by Roger McCay
19 April 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 13:5-13
Link to Audio Version
You may have heard of the 5:1 ratio concerning relationships. John Gottman made this ratio famous with his research among 700 married couples (towards helping couples build strong relationships) and the subsequent publishing of his findings. The findings showed that for every negative experience, every negative statement, there needs to be five positive experiences or statements to counter the negative. So, if you say something negative to your spouse (criticizing him or her), in order to counter the negativity, it takes five positive statements. Healthy relationships have demonstrated this to be true, as subsequent research continues to support Gottman’s findings.
Negativity just digs in and is difficult to uproot. Think about it. Negative statements, or criticism, bothers us. They are hard to let go. This is true not only in relationships, but even in self critique. You do something, make something, or perform something, and there are all sorts of good things about it, but one or two things may have gone wrong, or were not just like how you wanted them. What do you zero in on? All the many positives? Often not. It’s those very few negatives that bother you … sometimes for weeks or longer.
Letting go of the negative can be hard. It can be even harder when you compare yourself with others, especially others whom you view as seeming to have so much going for them—envy makes such insecure negativity exponentially worse.
It’s this way with weaknesses. Since we are human, it doesn’t matter what you are into or doing, there is going to be a weakness. The problem is that weakness can sometimes override the whole good of the thing (whatever the thing is), because we can’t let it go. And failure? Overcoming failure can be extremely hard. It can derail whole dreams and plans for the future. It can destroy confidence, and just cause folks to give up.
Such things can cause us to fall to the tendency to let our weaknesses or failures define us. This leads to tremendous insecurity and lack of peace … anxiety. This can become chronic and effect our lives in terrible ways.
In our passage today, we see a great victory in the Lord—miraculous and wonderful—but then, almost immediately afterwards, we see trouble among the victors, with one member of the mission team abandoning the venture. Folks have puzzled over this desertion since the time of its happening, but one thing is clear, the negative overcame the positives at that point, even with miracles at work.
In Acts 13:1-4 we looked, a couple of weeks ago, at how the Spirit of God, through the church in Antioch, sent Barnabas, Saul, and John Mark off to take the gospel to the Roman world. The whole thing has the feel of the beginning of a grand adventure … which, in fact, it was.
We looked at Barnabas and Saul in detail—Barnabas the generous encourager; Saul the former Pharisee, brilliant, and filled with tremendous zeal; both of them gifted teachers and apostles. And, Saul, of course, had the specific call of the Lord upon him to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. They were quite a pair – contrasting, but harmonizing. At one point along this missionary adventure, in Lystra, which we’ll see in Acts 14, they were called Zeus (Barnabas) and Hermes (Paul), as they came across as heroic figures, like gods, as they did the Lord’s work. They both vehemently rejected that comparison, of course. But what a pair.
Then there was John Mark. He was along for the journey with these two amazing men, and v. 5 simply tells us that “they had John to assist them.” There is not a lot to go on with that, it just tells us he was assisting Saul and Barnabas in some way … probably in a number of ways. John Mark was not the main guy in this venture. However, usually, assistants, or aides, are essential to the process for leaders to be successful, leaders such as Saul and Barnabas.
We all have our place and calling in life, during the seasons of our life.
So, who was John Mark? Who was this guy? We know quite a bit about him, actually.
It is thought that John Mark may have known the Lord Jesus during the Lord’s earthly ministry, possibly being the young man who ran away naked when the Lord was arrested (Mark 14:51-52). Mark was there through the whole beginning and growth of the church in Jerusalem. He came from wealth. His family home had servants (Rhoda was one), and it was very large home, large enough to be a regular meeting place for the church. Some conject, and it makes sense, that the upper room where the Last Supper took place was at his family home (Luke 22:12) and was also where the church was meeting when Pentecost took place in Acts 2. It was certainly where the church was meeting, and where Peter ran to, when he escaped from prison (Acts 12:12-13). Mark’s mother, Mary, was, at that point, a widow.
John Mark would later author the Gospel of Mark, as a result of his working with Peter in Rome (from which we looked at last week for Easter, at the resurrection account of Jesus). However, at this point in his life’s journey, as Acts 13:5 tells us, when he set off to Cyprus from Antioch with his cousin Barnabas and Saul, it was as a humble assistant.
Setting out, the three men went by ship from Seleucia, the port city 16 miles from Antioch. Arriving at Salamis, they went to work. This pattern would continue throughout their missionary journeys. They would go to the synagogues of the Jews first, and then take the message to the Gentiles. We aren’t told anything more of their trip across the island, proclaiming the Lord as they went.
Were there many converts? What adventures happened? Was it uneventful? We’re just not told.
As it was, the group of missionaries steadily worked their way across the 90 miles from Salamis to Paphos—from one end of Cyprus to the other. Arriving at Paphos, they found themselves heading directly into a serious battle with one of Satan’s minions. Verses 6-7:
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.
So, how did Proconsul Sergius Paulus hear about Barnabas and Saul? Clearly, since he knew of them, the word was getting out about the gospel message they were proclaiming all across Cyprus. People were talking about it. Perhaps people were coming to faith and lives were changing. As it was, he was very interested in hearing the Word of God.
So, we are introduced to Bar-Jesus (Elymas)—a schemer and a scammer who felt threatened by the truth of what they were preaching. Bar-Jesus means Son of Jesus. Does this refer to Jesus Christ? Did he take upon himself this name in order to attribute powers to himself like Jesus? Maybe. Certainly, he was taking advantage of a serious and powerful man who was very interested in God. Bar-Jesus was a Jew who had gained a position like a court magician, something some Jews were involved in in the first century—Jewish magic. Verses 8-12:
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.
Inevitably, faithfulness in following the Lord will come up against opposition. Yet, God’s people do not face the opposition in our own strength. Here with Paul and Barnabas, the Lord likewise empowered them to be victorious against the enemy’s schemes. Indeed, this was a battle between Satan and the Lord. But, predictably and inevitably, the Lord made short work of him by blinding him. This evil minion of Satan was cast aside like a mere annoyance—like the snake of Aaron’s staff eating the snakes from the staffs of the court magicians (Exodus 7:7-13).
Paul didn’t engage in some sort of, “Well, that’s your opinion, which is valid, but here is my opinion, which is valid too,” type of nonsense we see going on today. Paul looked Bar-Jesus in the eye 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?”
Sometimes, we need to be straight up and call Satan’s minions out for what they are. People who are actively opposed to the gospel are doing Satan’s work, and they need to be called out for it. This requires a boldness and confidence that is innate in proclaiming the gospel in the power of the Spirit of God. The thing is, people want to be nice and not hurt feelings. But, are you nice to the drug dealer selling drugs to your son or daughter? Or, do you call them out? Vigorously oppose them. Are you friendly with the destroyer, or do you oppose the destroyer? Here, Paul called it as it was—boldly and without mincing words. We need more of that these days—boldness in calling evil “evil.” There is too much of this going along with and buddying-up with those who call evil “good” (Isaiah 5:20).
So, Paul’s calling out Bar-Jesus, and the Spirit’s blinding Bar-Jesus demonstrated outright to the proconsul the power of the Living and True God as opposed to whatever nonsense Bar-Jesus was peddling. It also validated the message of the gospel Paul and Barnabas were proclaiming. So, unlike Pharaoh and his hard heart, Sergius Paulus received the message with faith.
Also, note that the narrative in Acts shifts in v. 9, here, to calling Saul by the name of Paul.
My friends, when opportunities arise to share the gospel and proclaim his Word, and you feel intimidated or unsure, remember that God empowers you to be bold. You don’t achieve victory in your own power. God empowers you through his Spirit to be victorious.
We have no excuse in this. Excuses are just cop-outs. We must be bold in our mission for Jesus to proclaim his gospel in Word and deed—be it in or through our church, or community, even if the call is to be a missionary in some other place.
When you are being faithful in following the Lord, when the enemy tries to intervene, when he tries to side-track us, weaken our message, or stop us, we don’t have to fear. There is no logical reason to timidly back off from the message and work of Jesus Christ. Be bold in the face of the enemy—no matter whose face he’s wearing. The Lord empowers us to stay faithful when times get tough. Hang in there, friends. The Lord’s got you, and he has overcome the world (John 16:33).
With that said, know that there is often a cost to faithfully following Jesus. Verse 13:
13 Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem
Now, it is interesting here the way Luke couches how the party of missionaries has changed. It is no longer “Barnabas and Saul.” It is “Paul and his companions.” By this point in the journey, the relationship between Barnabas and Paul shifted. Paul is now taking the lead, like he did in the confrontation with Bar-Jesus and the proclamation of the gospel to Sergius Paulus.
Was there a power struggle between the two? There is no evidence, in this case, that there was. A disagreement over John Mark does come up down the road, which led to them going their separate ways in their missions. But the shift is subtle, in the story, here. Barnabas’ character, as the older encourager of Paul, may have been such that he encouraged Paul to take the lead due to his obvious gifts. That’s how I picture it.
Nevertheless, we do see that almost immediately after this wonderful victory over evil along with Sergius Paulus’ conversion, trouble came upon them, and loss. Coming off the high of victory, the small group headed north to the mainland of Pamphylia, a 175-mile journey by ship, arriving in a place called Perga. We don’t have a record of what specifically occurred there, but we have enough for reasonable speculation. Paul did not preach in Pamphylia, at that time, but headed into the mountains towards Pisidian Antioch in Galatia. The missionaries had left the pleasant, paradise-like environment of Cyprus and moved to a difficult mountainous and dangerous terrain. Even more, Paul got sick on the journey—a terrible debilitating sickness (possibly malaria). Paul refers to this time in Galatians 4:13, writing, “You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first.”
Some think that Mark was a bit overwhelmed by all this. Hard travels, sickness, front-line spiritual warfare, certain dangers, hard work, questionable results—it was all just too much for this young man who grew up in a wealthy home with servants. Growing up with ease does little to prepare a person for resilience in battle. People need to have some hardship in their lives to build character (Romans 5:3-5). Anyway, whatever the case, Mark deserted. He went AWOL. He abandoned Paul and Barnabas, going home to his momma.
Perhaps Mark had romanticized the whole thing. They set out on this great adventure, and he was in the company of two remarkably exceptional older men. Maybe his thoughts were full of the glory of the great stories—and the prospect of being part of one. Yet, that’s the problem with such attitudes. Grand adventures always involve hardship, struggle, trials, and often death. So, in the midst of bold adventures, some people have a hard time coming along—they struggle. In the midst of heroes they find they just cannot hang, so they give up and abandon the adventure.
Now, Paul initially, and justifiably, held Marks abandonment against him—and he held onto this for a while. It seems he was very hurt by Mark. Abandonment in tough times will do that. This even caused Paul and Barnabas to part ways, eventually (Acts 15:36-40). Paul just didn’t want to risk Mark abandoning the mission at a critical time again.
Barnabas, however, was ever the encourager, he would not turn his back on his cousin. This was consistent, as Barnabas was the one who vouched for Paul back when he had first come to Jerusalem and everyone was scared of him. Barnabas was always about giving people a chance, and then giving them another chance.
Now, there is a real temptation to let a person’s failures define our opinion of that person. Sometimes it is totally justified. Some people just need to do something else and their failures point to that fact. But, sometimes it’s not justified, as we are all human and all fail at something or another at some point.
Along these lines, our opinion of ourselves can be damaged considerably when our own weaknesses hold us back, or we fail at some endeavor. But we can’t let our weaknesses define us. You know why? Jesus. Plain and simply, Jesus.
I think Barnabas had the right of it here, and events proved him right. Barnabas was an encourager, always seeing the potential in people and helping them towards reaching that potential. Of course, that set him up for disappointment, but I’m sure he knew that. I can’t help but think that he was absolutely confident that Jesus could bring anyone along, by the power of the Spirit, if it was his will. Barnabas did not want to squash that potential.
Jesus himself was that way working with the twelve disciples. These guys come across as pretty dense in the Bible. But …, Jesus kept at it with them. Then, he lovingly forgave Peter his denial.
Jesus was and is always taking weak vessels and doing mighty things through them by his power. God has worked that way throughout all time, as the Scriptures show over and over again.
Now, who knows how Barnabas discipled Mark? It must have been amazing. Likely, Mark had to learn to overcome his fear, his doubts, his weaknesses, in the strength of Christ. Barnabas gave Mark a chance, and Mark overcame his weakness, eventually, to become a hero himself.
Paul and Mark later reconciled. Paul, years later, found Mark to be one those that he relied upon (2 Timothy 4:11). But, to get to that point was a life journey for Mark.
Mark overcame his weakness, in Christ, in time. His failures did not define him. What he witnessed on Cyprus were foundations of strength in Christ—overcoming personal weaknesses, becoming bold for the gospel. In fact, he found that the Lord’s power was made perfect in his weakness (like Paul’s own account in 2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Regular life is like this. If you’ve lived at all, ventured out at all trying to be faithful to the Lord, you’ve at least got an inkling about this—perhaps know it well.
Perhaps, even, you felt a little awkward when you participated in the fast we, as a congregation, did a few weeks ago; or, maybe, you didn’t participate in the fast, and you feel deep down that you failed to take advantage of a great opportunity—which, depending on the circumstances, could be a justifiable assessment. Yet, unless the Lord returns, there is always tomorrow.
My fellow disciples of Christ, in adversity, trouble, and human weakness, the mission must go on. Let us forgive others their weaknesses. Let us seek opportunities to help them overcome, even chances to disciple them in Christ. Let us seek the Lord’s wisdom, on when and how, to bring folks who have suffered setbacks and struggles as disciples—maintaining a balance between optimism and caution—but pushing on towards the goal of helping others follow Jesus in the Holy Spirit’s power.
Also, forgive yourself for your own weaknesses. Get back on the horse and ride—learn from mistakes—learn that your own strength is not enough. Continue to follow Jesus no matter how bumpy the ride—that’s what really matters … the faithful following … success is measured not by becoming the hero, but in our faithfulness in the following. And, who knows (well, the Lord, of course does), but it might be that after many failures, the Lord may use you to do great things in his name.
Our strength is in Christ. Those who dare nothing never succeed or fail. Yet, they do not even stay the same. They are diminished (Matthew 25:29; Revelation 3:15-22). Following Jesus necessarily involves travelling forward, with change, and adventure. Boldly follow Jesus, my friends, in his strength, wherever he leads.
Because the Holy Spirit empowers his people on the adventure, Christians must boldly follow his lead.