When we closed Acts 12, we found Paul and Barnabas back to Jerusalem, bringing with them money to help the Believers in Jerusalem get through a famine that had broken out throughout the Roman Empire. These funds were the result of charitable generosity from the Believing Jews and Gentiles in Antioch, Syria.
Let’s Read The Story Of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:1-12
Now back in Antioch, we are told that the Believing community there was served by prophets and teachers. And among these were Barnabas, (whom we know and have met before), a fellow called Shi’mon Niger (known as “the Black”), Lucius of Cyrene and Menachem (who had been brought up with Herod, the governor) and Sha’ul. (Herod Agrippa had just recently died).
A name not mentioned is John Mark among these teachers and prophets even though the ending verse of chapter 12 says he accompanied Paul and Barnabas. And this is because John Mark is just a bit player; he is considered, as a servant or attendant and so wouldn’t be mentioned as among the teachers or prophets.
We know what teachers do, but in this context what would be the purpose of a prophet? It seems that in this era prophets and teachers were nearly the same thing. It is probable that a prophet was merely a more qualified teacher.
In the New Testament, most references to prophesying are really about speaking God’s written Word (quoting the Hebrew Bible). About the only discernable difference between the two terms seems to be that teachers were usually part of the local community and regularly taught; while prophets tended to be itinerant and would wander from Synagogue to Synagogue offering their insights. Both held in high regard.
Among these teachers and prophets in Antioch, we recognize Paul and Barnabas’ names, but the others we’ve not been introduced to before. Since Niger is Latin for black, apparently Shi’mon was a black skinned man, but we don’t know where he is from. Lucius is from Cyrene, today known as Libya. We don’t know whether Manaen is originally from Antioch or he too has come from elsewhere. Just know that Manaen is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Menachem. All of these men were Jewish Believers.
Josephus may have been referring to Menachem when he wrote,
“There was one of these Essenes whose name was Menachem, of whom it was said that not only did he conduct his life excellently, but God had given him the ability to predict the future. This man once saw Herod when he was a child, going to school, and saluted him as king of the Jews. But Herod, either thinking that Menachem did not know him or that he was joking, reminded him that he was only a private person.
Menachem smiled to himself, slapped him on the backside with his hand and said, ‘However that may be, you will be king. You will begin your reign happily because God finds you worthy of it. But remember the blows Menachem gave you; they are a sign that your fortune will change. Now it will be most reasonable for you to love justice towards men, piety towards God, and clemency towards your subjects. But I also know what your overall conduct will be, that you won’t behave this way. You will outdo everyone in happiness and obtain an everlasting reputation, but you will forget piety and righteousness. And these crimes will not be hidden from God at the end of your life; you will find out then that he will remember them and punish you for them.’” (Antiquities of the Jews 15:10:5)
Verse 2 explains that as they were worshipping and fasting together, the Holy Spirit told them that it was time to anoint Paul and Barnabas for the particular ministry that the Lord had previously decided for them: taking the Gospel to the Gentiles.
In other words, there was nothing new that happened here. While I can’t be sure, I believe that what is being described as the “Holy Spirit telling them” is not a vision or a visitation or something audible. But rather it is the same thing those modern Believers receive especially during prayer as something just comes into our minds that we instinctively know is from God.
Today it is common to say, “The Lord told me” thus and so. But in Acts, where the Holy Spirit is emphasized, the more common way of saying the same thing was to attribute the thought or unction to the Holy Spirit.
It is also interesting that we often see worship or prayer accompanied with fasting as we do in this passage. Just what forms the fasting took is not clear. Some scholars believe that the word “fast” meant it just as we think of it today: we refrain from eating food for some predetermined amount of time. Other scholars believe that while it can mean that, it also can mean denying oneself other things for a brief time. That is, fasting didn’t always have to do with food.
In any case, fasting as part of worship or prayer was usual and customary in that era, and it seems to have made the worshippers more able to hear and respond to the Holy Spirit. I have talked with many Believers who tell me that indeed fasting with prayer does seem to heighten their sensitivity towards God; I have found this to be personally true as well. Hilary Le Cornu points out that in the anonymous Jewish work titled the Apocalypse of Elijah we get a real insight as to how folks of that era viewed the expected effects of fasting, for there it states:
“A pure fast…releases sin. It heals diseases. It casts out demons. It is effective up to the throne of God for an ointment and for a release of sin by means of pure prayer”.
Extreme fasting (again meaning denial of food and perhaps other things as well for extended periods of time) was seen by especially pious people as a tool to obtain a spiritual vision that they sought. I don’t recommend such an approach for both health and spiritual reasons. But fasting was always to be accompanied with intense prayer, or it served no spiritual purpose, and with that, I agree wholeheartedly.
It is also instructive that up to now we’ve mostly seen prophets and teachers and Yeshua’s disciples receiving their divine marching orders using an Oracle from an angel, or sometimes from God Himself, and at other times from Yeshua. But now it is the Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) that is credited.
I’ve often stated that there is much evidence to heavily imply that Yeshua (Jesus), John, and perhaps some others of the earliest disciples of Yeshua had much interaction with the Essenes of Qumran. Many of the terms and thoughts expressed in some of the Essenes’ documents (the Dead Sea Scrolls) are mirrored in the words of Christ and other New Testament writers. And if not said precisely in their terms, often the Essenes’ unique theological concepts are something that we’ll find similarly explained in the New Testament.
Here is one such example concerning Essene theology about the Holy Spirit as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls document that is marked 1QH20.
“And I, the Instructor, have known you, my God, through the Spirit which you gave in me, and I have listened loyally to your wonderful secrets through your Holy Spirit. You have opened within me knowledge of the mystery of your wisdom, and the source of your power…”
And this was written several years before the birth of Messiah Yeshua. So what we have here is strong evidence that these devout men living in the desert outpost of Qumran, away from institutional Judaism, separated from the corrupt Temple and Priesthood, had already begun to realize the critical importance of the work of God’s Holy Spirit.
What is also fascinating is the idea of the working of the Spirit within a man, as opposed to only being upon a man, which up to now had been the way the Holy Spirit operated. I’m also sure they had no idea just how critical the presence and role of the Holy Spirit would soon be in God’s plan of redemption once the Messiah appeared and then left.
Starting in verse 4 (and going through Acts 14:26) we are told about Paul’s first four missionary journeys. But he and Barnabas did not go until the Believing leadership in Antioch anointed them in prayer and laid hands on them.
Therefore this served to commission them officially and to signify agreement with, and recognition of, the Antioch congregation’s leadership to Paul and Barnabas’ mission to the Gentiles.
Thus we see something we need to keep in mind: Paul’s missionary journeys were sanctioned and supported by the congregation of Believers in Antioch; not by the leadership and congregation of Believers in Jerusalem of which Peter and James were the leaders.
So Sha’ul and Bar-Nabba went to the local seaport of Antioch, called Seleucia Peiria, and from there sailed to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Cyprus was only about 60 miles by sea from Seleucia so that it wouldn’t have taken long. However, since the wind and weather dictated the progress of these ships, each time a journey was undertaken the time of travel varied.
Now, this would be a good opportunity to mention that whether by sea or by land, there was a season for travel and a season to avoid travel if possible. Generally speaking, it was desirable to travel and to ship goods between the end of May and the middle of September (in modern calendar terms).
But from mid-September to mid-November, and then from mid-March to the end of May the weather could be severe and quickly changeable; so while travel and shipping didn’t entirely cease, it was best to avoid these periods if at all possible because the risks significantly increased. We should keep this in mind as we hear of Paul’s journeys and it may give us a clue as to the times of year he was traveling.
Further, there were no such things as ships that were purely commercial passenger vessels. Rather all ships were cargo carriers, and so when a person booked passage on a ship, they didn’t have a beautiful cabin or have hot meals served to them.
So depending on the circumstances, one could find themselves sleeping on the deck, or laying on top of the cargo in the hold. If there were any creature comforts, those belonged to the ship’s crew. Usually, a passenger had to bring their food and provisions if they expected to eat. Flexibility in travel plans was necessary because the route could change at a moment’s notice if there were a business opportunity to take advantage of, or wind or weather forced a change.
However, as uncomfortable and risky as sea travel was for passengers, it was also an inexpensive mode of transportation. Thus Paul and Barnabas didn’t need too much in the way of funds from the Antioch congregation to pay for their sea travel on their mission trips.
Verse 5 explains a basic format for where it is that Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the Good News; they went to the local Synagogues. Naturally. There were no such things as “churches” (in the standard way we think of them), just as there were no such people as “Christians” in the sense of a movement of Gentile Jesus worshippers that were separate and apart from Jews and The Way. The first place they went upon reaching Cyprus was Salamis. No doubt Barnabas was leading the way because Cyprus was his home.
Here we have mention of John Mark and his role as a “helper.” John Mark was a cousin of Barnabas.
Bible Commentators have often said that the reason that Paul always first went to Synagogues was to fulfill Yeshua’s instruction to His disciples of “First to the Jews…. then to the Greeks”. He went to the Synagogues because the first Gentiles he approached were already God-fearers (they were halfway there, so to speak), and out in the Diaspora, there was overall less resistance to the idea of Gentiles coming into Synagogues to worship with Jews.
A traditional day of public gathering and worship on Shabbat had been established, and it was well known, and it was common that visitors and itinerant prophets would come to the Synagogues to teach or speak.
In other words, there was a ready-made organization and system that Paul could tap into. And remember: The Way was merely another sect of Judaism, and there was no stated goal (not even by Paul) of someday setting up non-Jewish houses of worship for Gentiles, nor especially was there an intention of severing worship of Yeshua away from Judaism as a distinct new religion.
But more, the Diaspora Jews were Hellenists. That is, they were Greek speakers who lived a Greek lifestyle. Greek society loved to hear and debate new ideas, so they weren’t shy about allowing various speakers into their Synagogues. And this is why Paul and Barnabas were usually welcomed, even if at times after being heard they were chased out of town.
And by the way; it is interesting to note that Synagogues were more at home in foreign lands than they were in the Holy Land. The oldest Synagogues unearthed have been found in places like Macedonia and Italy. And the reason for this is obvious: the Synagogue was invented and created by Diaspora Jews for use by Diaspora Jews in their foreign nations. They had existed in a very similar form to what Paul was visiting for more than three centuries.
So Synagogues were simply a familiar and accepted part of the landscape to Gentiles even if most had never set foot in one of them.
After spending some unstated amount of time in Salamis, they then journeyed a little over 50 miles to the southwest coast (still on Cyprus) and the city of Paphos. Here they had a run-in with a sorcerer named Elymas. Elymas is the Greek name for Bar-Yeshua (which means son of Yeshua).
So this is in no way referring to the Messiah nor is it mocking Him. Yeshua was among the most common names for Jewish males at this time. Paphos was no doubt selected because it was the governing administrative center for Cyprus.
Thus we hear that this Jewish sorcerer Bar-Yeshua was associated with the Roman proconsul Sergio Paulus who is said to be an intelligent man. It was common for government leaders to have seers and diviners in their employ, as Romans were a very superstitious people. What is also notable is this Elymas is a Jewish magician; something that is staunchly prohibited in the Torah of Moses, with the punishment for practicing magic being death.
The gentile Roman proconsul was interested in hearing Paul’s message about the God of Israel, but the Jewish magician opposed it.
So the zealous and outspoken Paul lit into the magician telling him that he was the son of the devil and that since he was fighting the Lord, a curse of God would lay upon him.
Paul’s tirade was specifically because this magician was a Jew and should have known better than to practice this forbidden trade. Immediately the sorcerer lost his eyesight and had to be led around by his hand.
Notice how similar this is to what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. The early Church Father Venerable Bede says of this
“Paul, remembering his own case, knew that by the darkening of the eyes, the mind’s darkness might be restored to light.”
It seems as though Paul calling Bar-Yeshua “son of the devil” is very likely one of those hidden Hebraisms in the New Testament that we have talked about. That is, this is a Hebrew expression that is masked because of its translation into Greek (and from there into English).
Remember whom Paul is addressing: a JEWISH magician. So Paul probably is calling him a known and familiar Hebrew epithet: Ben Belial. Even in Hebrew Belial carries an ambiguous meaning; however, it revolves around the concept of being worthless and wicked.
So sometimes Ben Belial is translated into English as the son of worthlessness. It is easy to see then how in Greek it would be translated as huios diabolos. Most literally this Greek phrase translates to “son of slandering” or “son of siding with evil.” It is common in translation that one language has no direct equivalent in another language, so you have chosen something that is pretty close but likely does not express the precise meaning.
The Roman governor was impressed by what Paul seemed to have done to Elymas and was now all ears. He listened intently to Paul’s message, and we’re told that he believed because the message was perhaps the most profound thing he had ever heard.
What the Roman governor believed in and exactly the level at which he accepted it is ambiguous. That is, was it the Gospel that he heard, or was it more about the God of Israel in general? And while he believed what he heard, did this amount to understanding that Paul was telling the truth, or was it a saving belief? We don’t know. We don’t hear anything about the Holy Spirit coming upon the governor nor an instruction to be baptized. So I doubt that this meant that the Roman governor accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior.