Ephesus in an Uproar
Expect resistance when you tell the truth but don’t stop telling the truth.
Please read Acts 19:23-41 in your Bible. I used the NIV (1984) for these remarks.
Think for a moment about the biggest crowd you can remember being part of at a sporting facility. For those of us in Sioux Falls, SD, that would likely be at Howard Wood Field. Can you recall the noise, the jostling, the energy of 10,000 people crammed into those stands? The amphitheater in the ancient city of Ephesus held more than twice that many people. That’s a crowd!
The most seating that has ever been available at Howard Wood was 16,500, when bleachers were borrowed from local colleges and moved there. On August 5, 1960, the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings played the very first game in the history of the Vikings at Howard Wood Field. A ticket to the game cost $5.50 unless you sat in the borrowed bleachers and paid $3.50. The extra seating would prove to be entirely unnecessary as the attendance that day was under 5,000. The promoters lost their shirts and the Vikings lost their game, but Sioux Falls will always be the weird beginning to a storied sports team.
This morning we will take a look at a page from the history of the ancient city of Ephesus. It was a similar comedy of errors to the only attempt to bring NFL football to Sioux Falls. The tale has a dark side, however, being a clear threat to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the people who held if forth as truth.
1. Change is hard; greed is harder (vs. 23-27).
“THE WAY” (verse 23) is how Christians of that time referred to themselves. It is not to be confused with a modern day cult “the Way International.” Then as in our own time, the word WAY referred to a person’s daily choices that reflected the direction they were headed. It might also be described as a life goal, mission, or number one priority.
The instigator of the riot was Demetrius, who made his living crafting and selling souvenirs! You heard me right. He made little replicas of the massive Temple to Artemis, goddess of wild plants and animals, hunting, chastity and childbirth. The temple was the major tourist attraction in the city. She was beloved so Demetrius and his fellows made A “GOOD INCOME” (verse 25) on his souvenirs.
So what’s the problem? Look back at verse 20 where it is written, THE WORD OF THE LORD SPREAD WIDELY AND GREW IN POWER. Demetrius apparently felt that Paul’s teaching was a threat. One, Paul’s teaching had converted “LARGE NUMBERS OF PEOPLE.” When you are growing, people are more likely to consider you a threat and more likely to oppose you. In v. 26 he said “PRACTICALLY THE WHOLE PROVINCE OF ASIA” was listening to Paul’s teaching. By his own words, Demetrius, a “hostile witness” gauged the influence of the Church in Asia. In verse 27 he said that Artemis was “WORSHIPED THROUGHOUT THE PROVINCE OF ASIA,” corresponding to Paul’s area of influence.
He was concerned that not only would business suffer, but also that the temple and the goddess would be “DISCREDITED.” (27) After all, if people are leaving the goddess to follow Paul’s God, then that implies Artemis is the lesser divinity. His reference to the WORLD is no exaggeration; archaeologists have uncovered temples to Artemis all over the ancient Roman world.
Demetrius may be sincere in his concern for the temple and for the city, but it seems more likely he was concerned about his wallet. I say this because if he was concerned about the city, he’d have followed legal procedures as the CITY CLERK suggested (38-39). Starting a riot is the kind of thing done by a greedy person without a legal leg to stand on.
That’s why Demetrius sought to inflame passion against Paul by accusing him of some awful misdeeds. He accused Paul of leading people astray (26), telling them scandalous things like “MAN-MADE GODS ARE NO GODS AT ALL.” He vilified Paul for “discrediting” Artemis and robbing her of her divine majesty (27).
2. The riot resulted in confusion (vs. 28-32).
Luke described it as A GREAT COMMOTION (23), an example of the understated way things are typically described in the Bible. The Bible writers didn’t exaggerate; they didn’t need to.
We start with the reaction of the members of the guild of silversmiths to the charges Demetrius made. They were FURIOUS and BEGAN SHOUTING about how great Artemis was until they wound the whole city into an UPROAR.
Another measure of the commotion is the actions of the mob in verses 29-30: they SIEZED GAIUS AND ARISTARCHUS, who must have been widely known as Paul’s associates. Don’t suppose they were treated gently.
They RUSHED AS ONE MAN INTO THE THEATER, probably intent on making “examples” of these two men. I remind you the theater in Ephesus seated 24,000 people. It was undoubtedly the biggest venue in the city. It was not used for dramas only, but also for civic events of all kinds.
This concerted rush in a single direction implies that the events were unfolding as planned. What happened was a riot but it wasn’t spontaneous, at least at the beginning. Ending up in the theater was strategic. This is what we’d call a “publicity stunt.”
To his credit, Paul wanted to APPEAR BEFORE THE CROWD, either to talk them out of rash actions or offer himself in exchange for his companions (30-31). This was not empty posturing; Paul had to be restrained by other followers of Jesus. OFFICIALS OF THE PROVINCE also weighed in to convince Paul not to go. This tells us not only that Paul had FRIENDS in high places, but also that the riot must have gone on for some time for all these people to get involved.
The result was CONFUSION and is almost comical. People were shouting different things, just to make noise. Some came to the riot late and didn’t know what it was all about, but they were ready to join a protest. Who doesn’t like a good tar and feathering?
Pity poor Alexander, suddenly chosen to be “front man” for the local Jewish community (33-34). Some of the people at the riot were Jews and they thought Alexander might get the mob to calm down. (They were among the confused!) Alexander was game, but his attempts to MAKE A DEFENSE of Paul, who was born a Jew, were merely shouted down by the crowd. These Greeks weren’t going to let a Jew tell them how to run t city.
Though it may sound strange that people in a 24,000 seat amphitheater would take up a common shout and do so for TWO HOURS, it was actually fairly common in that culture. They called these rhythmic chants, shouts, and noises acclamatio, from which we get our English word “acclaim.”
3. A wise man quieted the riot (vs. 35-41).
Where Alexander failed, the unnamed CITY CLERK succeeded; he QUIETED THE CROWD and got them to listen for a time (35). While the title CITY CLERK may sound a little nerdy, this man was the chief link between the Roman Empire and the city administrators. He wielded great power. This is why the people were willing to listen to him and why they heeded his words.
His wise arguments convinced the CROWD. We can see four parts of his rhetoric.
First he appealed to their pride in a positive way (35-36). He cited as UNDENIABLE FACTS that the temple in Ephesus was the greatest in the ancient world because the goddess herself flung the massive silver image in the middle of the temple to earth and the temple was built around it. This was, of course, a myth, not a fact, but the CITY CLERK used both savvy and mythology to remind the people that the city had nothing to prove.
He effectively said, “Demetrius and his guild are wrong; there is no danger to this temple. It is divinely protected and too big to fail.”
Since the temple was in no danger, there was no need for all this noise (“BE QUIET”) or to do anything RASH.
Second, he asserted that Gaius and Aristarchus were not criminals (37). These statements were true. He said, “THEY HAVE NEITHER ROBBED TEMPLES NOR BLASPHEMED THE GODDESS.” At that time, robbing temples and committing blasphemy were serious crimes, punishable by death or exile. This was the truth: Paul’s associates had committed no crime against the temple or the city. Instead, they were being used as scapegoats by the mob.
Third, the clerk insisted that the rule of law be followed, not rule by the mob (38-39). Notice that he knew exactly who was responsible for all this trouble and called him out: “DEMETRIUS AND HIS FELLOW CRAFTSMEN.” This was a subtle warning: should the axe of punishment fall, it would fall on Demetrius and his cronies.
His point was that there were legal and reasonable ways to settle a grievance fairly, ways that would produce good results. I imagine he had sympathy with Demetrius’ concerns, especially the economic ones. However, to his credit, this man stood up for justice.
Fourth, he warned there would be negative consequences if the rioters continued to make this COMMOTION (40). In the Roman Empire, where riots occurred, imperial legions would not be far behind.
No one in local government wanted Rome to step in and put the city under military rule. This very thing happened at least once in Roman history. In 20 BC the city of Cyzicus allowed some Roman citizens to be put to death in a riot. They lost their city government because of it. This is no idle threat. If the empire heard about the COMMOTION and called him to account for it, the clerk would have to say, “THERE IS NO REASON FOR IT.”
His wise arguments apparently persuaded the people; HE DISMISSED THE ASSEMBLY (41) and that’s all we hear about it.
Though this passage has some goofy elements to it, the dark truth behind it is this: Expect opposition to the truth. We’d like to think being a follower of Jesus should be the end to our troubles. We’d like to think being truthful will eventually be recognized, maybe applauded.
These thoughts do not come from the Bible. Jesus Himself said, “IN THIS WORLD YOU WILL HAVE TROUBLE. BUT TAKE HEART! I HAVE OVERCOME THE WORLD.” (John 16:33)
Naturally we’d rather stand in the arena to enjoy the cheers of the crowd. We’d rather not be Gaius or Aristarchus, who were stood before the jeering thousands of Ephesus. We wouldn’t like to be Alexander and have to face the crowd that shouts us down. Success will not spare us the opposition of sinful people; it will likely invite more.
So what is our hope? Our hope is Jesus. “I HAVE OVERCOME THE WORLD” is His promise and our hope. Nothing in this world - neither its acclaim nor its opposition - should move our hope anywhere else.
Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts, Eckhard J. Schnabel