Four reasons at least can be stated, which may have induced Barnabas and Paul, in the exercise of a wise discretion, to turn in the first instance to this island. It is separated by no great distance from the mainland of Syria. Its high mountain summits are easily seen in clear weather from the coast near the mouth of the Orontes. In the summer season many vessels must often have been passing and repassing between Salamis and Seleucia. Besides all this, Cyprus was where Barnabas lived (Acts 4:36).
Since the time when "Andrew found his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus," (John 1:41 - 42), the ties of family relationship had not been without effect on the progress of the Gospel. It could not be unnatural to suppose that the truth would be welcomed in Cyprus, when it was brought not only by Paul but by Barnabas and his kinsman Mark to their own connections or friends.
Moreover, the Jews were numerous in Salamis. By sailing to that city Paul and Barnabas were following the track of the synagogues. Their mission, it is true, was chiefly to the Gentiles, but their surest course for reaching them was through the medium of the Proselytes and the Hellenistic Jews. To these considerations we must add that some of the Cypriotes were already Christians. No one place out of Palestine, with the exception of Antioch, had been so honorably associated with the work of successful evangelization (Acts 4:36, 11:19, 20, 21:16).
We also know that Jews were numerous in Salamis due to the fact that Scripture states the city had several synagogues, while other cities had often only one (Acts 13:5). The Jews had doubtless been established here in considerable numbers in the active period which succeeded the death of Alexander.
The unparalleled productiveness of Cyprus, and its trade in fruit, wine, flax, and honey, would naturally attract them to the mercantile port. The farming of the copper mines by Augustus to Herod may probably have swelled their numbers. One of the most conspicuous passages in the history of Salamis was the insurrection of the Jews in the reign of Trajan, when great part of the city was destroyed. Its demolition was completed by an earthquake. It was rebuilt by a Christian emperor, from whom it received its mediaeval name of Constantia.
It appears that the proclamation of the Gospel was confined by Barnabas and Paul to the Jews and the synagogues. We have no information of the length of their stay, or the success of their labors. Some stress seems to be laid on the fact that John (i.e. Mark) "was their minister." Perhaps we are to infer from this, that his hands baptized the Jews and Proselytes, who were convinced by the preaching of Paul.
From Salamis Paul and company traveled to Paphos, at the other extremity of the island. The two towns were probably connected together by a traveled and frequented road. It is indeed likely that, even under the Empire, the islands of the Greek part of the Mediterranean, as Crete and Cyprus, were not so completely provided with lines of internal communication as those which were nearer the metropolis, and had been longer under Roman occupation, such as Corsica and Sardinia. There is little doubt that Paul's journey from Salamis to Paphos, a distance from east to west of not more than a hundred miles, was accomplished in a short time and without difficulty.
Paphos was the residence of the Roman governor. It had a strong garrison of imperial soldiers in the midst of a Greek population, with its mixture of two languages, with its symbols of a strong and steady power side by side with frivolous amusements, and with something of the style of a court about the residence of its governor. All the occurrences, which are mentioned at Paphos as taking place on the arrival of Barnabas and Paul, are grouped so entirely round the governor's person, that our attention must be turned for a time to the condition of Cyprus as a Roman province, and the position and character of Sergius Paulus.
From the time when Augustus united the world under his own power, the provinces were divided into two different classes. The business of the first Emperor's life was to consolidate the imperial system under the show of administering a republic. He retained the names and semblances of those liberties and rights which Rome had once enjoyed. He found two names in existence, the one of which was henceforth inseparably blended with the Imperial dignity and military command, the other with the authority of the Senate and its Civil administration. The first of these names was "Praetor," the second was "Consul."
We find in the reign, not only of Augustus, but of each of his successors, from Tiberius to Nero, the provinces divided into two classes. On the one side we have those which are supposed to be under the Senate and people. The governor is appointed by lot, as in the times of the old republic. He carries with him the lictors and fasces, the insignia of a Consul, but he is destitute of military power. His office must be resigned at the expiration of a year. He is styled "Proconsul." On the other side are the provinces of Caesar.
The Governor may be styled "Propraetor," but he is more properly "Legatus," meaning the representative or "Commissioner" of the Emperor. He goes out from Italy with all the pomp of a military commander, and he does not return till the Emperor recalls him. And to complete the symmetry and consistency of the system, the subordinate districts of these imperial provinces are regulated by the Emperor's "Procurator" or "High Steward."
Luke, who wrote about Paul's missionary journeys, informs us that the governor of Cyprus was a "prudent" man, who "desired to hear the Word of God." This governor seems to have been of a candid and inquiring mind.
For many years before this time, and many years after, impostors from the East, pretending to magical powers, had great influence over the Roman mind. Unbelief, when it has become conscious of its weakness, is often glad to give its hand to superstition. Paul would run headlong into this supersition on Cyprus.
The faith of educated Romans, as Paul likely understood, was utterly gone. We can hardly wonder, when the East was thrown open, that the imagination both of the populace and the aristocracy of Rome became fanatically excited. Not only was the metropolis of the empire crowded with "hungry Greeks," but "Syrian fortune tellers" flocked into all the haunts of public amusement. Athens and Corinth did not now contribute the worst part of the dregs of Rome. Every part of the East contributed its share to the general superstition.
What we know, from the literature of the period, to have been the case in Rome and in the Empire at large, we see exemplified in a province in the case of Sergius Paulus, who would soon meet Paul. He had attached himself to a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-jesus, and who had given himself the Arabic name of "Elymas," or "The Wise."
But the Proconsul was not so deluded by the false prophet, as to be unable, or unwilling, to listen to the true. "He sent for Barnabas and Saul (Paul)" (Acts 13:7) of whose arrival he was informed, and whose free and public declaration of the "Word of God" attracted his inquiring mind. Elymas used every exertion to resist them, and to hinder the Proconsul's mind from falling under the influence of their Divine doctrine. It is evident, from the graphic character of the narrative, the description of Paul "setting his eyes" on the sorcerer, "the mist and the darkness" which fell on Barjesus, and so on that Sergius Paulus did not "harden his heart."
Paul proceeded to denounce an instantaneous judgment and, according to his prophetic word, the "hand of the Lord" struck the sorcerer (Acts 13:10 - 11). The sight of Elymas began to waver, and presently a darkness settled on it so thick, that he ceased to behold the sun's light.
This blinding of the false prophet by Paul opened the eyes of Sergius Paulus. That which had been intended as an opposition to the Gospel, proved the means of its extension. We are ignorant of the degree of this extension in the island of Cyprus. But we cannot doubt that when the Proconsul was converted, his influence would make Christianity reputable on the island.
New focal point of evangelism
And now, from this point of the Apostolical history, Paul appears as the great figure in every picture. Barnabas, henceforward, is always in the background. The great Apostle now enters on his work as the preacher to the Gentiles. Saul's name, as far as the Biblical record is concerned, is now changed to Paul (Acts 13:9).
It is not difficult to imagine the reasons which induced Paul and Barnabas, on their departure from Seleucia, to visit first the island of Cyprus. It is not quite so easy to give an opinion upon the motives which directed their course to the coast of Pamphylia, when they had passed through the native island of Barnabas, from Salamis to Paphos. It might be one of those circumstances which we call accidents, and which, as they never influence the actions of ordinary men without the predetermining direction of Divine Providence, so were doubtless used by the same Providence to determine the course even of Apostles.
On this occasion there might have been some small craft in the harbor at Paphos, bound for the opposite gulf of Attalia, when Paul and Barnabas were thinking of their future progress. The distance is not great, and frequent communication, both political and commercial, must have taken place between the towns of Pamphylia and those of Cyprus.
It is possible that Apostle Paul, having already preached the Gospel in Cilicia, might wish now to extend it among those districts which lay more immediately contiguous, and the population of which was, in some respects, similar to that of his native province. Paul might also reflect that the natives of a comparatively unsophisticated district might be more likely to receive the message of salvation, than the inhabitants of those provinces which were more completely penetrated with the corrupt civilization of Greece and Rome.
Paul's thoughts might be turning to those numerous families of Jews, whom he well knew to be settled in the great towns beyond Mount Taurus, such as Antioch in Pisidia, and Iconium in Lycaonia, who flocked there, as everywhere, to the worship of the Synagogue. Or, finally, Paul may have had a direct revelation from on high, and a vision, like that which had already appeared to him in the Temple, or like that which he afterwards saw on the confines of Europe and Asia (Acts 16:9) may have directed the course of his voyage.
Whatever may have been the calculations of his own wisdom and prudence, or whatever supernatural intimations may have reached him, Paul sailed, with his companions Barnabas and John Mark, in some vessel, of which the size, the cargo, and the crew, are unknown to us, to Perga. It is there where we will pick up the rest of Paul's first missionary journey.