Idolatry and Economics

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In our series of sermons in the Acts of the Apostles here at Jesmond Parish Church, we have reached chapter 19 verses 23-41. And my headings tonight are first, THE IDOLATROUS TRADE; secondly, “THE MADNESS OF CROWDS”, and, thirdly, THE VALUE OF GOVERNMENT. But let me start with some words of introduction.

Paul is now back in Ephesus and at a critical stage of his great evangelistic strategy to get the good news about Jesus (crucified, risen and reigning) literally around the world. His next goal is Rome (as we heard at the end of last week’s study). Many already have believed in Christ having heard what Paul had to say.

But he was often opposed. In that he set a pattern for all generations. So don’t be surprised if, in being faithful to Christ, you face opposition.

But for all the problems he faced, the result as we are told earlier in chapter 19 (verse 10) was that: “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” That is amazing. Paul, under God, saw spiritual success in the whole province of Asia, where Ephesus was the capital city.

Ephesus had seen better days. Due to the silting up of the harbour trade would have gone down. However, it was still a centre for thousands. Not least this was because of the temple of Artemis (or Diana as she can be called) – one of the so called “seven wonders of the World”. That was why Paul who stayed in Ephesus was able to get the gospel out. This was not only to many who lived in the city. It was also to the vast numbers who came to the city on business or for the temple. Well, so much by way of introduction.

Let’s now look at verses 23-27 and our first heading, THE IDOLATROUS TRADE

We start with verse 23:

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. (v23)

So it is not just a personal attack on Paul. It’s a great attack on the whole Christian movement, now called “the Way”. Yes, Paul’s life was in danger, as we will see. But so was the outreach and all the good evangelistic work done in Asia. It was a critical moment as Luke explains because of a man called Demetrius - verse 24:

A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the craftsmen. He called them together, along with the workmen in related trades, and said: ‘Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. 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. 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 worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.’ (v24-27)

You need to note four things about Demetrius – the master of the Ephesian guild of silversmiths.

First, you must note his problem. It was due to three things. One, he “brought in no little business for the craftsmen”. Two, these craftsmen and those in related trades were fully aware they “receive[d] a good income from this business” - from these “silver shrines of Artemis”. These may have been little idols of Artemis in a tiny shrine for putting in the corner of your room when you went back home. So you could pray to her at home. But, three, (and the real cause of the problem) was that this profitable business was in jeopardy because of Paul. For Paul taught the common-sense truth that, in Demetrius’ words (verse 26): “man-made gods are no gods at all.” So, first, Demetrius’ problem.

Secondly, note Demetrius’ greed. He’s motivated by the love of money. These small Artermis’ idols brought in, Luke says, “no little business” - that is to say, a big profit. And that seems to be all Demetrius wants. Questions of right and wrong are irrelevant. He wants to be rich but in ways contrary to God’s will. He wants to get rich through promoting idolatry. But he must have known Paul was right. These statuettes were “man made gods”, so “no gods at all”. He saw these elegant, silver many-breasted statuettes being made in their hundreds by his craftsmen. But in his greed he was happy to see people paying big money believing them to be real deity.

“Greed” is always wrong. It is not being content with what you have when you should be. Or it is a desire to get rich by wrong means, like Demetrius. So it is putting your will in the place of God’s. That is why the New Testament calls greed idolatry and links it to sexual sin which is so similar. Paul says in his letter to these Ephesians (Eph 5v5):

“of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person--such a man is an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” (Eph 5v5)

Sexual sin also is giving in to desires in ways God does not allow. And sexual sin we know from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was a problem in Ephesus. Some scholars think that the priestesses at the temple of Artemis served as cult prostitutes. Certainly that happened at other similar temples.

But greed and sexual sin are so destructive. They do not lead to human flourishing. They destroy human flourishing. God’s will, by contrast, is “good, pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12v2). And it is the way to lasting pleasure and the true fulfillment of human desire.

So note Demetrius’ greed and his making money out of something contrary to God’s will – idolatry that damages people and their cultures.

Thirdly, note his hypocrisy. For he seems to be rationalising his greed in order to motivate others to attack Paul and the Christians. He disguises his worry about losing money. He dresses it up as an acceptable concern for losing the good names of his trade and the goddess.

This regularly happens with greed and sexual immorality when people make them look respectable. The Pharisees did it with money to justify not supporting their elderly parents. Modern people do it with sexual sins. So Demetrius is hypocritically manipulating the craftsmen.

Fourthly, note the contrast between Demetrius and the people we heard about last Sunday in verses 18 – 20. There you read about converts who …

… came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power. (v18-20)

At today’s prices millions of pounds were being sacrificed because this literature was evil. What a contrast with Demetrius!

So Demetrius had a problem because Paul was a threat to his business. He was motivated by greed. He was hypocritical. And he was such a contrast to those Ephesian converts. They, unlike Demetrius, saw money wasn’t everything. The true God had to come first.

That, of course, raises a question: who are you like - Demetrius or these Ephesian converts? Who has never yet put God first in their lives and has money (or something else) as their idol? If that is you, why not tonight trust God, seek Christ’s forgiveness and pray for the Holy Spirit to enable you to live like those converts?

We must move on secondly, to “THE MADNESS OF CROWDS”

Look at verses 28and following:

When they heard this [Demetriusocritus hypocritical analysis of his and their problem], they were furious and began shouting: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul's traveling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theatre. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theatre.
The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 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 defense before the people. But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’(v28-34)

There was a book published in 1841 written by Charles Mackay entitled: “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”. In his introduction he says that he is providing “remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, to show how easily the masses have been led astray.”

He expanded the book in 1852 (not long before JPC was founded) and added another introduction in which he wrote this:

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”

And he gives some interesting examples. Luke and Paul would have agreed with this. But when crowds act irrationally, it can be quite frightening.

I once found myself in the middle of crowds when another “whole city was in uproar”. Fortunately I was in taxi. It was in 1965 when all the current troubles in the Sudan were brewing. I was living and working in Omdurman, the Arab third of the Khartoum conurbation. It was late Sunday afternoon and I was going across the Nile to our church and mission centre in Khartoum. As we progressed we went slower and slower. Crowds were amassing and marching alongside our taxi, many armed with sticks and some in traditional Ansar dress with daggers.

When I asked my Northern taxi driver what was happening, he replied, “the Southerners are rioting”. As things seemed nasty near the centre of Khartoum, I decided it was wisest to turn round and go home. Back in Omdurman, and through telephone contact, I learnt that the trouble was focusing on the large campus of our mission centre and church with thousands surrounding and attacking it. For the very few, so called, “rioting” Southerners had come for protection and were now within the perimeter wall.

The result was that by morning our centre with its school, sports facilities, radio station, residencies and church had been totally destroyed and burnt to the ground. Our mission workers who had been inside the compound managed to escape with literally nothing but their lives and the clothes they were wearing. It was all quite terrifying.

Well, something like this was beginning to happen in Ephesus. No doubt word got around to some that “the Christians are causing trouble”. That was enough. When a critical number were on the streets, others would have joined in but for no reason whatsoever except that a crowd was on the move. We must imagine 1000s in the crowd. The theatre we read about you can see today and holds 25,000. And Luke tells us, when they were inside the theatre (verse 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. (v32)

So this incident tells us three things about crowds.

First is the irrationality, or Charles Mackay calls it, “the madness of crowds”. As we’ve just heard: “Most of the people did not even know why they were there.” That is why crowds can be so wrong and so dangerous. Certainly the crowds were so wrong and dangerous when Hitler came to power in the 1930s. And that ties in, secondly, with crowds being so easily manipulated by clever people like Demetrius (and Hitler). Today they are often manipulated by clever people in the media.

A week or so ago, following the Church of England Bishops’ statement against same sex marriage, immediately the London Evening Standard and then The Times reported that 70% of the population supports redefining marriage. This, it was said, was on the basis of a “new” poll. But it was not true as it was an old poll from November last year. There was a later poll from February of this year. This was after the Coalition for Marriage had begun to explain the issues. It found 70% against redefining marriage.

When I wrote to The Times this past week to correct their misleading report, the editor chose not to publish my short letter. That means up to 400,000 people (its current readership) may well have been misled. Yes, crowds can act against reason. And sometimes it is because of being manipulated by people like Demetrius, or the modern media.

The second thing to notice about crowds is that they obviously call for prudence. Paul acted prudently in not going into the theatre, even when he gallantly wanted to support his colleagues Gaius and Aristarchus. The other Christians did not want to see him lynched, nor did some of the local officials who had befriended Paul. They (verse 31) “sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theatre.” As the great Puritan commentator Matthew Henry puts it:

“keep out of the way of danger as long as [you] can, without going out of the way of duty.”

Thirdly, notice that when crowds or groups are attacking people for standing up for Christ, it will sometimes be other “religionists” (you thought better of), who cause you problems. They distance themselves from you, so you should look bad, while they look good. Here was Alexander a Jew trying to speak to the crowds, seemingly to distance himself from the Christians. Happily he didn’t succeed.

So crowds can be unreasonable, they call for prudence, but beware of people like Alexander.

That brings us to our third and final heading THE VALUE OF GOVERNMENT

Often when you are opposed as a Christian, you will find support from some unlikely quarters. Look at verse 35 and following:

The city clerk quieted 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? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to be quiet and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 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.’ After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly. (v35-41)

When life is hard and even dangerous, remember that God is on the throne. Nothing happens without his permission. And he can use even bad rulers for his purposes.

When Paul wrote about thanking God for national rulers (1 Tim 2v1), Nero was emperor of Rome. At least he brought some order. Our missionaries in the Sudan had some protection from the authorities. In Romans 13 Paul called rulers God’s ministers for reward and punishment in this life. So here Paul could certainly thank God for this “city clerk”.

He was a locally appointed Ephesian politician with religious responsibilities and the man in charge of the city assembly. A pagan himself, he nevertheless wanted to be fair to Paul and his colleagues. And this city clerk starts off by reminding the Crowd that these Christians had done nothing that was obviously wrong:

“They have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess” (v 37).

You see, ancient temples were used as places to keep deposits. They were like banks. So some people did try to rob them. But the Christians were not such people.

Nor did Paul blaspheme Artemis. In that Paul is a great example for interfaith relations today. He showed great respect for the sensitivity of the people who worshipped Artemis. But he also taught the truth that idols were “no gods at all”, without directly insulting Artemis. How important it is to speak the truth, but in love. I must conclude.

In these verses Luke has been showing for the Roman world of his day that it is not Christians who are unreasonable but their opponents. Surely that also needs to be communicated today – reason is with Christians not their opponents. But then Luke is once again showing that if you are going to see people converted to Christ and the church grow, others will not like it and you will be opposed, sometimes quite ruthlessly.

However, at the same time Luke shows that God is still in control. And he works to protect his own and to ensure that the good news of Jesus Christ (crucified, risen and reigning) will get out into all the world by using government officials when necessary. So trust him.

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