The Beginning of Paul's Missionary Journeys
"And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their ministry, and they also took with them John whose surname was Mark. Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said: 'Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then, having fasted and prayed and laid hands on them, they sent them away" (Acts 12:25-13:3).

After completing their task of delivering a financial gift to the Christians dwelling in Judea for the great famine, Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch in Syria, which seems to be the congregation they call "home," so to speak. At this point, Barnabas is viewed as the leader of the pair and his name, thus far, has always been mentioned first (that would soon change, however; cf. 13:13,43ff). John Mark accompanied them back to Antioch from Jerusalem. Luke then provides us with a list of notable prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch. In addition to Barnabas and Saul, he mentions Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen. Very little is known about these men although it is fascinating to know that Manaen was a foster brother to the Herod who had murdered John the baptizer! Although they may have shared the same home growing up, they obviously chose different paths in life. A refreshing aspect of free will is that one does not have to behave like his parents or siblings!

The disciples in Antioch were devoted to serving the Lord; they taught, served, prayed and also fasted. The church there is flourishing. When the time was right, the Holy Spirit instructed that Barnabas and Saul be separated for a special work--an evangelistic journey where the gospel would be taken to new places! The disciples promptly complied and blessed the two men (who continued to be accompanied by John Mark) to the work God had prepared for them. The Christians there fasted, prayed, and laid hands on them (as a sign of separation) before sending the men off. Fasting is when one voluntarily denies himself of food and perhaps drink for a period of time. Jesus taught that His disciples would fast after He left the earth (cf. Matt. 9:15). Fasting is a way of humbling oneself and showing repentance (cf. Ezra 8:21; Acts 9:9). It is also closely associated with prayer (cf. I Cor. 7:5). Thus, during important times and serious decisions (e.g., sending out fellow Christians on a missionary journey, appointing elders, etc.), fasting coupled with both prayer and study is both appropriate and wise (if done properly, cf. Matt. 6:16-18). It should be noted that there is a difference between the way Barnabas and Saul were set apart for this mission and the way in which we are set apart today for God's work. The Holy Spirit directly called and set them apart, whereas today the Spirit indirectly calls and sets people apart through the Scriptures (cf. II Thess. 2:14; Matt. 28:19,20). From this point on in the book of Acts, the narrative will focus upon the apostle Paul (i.e., Saul) and his labors covering approximately 20 years (c. 45 - 65 A.D.).

"So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. And when they arrived in Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. They also had John as their assistant. Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Then Saul, who also is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, 'O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all unrighteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? And now indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time.' And immediately a dark mist fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord" (Acts 13:4-12).

After leaving Antioch in Syria, the men traveled a short distance to Seleucia, a coastal city, where they could board a ship. They then set sail for the island of Cyprus (Barnabas' native home; cf. 4:36) and landed at Salamis on the eastern side of the island. Barnabas and Saul, with John Mark as their assistant, worked their way from one side of the island to the other, preaching the gospel of Christ as they went. It is unknown how much teaching they may have done privately, but we know for certain they concentrated much of their efforts upon those gathering in the Jewish synagogues. This was most expedient since that is where the religious-minded folks would gather who were already believers in Jehovah and the Old Covenant. These people were ideal candidates to introduce to Jesus Christ and teach how He fulfilled the Old Covenant and had established a better covenant!

Barnabas, Saul, and John Mark eventually came to Paphos on the southwestern tip of the island (some ninety miles away). Luke records one fascinating event from their time in that city. They encountered a Jewish sorcerer by the name of Bar-Jesus (i.e., Elymas--an Arabic term meaning "wise") who was with the pronconsul, Sergius Paulus. This man was intelligent (though he was being deceived by a huckster), and he was in a position of authority (a pronconsul would be an administrator of a province). Sergius Paulus, having learned of Saul and Barnabas' teaching, invited them to come to him and teach him the word of God. They were certainly glad to do so! However, they experienced resistance from Elymas who opposed them and tried to prevent the proconsul from believing and obeying the gospel message. The Greek verb suggests a face-to-face confrontation and the imperfect tense suggests there may have been several of these encounters. Elymas doesn't want to lose his best customer! However, to interfere or hinder a receptive soul from hearing and embracing God's word is a serious offense indeed since such would prevent, or at least delay, the eternal salvation of a soul! Thus, we should not be shocked to find God responding powerfully.

In Acts 13:9 we see Luke refer to Saul as Paul for the very first time. There are various theories as to why the apostle may have made this change. The most reasonable one, in my view, is that he was given two names by his parents: the Hebrew name Saul and the Gentile name Paul. Since he is now concentrating his efforts among the Greek and Roman peoples it is simply more appropriate for him to use his Gentile name (cf. I Cor. 9:19-23). Paul can only ignore Elymas' evil interfering for so long. The Holy Spirit speaks a powerful message through Paul as the apostle stares with great intensity at the sorcerer - "O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? And now, indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time" (13:10,11). And immediately it was fulfilled. Elymas had to be guided around during that period of blindness, however long it lasted. In addition to the blindness inflicted by God upon the wicked man, what else happened? Sergius Paulus was "astonished at the teaching of the Lord" which was certainly validated by this harmful miracle. The proconsul "believed" (which is here used as a summary term for obedience; e.g., Acts 4:32; 5:14; 16:34)! This miracle had the same effect as a benevolent one. The proconsul may have been confused prior to the miracle being performed, for he was hearing two conflicting messages from two persuasive sources. But, the blindness Elymas suffered opened Sergius Paulus' eyes completely to the truth!

A few observations are in order from this passage. First, some question the appropriateness of delivering harm via a miracle. It is not our place to judge the Most High God and His sovereignty. Let it be noted that the blindness was temporary and much worse things had happened in the past (e.g., II Kings 1). Jesus Himself performed miracles that sometimes damaged valuable property or even things of nature (e.g., Matt. 8:32; Mark 11:20,21). God's actions here, through Paul, should not surprise us. When it is needed, drastic action must be taken, and who is there better than deity to know when drastic actions are required? God is like a physician who may have to hurt (via cutting in surgery, for example) in order to really help. Second, this harmful miracle shows the foolishness of affirming that no miracle can be performed unless the recipient has faith. Furthermore, I wonder why those who claim to be able perform benevolent miracles today do not produce miracles of judgment against their foes (to ask is to answer). Third, there are eternal optimists who believe there is something good to be said about everyone. Paul clearly did not subscribe to that mistaken notion when he issued his blistering rebuke to Elymas! Some people are overflowing with evil; they stand for everything that is wrong and nothing that is right! They distort, twist, or change that which is good to their own destruction (cf. II Pet. 3:16). False teachers are rightly called sons of the devil (cf. John 8:44)! Fourth, notice the different terms used in this context to describe the gospel: word of God, the faith, the straight ways of the Lord, and the teaching of the Lord.

"Now when Paul and his party set sail from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John, departing from them, returned to Jerusalem. But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, 'Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on'" (Acts 13:13-15).

After leaving Paphos, Paul and Barnabas set sail for Perga (note Paul's leadership here). John Mark, however, left the group unexpectedly (and unexplained by Luke) and headed in the opposite direction, back toward Jerusalem. After preaching in Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia to teach other interested souls about Jesus the Christ. Luke records much about their efforts in this city.

As was their tradition, they began in the local synagogue. They didn't go there as practicing Jews but as Christians who wanted to evangelize a group of religious-minded people. They sat down for the customary reading from the Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament). Then, either because their reputation proceeded them or because they were visitors, they were invited to speak to the assembly "any word of exhortation." This was a great opportunity and Paul would not squander it. He did not politely decline the invitation to address the group. He was ready to preach the gospel always (cf. II Tim. 4:2). He stood up and delivered a powerful sermon (which we will study in our next lesson).

Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.