Paul and Barnabas on Cyprus

After leaving Antioch, Barnabas and Paul arrive at Paphos, the seat of the Roman government in Cyprus, they are challenged by a sorcerer named Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:6-17). Bar-Jesus was a counselor for Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul on Cyprus. Bar-Jesus had some influence. Likely he was serving the local Roman officials as an advisor. His Aramaic name Elymas is similar to the Arabic word “Wise.” Still, Martin points out most commentators think Elymas is a “transliteration of a Semitic word which could be connected with the functions of a magician” (ABD 5:205).

Paul Cyprus, Sergius Paulus Inscription

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Saul wants to meet with the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus. The name is known from three inscriptions (IGRR III.930; CIL VI.31545; IGRR III.935), although the names are common enough that it is impossible to argue with any certainty they refer to the Roman in Acts 13.

Sergius Paulus wishes to meet with Saul, but Bar-Jesus opposes this meeting. Luke describes Paul 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, who has to be led away by the hand. This is a unique event in the New Testament, and the miracle is a symbolic act. There are several miracles in the New Testament in which blindness is used to symbolize understanding who Jesus is. For example, Jesus heals a blind man in Mark 8:22-26 who first sees partially, then sees fully. In the context of Mark’s gospel, this miracle describes the growing awareness of the disciples of who Jesus is. They understand he is the Messiah but do not yet understand what the messiah will do.

Luke uses the blinding of Bar-Jesus at this point in Acts to signal a major shift in the book from a primarily Jewish mission to a Gentile mission. There are several reasons for this. First, it is at this point Luke begins to refer to Saul as Paul. The change occurs in the middle of the conflict with Bar-Jesus. Likely Saul was always also known as Paul, but it is at this critical part of the story when Luke chooses to change names in the narrative. This indicates a major shift in the progress of salvation history from the Jews to the Gentiles.

Second, Luke also switches the order of the names from this point on in the book; until this event, Barnabas and Saul have traveled together, and now Paul and Barnabas will travel on to Antioch. The only exception is at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, probably because Barnabas spoke to James. On a literary level, Paul is the main human character for the rest of the book. This underscores the fact that the blinding of Bar-Jesus is the transitional point in the book of Acts.

Third, Luke uses this particular Jew to represent the Jewish rejection of the Gospel in the book of Acts up to that point. Although the Gospel was accepted by many Jews in Acts 2-3, there is an increasingly violent response to the preaching of Jesus as Messiah, crucified, resurrected, and ascending to the right hand of God. By Acts 7, this resistance resulted in the stoning of Stephen. (See this post on Paul’s involvement in this event.)

Based on this encounter on Cyprus, Paul and Bar-Jesus are in many ways similar: both were blind, and both encountered the truth of the Gospel of Jesus. As Darrell Bock says, “Elymas is where Paul was years earlier” (Acts, 446).  But Bar-Jesus is radically off-base from the Law; he is not a typical Jew who heard the apostolic preaching in Acts 2. He is a sorcerer and works for a Roman official. While Paul condemns this one man for his unfaithfulness, he is also pointing his finger at the whole of the Jewish nation; Paul, too, was in error concerning the nature of Jesus as the Messiah.

It is critical to note 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. This is not an anti-Semitic condemnation of Jews but rather a prophetic condemnation of the Jewish leadership who have (by this time in Acts) rejected the Holy Spirit. Although Paul continued to go to the Jew first, preaching in synagogues and reasoning that Jesus is the Messiah, he will have increasing success among Gentiles.

What other things in this important chapter in Acts demonstrate a transition from a mostly Jewish church to an increasingly Gentile church? On a more personal level, how does the contrast between Elymas and Saul highlight the grace of God?



Bibliography: Thomas W. Martin, “Elymas (Person),” ABD 2:487. Thomas W. Martin, “Paulus, Sergius (Person),” ABD 5:205; Bas Van Elderen, “Some Archaeological Observations on Paul’s First Missionary Journey,” Pp. 151–61 in Apostolic History and the Gospel. FS for F. F. Bruce; ed. W. W. Gasque and R. P. Martin; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970..


5 thoughts on “Paul and Barnabas on Cyprus

  1. What are some other things in this important chapter in Acts which demonstrate a transition from a mostly Jewish church to an increasingly Gentile church?
    I would conjecture to say that it was getting harder and harder for Paul to give the good news of the gospel to Jews who had not only rejected the Holy Spirit but also him. As noted in this article, even Luke had a hard time recognizing God’s work in Paul given his past. The Jews were the ones persecuted and killed by Saul, and in their pain of the past, they rejected the good news due to the medium God used. Naturally, Paul moves towards an audience that would listen. An audience whose hearts were not hardened by the past. But this caused tension, and the Jews did not believe that what Paul was doing coincided with their understanding of scripture (Acts 13:50).
    “But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district” (Acts 13:50).
    In Philippians 3, we learn that Paul is a highly educated Jew who, due to his understanding of the law, became zealous and persecuted the church. God had to perform a miracle in order to get him on the right path so that he would fight for Christ and not against him. I wonder if Paul may have felt that teaching the highly educated on such topics of faith and the renewing of the mind in Christ became futile for Paul. Since he would go to the synagogues first believing that it would be easier since they already believed in the OT (Acts 13:5), it may have become more work than Paul anticipated.
    How does the contrast between Elymas and Saul highlight the grace of God?
    God makes himself known to both Elymas and Saul. In both cases, the state of blindness was temporary, but the change was impactful. Saul’s experience resulting in Paul who we admire and learn about to this day. So many people accepted Christ through his ministries, and today, many people look at him as an example of how God has no limits on the types of people He uses for His glory. In Elymas case, the proconsul believed in God and Paul’s teaching after he heard of what had happened to the sorcerer. God used this miracle to prepare the proconsul’s heart to accept the Gospel. That is grace.

    • I love the different thoughts and idea that you exhibited within your writing of this post. One thing I wanted to point out that really caught my eye was the fact that you stated how some people had a hard time believing Paul because of his past. I believe that we see this facet of people not believing someone because of what they did in the past. Such as, if someone lies to us about something it makes it hard for us to trust them in other situations throughout life. However, it is vital to our spiritual growth as Christians to forgive people who may have did something bad to us in any way because God has forgiven you (Colossians 3:13). Especially, if they repent or our sincerely sorry for what they have done it is a necessity for us to be able to forgive (Luke 17:3). Although sometimes that may be very difficult we must put ourselves in their shoes. For example, if we were on a bad path but were saved by the grace of God and repented we would want people to restore their faith and belief within us. Therefore, we shouldn’t judge individuals on their past. Another facet within your blog post that I enjoyed examining is the idea of moving forward. As you stated how Paul moved forward to an audience that would listen this circumstance still has relevance. Throughout life a lot of times something tries to halt our journey of Salvation but moving forward plays a key role. We must be willing to persevere through tough times and be able to maneuver with God’s word being our backbone (Galatians 6:9).

  2. Luke’s deliberate ordering of names adds weight to the significance of Priscilla’s name occurring before her husband’s in Acts 18:18 and 26 (in most ancient manuscripts).

  3. As we examine the ideas and concepts presented throughout the Bible we come to understand how vital some of these may be throughout our lives in modern day. One of the most prevalent books to correlating to modern day is that of Acts. Acts has great significance in terms of the aspect of convertion and spreading the Gospel. It allows for us to be able to see the progession of the advancement of the Good News in numerous instances. Understanding that God multiplies his sheep each and every day through this advancement of His Good word (Acts 2:47). This advancement creates the passageway for us to be able to see the transitional period from a Jewish church to more of an increasingly Gentile church. More specifically we see this through some significant events that happen in Acts 13. Such as, one transitional turning point occurances was right after Bar-Jesus became blind by Paul when the Roman govenor accepted what Paul was trying to say about Jesus. This part of the chapter was so significant to the transition from a more Jewish church to a more Gentile church because it exemplifies one of the first converts outside of the Jewish church. We come to see someone that was longing to understand the truth was finally able to see the power of God in front of His eyes (Acts 13:12). That made some individuals but especially Paul, that they could convert anyone as they were on a mission to spread God’s word. Another signifcant thing that demonstrate the transition from Jewish to mostly Gentile church is that of the religious officials in Pisidian Antioch asking for them to come to speak in the synagogue located there (Acts 13:15). This was a powerful occurance because this was the first time they were asked to speak in the church and basically state their case for God. In which Paul and his counterparts did such a great job in spreading the Good news at the church that the congregation as well as officials asked them to return the next sabbath day to speak (Acts 13:44-45). This was pivotal to the transition because majority of the individuals coming to hear the word being spoken were Gentiles. The fact that numerous Gentiles were there made the Jews upset but Paul and Barnabus explained to them how they came to them first with the Gospel but they didn’t want to accept it so they kept moving forward to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). However, as these occurances played a key role in the transition from a Jewish church to a more Gentile it was destined by God for the Gentiles to be led into the church (Acts 13:47).

    Furthermore, as we come to see the magnified perspective on different things such as how one may be impeded in their spiritual growth and stepping out of their comfort zone or boundaries we also come to see God’s grace. We see that grace of God through the relations between Elymas and Saul. One may see these two as different in many cases as Elymas was a false teacher and Saul being more of a pioneer of God’s word. God’s grace is evident in their situation when Saul who is granted the power of the Holy Spirit to blind Elymas because of his false teachings to show the Roman governor the power of the Lord (Acts 13:9-12). Grace was granted in this situation because just as God done to Saul on the road to Damascus Elymas became blind not for a lifetime but only for an extended period of time. This is to indicate their spirtual blindness that they had toward God’s word. By just showing them darkness for a period of time and then giving them light even though they may have not deserved it exemplifies God’s grace.

  4. I find the relationship between both Paul and Bar-Jesus here to be incredibly interesting, and how Acts 13:6-13 highlights what could both a comparison and contrast between both Bar-Jesus and Paul. Indeed, a part of me wonders if perhaps part of this was on purpose in this part of Acts, to bring an awareness to the point of how both Paul and Bar-Jesus were, in some cases the same, but at the same time, had very different outcomes. Paul himself was converted on the Damascus Road, and while blinded, had his eyesight restored by Ananias and set out to preach the faith (Acts 9:17-18).
    This is in sharp contrast with Bar-Jesus, who while blinded temporarily, is not mentioned outside of this verse in Acts, and as a result, we do not know what happened to Bar-Jesus after Acts 11, so one can only speculate what happened to him afterwards. it is possible that Acts 13:6-13 is meant to call the reader’s attention between the two (this being Paul and Bar-Jesus), and to call the reader into looking at the past of both Paul and Bar-Jesus, and showing a way that God can use both to show what exactly He intends to do for His Kingdom

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