Elymas the Sorcerer

I received a comment to this website with the statement “It is obvious that God did kill people in Scripture, as hard as it is for us to accept.” Among other supporting points, the comment included reference to a story in Acts 13 – that of Elymas the Sorcerer cited, it seemed, to support that God (while it doesn’t say He killed in this case) acts against people opposed to Him. I would like to look at that story to illustrate how when we closely examine a story God often comes across better than at first glance.

“And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith. Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand.” (Acts 13:6-11)

Most people, recognizing that Paul himself could not have struck Elymas blind, understand that God did it (but, mercifully, did not kill him) to stop his interference with the preaching of the word to Sergius Paulus. Many, it seems, would think that God, while using this relatively mild action in this case, would readily kill someone, if warranted, in a more serious situation.

Regarding this story, I find what Paul did to be very interesting. Rather than quickly assuming that God took a retributive action against Elymas perhaps to teach him a lesson I like to look more closely at stories and make sure I am not putting God’s actions into a bad light. This story is a good example of that.

Paul also Fought Against God

Let’s first consider Paul who was involved in this story. Paul himself had earlier been fighting against God and the convictions of his conscience. I think the fact that he had previously also opposed the spread of the gospel may have affected how he reacted.

Jesus got Paul’s attention as he was going to persecute the early Christians and, as a result of changing his mind about Jesus, Paul was greatly blessed and, as we know, became a devoted follower, the apostle to the Gentiles and the writer of much of the New Testament. Looking back, perhaps years later on his own conversion story, do you think Paul would have spoken negatively about it? Or might he have seen it all as a great blessing?

A Curse or a Blessing?

Is it possible that Paul was not calling down a curse upon Elymas so much as he was seeking to bless him in the same way he had been blessed? It was not permanent blindness but only “for a season” and an opportunity for Elymas to reflect (as Paul had for his three days of blindness – Acts 9:9) on his choices. Paul even links it to his own experience by making reference to being led by the hand (“seeking some to lead him by the hand” – Acts 13:11) as in his case:

“And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.” (Acts 9:8)

To Saul it was said:

“… I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” (Acts 9:5)

This pointed out where he was wrong and gave him something to think about during his period of blindness. Similarly, Elymas’ situation was clearly pointed out to him:

“… O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10)

In his blindness he would have thought much on that description. We very much remember and think about the words we hear in association with a traumatic event. So, it could have been in mercy that Paul spoke those words showing Elymas where he was wrong.

What so Astonished Sergius Paulus?

Notice that Acts 13:12 does not say:

“Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished that a man was struck blind.”

but, rather, it says:

“Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.” (Acts 13:12)

The deputy both “saw what was done” and got his desire to “hear the word of God.” It seems there was a connection between the two. Was he deeply impressed that God would take action to shut someone up who was interfering with the preaching of His word? Is that what caused him to believe?

The answer one gives has much to do with a person’s concept of the character of God. If you believe God will take forceful action to defend His side then perhaps it would be prudent to be on His side lest He take action against you.

I am going to present another possibility which some will question. It does, I freely admit, involve some speculation. But so does the assumption that God was simply using force (pulling rank or playing a trump card) to gain the advantage in this case.

“What was done” may not refer so much to Elymas being struck blind as to what happened in reaction to Elymas seeking someone to lead him by the hand.

Remember, Paul had a similar experience not too many years earlier. He had to be led by the hand. He remembered his own attitude towards the gospel before his conversion. Could Paul’s perhaps-silent prayer have been “Lord please give Elymas the same opportunity you gave me”? His prayer was answered (Saul was “filled with the Holy Ghost”) and he was inspired to respond to Elymas as he did. Would Paul then have just left Elymas to stumble about and trip over objects in his path? Would that have been consistent with:

  • the gospel Paul was preaching?
  • the injunction to love your enemies?
  • the teaching to do good to those who persecute you or, perhaps, interfere with your preaching?

It was after Elymas was blinded that the deputy believed and his greatest reaction (“astonishment”) was, verse 12 says, to the doctrine or teaching. He was “astonished at the doctrine (teaching) of the Lord.” Of course, this does not mean the Lord was there teaching – He wasn’t. It was Paul explaining to Sergius Paulus about what the Lord had taught. And what had the Lord taught? Certainly not to act forcefully when someone opposes you. Read Matthew 5 from the Sermon on the Mount. It was more like “turn the other cheek.” There was some teaching that went on in Acts 13 and likely not just words but the gospel in action. What would have genuinely turned Sergius Paulus to God more:

Seeing God, at a preacher’s request, strike someone blind as punishment for interfering with the preaching?

or

Seeing the preacher doing the best he could, with an attitude of love, giving someone who was fighting against his work the opportunity to turn to a God of love?

There is much we are not told in this story but for sure there is nothing here to conclusively implicate God as one who lashes out in retributive anger at anyone who interferes with His or His servant’s work. It is equally possible (I think much more probable) that God and Paul, on God’s behalf, would have done all they could to reach Elymas, this misguided soul.

Blindness in Part

Here is an interesting connection:

“For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.” (Rom 11:25)

Who was Elymas? “… a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus.” (Acts 13:6)

Who was Sergius Paulus? “… the deputy of the country …” The country of Cyprus. He was a Gentile and the governor or proconsul of the Roman province of Cyprus.

 There is a sense in which blindness happened to Elymas (Israel) so that or until Sergius Paulus (Gentile) would come in or accept the truth.

 Not Willing that Any Should Perish

I see it much more likely that Elymas being struck blind was not an act of retributive punishment but an action by God, through Paul, to reach a lost sheep. I believe the assumptions I have made are more consistent with:

  • Love your enemies (Luke 6:27)
  • Do good to them which hate you (Luke 6:27)
  • God is “…not willing that any should perish …” (2 Peter 3:9)
  • God who would leave the 99 to save the one most lost
  • God being “ever merciful” (Psa 37:26)

Note that some Bible versions for Acts 13:11 render “… the hand of the Lord is upon thee …” as “the hand of the Lord is against thee …” There is no justification for that translation as the original Greek word is “epi” which is really a term designating spatial position. Such translations reflect the understanding of the translators.

Are You on God’s Side?

If you want to assume Elymas’ blindness to be essentially a curse from God you are free to believe that. I believe there is a better way, more consistent with the true gospel and what the Word says.

People who want to have God killing often defend their view by starting with the worst stories – those that sound most obviously like God is killing. Let me suggest a different approach. The Word tells us that God is on trial:

“God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.” (Rom 3:4)

God is on trial! That seems hard to imagine but remember that we are, in a sense, His witnesses as this and other verses suggest:

“And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.” (Acts 5:32)

Let’s assume that God is innocent until proven guilty. Many charges could be (and have been) brought against God. Instead of starting with the most gruesome, damning story let’s start with trying to understand His character.

If you were God’s defense attorney (on His side), wouldn’t you first start with establishing His character, His good name and then move on to deal with the charges against Him starting with those most easily explained to further establish His character.

I suggest the case of Elymas the sorcerer might be a good one to start with. As shown above, careful reasoning based on the scriptural evidence easily clears this charge.

Then move on to the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) where God is often charged with killing. Read the story carefully. You can see in a careful examination of the evidence that there is no evidence to implicate God with causing their deaths.

Then go to the case of King Herod’s death (Acts 12) where a key point in the defense is that while it says that God’s angel smote king Herod, it also says earlier in the chapter that the angel smote Peter (and he didn’t die). Apparently, “smote” does not mean what we think it does. Again, the facts of the case clear God of wrongdoing.

Move from there to yet more difficult cases but always keep in mind what the Word says about God’s character – ever merciful etc. Personally, I would rather be defending God than charging Him with actions He even tells us not to do. That is my purpose with this website.