“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 13:4-12 ESV)
What’s the most important thing happening in your life, right now? Getting married, or having a baby? Big events. Huge events, no doubt. Are you facing surgery or have you just received word of a major medical diagnosis? Life changing, right? Maybe one of you is seeking employment or was just hired or, perhaps, fired from your job. Difficult? You bet! Sometimes, life just seems to get in the way of real happiness, doesn’t it? Sometimes we plan for years for special events but life has a way of changing those plans, getting in the way, making us change direction, forcing us to take a different route or even abandon those plans, altogether. The question isn’t whether life will throw you a curve ball, but when? Today, I want to spend a few minutes considering what happens when we get in the way of God’s plans.
Barnabas and Saul have been chosen by the Holy Spirit to begin the expansion work that God had planned. The church at Antioch (in Syria) was led by the Holy Spirit to set them aside and now the pair have been “sent out.” They go from Antioch down to Seleucia, the coastal port town for Antioch. Then they sailed from there to Salamis on the island of Cyprus. If you’ll remember, Barnabas is from Cyprus and this is going home for him. John Mark has joined them and they immediately begin engaging the Cyprian Jews in the local synagogues with the gospel message regarding Jesus. Obviously, word began to spread across the island about Barnabas and Saul and the message they were preaching. The governor, Sergius Paulus, hears about them and their message and sends for them.
It is at this point that Barnabas and Saul encounter the magician and Jewish false prophet, Bar-Jesus or Elymas. He appears to have been an advisor to the Cyprian governor, Sergius Paulus. I find it interesting that Luke notes that the governor was a man of intelligence who had a magician as an advisor. Elymas had obviously “pulled the wool” over the governor’s eyes and convinced the governor of his power, but the truth of the gospel begins to break down Elymas’s sway over the governor. Sergius Paulus sends for Barnabas and Saul desiring to hear the Word of God, but Elymas opposes them and tries to persuade the governor away from faith in Christ and that’s really the heart of this story.
God had sent Barnabas and Saul to Cyprus for the express mission of sharing the gospel and bringing people to faith in Christ and the governor, Sergius Paulus, was one of those who was being drawn to Christ by the Holy Spirit. While Luke doesn’t tell us how Elymas was trying dissuade the governor, we are told that was his aim. It appears that Elymas is willing to do whatever’s necessary to dissuade the governor from following Christ. While Barnabas is known for his encouraging words, we don’t often see him dealing with conflict which may be why the focus in this story shifts. Up to this point, Barnabas has been the leader of this team but, with this event, the leadership role shifts to Saul, who is now being called by the Roman/Greek version of his name, Paul.
Paul is not averse to conflict and he deals with Elymas, head on. I would also point out that Paul’s response to Elymas is attributed to Paul’s being “filled with the Holy Spirit” as he says, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness…” We don’t often attribute that kind of response to God. In our modern culture, most people only relate to the love of God and often ignore or even deny the other attributes of God. Yet, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to speak very direct and condemning words. But why? Why would God be so harsh and condemning towards Elymas? Because Elymas was trying to keep Sergius Paulus from the truth of God’s Word, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is an essential truth that our culture desperately needs to grasp, God severely condemns any words or actions when they stand in opposition to His will and, especially, when they are hindering someone from perceiving and following the truth of the gospel. Now, some will likely view this as an unloving, hurtful and personally condemning idea and, therefore, not reflective of the loving God they read about in the New Testament.
However, that is simply a misreading of the New Testament as it would be more unloving if God were to ignore Elymas’s error and permit him to stand in the way of the governor hearing and discovering the truth of God’s Word. Which really brings me to my point… God will severely condemn OUR words and actions if they stand in opposition to His will and are hindering someone from hearing, understanding and following the truth of the gospel. This is true both personally and corporately (as part of a church or para-church organization).
Now, some of you might console yourself with thoughts that you would NEVER hinder someone from hearing, understanding or following the truth of the gospel. However, if your beliefs are inconsistent with biblical truth then you are no different than Elymas and may be leading someone astray or, at the very least, hindering their understanding and acceptance of the truth of the gospel. We often convince ourselves that sincerity is a valid substitute for accuracy. As long as we believe sincerely, then what we actually believe is somehow less important. That is simply foolish. You can be very sincere, but sincerely wrong. Would you place your life in a very sincere but poorly informed and trained brain surgeon? I doubt it…
Paul accuses Elymas of making God’s straight paths crooked. The idea of a straight path to God comes from the prophet Isaiah: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5 ESV)
While this prophecy is often tied to the work of John the Baptist, it really has more to do with removing any obstacle that stands between the people and the LORD. God was removing any and all obstacles that might stand between the people and Himself – crooked paths made straight, rough places made smooth, uneven ground made level. So, Paul is saying that Elymas was the primary obstacle standing between Sergius Paulus and God and God was going to smooth out that bump in the road.
How would God smooth out that bump standing in the Governor’s path? Do you think God has a sense of humor? I do… with a stroke of ironic genius, God directs Paul to declare that Elymas would become as physically blind as he had been spiritually blind but, fortunately for Elymas, only for a time. So, let me close with a question and an illustration… Are you assisting in making the path to God straight and smooth, or are you making it bumpy and crooked? Are you standing in the way, getting out of the way, or being part of the way?
I just read a short Facebook post by an elementary teacher that really illustrates this. She was having a tough day and noticed one of her students who wasn’t paying attention and wasn’t getting his work completed. She started to scold him, but instead she recognized something was wrong and she stopped and asked him to write down three things on his paper that had happened over the weekend that was causing him to be unable to stay focused on his school work. This is what he wrote: 1) my mom was locked up; 2) my dad was locked up; 3) my grandma don’t want me. She was startled by his revelation, but wrote back: 1) I love you; 2) I’m grateful and lucky to be your teacher; 3) You are amazing, smart and a great dude.
Let that sink in for just a minute. How often do become bumps on people’s paths to God? How often do our actions detour people away from God, making His straight path a crooked one? Instead of being a bump on someone’s road to God, try making it a little more smooth. Instead of causing someone to detour away from God, get out of God’s way and keep that path straight to Him. Don’t be a speed bump or detour on their path to God…