One of the fundamental tasks for the church today is to learn to read the story we’re in and the story God is telling rather than the one we tell ourselves. This is only possible when the Spirit enlightens the Word so that we can see ourselves and our world rightly. Part of this means we will regularly be challenged by the Scriptures as God surprises us with the stories he tells.
For example, what do you think of when you think of being filled with the Spirit? If you were to meet someone filled with the Spirit, what would you expect them to do? How would they act? What would they say? Or from the other direction: what sort of things would they not say or not do? If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, my guess is you’d think of either the gifts of the Spirit or the fruit of the Spirit. You’d think of supernatural manifestations of the Spirit’s power in prophecy or speaking in tongues or healing. Or, more importantly, you’d think of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). Our expectation of the Spirit-filled person is that they would sincerely love people; that they would be manifestly gentle; that they would speak with kindness and patience in all circumstances. And those are good, biblical expectations.
But the book of Acts shows us the Spirit-filled life is full of surprises.
In Acts 13 the Holy Spirit commissions Paul and Barnabas for their missionary work. One of their first stops is in Paphos, a city on the island of Cyprus where the Roman proconsul (essentially a provincial governor) Sergius Paulus wants to hear what they have to say (Acts 13:7). So here we have a prominent government official—“a man of intelligence”—eager to hear the word of God. But in his court there’s a magician named Elymas, a prophet, most likely a soothsayer who gets paid to predict the future. He opposes the apostles’ preaching and tries to turn the governor away from Christianity (Acts 13:8). Here’s where our expectations about the Spirit-filled life get upended:
But Saul, who was 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?” (Acts 13:9–10)
This doesn’t sound like what we would call kind or civil or gentle. These are biting words, pointed words, sharp words directed at a particular person. In this case, the fruit of the Spirit is name-calling, insults, and harsh words. In this case, Spirit-prompted boldness means not mincing words about the wickedness of this magician.
When Spirit-Inspired Insults Are Necessary
Because it connects being filled with the Spirit to these pointed words, this passage is a challenge to us. First, it demands we recognize this type of speech can be motivated and animated by God’s Spirit. It forces us to enlarge our vision of the Spirit-filled life. Not that the Spirit-filled life doesn’t include sincere love and patience and kindness and gentleness. But apparently the Spirit-filled life is compatible with this kind of direct, pointed speech too. Faithfulness to Scripture demands we have a category for a Spirit-inspired insult.
What’s more, for pastors and other Christian leaders, this passage challenges us to discern when this type of speech is appropriate (and even necessary). These words come from an apostle, a leader in the church, and so I don’t think all Christians are necessarily called to speak with such biting words. But, as leaders, when should we speak this way? When is a sharp word evidence of the Spirit’s work, and when is it evidence we’re just angry jerks? Deeper reflection on this passage can help us discern the type of occasion where such language is appropriate.
Here we have a man, Sergius Paulus, who’s open and receptive to the gospel. God has paved the way—made a “straight path”—for Paul to give the gospel to him. But then we have another man, Elymas, trying to make that straight path crooked. Or to change the metaphor, he’s trying to build a wall between Sergius and the gospel.
So when someone tries to build a wall between people and the gospel, pointed and exposing words are appropriate (and maybe even necessary) to tear it down. If Elymas doesn’t want to hear the gospel, that’s one thing. But when he actively hinders others from hearing and responding, Paul tells the truth. He calls a spade a spade. “You there, building the wall, tearing up the path. You’re a son of the devil. You’re an enemy of all righteousness. You’re a liar and a villain.”
Seeing the Same in Jesus
We see this same pattern in Jesus’s ministry. If you’ve read the Gospels, you’ve heard his sharp words for the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees. He didn’t treat them with kid gloves. He wasn’t tender with them. He calls them names: a brood of vipers, sons of the devil, blind fools, whitewashed tombs. And in Matthew 23, he pronounces seven woes or curses on them because of their hostility to his ministry. He explains why his language is so sharp:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. (Matt. 23:13)
Like Elymas, the Pharisees and scribes are preventing people from entering the kingdom. They keep the hungry from being fed by the Word of God. And so Jesus doesn’t play nice with them. He confronts them head on.
Moreover, Matthew 23 helps us make a key distinction that explains why Jesus speaks so strongly with some sinners and so gently and patiently with others. Jesus and Paul distinguish between apostles of the world and refugees from the world. A refugee is someone who is at least interested in hearing the gospel. They may not believe, but they’re curious. They may recognize there’s something missing in their life. They may feel guilty because of their sin and shame. Whatever the reason, they might be interested in entering the kingdom. But the next two verses in Matthew 23 describe apostles of the world:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matt. 23:14–15)
Apostles of the world are on a mission. They prowl around looking for people to devour. They have a false gospel and they want to spread it—and they actively oppose the gospel of Jesus. This is why he speaks one way to the woman at the well, to the prostitutes and sinners who come to him for refuge, and another way to the leaders—whether religious like the Pharisees or pagan like Elymas—who seek to hinder his ministry.
This is precisely what we see in Acts 13. Sergius Paulus is a worldly refugee. Elymas is a worldly apostle. He’s a false prophet with a false gospel. And when an apostle from the world tries to build a wall between us and the refugees, the Spirit fills us and love demands we speak up. Note that—love demands. That’s why Paul’s words to the sorcerer aren’t contrary to love and kindness and patience; they are driven by love and kindness and patience. Love for Christ and kindness for the governor and patience with his questions—these are what call forth such strong and biting words from Paul.
And so we must labor and pray that God would help us distinguish between apostles and refugees, and that we would have the Spirit’s wisdom to speak appropriately in all circumstances. And that burden falls particularly on Christian leaders.
But this passage doesn’t just challenge pastors and leaders. Even though lay Christians may never be called to speak like Paul does here, they are called to say “Amen” when their leaders do. This means all Christians must learn to recognize worldly apostles and false prophets. And when godly leaders speak the biting truth, we can’t simply cluck our tongues and say, “Easy now. Isn’t the Spirit a spirit of love and kindness? Don’t speak so harshly.”
Instead, we must have a category in our mind for Spirit-filled, Spirit-prompted biting words so that we too can say “Amen.”