Acts 19:23–41 . . .
“Paul’s Preaching Changes Cultures”
Today's text reports the story of a riot in Ephesus instigated against Paul and the infant church there. Although Paul wasn't at the center of the action, it must have been an unforgettably frightening ordeal for him. Most of us have never had to face such severe opposition because of our faith. Hopefully, we never will; but we shouldn't be taken by surprise if it does come. Christians in other countries have suffered terribly for their faith, and America isn't exempt. We need to be ready when it comes.
Introduction to Ephesus
The city of Ephesus was one of the major tourist traps of the ancient world. As the capital of the province of Asia, it was large and held significant political and economic influence. It was strategically located on the coast of the Aegean Sea, on the main trade route from Rome.
Ephesian architecture was magnificent. In addition to the 25,000-seat outdoor amphitheater that hosted a variety of political and cultural events, it was the home of the great shrine of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It covered an area four times as large as the Parthenon in Athens; it was supported by 127 pillars, each sixty feet high and was crafted by the best sculptor of antiquity (F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988], p. 378).
Artemis, Ephesus’ major goddess, was known as a goddess of fertility, “mistress of the wild beasts,” a child of Zeus and Leto, and sister of Apollo. In the Roman religion she was known as Diana. A cosmopolitan city with many things to see and do, Ephesus attracted tourists from all over the world. As pantheism was the major religion of the day, tourists flocked to worship at the temple of Artemis. As with many tourist traps, local merchants knew that a lot of money could be made in attentive crowds. Ephesian craftsmen and merchants knew this well. For years, silversmiths created small silver shrines of the goddess Artemis, selling them to tourists just outside the temple and making a fortune from this business. Let's see in today's passage why they became furious with Paul.
Demetrius and the Uprising in Ephesus (19:23–29)
Paul had been in Ephesus for more than two years, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, baptizing believers, healing the sick, and delivering those possessed by demons. Even though two years wasn't a long time, God blessed Paul’s ministry that enjoyed incredible success. The whole city heard the gospel; many people responded by putting their faith in Jesus, repenting from their sins and forsaking the Greco-Roman pantheistic religion. Their sorcerers publicly burned more than four million dollars worth of magic books. (See last week's summary.)
As Christianity grew, it had a profound influence on the surrounding culture. When people forsook Artemis worship and turned to Jesus Christ, there was no longer a need for silver shrines. Paul taught that man-made gods weren't gods at all. Because this created an economic shortfall in the shrine business, it infuriated the silversmiths.
Demetrius, the apparent "president of the silversmiths’ union," realized that Christianity's influence was killing their business. So, as the instigator of this disturbance, he organized a meeting of all of the affected artisans and tradesmen, seeking their support in ridding their city (and, indeed, all of Asia) of Paul and his preaching. He warned them that if they didn’t curtail this Christian influence, they'd be in danger of losing their jobs, and their goddess Artemis would be discredited and robbed of her divine majesty. When he spoke, these craftsmen listened, for their livelihood and prosperity were dependent, to some degree, on this man and his favor. Notice these arguments of Demetrius, as outlined by Luke.
1. Our prosperity depends upon the business of making idols of Artemis (v. 25).
2. Paul’s preaching is contrary to the practice of idolatry and is greatly damaging our business (v. 26). Paul preached that there was but one God, and that He alone was the Creator of all things. Idols are a creation of men; they aren't gods at all. His preaching was widely accepted. As a result, idol sales dropped, as did their profits.
3. Our trade may not only suffer, it may fall into disrepute (v. 27). These idol-makers didn't want to be looked down upon; nor did they want their trade to become a matter of ill-repute. Once a part of the upper echelons of Ephesian society, these craftsmen had begun to look similar to Jewish exorcists. That is, if magic was to fail from favor, and the books that taught the art of magic had suddenly been burned, what would people begin to think about idol-makers?
4. If Artemis continues to lose favor, then her temple will become worthless and the role of Ephesus as the temple's guardian will be worthless. (v. 27). The pride of these craftsmen would soon be lost, for their trade would be looked down upon. Likewise the pride of Ephesus would be lost, for the goddess Artemis and her temple would both lose their glory and glamour.
This was all that these craftsmen needed to hear. Paul was threatening their livelihood, their trade, and their pride. With deep economic concerns and passionate religious motivations, the tradespersons ran out into the streets protesting the Christian faith, shouting their mantra: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (v. 28). They were trying to remind Ephesian citizens of their religious heritage. Their enthusiasm stirred up the crowd; soon the city was in an uproar. The mob of protesters apprehended Gaius and Aristarchus, two of Paul’s fellow workers from Macedonia, rushing them into a theater, the best place in the city to hold a massive demonstration. It was Paul whom they really wanted to arrest and run out of town (or worse), but they were able to seize only Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul's companions, on their way to the theater (v. 29).
Paul and Alexander Attempt to Address the Tradespersons (vv. 30–34)
When Paul learned of the demonstration and found out that the mob was holding two of his friends captive and the disturbance was really over him and his preaching, he wanted to go to the theater to speak to the crowd, but other church members attempted to persuade him that it was too dangerous. Eventually, he decided not to go. As with many protests and demonstrations, the whole assembly was in confusion. Luke includes a somewhat puzzling story of another man who wished to address the crowd; his name was Alexander. We know from our text that he was a Jew. Since the Jews wanted to push him forward, it's unlikely that this man was a believer or that he wanted to defend Paul.
Wanting to protect their reputation in this mess, the Jews pushed their Alexander to the front to show everyone that Jews and Christians weren't the same, and that Christians were to be blamed for the fiasco. In spite of the fact that Alexander was given the platform, he wasn't given the chance to speak. He was shouted down, for they could tell that he was a Jew; as a Jew, he couldn't have anything good to say about Artemis. So when he got up to speak, the crowd was in no mood to listen to him. In spite of his attempts to quiet the crowd and give a defense before the people, they shouted him down by repeating their chant aloud: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
The Clerk’s Rebuke and Benediction (vv. 35–41)
While neither Alexander nor Paul could get a hearing from the crowd, the city clerk did. He entered the theater and addressed the crowd. As the city's executive officer, it was his job to maintain order and justice. So he assured the crowd that Ephesus was world famous for being the guardian of the temple of Artemis, and that they shouldn't be overly concerned about the Christians. Then, attempting to quiet the crowd, he addressed the silversmith union directly by defending the Christians: "They have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess."
The city clerk restored order by telling the crowd that if they had a grievance against the Christians, they could press charges and work through the legal system. As it was, they were the ones in jeopardy of being charged with a crime. Rioting was clearly against the law, and the city clerk wasn't about to put up with mob violence. With this argument, he dismissed the assembly, the crowd was persuaded, and all went home. With this disturbance in Ephesus, Paul was persuaded to move on. After calling the saints together and encouraging them, he set out to fulfill his plans. And so the great Ephesian campaign ended, at least so far as Paul’s presence is concerned.
- Q. 1 To what extent should Christians use political power for kingdom purposes? Where is the balance?
- Q. 2 Can you think of situations today where someone in a respectable trade would be forced to choose between that trade and Christ?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 19.]
† Watch the "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 18:12–19:40, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
The Riot in Ephesus
23About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
28When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. 30Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.
32The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. 34But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
35The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? 36Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. 37You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 40As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” 41After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.