Great Men of God
With the death of Herod, the church was again free to preach the gospel. The last great advance in winning souls had been the addition of many gentiles to the church in Antioch. Now Antioch became the springboard for the next great advance.
At this time, the church in Antioch was blessed with several outstanding leaders. The reader of the earlier chapters of Acts already knows Barnabas and Saul. Simeon called Niger (or "black"1) may have been the Simon who carried Jesus’ cross (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). Lucius of Cyrene was probably one of the men from Cyprus and Cyrene who first took the gospel to the gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:19–21). Manaen had ties to the royal family descended from Herod the Great, ruler of the Jews when Jesus was born. In the Greek, the expression "brought up with Herod" could mean that as a result of being adopted by the royal family, Manaen was Herod’s foster brother. But it more likely means that as a result of being schoolmates, Manaen and Herod were childhood friends.2 The reference is to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who executed John the Baptist.3
Scripture records the names of these leaders because at a critical moment in church history, each used his influence to move the church in the right direction. Each set an example of outstanding Christian leadership.
The Spirit's Choice
As the believers in Antioch walked with God, the Holy Spirit showed them what to do next. The Spirit wanted the believers to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a new work. He did not reveal exactly what that work would be. Rather, they would find out as they followed His day-by-day direction. Yet, it was clear that He wanted them to leave Antioch and carry the gospel to new places. He implied that He had already given Barnabas and Saul their call to missionary service.
The church then spent much time in prayer and fasting.
No doubt they asked God to protect these men as they went through many dangers and to give them a great harvest of souls. What they prayed was probably very similar to what we pray for our missionaries today. Before sending off the missionaries, the church laid their hands on the two men. Probably all members joined in this ceremony, just as they all had participated in the fasting and praying.10
Preaching in Cyprus
In 47 or possibly early 48 (see Appendix 1), Barnabas and Saul set off, traveling first to the port city of Seleucia on the Mediterranean. John Mark, Barnabas’s cousin, was a third member of the team. He was only a helper to the other men, yet in witnessing for Christ, he could make a contribution that was perhaps unique. Among the three, he may have been the only one who knew and followed Christ while He still walked the earth.
Their first stop after setting sail was Cyprus. Their choice of this island as a starting place for their work may have rested on two primary considerations.
- Some Jews there had already heard the gospel (Acts 11:19). Any who did not receive it initially were perhaps now, after a time of feeling the Spirit's wooing in their hearts, ripe to respond in faith.
- Barnabas once lived in Cyprus (Acts 4:36). He was familiar with the people and the customs. In circles where he was known, he no doubt enjoyed a good reputation that would create open doors.
The city they entered first was Salamis on the east coast, which they reached after sailing about sixty miles to the southwest.11 It was a good strategic choice because it was formerly the capital of the island and still it was the island's most important city.12 Also, it was home to many Jews. According to Philo (c. 20 BC—c. AD 50), Cyprus in his day was "full of Jewish colonies."13 In Salamis, the apostles found more than one synagogue, perhaps several.
The missionaries followed a strategy that Paul retained throughout his years of ministry. They focused on the Jews first, attending Sabbath-day services and offering themselves to preach. They only had to secure permission from the chief ruler of the synagogue, who would have looked favorably on men with their credentials. As a Levite (Acts 4:36), Barnabas belonged to the tribe traditionally entrusted with responsibility to instruct the people in the will of God (Deut. 31:9–13; 33:8–11; 2 Chron. 30:22; Neh. 8:7–8). As for Saul, he was not only a highly trained rabbi; he was also a former pupil of Gamaliel and likely also a former member of the Sanhedrin.
The Clash with Bar-Jesus
The account does not give us the results of the apostles' ministry in Salamis, but Barnabas's return to the island a year or two later (Acts 15:39) suggests that he wished to nurture the converts left behind from his previous visit. After leaving Salamis, Barnabas, Saul, and Mark headed for Paphos, a principal city on the opposite end of the island. They probably took the road along the southern coast because it provided the shortest route, requiring a walk of about ninety miles, and passed through several cities where they could preach.14 Paphos had been serving as capital city of the island since AD 15, when Salamis was devastated by an earthquake.15
There in Paphos they went to the residence of the governor, Sergius Paulus, described as a "prudent" man. That is, he was wise and discerning. Somehow he had heard about Barnabas and Saul, and he called for them to come and present themselves. Once they arrived, he asked them to preach the Word of God.
Yet he had come under the influence of another Jewish religious teacher, a false prophet and "sorcerer" (literally, "magician"16) named Bar-Jesus, which means "son of Joshua [or Jesus]."17 He was also called Elymas, which probably means "wise,"18 but, as Luke informs us, the word had come to mean "sorcerer." Perhaps, in an effort to clothe themselves in an aura of higher knowledge, enough sorcerers had adopted the name that "sorcerer" had become the first meaning it evoked in the popular mind. To predispose us against believing that the name suited Bar-Jesus, Luke has already stated that the truly wise man in the chamber was the governor.
Many expositors suppose that the governor called for the apostles because their preaching had caused a commotion in the Jewish community and he wished to evaluate whether he should view them as threats to civil disorder. His interest in the Word of God was not spiritual searching but, as it were, official investigation.
But when we examine this sort of skepticism, we see flaws.
- Luke has not mentioned any opposition in the Jewish community. Perhaps the apostles won a more sympathetic hearing in Cyprus than Paul later met in other regions.22 The Cypriot Jews had already been exposed to gospel preaching, Barnabas was a man they respected, and Saul bore impressive credentials.
- Sergius Paulus had already sought spiritual guidance from Elymas, a Jewish prophet, although a false prophet. Why else would Elymas have been present on this occasion? He must have belonged to the group of men who attended the governor and conversed with him about weighty matters of philosophy and religion or matters more practical. No doubt his specific role was to serve as a soothsayer, such as belonged to the retinue of many Roman rulers.23 From the sorcerer's Jewish identity we infer that the governor had a strong interest in the religion of the Jews.
As Barnabas and Saul preached to the governor, Elymas stood by and tried to argue with them. Finally, Saul grew so annoyed that he sharply rebuked Elymas, describing him in terms that were a searing contradiction of his deceptive claims. The sorcerer called himself Elymas, implying that he was full of wisdom, but he was a man full instead of subtlety and mischief. He called himself Bar-Jesus, implying that he was Jesus' son, but he was a child of the devil. As a Jew, he presented himself as a teacher of the religion with a uniquely exalted code of moral law, but he was an enemy of righteousness.
With a boldness and confidence flowing from the Holy Spirit, Saul called upon the Lord to strike Elymas with blindness "for a season" (that is, temporarily). Immediately, the sorcerer lost his sight, as if a mist had settled upon his eyes. He was helpless to move unless someone guided him by the hand.
Whether Elymas ever repented of his sins, we do not know. But we do know that the miracle brought the governor to faith in Christ. He recognized that Saul had the power of God. The gospel that Barnabas and Saul were presenting was so different from anything he had heard before that he was astonished, yet he understood that it was different because it was true. It was not the sort of teaching that men devise, but the sort that would come from a perfect, holy God.
If an expositor has a low view of Scripture, he may accuse the apostles of misunderstanding the governor's reaction to their dramatic contest with Bar-Jesus. Paulus did not actually become a believer. He merely voiced toleration of their work on the island. In such a denial of the proconsul's conversion, we also see flaws.
- Why would Elymas have striven so hard "to turn away the deputy from the faith" if the governor was not obviously listening with a seeker's heart and mind?
- Luke reports that the governor "believed" after being struck with astonishment at Paul's miracle. It is far fetched to imagine that Luke fell victim to mistaken judgment on this scale. Elsewhere in his writings we find sober judgment.
The name by which Saul was known throughout the rest of his life—Paul—appears for the first time in the Book of Acts when Luke recounts the apostle's clash with Elymas. Saul was, of course, a Hebrew name. Before his conversion, as an ambitious young man in Jewish circles, the apostle had always called himself Saul for perhaps two reasons: not only to bond more closely with other Jews, but also to encourage comparison with his namesake, the first king of Israel. The name had a royal flavor. Then after his conversion, he kept this Jewish name merely because his ministry was mainly to Jews.
But Saul was not his only name. Having inherited Roman citizenship, he surely had Roman birth names as well, and the Roman name Paul was doubtless one of these.
The last time Saul appears as the apostle's usual name is in verse 7, speaking of him as one summoned by the governor. Then comes the introduction of his new name in verse 9. Luke seems to be suggesting exactly when the apostle began to use it. For the first time in his life of ministry, he introduced himself as Paul the Roman citizen when he stood in the residence of Sergius Paulus. Why there? We can detect two likely reasons.
- There his life took a sharp turn away from Jewish culture, leading him into the culture of gentiles. Using his Roman name gained more respect from the Roman governor and his train. The same advantage in calling himself Paul awaited this apostle to the gentiles wherever he went in the future. So in Paphos, under the Spirit's leading, he changed his identity, becoming Paul rather than Saul.
- Before Sergius Paulus, his Roman name bore the further advantage of being identical with the governor's name. It is hard to imagine that Paul would have shunned the opportunity to inform the governor that he was another Paul. It was a bond sure to pull out feelings of sympathy.
Until the moment of this incident, Saul took second place to Barnabas. But after Saul showed unusual faith and courage in opposing the sorcerer, he became the team leader. The change in leadership is indicated by a new ordering when his name appears with others. Frequently before verse 9, Barnabas is put first (Acts 11:30; 12:25; 13:2, 7), but after verse 9, first place generally goes to Paul (Acts 13:43, 46, 50). In verse 13, for example, the traveling group is described as "Paul and his company."
Paul's elevation in ministry at this time gave him another reason to call himself Paul, not Saul. Paul means "little."75 To deflect the human praise he might receive now that he was a general in God's army, Paul took a name signifying that he was nothing in himself, but solely a creature of grace. He was no more than a little man used by a mighty God.
The meaningful names of the antagonists standing before Sergius Paulus add another dimension to the story.
The son of consolation and the son of Jesus come together in the same scene. Both the men and their names are clearly presented as contrastive parallels. They are both "sons." When they meet in combat, the victor is the man whose name tells the truth about his parentage.
The decisive battle is waged between the wise one (in his own eyes) and the little one (in his own eyes). Humility wins.
The reader is evidently expected to understand that the two men whose names spoke of simple virtue easily bested the man whose name spoke of proud deceit.
Paul and Barnabas now sailed from Paphos, intending to take the gospel to the vast unreached areas of Asia Minor. After a voyage of about 175 miles to the northwest,76 they landed on the southern coast near the city of Perga in the coastal region of Pamphylia, an ancient Greek colony that in Paul's day was part of the Roman province of Galatia.77 To reach the city, they had to walk inland about ten miles.78
For some reason not given, John Mark decided against going on. Perhaps the reason is that he resented Paul supplanting Barnabas as team leader. Instead of giving more help to the work, he went back to Jerusalem. Years later, Paul still viewed him as a quitter (Acts 15:36–39), but eventually Mark regained Paul’s respect (2 Tim. 4:11).
Preaching in Pisidia
Paul and Barnabas did not stay long in Perga, but commenced a taxing journey to Pisidian Antioch. They had to walk northward 160 miles85 along a slope ascending from sea level to an altitude of 3600 feet.86 They probably chose the easier but longer route called the Via Sebaste, a paved, relatively new, and well-traveled Roman road that curved westward and back eastward as it rose from the coast and linked Lycia-Pamphylia with the southern portion of the province known as Galatia.87 Along the way, as it toured a series of map-worthy towns, the Via at first wended through cultivated fields filled with olive trees and grape vines, then traversed hardwood forests, and, in its most demanding miles, climbed through forests of cedar and spruce to mountain meadows. About halfway to the apostles' destination, they came to a region now known as the lake district, because on every hand the vista is studded with sparkling waters settled into mountain basins.88
The city targeted by the apostles promised a good harvest of souls. First, it was a military center affording opportunities to reach soldiers, who were always an audience receptive to the gospel. About 3000 veterans lived in the city.101 Second, it had a substantial Jewish population. Josephus testifies that two centuries earlier, two thousand Jewish families had been resettled in the general area of Phrygia.102 Third, it was a Roman colony, therefore more open to the ministry of a Roman citizen like Paul.
On the Sabbath, Paul and Barnabas went to the synagogue in Antioch and sat down with the congregation. The service went according to custom. First there were prayers followed by readings from both the Law and the prophets. Then one or more suitable teachers chosen beforehand arose and gave instruction, often focused on explaining and applying the readings.103
After the preliminaries during the service attended by Paul and Barnabas, the rulers of the synagogue invited them to speak. It has been suggested that the apostles were recognized as teachers because they wore the dress of Pharisees.104 But it is more likely that the apostles were called upon because the rulers had met them before the service began. Perhaps when Paul and Barnabas entered the city during the previous week, they had sought out the leaders of the Jewish community and introduced themselves, with the result that the rulers of the synagogue scheduled Paul and Barnabas to preach in the next Sabbath service.105
Paul, accepting the invitation, stood up and began his sermon. In his opening words he addressed two kinds of people in the audience. There were Jews and there were God-fearers. As we explained before, "God-fearers" was the usual name for gentiles who regularly attended a synagogue and worshiped the God of Israel.
Like Stephen’s sermon before the Sanhedrin, Paul’s began with a review of Israel’s history. The lesson Stephen drew from it was that the nation had always been rebellious, but Paul intended a very different lesson. He wanted to show how gracious God had always been to His people. In days long ago, He chose their fathers to receive His special favor. After the twelve tribes fell into bondage in Egypt, He delivered them and exalted them above their enemies. He tolerated their disobedience in the wilderness. He secured a home for them in Canaan by destroying other nations. For their protection and guidance, He provided judges to rule them about four hundred and fifty years. Then, for the same purpose, He gave them a king, Saul, and afterward He replaced Saul with a better king, David, who was a man after God’s own heart.
Continuing, Paul revealed why God had always treated the Israelites as His chosen people. He preserved them and bestowed upon them His special care so that someday they could produce the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Paul reminded his audience of God’s disclosure to David and the prophets that the Messiah would come from David’s line.
Paul now made the sensational announcement that he had been preparing his audience to accept. He said that the Messiah had recently come. He was Jesus. Paul said no more to identify Him because Jews everywhere had no doubt heard something about Jesus’ life and ministry.
In just a few words, Paul presented a strong case that Jesus was the Christ.
1. He was David’s seed—that is, a descendant of David. The apostles could declare this fact without fear of contradiction because the truth was well-known. During Jesus’ lifetime, many outside the group of His close followers hailed Him as the son of David (Matt. 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30). The crowds greeted Him as a king rightfully entitled "the son of David" when He rode a donkey into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His death (Matt. 21:9, 15). When Jesus was on trial, Pilate, the Roman governor, asked Him whether He was the king of the Jews (John 18:33). Later, Pilate ordered a sign declaring "King of the Jews" to be hung over Jesus’ cross (John 19:19–22). It is obvious that even the Romans knew about Jesus’ royal pedigree.
2. John the Baptist, a man all Jews accepted as a prophet of God, testified that Jesus was the Christ. John said that he was not worthy even to untie Jesus’ shoelaces (John 1:26–27). Untying these was a first, small chore when a servant washed the feet of a visitor to his master’s home. Thus, what John meant was that he was not worthy even to begin washing Jesus’ feet.
3. In rejecting Jesus and sending Him to die as a common criminal, the Jewish leaders brought to pass exactly what Scripture prophesied of the Messiah’s treatment by His own people.
4. God raised up Jesus from the dead. He then appeared to His own followers so that they could declare to all that He was alive.
5. His resurrection fulfilled several prophecies in the Old Testament. Paul emphasized David's prophecy in Psalm 16 that the Holy One would die, but not see corruption—the same prophecy that Peter had used so effectively in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:24–31). The Jews thought that David was speaking about himself, so Paul pointed out that David did not escape corruption after he died. His body decomposed like any other dead body. The Holy One who would rise from the grave before His body succumbed to decay was Christ.
Paul then explained why it is important to believe in Jesus. By believing in Him, we gain two great benefits. First, we obtain forgiveness of sins and avoid the penalty we deserve. Second, we are justified before God. That is, God credits us with the moral perfection of Jesus. We need to be perfect ourselves in order to live forever with a God who is perfect. The Jews thought they could be justified just by keeping the law of Moses, but Paul said they were badly mistaken. He did not show the fallacy in their thinking, because he expected them to see the obvious. To keep the whole law is impossible—every person's life is a continual slipping into sin of one kind or another.
Paul's closing words were a stern warning taken from "the prophets." He quoted Habakkuk 1:5, which he applied to the future day when Christ would die for the sins of mankind. When the world heard what Christ had done, many would not believe. Whoever despised Him and despised the message of salvation would perish in his sins.
Paul's sermon had an electrifying effect on the synagogue. After the service, the Jews left first, as was evidently the custom. But Paul and Barnabas stayed behind and greeted the gentiles, who begged them to preach again on the following Sabbath. These God-fearers were eager to hear more, because they wanted to make the right decision. They did not want to suffer the awful fate that, according to Paul's sermon, awaited anyone who despised God's work of salvation.
When Paul and Barnabas walked outside, a large number of Jews and Jewish proselytes were waiting for them. They fell in behind the apostles as they walked along and listened as they exhorted the group of followers "to continue in the grace of God." This advice applied equally to those who already believed and those who were inclined to believe. By welcoming the gospel, they had allowed God's grace to work in their hearts. Now they needed to remain open to whatever else God would teach them.
Turning to the Gentiles
As the gentiles requested, Paul and Barnabas returned to the synagogue on the following Sabbath. The news of their appearance a week earlier had caused such a stir that nearly every Jew and gentile in the city came to hear them preach again. The synagogue was packed. Probably never before had the Jews seen such a multitude gather to hear the Word of God.
Some of the regular attendees were glad. But some, especially among the Jewish leaders, were very upset. One reason was jealousy. They resented the apostles’ ability to draw far more people than ever came to hear them. Probably another reason was fear—fear that if the new teaching was widely accepted, they would lose control of the synagogue. Leadership would pass to others.
For whatever reasons, at least some Jewish leaders presented themselves to the crowd and began to denounce Paul and Barnabas. They contradicted what Paul taught and blasphemed the name of Jesus. But Paul and Barnabas did not shrink into silence. They boldly rebuked their opponents. They stated that it was their duty to preach the gospel to the Jews first. But now that the Jewish leaders had scorned their opportunity for eternal life, the apostles would turn to the gentiles and offer them the gospel. Paul quoted Isaiah 49:6, which prophesied that Christ would provide salvation not for the Jews only, but for the whole world.
The gentiles were delighted at this turn of events. The gentiles "glorified the word of the Lord"—the word that promised salvation to all. They were glad that above the gate of heaven there was no sign reading "Jews only." The message that Paul and Barnabas preached in Antioch of Pisidia apparently won few converts among the Jews, but many among the gentiles.
The ones who believed were "ordained to eternal life." That is, throughout eternity beyond time, God had always known and loved those He would fashion into the likeness of Christ. Their coming to Christ was the outworking of an eternal plan.
The new believers were so excited about the gospel that they quickly spread it to the whole surrounding region.
Meanwhile in Antioch, the Jews hostile to the apostles were busy trying to stop them. They enlisted on their side a number of important people, both women and men. The women were possibly devout Jews, very attached to their religious traditions, but more likely they were aristocratic gentile woman who had been attending the synagogue as God-fearers.116 The men were gentile leaders of the city. These two factions when combined had enough power to make Paul and Barnabas leave town.
Here is where Paul may have first heard the accusation that the new sect known as the Way was not a legal religion. The religion of the Jews was a religio licita—that is, the Romans had granted it official toleration and conceded to it certain rights. Jewish enemies of the gospel were quick to argue that this toleration should not extend to any religious body so distinct from traditional Judaism as the church.
Paul and Barnabas were not defeated. They merely shook the dust of Antioch off their shoes and marched on to another town.
The new disciples left behind in Antioch were still filled with joy about their salvation. The source of their joy was the Holy Spirit, whose presence in their hearts would have multiplied not only their joy, but also many other wonderful virtues, including love and peace (Gal. 5:22).