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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Doors Opened & Bars Cut Through


"When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.” Acts 13:12

In Matthew 18, we find Jesus speaking to his disciples about how the church would be – the authority that the assembled group would have. Then he gave a profound promise, which should be of great value to churches like ours that are still relatively small. Yes, we want our church to grow – we desire to see many others coming to know Jesus as their Saviour and to join his family here. But, how many people do we actually need to have a church? Jesus said this - ‘where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’ When we do ‘church’ properly – when we gather in the name of Jesus – we aren’t on our own. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as gathering alone this morning, with God just looking on from a great distance. Jesus is here! And church is not a one way street. Church is not just a place where people come to direct religious arrows towards God, hoping that they’ll hit their target. Yes, we may be meeting in a Scout Hall, but we’re not here to get an archery merit badge! Church is an interaction - it is a two way thing.

That is what we find in Antioch. We were peering in through the church window last time. Hopefully, we saw a church very much like ours, doing things very much like we do. We saw a two way conversation. They were praying – asking their Lord for something. What did the Lord do? He answered. That is how conversations work! The Holy Spirit - the Spirit of Christ - led that group of people to make a decision. They sent off two men from their group to do a job. Barnabas and Saul/Paul were to take the message of Jesus’ rescue plan, out into the wider world, to tell it to others who needed to hear it.

That sounds like a massive, meaningful, mission! It was. Thankfully, they weren’t on their own. And I’m not referring to verse 5, where we are told that ‘John was with them as their helper’. John is a really significant figure in the future relationship of Barnabas and Saul, and he may have been a significant help on this first part of their journey, but they had another source of help. Verse 4 tells us that they were ‘sent on their way by the Holy Spirit’.

In another conversation with his disciples, shortly before he went to die on the cross for our sin, Jesus promised his followers that, when he left this earth, he was going to send the Spirit to them. Jesus said, in John 14:16-17, ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate… the Spirit of truth’. What is an advocate? We might think of it in a legal setting. If we are ever in a court of law, we may need an advocate, such as a solicitor or barrister. They have a knowledge that we don’t have – that is why we need them. But, principally, what do we need them to do? We need them to speak up for us. That is what an advocate is. The word ‘advocate’ literally means to ‘add’ ‘vocals’, or to ‘add a voice’. And Jesus says, about the Spirit, ‘he will testify about me.’ The Spirit adds a voice, in our hearts and in our lives, which always speaks up for Jesus.

We need this. These two men needed this. There is a real contrast between the help that John gave them and the help that the Spirit gave them. Look at verse 13 – ‘John left them…’ they had only completed the first leg of their mission, across the relatively small island of Cyprus, and John makes his way home, having suddenly remembered that his Asda shopping is arriving the next morning!

Not so with the Spirit. Jesus said this about the Spirit – ‘he will… help you and be with you for ever’. Not, just in church, but when we go out into the world, when we go about our lives from day to day – always and ‘for ever’. Our Lord works hand in hand with his people. Barnabas and Saul found it so, as they went out as Christ’s ambassadors. What do I mean by that phrase?

Well, Saul/Paul would later write about this in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. He speaks of God giving the gospel message to his people. He calls it a ‘message of reconciliation’. Our sin had caused a relationship breakdown. Our sin meant that we couldn’t have a lively ongoing relationship with God. But when Christ died for that sin, on that cross, at Calvary, we could then be reconciled. Broken relationship was made unbroken. ‘The old has gone, the new is here’. We’ve now got to share this awesome news. What are we doing when we tell others about Jesus? Paul says, ‘We are… Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us’.

What is an ambassador? Well, this country has them. The UK has embassies, run by ambassadors, in foreign states – places where the main influence over daily life, is not that of the UK government, but of a foreign power. These ambassadors represent the interests of this country in those places. They promote this nation and its interests and its ideals. That is exactly what Christ’s ambassadors are called to do. We have a new found allegiance – to a new King, called Jesus. We are a new nation (as 1 Peter 2:9). But, we are currently living in a place that is under the influence of a hostile, foreign power – the power of the devil. We are called to promote the interests of Christ Jesus and the ideals of his Kingdom. We are Christ’s ambassadors. As we now journey with Saul/Paul, he will give us such a good illustration of what this means. God makes his appeal to people through Paul, and he works hand in hand with Paul. That is why the church needed to pray (v.3) before they sent him and his friend. They needed God to work. They needed him to open up opportunities. They needed him to open doors. They needed him to open hearts.

There are several places in the New Testament record where this idea of God opening doors is presented. We will come across it in the next chapter when Paul and Barnabas report back to their local church at Antioch (Acts 14:27). In Colossians 4:3, Paul instructs the believers to, ‘pray for us… that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ’. He tells the church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 2:12) of how he ‘went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me’. So, the Lord just makes it so easy… or does he? What Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 16:8-9, is really instructive. He tells them that he is planning to ‘stay on at Ephesus’ for a while longer. Why? ‘Because a great door for effective work has opened to me’. Sounds great that, until Paul finishes his sentence! He says, ‘and there are many who oppose me’.

When Paul worked as Christ’s ambassador, seeking to promote the interests of Christ Jesus, the surrounding environment was hostile. When God opens a door, Satan wants it closed… fast. Gospel opportunity is so often partnered with gospel opposition. And that is what we find in this section of Acts 13.

After travelling from Seleucia, the port closest to Antioch, across to Salamis, on the east coast of the island of Cyprus, we are briefly told that they ‘proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues’ first, something that will be a pattern in Paul’s activity, in Acts. We aren’t told about whether this was successful, or otherwise. Verse 6, tells us that they travelled through the whole island but, again, gives us no details. The Acts account is one where only selected events are listed. These men were as human as were are, so they would have needed to do the things that we need to do. They would have had to eat and drink and sleep etc., but we have to fill in those gaps. They may have sampled salamis in Salamis, but we can only speculate! What we can be certain of, though, is that when God opened a door of opportunity, Paul and Barnabas didn’t hesitate to walk in that door and seize the day. And we are given the details of one such event, when they reach their final destination on this island, the West coast port of Paphos.

We are introduced to two more men in Paphos. One of them is called Sergius Paulus. He is a representative of the occupying empire of Rome. He is a ‘proconsul’, so someone appointed by the Senate to organise and administer Roman rule on Cyprus. Although we have been given so few details of Paul and Barnabas’s activity, they have been active. Sergius Paulus has heard that they have been teaching this new God message of reconciliation in Christ. ‘He wanted to hear the word of God’ (v.7). What an opportunity! Let’s pray for this for ourselves. What joy will be ours if this Easter, people come to our church with this desire? – ‘I’ve come today because I wanted to hear the word of God’.

Barnabas and Saul/Paul are given an invite. If we read Acts 13 in isolation we would only see a door of opportunity being opened by Sergius Paulus. But, if we read this passage, informed by the whole of the ‘the word of God’, then we will see a larger hand. This is not just the hand of a politician from Rome. This is not even the hand of that awesome empire. This is the hand of heaven… opening the door for the mission of a greater, never ending rule (see Daniel 2:44).

Gospel opportunity… instantly meets gospel opposition. Our God employs Christians to be his ‘fellow workers’. That is what Paul calls us in 2 Corinthians 6:1. But the devil has plenty of willing volunteers in his employment also. Here it is a man called ‘Elymas the sorceror’ (v.8). We are told that he ‘tried to turn the proconsul from the faith’. Elymas is his name in Arabic. But, like many people - like Saul/Paul himself - in these times of great diversity of language, Elymas had more than one name. He was also called Bar-Jesus, and this is of some significant meaning, and Paul picks up on this in what he says.

At first glance, we might think that it is an accurate name. Bar-Jesus was literally trying to bar Jesus. He was putting a bar – a barrier - between Jesus and the emerging faith of Sergius Paulus. Why would he do that? Out of self interest. He was a successful con-artist. He used magic (magos in NT Greek) and sorcerer – the dark arts, in Harry Potter speak – to convince people that he had some special spiritual power. Verse 6, tells us that he was a ‘false prophet’. We considered ‘prophets’ last time in verse 1 – people in that church at Antioch who brought God given wisdom and insight into the daily operation of church life. This man didn’t do that. He pretended to. What he proclaimed – what he proposed - was dressed up to look heavenly, but actually it was hellish underneath its shiny veneer. He ‘was an attendant of the proconsul’ (v.7) - he was employed by him and probably paid well for what he did. He sensed the threat that gospel freedom brought to his current status. If Sergius Paulus was converted to Jesus the true God-man, what use would then have for this false con-man? None. If his eyes were opened to see, then he would see… what Bar-Jesus really stood for and how utterly false his name was. To understand this, we need to understand his name.

In Acts 4:36, we met a man called Joseph. He was a Jew from this island of Cyprus. He was so full encouragement that the church gave him a nickname. He was ‘called Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’)’. He was with Paul there in Paphos. Bar-nabas – Son of-encouragement. Because ‘Bar’ translates as ‘son of’. So ‘Bar-Jesus’ literally means ‘son of Jesus’, ‘son of God’s Saviour’. It was so inappropriate. It would be like me using the nick-name of ‘Tidy’ - it would be the opposite of what is true! And Paul picks up on this unrealistic naming in verse 10, where he says, ‘You are a child of the devil’. It is a play on words. Paul is saying, ‘You are no son of Jesus. You are a son of Satan’.

‘Ah ha’, someone might say, ‘this is where your message falls down. You said that the Spirit speaks up for Christ. But here we have a so-called Christ follower using such harsh language. Where is the evidence of love in verse 10? Jesus never spoke like this, did he? He was compassionate – loving – even towards those that were caught in desperate sin’ (like John 8:11). That is so true – he was indeed. But, there were circumstances where Jesus spoke words that did condemn. And those words were motivated by love. And so it is here. What do I mean? Well, first, let’s consider what verse 9 says.

Paul was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’. This should leave no doubt that he was, in this moment, directed by Jesus. But what does ‘filled with the Spirit’ mean here? Hadn’t Paul, as a believer, already received the Holy Spirit? But this seems to indicate a more instantaneous special filling? I think it does. It is a bit like this - In early 2020, in this country, we experienced something that was a first for many of us living in our democracy. Up until that point, if our Government wanted to change the law – that collection of rules that govern our lives – they had to bring them to Parliament to get agreement before anything could be changed. Then COVID-19 arrived. Parliament voted to give the Prime Minister, and his aides, ‘special powers’. They could change certain life rules on an ongoing basis as they decided. Why these special powers? Because it was deemed to be an emergency situation. Life was at stake. It was really serious.

That is like Paul here. Being ‘filled with the Spirit’ is him being given an emergency power for an emergency situation. Eternal life was at stake. If Elymas wasn’t stopped then Sergius Paulus was in grave danger. Paul is given the words and the power to deal with this situation. Elymas is temporarily blinded. His physical condition now reflects his spiritual condition – he was blinded to God’s truth by self-interest and self-preservation. And Paul speaks strong words. In the same way that Jesus did, when he saw supposedly religious men behaving hypocritically, and actually keeping others from reaching out to God, Paul highlighted Elymas’s woe. Not because he hated Elymas but because he loved Sergius Paulus.

Jesus pronounced ‘woe’ upon the religious elite of his day, in Matthew 23 and Luke 11. Jesus was confronting their error, which was barring the way to God. He said ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to’ (Matthew 23:13). Some said to Jesus, ‘you insult us’ (Luke 11:45). He had to speak hard truth into that situation. Life was at stake. It was really serious and serious words were called for. Jesus wasn’t hating the Pharisees - he was loving those who the Pharisees were closing off from God. There will be times, even in church life, where this may be true for us. Jesus, and his ambassador, Paul, give us this example. It isn’t to be our everyday, regular way of doing things (far from it!), but there may be times when we are called to do this.

Am I saying that there may be times when we are allowed to speak firmly, directly, without holding back? No. Not so much allowed to, but obligated to - out of love to those who are being misled and damaged, by what is presented as truth, but is actually a terrible lie. But we will need wisdom to know when. Otherwise, we will get it horribly wrong. We will speak words that we shouldn’t, or we will not speak words which we should. What is our hope? Our hope must be that we will be equipped as Paul was. Our prayer must be that we are given emergency powers for emergency situations – ‘Lord, fill us with your Spirit’.

The door stays open. God’s power wins. It would be easy to think that Sergius Paulus is converted by the sight of the miracle that Paul performs. But Acts is very careful in its language in verse 12 – ‘he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching of the Lord’. Why wouldn’t he be? Why wouldn’t we be? It is amazing. It is the way to God. It’s life. And, it’s the truth!

It is the message of reconciliation. God and humankind restored in relationship at the cross of Jesus, where he died for our shortcoming and failure – our sin. He took the blame – we must take his name!

This had already happened in Antioch where the believers were ‘first’ ‘called Christians’ (Acts 11:26). They were now publishing the name of Jesus as ambassadors. They met with much opposition. So may we. Were they successful? Yes, as the Lord was with them, and as the Spirit of Christ co-worked. Will we see success? Only if the same is true. But it will be. It has a New Covenant guarantee – signed, and sealed, and delivered by Jesus.

Jesus said this about the Spirit – ‘he will… help you and be with you for ever’. Hebrews 13 reminds us of the enduring sameness of Jesus. And, because of Jesus, ‘God has said, ‘never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’’.


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