Monday, December 01, 2014

The Hand of the Lord

Raphael: St Paul Before the Proconsul, 1515
I’ve been asked to open a Bible study on Acts 13:4-12 and decided to take the opportunity to share some of the thoughts that arise.

These nine verses mark the beginning of what is often called Paul’s first missionary journey, which began in Syrian Antioch. They relate the story of Elymas the magician.

It is unclear whether “magician” in this context means that Elymas gave wise counsel, knew a few parlour tricks or actually possessed genuine demonic power. The word magos, which the KJV translates “sorcerer”, is also translated “wise men” when Matthew employs it to describe those who came to worship the Lord Jesus as a baby (I suspect Matthew uses magos to mean “astronomers” or “scientists” rather than those who trafficked in witchcraft). In Acts 8, however, when used to describe Simon the magician who “amazed people with his magic”, it clearly speaks of gimmickry or something much worse.

In any case, Elymas had an encounter with the hand of the Lord that did not go as expected.

The Backstory

Antioch, the city from which the journey began, is 300 miles north of Jerusalem, in Syria. From there, Paul, along with Barnabas and John Mark, headed west to Seleucia, which was probably less than a day’s journey, being Antioch’s Mediterranean seaport. From there they sailed southwest about 100 km to the island of Cyprus, which may have been a natural place to begin evangelizing as it was the birthplace of Barnabas.

Modern map of Cyprus, courtesy the CIA. Paphos retains its
original name; Salamis was located very near modern Famagusta.
Cyprus, if you’re not familiar with it, is the third largest island in the Mediterranean. It is about 9,250 square kilometres of mountainous, then-heavily forested territory, well populated enough to have been divided into ten different ancient kingdoms. Luke says they landed at the port of Salamis on the island’s east coast. The city of Salamis had more than one synagogue, which suggests Cyprus was home to a significant number of Hebrews and/or Jewish proselytes.

From there they crossed Cyprus, ending up at Paphos on the west coast, a distance of about 240 km on foot if they had merely travelled in a straight line, but they may not have done that. It says they “went through the whole island”, which seems to suggest they took opportunities to preach as they presented themselves, perhaps stopping at most of the Jewish synagogues along the way, rather than working toward a specific destination within a particular timeframe. Scholars figure Paul’s first missionary journey took the best part of three years, so they probably spent a number of months in Cyprus.

At the end of their journey through the island, having reached Paphos, Paul and Barnabas were summoned by the proconsul (the Roman governor), whose name was Sergius Paulus. He was an intelligent man who wanted to hear the word of God.

But he also had a companion who went by the name of Bar-Jesus, a Jewish false prophet and the aforementioned magos. Bar-Jesus also went by the name of Elymas. We’re not told why, but Elymas took the opportunity to try to discourage Sergius Paulus from his interest in the faith.

A Bit About Names

I’m not one for reading allegorically into the names of every Bible character. While some names are undoubtedly significant (and these are mostly singled out for us), I believe the primary meaning of any historical account in scripture is to be found by examining the events themselves and the moral lessons drawn from them by the writers of the word of God rather than by looking for allegory willy-nilly, unless of course for some reason the Spirit of God sees fit to specifically point to spiritual significance in a particular name.

In this passage, Luke drops a few names deliberately, though I don’t want to be overly imaginative in examining them:

·         Bar-Jesus simply means “son of Jesus” (or Joshua, or Yeshua). Its form is that of a surname, but since Jesus and its variants were common names among Jews of the day, it is unclear whether this was, as some have suggested, a stage name Elymas had adopted that played off the increasing fame of Jesus of Nazareth (which seems highly unlikely given that he opposed the Lord the moment he was confronted by those who actually represented him), or whether his father simply happened to also be a man named Jesus.

·         Elymas, Luke tells us, means “magician” or “sorcerer”, so this at least must have been a stage name. This meaning is not immediately apparent to Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic scholars, so some Bible students have gone to great lengths to explain how its etymology derives from an obscure Arabic word (Elymas means “wise” in Arabic, and may be used to translate magos, or magician). Others have jumped through hoops to find a meaning in Greek or Hebrew via the word’s component parts. I’m perfectly comfortable taking Luke’s word that “Elymas” means “magician” and leaving it at that. The statement of the Holy Spirit is several orders of magnitude more authoritative than Bible dictionaries compiled by scholars almost two millennia after these words were actually used.

·         Saul, Luke tells us, was also called Paul. This comes across as an aside in the passage but it is really a watershed. After this verse, Paul is never referred to by his Hebrew name again, except while quoting the words of the Lord in his own testimony, and prior to this he has not used the name “Paul” at all. The name is a Roman diminutive. “Sergius Paulus”, for instance, meant “Little Sergius” (which sounds a little too proto-mafia for me) or, perhaps more accurately, “Sergius the Lesser”. So Paul means “little”, “less” or “small”.

I’m not sure it’s vitally important, but it’s interesting that while Elymas evidently took a name that made an impression, Saul took a name that didn’t. Later Paul tells the Corinthians:
“God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
and that is certainly the case in this story, whether the irony is intentional or not. So the name may have been chosen out of humility, or maybe Paul recognized that among the Gentiles a Roman name was a more relatable choice, or perhaps he had another reason entirely. We’re not told.

“Filled with the Holy Spirit”

Paul gives Elymas a verbal raking over the coals that, if we were not specifically assured was a product of being “filled with the Holy Spirit”, might cause us to think that he was being unreasonably harsh or judgmental. According to Paul, Elymas is a “son of the devil”, an “enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy” who is engaged in “making crooked the straight paths of the Lord”.

We need to bear this sort of thing in mind when seeking to understand the famous command, “Judge not, that you be not judged”. If God cannot change, and if Paul was led to say these things while filled with the Holy Spirit — and scripture assures us of both — it is absurd to insist that the Lord’s words in Matthew 7 mean “don’t ever criticize”.

I think we might reasonably draw the conclusion that a man who calls himself a prophet of God but actively tries to dissuade his fellow man from believing in Jesus Christ, whatever the reason, is absolutely deserving of whatever rebuke one might deliver, including “son of the devil” (just as it is eminently reasonable to conclude from the statement “We are coming and we will destroy you, with permission from Allah the almighty” that Islam may not be quite the religion of peace we are constantly assured it is). While we should never make unproven assumptions about the motives of others, we should certainly take their words and actions at face value, as Paul did here.

Instead of trying to interpret the words of the Lord from the cultural baggage they have acquired in our day, we ought to understand them in the context of the Lord’s own words and actions and those of his Spirit through his followers.

Making Straight Paths Crooked

In any case, Paul’s words to Elymas here are very strong indeed. I can think of several reasons for this:

1.    Elymas was trying to undo the work done by John the Baptist, whom Paul references later in the same chapter. John made paths straight in order that all might have a view of the Messiah. Elymas sought to blind a seeker whose view was, by the grace of God, unimpeded. Paul says, “… will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”

2.    Those who stumble others set themselves up for serious judgment. While we all have the freedom to choose not to believe, actively dissuading others from believing is a recipe for great moral disaster.

3.    Those who presume to teach also set themselves up for serious judgment. Elymas was a false prophet, which under Old Testament Law would have resulted in his being put to death. He was also a Jew and like many other Jews of the day, ought to have known better

The Hand of the Lord

It’s worth noting that while Paul speaks very strongly to Elymas, at no point does he promote himself or rely on his own authority in judging the magos. Paul declines to mention himself at all, simply stating that “the hand of the Lord is upon you”. While those of the world seek power to advance their own causes, those who are truly speaking for the Lord employ power almost as an afterthought, with no interest in self-aggrandizement or making an impression. This is not the case with those who claim to exercise power on behalf of God today.

It is also worth noting that while Elymas was judged, and “mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand”, it was only “for a time”. He got off comparatively lightly. But whatever hopes Elymas may have had with respect to currying favour with the Roman governor or impressing the Cypriots were surely dashed.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the man who sought to blind others was himself blinded, just as Paul was temporarily blinded on the road to Damascus. Did Elymas learn his lesson? As is often the case in scripture, we are left to our imagination where that is concerned. In any case, Sergius Paulus believed, and was “astonished at the teaching of the Lord”.

If Elymas had a deal with the devil, it seems he was shortchanged in the power department. He had no more luck standing up to the “hand of the Lord” than anyone else who opposed the apostles.

As is often the case in the spiritual realm, the wise men of the world turn out to be insubstantial, while the “little” man of God stands tall.

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