Where there is consistent obedience to the Lord and proclaiming His gospel, there is always opposition. And behind all opposition to the gospel is Satan. We need the wisdom of God’s Word to recognize his attacks and the boldness of God’s Spirit to respond properly.
In our Wisdom Journey through the book of Acts, we have discovered once again the truth that there is no such thing as an opportunity without opposition. A lot of churches today are folding rather than flourishing, and much of it has to do with a lack of vision and the presence of opposition.
Acts chapter 11 tells us that Barnabas and Saul went to Jerusalem with a gift for the needy believers there. Chapter 12 concludes by informing us that they returned to Antioch.
Now in chapter 13 we learn that the church in Antioch has developed a wonderful leadership team of five men. We are introduced to them here in verse 1:
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.
Two offices are functioning in the Antioch church. First is the office of prophet. Prophets are going to remain in the early church until it finishes its formation stage, when the New Testament revelation from God is completed in writing. Second, there is the office of teacher. The teacher’s role is to explain and apply the revealed word of God.
Five different men are listed here as leaders in this local church. Barnabas is named first; he is a Jewish believer, and we have already noted his ministry.
Saul of Tarsus is listed last. Later in this chapter, he is going to be called Paul for the first time. Saul was his Jewish name; Paul was his Roman name. As his ministry turns more and more to reaching the Gentiles, he is going to be known by his Roman name, Paul.
Also listed here is Simeon, “who was called Niger.” “Niger” is the Latin word meaning, “black,” indicating a black man. Many Bible scholars identify him as the one called “Simon of Cyrene,” who carried the cross beam of Christ to Golgotha (Mark 15:21). Cyrene was in North Africa.
Next on the list is Lucius. He is also from Cyrene.
Finally, there is Manaen. Verse 1 gives us the interesting comment that he was “a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch.” This is Herod Antipas, the ruler guilty of beheading John the Baptist and the one before whom Jesus stood while on trial.
The Greek term used to describe Manaen’s relationship to Herod is suntrophos. It indicates someone who was raised alongside another. We could translate it “foster brother.” We are not given the details, but there is quite a testimony here in Manaen’s life. Imagine, two brothers, as it were, both raised together in the same palace in the same royal family; but by the grace of God, Herod’s foster brother becomes a minister, while Herod becomes a murderer.
So here is the unique leadership of this church! They represent different ethnicities and backgrounds. They are Jews and Gentiles, rich and middle-class, but they are now working in unity together—not because they are like each other, but because they belong to each other in the family of God.
Verse 2 tells us they are “worshiping the Lord and fasting.” Fasting here implies that they are looking for guidance from the Lord. It is possible they are sensing a responsibility for missions, beyond Antioch.
The Holy Spirit gives them clear guidance. He says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (verse 2). And the church responds: “They laid their hands on them and sent them off” (verse 3).
And notice this: They are essentially sending Paul and Barnabas to the mission field, which means they are sending nearly half of their pastoral staff away. This is an historic moment, beloved; for the first time, in the New Testament a local church sees the need to reach beyond themselves—and they are even willing to send their best.
So off they go, landing eventually on the island of Cyprus, the home country of Barnabas. There, they proclaim “the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews” (verse 5). They start in the Jewish synagogues, which will become their practice. We do not know the response in the synagogues of Cyprus, but we do know that the gospel will find greater acceptance among the Gentiles.
Verse 5 adds that young John Mark is with them, assisting them. He is probably carrying their luggage and taking care of practical needs.
It is only a matter of time before they encounter opposition. When they get over to the west side of the island, they come into contact with two men:
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. (verses 6-7)
Bar-Jesus is called Elymas in verse 8. He is practicing divination and occultic sorcery. And he is evidently powerful, for he has become the adviser to Sergius, someone we would call today the governor of Cyprus.
And Sergius happens to be interested in hearing from Saul and Barnabas. However, verse 8 tells us Elymas “opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.” He knows his job security is in jeopardy. He has to keep these missionaries away from the governor.
Saul now speaks directly to Elymas, here in verse 10:
“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?”
Well, that is rather blunt. But let me tell you, the church could learn something from Saul here. He does not sit down to dialogue with Elymas. He does not seek some compromise where they can work together to clean up the culture; he does not ask Elymas for advice on how to reach into the top tier of the political world.
Paul calls him a son of the devil and a deceiver. The word for “deceit” referred primarily to bait. It comes from the context of a fisherman baiting his hook. A fisherman is trying to deceive the fish into thinking it is going to get some dinner, but instead, it is going to become dinner. Elymas has been baiting Sergius with interesting things to distract him from the truth and lead him to spiritual ruin.
Paul says to this false prophet, “The hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time” (verse 11). And we are told, “Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand.”
Elymas had spent his career leading people into darkness; now God’s judgment leads him into some period of time where he is unable to see. We never read of Elymas again, but we do read of a spiritual awakening here in verse 12: “Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”
All this reminds me of at least three characteristics that need to be seen in the church today but are so often missing.
First, we need open eyes to see the mission fields of the world. So many churches measure their success by how many people they seat; we need to measure success by how many people we send. We need eyes to see the opportunities God gives us for gospel ministry.
Second, we need firm hands that grip, as it were, the truths of Scripture. The enemy of the church wants to bait us, distract us, dilute the truth—like Elymas, who took what was straight and made it crooked.
Third, we need courageous hearts to tell our world the truth of the gospel. And let me tell you, when we are like Paul and Barnabas and the church in Antioch, we are not going to see churches folding; we are going to see churches flourishing, for the glory of God.
 Everett F. Harrison, Acts: The Expanding Church (Moody Press, 1975), 203.