When the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me,” the people He chose were the two most gifted leaders in the church. Saul was the most effective person in the extension of the Christian message to the Gentiles, and Barnabas must have been right there with him. This shows the importance God puts on world missions. I know Christians who say they do not believe in missions. They believe in giving to local work, supporting things they can see, but giving to mission work or sending people abroad… well, that just seems unnecessary to them. That is not the way the Holy Spirit leads. Moreover, the Holy Spirit apparently does not say, “Since you have to send somebody, pick out someone you can spare and send him or her.” He says, “I want the best. And if you listen to me, you’ll send the very best persons you have.”
I have a version of this which I sometimes use when I am talking in seminaries. It goes like this. If a seminary graduate is of average gifts, we think he should pastor a church. If he has above average gifts, we think he should pastor a large church. But if he has exceptional gifts, we think he should teach in seminary. I say in schools of theology that this is not the way it should be, in my opinion. In my view, the worst should teach, the more gifted men should pastor churches, and the very best should be missionaries. That may be a slight exaggeration, but I think Acts 13 does gives us an insight into the mind of God in this area.
There is one more thing to notice before we move on. We have seen that the Holy Spirit sent the missionaries out. But notice that He did not just call them or send them; He went with them too. We see this clearly later on, because when the missionaries were opposed by Elymas the sorcerer, Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit” as he replied (v. 9).
If we did not know that the Holy Spirit would go with us, we would not dare to do Christian work. We would be paralyzed even from attempting it. By definition missionaries go where the Gospel has not been heard. And where the Gospel has not been heard, life is dark and the opposition is strong. Frequently, antagonism to the God of the Bible is intense. How would anybody dare to tackle such work unless the Holy Spirit is with him, and working in him to bless the message? On the other hand, if we know God is with us, we can be bold to go anywhere at all.
Cyprus is a large island off the south coast of Turkey west of Antioch. It is the place from which Barnabas came. I do not know if that fact entered into the missionaries’ decision to go there, but it probably did. Barnabas may have said, “I know Cyprus, and I think it would be a good place for us to start. Many cities have never heard the Gospel. Let’s start out in that direction.” Whatever the reasoning, the two missionaries took a ship sailing from Seleucia, the port near Antioch on the coast, to Cyprus and arrived at Salamis. From there they traveled across Cyprus westward, until they came to Paphos on the opposite side of the island.
I suppose they talked about Jesus everywhere they went and that many believed. But instead of telling what happened in each and every village, Luke tells us about one incident in Paphos. We see several things in this incident that are characteristic of what happens in Acts from this point on.
1. There was a great opportunity. In this case, the opportunity was an invitation from the proconsul Sergius Paulus to speak the Word of God. This was a great opportunity because of the importance of this man. The word “proconsul” probably does not mean much to most of us. A proconsul was a Roman official placed over an entire province.
2. There was serious opposition. Opposition came from a man whose name was Elymas, also called Bar-Jesus. He is described as a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet. There were many like him in the ancient world. They would get into positions of power because they pretended to have special insight into what was going to happen and could offer “wise” advice. This man had gained the proconsul’s confidence. When Barnabas and Saul came along, Elymas recognized that if Sergius Paulus paid attention to them, his own days as an influential person would be numbered. As a result he opposed the Gospel and did everything he knew to turn the proconsul from it.