The First Missionary Journey, Opposition from Within and Without
Text: Acts 13:1–12; 13:43–52
Well, good morning. Last week we saw the gospel go to Gentiles when Peter met Cornelius and the Holy Spirit falls for the first time on these Gentiles. And now as we turn the page to Acts 13, and we are going to see the first missionary efforts to reach the Gentiles.
A pastor helped me this week to see the importance of this event. I know it may feel like every sermon in Acts is some drastically important historical event. And that is actually true. That's the way beginnings go.
Here’s a quote from this pastor,
It is almost impossible to overstate the historical importance of this moment in Antioch in the history of the world. Before this word from the Holy Spirit, there seems to have been no organized mission of the church beyond the eastern seacoast of the Mediterranean. Before this, Paul had made no missionary journeys westward to Asia Minor, Greece, or Rome, or Spain. Before this, Paul had not written any of his letters, which were all the result of his missionary travels beginning here.
This moment of prayer and fasting resulted in a missions movement that would make Christianity the dominant religion of the Roman Empire within two and a half centuries and would yield 1.3 billion adherents of the Christian religion today, with a Christian witness in virtually every country of the world. And 13 out of the 29 books of the New Testament were the result of the ministry that was launched in this moment of prayer and fasting.
So I think it's appropriate to say this is a big moment. But though there are sweet successes in the stories that we're studying, don't miss that both are preceded by opposition—from magicians to spiritual religious leaders. Opposition. And I tremble to think what would have happened if Paul and Barnabas would have turned around because of the opposition.
As we look at this first missionary journey, we're going to have two significant meetings. First, we're going to meet Bar-Jesus, then we're going to meet jealousy. As we meet them, we are going to see this main point: there are different forms of opposition and different responses, but one thing remains constant, a boldness with the gospel because God is working. Said more succinctly: opposition is an opportunity for boldness, not bashfulness, because God is working.
Let’s go back to our sentence that we are using to summarize the book of Acts—The Holy Spirit empowers his people to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to all people with all boldness and without hindrance. It is the Holy Spirit who brings boldness.
So point number one, we meet Bar-Jesus. Point number two, we meet jealousy. And we are going to see: opposition is an opportunity for boldness, not bashfulness. So before meeting Bar-Jesus, let's first get our sea legs under us and set the scene. Where are we, and what's going on?
The scene opens with a subtle tie to the gospel going global because we meet this crew, who's from all over. In verse one we have Barnabas. He's from Cyprus. “Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene.” They are both from Africa. Then we have Manaen, a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch—that means he is from Galilee. And Saul (or Paul) who is from Tarsus.
So remember back in Acts 1:8, the promise that the gospel is going to go global from Jerusalem, Judea, to the ends of the earth. Well, we're starting to see it in the group of people who are here. And they are said to be praying and fasting. And as they fasted and prayed, God revealed to them that despite the sweet diversity represented in the room, God deserves even more.
Here is what I mean. Look at Isaiah 49—
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”—Isaiah 49:6
The diversity in the room was great. But God is after the ends of the earth. So the Holy Spirit wants to send Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles, to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
And so they set out to go to Cyprus, which is where Barnabas is from. That seems like a great place to start. So we're starting in Barnabas’s hometown, Cyprus, and then next we go to Paul's old stomping grounds. But we begin in Cyprus. Look with me at verses 4–6—
“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”—Acts 13:4–6
I want to highlight these details because this is the Bible talking about real places and people. These are not fairy tales. The Bible is not just full of stories that people shared around campfires and everyone wonders if it is real or not. These are real people and real places on a map.
We start here in Antioch and travel 12 miles to the port there in Seleucia. Then, Paul and Barnabas sail about 120 miles to Cyprus, landing first in the city called Salamis. They start sharing the gospel and move about the island, eventually traveling the whole 90 miles or so to the city of Paphos. And it is here in Paphos that we meet our first character Bar-Jesus.
So that our scene. Let’s get to point one to meet Bar-Jesus and see Paul’s response to his opposition. Then, we are going to meet this jealous Jewish crowd, and we are going to see that opposition is an opportunity for boldness not bashfulness because our God is working.
Look at verse six and seven:
“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.”—Acts 13:6–7
So here’s the governor, Sergius Paulus, who is curious about what Paul and Barnabas are saying. But when he summons them, this guy named Bar-Jesus gets in the way.
Look at verse 8:
“But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.”—Acts 13:8
Here we have Paul and Barnabas, sent by the Holy Spirit. They've traveled hundreds of miles, began to visit some synagogues started talking to people about the news of Christ. And now they have a chance to meet with a governor, but they meet opposition.
It seems that right in this moment, Paul and Barnabas could have turned around and gone home. There's opposition. It's real.
We tend to read it by just going from one verse to the next, and it can kind of make us forget what it's like to just be a person in this moment. They are teaching, and there's this guy who's coming up against you, this magician, and you don’t know anything really except that he's clearly a false prophet, and he uses these magic powers, and he's getting in the way of what you're doing, and it's frustrating.
What are you supposed to do in this moment of this opposition? Well, as we are going to see in these two stories, there are different forms of opposition, and even different responses. But a few similarities are apparent. They do not back down from preaching the gospel. They do not simply turn away at the first sign of resistance. Opposition is an opportunity for boldness, not bashfulness because God is working.
So here's what boldness look like in this moment.
Look at verse 9–11:
“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.”—Acts 13:9–11
There’s Paul’s response: “you son of the devil.”...That’s not bashfulness; that’s boldness. He knows this guy cannot get in the way of God. God is working.
I’m not going to spend a ton of time unpacking this kind of response to opposition because I think the text really wants us to see that there are many forms of opposition and many responses. But the most basic response is boldness and continuing to preach the gospel. But I do think it is worth highlighting that there is a place for calling out false teaching with strong words and direct confrontation.
When sharing the gospel, there will be false teachers, those who are trying to lead others astray, who are making crooked these straight paths of the Lord. And sometimes they may pretend to be on the same team as you. But they are not, and they need to be rebuked.
This false teaching can sometimes even sneak into our churches. Here is Paul talking to the church in Galatia:
“As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”—Galatians 1:9–10
That is a response that we give to false teachers who are corrupting the truth that we have in the Gospel. Now, there are plenty of things that Christians can disagree about, and we don't need to be walking around calling everyone a son of the devil all the time. We can disagree. We may disagree about speaking in tongues, how to do children’s ministry, what songs we want to sing on Sunday. But there are some core truths—Jesus's death and resurrection and trusting in him—that if someone's deviating from that, we must be bold to stand up for the gospel.
Now, look what happens after the opposition. God’s plan is not interrupted or distracted. In fact, he uses the opposition to bring about his plan—the salvation of this Gentile governor. Look at verse 12:
“Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”—Acts 13:12
Opposition does not mark a failure in God’s plan. In fact, God used this blinding to bring this governor to him. But the central piece that changed this governor’s heart comes at the end of the verse: “he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” Because Paul and Barnabas did not back down from upholding God’s word, the word spread.
Okay, so we’ve had our first significant meeting, Bar-Jesus. Now let’s go to the second one—the jealous Jewish crowd.
In Acts 13:13, Paul and his companions set sail from “Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia”. So once again, we've gotten back into the boat, gone across the sea, and we are in Perga. We pick up our story after Paul and Barnabas have gone to a synagogue and preached the gospel, and people want them to come back the next day.
Here we are in verses 43–45—
“And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God. The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him.”—Acts 13:43–45
The whole city has gathered to hear Paul and Barnabas, so it’s not hard to picture the jealousy of these Jews.
So here is Paul and Barnabas’ response to the opposition, verse 46—
“And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly”—Acts 13:46
Here are these Jews, and as Paul and Barnabas are teaching, they're shouting out counterpoints. Back and forth, back and forth. And Paul and Barnabas’s response: boldness. But we will see in a minute that Paul and Barnabas respond quite differently in the end to this opposition. There is no “son of the devil” talk. But in both situations, they responded with boldness, not bashfulness.
Here is how the story plays out. Look at verses 46–49—
“And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, ‘For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.”—Acts 13:47–49
Their response in this scenario was to say to the Jews, we're moving on. You're rejecting the gospel. We're moving to the Gentiles. They don't go into a big confrontation where they silence the Jews. There's no rebuking them as there was with Bar-Jesus. Instead, Paul and Barnabas change strategies and move on to the Gentiles.
And this is a significantly historical event where Paul begins to fully own his mission to the Gentiles, which God promised at his conversion. In fact, he takes that quote about taking the gospel to the ends of the earth as his mission.
Once again, we see that opposition is not a problem for our God. God is working. God has a plan. Opposition is an occasion for boldness because our God is bigger than opposition.
The Jews thought they might have won the battle by getting Paul and Barnabas to go to the Gentiles. But far from stopping the gospel spreading, this is the next movement in the gospel spreading.
Oh, I wish we had time to go to Romans 9–11 and walk through Paul unfolding God’s plan to reach Jew and Gentile. If you are someone who loves to have some homework from a sermon, there it is: go home and read through Romans 9–11. You will see how God knew the Jews would reject the gospel so that it would go to the Gentiles. But that does not mean God is done with the Jews.
But for now, I want us to see that Paul and Barnabas don’t shut down at the first sign of opposition. They take the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas go to the Gentiles, and they preach. In fact, many come to know the Lord. But the persecution from these religious leaders continues. Look at verse 49–51:
“And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples [Paul and Barnabas leaving after all this persecution] were filled with joy, and with the Holy Spirit.”—Acts 13:49–51
As persecution begins to stir up, Paul and Barnabas decide to move on, but make no mistake that they were bold with the gospel. It says that the word went forth.
But their response to this opposition, which is a different kind of opposition, was not the same as their response to Bar-Jesus. In this story, there was no name-calling; instead they simply turned to the Gentiles. Despite the fact that this is a different kind of opposition and a different kind of response, there are some striking similarities, the most obvious is that they never gave up. They remained bold with the gospel.
And make sure you get this—in both cases, people turn in belief, even while there were some who didn't turn and believe.
And I can't help but turn and ask myself, “What would I do if I'm in a situation of opposition? How would I react when opposition's coming against me?”
Would I cave? And I'm wondering how you would answer that question.
Stay with me now. Because it would be very easy for us to answer the question by just piling on guilt. We could go about remembering times when opposition came, and we folded or crumbled or didn't stand up.
But this morning the goal is not to sit here and wallow in pity that we are not bold enough to stand firm in the gospel. The point this morning is to see how our great God helps us amidst opposition. I have been saying all along that opposition is an opportunity for boldness, not bashfulness, because God is working. That last phrase is there on purpose. God is working in us and working a plan, therefore opposition cannot stop him.
If I was to answer, “how would I do alone, in the middle opposition”, I can tell you right now, I would crumble. But if you were to ask me, “What would I do if God lives in me”, that changes everything.
Look back at verse 9, this is right before he rebukes and blinds Bar-Jesus:
“But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit,”—Acts 13:9
Or verse 47, when he is responding the the Jewish opposition:
“For so the Lord has commanded us,”—Acts 13:47
These are not throwaway statements. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whether your opposition looks like a magician whose name is Bar-Jesus or it looks like something totally different, opposition will come. Those who have the Spirit of God can stand boldly and defend the gospel.
Now let me try to bring this home. Stop using opposition as an excuse for not sharing your faith, not because you are special or big or strong or intelligent, but because our God is bigger, oh, so much bigger than opposition!
There will always be opposition when we share our faith, and the proper response to that opposition is to continue to be bold with the gospel.
I know the feeling of thinking about sharing my faith and thinking about the opposition that is going to come.
I remember recently I was at the library, and a guy was sitting alone, clearly lonely and bored. I remember sitting there trying to concentrate on work but thinking I should really talk to him, invite him to church or to come to a Life Group. But I kept putting it out of my mind, and I finished my work and walked out to my car.
I was so intimidated about the “opposition” that would come from approaching this guy. I don’t know what I thought would happen. I probably had a dozen scenarios in my mind. But I let them keep me from approaching him. So I know the feeling of fearing opposition. But as I got closer to my car, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. So I asked God for strength and words, and I awkwardly marched back into the library.
I took some time to talk to the guy, and it was awkward. It was stretching, but it was fine. No major opposition. Now, I never saw that guy again, but I look back at that moment as a time when “opposition” could have kept me from sharing the gospel.
But now, in hindsight, when I look back, I think of how silly I was to ever be scared. When I look at this text, I’m reminded that our God is so much bigger than any opposition that could have come my way.
May we take encouragement this morning as we look at the text that opposition does not get in the way of our God. Opposition does not mean failure. Opposition means an opportunity to be bold with the gospel.
There is opposition from Bar-Jesus standing in the way of the proconsul. God breaks through, and the proconsul sees the truth, turns, and repents. What the enemy put out as opposition, God used for good to bring the proconsul to the truth.
Or we have jealous Jews rise up and begin to contend against Paul and Barnabas, but then Gentile after Gentile after Gentile come to know the Lord. “As many of us were appointed to eternal life,” is what the text says.
May we be encouraged that when, not if, but when we receive opposition, to not lose heart but press into the Holy Spirit for boldness to continue without hindrance. This will not be because of our own strength but by the Holy Spirit.
May we be a church that never says, “I don't evangelize because I'm afraid.” May we put that behind us. May we be those who say, “No opposition is going to get in my way. We are going out boldly with the gospel.”
I’m wondering if you remember when we started this series that I challenged you to pray for one person that you want to pursue with the gospel. May I challenge you this week, from this text, to not let fear of opposition stop you from sharing the gospel. If you haven’t, the next few weeks are a great time to step out and share the gospel directly with that person you’ve been praying for. Just remember that our God is bigger than any opposition that may come.
I cannot say exactly what opposition is going to look like for you. Chances are most of you will not be coming up against magicians named Bar-Jesus. You probably won't be coming up against a large Jewish crowd that's wanting to kick you out of town. But you are probably going to get people at your work or people who you meet, and they are going to think, “This guy's just a Jesus Freak.” And then they are just going to want to dismiss you as some kind of religious fanatic. You may lose a friend. And that is a real form of opposition.
Or you get people who look at your worldview and think you hate people. They think that you hate people because you have convictions that disagree with them. They're going to call you unloving, and they may cut you out. You might have people when you talk to them about the gospel that don’t want to hear what you have to say, and they get angry that you are even bringing it up.
But in those moments of opposition, remember they are not signs of failure. Paul and Barnabas did not say opposition equals failure. Opposition never meant “I'm doing something wrong.” Far from it. Often, opposition meant they were preaching the true gospel.
And here's what I think we will experience often when we're sharing our faith: I think often, opposition to the gospel will be more subtle, than perhaps we think. I remember listening to Andrew Knight talk one time about sharing the gospel. He mentioned an example of someone that when you mention Jesus just gets very mad and livid and yells at you and doesn’t want to hear you share about the gospel. He said it just very rarely happens in his experience, thousands of conversations. It's just very rare. Most people are kinder than that in saying no. Or they might, and many do, go the next step and talk more. And it is in those conversations that we begin to get experience these subtle oppositions to the gospel. At that point, the truth is going out, and it’s confronting their sin. They are feeling. They're being challenged because their flesh has put in a lot of things in their life.
And it is those moments, when conviction is happening, and they're pushing back against the gospel, that you cannot compromise. It is the gospel that's convicting them. It is the gospel that's going to save them.
May we be encouraged to not shy away from sharing the gospel because of opposition. May these words from Paul encourage us as we apply this to our lives:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”—Romans 1:16
So that's our second significant meeting, jealousy. Finally, very briefly, I want us to meet joy.
Look at verse 50.
“And the disciples [Paul and Barnabas leaving after all this persecution] were filled with joy, and with the Holy Spirit.”—Acts 13:50
Far from stealing their joy, because they are filled with the Holy Spirit, they can look at opposition and have joy in God.
When it feels daunting knowing opposition will come, whether it will be extreme or subtle or minor or frequent or infrequent, know this promise: God is dwelling in you, none of it can steal your joy.
In fact, joy can come from it. You can leave rejoicing in your God, despite opposition.
I would be remiss not to say, if you don't know this Jesus, don't wait. Resist no longer. Come to Christ. If you would turn to him today, then you would have forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Hear Paul and Barnabas’s central message from Acts 13:
“Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”—Acts 13:38–39