Barnabas and Saul arrive at Paphos they are challenged by a “sorcerer and false prophet” named Bar-Jesus, or Bar-Joshua. Bar-Jesus was a counselor for Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul on Cyprus. Thus Bar-Jesus was a very powerful man in the government. His name means “son of the Savior,” but he is also known as Elymas, meaning “Wise” in Arabic.
Sergius Paulus wishes to meet with Saul, but Bar-Jesus opposes this meeting. Paul is described as “full of the Spirit” as he condemns Bar-Jesus. Paul accuses him of trickery and deceit, and perverting the ways of the Lord. Paul then blinds the man, and he had to be led away. This is in itself a rather unique event in the New Testament, but the miracle is also a symbolic act. There are a number of miracles in the New Testament which are more or less “prophetic acts.” Jesus heals a blind man in Mark 8:22-26 who begins to see, then sees fully. This is a picture of the understanding of the disciples at that point in the gospel of Mark. The result is that the Gentile man who is not a God-Fearer believed and was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.
Luke uses the blinding of Bar-Jesus at this point in Acts to signal a major shift to Gentile mission. Luke begins to refer to Saul and Paul. The change occurs in the middle of the conflict with Bar-Jesus. Saul was always also known as Paul, but it is at this critical part of the story when Luke chooses to begin using the Roman name in his narrative. This is a hint of a major shift in the progress of salvation history, from the Jews to the Gentiles.
Luke also switches the order of the names from this point on in the book. Until this prophetic judgment speech, “Barnabas and Saul” traveled together, now “Paul and Barnabas” travel on to Antioch. The only exception is at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, likely because Barnabas took the lead in speaking with James. On a literary level, Paul is the main human character for the rest of the book. The blinding of Bar-Jesus is the literary and theological transition point in the whole book of Acts.
Paul and Bar-Jesus are in many ways similar: both were blind and both encounter the truth of the Gospel of Jesus. Craig Keener points out at least five clear parallels between Paul and Elymas (2:2009). Both twisted the way of the Lord and were struck blind as a result. But Saul was Pharisee who kept the Law with a clear conscience, Bar-Jesus is “sorcerer” working for a Roman official.
While he condemns Elymas for his twisting the way of the Lord, Paul is also symbolically condemning all of the Jews who have resisted the Holy Spirit. Many commentators find the name “Bar-Jesus” ironic, since Elymas is not a “son of Jesus” but rather a “son of the devil” (v. 10). Jesus used the same verb “twist” (διαστρέφω) in Luke 9:41, a clear literary parallel in Luke/Acts as a whole. After declaring the present generation to be “faithless and twisted,” Jesus immediately predicts his own execution, (9:42-45) and then “resolutely sets out to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Virtually everyone recognizes 9:51 as a major transition in Luke, a similar transition occurs in Acts 13.
It is critical to observe that Bar-Jesus is blind only for a time, not permanently. So too, Israel is only set aside in the progress of salvation, they are not “cut off forever.” If this is a symbolic miracle indicating that the Jews are “blinded” to the gospel, it also promises a restoration of the Jewish people in the future.
What other indications in Acts 13 would support the suggestion Luke is using the blinding of Elymas as a literary and/or theological transition in the book?