Summary: I preach expository messages, and this is the 24th in my series on the Book of Acts.
“An Astonishing Gospel”
November 18, 2007
Last week, we considered the critical role of the local church in sending out two men, Barnabas and Saul, for the work God had prepared for them. Here, in our passage today, we see reiterated the other absolute essential for Christian mission and ministry, the sending work of the Holy Spirit of God. Let’s read together this morning’s text: Acts 13:4-12.
It was known to the locals as “Happy Isle”; it might have been the rough equivalent of our modern-day Hawaii or the Bahamas, although probably not Fantasy Island. Cyprus had been annexed by Rome some 100 years previous to this time. It became an official province of Rome 25 years earlier, and the governor of the entire island, for Rome, was Sergius Paulus. We’re not told why it was their first destination, though we know from Acts 4 that for Barnabas, going to Cyprus meant going home. But they weren’t going there for vacation or adventure, much as the isle of Cyprus promised both. They were going, sent out by the Holy Spirit, to do His bidding and preach His gospel. For Saul and Barnabas, it was “game on!”
Salamis, their first stop, was a Greek city on the east side of the island, a city of some size, in that there was more than one Jewish synagogue in this city alone. This taking of the gospel “first to the Jews”, that we see reflected here, is one that Paul was to carry out during the entirety of his missionary enterprise; he lays out that strategy in Romans 1:16, where he writes that the gospel is “the power of God to everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile”. In every synagogue, there would be God-fearing non-Jews as well as devout Jews; these Gentiles would be good networkers, opening doors to other non-Jews.
After Salamis, they journeyed to the capital city of the province, Paphos, on the west coast, a journey of about 90 miles, where they had an audience with the governor, Sergius Paulus. This is where they receive
I. An Astonishing Invitation - :6-7
This was likely a “command performance”; they likely didn’t seek it out, nor have the opportunity to politely decline. Governors in the employ of Rome liked to know what was going on in their provinces, particularly those kinds of things that might serve to create a disruption to the Pax Romana, and word of these traveling preachers undoubtedly reached Sergius Paulus. But was there more in the mind of Sergius Paulus than merely quelling unrest? The Bible says that he wanted “to hear the Word of God”. Was this for more than civic reasons? Was this out of a desire to find truth? Were his motives somewhat mixed? R.B. Rackham said that, “Among the Roman aristocracy were many who, wearied with skepticism, were asking in all seriousness Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’” Here was a man who had a keen mind, and understood the sciences and natural history, according to the Roman historian Pliny, but who sensed a lack of understanding of deep and supernatural things. Rackham continues: “In the Greek world, it was the custom for philosophers, rhetoricians, or religious propagandists, to travel about from city to city and give public orations…when Sergius Paulus heard of Barnabas and Saul, he took them for similar professors, and having an interest in these matters, he summoned them to give a declamation before his court.” What was their teaching? What was their philosophy? What new insights could these traveling teachers provide? At any rate, he summoned them in order to hear what it was they were preaching, but none knew the events that were soon to take place!
II. Non-Astonishing Opposition - :8
Bar-Jesus, Elymas, would have been a natural member of Sergius Paulus’ court. He was in the employ of the Roman governor as something of the “court wizard”. He was a Jew, but one who was far more interested in his own well-being than he was in the glory of God; he was willing to become a pseudo-religious quack in order to make a good buck. It’s possible, given his name, that he was trading on the name of Jesus, to try to make his living as some sort of supposed spiritual descendant of Jesus among people who wouldn’t know any better. Think: what motive would this sorcerer have for trying to distract Sergius Paulus, oppose for all he was worth the conversion of the governor? He’d likely be out of a job if the governor converted; of what use would a sorcerer be to a Christian? We thus label his opposition “non-astonishing”. And so this impostor set out to distract Sergius Paulus, to destroy the work of the gospel as it was proclaimed.