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“The Nature of the Opposition”

Acts 13:4-12
Bob DeGray
January 9, 2005

Key Sentence

Wise witnesses know the nature of the opposition.


I. God’s Word Proclaimed (Acts 13:4-5)
II. The Nature of the Opposition (Acts 13:6-10)
III. God’s Word Victorious (Acts 13:11-12)


        The wise and respected football coach is a staple of literature and movies. In our own family we’ve enjoyed Rudy, with it’s portrayal of coach Ara Parseghian; Radio, with Coach Jones, and Remember the Titans, with Denzel Washington as coach Herman Boone. This year’s football movie was Friday Night Lights, which we haven’t gotten to see yet, but I understand it prominently features the coach of the Permian Panthers, Gary Gaines. And one of the things you always see these coaches doing is studying game films. They give you the impression that study of the films of next week’s opposing team makes a huge difference in the outcome of the game. These wise coaches know that understanding the nature of the opposition - their strengths, their weaknesses, their characteristic plays and tell tale line-ups - will enable the home team to prepare in a way that assures victory.

        Now not many of us in this room are football coaches. But there are other fields of life where knowing the opposition can make a huge difference. If you’re a salesman you’ve got to know your competitor’s products. If you’re a politician you’ve got to know the other party’s tricks. If you’re a soldier, you’ve got to know your enemy’s tactics. But even if you’re none of those things, if you’re here today, there’s an enemy you need to know - his tricks, his tactics, his products. And today we’re going to look at a little game film, and try to determine the nature of the opposition. The game is living the Christian life, and sharing the Christian faith. The opposing team is Satan and the world system he’s created. And the lesson to be learned from Acts 13:4-12 is that wise witnesses know the nature of the opposition.

I. God’s Word Proclaimed (Acts 13:4-5)

        We’ve just begun this series in Acts 13 - 20. We set the stage last week as we saw how the Spirit prepared to launch his mission to the Gentiles, by providing leaders like Barnabas and Saul, and a church like Antioch that was willing to listen, and to set them apart for the work to which the Spirit had called them to himself. Now, beginning in Acts 13:4, we see that mission unfolding, as Barnabas and Saul share God’s word on the island of Cyprus. Acts 13:4-5. The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.

        Antioch is on the coast of Turkey, facing the Mediterranean, and Cyprus is an island off that same coast. It may seem odd for this mission to start on an island when all of Europe and Asia were at their doorstep, but there were at least two good reasons. First, Barnabas was from Cyprus, as we’re told in Acts 4. So he was returning to Cyprus as a native missionary, which is almost always an effective way to witness.

        Second, in the Mediterranean area it was easier to travel by boat than by land. Despite the great roads built by the Romans, it was a hard and slow task to get places on foot. By sea, harnessing the wind’s power, one could get around the empire faster and with less effort. So you’ll often see Barnabas and Paul and others traveling by boat.

        The island of Cyprus was occupied from ancient times and coveted by many nations as a trading center. Before the Roman Empire conquered it in 58 b.c., Cyprus had been in the hands of the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Persians. In the 4th century b.c. Alexander the Great had taken the island and imposed Greek culture. Under Roman rule it was a peaceful senatorial province.

        Barnabas and Saul arrived at the port of Salamis, once the capital, and still a great Roman city. They traveled by foot, probably along the south coast, until they arrived at Paphos, another great harbor at the other end of the island. Along the way, Luke tells us, they proclaimed the Word of God in the Jewish synagogues. From the very beginning Paul’s pattern was to go to Jews first, and offer them the salvation God had promised them, in Jesus, and then to take the same message to the Gentiles. One of the ways God had prepared the world for the spread of the Gospel was to disperse the Jews, so that there were Jewish populations in nearly every city of the empire, and almost always a synagogue where Paul could preach.

        Luke describes it here as proclaiming the Word of God. These men didn’t see themselves as bringing something of their own to this island, but rather something God had provided. It was his message, not theirs. So whether they were citing the Old Testament and its fulfillment, as they frequently did, or quoting the words of Jesus, or sharing the insight God had given them, they realized that their mission was to proclaim His Word. Luke doesn’t use it here, but he will sometimes use a related word that means specifically ‘proclaiming Good News.’

II. The Nature of the Opposition (Acts 13:6-10)

        Now we would expect Luke to share the content of that message right away, here on this first missionary journey. But he’s already recorded the Gospel message in Acts a number of times, and will do so again in next week’s text. This week the focus is not on the message of God’s word, but on the opposition to that message. Verses 6 to 10. They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10"You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?

        Nearly the first thing that happens when we try to live or share the message of God’s word is opposition. By looking at these verses we can find some principles that will help us know and identify our enemy, know the nature of the opposition. Notice first that often the opposition isn’t from a distant source, but from someone or something close to you. Here the opponent is a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar Jesus. The fact that he is a Jewish false prophet means he knows one foundational document of the faith, the Old Testament, nearly as well as Paul does. Often opposition comes from someone who knows the Word as well as you do, or better.

        And notice that this Bar-Jesus, known as Elymas, is an attendant to the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul is the one who is interested in Paul’s message. He apparently learned that Paul and Barnabas were on the island, and was intellectually intrigued by their good news. He wanted to hear the Word of God. But as is so often the case when someone is exploring Christianity, there is someone or something close to him that is opposed to that desire. It may be a friend or a relationship that holds that person away from faith, but it could also be a circumstance: an addiction to alcohol or drugs or pornography; a debt or financial bondage that tests your integrity; a history of abuse or broken relationships that makes it hard to trust anyone; an ingrained skepticism that rejects all notions of truth. It’s these personal issues, our greatest needs that often stand between us and the answer to those needs, Jesus.

        I can think of at least three cases in which we need to be sensitive to the existence of this kind of ‘close’ opposition. First, when we’re sharing about Jesus in words or deeds, we need to be praying for the person we’re sharing with, that the enemy would not have someone or something close to them to keep them from embracing the truth. Second, if you’re not a believer, but you’re intrigued by the good news about Jesus, you need to look around and identify who it is in your life or what it is in your life that is a barrier to faith, and you need to ask God’s help to overcome it. Third, if you’re a believer, but not growing as a Christian you need to look around too and see if one of these close opponents is still clinging to you. The nature of the opposition is that it often appears close at hand, as Elymas did to Sergius Paulus.

        Second, I want you to notice the opposition’s tactics. Elymas didn’t stand and debate Paul over the merits or truth of his message. No, the opposition is more subtle. Verse 8 says that the way Elymas opposed them was to try to turn the proconsul from the faith, so that in verse 9 Paul accuses Elymas of perverting the right ways of the Lord. The Greek word is the same in both verses, diastrepho, and it means to distort something, to make it crooked, to misinterpret it. It only takes a little turn from the truth to distract somebody into missing the Gospel.

        I remember the recent failure of a Mars probe because two different computer programs that controlled it’s trajectory were using two different units of force in their calculations. As a result of this subtle difference the probe was about fifty miles off course by the time it tried to enter Mars orbit - more than enough to send it burning to the surface.

        The enemy doesn’t often try to directly oppose the message about Jesus, but to subtly re-direct it so it is unacceptable to the hearer. Not ‘Christianity is wrong’, but ‘Oh, this stuff about Jesus could be an interesting part of your own personal philosophy.’ Let me give you a couple of examples. Liberal theology, from the 1900's on, was enamored with science and reason and rejected the supernatural and the miraculous. These so-called Christians, Protestants, didn’t reject Jesus or the church, they just redefined them, teaching about a so-called ‘historical Jesus’, one whose miracles and salvation had been stripped away until he was merely a good man done wrong, and the church merely a society for righting social ills and wrongs.

        In response to this, in our own generation, we have the rise of post-modern, relativistic thinking. Once again such thinking does not overtly reject Jesus or Christianity, but it places them on a par with, or slightly below, every other idea about God and morality. This results on the one hand in things like the Bahai faith. The front page of their website says “Bahá'u'lláh taught that there is one God Who progressively reveals His will to humanity. Each of the great religions brought by the Messengers of God - Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad - represents a successive stage in the spiritual development of civilization.”

        But the same attitude that spawns false religions also leads to a Christmas season in which the very word ‘Christmas’ was attacked as narrow minded, not respecting diversity. Carol Sanger, spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores, parent company to Macy’s, says they instruct employees to “use phrases such as ‘Season's Greetings’ and ‘Happy Holidays’ interchangeably with "Merry Christmas" in order to be "more reflective of the multicultural society in which we live." She says the chain aims to "embrace all" the . . . holidays that occur in November and December.”

        This is so typical of the way the opposition deals with Jesus - downplay him, put him on a par with everything else, divert people from his truth claims. In sharing Jesus, or in considering Jesus, you need to ask, ‘has the focus gotten off the message of God’s word and been placed on some other understanding of who Jesus is and what his claims mean?’ As soon as the Gospel message steps away from God’s word into man’s ideas, it is no longer the Gospel. The enemy’s plan is not to deny Jesus entirely, but to so surround him with other things that people do not see the truth.

        In this context Dan Brown’s best selling novel The DaVinci Code is truly a classic. Resurrecting old lies of the enemy - some of them nearly two thousand years old - Brown clothes them in a modern day mystery-adventure with the result that uninformed readers will be just a little more sure that our knowledge of Jesus and his nature and his purposes are artifacts of human self-interest on the part of Dead White Males. Though the facts of history plainly contradict Brown’s theories, the entertaining presentation of these lies can deflect some from the truth.

        So the opposition is often someone or something close to you and uses slight deviations from the truth to draw you away from the message about Jesus in the Word of God. But does this enemy have a name? Verse 9: Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10'You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!’” The enemy is Satan. He’s the mastermind behind individual and cultural schemes to keep people from Jesus.

        Now I’m not saying that Satan himself is personally involved in every encounter. The good news is that Satan is finite: while immensely powerful and treacherous, he is not omnipotent, omnipresent nor omniscient, as God is. The bad news is that Satan has powerful allies in his opposition. These are fairly accurately summarized as the world, the flesh and the devil. He’s got demons who are personally involved in opposing God’s word; he has a world system, tailored for each culture to promote sin and error, and finally he has the loyal allegiance of each person’s fallen nature.

        So if we’re going to know the enemy, we’re going to have to know something about Satan and his schemes. We don’t have a lot of time to think about that this morning, but you can get some insight real quickly by looking at the various names and titles Satan is given in Scripture. The title Satan, which means accuser or adversary-at-law is found first in Job 1:6, and used often. Revelation 12:10 calls him the accuser of the brethren. Matthew 4:3 names him ‘the tempter’. Matthew 13:39 says that he is ‘the’ enemy. In John 8:44 Jesus says “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” The father of lies. But 2 Corinthians 11:14 says that he disguises himself as an angel of light. 2 Timothy 2:26 says that he sets traps for God’s people. And 1 Peter 5:8 tells us that ‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.’

        One other title for Satan in the New Testament is ‘deceiver’. John uses it in 2nd John 1:7. And here, in our verses in Acts, Paul goes on to say, verse 10 “You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” The last trait we need to see is that our opponent is tricky and deceitful. He won’t oppose us by force when he can get his way by lies or by deceiving someone. That’s apparently what Elymas was trying to do to Sergius Paulus - to trick him into dismissing the ‘right ways of God’ these men were preaching.

        There are so many examples of this in our culture. One that struck me a few months back was the one I found on the Northhampton, Massachusetts web site. Northhampton was the home for many years of Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest Christians and theologians and thinkers our country has ever produced. But here’s what the town web site says about him:

        “Famed minister Jonathan Edwards, whose stern writings inspired a religious fervor called the "Great Awakening", lived in Northampton for 23 years. In the early 1700s he preached fire and brimstone from his pulpit at the Congregational Church. Ultimately, however, his parishioners became fed up with his scare tactics, harsh judgement of alleged sinners and personal extravagance. They dismissed him.”Everything in that paragraph except the 23 years is distorted or slanted. It’s a complete re-writing of history, a constant ploy of the enemy. The quote also shows the demeaning language often used in media. The Great Awakening was a ‘religious fervor’. The people were ‘fed up’ with Edwards for preaching ‘fire and brimstone’ ‘scare tactics’. But Edwards wasn’t fired for that - it was over a point of practical theology. The media colors words and facts to demean Christianity.

        And it does this all the time. A Chronicle columnist, Penny Barrett Hornesby, wrote in an article about a Bush rally last September“One would hope that attacking someone’s values, integrity, and morals would somehow be outside the reach of someone allegedly taking a walk on the moral high ground with his personal Savior. One would hope that a purportedly man of Christian spirituality would understand that we are not here to be judge, jury, attacker and occupier but we are here to love and live up to the example of our Savior Jesus Christ.” Typical distortion: “If you were really a Christian you wouldn’t defend Christian values.” How is that again?

        So you have to watch the opposition. Some of what you read every day is demeaning talk that weakens faith. I read an interview with Time magazine’s senior editor about who would be “Man of the Year.” The interviewer said “Time held a lunch panel to discuss the candidates. According to one report, the frontrunners included God and Jesus. Why?” The editor replied “It came partly out of the success of the Mel Gibson film. I've joked before that we tend not to do dead people. But in the case of Jesus he's apparently coming back. . . .I think it's very problematic to do God. Partly because I suppose you could do God every year. And . . . people in different religions view God differently. So you’d have to ask: Who is God? And the interview would be very, very difficult.” Let’s not take God seriously, shall we? Sophisticated readers of Time will imitate the editor and laugh Jesus off.

III. God’s Word Victorious (Acts 13:11-12)

        So we’ve seen a few things about the nature of the opposition. That it will often come from someone or something close; that it will involve just a small course change to pull someone away from the truth of God’s message; that behind the opposition is the enemy - Satan, and that he practices deceit and lies hidden as half truths. But God is not daunted by opposition. Verses 11 and 12: Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun." Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

        It is rare for error to be confronted in this way, with physical blindness, but not rare for God to give those who seek him spiritual sight. The miracle was simply used by God to validate the message. Even today, in similar pioneer situations, God will often confront error in a miraculous way. But in this text the contrast between the false prophet being made blind and the seeker being given sight is intentional on Luke’s part. He says ‘when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed.’

        And notice that his amazement was not explicitly over the miracle. Luke says ‘he believed, being amazed at the teaching about the Lord.’ The miracle may have confirmed his desire to believe, but it was the content of Paul’s teaching that got his attention, and to which he really responded. Luke doesn’t record that teaching in this episode - but he does record it in the verses we’ll look at next week, in Pisidian Antioch. We’ll see there that Paul emphasizes Jesus death and resurrection, that these things were done for the forgiveness of sins, and that freedom come by faith to all who believe.

        This gospel that receives so much opposition is really a very simple thing. The Bible teaches that all have sinned, done wrong by God’s standards and by the standards of their consciences. Such sin is rebellion against God and the just penalty for it is death. But God loved us and sent his Son so we would not have to eternally receive that penalty. The Son, Jesus, died on the cross to pay the penalty and purchase for us the forgiveness of our sins. He rose to give us this blessing, not through our own merit, but by admitting that we are lost sinners and receiving his forgiveness by faith, by a conscious choice to trust Jesus, and to trust in what he did on the cross.

        That’s the Gospel: often opposed, but never completely suppressed, and powerful now, as we share it, to overcome the opposition you face, or the opposition someone you’re talking to might face. It’s wise to know the nature of the opposition. It’s even wiser to know the victor who already defeated the opposition - Jesus our Lord.