Let’s continue our look at what Paul and Barnabas encountered at their first missionary stop in Paphos.
3. There was divine empowerment. It is here that the presence of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in a special way. We are not to think that the Holy Spirit was not with Paul and Barnabas earlier, of course. Certainly he was. But with the emergence of Elymas’ fierce opposition, the Holy Spirit filled Paul in a special and powerful way to pronounce judgment on the Jewish sorcerer and false prophet Elymas. Paul called Elymas “a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right.”
Elymas’ second name was Bar-Jesus, which meant “son of Jesus.” Jesus was a popular name, of course; it did not refer to Jesus Christ necessarily, though it may have. The Gospel was spreading by this time, and Elymas could have been taking a name of somebody who was beginning to be regarded as important. But whatever the case, Paul referred to the name for contrast, saying, in effect, “You call yourself Bar-Jesus (‘son of Jesus’) but you are actually Bar-devil (‘a child of the devil’) because you oppose the work of God.”
4. There was significant success. Paul said that Elymas was going to be blind for a time (v. 11). Eventually, we must suppose, God gave him back his sight. But in the meantime, his blinding made a great impression on the proconsul, as well it might. The story says that after “mist and darkness” came over Elymas so that he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand, “the proconsul… believed” and followed the missionaries’ teaching.
Some commentators have questioned the quality of Sergius Paulus’ belief. They have called it belief that is mere impression only, the kind the devils have and yet are not saved. They say, “We do not see any evidence of a change in this man’s life.” Well, of course, we don’t. We are not told much about him at all. But why should we not think that Sergius Paulus was saved? He had heard the Gospel and responded to it. Why should we not think that, along with whatever others believed, this man also believed and became the nucleus of a church that has, as we know, endured all down through the ages to the present time?
John Stott argues that “Luke surely intends us to view Sergius Paulus as the first totally Gentile convert, who had no religious background in Judaism.”1
In the middle of this story Paul is called “Paul” for the first time (v. 9). Before this he has been called “Saul,” which was his Hebrew name. Now he is called “Paul,” which is a Roman name. This is probably because the chapter marks the beginning of the missionary outreach to the Gentiles. Prior to this the growth of the church had been under the oversight of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem; hence Saul was called by his Hebrew name. Now he is going to the Gentiles; so his name assumes a Gentile form.
Yet there is a change that goes beyond that. If we look back to verse 2, we find the words “Barnabas and Saul.” In verse 7, where Sergius Paulus sends for the two missionaries, it is the same: “Barnabas and Saul.” Then, in verse 9, to which I called attention, Saul becomes Paul. Verse 13 says, “Paul and his companions.” Finally, in verse 42 we find the words “Paul and Barnabas.” I think these changes signify that at the start Barnabas was the leader. He had been in the faith longer. He had been effective in recruiting Paul, for example. But the time came, as God worked sovereignly in these two lives, that Paul became the natural leader of this missionary team.
Paul had been in the background for a long time. He had had a wonderful conversion and had preached with great boldness. But years had gone by, and Paul seems to have faded from sight, at least to the eyes of the people in Jerusalem. Most had forgotten about him. Paul had spent three obscure years in Arabia, had been perhaps seven years in Asia Minor at Tarsus, and now had spent two more years at Antioch. Twelve years! Paul was getting on into middle-age at this point, and he had not been used much—certainly not in any great pioneer work among Gentiles, which God had told him he would do.
But now the call came, and from this point on Paul leads the enterprise to which God had earlier set him apart.
You may be in a time of preparation too, even though you are thirty, forty, fifty or more years of age. If you are, don’t cut your years for preparation short. If you have been given such years, cherish them and use them wisely. Christians emphasize missions, and that is an important thing to do. Don’t give up on that, but don’t give up on preparation for Christian work either. The important thing is to keep close accounts with God, study the Bible, learn about others, and serve everyone as widely and as well as you can. It may be that in the years to come, you will look back on this very time and say, “God was working.” And others will note that God was indeed preparing you for even more useful service.
1John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: To the Ends of the Earth (Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1990), 220.