The Kingdom of God Provokes Idolaters
Topic: Persecution Passage: Acts 19:21–41
A pattern we’ve observed in Acts goes something like this: the Spirit and the word working inside the church will have missional impact outside the church.[i] We’re in the middle of our emphasis on global missions. One of my regular prayers for us is that the Holy Spirit would conform our passions to God’s will in Scripture. When the Spirit and word transform us, society around us will witness and feel the impact of God’s kingdom.
In Acts 19, we’ve seen the kingdom impact not just Ephesus, but all the residents of Asia. They hear the Lord’s word (Acts 19:10). They witness the Lord’s power (Acts 19:11-16). Many glorify Jesus and renounce their paganism and burn their magic books (Acts 19:17-20). The city feels the impact of God’s kingdom; and for many it’s glorious. But not everybody is thrilled with the way Jesus’ kingdom impacts the city. Paul now faces some idolaters. They oppose Christianity for how it negatively impacts their money, their fame, and their culture’s gods.
The Kingdom Advances by the Presence & Guidance of the Spirit
Before we get there, though, notice the way Luke introduces the section with a note about the Holy Spirit. Hear the Lord’s word in verse 21, “Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit[ii] to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I’ve 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.”
Sometimes we ignore travel details like these. Perhaps they’re not as exciting to us. Perhaps we have difficulty seeing their immediate relevance. But even these are the words of God. They’re here for important reasons. One is to remind you that missions is not ultimately the work of Paul. Nor is it ultimately the work of the church. Missions is first and foremost the work of the Spirit.
All through Acts, God’s Spirit stands behind everything the church is and does. He stands behind the church’s conversion, their unity, their joy, their generosity, their comfort, their witness, their gifts.[iii] And here, as we’ve seen elsewhere,[iv] he stands behind their guidance. The Holy Spirit is present to guide the mission.
Paul isn’t doing his own will, but God’s will as he discerns God’s will in the Spirit. We’re not told exactly how Paul resolved “in the Spirit.” But we do know from elsewhere that the Spirit guides the church through the written word and prayer,[v] sometimes through prophesy and visions.[vi] That may have been the case here; it will be the case later in chapter 21. But the main point is this: the Spirit leads; we follow.
That’s important to notice before Paul encounters the opposition in Ephesus. Luke has just outlined the rest of the book. Acts 20-28 is Paul going to Jerusalem and then to Rome. The shift from Ephesus to Jerusalem to Rome is of God. Luke doesn’t want us thinking that Paul shifts gears, because the mission must have finally flopped in Ephesus. People actually write things like this about Paul leaving Ephesus. But keeping verse 21 in mind guards us from drawing such a conclusion.
He resolved in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem via Macedonia before the opposition ever starts. He’s not going because he’s scared, or because he failed. He’s going because of the Spirit’s guidance. Beloved, I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating. The mission isn’t simply about doing for God, but being with God. Missions is the fruit of your communion with God in the Spirit.
That’s amazing! Be amazed by this! At once we were people cut off from God. We didn’t know God. We couldn’t discern God’s will. We wondered about like the blind leading the blind. Then God arrested us by his Spirit, just as he did Paul. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God gives us the Spirit too. He’s the Spirit of adoption by which we cry, “Abba, Father!” He transforms our will and desires to want the things of God and to do the things of God. He makes us more like Christ. He leads us to seek and save the lost, and to abide in those patterns of love that Christ demonstrated for us. Rejoice in this, beloved! Don’t miss the wonderful presence and guidance of the Spirit!
Then remember this as well: the guidance of the Spirit doesn’t mean circumstances will always be comfortable. Some people think that the way to know if you’re following God’s will is if things go smoothly. No, many times circumstances will become very uncomfortable because of the way the Spirit works. We can think of Stephen, a man full of the Holy Spirit; but how great was the opposition he faced! In Ephesus, the Spirit leads Paul to preach the kingdom of God. In Ephesus, the Spirit saves many and they start following Jesus. But some in Ephesus aren’t so happy. They hate the way the kingdom impacts their money, their fame, and their culture’s gods.
The Kingdom of God Provokes Idolaters to Oppose Jesus’ Followers
That brings us to the riot at Ephesus. The kingdom of God provokes idolaters to oppose Jesus’ followers. The story unfolds in three scenes: the origin of the riot, its development, and then its dismissal. With each scene, a few things come to light; so we’ll stop to make observations here and there. Then, once we get through the story, we’ll draw some application with respect to our mission.
The origin of the riot
So let’s look first at the origin of the riot. What caused the people in Ephesus to rage against Paul and the church? Keep reading in verse 23…
23 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way [i.e., the way of the kingdom, Christianity]. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 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. 27 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.”
Artemis was the mythical daughter of Zeus, goddess of the hunt. People also thought she held certain powers to make them safe and sound.[vii] Demetrius profits from making silver shrines of Artemis. Other craftsmen would then profit from his business. Artemis and her temple weren’t some isolated thing. The temple was connected to the city’s commerce and reputation and culture. Ephesus was famous for this temple. All Asia came to visit and worship Artemis.
My boys knew more about this than I did. I mentioned Artemis in passing, and they say, “Oh yeah, that’s one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.” “Where’d you learn that?” “The Dangerous Book for Boys…See!” The temple was a big deal.
If I could draw an analogy, consider the Dallas Cowboys. Let’s pretend AT&T Stadium is like a temple. The fans come weekly to pay homage. But it’s bigger than Sunday, isn’t it? An entire industry profits from the Dallas Cowboys. Hats, shirts, jackets, socks, jerseys, and such—all bearing the blue star—these are made and sold for profit. The Stadium requires full-time management to clean and repair. Local breweries and soda companies get a cut for promoting the Cowboys. Local contractors have to design and re-design the roads and lights to support the high volume of traffic. Police and firemen work extra hours to cover the needs surrounding game-day.
Now pretend everybody stops coming. They lose interest for a superior joy. They stop buying the clothes. They stop watching the games. They stop investing in Arlington. The reputation goes south; the team loses funding. Then they all blame the Christian message for that impact? That’s similar to what happens here.
The craftsmen and business owners don’t like it. Christianity is growing. People are believing Paul’s message: gods made with hands aren’t really gods at all; there’s one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist. They hear of this God sending his Son to die for sinners; and they turn from gods like Artemis to serve the living and true God. That’s a major problem if your livelihood and your reputation and your culture are bound up with Artemis and her temple.
Demetrius doesn’t like how the kingdom is having a subversive impact on his little world. Notice, he doesn’t even consider whether the claims of Christianity are true. He can’t. He won’t. He loves his money too much—“you know that from this business we have our wealth.” Implied is, “I’m not about to give that up.” He also loves his fame too much: “this trade of ours may come into disrepute.” Implied is, “I’m not about to give up my name.” He also loves his culture too much, and the goddess upon which they’ve built their culture: “she may even be deposed of her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” Demetrius doesn’t want the kingdom of God to take his money or take his fame or dethrone his culture’s gods.
The development of the riot
So, what does he do? Well, when you love money that much and you love your fame that much and you love your culture’s gods that much, you gather the troops. You spread fear. It happened on the streets here. Now we do it with Facebook. Demetrius stirs up a riot against Jesus’ followers. Verse 28…
28 When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 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. 30 But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples wouldn’t let him. 31 And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. 32 Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them didn’t know why they had come together. 33 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. 34 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!”
Notice, some people get Christianity, but hate what Christianity means for their money, their fame, and their gods. That would be Demetrius. But other people don’t get Christianity at all, but hate it still simply because everybody else does.
Listen again to what he says in verse 32: “some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them didn’t know why they had come together.” It’s just senseless chaos. They’re dragging other Christians into the mob. It’s so intense that Paul’s friends don’t want him to enter. Even the Asiarchs. These are high ranking citizens—Paul has a good reputation with them. Even them—they watch out for his well-being and keep him from entering the theatre.
The crowd won’t listen to anybody. Not even Alexander the Jew. The Jews want Alexander to get up and distance them from the Christians. But the crowd just gets louder: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for two hours. It’s senseless.
The dismissal of the riot
The senselessness becomes even more evident by how quickly it’s dismissed. It’s actually pretty comical. Look now at verse 35…
35 And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who doesn’t know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? 36 Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. 37 For you’ve brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. 38 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. 39 But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. 40 For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there’s no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” 41 And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.
That’s just funny. Two hours of chaos. People yelling. Everything is just nuts. Town clerk says a few words. They all go home. You can imagine everyone looking at each other like, “Well, Okay! Back to work.” But notice more.
At the end of the day, who’s exposed as the real problem in Ephesus? What’s exposed as the cause of disorder? It’s not Paul and his partners. The clerk is very clear: as far as he’s concerned, they’re innocent. Now, he’s also deceived by the town’s idolatry and pride (Acts 19:35-36). He’s also oblivious to the exclusive claim of Christianity (Acts 19:37). But before Roman law, they’ve done nothing wrong. And even if they did something wrong, the courts will handle it with due process, not by rioting.
The real problem for the city of Ephesus isn’t the spread of Christianity; it’s the love of money. It’s the craving for self-glory. It’s the desire to protect their culture’s gods, which are really no gods at all. That’s the real danger for Ephesus. When you live for money and you live for your fame and you live for false gods, it leads to chaos. It leads to sinful anger and senseless rage. It leads to unjust actions to innocent people. Even more serious, it leads to opposing the kingdom of God.
1. Keep yourself from the love of money, the craving for fame, and your culture’s idols.
Which brings us to a significant point of application: keep yourself from the love of money, the craving for fame, and your culture’s idols. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself opposing the kingdom of God. You’ll find yourself sucked into a society raging against the kingdom, and sometimes you won’t even know that you’re part of it.
Earlier I mentioned that people thought Artemis might keep them safe. When you put it that way, our culture isn’t so far from worshiping Artemis too. We love safety. We feel entitled to safety. We make decisions, not based on what God says but based on fear. Sadly, even some Christians will preach national defense all day long; but when it comes to preaching Christ in hard places, silence.
Artemis wasn’t the only goddess. Consider some of the others in Paul’s day; and pay attention to what they represent. Aphrodite, goddess of romance and sex. Is that prevalent in our culture? Goodness, our culture says the whole of your self-worth is found in fulfilling your sexual desires, or finding that “soul-mate.” It sells makeup with labels like Goddess Glow, Dazzling Doe, and Seduction (I had to look that up!).
There’s also Plutus, god of wealth. Think of the great draw money has on people. People will sacrifice marriages and family and their health to have more and more. Dionysius, goddess of wine and ecstasy. We see it expressed in the party-life. Demeter, god of the harvest. You may hear her called, “Mother Nature.”
Heracles, god of strength and sport. Have you ever noticed our culture’s fascination with wash-board abs and a ripped physique? I was getting some walnuts yesterday at Sprouts, and there’s this large picture of a well-sculpted man, no shirt, all kinds of muscles—and they’re trying to sell pistachios with it. Or, if we went the sports route, consider how families sacrifice all to get kids to practice, but not spend any time in prayer, in the word, or investing each other or the church.
The gods in Paul’s day are the same gods today. They just have different names. It could also be your money. It could be your fame, your name, your reputation. You elevate it to a place only the true God belongs. Beware of these temptations. They’ll turn you against the kingdom of God. They’ll hurt our witness as a church. How can we call people away from their gods while chasing similar ones? Instead, cultivate a heart for God and his glory in Christ. Store up treasure in heaven. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. His kingdom is greater.
2. Pray the gospel and its effects in the church will have missional impact.
Also, pray that the gospel and its effects on the church will impact society around us. The impact we find here in Ephesus—wouldn’t you love to see the kingdom have this sort of impact on White Settlement or Fort Worth? Do you long for this kind of impact? Oh that God would work though Redeemer Church and Normandale and Solid Rock and Rock Creek and Paradox and the Village and Fort Worth Pres and others to impact the city this way. Do you pray for this?
I thumbed through a book this week detailing the Welsh revival of 1859. God revived the churches of Wales: divisions were healed, prayer was enjoyed, holiness pursued, churches united in ministry efforts, gospel preached.[viii] But what I found most amazing was how the revival impacted society outside the church.
In some cases, society perceived the impact very positively. Take the literary institutions. At one point, they weren’t thriving. The students got soused every night; didn’t care. But when the revival came, many forsook their drunkenness and poured themselves wholeheartedly into their education. Also, the coal mines. Guys usually showed up with hangovers; they weren’t productive. But after the revival, men were showing up in their right minds; and the managers took notice.
In other cases, though, society perceived the impact quite negatively. For instance, one town hosted an annual fair. Normally, it was full into the night. Businesses and breweries really cashed. But when the revival came, the fair was empty. People preferred to attend the prayer meetings instead. Also, some towns were filled with pubs, where men would get drunk every evening and fight. But when the revival came, these pubs suffered greatly. Revenue dropped drastically. Folks weren’t drinking much anymore. One town had twenty pubs; but after the revival only two survived.
Whether society perceived the revival positively or negatively, one thing stood out: they felt the kingdom’s impact. They felt the moral transformation produced by the gospel. They felt the effects of people submitting to King Jesus. They felt how the kingdom subverted the way they’d always done things. Pray fervently for the Lord to do such a work here; and ask that he’d use you in the process?
3. Prepare yourself to face opposition.
A third takeaway: prepare yourself to face opposition from those who hate the kingdom’s values. Some will embrace the kingdom’s impact—many did in Ephesus. But many others became irate once they recognized the subversive nature of God’s kingdom to their own kingdom. The same will be true for us today.
Brothers and sisters, don’t be surprised if opposition comes. Peter says elsewhere, “Beloved, don’t be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…” (1 Pet 4:13). Are you willing to be viewed negatively by others for the gospel’s sake? Are you willing to be blamed for people losing business, because others have walked away from sinful practices?
We’re called to this. We’re not called to smash the idols and burn the temples and stir up the riot. No. We’re called to preach Christ, and him crucified and risen. We’re called to endure evil patiently, correcting our opponents with gentleness, God says, while trusting God to bring repentance and change and transformation. If the opposition comes, we know how to respond. We’ve witnessed the path in our Lord Jesus. He brought others the kingdom. They opposed him. And when he had every right to cut them down with legions of angels, he took up the cross instead and became our substitute. His death saved us and now gives us the strength to take up our own cross as well. He endured great hostility from sinners so that we might not grow weary and lose heart doing the same.
4. Give thanks for the Holy Spirit
Finally, give thanks for the Holy Spirit who is present to help and guide us in the mission. We’re back at the beginning, aren’t we? When we face opposition, we’re not alone. God doesn’t leave us alone in the mission. He goes with us.
What does Jesus tell his disciples when he knows they’ll face opposition? “Don’t be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11-12). 1 Peter 4:14 says, “If you’re insulted for the name of Christ, you’re blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” If you’re in Christ, the Spirit is with you. Take courage in this gift, beloved. The Spirit is more than adequate to help us face opposition as the kingdom of God advances. He strengthened Paul and his partners; he will also strengthen you. May he strengthen you even now as we take the Supper.
[i]See especially the sermon on Acts 2:42-47: http://www.redeemerfortworth.org/sermons/sermon/2017-03-19/the-kind-of-church-jesus-spirit-creates.
[ii]The KJV does not capitalize pneuma in verse 21, conveying that Paul’s decision was made in his human spirit. However, the fact that the Holy Spirit often guides the mission in Acts, and that Paul later refers to the same calling explicitly as the work of the Spirit, favors the ESV.
[iii]E.g., Acts 1:5; 2:4, 17-18, 33, 38; 4:31; 6:3, 10; 8:17; 9:31; 10:47; 13:52.
[iv]Acts 8:29, 39; 10:19; 11:12; 13:4; 16:6-7.
[vi]Acts 11:27-29; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-11; 1 Cor 14:31.
[vii]Peterson, Acts, 545.
[viii]Examples in this section come from Chapter IV: Results in Thomas Phillips, The Welsh Revival: Its Origin and Development (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989; first published in 1860), 81-103.
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