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Studies in the Book of Acts

Acts 13:4-14

Work on Cyprus (13:4)

Luke now begins the story of Paul’s first missionary journey. The entire trip, perhaps about three years in length, is described in chapters 13 and 14. Barnabas and Paul leave from Seleucia, the port city about 16 miles (26 kilometers) west of Antioch and four or five miles northeast of the mouth of the Orontes River. Their destination is the island of Cyprus, in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. The journey by boat is about 130 miles (210 kilometers), and when the wind is favorable, takes only one day. Cyprus is about 140 miles (225 kilometers) long and 60 miles (96 kilometers) wide. Cyprus was once part of the imperial province of Cilicia. But in 22 B.C. it became a senatorial province, and in Paul’s day it is administered by a proconsul.

Cyprus is a sensible place to begin the church’s outreach program because it is Barnabas’ native land. He is acquainted with its idiosyncrasies, terrain and people. Christian communities probably exist on the island and can serve as bases of operation (11:19).

At Salamis and Paphos (13:5-6)

John Mark accompanies Barnabas and Paul on the journey as their assistant. The fact that he has a family connection with Barnabas and perhaps is familiar with Cyprus, are probably the reasons he is taken along. Luke describes him as the “helper” of Barnabas and Paul. “Helper” translates the Greek word hyperetes, which is used of a synagogue attendant (4:20).

The first of two Cypriot cities Luke mentions is Salamis, the administrative center of eastern Cyprus (13:5). Salamis is a few miles from the modern city of Famagusta. Barnabas and Paul “proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues” of the city (13:5). There is a substantial Jewish population in Salamis, as there are several synagogues for Barnabas and Paul to preach in. Paul continues this pattern of beginning his missionary work in a city by first working within the synagogue. [Acts 13:144614:116:1317:11018:41919:828:17.] That is a logical starting point, for it is a gathering place for people likely to be interested in a message from Jewish preachers based on the Jewish Scriptures, about the Messiah.

Proconsul Sergius Paulus (13:7)

The other city Luke mentions is Paphos, the provincial capital, 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of Salamis. At Paphos, the island’s proconsul, Sergius Paulus, requests a meeting with the two missionaries. Presumably, Barnabas and Paul preach in the city for some time before they come to the proconsul’s attention. Luke describes Sergius Paulus as “an intelligent man,” that is, a man of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness — a person of discernment. As we will see throughout Acts, Luke wants his readers to understand that Roman officials are sympathetic to the gospel message. Here he says of the proconsul that he “wanted to hear the word of God” (13:7). Luke doesn’t say why Sergius Paulus wants to hear the message of these traveling Jews. Perhaps it is more for the purposes of inquiry, than a desire to be converted.

At Paphos the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus asked them to present their message before him. This was probably meant to be an official inquiry into the nature of what the missionaries were proclaiming in the synagogues so that the proconsul might know how to deal with the charges already laid against these wandering Jewish evangelists and head off any further disruptions within the Jewish communities. Like a “command performance,” the invitation could not have been refused. [Longenecker, 419.]

Luke doesn’t say that Sergius Paulus becomes a Christian. However, he implies that a false prophet is unable to turn the proconsul “from the faith” (13:8). Later, when the proconsul sees that Paul causes a sorcerer to become blind, “he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13:12). However, it is not clear whether this means that he becomes a Christian. He may have believed in the miracle, but not necessarily the message about Christ.

Bar-Jesus, the sorcerer (13:8-12)

Whatever Sergius’ Paulus final relationship with the church may be, Luke seems not to be interested in documenting it. (Nor does he give us a single scrap of information as to what happens as a result of Barnabas and Paul preaching in synagogues all across Cyprus.) Luke’s main interest in the proconsul is only as the setting for Paul’s confrontation with a magician who is the proconsul’s court advisor, and who opposes the preaching of the gospel (13:7-8). Luke gives him two names — Bar-Jesus and Elymas the sorcerer. The meaning of “Elymas” is not clear.

Josephus mentions a Jewish magician from Cyprus by the name of Atomos. He is later employed by Felix, the procurator of Judea, to entice the married Drusilla to become his wife. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:7, 142.] Some commentators speculate that Bar-Jesus and Atomos may have been the same person. Bar-Jesus means “Son of Jesus.” But, ironically, he opposes the servants of God. He does this so vehemently and frequently that Paul finally confronts him, probably at the court of the proconsul.

Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, says to Bar-Jesus: “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” (13:10). The individual who calls himself “Son of Jesus” is now shown to be a “son of the devil.” Paul pronounces a curse on the magician, saying he will be temporarily blinded (3:11). Although Paul brings light to the Gentiles (13:47), he brings blindness to this obstinate man — an external indication of his spiritual condition.

The action so impresses Sergius Paulus that he believes. But this doesn’t necessarily mean he becomes a Christian. Simon the magician also “believed” upon seeing the miracles Stephen performed (8:13). Simon was baptized, but Luke says nothing of Sergius Paulus being baptized. It would be surprising if he became a Christian.

Luke is more interested in the story of Bar-Jesus being confronted and cursed by Paul. He is interested in telling the story not of a conversion, but of the superiority of God’s power over the magic of the pagan world. Luke wants to show how Paul uses his apostolic authority to neutralize the evil spirit influence of Bar-Jesus. Luke wants his readers to understand that the power behind the gospel is superior to that of pagan magic. In the same way, Moses’ miracles in the land of Egypt are more powerful than the magicians’ magic. Paul’s squaring off with Bar-Jesus is also reminiscent of Elijah confronting and defeating the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:19-40).

Luke probably has another parallel in mind, this one with the gospel message preached earlier in Samaria. The first major missionary work in Samaria, this one from Jerusalem, was challenged by Simon the Sorcerer (8:9-24). In the same way, the first outreach from Antioch encounters the false prophet Bar-Jesus, who is also defeated.

Saul also called Paul (13:9)

Luke seems to be purposely juxtaposing names in this section. Bar-Jesus is paired with Elymas. The proconsul’s name “Paulus” reminds us of Paul, though the sharing of the name is probably only a coincidence. It is here that Luke tells us for the first time that Saul is “also called Paul” (13:9). He has referred to him as “Saul” since he introduced him (7:58). But from now on he will call him only “Paul.” Luke introduces Paul’s two names casually, as though he already has both names. “Saul” is more appropriate in the Jewish world. But now he is moving into the wider Gentile and Roman world, and “Paul” is more suitable.

Luke does not mention whether the preaching of Barnabas and Paul results in any converts on Cyprus. He says nothing about the work in general on Cyprus, nor how long the two missionaries remain on the island. Barnabas and Paul travel “through the whole island” of Cyprus (13:6). This takes some time. Presumably, they preach in a number of towns, and teach some converts.

Paul in Perga (13:13)

The missionary group now sails from Cyprus to Perga in Pamphylia, on the southcentral coast of Asia Minor (13:13). Perga is a river port on the Cestrus River about 12 miles (19 kilometers) inland from the seaport of Attalia (14:25). Luke gives no indication that Paul and Barnabas preach the gospel in Perga or the surrounding area — but they do preach there on their way back to Syrian Antioch (14:25).

It is during the trip to Perga that Luke no longer speaks of “Barnabas and Saul.” From now on, Paul is usually in first place, ahead of Barnabas. Before this, Barnabas was usually mentioned first (11:30; 12:25; 13:2). In the account here, Luke speaks of “Paul and his companions,” which literally means “those around Paul.” This expression indicates that Paul is the leader of the group. Luke appears to be signaling to his readers that Paul has become the dominant partner in the missionary team. Luke doesn’t explain why the change occurs. Perhaps it is obvious that the Holy Spirit is working through Paul, as in the case of his confrontation with the magician. Paul’s speaking may be getting results, indicating that God is using him in a special way.

John Mark leaves the evangelizing team at Perga and returns to Jerusalem. His departure will later lead to a disagreement between Barnabas and Paul, and their permanent split (15:2). Luke gives no reason for Mark’s departure. Perhaps John Mark does not like the fact that his uncle, Barnabas, is no longer the leader of the team. Or he may be in disagreement over some policy regarding preaching to the Gentiles, or admitting them into the fellowship. He may even be homesick or afraid of traveling into the hinterland. Whatever the reason for Mark’s departure, Paul doesn’t like it. He calls it desertion (15:38).

Pisidian Antioch (13:14)

Paul and Barnabas leave Perga and travel to Antioch in Pisidia. [In the ancient word, there were several cities named Antioch, just as there were several cities named Alexandria. Rulers who built cities often named those cities after themselves. The Seleucid empire had several rulers named Antiochus.] Luke devotes the rest of chapter 13 to the preaching of the gospel in the city, and much of his account centers around a single sermon in a synagogue.

Surprisingly, Antioch of Pisidia is not in Pisidia, but in Phrygia, near Pisidia. It may be called Pisidian Antioch because the city is adjacent to, or over against Pisidia. [Strabo, Geography12.3.31; 12.6.4; 12.8.14.] It’s about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Perga, some 3,600 feet above sea level. To reach Antioch of Pisidia the missionaries have to cross the Taurus mountains — a difficult and dangerous journey. The Pisidian highlands are subject to sudden flooding. Another danger is from brigands, as the Romans have not yet fully suppressed the robber clans that lived in these mountains.

Thus, on first view it seems strange that Paul and Barnabas would struggle to make their way to such an out-of-the-way town in the center of Asia Minor. Luke doesn’t let us in on Paul’s thinking, except that it is his goal to preach the gospel in whatever town he can. Some commentators speculate that Paul or someone in the party became ill while in Perga, perhaps a victim of malaria that plagues the marshy coastal strip of Asia Minor. In Paul’s later letter to the churches in Galatia he says that he came to them because he was ill (Galatians 4:13).

Some commentators think that Paul contracted his “thorn in my flesh” at Perga, the illness for which he beseeches God’s healing on three occasions (2 Corinthians 12:7). However, one must wonder how a deathly ill Paul could survive the rigors of crossing the Taurus mountains. Another view is that Paul has a practical reason for going to Pisidian Antioch: The town sits astride the Via Sebaste, the Roman road from Ephesus going to the Euphrates.