The Straight Paths of the Lord
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 tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. 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. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) withstood them, seeking to turn away the proconsul from the faith. But Saul, who is 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 shall 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. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
The Search and Save Mission of God in Christ
The word Advent means coming. In this season of the year we focus on the meaning of the coming of the Son of God into the world. And the spirit of our celebration should be the spirit in which he came. And the spirit of that coming is summed up in Luke 19:10—"The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."
The coming of Jesus was a search and save mission. Not a search and destroy mission (John 3:17), but a search and save mission. "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."
So Advent is a season for thinking about the mission of God to seek and to save lost people from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10). It's a season for cherishing and worshiping this characteristic of God—that he is a searching and saving God, that he is a God on a mission, that he is not aloof or passive or indecisive. He is never in the maintenance mode, coasting or drifting. He is sending, pursuing, searching, saving. That's the meaning of Advent.
Acts as a Celebration of the Advent-Heart of God
And that is why the book of Acts is a celebration of the advent-heart of God. Because it's a narration of his on-going advent into more and more peoples of the world. Acts is the story of how the early church understood the words, "As the Father has sent me, so send I you" (John 20:21). It's the story of how the vertical advent of God in the mission of Jesus bends out and becomes the horizontal advent of Jesus in the mission of the church. It's all one piece.
More and more I believe that this book is in the New Testament to prevent the church from coasting to a standstill and entering a maintenance mode with all the inner wheels working but going nowhere—"adventing" into no new people groups or no new ventures or no new exploits for the kingdom. The book of Acts is a constant indictment of mere maintenance Christianity. It's a constant goad and encouragement and stimulation to fan the flame of Advent—"The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost."
God Fanning the Flame of Advent
Today's text presses this truth on us again, just like the last two texts have. In chapter 11 we saw God fanning the flame of Advent as he used the persecution of Stephen to push his people out of Judea all the way to Antioch to seek and save the lost. In chapter 12 we saw God fanning the flame of Advent as he struck down a secular ruler, Herod, who was trying to oppose the Advent of the Christian faith.
Today in chapter 13 we see God fan the flame of Advent as he propels Paul and Barnabas and John out of Antioch into the utterly lost pagan world of Cyprus and beyond. You can just feel the advent arm of God flexing in every one of these texts. This is not the work of man. God catapulted his people out of Jerusalem with persecution. God cut down Herod. And here it is God who speaks in the midst of worship and sends his advent team to Cyprus.
Barnabas and Saul Sent to Cyprus
Verse 2: "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'" God took the initiative to make this advent into Cyprus! Then verse 4: "So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus." God not only took the initiative to call the advent emissaries. He is the one who does the actual sending—the Holy Spirit said set them apart and the Holy Spirit sent them on their way. In other words this is God's work. Acts is narration of the advent-heart of God to seek and save the lost.
When the advent emissaries get to Paphos on Cyprus something happens that gives us another forceful demonstration that God's advent heart will not be frustrated. His mission will not be stopped. Paul uses some new words to make this truth fresh for us.
A Hearing Before the Governor
In Paphos Sergius Paulus the governor (or proconsul) tries to hear the Word of God. Verse 7: He was "a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God." This is amazing. He is the ruler of all Cyprus. These missionaries are absolute nobodies in the Roman world. They have no human authority. They have no political standing. They have no world ecclesiastical body behind them. They are unknowns.
But they are called by God, sent by God, and now it is God that, against all odds, has gotten them a hearing on their first mission with the governor of the whole island of Cyprus. It's like Cornelius all over again. A pagan who wants to hear the Word of God. And God—through worship and fasting—calls nobodies from Antioch to make the connection.
Elymas Gets in the Way
But just as the word is about to be spoken to Sergius Paulus, Bar-Jesus who was called Elymas, the magician (or spiritist or witch doctor or shaman) in his court, gets in the way. Now here is where the new terminology of Paul comes out. In verse 8 it says, "Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) withstood them, seeking to turn away the proconsul from the faith."
So here is another anti-advent force in the world—like Herod in chapter 12. His explicit aim is to turn away the proconsul from the faith—to defeat the advent purpose of God.
In verse 10 it becomes even clearer what Elymas is doing. Paul says to 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?" This is the new terminology I am talking about—making crooked the straight paths of the Lord.
What Are the Straight Paths of the Lord?
What are the straight paths of the Lord? And how do you make them crooked? The answer is clear when you discover that the word for "turn away" in verse 8 and the word for "make crooked" in verse 10 is the same Greek word (diastrepho).
What is the making crooked of the straight paths of God? It's what Elymas was doing in verse 8—he was seeking to turn aside the proconsul from the faith. "Turn aside" (in v. 8) corresponds with "make crooked" (in v. 10). And "from the faith" (in v. 8) corresponds with "the straight paths of the Lord" (in v. 10). So the way you make crooked the straight paths of the Lord is to get in the way of people coming to faith.
God Has Straight Paths Leading to Faith
Now two wonderful things come out of this. One is to see that God has straight paths for himself that lead to faith. This is the advent-heart of God. God sees a Sergius Paulus in Paphos, Cyprus. He means to seek him and save him. 275 miles away he sees prophets and teachers worshiping and fasting, seeking the mind of God. And he sees a straight path that leads to faith—call the advent emissaries, send them out, guide them to Paphos, arrange a meeting with the governor, and bring him to faith. That is the straight path of God.
That's the first thing to see here. God has straight paths. He is still the pursuing God sending his church like he sent his Son to seek and save the lost.
Elymas Fails in Making the Straight Path Crooked
The second thing to see is that Elymas does not succeed in his attempt to make the straight path crooked. He would like to see the path of Paul and Barnabas go out the back door of the palace and dead end in the Mediterranean Sea. But it will not happen.
Verse 11: "And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind and unable to see the sun for a time." Verse 12: "Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord."
God took the very effort of Elymas to make crooked the path of God and hinder the faith of Sergius Paulus, and he not only overcame it, he took it in his hand, laid it in the path and made Sergius Paulus step on it, and used it to bring the governor to faith.
What This Means for Us Today
What all this says for us at Bethlehem just now is at least two things. One is that God is a searching and saving God; that he is a God on a mission; he has straight paths that lead to faith; he is still sending us "to seek and to save the lost." He is not aloof or passive or indecisive. He is never in the maintenance mode, coasting or drifting. He is sending, pursuing, searching, saving. And he calls us to join him.
We will meet Wednesday to talk budget and mission for next year. The word for us is: don't think maintenance in this new facility; think mission. Think of the book of Acts and the remaining work to be done before Jesus comes. "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." If we don't join him, he will leave us behind.
The other thing is that there will, of course, be people and situations that make crooked the straight paths of the Lord. There will always be hindrances. There will be persecutions and Herods and Elymases. But the point again and again is this: God makes persecution a launching pad for missions; he takes Herod out of the way; he strikes Elymas blind. He carries his advent emissaries forward along the straight paths of faith.
So we have tremendous reason to be hopeful and confident this Advent season. God's goal is faith—in more and more people and peoples. If we join him on that straight path, he will clear the way. He is on the move. Let's join him.