Do you suffer from the same secret fear that I have when you come to God's word… somewhere deep inside, perhaps unconsciously even, are you afraid that you might have to do much, much more to be faithful to Christ…
At some level deep inside do you worry that the word of God and the Holy Spirit might convict you that you need to, I don't know, never watch TV again, or go shopping, or eat chocolate or drink alcohol or drive, or that you have to give up your job or sell you house and give the money away or go and live overseas in poverty or die as a martyr, or all of those things…
If you do I reckon you're in the majority, because I reckon that's most of us. We don't want to stand out from the crowd and we don't want to give up too much for God, we don't mind making small sacrifices, being a bit different, but we don't want to go too far, what we really want is a Christianity that allows to blend in with the crowd and live more or less like everyone else.
Is that you, have I got you right?
If so, then you, like me, need to hear again how the gospel confronts, undermines and defeats culture. And it confronts us too. And that's what we see in our passage tonight.
We're challenged in this passage by how radically different we should be – to be prepared for complete alienation and even suffering; and to be prepared to live for completely different things to our neighbours and colleagues and even families. True allegiance to Christ will put us at odds with our culture in myriad ways, and true discipleship means continuing to turn away from the things that are incompatible with Christ.
Context for our passage tonight is very important. Remember last week we saw how the fear of the Lord came on all the people, Jews and Greeks living inEphesus(verse 17ff). In the light of the fear of the Lord many Christians now came and openly confessed their sins, and the sorcerers came and burnt their sorcery books. What was going on there? These men and perhaps women who had been involved in a wicked trade made a public show of turning away from that trade, and they 'burnt their bridges' – didn't sell the books on for others to use, but destroyed them so that no one could use them any more.
Do you see that when the fear of the Lord came on the people it resulted in radical discipleship, radically changed lives? Christians were visibly living in the light of the judgement day when the powerful God will bring all things out into the light. It was so profound and obvious that God was at work that everyone was awed and held the name of the Lord in honour – whether they were Christians or not they had to admit that God was doing something, and they dared not speak against this powerful God.
God's spirit was moving to convict people of sin and lead them to radical holiness.
Paul describes a very similar thing in his letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 1 4-10). He says the gospel came to them with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction so that people turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God – and it caused such a stir that the news of it spread everywhere so that Paul did not need to tell anyone about it, they were all talking about it. Something very similar was happening inEphesusas Paul carried on his mission there for more than two years.
So when the spirit of God is working and the gospel is driving deep change in a whole community, what sort of response should we expect from our community? Well sadly we shouldn't expect people to pat us on the back and say well done, the truth is they are more likely to do what the good people ofEphesusdo in this passage – kick off a good old fashioned riot.
So our passage tonight falls neatly into three sections, or three scenes of action
Scene one: Radical Discipleship threatens the Status Quo (verses 23-27)
Scene Two: The Crowd goes very Scary (verses 28-34)
Scene Three: The Town Clerk Rules Christianity Legal, Mob Illegal (verses 35 – 41)
But what is going on under the surface of these things? The idols of the city are being undermined, and the idolaters reaction shows they love their idols. Nonetheless the Christians have done nothing wrong, the trouble is caused by irrational reaction against Christianity, not intrinsic to Christianity. Now from our vantage point we can see that there was a very real contest going on – Christ challenges all gods, all societies, all cultures; he is Lord and the Gospel – the announcement that Lord is exactly what he is – undermines and challenges all other lords.
In this contest the odds seem stacked against Christ – after all other religions are well established, but Christ has just a few emissaries to take the message to the whole world. But God is at work in and through history to achieve his purposes.
So let's look at those three scenes in turn
vv 23-27 Scene one Radical Discipleship threatens the Status Quo
Read vv 23-27
23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the craftsmen. 25 He called them together, along with the workmen in related trades, and said: "Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. 26 And 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 man-made gods are no gods at all. 27 There 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 worshipped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty."
Notice first of all that the motive is profit margin – 'great disturbance' parallels 'no little trade' (lit. 'no small disturbance' and 'no small profit'). The trade around religious artefacts – silver replicas of the temple mostly – was massive. 'you know we receive a good income' is literally we are have our wealth.
In fact the temple was the heart of the economics of the city - the worship of Artemis was so lucrative that the temple inEphesuswas the largest building in the whole Greek world. It was 4 times the size of the Parthenon inAthens, and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It wasn't just the dominant religion; it was the bank of the city too. And for a couple of months a year it attracted vast crowds for religious festivals – basically massive parties that might have looked a bit like o week at the local uni – debauched, drunken and free spending, and all culminating in temple prostitution. There was a lot of money to be made.
It seems likely that this riot took place during the festival time – which would explain why the crowd could be so quickly gathered and worked up (not unlike the crowds inJerusalemwhen Jesus was executed). If it was during the feast it may even be that the numbers were noticeably down… the profits were already thinning out.
Whatever was going on notice that Demetrius cleverly shifts the discussion from profit motive to religious glory. We make a good income from this religion, he says, but Paul is convincing people all overAsiathat there is no god here at all (all just a wizard of oz sham). There is a real danger that our trade will collapse and the temple and the goddess will lose their good name.
This is classic self deception isn't it – money is his god, and likewise for the rest of the silversmiths, Artemis was just a good line of business, but we need to dress things up in piety or we'll look greedy and manipulative.
But just stop here for a minute and think about the impact Paul's preaching is having. The trade associated with idol worship is declining – less people are coming to worship at the temple, less people want to buy their silver models, and the festival crowds are thinning out year on year as Paul's critique of man made religion undermines them.
Isn't that awesome?! The whole city was shaped around worship of this false god. The temple was far and away their grandest building, the centre of their fame and commerce, the corner stone of their culture. There were thousands of staff, and whole industries based around it.
And then there was Paul, unimpressive in his speech, a self employed labourer working morning and night to make tents to support himself, and teaching in the uni lecture hall over the lunch break when most people were sleeping to get out of the heat. And this little unimpressive man, this tent maker was threatening to bring down a whole industry and a whole religion.
Isn't that remarkable? We may think that the kingdom of God is in retreat, that we are facing powers and authorities that are so great and more powerful that the church can not stand against them.
But we preach the same gospel that turned Ephesus upside down. We look to the same God whose power is shown in weakness, who used the weakness and foolishness of what was preached to bring down kingdoms and empires and whole religions.
You know God has done similar things time and time again. It was said that when the Welsh revivals happened the miners were so dramatically changed that they returned stolen tools in mass quantities, and work almost came to a halt because the donkeys couldn't understand the workers instructions without swear words. A whole culture was transformed by the gospel.
Or think about William Wilberforce. When he first took on the slave trade it was estimated that 80% of the Empires foreign income was directly related to slave trading and slave labour. 80%. That is some vested interest. No wonder it was such a struggle to overcome the slave trade and to ban slave ownership in theBritish Empire. It took almost 50 years. It nearly killed him, in fact he died just days after the final victory. But those huge vested interests could not withstand the power of the gospel worked out in hearts and minds.
When Martin Luther first became convinced of the great reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone he was marched before the holy roman emperor himself and charged to renounce his errors or face execution. He asked for a night to pray, and in the morning he faced the crowd of his accusers and said:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.4
R. Kent Hughes. Acts: The Church Afire (Kindle Locations 5298-5300). Crossway Books. Luther survived the death sentence that was passed on him and the movement he started that day continues to ours.
God is more than able to use one faithful man or woman to change the world. God's power is seen in weakness, but it is power beyond anything of this world.
So the challenge for us is to radical discipleship. We may not want to be different, to stand out from the crowd. But the gospel challenges every idol of our culture, and of our hearts. All pretensions must fall before God, God will be God and there will be no other before him.
And there's a little Demetrius in all of us – as we hear the challenge of the gospel there's a part of us saying 'but what about the profits of sin? I like those idols, they give me so much'. We don't want to give up the things that sin gives us.
And there's a little Demetrius in all our neighbours and friends – a resistance to the gospel because it costs. For some it might be overcome and they'll decide to follow Jesus, but for many they will consider the cost too high, too much to pay.
And there's a little Demetrius in all our society – resistance to the costs of the gospel. If we are radically sold out for Jesus we will attract opposition. The fact that we so seldom attract opposition does reflect the Christian culture and heritage of this country, but I suspect that it also reflects how little changed we are by the gospel. How can it be that living wholeheartedly for God attracts opposition everywhere but here? If we're all cosy with the world we need to ask if it might just be that we're not quite as different as we should be?
Parts of us will resent and resist change, but change we must if we are to live consistently with the gospel – remember the Christians of Ephesus who openly confessed their past sin and burnt the tools of evil trade. Our idols will fight and fight, and that is why we need to fear the Lord, why we need the help of his Holy Spirit and the ministry of the word and the Christian community, because we have great internal resistance to overcome if we are to keep growing as Christians, if we are to overcome the Demetrius factor in our own hearts.
Scene Two: The Crowd goes very Scary (verses 28-34)
Read with me from verse 28:
28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul's travelling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theatre. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theatre. 32 The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews pushed Alexander to the front, and some of the crowd shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defence before the people. 34 But when they realised he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!"
The silversmith's anger spills out into the street where they are swept up into a full on riot – presumably there is a ready crowd from a religious fesitival, or possibly just the crowd from the market place – either way the crowd are swept up in something they don't even understand, but they can't stop shouting for the glory of their city and their goddess. Religion and nationalism are a potent mix, they give themselves to it.
Evidently the crowd swells to the point where a lot of them have no idea why they're there. But someone is pulling the strings. They find some of Paul's men. How did they find them? Perhaps they went straight to the lecture hall where Paul had been teaching, if so Paul was probably very 'lucky' (read God protected him) to avoid being swept up with them. Then they head straight to the theatre, where the town council would have met, to do some town business.
The mob is wild, verging on madness. We get a sense of how out of control they were from 32 – they were in confusion, yelling and shouting, but no idea why they were there; and from verse 34 – they shouted themselves hoarse for two hours straight. We've seen how easily an agitated mob can become a riot, haven't we? It's shocking what a mob can get up to. This mob could so easily have trpped over into violence. Paul's mates could have been ripped apart. If Paul had managed to make his way there, who knows what might have happened…
So did these almost rioters have a point? A lot of people today would say that they did. They were frightened by the prospect that their society and culture – their way of life – might be changed by this foreign gospel. Today it's fashionable to say that culture should never be challenged. Missionaries were the worst thing to happen toAfrica, apparently. Untouched people groups living in remote regions should never be touched. Their culture is inviolable. But we have a different view. No culture is inviolable, because all cultures are mired in sin. All culture, and all religion for that matter, needs to hear the message that there is release, there is forgiveness, there is new life in Jesus. There is no 'original state of innocence' in this world. There is only rebellion against God, and there is only one name given to men under heaven by which they may be saved – the name of the Lord Jesus.
No matter how wonderful ancient cultures look from the outside they were no fun for those on the inside – in Paul's day the culture featured all kinds of sexual slavery, including as we've heard ritual prostitution, all kinds of perversion and degredation. Women were severely represed, unwanted infants left to die, and female children far more likely to be unwanted than male. There were any number of ways in which these cultures were barbaric and cruel to their own members. So it is with animistic cultures. I had a flat mate who grew up in remote tribalPapua New Guinea. He remembered the terrible fear of the spirit world that held his whole tribe captive before the gospel brought freedom.
No, don't let people tell you we shouldn't share the gospel.
And notice too, how the crowds were manipulated by the powerful rich, men who made serious profit out of the religious devotion of the masses? There are always vested interests in sin – religion is a classic example, but it's the same with our consumerism, our materialism, it's the same with abortion and sex outside of marriage – the more people are doing these things, the more the mass of society has a vested interest in saying they are alright. Someone makes a profit out of abortion, out of the porn industry, out of websites and web browsing and all the rest – and they work behind the scenes to manipulate the rest of us; and Satan sits over the top of them all, wanting to lure us into sin, wanting to keep us from coming to Christ, wanting those who belong to Christ to fall.
What else is going on here? Paul's bravery – he wants to explain and defend the gospel no matter what the cost; He reasons that God is able to protect him from even this mob, and that the gospel is worth explaining and defending no matter what the cost – as we will see in the next few weeks. When the gospel challenges vested interests Christians face danger.
Think of Dr Sasa. On his first visit here he stood in front of us and said he intended to go back to Burma despite there being a price on his head; he told us that many people go missing in Burma, never to be heard of again, and that was likely to happen to him too. But he was going back. And on the last visit he talked about soldiers coming to shut his programme down. What did he do – run away? Hide in the jungle? No, he prayed, and then he calmly met with them. In the end they made a donation and left. But who could have predicted that would happen? It was surely much more likely that he and his team would have been arrested, or beaten, or far worse happen to them. Soldiers from repressive regimes do terrible things to their enemies when they meet them deep in a jungle.
How could Dr Sasa do that? The fear of the Lord. Remember what he said – after two hours with me and the holy Spirit the soldiers made a donation and left. With the Holy Spirit. God is present to Sasa in a way we find hard to imagine. And so it has been for all the martyrs and missionaries and great ones of Christian faith. They loved God more than life itself. And so must we.
All around the world Christians face danger and persecution –Nigeria, Iran and Iraq, Arab spring countries, Islamic cultures, North Korea, Burma… They are considered a threat to national security, or a threat to the good name of the false gods that enslave the people. Militant Islam explicitly targets Christian churches in worship. Where are we when our brothers and sisters are being persecuted? What are our concerns and interests? Can we rouse ourselves from the sofa long enough even to hear what's going on, let alone to pray or to send support??
We in the west are an indifferent people, lulled into false sense of security by our luxurious lives… Gospel calls us to accept suffering and alienation and rejection from our own society. Are we serious enough about the gospel to put it all on the line like that?
Scene Three: The Town Clerk Rules Christianity Legal, Mob Illegal (verses 35 – 41)
Read with me from verse 35:
35 The city clerk quietened the crowd and said: "Men of Ephesus, 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? 36 Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to be quiet and not do anything rash. 37 You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38 If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39 If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 40 As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today's events. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it." 41 After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.
We need to see this as God in his sovereign rule bringing the Christians safely through a terrifying situation. The Bureaucrat acts, but it is God's grace that restrains the crowd from violence until they shout themselves out.
Two things we see here:
- One; Christianity is not the problem, verse 37 – 39 there are lawful ways to object if anything wrong has been done… but these men haven't done anything wrong. This is part of Luke's defence of the Christian faith in the Roman Empire– here is another semi official ruling that Christianity is not anti- government or anti society – the Christians have not been denigrating the goddess or robbing temples (verse 37), they have been simply living their lives. The things that have happened have been response to Christian conversion, but nothing inherently objectionable in the gospel being taught. Implies that the Christians were good citizens and worthy members of society – which they were.
- Two; verse 40 – The mob have in fact been acting unlawfully and need to sort themselves out, they may think they are the ones being wronged, but they are actually in the wrong.
That's what's going on on the political level. But notice another level to this action too. Throughout Acts we have been seeing a great contest between God and all other comers. Paul says elsewhere that the gospel takes on all things that have pretensions to take God's place. That's what we're seeing in this chapter – the gospel is coming up against the claims of other so called gods and goddesses and the contest is made clear.
Have another look at verse 35 and 36. What's the town clerk say '"Men of Ephesus, 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? 36 Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to be quiet and not do anything rash.' What is he saying? 'What are you worried about? Do you really think Paul's preaching is going to threaten the glory of our great city and our great goddess? This Christianity can't possibly pose any real threat to the honour and glory of Aretmis and Ephesus!'
That's what calms the mob down, the idea that Christianity was not real threat after all. It seems reasonable doesn't it?
But it's dead wrong.
It took a while, but Ephesus was sacked by the Goths in 263 AD, and the temple destroyed. It was rebuilt that time but it was destroyed again around AD 400 and never rebuilt again. Ephesus was remembered primarily as a footnote in Christian history. The great temple of Aretemis was completely forgotten the site was even lost to history until it was discovered in the 1920's.
Artemis' glory was too great for the religion to fall – that was the town clerk's line. But he was wrong. Christianity prevails and Artemis is forgotten, just like pretty much all of the great religions of that era – completely lost today.
In our life time we've seen how quickly the mighty can fall as the Berlin wall came down and so did the power of Communism almost over night – and let's not forget how powerful communism was. It held practically half the world and genuinely seemed to threaten to engulf the whole world. It seemed mighty and powerful, but, just like that, God brought it down. Look around today and there are certain powers and rulers that seem like they will rule forever – Islam; Consumerism; Democracy; Political Correctness; Big Business; Major Industry; Science and Darwinism; the list goes on and on. And those things are powerful, they have enormous reach and influence. But they are not God. None of them will continue on into eternity.
In this passage we see an insight into the great contest for souls, the contest between God and sin, the world and the devil. In that contest God is represented by little people like us. Little people who are called on to face down overwhelming enemies with a simple word of grace – Jesus is Lord.
And we are called on to live that gospel out in all its implications, even though it will likely lead us into conflict with all sorts of vested interests – in our own hearts, in our families in our communities.
And it might seem that we are fighting a lost cause. But we need to remember who we're fighting for. We are representatives of the great God who made the heavens and the earth. His purposes never fail. We can trust him. So let go your idols. Let go your small ambitions to be just like everyone else. And seek the fear of the Lord, seek the work of the Holy Spirit that will lead us to radical discipleship. And pray that God would do a work in us that makes us stand out like the Ephesian Christians, and may we face opposition with the same trust and assurance that they did, knowing that our God reigns. Let's pray…