In Acts 13:9-10 ”Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right. You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?’”
Strong words indeed; so what stirred them? There’s a clue back in verse 6, because Elymas was “a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet.” He could really wow people with his acts of magic and captivating teaching. His skill at both had caught the eye of the governor of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, too, because Elymas had become his “attendant,” or spiritual advisor (verse 7).
So what we’ve got in Elymas is a very clever man, who had the ear and the respect of the top man in Cyprus, and huge influence over the public as well. And he’d managed all this as a Jewish foreigner promoting Jewish teachings that had deeply impressed the pagan Roman Sergius.
Sergius, therefore, had been well primed by Elymas to delve into the spiritual teachings of the Jews, so it’s no surprise that, on hearing about Saul and Barnabas and what they were teaching, Sergius “wanted to hear the word of God” from them too (verse 7).
Elymas knew he was in trouble. No way could he equal or better the knowledge and wisdom of Paul and Barnabas. But he had an ace up his sleeve: he was a master of “trickery and deceit.” He could twist what sounded true into something that didn’t sound true. He knew how to “pervert” something obviously “right” (verse 10) into something that sounded wrong. He had the craftiness and cunning of a lawyer who can bring facts, evidence and even eye witnesses into question, and turn a jury his way instead.
Which was exactly what Elymas tried to do with Sergius: he “tried to turn the proconsul from the faith,” verse 8. He could see his boss was leaning very favourably to what Paul was explaining from God’s word, so it was time for desperate measures: Elymas blatantly resorted to the devil’s tactic in Genesis 3, of twisting what God’s word clearly said into something God never meant or intended.
But Paul, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 9), saw right through Elymas and called him out. Note that Paul was being inspired by the Holy Spirit to do it too, as encouragement to all Christians since then that the Spirit will help us recognize the devil’s children and have the courage to expose them.
We could do with that courage too, because there are masters of trickery and deceit trying to “turn people from the faith” and “pervert the right ways of the Lord” in our day as well. Within even mainstream Christianity there are those who are trying to turn people away from the clear teaching of Jesus about male and female and marriage in Matthew 19:4-6. One has to wonder why they are directly opposing the word of God, but in Acts 13 we know why: the deceit and trickery of the devil trying to make people his children, not God’s.
So it’s not surprising this happens when we’re also living in a culture riddled with trickery and deceit at all levels – politicians, media, big corporations, pharmaceutical companies, health authorities, and even multi-billionaires posing as “philanthropists.” Their consciences are so dead they can lie without blinking. Their agendas are blatantly driven by power and greed, yet somehow they convince us they are noble and right. They are masters at what they do.
They are like Elymas to a tee, “enemies of everything that is right” (verse 10). But for that to infect how Christians behave as well, is a tragedy. The encouraging part is, the Holy Spirit has people like Paul in the church too, who – filled with the Spirit – expose those trying to twist the word of God, call them out as “enemies” (verse 10), and do what Paul did in verse 11, when he openly declared to Elymas “the hand of the Lord is against you,” with proof to follow.
Because when Paul did that Sergius Paulus responded. He saw right through Elymas too, and instead of being turned away from the word of God, he believed and loved it (verse 12). And in so doing he became a child of God, not a child of the devil.