On Acts 13:1-12

Acts 13:1-12
Peter, with the exception of his part in the council held in Jerusalem (chap. 15), disappears from the inspired history before us. Another figure comes not merely into prominence, but into centrality even from this, the first chapter of what may be justly regarded as the second volume of the book of Acts. Not from Jerusalem but from Antioch, already so remarkable for Christian zeal impressing itself strikingly on those without, as well as for the first corporate stand made or mentioned among the Gentiles, we hear of a mission by the Holy Ghost.
“Now there were at Antioch in the assembly that was [there]1 prophets and teachers: Barnabas and Simeon that was called Niger and Lucius the Cyrenean, and Manaen foster-brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And as they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me 2Barnabas and 3Saul for the work to which I have called them. Then when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they let them go. They then, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down unto Selencia and thence sailed away unto Cyprus, and, when they were at Salamis, they announced the word in the synagogues of the Jews; and they had also John as attendant. And having gone through the whole4 island unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a Jewish false prophet, whose name [was] Bar-Jesus, who was with the pro-consul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. He, having called to [him] Barnabas and Saul, desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name interpreted) opposed them, seeking to turn away the pro-consul from the faith. But Saul who also [is] Paul, filled with [the] Holy Spirit5, with fixed look at him said, O full of all guile and trickery, devil's son, enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease perverting the Lord's right ways? And now behold [the] Lord's hand [is] upon thee; and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell upon him a mist and darkness, and he went about seeking persons to lead him by hand. Then the pro-consul seeing what was done believed, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (ver. 1-12).
None can deny a plurality of gifted men, five of high rank in full service of Christ, and this expressly in “the church that was at Antioch.” “Churches” in the same place, each with its own minister, we see here as everywhere ignored. It is not meant that the faithful may not have met to break bread regularly in many houses here or there, as we know they did in Jerusalem; but none the less did they in that city as in every other constitute “the assembly” there. Unity prevailed, which only the Holy Spirit could form or maintain; not unity invisible or for heaven merely, and admitting of actual diversity or even antagonism, but rather living and manifest unity on earth: which as yet the gifts, and the elders where they existed, subserved, instead of being the instruments of expressing their independency.
It is also to be observed that these five prophets and teachers are named neither in worldly style nor in ecclesiastical rank: otherwise Barnabas had not been first, still less had Saul been last. They seem rather arranged in the order of spiritual birth—at any rate so far as they were known to the saints in Antioch. He who was Herod the tetrarch's foster-brother is neither first nor last. But the gracious power of the Lord according to His word in Matt. 20:1616So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Matthew 20:16) was soon to make him first in the testimony of His truth who here occupies the last place.
“Whilst they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me now Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” The ministering to the Lord here must not be confounded with His service in preaching or teaching; it was no doubt mainly prayer and intercession. That the Lord's supper was concerned is a crude and unfounded idea; for this supposes the fellowship of saints in the remembrance of Christ, and in its principle contemplates all saints; whereas the “ministering” here was simply on the part of the fellow-laborers, it may be presumed, that the Lord might be pleased to direct and bless the work, and that each of them might be a vessel unto honor, sanctified and meet for the Master's use, prepared unto every good work. This is confirmed by the fasting which accompanied their spiritual action toward the Lord, expressive as it is rather of the outward nature abased that the inner might be the more undividedly before Him, rather than of the chief public occasion of the church's thanksgiving and united praise.
It is probable that the Holy Spirit may have used one or more of the prophets to convey the mind of God as to the work to which He had summoned Barnabas and Saul. So it appears to have been in Timothy's case (1 Tim. 1:18; 4:118This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; (1 Timothy 1:18)
1Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; (1 Timothy 4:1)
.4), though we see direct action in that of Philip (Acts 8:2929Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. (Acts 8:29)). Here, whatever the channel, the word was not to the church, as Alford assumes, but to the fellow-laborers as a whole to separate those two for the special work before them. The language is very expressive of the Spirit's personal interest and authority as One here below immediately concerned in the highest and most intimate degree. It is the Spirit who says, “I have called them.” Neither Barnabas nor Saul was now called for the first time authoritatively to the service of Christ; for, even the younger of the two had labored notoriously and efficiently for years, both in the gospel and in the church. Ordination by brethren of a rank inferior to themselves would be the result gained by men who are precipitately anxious to extract that rite from the passage. If there was any such thing in the case, the proceedings would be irreconcilable with all its acknowledged principles, and for episcopacy in particular. But the “separation” here described is of a wholly distinct nature and with a different purpose, as the intelligent reader cannot but see if unbiased. Certain it is that Gal. 1:11Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;) (Galatians 1:1) repudiates, with marked precision, what many ancients and moderns have erroneously founded on the interesting and instructive circumstance before us. Paul declares that he was apostle (not of men as source, nor of man as channel, but) by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead. It would have admirably suited his Judaizing detractors to have argued that he owed his ministerial title to the three teachers at Antioch who laid their hands on him and Barnabas; but bold as his old adversaries were at Corinth or in Galatia or elsewhere, we are not told that they dared to go so far in their insinuations. Clearly his own statement precludes summarily and forever all effort thus to lower his apostleship or, what comes to much the same result, to exalt ordination at the expense of the apostle Paul in this place or any other.
The third verse confirms the remarks made on the early words of ver. 2, for here we have again fasting with prayer. But though an initiatory ceremony assuming to convey holy orders is not here intended, yet do we see a holy and solemn tone sustained in striking contrast with that which prevails in some modern forms mistakenly built on it. The “charge” and the “dinner” suit well those for whom fasting and prayer offer no attractions. “Ember days” may be formal enough, but at least resemble more and are morally better. The Lord was the one object then, and the Holy Spirit wrought in power, and a service of self-abnegation to God's glory was the blessed fruit. The outward acts flowed from the life within. So with the laying on of hands. It was a general sign of identification, or of blessing given. In the case before us their fellow-laborers solemnly commended the honored pair to the grace of God with this seal of their own fellowship in the work. “They sent them forth” is here objectionable, because it might be, as it has been, interpreted to mean the mission to which they had authorized Barnabas and Saul. But the word chosen excludes such a thought and simply means “let them go” without a shadow of commission in it. The idea of mission is conveyed forcibly in the beginning of ver. 5: “They then, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down unto Seleucia and then sailed away unto Cyprus, and, when they were at Salamis they announced the word in the synagogues of the Jews; and they had also John as attendant. And having gone through the whole island unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a Jewish false prophet, whose name [was] Bar-Jesus, who was with the pro-consul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man” (ver. 4-7).
Thus we see Saul, not only called by the glorified Christ from heaven, but now sent out with his elder companion by the Spirit from the city remarkable for the first directly named assembly among the nations. Here took place the apostle's “separation” (comp. Rom. 1:11Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (Romans 1:1)) unto gospel work, though not his only. All was outside Jerusalem and the twelve. His call was heavenly, his mission toward the Gentiles and from the bosom of the first Gentile assembly, but the energy and direction was of the Holy Spirit, though his fellow-servants testified their communion with the two in their work. John Mark waited on them in person, and no doubt helped on the work in his measure. To call him chaplain or deacon would be ridiculous, if such perversion could admit of such a feeling. It is humbling that godly men should descend so low. Let modern practice rest on its true basis: Scripture is no warrant for it.
We may notice the practice of the apostle which answered to the principle so familiar in his inspired words, “to the Few first, and also to the Greek.” When at Salamis they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. It was indeed the only place of a religious sort, where any such liberty existed. And such also was God's order till Jerusalem was destroyed or at least the Epistle to the Hebrews was written, when the “no difference” which the gospel declares found a yet more manifest and final application. But till then the door was open, and those who possessed a Jewish title were free to read or expound the scriptures.
But it was at its capital Nea Paphos (not exactly the spot so celebrated as the dissolute seat of Aphrodite's worship), that the gospel came into collision, not with Jewish prejudice only, but with this intensified and embittered by religions imposture and sorcery. “And when they had gone through the whole island unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer (or, magician), a Jewish false prophet, whose name [was] Bar-Jesus; who was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. He having called to [him] Barnabas and Saul sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is interpreted his name) withstood them, seeking to turn aside the pro-consul from the faith.” Salamis being on the east, as Paphos on the west, they had to cross the island as a whole; as the best copies say, though this is omitted in the common text. The interest of the Roman governor aroused the jealous opposition of the corrupt Jew who had had influence over a mind shocked with demoralizing idolatry but open to displays of power not without some show of revelation. What could be more overwhelming to the Jewish impostor's influence than the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ? But the proconsul6 (not “deputy” or legate, as in the Authorized Version) had a conscience in exercise and by grace an ear for the truth, which soon turned toward that which was of God, when the testimony reached his soul. Bar-Jesus (=son of Jesus, or Joshua) called himself “Elymas,” the wise man, or magician, which was a title apparently akin to the Turkish “Ulemah.” This wickedness drew out the solemn rebuke of Saul (henceforward called Paul)7, accompanied by a sentence from God which the Holy Ghost gave him not only to utter but to execute. The rareness of such judicial inflictions under the gospel makes their occurrence all the more impressive.
The apostle then, “filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his eyes on him, and said, O full of all guile and all trickery (villainy or craft), devil's son, enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease perverting the Lord's right ways? And now, behold, [the] Lord's hand [is] upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell upon him a mist and darkness; and he went about seeking leaders-by-hand” (ver. 9-11).
Sergius Paulus was precisely in the state for such an intervention to affect him profoundly. And we too can mark the difference of God's dealing here, as compared with the Samaritan who offered a deeper affront if possible by the proposal to buy the power of conferring the Spirit on others. For he had been baptized, and is warned of his awful state, but exhorted to pray and repent. Bar-Jesus becomes the striking figure of the Jews, blinded themselves in their effort to turn aside the blind Gentiles from the light of life. Yet is it not forever, but “for a season;” as God will give them in due time to look on Him whom they once rejected unto death to their own loss and ruin meanwhile.
“Then the pro-consul when he saw what was done believed, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (ver. 12).
This is worthy of all consideration. It was not the wonder which struck him most, but the truth he was taught. The miracle arrested him, no doubt, as well it might; but how many like Simon Magus may have been amazed, beholding signs and great powers wrought! Faith grounded on such evidence is only natural, and has no divine root. The senses are struck, the reason is convinced, the mind receives the testimony, and the mouth confesses it. But there is no life, apart from conscience exercised about one's own evil before God, and Christ the object of the soul as the gift of God's love to a guilty sinner in pure grace. This was true of Sergius, not of Simon. The one was amazed at the miracle, the other at least as much or more at the teaching which brought God before his soul and himself into His presence. This only is effectual. It is eternal life.
And this is just the difference between a true divine work and a mind convinced by evidence or carried along by tradition. The latter may be all well in itself, and a reasonable homage to facts, which cannot be got rid of fairly but compel honest acknowledgment from all who bow to adequate proofs. Yet this may be and is where the soul has never met God in the conscience, where sin and even our own sins are not an unbearable burden, where the love is not trusted that gave His only-begotten Son and laid the burden on Him to suffer atoningly that the believer might have life, pardon, and peace. No displays of power, however wonderful, are so amazing in the eyes of faith as the grace of God in saving the lost through His own Son. This the governor was enabled to receive from God; and not a word more do we hear of the great man. The gospel gives to the greatest on earth; it receives no glory from man. One Man only it beholds exalted in the highest. In Him we may and ought to boast, for He is the Lord; and His grace in saving us, yea making us one with Himself on high, to God's glory, is the wonder of wonders.