I am far from a well-travelled, frequent missionary exposure sort of fellow; but I have had about five or six missions-oriented, foreign visits in my lifetime. And some of the most unusual experiences of my life have been in these places where the activity of the kingdom of darkness is much closer to the surface than in our western, post-modern context.
I’ve witnessed open witchcraft in Puerto Rico, was warned to be cautious about KGB agents sitting in the back row during a church service in Uzbekistan, saw a near riot develop from our conversation being overheard at an Islamic holy place in Ankara, Turkey, and went one by one on differing walking routes so as to not make a scene when meeting with Turkish pastors in a secret underground location in Istanbul.
The Evil One is very real, and he and his minions are especially hostile to the spread of the gospel in parts of the world they have particularly held as a long-term stronghold. This is the real enemy of the gospel; and as Paul, Barnabas and John Mark set out on what we know as “the first missionary journey,” they will immediately run into Satanically-based opposition.
From Antioch in Syria, they travelled west to the Northeast coastal corner of the Mediterranean Sea, sailing slightly to the southwest and landing in Cyprus at Salamis – on the eastern side of the island. From there they would go to Paphos on the western half. The story is in Acts chapter 13 …
13:4 – The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.
13:6 – They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who 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. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 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! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11 Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able 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. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.
It might have been a bit fearful for Saul and Barnabas to discover that the Roman government authority named Sergius Paulus was asking for a performance of their teaching. It could have been that this teaching was raising a stir in the Jewish circles of his community and he needed to know what was really happening (possibly because his attendant was this Jewish false prophet and sorcerer named Bar-Jesus / Elymas – who had alerted him … maybe with a view toward the proconsul stomping this out). But God’s sovereign hand was in this as well.
Bar-Jesus in Aramaic meant “son of Jesus.” And Paul, filled with the Spirit, took aim at him and said essentially that he was no son of Jesus, but rather that he was a child of the devil! What follows is a power encounter – that the power of the Spirit through Paul was greater than any magical Satanic powers Elymas possessed. This scene had the effect of bringing the Proconsul to faith in Christ.
It could not have been lost on Paul that he was preaching out of a synagogue to Jews, gets called in front of a Gentile ruler who is converted, the Proconsul’s name just happens to be the same as his own Greek name of “Paulus,” the whole scene therefore affirming the calling he had from the Road to Damasus that he was going to be sent to reach Gentiles. This was clearly a work of God.
From this point forward, the Jewish name Saul is dropped in the narrative in preference for Paul. Barnabas becomes secondary to Paul’s leadership as the journey takes on an increasingly Gentile focus beyond synagogue preaching.
We today in the Tri-State area may not have too many head-on encounters with demonic workers, but that does not mean that we do not have a real enemy around us from the kingdom of darkness. Paul would later write that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but is rather against powers that are of the spiritual realm. Let us not forget the true enemy as we seek to be missionaries of the gospel in the places God calls us.