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).
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..