So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 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.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
We are tempted to read this passage from the perspective of Western naturalism and materialism. For many, it is much easier to take the story as coming from an age of superstition, dismissing its details in favour of a simple moralistic interpretation. But we would be mistaken. We live in a world that has become more spiritual and religious, not less so. The Bible challenges us to see this world differently than we often do with Western eyes, to see the world as the vast majority of people in the world see it. Then the Bible also provides us with what we need to interact with such a world.
As Christians, this passage reminds us that we have the Holy Spirit who dynamically guides and directs God’s people. We don’t always understand how the Spirit is working. But we can’t avoid the sense that the Holy Spirit actually sets up the confrontation between Paul and Bar-Jesus by directing Paul to Salamis. The same Holy Spirit who directs us is the Holy Spirit who provides us with all we need for the situations we face.
Continuing into the passage, we are struck by how Sergius Paulus is described as “a man of intelligence”. We cannot simply dismiss people who believe in the realm of the spirit as “simple” or “ignorant”. Intelligent people are spiritual people. Believing that there is more than we can see with our eyes requires intellect, reasoning and perception. We cannot explain people away as unenlightened. The passage also reminds us that even intelligent people might be deceived by false prophets and “magicians” (referring not to those who do party tricks but to those who seek to manipulate natural things in order to facilitate spiritual ends).
Supremely, this passage reminds us that the power of the one true living God is always greater than the power of false prophets and “magicians”. The Holy Spirit is the source of all good and truly beneficial spiritual power. All other forms of spiritual power emanate from the enemies of God seeking to make crooked that which God has made straight. These other forms of spiritual power lead to mist and darkness blinding people to the reality of God’s goodness and love. We see that there really is “good” and “evil” in the world. We come to understand that no spiritual practice is really “neutral”.
The passage leaves us with one final surprising revelation: The focus is on the teaching about Jesus. Although we as Christians take the spiritual realm seriously, this must never become our preoccupation. Our mission is to point people toward the truth about Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and rose from the dead so that people might have life to the fullest. What seems at first to be simply a “power” encounter becomes an encounter with “truth”, specifically the One who is True – Jesus Christ.
Almighty God, open our eyes to the spiritual realities around us, especially how your Holy Spirit is at work in the midst of them. Enable us to see the world from your perspective, not just the perspective of our Western naturalism. Inspire us as both intelligent and spiritual human beings, so that we might live boldly and faithfully for you. Help us to communicate the truth about Jesus to people from all parts of the world. May your Holy Spirit direct us to those whose minds are covered in mist and darkness so that they might believe in Jesus. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Rodney Woods is minister of City Temple in London