The events recorded in Acts 13 occurred approximately eleven years after Paul’s conversion. Although he felt compelled to share his faith immediately after his baptism (Acts 9:20), he needed to go through a period of training, maturity, and preparation before he was ready to be a full-time missionary. In addition to his formal education, much of his learning came from the proverbial school of experience and hard knocks (Acts 9:16-29; 22:18), with a period of service in his home environment before being thrust out into ministry further a field (Acts 9:30; 11:25-26; Gal. 1:21).
Initially Barnabas was the leading figure in their partnership (Acts 9:27; 11:25-26, 30; 12:25; 13:1-2, 7). When Barnabas and Saul were sent out from Syrian Antioch as the first Christian missionaries, they initially traveled westward to the island of Cyprus – Barnabas’ homeland (Acts 4:36; 13:4). In the city of Paphos, on the southwest coast of the island, there were a number of firsts.
· According to the biblical record, this was the furthest west Saul had ever been. Prior to this, he had spent his entire life east and northeast of the Mediterranean Sea. This would be the first of several more excursions westward, ultimately reaching as far as Rome, with plans to go even further to Spain (Acts 28:16; Rom. 15:24, 28).
· This is the first time Saul is called Paul (Acts 13:9), and from this point onward he is referred to as Paul exclusively in the New Testament.
· Up to this point Barnabas has consistently been named first of the two partners, but hereafter Paul’s name is listed first (Acts 13:13, 46, 50; 14:20; 15:2, 22, 35).1
· This is the first recorded miracle of Paul (Acts 13:9-11).
· This is the first and only miracle in the NT performed by an apostle that produced apparent harm to someone.
· Not long after these events, John Mark quit the mission team and returned home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).
Elymas Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:6-10)
In Paphos the missionaries encountered a Jewish man described as mágos (v. 6b), translated “a sorcerer” or “a magician.” This is the same Greek word used in plural form in Matt. 2:1, 7, 16 for the “magi” or “wise men” who traveled from the East to see baby Jesus. In a pagan environment like Paphos, perceived wisdom and sorcery were not clearly distinguished. The man is also called “a false prophet” (v. 6c), whom Paul accuses of being “full of all deceit and all craftiness” (v. 10a).2 Jesus had warned of devious false prophets (Matt. 7:15), and later John affirms that “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1b).
The man wore the name Bariēsous (“Bar-Jesus”). The prefix bar is the Aramaic term for “son,” and Iēsous is the Greek form of the Hebrew Yeshua (“Joshua”), a common name among the Jews at the time. For Paul, however, the name “Jesus” had special significance, and instead of using it in reference to this deceitful antagonist, the apostle seems to make a play on words by addressing him as “son of the devil” (v. 10b).
The imposter is also designated “Elymas” (v. 8), the etymology of which is uncertain. If this were a Jewish name, the prefix el means “God.” Irrespective of the name’s full connotation (“God’s power,” “God’s wisdom,” “God rejects”??),3 this man was obviously not God’s true representative. In the words of Jesus, “he who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God” (John 8:47).
Elymas is further described as an “enemy of all righteousness,” because he was trying to diastréphō [pervert, corrupt, oppose, distort] “the straight ways of the Lord” (v. 10c). The “righteousness of God” is revealed through the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17), so that in Christ “we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the message Elymas opposed. He was therefore acting contrary to the ancient proverb, “Let your eyes look straight ahead, And your eyelids look right before you. Ponder the path of your feet, And let all your ways be established. Do not turn to the right or the left; Remove your foot from evil” (Prov. 4:25-27, NKJV).
Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7-12)
Elymas Bar-Jesus was “with” (as a guest of or advisor to?) the city’s proconsul Sergius Paulus (v. 7a).4 “Sergius” was his given name, and “Paulus” is the Latin form of “Paul,” a surname shared with one of the Christian missionaries. Sergius Paulus is described as an “intelligent” [sunetós] man, descriptive of a person of “understanding,” one who is “wise.” This is evidenced by the fact that he “sought to hear the word of God” (v. 7b). The term for “seek” here is epizētéō, an intensified form of zētéō, meaning to desire, seek, or search earnestly. A wise person will eagerly seek after the word of God.
The Critical Turning Point (Acts 13:11-12)
Because of his opposition to the gospel, Elymas is struck blind for a time (v. 11). Before we accuse Paul of malice or vindictiveness, remember that all of his recorded miracles after this first one were beneficial to both the recipients and onlookers. About eleven years earlier, the apostle himself had been struck blind, providing opportunity and motivation to reflect on his own stubborn opposition to the straight ways of the Lord. The result was an eager reception of the gospel three days later (Acts 9:8-18). Perhaps this was Paul’s attempt to lead an enemy of righteousness to the truth.
“Then having seen what had occurred, the proconsul believed …” (v. 12a). Another positive effect of this miracle was to confirm the truthfulness of what Paul and Barnabas were teaching. But it was not the miracle itself that engendered the proconsul’s faith; “being astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (v. 12b). The word rendered “astonished” is ekplēssō, referring to one who is “astonished,” “astounded,” “amazed,” and even “thunderstruck.” The blinding of Elymas did not captivate Sergius Paulus as much as the power of God’s word.
Lessons to Learn
1. Elymas Bar-Jesus wore the name of Jesus while resisting the teachings of Jesus; he is thus called “the son of the devil.” It is not enough to simply wear Christ’s name or address him as Lord (Matt. 7:21). If one professes to be a Christian but is not faithful to the Lord’s teachings, he/she is not legitimately “of Christ” and is by default “of the devil” (cf. Matt. 7:22-23; 12:30; John 8:44).
2. Elymas Bar-Jesus was a Jew and therefore had every opportunity to know the way of God. He should have been “a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness” (Rom. 2:19) but instead was himself blinded, “seeking someone to lead him by the hand” (Acts 13:11). If I have squandered the opportunities the Lord has graciously given me, there is no excuse for my spiritual blindness.
3. Elymas Bar-Jesus, described as mágos, was regarded as a “wise man” in pagan society, yet he foolishly rejected the wisdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-29; 2:14). “For now do I seek men’s approval or God’s?” (Gal. 1:10a).
4. Sergius Paulus was indeed the “intelligent” one because he “sought to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:7). A wise person eagerly seeks divine instruction; consequently, finding the truth is assured (Matt. 7:7; John 8:31-32; Acts 17:27).
5. Paul was formerly a violent opponent of the Christian faith whose conversion was prompted by a period of blindness. His first recorded miracle, therefore, may have been an attempt to give Elymas Bar-Jesus the same opportunity. Paul would later write, “… we glory in afflictions, knowing that the affliction produces … hope” (Rom. 5:3-4).
6. Although miraculous signs were necessary in the early stages of the Christian movement to confirm the divine message in the absence of the complete NT (Mark 16:20; Heb. 2:3-4), the power to save has always been afforded by the word of God (Rom. 1:16; Heb. 4:12). It was sufficient for Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:12), and it is sufficient for us today.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Exceptions are Acts 14:14; 15:12, 25; therefore the significant and respected role of Barnabas is not discounted.
2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
3 In Hebrew el means “God,” and the verb ma’as means to “reject” or “despise,” so the name “Elymas” could convey the sense of “God rejects” or “God despises,” or possibly “one who rejects or despises God.” Some have suggested that the name is derived from the Arabic ‘alīm (“learned” or “wise”), used to translate magos, or perhaps an Aramaic term for “powerful.”
4 Provinces regarded as peaceful and loyal to Rome were classified as senatorial provinces, under the senate’s control and locally overseen by a proconsul. Those whose commitment was weak or questionable were classified as imperial provinces, controlled directly by the emperor and governed by military prefects or procurators.