Last time we began with Acts 13 and saw there in its introduction (vv. 1-3), a multicultural Church led by a multicultural leadership sending a multicultural team to evangelize a multi- cultural world.
Acts 13 introduces us to the first missionary journey which ends in Acts 14:28, when Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch in Syria. It is the missionary effort of the early church that literally results in an explosion of churches planted in the then known world.
This reminds us of the life and times of John Calvin and his pastoral ministry in Geneva, Switzerland, in the middle of the 1500’s. The young Protestant movement was always at risk of being threatened and persecuted by the Roman Catholic church, and those kings and countries which supported that church. In Switzerland, John Calvin, who was actually a Frenchman, was safe, but he had a great interest and passion for the progress of the gospel in his fatherland. The Protestant Reformation spread rapidly through Europe and France. Much of we know of that time is found in the archives of Geneva. There are hundreds of letters to and from Calvin and also from others to the underground church in France and whilst in 1555 there were only five underground churches in France yet only four years later in 1559, there are reportedly over 100 underground churches in France. Seven years later, in 1562, there is mention being made of over 2,150 underground churches in France!
This is typical of the history of the great revivals. Truly, the Holy Spirit can do more in 5 minutes than we can do in 50 years!
And so we see Paul and Barnabas sent out from Antioch in Syria, with prayer and fasting, (v.3) and even more significantly, we see them “being sent out by the Holy Spirit” (v.4). Can they go wrong, being led by the Holy Spirit? What we shall learn is that they cannot go wrong. God’s purpose for the salvation of all His elect people in the world will not ultimately be resisted. They will go in the power and assurance of God, and they will accomplish the purpose for which they have been sent out, but we shall also learn that this does not mean that there will be no trouble and no resistance on the way. God’s archenemy, that fallen angel called Satan will do whatever he can to hinder the progress of the gospel. In fact, we shall see it now here, in this text, as Paul, Barnabas and John Mark engage upon the first leg on this journey – on the island of Cyprus.
As we move forward with this story we have then seen that there are four important ingredients in getting this mission on the map : fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit’s calling, the laying on of hands by the church of the missionaries and the Holy Spirit sending them and filling them for the purpose.
We cannot overstate the historical importance of this moment in Antioch with reference to the history of the world. From now on the whole world will be evangelized.
Before this call from the Holy Spirit there was no organized missionary activity to Asia Minor, Greece, or the Roman empire or Spain.
Before this Paul had not written any of his letters which were all the result of his missionary journeys. In fact, 13 out of the 29 books of the New Testament were the result of the three missionary journeys described in the book of Acts.
So, the church at Antioch was called by the Holy Spirit to the breaking of new ground. The church needed wisdom and insight from God regarding this new venture , and fasting with prayer was employed for this purpose.
What is the purpose of fasting? While much can be said, and whilst reference can be made on a key text in Isaiah 58 on the nature of true fasting and false fasting, we want to confine our comments to this :
In essence fasting with prayer is saying to God, “We want your blessing and counsel in this matter more than this food. Please hear our prayers. We will not give up until we have an answer from you.” Fasting has to do with desperation for God’s will to be done. There are many ways to fast. Some may be partial, like Daniels’ fast when he only chose to eat vegetables. Other fasts are complete fasts, like Moses’ fast and Jesus’ 40 day fast. In this case the whole congregation fasted (not sure exactly how) for the purpose of this missionary outreach.
At any rate, this prompting of the Holy Spirit together with the prayer and fasting of the church put Christianity on a map, making it very soon the dominant faith of the Roman empire and of Europe, and of North Africa and territories in Asia. Today the Christian faith is found in virtually every country of the world. For instance, in 1900, there were approximately 10 million Christians in Africa. By 2000, there were 360 million. By 2025, conservative estimates see that number rising to 633 million. Those same estimates put the number of Christians in Latin America in 2025 at 640 million and in Asia at 460 million. World missions was born in a worship meeting , accompanied by prayer and fasting, and it changed the course of world history.
The first missionary journey is primarily focused on three places:
(i) Cyprus (13:4-12)
(ii) Antioch in Pisidia (13:13- 52] in south Galatia
(iii) Iconium and Lystra (14:1-23)
We begin in Cyprus.
Why Cyprus? Well, Barnabas was from there [4:36], and Cyprus would be the first major island and country and convenient stop over on the way to the Roman empire and away from the mainland where the Christian faith had found its beginnings.
And so, from Seleucia, about 20 kilometres from Antioch in Syria they sail to Salamis in Cyprus. There they preached the gospel in the synagogue of the Jews (13:5). In passing it is mentioned that John Mark assisted (Gr. hyperetes) them. They made their way (presumably preaching) through the island from east to west to Paphos (about 120 kilometers). It is here, Luke reports, that the first opposition appears.
The opposition is in the form of a man called Bar-Jesus, (lit. ‘son of Jesus’ or ‘son of salvation’), or as Luke calls alternatively him, “Elymas”, meaning sorcerer or magician (v.8) Do not let his name, Bar Jesus, fool you. He is no saviour at all. He is in fact an anti- Christ. He is anti- gospel. In fact, he's the very opposite of what the Lord Jesus and His gospel stands for.
We find him in the company of an influential politician, the Roman pro- consul Sergius Paulus, who is said to be a man of intelligence. Sergius summoned Paul and his colleagues to hear the Word of God, and this Jewish false prophet Bar Jesus, alias Elymas the sorcerer knew that from his twisted perspective (and from Paul’s perspective, ‘a son of the devil’ ) trouble was looming, and therefore he sought to actively turn Sergius away from the faith. The devils in Jesus’ day always knew that the truth which He spoke would undo the lies and darkness which they represented [ e.g. Mark 1:21-28;29-34;3:11 ; 5:1-20 etc.]
And so we read that Saul, who now becomes Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit (v.9 cf. v.4) challenges this Elymas, and he calls him what he is, “ you son of the devil, you enemy of righteousness, full of deceit and villainy”… “ will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord ?” … this is a reference to Isaiah 40:3, about making a straight path for the good news which the anticipated Messiah would bring. This prophecy is associated with the coming of John the Baptist. John came to prepare the straight paths for Jesus, whose forerunner he had become. Here also are Paul and his team making a straight path for Sergius to hear about the straight and narrow way in Christ, and this false prophet tries to turn Sergius Paulus away from that straight path to follow his crooked path.
So, here is the gospel and there is the opposition. Here is the power of God, the Holy Spirit working through Paul and his team, and there is the magic power of the devil through Elymas. Who will win?
The answer is easy. God wins, because God wanted Sergius Paulus to believe and be saved! God wins because He is the sovereign of the Universe, and not the devil. God wins because He has all the nations in His purpose. This man from Cyprus among many others from Cyprus , must be a part of the nations that will worship at the footstool of the throne of their Creator! [Rev.5:9; 7:9] . Elymas like every devil and son of the devil must bow the knee to Jesus, as in this case the Sovereign Lord strikes him with a judicial blindness… “immediately mist and darkness fell upon him…” and he was helpless .
Sergius Paulus, the Roman pro- consul in Cyprus, who by the preaching of the gospel was sought out by God, not only sees this which is happening to Elymas, BUT he is also astonished at the teaching of the Lord (v. 12), AND HE BELIEVED! He embraced the truth as it is in Jesus. What a wonderful blessing and encouragement that must have been to Barnabas and Saul at the beginning of the first missionary journey.
Make no mistake! They are going to need this encouragement and reminder of the wonderful sovereignty of God and of the Holy Spirit who has sent them, who goes before them and who continues to lead them on this journey. There will be some severe trials along the way to come. They need to have a strong assurance and reminder that God is with them…
1. The importance of having a calling for a fruitful missionary work. This needs to be rooted in the inward call of the Holy Spirit, and it ought to be accompanied by the united praying and fasting of the church, which also recognizes such a call by the laying on of hands.
2. The importance of the church praying for and supporting such a work. May I remind you the church members that at the most basic and fundamental level, you need to be involved in the ministry of prayer, as we consider the missionary expansion of God in this world and in our generation. Paul in his epistles always asked for the church’s help in prayer . Surely we cannot do less. From a human perspective then I would fear to send anyone into the mission field without the help of a praying church.
3. Remember that we cannot keep the best and most gifted people for ourselves. The tendency is always there to keep those gifted people like Saul and Barnabas for ourselves. I don't want Barnabas and Saul to leave my church! But the worshiping church at Antioch said, ‘We will and must send the best we have into the mission field for the glory of God and for the sake of His ever expanding kingdom.’
4. Remember that though the Gospel of God will always triumph, it will also always be resisted by Satan, as long as this age will last .