The Gospel Wins When Facing Opposition
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 13:4–13:12
Last Sunday we gathered to pray for the persecuted church, for God to strengthen his people in the face of suffering. We didn’t know it, but while we prayed for the persecuted, a man was walking into First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs to murder half the congregation. “Oh Father, help your people endure. Help them respond in mercy. Help them hold fast to Christ,” I heard you pleading.
Tragedies like this do more than sadden us. They sicken us to the core of our being. They twist our guts and remind us how warped sin makes the world—and that’s especially true when you read about the children. Tragedies silence us because no simple answers exist for the question, “Why’d this happen?” Yes, God is sovereign; he’s in control. But why this way? We don’t know…
Such tragedies also frighten us. And no doubt, the fear of death is part of Satan’s agenda in this. In Hebrews 2:14, he enslaves people with the fear of death. So, I can’t help but see the demonic involved in this shooting. Don’t get me wrong, that man was responsible for his murder. But the Bible also says that the devil has been a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). 1 John 3:12 says that Cain was of the evil one and murdered his brother. Satan murders partly to derail our mission with fear. Satan opposes the spread of the gospel, and one way he seeks to stop it is with the fear of death.
But we thank God, because we don’t have to fear death anymore as Christians. Hebrews 2:14-15 says that “[God’s Son took to himself a human nature], that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” The mission of the church endures in the face of fear and death, because Jesus conquered death and destroyed the devil who has the power of death. Satan builds the obstacle—Fear of Death; and Jesus tears it down by removing our curse and by resurrection power.
So in the face of satanic opposition like this, in the face of the Fear of Death like this, the church can stand firm because of who Jesus is and what Jesus provides for us. The passage before us offers a similar hope. The church here faces satanic opposition, but of a different sort. In this case the satanic opposition isn’t death, but a false teacher, a magician. Paul calls him a “son of the devil.” Yet the mission of the risen Christ continues in the face of satanic opposition. Let’s read it together starting with verse 4…
4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. 6 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. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 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? 11 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. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
Acts as a Window to the Church’s Mission
The book of Acts is a window to the mission of the early church. So far we’ve witnessed the mission advance in Jerusalem facing various obstacles. We’ve witnessed the mission advance in Judea and Samaria facing various obstacles. Now it advances to the end of the earth and will continue to face various obstacles. But once again these obstacles are no match for the risen Jesus.
I have one sentence that summarizes this passage; and then we’re going to break that summary down into four parts. So here’s my one-sentence summary: the work of missions is to spread the gospel among all peoples in all places by the power of the Spirit even when that means confronting satanic opposition. Let’s break that down into four parts.
The work of missions is to spread the gospel…
Part one: the work of missions is to spread the gospel. That’s a repeated emphasis. Acts 2—Peter preaches the gospel. Acts 3—Peter and John preach the gospel. Acts 4—God emboldens the whole church to speak the word. Acts 5—the apostles preach. Acts 6 and 7—Stephen preaches. Acts 8—the scattered church preaches the gospel, and so forth. Luke also gives us those little summaries like, “the word of the Lord continued to increase and multiply.”
Here the church sends out Barnabas and Saul; and verse 5 says they “proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.” Sergius Paulus later summons them in verse 7 to “hear the word of God.” This is a story about the advance of God’s word. The specific “word of God” they proclaimed was the gospel of Jesus Christ. They preached Christ and him crucified for our sins, him rising from the dead, him reigning over heaven and earth to fulfill the promises of Scripture. Spreading this gospel is central to the mission.
Were there other things the church did besides preaching? Yes. They ate together. They studied the word together. They prayed together. They met each other’s needs together. We can’t forget those things. But the primary focus of all those various ministries was to make disciples who spread the good news of Jesus. The purpose of the church gathering is to equip the church for scattering.
We must get this. The gospel is not mere information to possess; it’s news to broadcast. The gospel isn’t merely an idea, but an announcement of who God is and what he has done in Christ. If the gospel isn’t being preached, then we’re not doing missions. We’ve lost our central focus, and perhaps lost our love for Jesus, if our church isn’t spreading the gospel.
We live in a day where the church has sometimes blurred this central focus. With very good intentions, some have emphasized the church’s need to participate in creation care, or matters of “social justice” (at the risk of using a pretty ambiguous phrase). Others get excited about “redeeming the culture,” or “renewing the city.” And we certainly don’t want Christians to be indifferent to human suffering or to grow cold-hearted toward the poor or to retreat from promoting just ways in the public square. But none of these pursuits can overshadow the central focus of making Christ known. He saves. He unites. He transforms. He restores. We spread the gospel.
Among all peoples in all places…
Part two, the church spreads that gospel among all peoples in all places. Acts is very intentional about naming all the places where the Christians scatter and share the gospel. Get a study Bible with some good maps in it and trace all the place names. We’ve seen Jerusalem, Samaria, Gaza, Azotus, Caesarea, Damascus, Lydda, Sharon, Joppa, Phonecia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Now they sail from Seleucia to Cyprus. And on that island they visit Salamis—that’s the most eastern city. Then verse 6 says, “When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos”—that’s the most western city.
Now, we might make little of this. It’s just narrative, and “Hey, Luke has to keep the story moving along.” But there’s more to it than that. There’s more to it, because Jesus commissioned the church to make disciples of all peoples; and those peoples live in real places. Acts lists cities and regions, because places host peoples; and it’s his way of mapping the spread of the gospel. Every page you read another city, he’s saying, “And then Jesus spread his kingdom here and here and here and here, where these people live, work, and play.”
The gospel we preach is for all peoples, who dwell in these various places. That helps us in a couple of practical ways. One way is that it points out our limitations in reaching the world. The church in Antioch couldn’t be in all these other cities. They had to send Barnabas and Saul to reach the other cities. And even then, Barnabas and Saul could only be in one place at a time. And you can only be at one place at a time. We’re limited in that way, when we’re talking about global missions.
But, this also helps us remember that the places we are host the peoples we need to reach. The work of missions isn’t this abstract idea of reaching all the nations, and somehow that’s going to happen someday but just don’t know how. And then we go home and continue life with little to no interaction with our neighbors and coworkers and friends. No, we live in a real place that has people. I know that sounds like a really obvious point to make, but do you see them? I mean do you really see them and know them? Why do they not love Christ? Do you pray to share Christ with them?
We’re in Wedgwood, South Hills, Benbrook, Chapel Creek, Lakewood, White Settlement, Aledo, Arlington—we’re in these places by design. You’re there to spread the name of Christ among all peoples—every man, woman, and child. Yeah, we’ve sent missionaries to Asia and North Africa and Europe spreading Christ to new regions like we see here. We can’t all be there, so we send out. But we’re still here in this city with a mission as well. God has you here to save the people in your neighborhoods and networks.
I want to really challenge you here, and give you something strategic to do. I’m working on this one myself. Draw a map of your neighborhood, or print one off from Google; and I want you to start mapping the spread of the gospel in your neighborhood. Who has heard? Which families haven’t heard? How can you partner with the other Christians who are there to make Christ known? What impact can your care group make, if you were to adopt a specific neighborhood? And then start praying over each household and ways you can reach them with the gospel. And as the gospel spreads, map it. Track its progress. If people already know Christ, map it. It’s part of the progress already taking place. We spread the gospel among all peoples in all places.
In the power of the Spirit…
Part three: the church spreads the gospel in the power of the Spirit. Last time from verse 2, we saw the Spirit speak to the church about setting apart Barnabas and Saul. This time verse 3 says, “being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia,” and so on. Later in verse 9 it says, “But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit.” So three times Luke clarifies that none of this happens apart from the Spirit’s power. Everything about the work is due to the Spirit’s power.
This fulfills what Jesus said in 1:8, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” The work of missions is ultimately the Spirit’s work. We depend on his power. God doesn’t send us into the mission without going with us.
Listen, Jesus promised that they were going to witness in scary places: they’d be like sheep in the midst of wolves (Matt 10:10). Some of them were going to get dragged before kings and governors for his sake; they’d suffer greatly. But “don’t be anxious,” he tells them, “the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:12); “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:15).
If we’re not sharing the gospel because of fear, what might that say about our trust in the Spirit’s support? Do we believe he’s going to fail us? Is the Spirit not strong enough? How many times have you prayed for boldness to share the gospel lately? How many times have others prayed for you to share the gospel boldly? Even Paul told the church in Ephesus, “[pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” Why pray like that? Because we can be confident the Lord will answer. The conversion of the person you share with isn’t guaranteed; but the Spirit’s presence with you in sharing is guaranteed.
We need the Spirit’s power, if we’re going to boldly spread the name of Christ. We can’t do the work of God apart from the Spirit of God. As an old friend used to rap, “So how can we strive against the prince who attempts | to quench the fires of faith inside? If we confide in our own strength | we be losing like Kobe without Shaq beside.”[i] We need the Spirit of Christ, or we’re nothing.
The same Spirit who brought order to the cosmic chaos in Genesis 1, the same Spirit who gave skill and intelligence and craftsmanship to Oholiab and Bezalel in Exodus 35, the same Spirit by whom Moses prophesied, the same Spirit who transforms the broken world into the new creation in Isaiah 35, the same Spirit who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead—he chooses to dwell in us and to fill us to spread the gospel with power. Let’s just be sure that we’re not working our way into lifestyles where we don’t really need his power, where we’re not really about God’s work to begin with. But where we are about God’s work, the Spirit will empower us.
Even when that means confronting satanic opposition.
We need the Spirit’s power to share the gospel, but also because the work of missions is hard. We’re taking the gospel across enemy lines. That’s clear from Ephesians 6. Satanic opposition to the gospel is real. That leads us to part four: the church spreads the gospel even when that means confronting satanic opposition.
In verse 6, they encounter a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. When you hear magician, don’t think of some guy at a kid’s birthday party doing card tricks. We’re talking about a guy who manipulated the supernatural to get results—think sorcery, witchcraft, messing around with the demonic. We ran into a similar guy in 8:9, Simon. He’d perform miracles to amaze the people and win their worship. Same type of guy we’re dealing with here.
He’s also called a false prophet. False prophecy merited the severest of penalties in the Old Testament. It misrepresented God and led people into false worship. In the New Testament, John tells us that “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1), also knowns as false teachers (2 Pet 2:1). But something to keep in mind about false prophets or false teachers is the spirit-world behind them. They follow deceitful spirits and teachings of demons (1 Tim 4:1).
So this magician and false prophet represents Satan and the spiritual powers of evil; and he’s present to oppose Barnabas and Saul’s message. He’s there to oppose the word of God. Barnabas and Saul are sharing the gospel with another guy named Sergius Paulus, the proconsul—he’s an official of Rome. He’s an intelligent man. He wants to hear the word of God. But then we get verse 8, “Elymas the magician (for that’s the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.”
Think about this: new territory; no friends around except your partner in evangelism; you don’t live there; no other churches around yet; you’re standing before a high ranking official. Then this religious celebrity, Mr. Worm-tongue, has his own influence on Mr. Sergius already—he comes in and opposes you. I mean how easy to just tuck tail and walk away: “Sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to cause a stir. We’ll be on our way now. Got other cities to travel to.” That’s not what happens; that’s not what happens, because the Spirit fills Saul with the power to rebuke and curse this guy.
Many of you are familiar with the armor of God in Ephesians 6—helmet of salvation, breastplate of righteousness, belt of truth, and so forth. Yeah, Saul is about to take up the sword of the Spirit. Look at the offensive strike in verse 9…
“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.”
Elymas is a false prophet. But Luke demonstrates that Saul/Paul is a true prophet. The curse he pronounces comes true instantly; it further authenticates that Paul is the man with the truth. And you know what it does? It plays a role in leading Sergius Paulus to embrace the gospel. Verse 12, “Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” Note that: he didn’t believe because he was astonished at the miracle; he believed because he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord. The gospel amazed him. The miracle simply served the authenticity of the messenger.
Trust the Spirit to empower us to confront evil
How does something like this apply? One way is that we can trust the Spirit to empower us to confront evil and call it what it is. Listen to the words he uses. “Son of the devil.” That’s similar to what Jesus said of the unbelieving Jews in John 8:44—“you’re of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” You reject Jesus, then you choose the father of lies over the Father of love.
He also calls him an “enemy of all righteousness.” He’s “full of all deceit and villainy”—he takes advantage of others through underhanded ways. “Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” The prophet Micah said almost the same thing to sinful Israel: “[you] detest justice and make crooked all that is straight” (Mic 3:9). There’s just no tolerance here for false teaching.
Our culture is of the opinion that each person can hold their own views of reality regardless of their contradictions—“Let’s just exchange views with each other and call it a day. Just don’t tell me mine isn’t true.” But evangelism isn’t a mere exchanging of views. The Spirit doesn’t allow that here, especially when eternity is at stake. By not tolerating Elymas’s evil, Saul’s words become an act of compassion for Sergius who is interested in the truth. Evangelism confronts evil and calls it what it is.
Ajith Fernando illustrates the point well.
If a father sees a man trying to peddle heroin to his little son, he will not seek to enter a discussion with the man on the merits and demerits of heroin or politely request him to stop doing that. He will take urgent and decisive action. If a mother sees her daughter about to accept an attractive piece of candy into which has been injected the deadly poison cyanide, she will not simply share her views on the subject. She will take urgent action…If such drastic action is taken for temporal problems, how about a problem that has dire consequences for all eternity? One who loves humanity will not calmly stand by when he or she sees the eternal salvation of a person for whom Christ died jeopardized through the deception of a false teacher.[ii]
Jesus’ kingdom is more powerful than Satan’s
Another takeaway from this encounter is that once again we’re reminded that Jesus’ kingdom is more powerful than Satan’s. When the church encounters the demonic, two kingdoms collide—the kingdom of Christ with the kingdom of darkness. But they’re not equal kingdoms. The kingdom of darkness bows to Jesus’ authority.
The Gospels prepare us for Acts quite well in this regard. In Matthew 4 and Luke 4, the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness, but he resists to the end. In Luke 11:20, Jesus casts out demons by the finger of God. And this proves that he’s stronger than Satan and has come to plunder his goods (Luke 11:21-22). In Luke 10:18, Jesus grants 72 disciples authority over all the power of the enemy (Luke 10:18). John 12:31 says that when Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he casts out the ruler of this world.
Ephesians tells us that Jesus’ resurrection means that he’s seated far above all rule, authority, power, and dominion (Eph 1:21). When Saul rebukes and curses Elymas, he’s acting by the authority of the risen Christ who is replacing Satan’s kingdom with his own. When he says “the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind…,” he means the hand of the risen Lord Jesus. Just like Jesus struck Saul blind, so we see Jesus strike Elymas blind; and what a mercy it is that it’s temporary—it’s “for a time,” he says. Perhaps the curse is for Elymas’ repentance as well.
Satanic opposition won’t stop Jesus from saving his people
The only faith that gets reported, however, is that of Sergius Paulus. Which leads us to one further takeaway: satanic opposition won’t stop Jesus from saving his people. Sometimes we get the idea that Jesus has his hands tied. People are just too evil to get saved, or the devil has too many influences surrounding someone’s life for God’s truth to break in, or the darkness is too much for Jesus’ light. That’s not true.
If Jesus wants someone to hear and believe, satanic opposition can’t stop him ultimately. He will see to it that all his elect hear the gospel and believe. If satanic opposition rises against him, he’ll knock it down, he’ll expose it for the falsehood that it is, he’ll prove his power and win his people. There’s never a moment where someone can say, “Ah man! Jesus was this close to saving him, but he just lost the battle.”
No, there’s no competition. Jesus already died and rose again victorious. He disarmed the ruler and authorities in the heavenly places. Now we speak the gospel of his victory, we confront evil in the Spirit’s power, and he saves people. So, what’s our role? Trust in the Spirit’s power—pray for the Spirit’s power, earnestly desire the Spirit’s power—and then as the Spirit empowers, we spread the gospel and confront evil to win others to Jesus. That’s it. That’s the work of missions.
The work of missions is to spread the gospel among all peoples in the power of the Spirit even when that means confronting satanic opposition. Satan might come at us with the fear of death, or he might send a representative to turn others away from the gospel we preach. But in either case, we have hope that Christ is greater still. In either case, the Spirit strengthens us with his power. May the Lord grant us such power in the Spirit to carry out his work of missions!
[i]From “A Mighty Fortress” by Christcentric.
[ii]Ajith Fernando, Acts, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 382.