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Acts 19:21-41: The Mission and the Authorities Print E-mail

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Opposition to the gospel is a repeated theme in the book of Acts.  Paul is constantly getting kicked out of the synagogues and kicked out of the cities.  In almost every story we read of those who did not like the message of a crucified and risen Savior.  The reasons for their opposition vary: sometimes it's theological, sometimes it's racial, sometimes it's economical (like in our passage this morning), and sometimes its just jealousy.  All of these could be summed up with one word: unbelief.  People do not believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, or the Savior of all men, or worth more than their earthly treasures.  They simply do not believe.  And often their opposition is fierce.  Paul has been beaten, thrown in prison, and stoned.  People are angry about what he is teaching and they want him to stop.

We see another situation of opposition in the city of Ephesus in our passage this morning.  Paul has spent a considerable amount of time in the city.  And Luke tells us about his plans to move on.  Look at verses 21-22.  Paul wants to go back to where he has been to encourage the saints and to head to places where he has not yet been, namely Rome, where we will find him at the end of Acts.  But before he leaves the city at this point, Luke tells us another story of opposition and the riot in Ephesus.  We might be wondering why Luke would include such a story?  First, he includes because it was historical.  The riot really did happen.  But second, Luke tells us the story to teach us more about the opposition that the early believers faced and how God provided for them.  So then, what lessons can we learn from the riot in Ephesus?

Opposition to the gospel should be expected (v. 23-34)

If you have been with us throughout our study of Acts, then you know that the question is no longer will opposition come, but rather, where will the opposition come from?  So where does it come from in our current passage.  Look at verses 23-25.  Luke introduces us to Demetrius the silversmith, who made shrines to sell at the temple of Artemis.  This temple was one of the seven wonders of the world at the time and Luke tells us that the shrine business was going well.  But there was a problem.  Look at verse 26. 

Paulís preaching was turning people away from idolatry.  What was he saying that was so convincing?  He was telling the people something profound: gods made with hands are not gods.  I donít know about you, but this seems fairly obvious.  Yet, the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4a) and so many were devoted to such gods.  But through the preaching of the gospel, peopleís eyes were being opened and they were seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4b).  The problem for Demetrius is that such truth was cutting into his profit.  He needed people to keep believing in gods made by hands.  So, he was opposed to the gospel primarily for financial reasons.  The good news was cutting into his good bottom line and he did not like it.  But Demetrius knew that financial motivation might not get everyone to oppose Paul.  So he offered some further motivation in verse 27.  Look at that with me.  Not only was Paul cutting into their profits, he was also dishonoring Artemis, their goddess.  The gospel does not recognize any other gods, and that included Artemis.

So then, how would the people respond to the arguments of Demetrius?  Look at verses 28-29.  The people were enraged.  Who was this Paul and what right did he have to dishonor their goddess?  Their fury spilled over into the streets and led to a riot that gathered in the theater of Ephesus, which could possibly hold around 25,000 people.  On the way, they rounded up Gaius and Aristarchus, who were traveling companions with Paul.  When Paul hears about this, he wants to intercede, but is prevented by his friends.  Look at verses 30-31.  Paulís desire to intervene is admirable, but it seems it was better for him to not get involved at this point, which is what he does.  The Asiarchs were other leaders in the community and they encouraged Paul to refrain from action. 

Meanwhile, Luke tells us that the theater was turning into a mob scene.  Look at verses 32-34.  The riot was getting out of control.  People were yelling and shouting.  When the Jews seemingly tried to separate themselves from Paul and the teaching of the Way, the crowds prevented Alexander, their representative, from speaking by simply yelling for two hours.  It was a frightening scene.  Similar even to those we have seen recently played out in the news.  Yet, did you catch what Luke said about the mob?  The assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.  Unfortunately, this is an insight into the mob mentality.  People can rally around a common enemy, even when they donít even know why the person is an enemy.  Again, we see the same thing happening today at times.  There is something alluring about protesting against an enemy, even if we donít know all the facts.  None of us are above such behavior, so we all must be on guard against the mob mentality, whether in the city streets on the pages of social media. 

So for two hours the people yelled: ĎGreat is Artemis of the Ephesians!í  Idolatry and the mob mentality were fueling their opposition to the gospel.  We have noted the darkness that was so prevalent in the city of Ephesus.  It was a city gripped by the occult and magic.  And the gospel was an affront to such practices.  And it still is today.  I recently heard of a woman who was converted out of a culture of black magic.  When she began sharing the gospel and winning others to Christ, the leaders of the cult launched an all-out attack against her.  And even though she was able to withstand for a season, she eventually had to be pulled out of the situation for her own safety and protection.  The battle that took place in the city of Ephesus so long ago is still raging on today.  People are still taking the gospel to dark cities and villages all over the world.  And the opposition they face is real and fierce.  And it should be expected.

Resolution of the conflict may come from unexpected places (v. 35-41)

Not only have we seen repeated opposition to the gospel, we have also seen the Lord protect and provide for those on mission.  Yet, as we have already noted, the disciples and leaders in Ephesus were preventing Paul from intervening in this situation (v. 30-31).  So then, who will intervene?  If not Paul, if not the other disciples, then who?

The resolution comes from an unexpected place.  Look at verse 35a.  Who is the town clerk?  Well, he was a leader in the community and someone that the crowds would listen to.  And from his response we can also note that he was not a believer.  So what does he say?  He gives the crowds four reasons why they disperse and leave the Christians alone.  First, he tells them that the worship of Artemis will never be overthrown in their city.  Look at verses 35b-36.  He is saying that the greatness of Artemis and her temple in Ephesus cannot be denied so there is no reason to get too worked up over these Christians.  We know that such a statement is not true, but he thought it was true and so did the Ephesians.  Second, he tells them that the disciples are really not targeting Artemis.  Look at verse 37.  Is this statement true?  In one sense, it could be that these men who were just companions of Paul had never spoken publicly against idolatry and so the clerk was saying that they were not guilty of blasphemy or sacrilege.  In other words, they cannot be found guilty simply by associating with Paul.  Or it could be that the clerk was ignorant of what the Christians believed and were teaching.  He had never heard them speak against Artemis so they were not guilty.  The truth is that they were against the goddess in that people were worshipping a false god.  But for whatever reason, the clerk does not recognize this.

Third, the clerk advises Demetrius to appeal to the courts.  Look at verses 38-39.  This is simply an appeal for justice.  There were procedures in place to deal with such complaints.  If Demetrius and the craftsmen had a legitimate case, then they could take it before the rulers of the city who would deal with the problem.  There is no reason for mob violence when justice can be pursued through the courts.  Fourth, and finally, the town clerk cautions the crowd concerning charges being brought against the city.  Look at verse 40.  Not only does justice demand that the matter be brought before the courts, it also rules against the mob mentality.  The clerk realizes that what they are doing could bring charges against the people of the city, which is not what any of them want.  For these reasons, the clerk argues that they should disband.

So what happens?  Look at verse 41.  Apparently the clerkís arguments were successful.  He convinced the crowds to disperse and no more action was taken on this occasion.  Perhaps they listened because his arguments were convincing.  Or perhaps they went home simply because they were tired from all the screaming and his speech calmed them down.  Either way, the Lord used the town clerk to intervene on behalf of the disciples.  He protected them through a paganís speech that exalted a false god, perhaps lied about the disciples, and appealed to the crowdís sense of protection.  Needless to say, that is not where we would necessarily expect the resolution to come from.  But it is what the Lord used on this day.

So again, we ask the question: why does Luke tell us this story?  He tells it because it really happened and because it teaches us about opposition to the gospel and how God protects His people.  Luke wants his readers to see that Rome had no real grounds for attacking the early Christians and that some rulers, like the town clerk in Ephesus, recognized this.  Christianity is not opposed to the State and the authority that God gives it to maintain peace and justice.  Granted, human governments are often wicked and there are times when Christians must not submit to them.  But that is the exception and not the rule.  In a place where the governments are using their authority to preserve and protect, Christianity can thrive and will not oppose such authority.  Luke is also teaching us that God can use people in authority, even unbelievers at times, to protect His people and keep the mission moving forward. 

People will continue to oppose the gospel.  They donít want to believe that they are sinners in need of a Savior.  They donít want to follow the Man of Sorrows who died on a cross under the wrath of God.  A resurrected Messiah does not fit in their world-view.  So they oppose.  But the fact that we are sitting here this morning, two thousand years removed from the opposition in Ephesus and all that has faced the Church throughout the centuries proves that the gates of Hell will not prevail.  So like those who have gone before us, we move forward in hope.  We expect opposition and we know that provision can come from unexpected places.  And we keep calling people to turn from their sins and believe in Jesus, knowing that the Lord will continue to save.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Saturday, 27 September 2014 )

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