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Devotion by N.T. Wright
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. 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. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 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? 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. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord. – Acts 13:1-12
Many Christians in the Western world today simply can’t bear to think of confrontation. There really isn’t such a thing as “serious wickedness,” so they think, or if there is it’s confined to a small number of truly evil people, while everyone else just gets on and should be accepted and affirmed as they stand. Christian mission then consists of helping people to do a little bit better where they already are, rather than the radical transformation of life that, as we have seen, was happening all around the place in the early chapters of Acts. And so, when we come to this great turning-point in Luke’s story, the start of the extraordinary triple journey that would take Paul right across Turkey and Greece and back again, and then again once more, and finally off to Rome itself, we would much prefer the story to be one of gentle persuasion rather than confrontation. We would have liked it better if Paul had gone about telling people the simple message of Jesus and finding that many people were happy to accept it and live by it.
But life is seldom that straightforward, and people who try to pretend it is often end up simply pulling the wool over their own eyes. It’s a murky world out there, and though the choice of compromise is always available in every profession (not least in the church), there is in fact no real choice. What’s the point in trying to swim with one foot on the bottom of the pool? You’re either up for the real thing or you might as well pack it all in. And Saul and Barnabas were up for the real thing.
There is no advance for the gospel without opposition. Indeed, so clear is this truth that sometimes, paradoxically, it’s only when an apparent disaster threatens, or when the church is suddenly up against confrontation and has to pray its way through, that you can be quite sure you’re on the right track. On this occasion the gospel was invading territory which was under enemy occupation, and the enemy was determined to fight back. The enemy in question was the power of magic, which has already come up in Acts 8 and will recur in chapter 19. The confrontation comes to a head as the Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus, also known as Elymas, tries to persuade the governor not to listen to what the apostles are saying. But now it is the turn of Paul to do what Peter had done in chapter 8. Notice the ‘looking intently’ in verse 9, a feature we’ve observed before. And what Paul saw was ugly indeed, though not (alas) uncommon: a deep-rooted opposition to truth and goodness, a heart-level commitment to deceit and villainy and, as a result, an implacable opposition to the good news about Jesus. Paul reacts sharply, declaring God’s judgment on him in the form of temporary blindness (which he himself had suffered, of course, in chapter 9; did Paul hope that in Elymas’s case, as in his own, this would lead to repentance and to embracing the gospel?). The result is that the governor believed the gospel. Luke says that he was astonished at the ‘teaching of the Lord’; this clearly doesn’t just mean the theological content of what was being said, but the power which it conveyed.
One obvious lesson from all this is that when a new work of God is going ahead, you can expect opposition, difficulty, problems and confrontation. That is normal. How God will help you through (and how long he will take about it!) is another matter. That he will, if we continue in prayer, faith and trust, is a given.