We’ve already spent a couple of weeks on Acts 19 which tells us about Paul’s second visit to Ephesus. In verses 1 to 10 we read how Paul came across some disciples of John the Baptiser who were in a kind of time warp: John had preached that everyone should believe in the coming Saviour. ‘He’s coming,’ said John. ‘Get ready for him!’ But these disciples of John in Ephesus didn’t know that the Saviour had already come. And so, Paul told them about the Lord Jesus and they were baptised into his name.
And then we read that Paul spent three months in the synagogue in Ephesus where he tried to teach the people about the kingdom of God. But the Jews began to speak against him and to oppose him. So he left the synagogue and began to hold daily discussions in the Hall of Tyrannus. And he did that for two years so that everyone in the region was able to hear the word of God from Paul.
Last week we read how, in those days, God did extraordinary miracles through Paul. And then there was some Jews who went around trying to cast out demons. And they decided to copy Paul and to use the name of the Lord Jesus Christ as a kind of magic formula for their work. But, on one occasion, a demon-possessed man answered them: ‘Jesus I know. And I know Paul too. But who are you?’ And then he attacked the men and beat them up so that the would-be exorcists had to run away, naked and bleeding.
And when the people heard about it, a great fear fell upon them. No longer did they misuse the Lord’s name, but instead they honoured his name. And many of the believers came and confessed their secret sins. And those who had practiced sorcery burned their scrolls publicly. They wanted nothing more to do with such things.
And so, last week’s reading ended with the words that the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power. More and more people heard God’s word and it was having a powerful effect on those who heard it so that they freely turned from their sins and they obeyed God’s will more and more.
Verses 21 and 22
Having spent all that time in Ephesus, we read in verse 21 that Paul now decided to go to Jerusalem by way of the regions of Macedonia and Achaia. In fact, Luke wrote that Paul decided or resolved ‘in the Spirit’ to head for Jerusalem. So perhaps the Holy Spirt in some way led him to make the decision to leave Ephesus.
Now, he’d been to Macedonia and Achaia before. Remember back in chapter 16 and the vision of the man from Macedonia who appealed to Paul to come and help them? And so, Paul crossed over into Macedonia, which is in Europe. And he preached the gospel in Philippi. Well, it was Paul’s practice to visit the churches he had planted and that appears to be what he was intending to do now.
And look now at verse 2: He hoped some day to reach Rome. And as we read to the end of the book of Acts, we’ll see that he did, finally, get to Rome where he was able to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. But for now, he sent Timothy and Erastus ahead of him, while he stayed on a little longer in the Roman province of Asia.
Verses 23 to 34
The next section, verse 23 to verse 41, takes place before Paul has had time to leave Ephesus. So, while he’s thinking of leaving, this happens.
Luke tells us that there arose a great disturbance about the Way, which is how they referred to Christianity in those days. And this disturbance began because of a man named Demetrius. He was a silversmith and he made silver shrines of the goddess, Artemis. Artemis (the Romans called her Diana) was said to be the daughter of Zeus and the twin sister of Apollo. She was supposed to keep people safe and sound and women looked to her to help them in childbirth. She was also said to have authority over supernatural powers. A temple dedicated to her was in Ephesus and lots of people from all over the Empire would come to Ephesus to worship at her temple and to seek her help.
Luke tells us that Demetrius used to make silver shrines of Artemis. These were probably miniature copies of her temple or little statutes to represent her. Now, we’ve all been to tourist centres; and one of the things you have to endure at those places is all the people selling all those souvenirs and other junk. Wherever you go to see, there’ll be a miniature model of it to buy and take home. And, of course, today there’s a lot of money to be made from that kind of thing. And it was the same in Ephesus in the days of Paul and the other Apostles. There was money to be made from all the people who came to Ephesus to worship at Artemis’s temple.
This man Demetrius was upset because Paul had ruined his business. How had Paul ruined his business? Well, look at what he says to his colleagues. Verse 25. He said:
We receive a good income from this business.
Verse 26. He said:
But this fellow Paul has led astray large numbers of people in Ephesus and beyond.
Instead of saying ‘people’ he could have said ‘customers’. Large numbers of ‘customers’ had been led astray by Paul. How? Verse 26 again. He said:
Paul has been telling them that man-made gods are no gods at all.
In other words, Paul has been teaching them that there’s no point bowing down to Artemis or seeking her help, because Artemis is not real. She’s not a god. She’s nothing but a statue which someone once made. So, don’t worship Artemis; worship the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, because there is only one, true God.
And look at verse 27. Demetris used three arguments to convince his colleagues: First of all, he said that their trade would lose its good name. Secondly, Artemis’s temple would be discredited. Thirdly, Artemis herself would be robbed of her divine majesty. In other words, if more and more people believe Paul, then no one will worship her any more; no one will want to visit her temple any more; and no one will buy their stuff any more. He’s not concerned about whether what Paul says is true or not. He’s more concerned about the state of his business.
Look at the reaction in verse 28: His colleagues were furious. And they started to chant:
Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!
And look: soon the whole city was in an uproar. Two of Paul’s companions were seized and were taken to the theatre which was a wide, open area in Ephesus where lots of people could gather.
So, where was Paul when this was going on? Luke tells us that he wanted to face the crowd and, I suppose, answer their accusations. But his fellow Christians would not let him. Presumably they’re afraid for his life. Even some of the officials of the province begged him not to go. And the reference to the officials shows us what an impact Christianity was making at that time. The word of God was spreading widely through society and all kinds of people — even some of the rulers — were being converted to faith in Christ.
Back in the theatre, there’s confusion mostly. Some were shouting one thing. Some were shouting something else. Most of the people, Luke tells us, didn’t even know why they were there. You can just imagine loads of people, hearing the commotion, and running to the theatre to see what’s going on. But they haven’t a clue what it’s about and what started it. but they join in anyway.
And Luke tells us in verse 33 that this man, Alexander, somehow got involved. The Jews pushed him to the front and people were shouting instructions to him. Now, maybe he was a Jew and the other Jews wanted him to explain to the crowds that Paul was not one of them. You know:
Don’t blame us for what Paul is saying! He’s not one of us.
But the people didn’t listen to Alexander and for two hours — can you believe it? — for two hours they stood in the theatre, chanting:
Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!
Verses 35 to 41
Finally the City Clerk managed to silence the people. And he said a number of things to them: First of all, in verse 36 he warned them not to do anything rash. Secondly, he defended the Christians by stating that they hadn’t robbed their temples and they hadn’t blasphemed their goddess. In other words, he was saying that Paul and his companions have not broken the law. Thirdly, he advised them that if any of them have a particular grievance, then they should ask the courts for help. That’s what the courts are for: for setting disputes. Fourthly, he said to them that if there’s anything more they need to discuss, then they should bring it up at the legal assembly. Apparently an assembly, or a public meeting, was held in Ephesus every month. And so, there was an open forum for people to discuss issues which might affect their business. And finally, he warned them in verse 40 that if they don’t calm down, the Romans will charge them with rioting. And, if that happens, then they’ll be in big trouble.
And with that, he dismissed the people. The crisis was over.
In some ways this is a strange passage, because Paul hardly appears in it at all and we hear nothing about the spread of the gospel and of how Christ is building his church on the earth. So, why did Luke spend so much time — almost 20 verses — on this riot?
Perhaps he wanted us to understand that Paul’s work was not plain-sailing. The work of preaching the gospel was hard and difficult and frustrating for Paul. It was also dangerous. Not everyone believed the message. And among those who doubted what Paul said were others who were actively opposed to Paul and his message. And so, we shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t believe the message today or whenever they’re actively opposed to the good news of Christianity. It has always been this way.
But perhaps Luke also wants to show us the impact that preaching God’s word can have on a place. Just look at how Ephesus changed since Paul went and preached there. You see, Demetris wouldn’t have complained about the loss of business he was experiencing if it weren’t the case that people were listening to Paul’s message and they were turning from their false gods and they were turning, in faith, to the one, true and living God. Lives were changing as a result of Paul’s preaching in Ephesus.
Who is it who changes society today? If you asked people in the street who they think is able to influence what happens in Northern Ireland, what would they say? Our politicians? Our business leaders? Our community leaders? Some might say pop stars and other celebrities can change society. But how many of them would say: ‘A preacher can change society’?
But that’s what happened in Ephesus. Who changed Ephesus? Well, God did. But he did it through Paul’s preaching in the synagogue and in the hall of Tyrannus. But, of course, this shouldn’t surprise us because we believe that the reading and preaching of God’s word is effective. We believe God works through these things to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ so that they will begin to give up their old sins and they will begin to live a new kind of life of faithful obedience to him. So, let’s keep praying for God to work powerfully through his word as he did in the days of Paul.