Field Notes: Paul in Antioch - Acts 13
Listen to our most recent Sunday message from “The Way,” a study of the church from Acts 9-20.
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.” (ESV)
Questions for Personal Study or Group Discussion
- What do you notice when reading this passage? What did you find interesting or challenging?
- Names play an important role in this story. For example, what is the significance of Saul’s name changing in this story? Or what about Saul giving the magician a new name?
- What does this story tell us about God? Does this story remind you of other stories we find in scripture?
- Why do you think that God uses Paul to blind the magician? What is his end-game?
Additional Study Notes and Observations
“You’re not bar-Jesus!” Name changes in Acts 13:4-12
- In this story we see two people’s names change: Saul and the magician. What is the significance of these changes?
- (1) The magician is initially introduced as “bar-Jesus,” which literally means “son of Jesus.” (He’s also referred to by another name, Elymas, in the story…which we’re told relates to his profession of sorcery).
- Saul makes a not so subtle pun of the magician’s name when he accuses him of being “a child of the devil.” He turns the table, changing “Bar-Jesus” to “Bar-Satan."
- This is a jarring accusation, but it serves a purpose. Saul wants the sorcerer, and all the others who are listening in, to know that children of Jesus do not behave as this “Bar-Jesus” is behaving. They do not stand in the way of the Gospel being preached.
- Note: Elymas may have had a vested interest in keeping the proconsul from the faith. As a sorcerer, Elymas may have used his “divining tricks” to curry favor with the influential official, and influence his decisions. After all, he was the proconsul’s “attendant” (13:7).
- At the end of the story we see how a true “Bar-Jesus” behaves when the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, is receptive to the Gospel rather than the tricks of the magician.
- (2) At the same time, Saul’s own name is changing in this story; in this story, we get the first (of many!) references to Saul as Paul. What should we make of this change.
- It’s not entirely clear why Saul’s name suddenly changes to Paul in the story, but we can make a few observations about it:
- A. It appears that Saul already possessed the name Paul (as one of his given names). He is simply choosing now to go by one of his other names (think: middle name), a name that he “was also called” before this moment in the story.
- B. The name Paul is a Greek name, whereas Saul is a Hebrew name. As Paul moves into this new phase as “apostle to the Gentiles” it makes sense that he would use his Greek name.
- C. The name switch is timely in the story because it coincides with Paul’s assumption of leadership in the narrative.
- Up until now, Paul has not yet emerged in his role as the premier spokesperson of the Gentile mission. From here on, though, he will take the lead (as evidenced by the shift to listening his name before Barnabas in subsequent stories).
- All this to say, the changing names in the story are just one of many indicators that hearts and lives and leadership roles are changing in the early days of this new mission effort.
God is Bigger than His “Challengers”
- The story here in Acts 13 reminds us that God is not afraid of the competing voices that challenge his power or authority. The sorcerer thinks he can bully his way to prominence and influence by his “art,” but God uses an ordinary man to humble the proud—and demonstrate his own strength.
- Can you think of other stories that illustrate this same point? — e.g., how God is bigger than (and unafraid of) his challengers.
- Some examples that come to mind include the Ten Plague stories in Exodus, and, Elijah’s showdown at Mount Carmel.
- The story may remind us that, in our day and time, God is bigger than the competing voices that we hear surrounding us, as well.
- [Optional: Read Isaiah 46. How are you encouraged or challenged by Isaiah’s words here, which compare God’s greatness to the “greatness” of idols?].
Blinded…So that He Might Truly See
- Paul’s response to Elymas in this story certainly seems harsh. After all, he calls him “a child of the devil” and he strikes him blind.
- Yet, as Elymas’ sight vanishes, and as he gropes for a hand to hold, we can’t help but think about a moment when, not too long ago, Paul himself was experiencing the exact same thing.
- Perhaps Paul has a more merciful purpose than it appears at first blush. Perhaps Paul is offering to Elymas (and to those who see these events unfold) the same opportunity which God has graciously given to him: a chance to truly see.
- In our own lives, we may face moments where we feel so disoriented by the things we have going on that we get angry with God for what he’s allowed to happen to us.
- But it’s worth thinking about how even our struggles can be freighted with compassion if they train our eyes to see God more clearly.
- We may also be challenged to consider how God’s judgment is often (perhaps always!) a mercy, even if it may be difficult to see it that way from our limited perspective.
- [Optional: Spend some time praying that God will train our eyes to truly see, even when we may feel blindsided by the struggles in our lives.]
Credits and Acknowledgements
The cover video loop can be accessed with a subscription to Sharefaith: http://www.sharefaith.com/video/world-map-worship-video.html
The commentary on the book of Acts by William H. Willimon was an indispensable resource to me (see esp. pp. 73-80), and is cited as follows:
Willimon, William H. Acts. Interpretation Commentary Series. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. Print.
Also, the distinction between “beneficiaries” and “bearers” is helpfully delineated in the preface (see esp. pp. xvi-xvii) to N.T. Wright’s expansive work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, cited as follows:
Wright, N.T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 4. Book 1. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. Print.