In a Cyprus setting properly suited to the standing of Sergius Paulus, Barnabas and Saul were invited to talk about Jesus.
We don’t know how or why the meeting was arranged with Paulus, a Roman proconsul, but it was certainly a good opportunity for evangelism. Was the meeting stirred by a connection this figure might have had years earlier with the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate? Or had the Roman centurion, Cornelius—now assigned to the security forces of Caesarea Maritima—been a connection? Or was the story of Jesus now a front-page item?
What we do know is that spiritual resistance was already present when Elymas, a Jewish “false prophet” and dabbler in magic practices, tried to redirect the conversation. What he was doing there isn’t explained—you can read about it in Acts 13—but his intention was clear: he was “seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.”
Saul, also called Paul, had enough of it: “filled with the Holy Spirit [Paul] 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?’”
When I read this text recently the imagery struck me. Paul presumed the paths of the Lord are straight and easily traveled. Faith isn’t birthed by a complex process. It’s straightforward.
What do straight paths involve? I’m not sure about all that Paul had in mind but I suspect his portrayal of God as good and lovely was central. God is not hard to trust once we see him for who he really is. Second, his Son, Jesus, brings us to the Father by his reconciling death on the cross. Our faith then unites us to him: to both his death and his resurrection. And we are now alive in Christ, waiting for the day when we will join him in eternity.
There might be a better way to frame it or to express it, but the point is that the message points to a lively relationship and not to the complexities of creedal formulations or theological packages.
Examples of Elymas abound. I recall once sitting in on an exchange where a pastor was talking about the love of Christ to a couple of men who were young in their faith. They were captivated. Then a third man interrupted the flow by asking the pastor, “So what do you think about the Millenium mentioned in Revelation—is it likely to be a real stage in history?”
I was instantly grieved. Not because of the question itself—it would certainly fit in some settings—but not here. What I recognized immediately was a straight path suddenly being made crooked. And I suspected right away that the questioner was simply showing off. Once the pastor offered a brief answer—short in order to get back to the other two men—the Millenium specialist started to dominate the scene. And the love of Christ was no longer in view.
Was the interrupter worthy of the rebuke Paul gave Elymas the magician? Probably not. But the effect of his question was similar: the rapt attention of the first two listeners evaporated when the third man spoke. He shifted the focus to the competing views of Amillenialists, Premillenialists, and Postmillenialists. And a conversation that had been aimed straight at Christ was suddenly very crooked.
To repeat myself, I don’t mean to suggest that complex theology is useless. There’s a time and a place for it. But what does concern me is that the love of God, revealed in Christ, and poured out in our hearts by the Spirit doesn’t get the attention it needs in too many theological circles.
Perhaps more people should listen to what Paul told Elymas: the straight path of the gospel doesn’t need to be made crooked. And even in Christian circles clever people who aren’t yet captured by the love of God should learn to be quiet.