“So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Selucia” (Acts 13:4, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV). Thus Luke begins his account of Paul’s first missionary journey, recognizing that, although he’d just said that the church at Antioch had sent Barnabas and Paul on their way (13:3), it was actually God who had sent out the two as His messengers. Although “they” refers just to Barnabas and Paul, they were accompanied by John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas whom they had brought with them when they returned to Antioch from Jerusalem (12:25), as their helper.
The three set sail from the seaport of Antioch, Seleucia, for the island of Cyprus. Cyprus was a good place for Barnabas and Paul to start their missionary work—Barnabas came from there (4:36), many Jews lived there, and the gospel had already been preached there (10:19). I’ll limit this article to a consideration of their ministry in Cyprus, based on Acts 13:4-12. Below is a map of this part of Paul’s first missionary journey.
Landing at Salamis, a thriving commercial center on the east coast, Barnabas and Paul preached the word of God in the Jewish synagogues there. Not only did it make good sense for them to seek out people of their own kind first, but also the synagogue was the most convenient place for them to come in contact with the local God-fearers. God-fearers were Gentiles who, although they weren’t willing to become full converts to Judaism, were attracted to it and observed some of its practices.
From Salamis, the missionaries travelled through the island from east to west until they reached Paphos, the seat of the provincial government and of the worship of Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love), on the southwest coast. Here they had a memorable meeting with the proconsul or governor, Sergius Paulus, and a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet, Bar-Jesus or Elymas. The meeting took place because Sergius Paulus wanted to hear the word of God and sent for Barnabas and Paul. Fearful of the threat that their message posed to his influence, Bar-Jesus, who was with Sergius Paulus, opposed Barnabas and Paul, trying to divert the governor from the Christian faith.
Then Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his eyes on Bar-Jesus 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.” Immediately, Bar-Jesus was struck blind and went around trying to find ones to lead him by the hand. His punishment reminds me of Paul’s conversion, in which on meeting Jesus he was blinded for three days (9:8-9). Luke doesn’t tell us how long Bar-Jesus remained blind or if he was converted.
However, Luke does tell us that when Sergius Paulus saw what happened he believed, “for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” Evidently, the miracle opened the heart of the proconsul to receive the message of Barnabas and Paul and be converted. Thus, the incident demonstrates the importance of both the proclamation of the gospel and the miraculous in evangelism. It also illustrates the power of God over Satan and the opposition inspired by him against the word of God.
That Luke considered the incident a turning point in Paul’s ministry is indicated by his from here on (1) calling him by his Roman name, Paul, instead of by his Hebrew name, Saul, and (2) naming him before Barnabas (exceptions are Acts 14:14; 15:12; and 15:25, situations in which Barnabas may have been more prominent) instead of referring to them as “Barnabas and Paul.” Apparently, he viewed the incident as marking Paul’s becoming, as Paul was later to describe himself (in Romans 11:13), the apostle to the Gentiles.