Acts 13:4–12 records one of the most bizarre scenes in the New Testament. But it’s also one of the most profound.
It’s AD 46. The church at Antioch has just commissioned Paul and Barnabas as missionaries (Acts 13:1–3). Their first stop is the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where Barnabas grew up (Acts 4:36). With Barnabas’ cousin, John Mark, they begin proclaiming the message of Jesus to the local Jewish population of Salamis, a commercial hub of Cyprus (Acts 13:4–5; Col 4:10). From there, they spread the good news about Jesus’ death and resurrection across the island. They eventually reach Paphos, the political center of Cyprus and a major port city. And that’s when things get very crazy, very fast.
In Paphos, they meet “a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus” (Acts 13:6). He seems to have the ear of the local Roman governor, Sergius Paulus. His intent: to turn the governor against the gospel and thus against Paul, Barnabas, and Mark (Acts 13:7–8).
The reason is probably power and money. If Sergius Paulus receives the gospel—and its power—he will no longer need Bar-Jesus and neither will the local population. This was certainly the fear of the slave owners of a demon-possessed girl Paul later freed (Acts 16:16–24). And it appears to have been the fear of Simon the Magician (Acts 8:10–11), who even tries to buy the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17–24). And this is profound lesson number one from this passage: Money and power is often the reason people oppose the gospel.
Paul doesn’t tolerate the nonsense. He looks right at Bar-Jesus and tells him he is hindering the ways of the Lord. God is making a path straight and this man is doing the bidding of the devil (Acts 13:10; compare Mark 1:1–3; John 1:23; Isa 40:3). Paul then says: “Behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time” (Acts 13:11). And suddenly Bar-Jesus is blinded, searching in the darkness. Just like Paul was once temporarily blind, he makes Bar-Jesus blind. Paul once had to be led around by the hand, and now Bar-Jesus will be (Acts 9:8; 13:11).
Paul is the embodiment of the song “Amazing Grace”: “I once was blind but now I see.” He had once persecuted the church, but after his blindness and hearing Jesus’ voice, he saw the truth (Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–19; compare Mark 4:10–12; Isaiah 6:9–10). Thus, Paul brings the same gift to Bar-Jesus—he gives him the opportunity to be blind so that he may see. This is profound lesson number two: Sometimes people must experience the darkness of blindness before they can see the light.
But the lesson is not for Bar-Jesus alone. The Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, comes to Jesus in this moment. Astonished at the teachings of Jesus—which he has just witnessed in practice through an act of the Holy Spirit—Sergius Paulus chooses to believe (Acts 13:12). The Holy Spirit has shown power over both the spiritual and physical realm. A member of the devil’s spiritual realm has been defeated. And now a member of the Roman government, representing the physical powers of the world, has come to Christ. This is profound lesson number three: The Holy Spirit is greater than any force, seen or unseen.
There is also a grand and wonderful message rooted in the overall narrative of Acts. This story represents the beginning of the endgame of the church—to bring the message of salvation in Jesus to all the earth (Acts 1:7–8).
Luke, the author of Acts, is showing us that while the gospel may have begun with Jewish people worshiping a Jewish Messiah, it’s now beginning to reach beyond people of Jewish descent. The gospel is advancing into the confines of the most well-established systems in the non-Jewish world—the Roman government.
The efforts of Paul on Cyprus represent the Holy Spirit’s work in full force. As the very presence of God on earth, the Holy Spirit is on the move. It is overcoming physical and spiritual resistance to bring Jesus’ saving message everywhere. This same gospel is on the move today—and the need is still desperate, as there are still hundreds of millions of people yet to hear the name of Jesus. Like the earliest missionaries, we are called to bring Jesus’ message to them, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version