not done this yet.
They preached the word, that is the logos, of God in the synagogues. Notice that this is a plural word “synagogues.” There were certain rules the Jews had as to how many men there had to be to make a synagogue and how close these could be together, but a large city like Salamis could certainly have had a significant number of these. There was not just one synagogue per city.
Now we read that they had not left Antioch all alone. They took with them an assistant, and the assistant they took was the man John, the same John whose surname was Mark whom we met in chapter 12. This was the Mark who wrote the gospel of Mark. He is now their assistant in their mission for the Lord.
6. Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus,
Having covered the synagogues of Salamis, they travel from there through the island. Where they might have stopped along the way we are not told, but they would have visited any synagogues there might have been elsewhere on the island. Now, they arrive in Paphos. This city name means “Boiling” or “Hot.” It lay on the western coast of Cyprus, and had a harbor. Coming here, they had reached the other end of the island, and could take a ship and leave at any time.
Now in this city they find a certain sorcerer. The Greek word is magos, and means a magician. It is used in Scripture only here and in Matthew of the so-called “wise men” (who really were magicians) who came to worship Christ at His birth. This magician, however, is nothing like the magicians who came to worship Christ. This man is also a false prophet. This word is pseudopropheten in Greek, meaning a pseudo-prophet or false prophet. The word “prophet” as used in the Greek Scriptures is of such a character that it is always used of a true prophet of God, and it is only used for a false prophet when a qualifier is put on it like this. A false prophet would be one who claimed to speak for God, and yet who really did not. That describes this sorcerer.
We might be surprised to find that this sorcerer is himself a Jew. We came upon a man who used magic once before in Acts, who was Simon in Acts chapter 8 (though he was not called a magician, but just a user of magic.) He was a Samaritan, and when he heard the word, he believed. Yet here was a full-fledged magician, the fully Jewish man Bar-Jesus, and when he heard the word he opposed it! This shows us once again that it was not birth or whether or not one was a Jew that counted, but rather what was in a man’s heart.
The sorcerer’s name is Bar-Jesus. This means “son of Jesus,” and probably just means that that was his father’s name. Yet remember that “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua,” which means “Jehovah the Savior,” and so it could be that this man had even claimed to be the son (or representative) of Jehovah the Savior. He certainly was trying to stand in the place of and oppose Christ, whatever the truth of this might be.
7. who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God.
This magician has ingratiated himself into close connection with the proconsul of the island, a man named Sergius Paulus. Sergius means “earth born” or “born a wonder” according to Strong’s. Paulus means “small” or “little,” and of course is a name shared with the great apostle Paul himself, who was far from little in his work for God, yet admitted that in and of himself he was nothing indeed.
Sergius Paulus is described for us as an intelligent man. This has to do not just with intelligence, but also with discernment, and the ability to act in a careful and considered manner. Yet this prudent man has fallen in with this false prophet, who clearly had advanced himself using his sorcery. Now Sergius Paulus hears of Barnabas and Saul, and it is clear that he wants to learn about this new power that has come to be on his island. For this reason he calls for them, and desires to hear from them the word of God. No doubt he had heard about their work in proclaiming this in the synagogues.
8. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.
We are told that this magician’s name was Elymas when translated. Elymas is an Arabic name, and means “a wise man” or “knowing one.” This is not actually a translation of Bar-Jesus, but a translation of magos or magician, and Luke is telling us that this man actually called himself Magician when he named himself Elymas. The Greek says “Elymas the Magician for thus is translated the name of him.”
The magician Elymas does not want Sergius Paulus to hear the message that Barnabas and Saul are proclaiming to him. He withstands them, and seeks to turn the proconsul away from the faith. No doubt he was afraid that if this man believed in Christ and the power of the kingdom that Barnabas and Saul were proclaiming, he would no longer care to listen to a magician and heed his magic tricks.
Notice that what they are proclaiming is called “the faith.” This is another description for belief in Christ. Once again, notice that “Christianity” was not the common phrase the believers of the time used for themselves. They much preferred words that had to do with belief or faith.
9. Then Saul, who also is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him
Now Saul speaks up. This is interesting indeed, for up until this point, we have seen Barnabas in charge, and Saul as the follower. Yet here Saul takes charge, and maintains the leadership from this time onwards. We will see Barnabas start to slip into the background, and Saul more and more take the first position.
Now at this crucial time we come upon a name change for one of our main characters. For here, we are told that Saul is also called Paul, and we will find that he is called by this name from this time forth. It is interesting that this change takes place at the same time as Paul seems to have taken the leadership, and corresponds with that change. We need to examine this name change, and discover why this takes place.
First of all, we need to realize that this was not so much a name change as some other name changes we find in Scripture. God gave some people a new name, like when He called Simon “Peter,” or Abram “Abraham,” or Sarai “Sarah.” Yet this is not really the case with Paul. The truth is that Saul is a Hebrew name, and Paul is a Greek name. An illustration that Otis Sellers gives of this is that if Paul as a boy was playing with Greek-speaking friends in the streets of Tarsus, they would have called him, “Paul, Paul!” Yet if his mother called him to dinner, she would have called and said, “Saul, Saul!” So this man had both names. The difference was really one of language. Thus there is nothing really new here in this name. Paul had it before. It is just based on a different language.
That said, there is a difference in meaning between Saul and Paul. The Hebrew word “Saul” means “Desired.” “Paul,” on the other hand, means “Little.” This is very interesting, for it reminds us of the emotional scene in I Samuel 15:17, wherein God was rejecting King Saul for his rebellion against the LORD.
17. So Samuel said, “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not head of the tribes of Israel? And did not the LORD anoint you king over Israel?
And yes, that is how it happened. Yet now, Saul had become great in his own eyes, as we can see from verse 12.
12. So when Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul, it was told Samuel, saying, “Saul went to Carmel, and indeed, he set up a monument for himself; and he has gone on around, passed by, and gone down to Gilgal.”
So Saul was setting up monuments to himself, even while the LORD was rejecting him as king! Thus, he had ceased to be little in his own eyes, and from that time on he became nothing in the eyes of God. Now more than a thousand years has passed, and a new Saul, from the same tribe of Benjamin as King Saul, has been chosen by God to another great leadership position. Yet at the very point of him taking charge, this Saul is now called Paul, or “Little.” Does this not indicate that this Saul, at least, will remain little in his own eyes, and thus remain great in the plans of God? Does this not tell us that this Saul has learned his lesson, and that he will be everything that the first Saul was not? This is very interesting, at any rate. This Saul was a Paul, something that the first Saul failed to be. Thus, this Saul could be used greatly by the Lord, even as we will see him represent Him in the following chapters.
Now Paul acts as inspired by spirit holy. The words are pneumatos hagiou in the Greek, and do not have the articles. Thus, this is the power of the Holy Spirit being referred to, not the Person of the Spirit. Paul now speaks and acts by the holy power that the Lord had given to him.
Paul looks intently at Elymas. This word means that he fixed his gaze upon him. It was not just Paul, but God Who was looking upon this sorcerer, and judging him. This man might have won the trust of the proconsul, but he could not withstand the searching gaze of the Lord of all!
This verse is referenced by The Companion Bible in answer to those who believe that Paul had weak eyesight. It points out that the Greek word atenizo or “looked intently” does not fit with weak eyes. The idea that Paul had poor eyesight is just a guess, and does not necessarily fit all the evidence.
10. and said, “O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?
Paul now speaks in condemnation of Elymas. He points out the fraud and deceit of this sorcerer. He was a Jew, and he claimed to speak for God, but he had no authority to do so. Could any fraud and deceit be worse than this? Thus Paul calls him a son of the devil. Remember that a “son” is a representative. Thus instead of representing God, Bar-Jesus truthfully represented the very worst enemy of God. A “devil” is a false accuser or slanderer, and that is just what he was trying to do to Paul and Barnabas. He was speaking against them, and trying to turn this Roman proconsul away from the faith they were promoting. Moreover, he used his false claim of being a prophet to oppose all righteousness. It was not good things that he urged upon the proconsul to do!
Overall, this man was perverting the straight ways of the Lord! How many even in our day claim to speak for God, and then do the same kinds of things? They claim to be representing Him, and yet they make His ways perverse and His words they twist to their own foul use. Yes, the spirit of Elymas still exists, and many of those who emulate him go about under the banner of some church, and claim some great title that the church bestows. Such should be condemned and punished, yet who like Paul has the right to do it? For today we live in a dispensation of grace, and God shows love and favor they do not deserve even to men like these!
11. And now, indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time.”
And immediately a dark mist fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand.
Now, Paul tells Elymas, the hand of the Lord is upon him. “Hand” here is put for “power,” for much of the power of a man is in his hands. The Lord’s power was moving against Elymas, and the punishment was to be blindness. Yet mercifully, the Lord did not place this blindness permanently upon him, but just for a time. Even Elymas would be given a chance to turn and submit.
As soon as Paul speaks the word, a dark mist falls on Elymas, and he can indeed no longer see the light of the sun. Paul had the power to speak a word and bring punishment upon someone, even as we saw Peter do in Acts 5. Thus we see here that Paul already shows that he has the power of an apostle. We have no such men today, and none can just speak the word to bring punishment from God upon a man.
Bar-Jesus rather pathetically at this point goes around looking for someone to lead him by the hand. Where he wanted to go in such a hurry it is hard to say, but it is likely that he wanted to get out of the presence of Paul as fast as possible. He now knew that his sorcerous power was nothing compared to the power of the government of God given to Paul.
12. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
The result of this miracle of judgment is that the proconsul believes. He sees the power given Paul, so that with a word he can punish the man he had formerly so esteemed. Being an intelligent man, as we saw back in verse 7, he could not doubt but that this was the power of God, and that he should submit to it! Yet it was not just the power Paul displayed that impressed him, we find. Instead, we learn that he was also astonished at the teaching of the Lord. The truth that Paul was setting forth was a new and radically different thing to him, and he was astonished by it. It was no doubt like nothing he had ever heard or been taught before! Yet he recognized in it the truth, and he believed.
Now Sergius Paulus becomes the first Gentile to believe as a result of Paul’s ministry. Yet we wonder if he would not better be placed under the “kings” category of people Paul was going to reach according to Acts 9:15:
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.
Sergius Paulus had absolute control under Rome of the men of Cyprus, and as such he qualifies as what the Bible calls a “king,” which is a man who rules absolutely over his subjects. Yet he was a Gentile, a non-Jew, who believed. There can be no doubt about that. But remember that he believed upon seeing a great and miraculous sign. He cannot be categorized as one who believes without seeing according to the criterion given in John 20:29. He saw a great sign when he believed. This is not the way Gentiles or anyone else believes today, when God is showing forth no miraculous signs. We are saved merely by hearing the word of God. This man did not believe as we do. His conversion was entirely consistent with the Acts period, and the government of God that then was at work in the earth.