Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 13:8-12

But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.


Last week’s post introduced this dramatic scene. Barnabas, Saul and John Mark (Mark of the Gospel) sailed from the port of Seleucia, not far from Antioch where they had been teaching, and sailed to Cyprus, a short distance away. They ministered from Salamis on the east coast across the island to Paphos, the port on the west coast and the seat of Roman government. The wise proconsul Sergius Paulus wanted to hear what Barnabas and Saul had to say.

The magician — sorcerer — who inserted himself in Sergius Paulus’s court was named Bar-Jesus. He was anything but a ‘son of salvation’ but, in fact, a son of Satan. In verse 8, we see that Bar-Jesus was also known as Elymas, which means magician — sorcerer — an accurate name for this evildoer.

John MacArthur explains that Elymas is an Arabic name of two words:

One of them means wise and one of them means powerful and perhaps he was both.

Elymas actively tried to dissuade Sergius Paulus from the faith (verse 8).

Matthew Henry’s commentary explains how he might have done that (emphases mine below):

He set up himself to be a messenger from heaven, and denied that they were. And thus he sought to turn away the deputy from the faith (Acts 13:8), to keep him from receiving the gospel, which he saw him inclined to do. Note, Satan is in a special manner busy with great men and men of power, to keep them from being religious; because he knows that their example, whether good or bad, will have an influence upon many. And those who are in any way instrumental to prejudice people against the truths and ways of Christ are doing the devil’s work.

MacArthur refers to II Timothy 3, particularly verse 13, which talks about ‘seducers’ — sorcerers, nothing to do with carnal knowledge:

Now goes to verse 13 and I’ll really show you something. “But evil men and seducers shall become worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.” I want you to look at the word seducers, goates in the Greek, from the Greek verb goaol. You know what that verb means? It means to utter low mystical tones. You say, “What is that?” It was a word used of a class of magicians who chanted magical formulas in guttural languages.

The clearest English translation of goates [–] seducers [–] is sorcerers. That’s the best translation.

Sorcerers feature in the Bible, unsuccessfully trying to stop God’s will:

“Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses.” … The two magicians of Pharaoh who tried to stop the progress of God with Israel. Remember what happened? They were demon-possessed mediums in Pharaoh’s court and when Moses came in and wanted to do what God wanted they withstood him. They were just what Simon [Magus, from Acts 8 (here and here)], the sorcerer was; they were just exactly what Bar-Jesus was … They were demon-possessed people to withstand the purposes of God. But you know who won that contest? Moses.

St Luke, the author of Acts, referred to Saul as Paul for the first time in verse 9.

A few theories abound about this name change. Henry presents two of them. This is the first, which we know better:

Saul was his name as he was a Hebrew, and of the tribe of Benjamin; Paul was his name as he was a citizen of Rome. Hitherto we have had him mostly conversant among the Jews, and therefore called by his Jewish name; but now, when he is sent forth among the Gentiles, he is called by his Roman name, to put somewhat of a reputation upon him in the Roman cities, Paulus being a very common name among them.

Here is the second, which is rather interesting:

But some think he was never called Paul till now that he was instrumental in the conversion of Sergius Paulus to the faith of Christ, and that he took the name Paulus as a memorial of this victory obtained by the gospel of Christ, as among the Romans he that had conquered a country took his denomination from it, as Germanicus, Britannicus, Africanus; or rather, Sergius Paulus himself gave him the name Paulus in token of his favour and respect to him, as Vespasian gave his name Flavius to Josephus the Jew.

Josephus the Jew was the learned historian whose works corroborate the timeline of events in the New Testament.

MacArthur tells us:

He was probably called Paul from his birth, a Gentile name meaning little. You start studying Paul and he doesn’t come out very handsome. He’s little and sort of blind. One historian says, short, fat and bald. I don’t know whether that’s true, but nevertheless perhaps if you can think of him in that term you can get a little visual picture. But anyway, Saul called Paul, that means little, and it was his Gentile name. It says he was now beginning his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles. He’d begun to be called Paul from now on. So this is a transition and we’ll know him as Paul.

Verse 9 says that Paul looked at Elymas ‘intently’, from which we can infer eye-to-eye, eyes being the window to the soul. The Holy Spirit was welling up in Paul. Henry describes what was happening at that moment:

[1.] That he was filled with the Holy Ghost upon this occasion, filled with a holy zeal against a professed enemy of Christ, which was one of the graces of the Holy Ghosta spirit of burning; filled with power to denounce the wrath of God against him, which was one of the gifts of the Holy Ghost–a spirit of judgment. He felt a more than ordinary fervour in his mind, as the prophet did when he was full of power by the Spirit of the Lord (Micah 3:8), and another prophet when his face was made harder than flint (Ezekiel 3:9), and another when his mouth was made like a sharp sword, Isaiah 49:2. What Paul said did not come from any personal resentment, but from the strong impressions which the Holy Ghost made upon his spirit.

[2.] He set his eyes upon him, to face him down, and to show a holy boldness, in opposition to his wicked impudence. He set his eyes upon him, as an indication that the eye of the heart-searching God was upon him, and saw through and through him; nay, that the face of the Lord was against him, Psalms 34:16. He fixed his eyes upon him, to see if he could discern in his countenance any marks of remorse for what he had done; for, if he could have discerned the least sign of this, it would have prevented the ensuing doom.

Then, Paul referred to Elymas as ‘son of the devil’, ‘enemy of all righteousness’, filled with ‘all deceit and villainy’. He asked the sorcerer if he would stop what he was doing:

will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?

MacArthur draws us back to the name Bar-Jesus:

His name was son of salvation. He says, “You’re no son of salvation, you’re son of the devil Bar-Jesus, Bar-Satan, bar meaning son. Then he calls him an enemy of all righteousness. He feigned that he was righteous, prophet, Jew, all that. He says, “You’re an enemy of all righteousness. You’re an enemy of God. Everybody in that stuff is an enemy of God. You get that? They’re deceitful, they’re wicked and you and I have nothing to do with them whatever. “Will you,” he says, “Will you not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?” Apparently this guy had twisted the truth about God around for satanic purposes. And that’s exactly what false prophets always do.

But there was no sign of remorse from Elymas, Bar-Jesus — in reality, not wise at all nor son of salvation, but rather the spawn of Satan.

So the Holy Spirit worked through Paul to blind the sorcerer, but only for a certain amount of time (verse 11). Paul told Elymas that the hand of the Lord was upon the sorcerer, therefore, this was a divine judgement.

Elymas could have been struck dead, but Henry posits that the blindness might have been a way of bringing Elymas to repentance:

if he will repent, and give glory to God, by making confession, his sight shall be restored; nay, it should seem, though he do not, yet his sight shall be restored, to try if he will be led to repentance either by the judgments of God or by his mercies.

MacArthur compared this blindness to Saul’s three-day blindness of his conversion and thinks it might have worked similarly on the magician:

I don’t know this and I don’t have much information other than just that little statement, “for a season,” but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised when I get to heaven to find Bar-Jesus up there because this was not a permanent judgment. But it was for the moment victory. Do you know something? Do you know the demons can’t handle you in the power of the Spirit? They cannot handle you at all. Mastery!

The seemingly invincible sorcerer was helpless with the ‘mist and darkness’ upon him. Everyone who was there saw what had happened to him. He had to reach out for people to lead him by the hand.

Henry has this analysis:

This silenced him presently, filled him with confusion, and was an effectual confutation of all he said against the doctrine of Christ. Let not him any more pretend to be a guide to the deputy’s conscience who is himself struck blind. It was also an earnest to him of a much sorer punishment if he repent not; for he is one of those wandering stars to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever, Jude 1:13. Elymas did himself proclaim the truth of the miracle, when he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand; and where now is all his skill in sorcery, upon which he had so much valued himself, when he can neither find his way nor find a friend that will be so kind as to lead him!

One wonders how many people witnessing that believed. Whatever the case, Sergius Paulus, as a witness to that miracle, believed and was ‘astonished at the teaching of the Lord’ (verse 12).

Both our commentators put the emphasis on doctrine first, then the miracle, in converting the proconsul. Possibly, in his wisdom, Sergius Paulus wanted to understand the doctrine and saw it, rightly, as being primary.

What happened to him afterwards we are not told, however, Henry’s commentary says:

When he became a Christian, he neither laid down his government, nor was turned out of it, but we may suppose, as a Christian magistrate, by his influence helped very much to propagate Christianity in that island.

MacArthur says likewise:

Satan lost the battle, and now the whole of the island of Cyprus is going to come under the control of the Holy Spirit. What a victory. Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, what’s the next word, believed! You say oh it doesn’t say he was saved. You can believe and not be saved. That’s right. You could. But it doesn’t say he believed and wasn’t saved either. So how are you going to qualify the word believe?

Well, look at the next statement. “Being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.” … It wasn’t the miracle that got to Sergius Paulus; it was the doctrine of the Lord. How is a man saved? If he confesses with his mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes. I believe that he was astonished at the doctrine. How would they know that unless he verbalized that, which means he believed and confessed with his mouth the doctrine of the Lordship of Christ? I believe he was saved. In fact there may be a wonderful companionship in heaven between Bar-Jesus and Sergius Paulus on a whole different basis going on right now. I hope I find them both there. That’s somewhat speculative, but that’s my opinion.

To wrap up on Sergius Paulus, during the Middle Ages, the Gauls (Gaul — present-day France) circulated legends to tie their cities to the Apostles. One legend posits that Sergius Paulus became the Bishop of Narbonne — Paul of Narbonne. However, that is unlikely because Sergius Paulus lived in the 1st century AD and served under the Emperor Claudius. Paul of Narbonne lived during the 3rd century.

Wikipedia states that Sergius Paulus probably fulfilled his three-year assignment in Cyprus then returned to Rome:

where he was appointed curator.[2] As he is not greeted in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, it is possible he died before it was written.[3]

The rest of Acts 13 discusses Paul’s and Barnabas’s ongoing ministry. Verse 13 tells us that they sailed from Cyprus to Perga in Pamphylia then onto Antioch in Pisidia (not Syria). From Cyprus, John Mark returned to Jerusalem.

MacArthur explains what probably happened:

And here’s the sad note. “And John departing from them returned to Jerusalem. You say, “What’s so sad about that?” Paul was very upset about that, very very upset. S[o] why did John Mark leave? There’s several possibilities. Some say that he had resentment over Paul becoming the leader over Barnabas. Some say Mark was more attached to Barnabas and Paul, by his very nature, became the leader he was angry with Paul and didn’t want to work under him. Others say he was afraid because they were having to go over the Taurus mountains and the Taurus mountains were noted for being perilous. They were terribly fast torrents that was spanned by very weak bridges, and there were also robbers that lurked and the Roman government had tried to get the robbers out of the Taurus mountains but there was so many cracks and crevices and caves they couldn’t get them, and so it was a terribly perilous thing to even be in the Taurus mountains. It’s interesting, too, that in II Corinthians Paul says, “In my life I’ve been in the peril of robbers and in the peril of rivers,” and it may have been just that when he was talking about when he went to the Taurus mountains on his way.

And so perhaps Mark had a little chicken in him. There’s a third possibility and that is that the romance of mission work had worn off. Like so many missionaries who go out the first time around, the romance is going and they come back and that’s it. But whatever it was Paul was upset and it caused friction. Over in Chapter 15, verse 38, it had a terrible effect. They were going to go on a second missionary journey Paul and Barnabas, and this is, we’ll get to this and ooh you’ll learn some things there. Look at the difference between this and verse 36, “Let us go again.” Um Paul you’re running ahead, right? The last time the Spirit of God said, “Separate Me Paul and Barnabas.” Paul said, “Let us go.” You know what happened? They didn’t go. Paul wound up taking Silas and Barnabas wound up going somewhere else.

But you know what happened? Barnabas determined to take John, verse 37, “But Paul thought it not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia and went not with him to the work and so the contention was so sharp that they departed asunder one from the other.” You know that leaving of John Mark actually fractured the relationship between Paul and Barnabas? There’s a beautiful ending to the story II Timothy 4:11, Paul is closing out his life and he writes and he says, “Only Luke is here. Could you send Mark? He could be profitable to me.” Somewhere in the years he and Mark got back together.

It is good to know they put their differences behind them — a good example to follow.

Next time — Acts 13:40-43