Tonight we’re looking at these verses under the title Amazing Teaching which, of course, is not a comment on this sermon but on the apostolic teaching about the Lord in the power of the Spirit which convicted the proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus.
In Acts 13 in around AD 45 the gospel bursts into Europe, starting in Cyprus, and it eventually gets to Jesmond, it eventually gets to you. So this isn't just a bit of ancient history - no your world and my world will never be the same. Barnabas and Saul were sent to Cyprus by God as we’re told in v1-4 and so to my first heading by way of context.
1. Sent out by God v1-4
In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.
They were a very mixed bunch. The church at Antioch was a cosmopolitan church - rather like us. You see God doesn't just choose a certain type of person; so you can never say, “I'm not the right type whether to become a Christian or to be used by God.”
And then God speaks to his people (v2-3):
2While 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. 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
So God takes the initiative. He calls people individually. And the church at Antioch obeyed. They gave Saul and Barnabas, the best they had for God’s mission. Some very committed people went from JPC to Holy Trinity Gateshead almost 3 years ago now and that was right even though it was challenging for us. But that should and will keep on happening as God calls people from JPC and HTG to overseas mission and to home mission in further church plants. And of course those who remain at JPC are still called to mission – mission at and from JPC to this region. As at Antioch we must trust God that he will bring more people in as others are sent. And notice God calls people for his work:
“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
And the church placed their hands on them and sent them off – literally that means let them go. They're sending people out. And we too are to be willing to let people go, to give them away in mission. As someone has said: “It’s not your seating capacity that makes a great church but your sending capacity”.
Verse 4 reminds us again that the Holy Spirit is the one who ultimately sends his servants out.
“The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit…”
Is the Holy Spirit prompting and calling you? If so do talk to us.
2. Speaking the Word of God v4-5
4The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.
Interestingly Luke records that John Mark was with Barnabas and Saul as their helper. He doesn’t specify what that meant. But perhaps he was there as some kind of trainee – willing to help practically and in other ways which is so important but also learning ‘on the job’. Rather like the Parish Assistants here or as a short term volunteer with an overseas mission. Those can be important ways of testing out the possibility of ministry for the future, testing out a possible calling as well as learning and serving. I benefited enormously from being a Parish Assistant here in the days when there was only one on the staff team. I also learnt a huge amount from being an intern with the Josh McDowell Ministry in the USA along with two others. Yes we had to drive thousands of miles, set up PA equipment etc and at the end of the time we didn’t want to see another truck, highway or piece of PA equipment ever again but it opened our eyes to the joys and struggles of ministry, to what a great God we serve and the fact that nothing is impossible for him. It maybe that you want to consider similar opportunities – again do talk to us.
Anyway Barnabas and Saul (who, v9, was also called Paul) after arriving at the north eastern city of Salamis began proclaiming the word of God, preaching first in the Jewish synagogues – in line with the principle of going to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles.
The mission of God is a sensible mission. For example, Barnabas came from Cyprus, so he knew people, he had connections, he could speak the language and knew the culture. Also, there were Jews there who had the background. There were Jewish Christians there too; following the persecution, some of them had gone to Cyprus. So it made sense. Who does it make sense for us to reach out to with the Word of God? People with the same interests, work etc. That’s not to say he can’t use us to reach out to very different people – he can and he does and sometimes they’re more open to the gospel – but let’s not miss the obvious and the opportunities that God provides to talk to our colleagues, friends and neighbours, to share God’s Word with them or to invite them to hear someone else preach God’s Word.
So when they got to Cyprus what did they hit the beach and sunbathe? No.
When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues.
They started in the synagogues. And that set the pattern for Paul's ministry throughout Acts. He usually gets thrown out of the synagogue pretty quickly and then he goes to the Gentiles.
And they proclaimed the word of God. One thing they had that we can learn from is this – they had confidence in the word of God to do the work of God. So they spoke the Word of God. And they did so (v6) as they travelled through the whole island – the original wording indicates a preaching tour rather than just a walking tour - until they came to Paphos, the provincial capital on the opposite side of Cyprus, a distance of 115 miles. Our recent Parish Visiting was a doddle in comparison! Now Paphos was the seat of the Roman government and therefore of the proconsul, who ran the island for the Romans. Once again they’d reached a strategic place in which to preach the gospel, reach out to the leaders and the rest of the population. The strategy was thought through, prayed through and guided by the Spirit. We too need to think strategically with regard to getting the gospel out. Do we pray for that? Do we ask God to guide us by his Spirit? To reach leaders such as the Prime Minister and the local council leader with the gospel who, like the proconsul, could make such an impact for Christ in this country and this city. Thirdly
3. Standing up for God v6-11
6They travelled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God.”
I used to believe the lie that to become a Christian all you had to do was believe the things you knew weren't true, and leave your brains behind. I used to think Christians had two brains – one was out there and the other was out there looking for it. Not true. We need to use the mind God has given us to work things out under the direction of his Spirit – nothing wrong with thinking it through because when you've really thought it through you're stronger and firmer. Peter Hitchens, the journalist, has just written a new book, ‘The Rage Against God’ which tells of his intellectual and spiritual journey from atheism to faith in Christ. Peter’s brother Christopher Hitchens and others such as Richard Dawkins have been trying to create a climate which says it’s utter nonsense to have faith in Christ so how can intelligent people have such a faith?
Well it is amazing what some people believe isn’t it? For example, the probability of life evolving through random events is basically equal to zero. The probability of a single protein evolving randomly is < 1 x 10-600 (that’s less than 0.599noughts1). The probability of a single cell evolving randomly is < 1 x 10-29,345. One British research scientist said, ‘I think, however, that we must go further than this and admit that the only acceptable explanation is creation. I know that this is anathema to physicists, as indeed it is to me, but we must not reject a theory that we do not like if the experimental evidence supports it.' But people don’t like creation because it means they're accountable to a personal God. It means they ought not to live in his world as they please. It means they ought to come back into relationship with the God they've so far ignored. But it's not just scientists and intellectuals, is it? Since the events of Genesis 3 - the fall - that's all of us by nature. Yes God’s Word is true.
Sergius Paulus was an intelligent man, we’re told in v7, in spite of being clearly fascinated by superstitious and occult practices judging by his choice of attendant. And he sent for Barnabus and Saul because he wanted to hear the Word of God. In his intellectual and spiritual hunger he wanted to hear the Word of God. It seems that he’d heard of their preaching, he’d begun to think it through and God had put it into his mind to hear the gospel. So it's God's initiative but he hadn’t had to leave his brains behind. The missionaries responded and no doubt Paul the Christian apostle shared with Paul the Roman proconsul the good news of Jesus Christ. But... verse 8. Elymas Bar-Jesus and the evil one did not like this one little bit.
But Elymas [Bar-Jesus] the sorcerer (for that is what his name Elymas means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith.
The sad reality is that as people get nearer to hearing the word of God, other people won't like it. You may have experienced that yourself. Why? Well there is a spiritual battle going on. Also they'll be rather like Elymas. Elymas wanted and thought he had some sort of position and power with Sergius Paulus, and so the gospel was a threat to him, to his position and to his livelihood. But Elymas not only opposed the message and the messengers he also tried to hinder the work of the gospel. He tried to turn the proconsul from the faith.
How does Paul react to this threat? With very straight talking in the power of the Spirit. V9-10:
9Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit looked straight at Elymas and said, 10You are a child of the devil [see the irony? - his name meant 'son of Jesus or son of salvation' – but he wasn't, he was a son of the devil] and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?
Sometimes drastic occasions require drastic measures. Now I wouldn't recommend this as your regular evangelistic method, although sometimes strong words can actually help and as we learn from v9 these words were actually inspired by the Holy Spirit. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit looked straight at Elyas and said… Sometimes, we have to speak straight to people. Certainly, this was one of those times. And sometimes we need straight talking today with those who oppose God’s Word and who lead people astray, with those who are false prophets and false teachers in the church.
One such is Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA who was preaching and presiding this morning at Southwark Cathedral in London and therefore also all those who invited her. She has taught openly denying the uniqueness of Christ, opposed those who faithfully teach the Bible and approves of homosexual and lesbian bishops and same sex blessings. She too tries to turn people from the true faith, keeps others from faith in Christ and is a false teacher who perverts the right ways of the Lord, as Paul puts it in v10. Jesus warns in Matthew 18:6:
…if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
This is a very serious warning to those who try to lead people astray both then and today. Paulus was interested in the gospel of Christ and he wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas was trying to take him away. He belied his name, he was a child of the devil not of salvation, an enemy of goodness and truth, an utter impostor and charlatan. He made crooked the straight paths of the Lord and was guilty of causing perversion instead of conversion. So Paul says (v11):
“Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun. Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand.”
His eyes were closed in God's judgment on him. And this judgment was so fitting for someone who wanted to keep the proconsul in the dark. The salvation of Sergius Paulus was so valuable that this hindrance had to be rooted out. And we too may at times need to speak and act strongly against those who try and keep others from the truth. Fourthly and finally
4. Seeing the power of God and being amazed at the teaching v 12
And look at the effect on Sergius Paulus (v12):
“When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed for he was amazed [or shaken to the core] at the teaching about the Lord.”
Yes both the apostles’ teaching and the sorcerer’s defeat made an impact on
the proconsul. The Holy Spirit overthrew Satan, the apostle confounded the sorcerer and the gospel triumphed over the occult.
And God often uses the actions of Christians empowered by the Spirit – such as deeds of kindness and blameless lives – to incline the hearts of people favourably towards the gospel. Though ultimately people put their trust in Christ based on hearing God’s Word for, as Romans tells us, faith comes by hearing, deeds can often act as a trigger to open them to considering those words. But let’s be clear ultimately he believed (v12) for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord. He’d heard God’s Word proclaimed and it was impacting him. God’s Word is living and active.
The greatest miracle Sergius Paulus experienced wasn't Elymas losing his sight in God's judgment. The greatest miracle that happened that day is that God, by his word, through his believing people, opened the eyes of someone who'd sat in darkness – namely his. That is the miracle that God does – not always so dramatically, but he’s doing it all the time, all round the world. He is a missionary God. This gospel is unstoppable. In this church and around the world people are turning from darkness to light. You could be one of those today if you turn to and put your trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who took the punishment for your sin and mine on the cross and who rose from the dead, conquering sin, death and the devil and bringing forgiveness of sins and new life to those who believe. And when this gospel is proclaimed, there are always two reactions: acceptance, and sadly, those who won't have it. So if you’ve not already done so will you put your trust in Christ as your Saviour and Lord or will you walk away preferring the darkness to the light? And if you have already done so are you willing to be used by God, to do his work, for his glory?