Prologue: A Riot in Ephesus | Acts 19

Saul the Pharisee was zealous for the LORD and taught “according to the strict manner of the law” (Acts 22:3). Thus, when a new sect appeared, worshiping a crucified Galilean as being the Son of God, Saul met the heretics head on. He gave approval and held the coats of his companions as they stoned one of these men. His hunt continued as he tore followers of the Way out of their homes in threw them into prison. Apparently after hearing that the heresy had spread to other cities, Saul received the high priest’s approval to enter the synagogues of Damascus, arrest any who preached the Way, and bring them to be punished in Jerusalem.

Yet as Saul was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven blinded him and voice said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul answered, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Blinded, Saul was led into Damascus, where a follower of Jesus was sent by God to pray for him and restore his sight. After being baptized, the man who came to arrest disciples of Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus stood in those very synagogues, proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:20).

Despite some initial reservations, Saul was welcomed by the believers in Jerusalem, and eventually he found himself in Antioch where the followers of the Way were first called Christians. From Antioch, Saul was commissioned off on his first missionary journey with his companion Barnabas, to preach Christ to all peoples. As he journeyed into Gentile nations, Saul began to go by Paul.

Our text, Acts 19, describes Paul’s time in the city of Ephesus, which formed an over two-year segment of his third missionary journey. As we will note, the apostle’s activity in Ephesus was highly effective, yet as is often the case, the preaching of Christ was not received as good news by all.

PAUL IN EPHESUS

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all.

Acts 19:1–7

Within these verses, we read of Paul’s initial encounter with believers in Ephesus. These believers, however, had only received John’s baptism. Yet upon hearing of Jesus, these twelve men were baptized in the Lord and received the Holy Spirit.

And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

Acts 19:8–10

After spending three months in the synagogues of Ephesus heralding the kingdom of God in Christ Jesus, Paul moved to another public forum, the hall of Tyrannus. For this venue, Paul taught for two years so that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (v. 10). The following ten verses give a few details to the effects of this two-year teaching ministry.

And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

Acts 19:11–20

Just as miracles of healing and exorcism served to authenticate Jesus’ message that the kingdom of God was at hand, so too were the miracles of Paul. The account of the seven sons of Sceva displays this truth. Evidently, they believed that the name of Jesus alone was enough to exorcise an evil spirit, yet the demon did not recognize them as citizens of heaven’s kingdom. Overpowered, wounded, and naked, the men ran from the evil spirit. But as this account spread throughout Ephesus, Jesus’ name was extolled. Furthermore, many believers confessed their sins and gathered together to burn their books of magic. The value of all the books equaled fifty thousand silver pieces, which was a very large amount of money. Yet the people did this because word of the Lord was spreading and captivating their hearts. Burning their former idolatries, many Ephesians were now clinging to Jesus as their Lord. The war against paganism was waged through the preaching of the Word, and this was the not-so-secret strategy behind the early church’s supernatural movement. When truth is declared, lies must either attempt to fortify themselves (and often retaliate) or flee.

One such retaliation against the truth is now described in the remainder of the chapter.

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

Around the same time that Paul was planning to journey through Macedonia and to Jerusalem and Rome, the silversmith Demetrius gathered other craftsmen of Ephesus to warn them against the threat that Jesus’ followers imposed. Demetrius was a crafter of shrines to Artemis, which was a lucrative business since the Temple of Artemis was located in Ephesus. As one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, pilgrimages and tourism to visit the temple would constitute a sizable industry within a city that was already the economic capital of the region. Thus, Demetrius expressed two fears: first, that Artemis would “be counted as nothing,” and second, that their trades into disrepute. Clearly, however, Demetrius’ devotion to Artemis is subservient to his devotion to money.

These craftsmen then threw the city into confusion with their anger, and a great crowd gathered in the theater. Whether the theater was filled or not, Luke does not say, but we do know that it was capable of holding an assembly of over twenty thousand people. The Ephesians managed to capture two Christians, Gaius and Aristarchus, and the other believers did not permit Paul to speak to the crowd. Although most of the crowd did not understand what was happening, they broke into a two chant of “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Eventually, the town clerk was able to calm the people down by reminding them of the danger of rioting, an act that Rome did not tolerate. Thus, the crowds were dismissed, and the riot in Ephesus ceased.

JESUS OR ARTEMIS?

If Jesus’ trial before Pilate was intriguing as clash of authorities, this chapter provides a clash of kingdoms. Whether two kingdoms collide, sparks always fly, yet some sparks are more noticeable than others. Paul’s ministry and the ensuing riot in Ephesus provide an overt display of what always occurs whenever the kingdom of God takes root. Twice Luke declares the powerful movement of the word of the Lord, and twice he describes a significant response from the Ephesians (one positive and the other negative).

The word of the Lord could not share space with the books of magical incantations. Magic is the practice of invoking spiritual forces to achieve a desired outcome; you only needed the proper manta to repeat or ritual to perform. The underlying principle is that we can exert control over the spiritual world with enough knowledge and practice. God, however, will not be controlled. Psalm 115:3 states plainly, “Our God is the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” His throne is in the heavens, “and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). No ritual or incantation will force His will to bend to our own. In fact, Proverbs 19:21 specifically declares that God’s will alone will always succeed: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” Furthermore, God will not share His throne with any other, human or angelic. Thus, magic and Christianity are warring ideologies.

Yet magic is truly just a subset of paganism, which explains the connection between the book burning and Demetrius’ fear of diminished worship of the goddess Artemis. Like other gods in Roman and Greek pantheons, worshiping Artemis followed the same pattern as practicing magic. She was considered the goddess of the hunt, wilderness, moon, and chastity. Hunters and pregnant women particularly would offer sacrifices to Artemis in the hope that she would give them a favorable hunt or childbirth. Artemis, therefore, was simply a notable and widely worshiped spiritual force that one could bribe with sacrifices and festivals into doing something.

Furthermore, the gigantic and beautiful Temple of Artemis stood in Ephesus. As a marvel of architecture and a worship place to one of the most popular gods, the Temple of Artemis was a cultural, religious, and economic landmark of Ephesus. The riot broke out so easily because Artemis was a core component of the Ephesian identity, and the Way threatened to erase her. The Christians refused to accept Artemis as another god alongside Jesus; instead, they intolerantly insisted that Jesus alone was “the way, the truth, and the life” and that no one could know the one true God except through Jesus as God’s only Son (John 14:6). Demetrius’ fears, therefore, were anything but irrational. Jesus was exposing Artemis to as nothing more than a vanity.

But, you may ask, how does this apply to us today, when Artemis and the other gods of antiquity are no longer worshiped? Owen Strachan argues that the primary worldview competitor to Christianity today is neopaganism[1], which he describes as follows:

Paganism is the antiwisdom of the serpent which deconstructs ordered reality—the God-made world—and replaces it with a new order, an antiorder ruled by the devil. In this antiorder, there is no Creator; no divine design; no male and female; no script for sexuality; no God-designed family with a father, mother, and children; no need to protect and care for children at all; no Savior, Lord, or theistic end to the cosmos; and no judge of evil.

Reenchanting Humanity, 200-201.

Or to say it another way, “a pagan person… distrusts hard-and-fast morality, downplays, absolute truth, holds a self-generating view of existence and cosmological origins, vouches in some form that spirituality is a matter of internal alignment rather than external obeisance, views redemption as a project of self-actualization (“I want to be my best self”), and sees no higher purpose to death and the trajectory of the cosmos” (201-202).

Paganism is another name for Satanism, which is in many ways the worship of self. Magic and gods within the ancient world were certainly seen as higher powers, yet in reality, they served men. Artemis did not demand the exclusive love with heart, soul, and might of her worshipers. Her relationship with her worshipers was transactional.

Artemis is no longer worshiped, but paganism is nevertheless experiencing a renaissance in our day. The pretense of worshiping gods is gone, but self is blatantly placed upon the throne in their place. Magic, although defiantly making a subtle return as well, has generally been replaced with technology. Why worship the unconquered sun whenever we are now longer bound by its light? Who needs temple prostitutes when an endless harem is one search away? Why offer a sacrifice for a bountiful harvest when one-third of food goes uneaten and thrown out? Why attend a festival to a god or goddess when Star Wars, Marvel, and the like give us our collective entertainment and our shared cultural narratives? Why believe in a creation myth when the Big Bang and evolution will do just fine? Why offer a sacrifice in exchange for a healthy pregnancy when you can just terminate it and move on with your life as usual? If anything, paganism has now shed its cloak and revealed what it was all along, an attempt to be God.

Christianity exists in open defiance of the religion of self. Christ demands that exclusive worship be given to the triune God, and even self must be denied in order to follow Him. Yet this is by design. We humans bear the image of God. We were created to be like Him, and He gives, freely and joyfully. Even within the Godhead, the Father exalts the Son, the Son exalts the Father, and the Spirit exalts the Father and Son. They are perpetually glorifying one another. And from this union of love, God gave life and matter. He formed all of creation in an act of pure grace. He did not need us to exist; rather, He gave us existence. And in our being, He granted us the privilege of reflecting His likeness, of being like the Creator!

Yet like Adam and Eve before us, being God’s image is not enough; we desire to become gods ourselves. Thinking ourselves wiser than the Almighty, we reject His designs and commands in order to do whatever we want. We sin, but our sin is not evil in a vacuum. We sin against the One who is good, who gives goodness its meaning. Since we have set ourselves against the Everlasting One, we deserve an everlasting judgment.

Even still, God responded to our attempt to usurp His throne with an even greater gift. Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, became a man and lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father. Even though He alone was undeserving of death, He willfully surrendered Himself to be crucified in our place, and three days later, He triumphed over death as the firstborn of the resurrection. Thus, the good news of God’s kingdom is that in Christ we are made heaven’s citizens, but even more significantly, we are adopted as sons and daughters of the Father and are coheirs with Jesus. In this work of Christ, we are given the greatest gift that God Himself could ever give: Himself. Even as we are reunited to the Father by the blood of Christ, we are also shown by the crucifixion and resurrection that it is truly better to give than to receive. Selfless giving images God.

Christianity could not be more diametrically opposed to paganism. Where paganism exalts self, Christianity denies self. Christianity seeks to exalt God, while paganism aims to dethrone Him. This is the root of sin, the foreboding cloud that looms heavily over us each day. Something bigger than the sexual revolution is happening. Indeed, the sexual revolution is merely one piece of the puzzle. It’s also more than the redefinition of manhood and womanhood, more than the deconstruction of the family, more than abortion, more than secularization, yet it includes all of these things. It’s all fundamentally the same lie from ages past, whispering afresh in our ear, “eat and you shall be like God.” This is the war being waged around us. Artemis may no longer be worshiped today, but our hearts of sin continue crafting idols in service to the god of self (and often continue to justify them as culturally significant and economically necessary).

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is, I believe, the theological heart of the New Testament[2], and it is a handbook, a field guide or manual, for being a citizen of heaven as we sojourn through the kingdoms of the earth. The truth in Ephesians is the word of the Lord and the message of the kingdom, and as such, it presents the gospel as our glorious hope and how it invades are ordinary lives. As we devote our attention to these God-breathed words, let us trust that they will continue “to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What made Ephesus the ideal city for a two-year teaching ministry of Paul? How could Luke claim that through this ministry all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord?
  2. What caused both the burning of the books of magic and the riot? Why did it elicit such different responses?
  3. What is paganism? Do you agree that we are experiencing a resurgence of paganism today, a kind of neopaganism?
  4. Why are paganism and Christianity warring worldviews?

[1] Interestingly, Wikipedia’s page on the Temple of Artemis speaks of the Christian view of Artemis as “at variance with the tolerant syncretistic approach of pagans to gods who were not theirs.” A return to this tolerant and syncretistic approach today further confirms that our society is rapidly embracing neopaganism.

[2] The narrative heart of the New Testament, though, is clearly the four Gospels.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s