The first time I heard of Cyprus, I didn’t have a clue where it was.
I was living in Moscow, Russia, at the time, and my knowledge of geography outside of the USA was greatly lacking.
Around 2001, my wife and I had booked a very belated honeymoon getaway to Limassol, largely at the guidance of our Russian travel agent. I remember it well. The mild April weather seemed like paradise compared to the cold dark of late winter in Moscow.
We had a great time doing all the typical tourist stuff. We drank in the sea, the sunshine, and all the local culture and good food. The time went by too quickly and we returned to Moscow oblivious to the fact that some five years later we would come back to make Cyprus our home. Why and how that happened is the subject of a different story.
But we are so grateful to have spent the last 18 years of our lives on this amazing island among our hosts, the beautiful Cypriot people. We are better, fuller humans as the result of our time here.
Today we watch the tourists come, as we did so many years ago, for little more than a taste of the Mediterranean climate, without ever really getting beneath the surface of Cyprus’ rich culture and history.
Those who are willing to look discover the vastness of historical ruins that cover the island from end to end. Each successive world power throughout history has left their mark on Cyprus. Layer upon layer of excavation evidences the history of occupations the island has experienced as it was passed from one King and country to the next. Whether taken in battle or gifted between ruling powers, Cyprus’ strategic location made it cherished possession of them all. Among others, Cyprus has seen the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans, British, and most recently, Turkey, all lay claim to the island.
For me, one of the most impressive things about Cyprus is the fact that the Greek Cypriot culture has weathered all those different seasons and retained its identity despite the waves of foreign influences.
If one were to look for the social markers around which they rallied, I think few would argue that their Orthodox Christian faith was one of the most important. Even when the Ottoman Empire transformed the Middle East into an Islamic world at the point of a sword, Cyprus managed to maintain its Christian heritage. It still stands today as the only Christian country in the predominantly Muslim world of the Middle East.
One of the bits of History that few people are aware of, and that the tourist industry of Cyprus rarely emphasizes, is exactly how Christianity came to Cyprus in the first place. Not only is the story in the Bible itself, but it also tells in detail about how Cypriots were among the first converts to Christ and played an important role in the initial spread of the Gospel after Jesus’ resurrection.
The very first reference to Cyprus appears in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Also called Kittim in a few places, Cyprus has numerous references throughout the Old Testament books of prophecy; such as Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
But it isn’t until the New Testament that Cyprus really gets the spotlight. In the book of Acts, which essentially records the birth of ‘the church’ (the people, not a building), we are introduced to a critical figure in the early days of Christianity. Barnabas, ‘a Levite of the country of Cyprus’ (Acts 4:36) is referred to in the scriptures as an ‘Apostle’ (Acts 14:14) and stands prominently in key moments of early church history.
Barnabas the Cypriot, whose name means ‘son of encouragement’ is the one who would befriend Saul, the infamous ‘persecutor-of-the-church-turned-Christian’, and introduced him to the Apostles Peter, James, John and the others.
We are told in Acts 11:19-20 that it was Cypriot believers, suffering under the earliest wave of persecution in Jerusalem, that returned to Cyprus and then went to Antioch (modern day Antakya, Turkey) where they were instrumental in starting the very first recorded non-Jewish church among the Greeks.
Barnabas the Cypriot is then sent by the Jerusalem church to officiate over this new move of God’s Spirit in Antioch (Acts 11:22). He recruits Saul, now known as the great Apostle Paul, and together they hugely encourage the church there, which soon after launches missionary efforts, beginning with our beautiful island of Cyprus (Acts 13).
It is here in Paphos that the Bible records the first conversion of a Roman Proconsul under the ministry of Barnabas and Paul. It during this period that Christianity first took root in Cyprus.
Barnabas, along with Paul and Peter would be greatly influential in the first Jerusalem council, when the predominantly Jewish church would change the world forever by recognizing the Gentiles inclusion into the Kingdom of God on the basis of faith in Christ alone (Galatians 2:16). Eventually Barnabas would return to Cyprus with his cousin Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, to raise up and encourage the fledgling church, which would spread throughout the island from coast to coast.
Though Cyprus boasts of the longest Christian history and traditions in the world, few are familiar with its important Biblical role in the establishment and spread of the faith. Undoubtably Barnabas is representative of a larger group of Cypriots actively sharing their faith during the infancy of the church.
Coming back to the main point of this article. We’ve considered the history of how Christianity arrived in Cyprus and had such a powerful impact on it over the last 2000 years.
But we wouldn’t do the story justice to end it there, because there is so much more. In fact, the most important piece of the story hasn’t been addressed.
We’ve seen that Barnabas and other Cypriot converts were responsible for bringing the Gospel message to this island long ago. But we would fail to do the history justice without asking the question, ‘Who sent them?’
The short answer is, God did.
Backing up a little in the Biblical story, we read that when Jesus, the Son of God, had risen from the dead and was about to ascend to His Father, He gave his followers this command. “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” (Matthew 28:18-19) Having offered Himself on the cross for the sins of the world and having risen from the dead in victory over death, He commanded His followers to go and tell the whole world the good news, the Gospel, that forgiveness and reconciliation with God were possible through faith in Him (John 3:16, Romans 5:1, Ephesians 2:8,9). Both the Bible and history show that Jesus’ followers were transformed into fearless ambassadors of this truth. Filled with God’s spirit and a passion to tell the world about Jesus, the early church prayed for God’s power and wisdom to share their faith.
It is in that context that we come to Acts 13:2-4, where we read specifically in relationship to Cyprus, “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down… and … sailed to Cyprus.”
In conclusion, we see that Jesus gave the general command to go into the world with the message of salvation, but the Holy Spirit gave the specific command for Barnabas and Saul to come to Cyprus.
Again, how did Christianity come to Cyprus? God, in His love for this people and place sent his messengers to proclaim repentance, salvation and hope to any and all who would believe in His Son.
The Bible says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
God is still writing Cyprus’ history today. He still loves this people, this place. He loves you.
You can put your faith in Christ today and become a part of that history now!
By Pastor Tim Mattox
Paphos Calvary Chapel