Jeremy Sarber, Reformed Baptist pastor

 

Ephesians, Sermon Transcripts

When the Church Sparked a Riot

Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly. (Acts 19:21-41)

So Paul has come to the end of a three-year stay in Ephesus. He spent longer with the Church at Ephesus than he did with anyone else. Obviously, most of what occurred during that time are not recorded for us. But one thing we have learned is just how predominant Satanic activity was in the city of Ephesus.

First of all, we saw that many of the Jews became so hard-hearted against the truth that they finally rose up and began “speaking evil of the Way before the congregation” (Ac 19:9). “The Way” is simply a description of Christianity. It is a term most likely derived from the statement Jesus made about himself in John 14. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Well, many of the Jews refused to believe, and that is a sign of Satanic activity. Remember what Paul said about unbelievers: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2Co 4:4).

Second, we also saw that many of the Gentiles were very much involved in what Luke referred to as “magic arts” (Ac 19:19). Chances are, the Jews likely represented a small minority in a city like Ephesus. Overall, the greater part of the population was Gentile, and those Gentiles were heavily invested in idolatry. Among Paul’s converts alone—we don’t know how many there were—they owned enough Satanic literature to be valued at “fifty thousand pieces of silver” (Ac 19:19). A man could live for more than 130 years on that amount of silver.

On top of the unbelieving Jews and the idolatrous Gentiles, let’s not forget about the traveling exorcists who apparently made a living by deceiving people. Needless to say, Ephesus was a hostile environment for the gospel. The thought of going into a place like that would cause most of us to pull a Jonah and run the other direction. “I’m not going there. Forget it. The Jews are speaking out against the faith. The Gentiles are worshiping other gods. That’s not a place for a good Christian like me.”

The Opportunities For Light In Darkness

Apparently, Paul wouldn’t agree. Again, he spent more time building the Church at Ephesus than he did anywhere else. And here’s the best part. Both verse 10 and verse 20 of this chapter tell us that the Word of God was powerfully effective in that part of the world. Verse 10 says, “All the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Ac 19:10). Verse 20 says, “The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Ac 19:20).

There goes conventional wisdom. It doesn’t make sense, does it? How can the gospel have such a positive impact in a place where sin and Satan have an obvious stronghold? Some people call it a paradox. But the fact is, both Scripture and church history show us that the gospel tends to have its greatest impact in places of strong opposition. Listen, the world’s hostility doesn’t stifle the church’s growth. In fact, it usually has the opposite effect. The church becomes stronger in the faith, and the number of disciples multiply.

Regarding the church’s welfare, persecution is not to be feared. Our greatest hindrances come from within. Apathy, for instance, will kill a church long before persecution does. Yet, we in the United States continue to blame society for our struggles. “The country’s going downhill,” we say as we point our fingers at the culture around us. But are the circumstances here any worse than they were for the church of the 1st century? I don’t think so. I don’t think we can even compare the two.

As Christians, we are to expect hostility from the world around us. The gospel will always be controversial. Jesus said, “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (Jn 3:19-20). While he was talking primarily about himself, let’s not forget what he later said to his disciples: “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). The light of Christ radiates from his people. And as a result, those walking in darkness will oppose us because we expose their evil works by contrast.

That’s okay, though. One important lesson that we learn here in Acts 19 is that the Word of God increases at the same rate as the church’s opposition. As the world gets darker, the light of Christ gets brighter. In the midst of the rampant sin in Ephesus, the church became a beacon for all of Asia Minor. Consequently, more of the city got upset. But did that diminish the reach and influence of the gospel? Not according to Paul.

Let me read to you a passage from 1 Corinthians chapter 16. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians while he still in Ephesus, by the way. And at the close of it, he said this (verse 5):

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries. (1 Corinthians 16:5-9)

You see, as Paul evaluated the situation in Ephesus, he knew that God was doing amazing things. He also knew that the opposition was rising. But he doesn’t tell the Corinthians, “Well, I see some possibilities here, but I’m gravely concerned because there are many adversaries. I’m not sure what’ll happen.” No, he’s well aware that no adversary can hinder God from accomplishing his purpose. He mentions the adversaries as though they’re an insignificant footnote. “Oh, by the way, there are adversaries here.”

Yeah, I’d say there were a few adversaries. The Jews in the local synagogue are trying to convince the disciples that Paul is wrong about Christ. As we see in our text this morning, the city of Ephesus was known all over the world as the worship center for the false god, Artemis. The people’s idolatry was so prevalent that Paul and the church sparked a citywide riot. Verse 29 says, “The city was filled with the confusion” (Ac 19:29). They began protesting and dragging Christians in before the city officials. Paul shows up, and some of the highest-ranking officers tell him not to enter, presumably because his life would be in jeopardy.

Yes, Paul and the church had adversaries. But once again, the context says, “The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Ac 19:20). Despite the hostility and the influence of Satan in that place, “a wide door for effective work” was standing open (1Co 16:9).

Just the other day I jotted down this quote from Colin Smith who is a pastor in Illinois. Commenting on Nehemiah chapter 4, he said, “A man who sets out to serve the Lord will endure seasons of opposition. Satan has a special eye on godly leaders, and if God has given you a share in his work, you can expect to experience your share of trouble.” He went on to say, “Stand firm in your faith. Press on with the work. Do not give way to fear.”

Now as we turn our attention to the latter half of Acts 19, we don’t find much theology in the text. It’s mostly a historical narrative. But it does provide us insight into what the Christians in Ephesus were up against. You know, when we compare Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians with, let’s say, his letters to a church such as Corinth, we might get the impression that the Ephesians had no problems at all. Paul doesn’t mention any serious theological errors or sins among them. But that’s not to say that the Church at Ephesus didn’t have their share of struggles. They were not a small country church completely isolated from the grim realities of this world. They were right in the thick of controversy and antagonism. If nothing else, this story in Acts 19 may just give us a slightly different perspective on the church as well as Paul’s letter to them.

Paul Promotes Unity Between Jews and Gentiles

Our text begins with Paul making plans to leave Ephesus. Ultimately, he wants to go to Jerusalem, but he’s mapped out a rather strange route. Jerusalem was southeast from Ephesus. But Paul intends to “pass through Macedonia and Achaia” on his way to Jerusalem (Ac 19:21). Well, neither of those regions were on his way to Jerusalem. In fact, they are in the opposite direction, which begs the question, why? I’m not asking why he would want to go to either place. He had previously planted churches in those regions, so it’s not surprising that he would want to visit them again. No, I’m asking why he would feel a need to go so far out of his way if his intention was to return to Jerusalem.

The answer is money. Maybe charity would be a better word for it.

The Church at Jerusalem struggled from the beginning. Almost immediately, they had to appoint men to special positions just to see to everyone’s needs. The church was forced to pool their resources to ensure that no one was without basic necessities. And as Paul traveled, he encouraged the various churches in other parts of the world to take up collections for the believers in Jerusalem. He told the Church at Corinth:

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Corinthians 16:1-3)

So Paul made it a point to not only encourage giving but also oversee the process himself. He understood the difficulties of asking for money. People work hard for their money, and many charlatans were looking for every opportunity to take their money under false pretenses. So Paul with the authority and credibility of an apostle made personal guarantees that the money would get into the right hands and be used for the right reasons.

Now I believe there was even more to this charity than simply charity. Think about what Paul was doing by asking the Thessalonians, the Bereans, and the Corinthians to contribute to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. These churches in Macedonia and Achaia were mostly Gentile. You see, Paul was attempting to bridge the gap between Jews and Gentiles in the church.

Just imagine what the Jews would think if Gentiles from all over the world were sending love offerings to them in their time of need. Perhaps their hearts would soften to the Gentiles. Maybe they would be less resistant to accept the Gentiles. And I suppose the opposite was true as well. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “God has so composed the body [that is, the body of Christ], giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1Co 12:24-26).

Of course, we’ll come to this passage in our study, but Paul addressed the divide between Jews and Gentiles even in his letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 2, he wrote:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:11-18)

So what better way to embrace this eternal unity between Jews and Gentiles than to sacrifice for one another, to help one another? I think Paul had that in mind as he encouraged Gentile churches to financially support the distinctly Jewish church in Jerusalem.

Now as much as Paul had his heart set to go to Jerusalem, it seems as though he always understood that Rome was his ultimate destination. Verse 21 says that he was “resolved in the Spirit” (Ac 19:21). There is more than one occasion in Acts where Paul seems to have had a supernatural sense telling him that (1) he would become a martyr and (2) he would end up in Rome. Whether he ever connected the two prior to his last arrest, I don’t know. But if nothing else, he was anxious to preach the gospel in the capital city, in the very heart of the Roman Empire.

For now, however, he felt that he needed to stay in Asia Minor a little longer. It seems that maybe he got held up even in Ephesus longer than he anticipated. You know, it’s hard to plan for a riot. That’s not something you can typically predict. So Paul “sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus” (Ac 19:22). They go ahead of him and begin taking up collections or whatever else was necessary before Paul arrived.

The Riot In Ephesus

And here’s where the fun begins. Satan knows when the Word of God is prevailing. He knows when the church is being effective. And it is during those times that he is provoked to do something about it if God allows him. What happens here, according to Luke, is “no little disturbance concerning the Way” (Ac 19:23). Satan’s previous efforts had been undermined and he’s ready to strike again.

This time around, he’ll work through “a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis” (Ac 19:24). As far as the Ephesians were concerned, Demetrius was an ordinary business man, an upstanding citizen. He “brought no little business to the craftsmen,” so quite a few people in the community depended on him. But Paul and the Christians had created a serious problem for his bottom line. He was looking at the books, thinking, Revenue is way down. Since Paul moved into town, I’m not selling as many shrines as I used to.

Let me explain the situation in Ephesus. People worshiped Artemis, the Greek goddess, all throughout the Roman Empire. But to most of the Roman world, she was a secondary goddess. The Romans actually had their own version of Artemis by the name of Diana. Regardless, the city of Ephesus became the central place of worship for people who believed in Artemis. The Temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) was located in Ephesus. So people from all over the world came during their annual festivals and perhaps other times. And just like hosting the Olympics today, it provided the city with a real boost to their economy.

Well, Demetrius was one of the businessmen who gained from the extra tourism. He made and sold shrines that people would either take home to worship or carry into the temple to leave as an offering. It was a lucrative business. Notice what he says to the other businessmen: “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth” (Ac 19:25). He earned a decent amount of money selling these shrines.

So what’s the problem? He says in verse 26, “You see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods” (Ac 19:26). Paul’s ministry had such a significant impact that a considerable number of people were turning away from idolatry. They no longer worshiped Artemis. They stopped visiting the temple, and they stopped buying shrines.

So Demetrius says, “There is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship” (Ac 19:27). Let’s pause for a moment and think about what he said here.

Does Demetrius come across as a man who is sincerely devoted to the worship of Artemis? No, he doesn’t. His first concern is money. But he also knows that money may not be everyone’s priority. So he cleverly mentions that Paul and the Christians are a threat to Artemis herself. She’s the great goddess of the Ephesians, but Paul is turning people away from her.

When people, religious or otherwise, protest the church, there is usually an underlying motive which may not be obvious. In the case of Demetrius, it was greed. Paul was cutting into his business. When Jewish leaders demanded the crucifixion of Christ, it was jealousy that moved them. Matthew said, “It was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Mt 27:18). They were jealous of his influence over the people. Paul told the Philippians that some will even preach the gospel “out of selfish ambition” (Php 1:17).

Listen, being the subject of ridicule doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. You may be doing everything right which is why you are being ridiculed. Satan is working overtime to destroy the good work you’re doing. Don’t let him. And remember that some of your most outspoken critics may come at you under the pretense of religion. The Jews claimed to be defending God’s honor. Those who spoke out against Paul claimed to defend the gospel. As for Demetrius, he pretended that his concern was for the religious convictions of the Ephesians.

It didn’t take him to long to incite the other men. “When they heard this they were enraged” (Ac 19:28). They began shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” And soon enough, “the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater” (Ac 19:29). Verse 32 shows us just how extensive the confusion was: “Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together” (Ac 19:32). Isn’t that typical? Everyone wants an excuse to be upset and protest, and they’ll do it even without a legitimate cause.

Now you’ll notice that a couple of Paul’s friends got dragged into the theater along with the rioters. I can only assume why the crowd grabbed these men. First, they “were Paul’s companions in travel” (Ac 19:29). The Ephesians probably knew that Gaius and Aristarchus were partially responsible for introducing Christianity to the city. Second, they were not from Ephesus. Gaius was from Derbe in Galatia, and Aristarchus was from Thessalonica in Macedonia. It’s always easier to blame an outsider.

Well, as soon as Paul heard what was happening, he rushed to the scene, but some of the other disciples stopped him. “You don’t want to go in there, Paul.” Apparently, the mob was becoming unruly, perhaps on the verge of violence. And keep in mind that this theater, which is still standing today, held close to 25,000 people. Now I don’t know how many people were in this mob, but chances are, they went to the theater because that was the only venue big enough to hold everyone. Suffice it to say, Paul would be putting his life in serious danger if he went inside. Paul even had important, wealthy officials sending him messages, telling him to stay out.

Meanwhile, the unbelieving Jews are inside trying to disassociate themselves from Paul and the Christians. Look at verse 33. They’re telling this man, Alexander, “Get up on the stage and explain to everyone that we’re not Christians.” So Alexander stands up, but he can’t seem to get the crowd’s attention long enough to make his case. But that’s a moot point because once they realize he’s a Jew, they shut him down. They begin chanting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” To the pagans, there was no significant difference between the Jews and the Christians. And they keep shouting for two hours straight. It was their version of a filibuster, I suppose.

Finally, the town clerk steps in to control the situation. A town clerk was something similar to a mayor. He quiets the crowd and says, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky?” (Ac 19:35). You see, the Greeks often associated their gods with meteorites. He continues:

“Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” (Acts 19:36-40)

“Look,” he says, “these Christians may be a nuisance, but how could they ever do anything to affect the great Artemis?” Man, was he wrong. Do you know how many people still worship Artemis? I believe the answer is zero, yet millions of people worship and serve Jesus Christ.

The town clerk says, “The Christians have done nothing to justify a riot. They’re not thieves. They’re not using insulting language. If Demetrius or anyone else can find a legitimate charge against them, he needs to address it using the proper channels. Take the matter to court. That’s what the regular assembly is for. Plus, if we don’t stop this uproar sooner than later, we’ll all be in trouble with the Roman government.”

It’s Better To Suffer For Doing Good

This passage teaches us an important lesson. The world will always be critical of the church, looking for any opportunity to point their fingers at us. So let’s not give them a good reason. I like what Peter said to persecuted believers in 1 Peter 3:

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:13-17)

We have a great example of that here in Acts 19. Demetrius and his friends were slandering Paul and the church, but it was evident to even the town clerk that they had done nothing wrong. They didn’t break any laws. They didn’t spray paint graffiti on the Temple of Artemis. They weren’t stealing shrines. They weren’t bad-mouthing Demetrius’s business all over town. No, in fact, when Paul realized that the Jews didn’t want anything to do with the Christian faith, he simply left and went elsewhere. He wasn’t forcing anyone to believe in the death and resurrection of Christ. He preached what he believed to those who were willing listen and that was all.

The point is, we can’t altogether avoid the world’s criticism, but we don’t have to provoke it either. We have a God-given obligation to be decent members of secular society, to be blameless in our communities, to be gentle and respectful as Peter said. Speak the truth, yes, but never in a way that violates the principles of godly behavior. We are to remember that this world is not our permanent home. We are merely passing through a foreign land.

So what can we take away from this chapter in Acts? If nothing else, we learn that Satan’s best efforts to undermine God’s Word cannot prevent it from being effective. Through Isaiah, God said:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Even in the hostile, idolatrous environment of Ephesus, “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Ac 19:20). So as we examine the culture of our nation today, we should never let ourselves get discouraged. We should certainly never use the prevailing immorality of our world as an excuse for not proclaiming the name of Christ. Jesus said:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:14-15)

As I said before, the darkness of this world only makes the light of Christ that much brighter.

Here’s what I know from Scripture. First, the church will always be a minority. Jesus taught, “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:14). Second, we will always be opposed by the world. “In the world you will have tribulation” (Jn 16:33). And third, there’s absolutely no reason to be discouraged by the first two points. In John 16, Jesus told his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Ultimately, the church can still be just as effective and influential as it was in the 1st century. Christ hasn’t changed. His Word hasn’t changed. If the church is willing to put her lamp on a stand rather than hide it under a basket, by God’s grace we will be effective despite the darkness of this world.

Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on April 9, 2017