The Punitive Work of the Holy Spirit

Paul vs. Elymas

As I mentioned in previous posts I’m spending the week pondering the story of Paul’s confrontation with Bar-Jesus/Elymas in Cyprus at the beginning of his first missionary journey. Luke takes great pains to emphasize the presence, power and work of the Holy Spirit in this text. The text is intentionally written to highlight a number of contrasts and comparisons wit Paul and Elymas

  • both Jews,
  • both struck temporarily blind, both had to be led by the hand,
  • both “filled” with something: Paul (post-conversion) with the Holy Spirit, Elymas with all deceit and wrongdoing
  • Prophet vs. false prophet

One of the most striking things about this story will be the punitive miracle. Paul, full of the Holy Spirit speak a curse and the man will become blind for a time. This story in fact seems to echo the confrontation between Jesus and Paul on the road to Damascus. As a consequence of Paul’s confrontation he would be able to see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit, the condition specifically stated in this context too.

An Offensive Miracle

The negative miracle story here strikes people as unfair. If we protest at Jesus curing the fig tree, if shouldn’t surprise us that people kvetch at striking this man blind. I found this comment on the free thought site regarding this story.

Second, to sensitive readers Paul’s action of blinding Elymas, even with temporary blindness, is unjustifiably inhumane. A person’s eyesight is too precious for an over-zealous missionary to tamper with. Loss of vision for only a few days would be frightening. Think of how Elymas must have felt when he “found himself in a thick fog, and everything went black” (Acts 13:11, Good As New Translation). We’re not told how long Elymas was stone-blind, or even whether or not he ever saw again. What an outcry there would be today if a modern Bible-thumper were to blind a person who refuses to repent and accept Jesus as Lord. Paul’s “shock and awe” policy anticipated the current strategy of the United States of physically and psychologically crushing the enemy, Iraq. Yet Paul, without batting an eye, wrote that, “love is patient, tender-hearted, and doesn’t bully” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, Good As New Translation). Elymas should have reciprocated and called Paul a few derogatory names.

According to this standard we should certainly criticize Jesus for striking Paul blind. I doubt the author of the website believes in miracles they would have to admit that it never happened and so it should be of no more offense than George Lucas destroying Alderaan.

Why Blindness?

In many cases in the Bible as well as other traditional literature there is a sense of logic to divine judgment executed in time and space. Leprosy is an affliction in the Old Testament that is used to execute divine judgment against Miriam in Numbers 12. Gehazi gets leprosy after seeking the gifts of Naaman. The logic of that punitive miracle was clear.

Blindness is an ironic affliction for a spiritual guide, which was what Paul in a sense was as well as Elymas. A blind guide was a criticism that Jesus levels against the religious leaders (Matt 15:14). There is a sacramental nature to this punitive miracle. Blind you are towards God so literally blind you will be. Elymas was attempting to corrupt the proconsul (from faith) and Paul says you will not do that.

Revelatory Work of the Holy Spirit

John 16 is of course a major introduction to the work of the Holy Spirit by Jesus. John 16:8 is a key text in this in terms of what the Holy Spirit will do. The Holy Spirit will “elencho” or “expose, rebuke, convict, prove, punish.” In 16:8 (and the following verses that draw it out) what is exposed, convicted is sin, righteousness and judgment. One of the things Paul says against Elymas is that he’s an enemy of righteousness.

Miracles as Quickenings

In the previous posting on Magic and Religion there’s a general outline of how magic and religion tend to differ. I also noted that miracles are often a sort of quickening, especially the miracles of Jesus that proclaim the change of the ages, the coming of the kingdom (Luke 4 Manifesto). It also makes sense that judgment in the presence of the Holy Spirit is quickened too. In this case it is a temporary quickening, or a warning, with time remaining for repentance.

Even though likely in the eyes of the proconsul this may look like a power encounter, who has the most magic, it is not really about magic at all. It is about clarifying what is true about the world and about our own conditions within it.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon, Understanding the Bible. Bookmark the permalink.

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