This page is a verse by verse study of Acts 13:1-12. Paul’s first missionary journey begins, and he strikes Elymas the sorcerer blind.
Paul’s First Missionary Journey Begins
¶“1In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen the foster brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2As they served the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, 'Separate Barnabas and Saul for me, for the work to which I have called them.' 3So, when they had fasted and prayed and laid hands on them, they sent them away.” (Acts 13:1-3).
¶“4Thus Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed to Cyprus. 5Reaching Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. They also had John as their helper.” (Acts 13:4-5).
¶“6When they had gone through the whole island to Paphos, they came across a certain sorcerer. He was a false prophet, a Jew named Bar-Jesus.7He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus who was an intelligent man. Sergius summoned Barnabas and Saul, and sought to hear the word of God. 8But Elymas the sorcerer (as his name is translated) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.” (Acts 13:6-8).
¶“9But Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his eyes on Elymas. 10Paul said, 'You who are filled with deception and fraud; you son of the devil; you enemy of all righteousness; will you not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? 11Behold, now the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a season.' Immediately a mist and darkness fell on Elymas. He went about seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12Then the proconsul, when he saw this happen, believed. He was amazed at the teaching of the Lord.” (Acts 13:9-12).
1 Barnabas and Saul Sent to Preach
¶ "In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen the foster brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they served the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Separate Barnabas and Saul for me, for the work to which I have called them.” So, when they had fasted and prayed and laid hands on them, they sent them away."(Acts 13:1-3).
Church at Antioch. The Antioch here is the great Syrian city. There is a smaller city also called Antioch. It is in Pisidia. Refer to the map on this page.
Prophets and teachers. All prophets are teachers, but not all teachers are prophets. A prophet (or prophetess) is one who has been given the gift of prophecy and is able to speak words given directly by the Holy spirit. A prophet can confirm that he or she is genuine by predicting future events that will shortly come true but that are unlikely to be known or guessed beforehand. Agabas did this (Acts 11:27-28). A prophet’s task however was to teach the word of God using the power of divine inspiration. This teaching can then be passed on by other teachers who are not prophets (2Timothy 2:2). This is what teachers today do when they give lessons from scripture.
Herod the tetrarch. This was Herod Antipas the tetrarch of Galilee (Luke 3:1). He killed John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1ff). His nephew was Herod Agrippa I, who killed James and jailed Peter (Acts 12:1). A tetrarch is any one of four governors who share the rule of a country or province. It is encouraging that although Manaen was brought up in this tyrannical family, he became a faithful disciple of Jesus.
Barnabas and Saul. The owners of the first and last names on the list, having taken the famine relief money to Jerusalem, and returned with John Mark, are now given a mission by God. This preaching journey is known as “Paul’s first missionary journey.”
Fasted and prayed. At certain times in life, we may wish to temporarily suspend normal physical activities such as eating, sexual intercourse, sleep, daily work, "that you may devote yourselves to prayer"(1Corinthians 7:5) and other spiritual activity. This is not a habititual or normal manner of life for the Christian. But in some circumstances it may be appropriate (Other examples: Esther 9:28,31;Acts 14:23; Luke 10:38-42). In the normal course of life, Christians are found "breaking bread from house to house and taking their meals together with gladness..." (Acts 2:46).
The value of fasting
The value of bodily deprivation is not intrinsic. When practised as though it does have value in itself, it becomes a problem (Colossians 2:20-23). The Lord does not encourage Christians to be ascetic and austere in their way of life, but rather to enjoy God’s gifts, yet "seek first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33).
The Holy Spirit said. How did the Holy Spirit speak? The most likely answer is that the gift of prophecy was exercised —one of the prophets was moved by the Holy Spirit to speak. I grow weary of people saying, “God spoke to me recently and said...” In the early church, God generally spoke either through the scriptures or through prophets by their use of the gift of prophecy (1Corinthians 14:1-4). If people claim that God speaks to them, as many do, that is tantamount to claiming the gift of prophecy. Let them prove it by predicting something that will shortly come to pass, something that could not be guessed, like Agabas did (Acts 11:27-28). If not, let us regard their claim “God spoke to me...” as humbug.
Laid hands on them. The apostles laid hands on people to impart miraculous spiritual gifts to them, such as the gift of prophecy. Those given such gifts were not able, in turn, to lay hands on people for the same purpose. Philip, for example had miraculous powers which he demonstrated in Samaria. But it required the hands of an apostle to impart the gifts of the Holy Spirit to others (Acts 8:5-6,14-19).
Cornelius and his household were an exception to this; they received the gift of tongues directly from the Holy Spirit, without anybody laying hands on them, just as the apostles did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 11:15-17,Acts 2:4).
Hands were laid on the sick when healing them (Acts 28:8, Mark 8:23,Luke 4:40).
Hands were laid on people when blessing them as Jesus did to the little children (Mark 10:16). But that did have a flip side under the Old Testament. At the trial of one heard cursing God, witnesses were to lay hands on the blasphemer before stoning him (Leviticus 24:10-16,esp v.14).
Hands were laid on people when commissioning them as Moses did to Joshua (Numbers 27:18-19cf Acts 6:6). The point of this was that the spirit of wisdom might be given to those commissioned (Deuteronomy 34:9). The wisdom can be requested of God through prayer invoking the providence of God (James 1:4-6). This is the most likely purpose of laying hands on Barnabas and Saul before sending them off on their missionary journey (Acts 13:2-3).
Note that the doctrine of the laying on of hands (briefly set out above) is one of the elementary or foundational teachings in the church, and all Christians should have an understanding of it (Hebrews 6:1-3).
2 Barnabas and Saul Sail to Cyprus
¶ "Thus Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed to Cyprus. Reaching Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. They also had John as their helper."(Acts 13:4-5).
Synagogues of the Jews. Jews were now living all over the world. They had meeting places called synagogues where their local congregations met and were administered. The temple in Jerusalem was a place for festivals and pilgrimages, but the synagogue was the center of grass-roots religion and worship each Sabbath. It became Saul’s practice, when he came to preach in a city, to first go to the synagogues. There he would hope to preach the gospel to the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles who worshipped God with the Jews.
One of Paul’s mottos was, "to the Jew first and also to the Greek"(Romans 1:16,Romans 2:9-10). Paul saw this practice as "necessary"(Acts 13:46).
John as their helper. This was John Mark whom Barnabas and Saul had brought with them from Jerusalem to Antioch (Acts 12:25). John deserted Barnabas and Saul when they sailed from Cyprus to the mainland, and he went back to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).
3 Elymas the Sorcerer Struck Blind.
¶ "When they had gone through the whole island to Paphos, they came across a certain sorcerer. He was a false prophet, a Jew named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus who was an intelligent man. Sergius summoned Barnabas and Saul, and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (as his name is translated) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith."(Acts 13:6-8).
Elymas, sorcerer, Jewish false prophet. Rulers like to have about their persons wise men who can lend them foresight into events important to their governance. Instead they get charlatans who consult the stars, the entrails of a chook, or the spirits of the dead. Even ancient kings like Nebuchadnezzar (in Daniel’s day) or the Pharoah of Egypt (in Joseph’s time) did this. Sergius Paulus was intelligent, so he wished to have someone around him like Nathan (the prophet king David consulted). Sergius hired Elymas, supposedly a Jewish prophet of God. But he was a false prophet practising the arts of the pagan magicians, and was no Joseph, Daniel, or Nathan.
Summoned Barnabas and Saul Sergius heard of Barnabas and Saul, and thought it prudent (as indeed it was) to hear their word. Elymas tried to interfere.
¶ "But Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his eyes on Elymas. Paul said, “You who are filled with deception and fraud; you son of the devil; you enemy of all righteousness; will you not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? Behold, now the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a season.” Immediately a mist and darkness fell on Elymas. He went about seeking someone to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul, when he saw this happen, believed. He was amazed at the teaching of the Lord."(Acts 13:9-12).
Unquestionable superiority. As Philip had done in Samaria where Simon the sorcerer practised (Acts 8:9-13), Paul also received the power of the Holy Spirit to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus Christ over sorcerers and their magic. The miracle that Saul did convinced Sergius Paulus to believe in Christ. If Sergius would serve Christ faithfully, Christ would give him wisdom and help to rule well. Sergius would no longer need the likes of Elymas at his side. Jesus would be there. More than this, Sergius would also have forgiveness of sins and eternal life!
Blind for a season. I sometimes hear or read discussions on this passage about using miraculous power to harm people. In this case Paul caused Elymas no harm, only severe but temporary inconvenience. Furthermore, he taught Elymas a very valuable lesson which he needed to learn: Jesus is the Lord; Bar-Jesus is a fraud.
Saul also known as Paul. Saul came to be known as Paul. Saul was the name of the Benjaminite who became first king of Israel (1Sam 9:15-17). Paul was also a Benjaminite (Philippians 3:4-5), and his given or circumcision name was Saul, after the king of old. The name "Paul" comes from the Latin for "little" (the root of our English words "pauper" and "paucity"). To give up the kingly name Saul and take up the name Paul meaning "small", shows humility.