Acts 13:4–12: Barnabas and Saul on Cyprus
Having now been sent by the Holy Spirit (in the last passage), Barnabas and Saul now head to Cyprus where they proclaim the Word to the Jews in the synagogues. (verse 5 says that they have “John” to assist them; I assume this is “John whose other name is Mark,” from 12:20–25.)
Cyprus is an island, and we’re told that Barnabas and Saul preach the Word across the whole island until they come to Paphos, where the meet a man named Bar-Jesus, also known as Elymas. This man is called both a magician and a Jewish false prophet. Bar-Jesus/Elymas is hanging out with the Proconsul (a man named Sergius Paulus) when he is being addressed by Barnabas and Saul, but Bar-Jesus tries to oppose them, seeking to keep the Proconsul from the faith.
Saul is not having it:
But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” verses 9–11
And that’s exactly what happens: Bar-Jesus immediately goes blind and has to be led by the hand. The Proconsul, meanwhile, who was already “astonished” by “the teaching of the Lord” (verse 12) sees this miracle and believes.
A first thought is about Bar-Jesus/Elymas. In the book of Acts it seems that there are magicians and then there are magicians; from the ESV Study Bible notes:
Acts 13:6 … Bar-Jesus was a magician (Gk. magos), similar to Simon (8:9–13), and a Jew. He was also a false prophet. Paul’s subsequent characterization of him as a “son of the devil” suggests that his “magic” was assisted by demonic powers. Magic in antiquity was practiced by both pagan and Jewish people with the goals of healing diseases, bringing physical blessings, cursing or otherwise harming others, and guarding against both curses and demons. Magicians also claimed to foretell the future. Ancient literature (e.g., Pliny, Natural History) and discovered magical books (cf. Acts 19:19) indicate that magic often involved special incantations (frequently invoking magical names of deities and demons), potions, and the use of magical objects such as amulets, incantation bowls, or figurines.
It does seem like Saul treats Bar-Jesus/Elymas differently from how the Apostles treated Simon in Chapter 8. There’s the obvious rejection of the Gospel, of course, but there’s no record of anyone calling Simon a “son of the devil” for his former ways as a magician; or perhaps he just gave that up immediately upon believing so it wasn’t necessary?
What’s most interesting to me, however, is not the miracle itself, but Sergius Paulus’ reaction to it. Did he believe because of the preaching? Or did he believe because of the miracle? Actually, the way verse 12 is worded, it seems like both played a part: as mentioned above, he was already astonished by the teaching of the Lord, so seeing Bar-Jesus/Elymas get struck down seemed to have an impact on a heart that was already being changed.
This feels very realistic to me. Some people believe through the hearing of the preaching of the Word and others through miracles. For many of us, however, it’s a lot of things that all add up over time. In my case there weren’t any miracles, so it would have been a combination of things I was taught, things I read for myself, and the way I was treated by Christians. I had lots of “aha” moments throughout my spiritual life—such as the first time I read the first chapter of the Gospel of John, or when I read Paul writing that we’re either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness (though I didn’t want to be a slave at all), or the time I was touring with a Christian band for a summer and we kept seeing answers to prayer over and over—but I can’t even be sure which of these “aha” moments came before I was a true Christian and which came after, let alone if any of them was “the” moment that I finally believed.