Barnabas and Saul, having been commissioned by the Holy Spirit and the church in Antioch, set out on what is generally known today as “Paul’s first missionary journey.” Taking John Mark with them as their assistant, they traveled overland from Antioch to the port city of Seleucia. There, they boarded a ship bound for Barnabas’ home, the island of Cyprus, a journey of about sixty miles across the Mediterranean.
The ship put in at Salamis, at the eastern end of the island. Salamis had once been the island’s capital. When Cyprus became a senatorial province of Rome (i.e., a province in which there was little threat of revolt, making it possible to rule it through a proconsul without keeping a military presence), however, the capital was moved to the city of Paphos, near the opposite end of the island.
In Salamis, Saul and Barnabas set the pattern that would carry through all of Paul’s missionary work: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16, NRSV).
“To the Jew first”: even though Paul would become known as the apostle to the Gentiles, it was his habit, when arriving in a new city, to preach the gospel to the Jews first. Indeed, while Luke tells us that Saul and Barnabas preached in the synagogues of Salamis (the plural “synagogues” suggests a substantial Jewish population), he makes no mention at all of preaching to Gentiles.
Were there any converts in Salamis? Luke doesn’t say. Saul and Barnabas continued west to Paphos. There they met two men: the Roman proconsul or provincial governor, Sergius Paulus, and a magician named Bar-Jesus.
Who was Sergius Paulus? Roman citizens typically had three names: essentially, a first name, last name, and nickname. Scholars take “Paulus” as the last or family name, and “Sergius” as the nickname. Without the first name, it’s impossible to identify the man with any certainty. What matters to Luke, however, is that the governor was both intelligent and open to hearing the gospel.
The problem, however, was that Bar-Jesus, whom Luke describes as both a magician and “a Jewish false prophet” (Acts 13:6), seemed to have the ear of the governor. For all of you Lord of the Rings fans out there, think Wormtongue.
Luke writes that Sergius Paulus sent for Saul and Barnabas because he wanted to hear the gospel. But Bar-Jesus, also known as Elymas, tried to discourage the governor from believing. If the magician did in fact have a position in the governor’s entourage, he may have feared how this new gospel message might affect his own standing.
Saul — and it is here that Luke suddenly and permanently switches to calling him by his Roman name, “Paul” — was not about to put up with such nonsense.
Luke stacks up a series of contrasts to show just how evil Bar-Jesus is. While Paul is described as filled with the Spirit, Bar-Jesus is full of “deceit and villainy” (Acts 13:9-10). “Bar-Jesus” means “son of Joshua” or even “son of Jesus” (roughly, the Greek equivalent of “Joshua”), but Paul calls him “son of the devil.” A true prophet should make the paths of the Lord straight. But Bar-Jesus is a false prophet, whom Paul accuses of making straight paths crooked.
This was not the first time the gospel had come into conflict with sorcery (recall the story of Peter and Simon in Acts 8), and it wouldn’t be the last (see the sons of Sceva in Acts 19). In the power of the Spirit, Paul pronounced a divine punishment on Bar-Jesus, albeit a temporary one: “the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun” (Acts 13:11). Immediately, the false prophet was overcome by darkness, and had to grope about for someone to take him by the hand.
The governor believed on the spot. Note, however, that Luke doesn’t say that he was astonished at the power of the miracle. Rather, he was “astonished at the teaching about the Lord” (Acts 13:12). He didn’t believe in the miracle; he believed in the gospel message to which the miracle attested.
It’s probably no accident that the punishment meted out to Bar-Jesus so closely paralleled what happened to Paul on the Damascus road. We’ll consider that parallel in an upcoming post.