Acts 13:8-12 – Symbolic Blindness

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.

Raphael The_Conversion_of_the_Proconsul_(1515) 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 observe 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?

16 thoughts on “Acts 13:8-12 – Symbolic Blindness

  1. I would agree with this blog post in that Elymas’ blinding is used as an example for believers to see. Paul tells later in Chapter 13 how God’s people throughout Christ’s ministry people were blind to his mission (Acts 13:27). Paul also uses many prophecies from the Old Testament to support his words. Referring to the Old Testament prophecies shows there was a theological blindness that is now being fulfilled. Farther in Acts 13 Paul alludes to Isaiah 49:6 where it tells prophecies the disciples being a light to the Gentiles. I would support that Elymas being shamed is an illustration to the Jews that they should all be shamed for resisting Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Further within Acts 13, there is deeper support in why Luke writes and eludes to the blinding of Elymas or Bara-Jesus as a conversion of significance within Acts. Both Elymas and Paul had an encounter with Christ and the message of is mission. The result is similar in regard to Paul’s story in a temporary period of time without sight. In my understanding, I perceive that like Elymas Israel has strayed from the straight path that God gives light to the Gentiles and those who seek his Name. At this transition of the book, the redemption is a choice to all nations, not just Israel, this structure shifts the paradigm of Gentiles and Jew believing Christians finding one thing in common and that being Christ. Overall, Acts 13 with Luke’s perspective is that without God we are blind to the wonders and life that he gives and presents to us. When God opens our eyes to what he desires of us to be or become we decide to see the larger picture of God’s plan working through us to reach others.

    • That is interesting perception on this story. While it does make sense, Israel would stray, go against God, discipline would incur, then Israel comes back. This is a common theme. Why would God not do this with others individually? Redemption is a choice for everybody, and it is offered to all and many Jews find it hard to accept that Gentiles can now worship with them.

  3. I think that God uses the blindness of someone to show deepen their faith because if you cannot see you have to have faith in a lot of things, and having that faith in God makes so much of that easier. I think for Israel, when they were “blinded” they needed to strengthen their faith and like all of the stories of Jesus healing blind individuals, God will also restore Israel.

    • This reminds me of the hardening of Pharaohs heart in Exodus 7. God gave him multiple chances to see past his own desires and choose the correct path, but when he failed he suffered the consequences. As humans we seem to need physical reminders and proof of our faith and the significant role it plays in our daily lives. Looking back to Exodus once again, I am reminded of the plagues that swept over Egypt as the result of Pharaoh’s decision. Something interesting in Acts 13:12 was how the proconsul believed because of the blinding of Bar-Jesus. I think this could show a theological transition in that the Jews had their chance to accept the gospel and their ignorance allowed for the Gentiles to experience the Holy Spirit. It is interesting the wide effects the temporary blinding had on Bar-Jesus, not only would it be inconvenient to lose sight but it also would have affected his employment as an astrologer for the Roman governor (Long 74). This goes to show how one mans actions affect his life in more than just the immediate circumstances.

  4. I have always understood the power of the meaning behind Saul’s conversion, he went from darkness to light, from wanting to kill or imprison those who followed Jesus, to being one of the most influential people to share the Gospel. However, getting to see multiple stories of the power and representation of blindness really captured the picture of what is trying to be portrayed. The symbolism of how we live in darkness, but through the power of Christ are brought into the light. The other powerful symbol that is seen in the instance of the blinding of Bar-Jesus is the fact that this is the time that the author of the book of Acts uses to transition Saul to the name Paul. This again is representing a life transformation for him. He is no longer going to be feared as Saul, but will be known as Paul, the one who is to share the Gospel to the Gentiles. In both Saul’s and Bar-Jesus’ instance there is a transition from the twisted ways of the world to a new understanding of who the Lord is after their blindness is taken away. These representations are also to show Israel that they too will be blinded for a time, or be up to the side, because of their choice to deny the Holy Spirit, so that the Lord’s plan of salvation to the world will still go forward. For this time they will not be able to be included, but there will come a time where they will be able to claim their rightful place as the Lord’s people.

  5. The symbolic blindness that occurs in Acts 13 is a symbolic act, as throughout the Bible, God uses blindness to show His miraculous power. Not only was blindness something that occurred in Saul’s encounter with the Lord, but also in the miracles of Jesus, which fulfills prophecies that said the blind eyes would be opened. The physical blindness of a person often symbolizes the spiritual blindness as well. Paul writes in Corinthians about Christ being unveiled, and how believers look to Christ (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). In Hebrews 3:15, it says to not harden our hearts when we hear His voice. This is a connection between Elymas twisting the way of the Lord, and those who resist the Holy Spirit (Long). Our hearts can be hardened to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and Paul speaks to this through symbolism.
    It is beautiful how it also symbolizes the miracle of soon to be restoration, and that it is a promise of restoration (Long). Saul is a great example of showing the redemptive, restorative power of God, whether for one person or for an entire nation.
    It really stood out to me how Acts 13 was the name change of Saul to Paul. We always hear it was at the conversion, when in reality, it is during this blind encounter. Both encounters were major shifts, but there is a reason it happened then.

  6. One of the things that I have found so interesting through reading the book of Acts, and the blogs, is the symbolism that is embedded in Luke’s literary style. In the past, reading the Bible was just that. I never truly read it with an awareness of the literature component, as I would when reading any other written work. It has been so enlightening to truly see Luke’s intentionality in his writing, something that can easily be missed if you are reading to simply “read the Bible”, if that makes sense? Switching the order of Barnabas and Saul’s name, as well as the seemingly subtle way Luke begins to refer to Saul as Paul are just two examples. A quick read might not pick this up, or simply pass over with no thought. But to realize that Luke’s switch was very intentional in signaling a shift to the Gentile mission is eye opening. I think what intrigues me the most is the lack of explanation in these moments. I would assume that with a large shift like this, a writer would insert the “why” so the point would not be missed! What a good reminder that truly studying, and not simply reading, the Bible is vital to a true understanding.
    As far as the actual event, I found it interesting that Bar Jesus does not appear to be saved because of his blindness, but rather the proconsul. Where Paul’s personal experience was the pivotal point in his salvation, in this case it was the eyewitness instead. It recalled how sometimes a devastating or tragic event can be the, seemingly unlikely, factor that brings those not directly impacted to Christ. What a reminder that God’s ways are not ours, and he can work through any situation to bring people to Him.

  7. In Acts 13:6-12, Paul and Barnabus encounter a sorcerer named Bar-Jesus in Paphos, who worked as a counselor for the Roman proconsul on Cyprus. Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul, who is noted as an “intelligent man”, wanted to meet with Paul and Barnabus so that he could hear God’s word. Yet, Bar-Jesus opposed this meeting, attempting to influence the proconsul away from the beliefs of Paul and Barnabus. This results in Paul, who as Long notes is “full of the holy spirit”, condemning Bar-Jesus of deceit and trickery causing him to be temporarily blinded. This miracle has symbolic significance because while other “prophetic acts” are performed, this miracle is rather unique in the narrative of the New Testament. The temporal blinding of Bar-Jesus could be considered a symbolic representation of the nation of Israel, which was set aside for a period of time from the progress of Salvation but never forsaken. This event could also serve as a symbolic representation of the Jewish people who have been blinded to the gospel, yet just as Bar-Jesus was only blinded for a temporal amount of time, so will the Jewish people’s symbolic blindness.
    This story is a turning point for the book of Acts, as Luke begins referring to Saul as “Paul”, his Roman name, which indicates a transition in salvation history from Jew to the gentiles. Furthermore, Luke begins naming Paul firstly before Barnabus in the text, which infers that Paul is now considered the primary character of the book of Acts. An exception is presented in Acts 15, as Barnabus would have most likely participated the most in speaking with James and the council in Jerusalem. This transition from Saul to Paul, along with the blinding of Bar-Jesus, indicates a larger literary or theological shift that should be observed throughout the rest of the book of Acts.

  8. It is interesting to understand that both Paul and Bar-Jesus were blinded in an encounter with the gospel. It could be possible that Paul used the power of the Holy Spirit to strike Bar-Jesus with blindness because Paul knew on a deep level how eye opening that experience was from him just a short time before this moment. Paul may have blinded this man through the power of the Holy Spirit, and although that sounds like a terrible experience to have, Paul may have had good intentions due to his past experience with this drastic life-altering moment. It can also be said that both Paul’s blindness and Bar-Jesus’ blindness was for personal effect but was able to be used as symbolism to the other individuals who witnessed either or both of these Spirit induced blinding experiences. These temporary moments for these men were able to be used to show the Jewish people how “blind” they were being to the truth of the gospel that Paul and the other apostles were trying to share with them. It is also interesting how this moment in the book of Acts changes the narrative and theme of the book. At this point in the book of Acts, the author Luke, shifts into sharing about Paul’s missionary journeys across the regions opposed to the semi local synagogue teachings that have been shared by various voices to a narrow range of individuals, mostly Jews up to this point. This expansion of the spread of the gospel would later go on to result in the development of several churches across what we know today as modern day Italy, Greece, Turkey, and more regions.

  9. Like others have already mentioned, it is very interesting that both Paul and Bar-Jesus do share some silitalties, and they way things go down bring in some parallels. It is possible that Paul, when he blinded Bar-Jesus temporarily, did so because he understood the power of what blindness can do for your faith. I feel we take for granted our eye sight, and once it is gone we feel helpless, also not to mention the miracle of taking someone blind and unblind is enough for even someone as Paul who was persecuting the Church to change his life around. Long goes on and saying that the blindness is here for Bar-Jesus is also a metaphor for the Jewish people as a whole. Currently they are blind to the Gospel of Jesus, but not forever, like how Bar-Jesus he gained his eyesight. There is hope for Israel to be healed and will be able to see clearly again. This reminds me of a Church series a year ago on the book of Micah. In Miach chapter 7, we see that Israel is in misery, but there is hope with Jesus. At the time they are blinded to the truth, but God is a God of both Mercy and judgement. I think the blindness is not only to the Jewish people but also the Gentiles as well. We see Paul talk to the Greeks about their blindness from the truth, as he talks about Jesus to them he is slowly taking the blinders off from the people and revealing the truth to them.

  10. When I read this passage, I found it pretty significant that Paul was the one that blinded Bar-Jesus. While the two individuals have some other similarities, this “symbolic blindness” seems to be the most prevalent similarity. Because I read a few responses before I officially responded here, I must specifically agree with Cassie’s perspective of Paul having a deep connection to this blindness, knowing how eye-opening the experience was for himself. When Paul was blinded, he was still persecuting the Jews. However, it was after a short period of time that he began to “see the light” in the Gospel and started believing and following Christ. After seeing and hearing Paul say this, the proconsul (Sergius Paulus) believed due to being so astonished. In this specific passage (Acts 13:8-12), it is not mentioned that the false prophet Bar-Jesus begins to see again. However, this blindness is still significant because the proconsul started to believe. I think that this “symbolic blindness” could simply be an action done by the Holy Spirit (or a disciple) that prevents someone in continuing the life they were living in order that they might start to follow Christ. For example, if someone is in a near-death car accident during their sinful life, sometimes they finally recognize that God is giving that time on earth to turn and live for Him. This car accident would then be parallel to this “symbolic blindness”. While my specific example has nothing to do with Paul or causing someone to be physically blinded, the example is still relevant in the way that it is symbolic. I believe that these two circumstances in the Bible with Paul and the proconsul still hold significance today, especially reading from the perspective of the message being symbolic.

  11. There are many similarities between Paul and Bar-Jesus, including their twisting of the Word of God, their punishment of symbolic blindness, and both were directly confronted by the truth of the Gospel (Long, 2019). However, there are three key differences between the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and the punishment of Bar-Jesus.

    Firstly, Paul’s sinful ways prior to his conversion were done out of reverence for the Law and blindness toward the truth of Jesus’ messianic ministry. Because of this, Paul’s persecution of Christians did not weigh on his conscience (Long, 2019). However, Bar-Jesus opposed the Gospel truth for one primary reason: self-interest. Polhill notes that Bar-Jesus reacted strongly to the ministry of Paul and Barnabas because it threatened his relationship with the high-ranking proconsul Sergius Paulus that Bar-Jesus had cozied himself up to (2008). If Sergius Paulus – who would have been among the most important people in the province – realized that Bar-Jesus was a pagan fraud, he would have cut off their relationship (Polhill, 2008). Thus, Bar-Jesus can be viewed as even more wicked than Saul, as Saul at least was attempting to do right by the Lord prior to his conversion.

    Second, Paul does not have Jesus’ power to forgive or make plans for Bar-Jesus’ future. When Saul was converted on the road, Jesus was able to extend forgiveness and inform Ananias of His plans for Saul’s future missionary journeys. Paul, of course, did not have this power. Thus, his blinding of Bar-Jesus was purely a retributive action, and not a redemptive one.

    Third, Saul immediately repents of his wickedness and accepts the Gospel truth, whereas this information is not known of Bar-Jesus. It is possible that he could have converted later on (after all, who would not convert after being subject to supernatural punishment?), but the information is not known, likely because Bar-Jesus is really not important to the Biblical narrative.

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