Breakfast with the Bible: Acts 12:20-13:12

CHELMSFORD CATHEDRAL: 14 MAY 2017 – led by Paul Beasley-Murray


Herod Agrippa I was at the very zenith of his power. Not only had Rome granted him rule over as a great a territory as his grandfather Herod the Great ruled, but he could force self-governing cities adjacent to his domain such as Tyre and Sidon into submission.

We do not know why “Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon” (v20).

All we know is that the situation was so serious that the cities engaged the services of Blastus, the king’s chamberlain” (i.e. “the man in charge of the palace” GNB) with a view to bringing to an end hostilities.

On the day appointed for the hearing “Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform and delivered a public address to them” (v21). We know from other records that this event took place on 1 August AD 44.  For the story that Luke tells is also found in Josephus. He tells us that this event took place held during games in honour of Caesar.

“Clad in a garment woven completely of silver so that its texture was indeed wondrous, he entered the theatre at daybreak. There the silver, illumined by the touch of the first rays of the sun, was wondrously radiant, and by its glitter inspired fear and awe in those who gazed intently upon it”.

It has been suggested that Herod was trying to portray himself as the sun god by wearing these light-reflecting robes.  Not surprisingly, as Herod rose to speak, the people shouted “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal” (v22).  According to Josephus, the crowds cried out: “Be gracious to us! Hitherto we have reverenced you as a human being, but henceforth we confess you to be of more than mortal nature”.

Josephus went on to say that Herod Agrippa neither repudiated the acclamation nor rebuked the crowd’s flattery.

Or in the words of Luke, “immediately because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down and he was eaten by worms and died” (v23)

In Josephus’ account, the king was seized with a sudden pain in the stomach, which lasted for 5 days before he died.   What exactly happened?  According to William Larkin Herod experienced pain in the heart and stomach – peritonitis from a perforated appendix, combined with intestinal roundworms 10 – 16 inches long! Larkin adds that bunches of these worms can obstruct the intestines, causing severe pain, copious vomiting and finally death.

Luke attributes Herod’s death to an “angel” (v23).

We are not necessarily meant to think of an angelic appearance (as in vv7-11), but rather that this terrible form of death was sent as a punishment from God.

Willimon: “Herod becomes food for worms. God is not nice to those who try to be God. Hitler perishes huddled in a bunker in Berlin, Mussolini is hung upside down. Thus ever to tyrants.”   Similarly John Stott, Acts 213; “The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the word of God triumphing. Such is the power of God to overthrow hostile human plans and to establish his own in their place. Tyrants may be permitted for a time to boast and bluster, oppressing the church and hindering the spread of the gospel, but they will not last. In the end, their empire will be broken and their pride abased”

For reflection:  Here is comfort for a persecuted church – but relevance has this story for our more comfortable churches in the West?  What are the forces ranged against us?


V24: “But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents” (NRSV) – literally “the word of God grew and multiplied”.

Three times in Acts we come across the unusual expression “the word of God grew”: Acts 6.7; 12.24; 19.29).   Luke here is referring not so much to increased proclamation of the word, but rather the growth of the Christian church. All three passages are part of a series of summary statements introduced by Luke to show the steady expansion of the Christian community by the addition of new members.  But why then does Luke not refer specifically to the church (ekklesia) growing – as distinct from the word (logos) growing? I like the suggestion that Luke’s description of the growth of the word of God links in with the parable of the sower (Luke 8,4-15): “The flourishing of the early Christian community was proof positive for Luke that the word had fallen on good soil and was bearing fruit” (Jerome Kodell).

Certainly for Luke preaching was at the heart of the early Christian mission.  This may well be one reason why Luke devotes about one-fifth of Acts to ‘speeches’ or sermons.  Significantly too, mention of preaching or receiving the word of God comes no less than 32 times in Luke’s account of the early church.  Hence CK Barrett, a former eminent Methodist scholar, concluded: “The primary agency by which the Spirit extends the sovereignty of Christ is the Word of God”.

From a practical perspective this unusual expression relating to the growth of the word of God may point to the importance of preaching today:  if churches are to grow today, then it will be to the extent that they are communities of the word of God, communities where the word of God is effectively proclaimed.  Or as David Watson, a former Anglican evangelist, wrote in his book I Believe in the Church: “Significantly the churches that are growing today are, in the vast majority of cases, the churches where preaching and teaching are taken seriously. Thomas Goodwin used to say: ‘God had only one Son, and he made him a preacher’”

For reflection:   How effective do you feel evangelistic preaching is today?   Or are other approaches needed if people are to be won to Christ?

Willimon: Herod has made his speech to the rapt approval of the starving people of Tyre and Sidon and is now silent. But the Lord’s speech continues to explode into the world, multiplying, spreading, overtaking the world once held within the tight fist of the tyrant. As Mary warred in her Magnificat, the proud shall be humbled (cf Luke 1.52-53; 14.11O) in this new kingdom which is breaking other kingdoms. God, not kings, will have the last word.


13.1: Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul

Acts 13.1 implies that the leadership of the church at Antioch was in the hands of a group of five ‘prophets and teachers’. What is striking is the ethnic and social diversity of the church at Antioch: Barnabas was from Cyprus; Simon called Niger was almost certainly an African, for Niger is a Latinism meaning ‘black’; Lucius of Cyrene came from North Africa; Manaen was a man of some considerable social standing for he was ‘a member of the court of Herod’; [1] and Paul, of course, came from Tarsus.

13.2: “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them

Who are the “they”.  Did the prophets and teachers take the initiative or was it the church as a whole?  The Greek is unclear.  According to Howard Marshall (Acts 215): “Since the list of names in v1 is primarily meant to show who was available to missionary service, and since changes of subject are not uncommon in Greek, it is preferable to assume that Luke is thinking of an activity involving the church generally; this will fit in with the fact that elsewhere similar decisions are made by the church as a whole (1.15; 6.2,5: cf 14.27; 15.22).”

If Marshall is right, then we may assume that it was within the context of a church worship service at which the Spirit spoke through one of the prophets, calling the church to put aside two of its leaders.

This setting aside involved both the laying on of hands and prayer:  some people have argued that here Barnabas and Paul are ordained – but the reality is that they were already recognised leaders in the church. Rather they are commissioned for a new sphere of service, for which prayer is then made.  Hands were placed upon Paul and Barnabas for blessing

For reflection: I find it significant the Barnabas and Paul were chosen by the church to undertake this form of missionary service.  By contrast today individuals offer themselves for ordination or for missionary service.  Have we over-individualised the call to ministry today?


Here we have an account of Paul’s first missionary journey.

It is estimated on the basis of the accounts in Acts that Paul travelled over 10,000 miles

Paul’s first missionary journey begins with a trip to the city of Seleucia, which was some 16 miles from Antioch and served as its port, though it was in fact some five miles from there to the mouth of the Orontes River.  The Roman fleet for this region was stationed there, and one could obtain regular passage to many destinations from this port.

Not surprisingly Barnabas and Paul chose to sail to Cyprus, the home of Barnabas (4.25), only 60 miles off-shore.

The account of the trip focuses on what was done in the two major cities on the island – Salamis on the eastern side of the Island and Paphos on the western side of the island.  This is in line with what we discover from the rest of Acts as also from the letters.  Paul’s primary strategy was to focus on key cities. Salamis on the… had been the capital of the island – then the Romans in 22 BC transferred the capital to Paphos

V5: “When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews”.

Notice three things

  1. This was not a one-off sermon: Luke uses the imperfect tense indicating an ongoing activity in the past – “they kept on proclaiming”.
  2. They began in the synagogues. As the story of Paul develops we discover that this became his regular practice.  Although Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, he always the Gospel first to the Jews.  The mention of “synagogues” in the plural is a sign that there was a considerable Jewish population.
  3. This ‘missionary’ journey was primarily a preaching mission: at Salamis we read that “they proclaimed the word of God” (v5), and then at Paphos we read that the proconsul “wanted to hear the word of God” (v7). Although today we have rightly developed a holistic approach to mission, nonetheless “communicating the message of salvation” (Larkin) must be at the heart of mission.

They had John to assist them” (v5b).  This is presumably the same “John” as John Mark mentioned in 12.12,25 – who according to Col 4.20 was also Barnabas’ nephew.

John Mark is described as an “assistant” (huperetes) – he was almost certainly more than a ‘bag-carrier’.  Within this context the implication is that Mark helped with the preaching and teaching in some way.   See also Luke 2.1 (‘servants of the word’) and Acts 26.16 (a ‘servant’ of the Gospel

From Salamis they moved on to Paphos.  “When they had gone through the whole island” (v6a)– probably means no more than they travelled along the main road on the southern coast between Salamis and Paphos (Witherington), a journey of some 90 miles

At Paphos “they met a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus.  He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus” (vv6,7)


  1. literally, ‘son of Jesus’ – in Aramaic almost certain ‘son of Joshua’. Also known as “Elymas”: the derivation of this name is uncertain, but was probably a Semitic word with a similar meaning to
  2. He was a ‘magician’ (NRSV/GNB) – what the NIV calls a ‘sorcerer’ (magos). The same term was used by Matthew of the ‘wise men’ (Matt 2.1) where it has the meaning of an ‘astrologer’. Here the term has a more sinister connotation:  like Simon Magus in Acts 8.9-13, he was almost certainly engaged in black magic.  According to one commentator the words was used of “a diviner who through various rituals claimed to be able to evoke the dead”
  3. He was “a false prophet” in the sense that he wrongly claimed to convey God’s message
  4. He was “with the proconsul”: i.e. he acted as a ‘consultant’ to the proconsul, and was part of his entourage. In those days it was very common for emperors and their officials to have court astrologers: Emperor Tiberius relied on the astrologer Thrasyllus, while Nero relied on the astrologer Tiridates.

Sergius Paulus

  1. the proconsul” – or as the GNB puts it, “the governor of the island”.
  2. an intelligent man” – Witherington: “presumably because he had the wisdom to summon Barnabas and Paul”.  He wanted to find out more about this Jesus they were proclaiming.  Would that there were more intelligent people around today!

The magician Elymas…opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith” (v9); whereupon the Apostle Paul well and truly blasted him: “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”.  Wow:  modern preachers do not often name a spade in quite the same manner!

Willimon suggests that Paul’s confrontation with the magician “is definitely reminiscent of the beloved contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.19-40).  In the story of Elijah and the prophets, there is a context to see whose God has the most power.   By the HS working in him, Paul is able to show that the sorcerer is a fake.

Willimon: “Although Christianity is not magic, the gospel does not mind squaring off with the alleged gods and powers of the world because the power of God can manage quite well in open conflict with counterfeit deities (cf 8.9-13; 19.18-20)

V9: “Saul also known as Paul”:  here for the first time we hear of Saul being called Paul.  Saul was a Jewish name, Paul was a Roman name.

Witherington: Luke has introduced the name at this juncture because now Paul will be dealing with Gentiles and will want to use his Roman name in doing so

NB parallels between Simon and Paul

  1. Both strongly opposed God’s word
  2. Both were struck blind for a time
  3. Both were said to need being led by the hand hereafter

NB v12 “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord” .  Peterson: “What the proconsul saw was an amazing supernatural event, which enabled him to believe. But what truly amazed him was the teaching about the Lord, and it was clearly this teaching that he believed”

Are we to assume that the proconsul became a Christian?  No reference to the Spirit or to baptism. Witherington suggest that we take the verb as an ‘inceptive aorist’ – i.e. the proconsul “began to believe” at his juncture.  For Luke’s audience it was important to point out that even those of high social status, even those who were governmental officials, could be favourably impressed with the gospel and not see it as a threat.

For reflection:  David Peterson, Acts 383: “Contemporary Christians may wish for such demonstrations of divine power to remove obstacles to faith and enable conversions today. But it should be remembered that even in Acts they are rare and are usually related to the movement of the gospel into some new area, the overcoming of some form of spiritual opposition, or the winning of some particularly significant figure for Christ… The overall message of Acts is that the work of God is advanced in the world by Spirit-filled messengers who proclaim the gospel faithfully and boldly.”

[1] The underlying Greek word (suntropos) literally means that he had the same wet nurse as Herod Antipas, but it was a common word to refer to an intimate friend, and in this case a friend in Herod’s court: see Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Paternoster, Carlisle 1998) 392, 393.

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