In this Advent month, our lesson today celebrates the coming of the gospel to the nations. The tidings of great joy would come to the island of Cyprus. A proconsul would receive the Christ of Christmas and a sorcerer would cry, “Bah, humbug!” In both cases great discernment would be necessary to understand the victory of and the battle for the gospel.
We need discernment today to understand the calling of the Holy Spirit for mission and to perceive the deception of the enemy’s discouragement about that mission.
Discerning the Spirit’s Calling
This is a decisive moment in the Book of Acts. The gospel had spread to Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), to all Judea and Samaria (chapters 8-12), and now was postured to spread throughout the entire Roman Empire (chapters 13-28). We have already been introduced to the missionary-enterprising church in Antioch of Syria (Acts 11:19-31). Barnabas and Saul had taught this racially-integrated congregation for some time, and now this church took center stage (and even stole the show from the mother church in Jerusalem).
The first groups to discern what the Holy Spirit was calling them to do were the prophets and teachers. Prophets were inspired, and teachers were inspiring. Perhaps the Holy Spirit spoke audibly from Heaven or from some inward impulse of the believers. But it makes good contextual sense to believe that the Holy Spirit indicated his desire through one of the prophets or leaders mentioned.
The five people who discerned this missionary calling of the Spirit could not have been more diverse. There was a Levite from Cyprus, a black Jew from south of the Sahara in Africa, a Greek man from the northern part of Africa (Libya), a man of clout and means who grew up with royalty, and a rabbi steeped in Judaism and university trained. The calling of the Spirit took the first and last men in the list for missionary service.
The context for the Spirit’s call was worship (liturgy) and fasting (abstaining from food for some spiritual purpose). Missions were born from worship. The Holy Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work. Make no mistake about it. Church planting is work. Heaven had already called these two missionaries. The Spirit was now making it known, and the church was recognizing that call.
The Antioch congregation got in sync with the Spirit by fasting, praying, ordaining (one of the six uses of the laying on of hands in the Bible), and sending off Barnabas and Saul. The team put out to sea from Seleucia, but the first target audience for the gospel was Barnabas’s home island, Cyprus (Acts 4:36). The missionaries worked their way through the island from east to west (Salamis to Paphos). They preached the gospel (proclaimed the word of God) in the synagogues (see Acts 13:16-41 for the typical things preached) and had John Mark (author of the second Gospel) as their helper (under servant).
Discerning the Deceiver’s Opposition
One thing for sure—wherever the gospel goes, Satan will rear his ugly head and attempt to thwart its advance. In Acts 8 when the gospel went to Samaria there was Simon the sorcerer. In Acts 16 when the gospel went to Europe there was a slave girl who predicted the future by a spirit. In Acts 19 when the gospel went to all of Asia Minor there were the seven sons of Sceva. And in Acts 13 when the gospel went to Cyprus there was Elymas. He is identified as complete evil—notice his seven descriptions: Jewish sorcerer (Leviticus 20:6), a false prophet (Deuteronomy 18:20-22), Bar-Jesus (son of one called Jesus), a child of the devil (John 8:44), an enemy of everything that is right, full of deceit and trickery, and one who perverted the way of God. His mockery of the gospel could not be more evident.
Elymas knew his gig was up. His counterfeit spirituality and influence was being trumped by the genuine power of the gospel. No wonder he attacked the faith (the body of doctrine located in Christ). Paul took all he could take. With special inspiration from the Spirit, Paul condemned Elymas and predicted his blindness (see Acts 9:1-19a). Elymas’s situation was described in pitiful terms (groped about) and he needed help from others.
But no matter the enemy’s deception, the gospel is victorious. Sergius Paulus, the headmaster of the island and an intelligent man, saw and believed. He had the faith to discern the power of the gospel. Christmas had come to the island.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.