Sermon for Sunday Evening, February 12th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 13:4-12 ESV] 4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. 6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 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.
I’ve long gone on vacation to remote and often northern or otherwise cold places high in the mountains. I’ve been blessed with travel to Alaska, the Yukon, Iceland, Labrador, New Zealand, and Northern Ireland as well as many cold mountain tops in the contiguous United States. I’ve always been driving to adventure, thinking that those tropical laying-on-the-beach vacations sound rather dull. But in these cold winter New York days and nights, I wouldn’t be opposed to visiting my friends in Cozumel. I’d be quite glad for an island adventure.
We come in our text to one of Paul’s island adventures. Later in the Book of Acts he’ll be on the Island of Malta. And with the Epistle to Titus he writes to the Island of Crete. But in our text Paul (with Barnabas) travels to the Island of Cyprus.
And you know with Paul that it is going to be an adventure.
Imagine traveling with this guy. No doubt there would not be a dull day. You’d regularly need to duck from stones being thrown at you, and you should probably keep your sandals on and your bags packed for at any moment you could be running from the authorities.
Well, what adventures in in store for Paul and Barnabas on the Island of Cyprus?
I. Sent by the Holy Spirit
Last Sunday evening I explained (to the extent I am able) the ways in which evangelists and missionaries are sent in the Presbyterian world. And there are debates, as I noted, over whether it is best to be sent by a church, a presbytery, a denomination or an independent agency approved by the church. Well, there can be no debate that the evangelist or missionary is to be “sent by the Holy Spirit.”
It is not specified precisely how the leaders at the church of Antioch “heard” the Holy Spirit. It may have even been audible. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
If it was not audible, it was at least clear to all of the leaders that the Holy Spirit was guiding them to that conclusion, that Paul and Barnabas must be sent.
Today, I can’t rule out the possibility that a person could hear an audible call from the Holy Spirit, but the ordinary “call” to work in ministry does not come in that fashion. I remember years ago in the Lutheran church, they (somewhat jokingly) said the pastor is “called” when the church literally makes a phone call to him asking him to pastor their church. Well, that is certainly part of the call. But what I think is likely going on in the church at Antioch in our passage, and with thousands of Christians workers throughout the ages, is that there is an internal call.
The internal call is, for one, that the person has the ability to do the work. You can’t say “I want to be a missionary or a pastor” but not be willing to study or go through the necessary training. If you don’t want to do the hard work, you are not called to the work.
But there is something else about the internal call that must be present. There must be a great desire to do the work. That is what I believe a call to ministry looks like. So strong is the desire to work in ministry that the person is not satisfied to do any other work, but simply must do what he is being led to do.
Now, I believe all work is for the Lord. And you can do great things in any profession. And I believe that a pastor or missionary should not be above “other” work. They should be willing to get their hands dirty. That is all true.
But when there is an internal call, it keeps pulling at you, saying “do this.” Paul and Barnabas (and the church at Antioch) have this internal call that they are to be sent “for the work to which I have called them.”
Who is saying that? Who is the “I”? It is the Holy Spirit. That reminds us that the Holy Spirit is a person, the third person of the Triune God. The Holy Spirit is not a force, but a person and He calls the evangelists to their work.
Well, I want to mention one story about being called with that irresistible internal call to ministry. It is from the biography of R. W. (Ralph Waldo) Chesnut, a minister for many years in upstate New York. He had grown up in Iowas on the farm, later moved to Kansas with his brother and engaged in farming. He had little education and so he fought the call of God to ministry for sometime. He did not want to go to college or become a ministry. But the internal call overwhelmed him.
From his autobiography there is a chapter on “An Important Decision.”
“To every person there comes a time of decision. This is possibly the most critical time of our lives. It is not always easy to decide what to do, especially when it comes to settling the matter for all time, what is to be our work for life. It has been said often that whatever a person first desires to do or be, in a trade or profession, is what the they should do or be. If this is true many persons make great mistakes in choosing their lifework. When a boy my ambition was to learn some trade, or be a farmer, but the very thought of going to college was dreadful; and the most dreadful thing of all was the thought of being a minister of the Gospel. Such a thought never seriously entered my mind until I was in my seventeenth year. These thoughts at first were easily shaken of, but they as often returned until they were a genuine source of annoyance. After a vain attempt of about three years to resist the influence of these thoughts that often made life a burden, one day I as I was plowing in the field, I made up my mind that it was wrong to resist any longer what seemed to be the call of the Lord, and they and there I made the decision to enter the Gospel ministry, and promised the Lord that if He would spare my life and see me safely through the long years of college preparation, years that seemed like ages beset with countless difficulties, I would do my best and spend my life in His service, regardless of former desires and present inducements to do otherwise.”
Well, perhaps the lesson here is that plowing a field gives you a lot of time to think! But what I am aiming at is to show that this call of the Holy Spirit is an internal call, irresistible for those who must go into ministry. And that, I believe, is what happened also at Antioch.
So it is that Paul and Barnabas are not only sent by the church, they are sent by the Holy Spirit. And actually if you look at verse 5 you see that “they had John to assist them.” And he stays with them on Cyprus, but later departs to Jerusalem. He’s not chosen from the church of Antioch like Paul and Barnabas are, but he assists in their work for a time.
Sent first on an island adventure to Cyprus.
II. Bar-Jesus and Sergius Paulus
So they depart Antioch, go down to the port which is Seleucia and then sail to Cyprus. They first go to Salamis on the near side of the island and then work their way over to Paphos on the far side. At Salamis they proclaimed the work of God in the Synagogue. Nothing further is mentioned of Salamis nor of their adventures through the center of the Island. It seems that they were proclaiming the Gospel from place to place.
The real story then picks up in Paphos where they came upon a magician, a Jewish false-prophet named Bar-Jesus. “Jesus” was a fairly common name. So this has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth. And “Bar” means “son of” in Aramaic. You’ve heard of a “Bar Mitvah” when a Son comes of age. Bar Mitvah means “Son of the Commandment,” one who is now grown and subject to the law.
So “Bar-Jesus” means “Son of Jesus.” His father’s name was Jesus. In Hebrew that is Yeshua, and Greek Iesous. Only in English do we say “Jesus.” He is also called Elymas which, it is said, means “learned or wise” in Arabic. He is a “learned or wise” magician.
This Bar-Jesus is with Sergius Paulus, the proconsul (or governor) who is said to be “a man of intelligence.”
And Sergius Paulus “sought to hear the word of God” from Paul and Barnabas.
We can see that Bar-Jesus is wise in the word of deceit, but Sergius Paulus seeks the wisdom of God.
And Bar Jesus opposed Paul and Barnabas, seeking to turn Sergius Paulus from the faith.
From that statement is seems that Sergius Paulus became a believer. And that continues this great theme in the book of Acts, that the powerful Gospel is victorious. In the last section we had Manean a lifelong friend of Herod come to the faith. Now we have a proconsul of the Romans coming to the faith. There is no one above Christianity. Now truly the Christian church was largely lower class in its early years, largely the poor of the world, but it certainly was not limited to such. Many rulers, many priests, even wealthy people came to believe in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
III. Paul and Barnabas with the Holy Spirit
We then come to the response of the evangelists to the efforts of Bar-Jesus.
9 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?
Paul chastises him. And we find that Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit not only sent the evangelists, but continues with them.
Then, not only is their the chastisement, there is a blindness that comes upon Bar-Jesus.
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.
So he was unable to lead anyone astray. Especially Sergius Paulus about whom we read “Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”
What can we take away from this passage?
1. Pray for those in authority, that they may be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
Authority suffers from the … problem of authority. They are in control, or think they are. Like the rich man, many of those in authority think they don’t need God. They think they ARE God.
But they need God as much as anyone else.
And we are to pray for all in authority, whether we like them or not. Let us pray that they come to a saving Faith in Jesus Christ and that they guide their actions and policies by the word of God.
2. We find encouragement to evangelize the unlikely.
Sergius Paulus is an unlikely candidate for coming to the faith. Not only is he in authority, he is a Roman. But the Lord can work in the hearts of anyone. Hardened criminals, even politicians and lawyers. Even sinners like you and me.
So if the Lord can bring Sergius Paulus to the faith, and if he can bring St. Paul to faith, he can do so with anyone. Therefore, we are to not only pray for all, but we are to proclaim the Gospel to all.
And here we find encouragement in doing so. The Word of God does not return void. It goes forth and brings in the sheep of God. The sheep hear through the word, so let us proclaim the word here and in all places, with confidence that God will bring many to saving faith.