The Threat of the Gospel (Acts 19:21-41)

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I have said this before, but I want to emphasise it again: When reading Acts (or any biblical book), it is important to ask, not only what is here, but why is it here?

It is essential that we understand what has been written. We need to know the vocabulary and the meaning of the words as well as the theological indications in the passage. We need to rightly divide the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

But it is also very important to grasp why something was written. To understand the occasion, or the motivation, behind the book helps us to appreciate the content in a more relevant, applicatory and holistic way.

The author of Acts—Luke—was a historian and a medical doctor.1 As he put together this rather brief account of the founding and progress of the new covenant church (spanning some 20—25 years) he could have included many, many other stories. In fact, as we have seen in some passages, Luke is completely silent about many months and miles of Paul’s ministry. There is no doubt that many significant events occurred, and even churches were planted that Luke (under guidance of the Holy Spirit) chose to not tell us about.

Luke concerned to leave behind a reliable and inspiring story for the church of subsequent generations, but I would agree with commentators such as Longnecker that he was also concerned to write an apologetic to defend the church from the slanderous misrepresentation that they were revolutionaries who were seeking to overthrow the existing Roman government. Though there is no doubt that the early church believed the promises of the ever-expanding kingdom of Christ (such as those indicated in the parable of the leaven and the mustard seed), and though no doubt the early church made much practice of the Lord’s Prayer, which is a plea for the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, nevertheless they saw their role in this world as making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ amongst all the nations. They therefore preached the gospel and then, after baptising converts, taught them all that the Lord had commanded them.

I have no reason to doubt that they believed that, over time, the gospel, and disciples who continued to pay attention to the gospel, would make a huge difference in the world. They would have paid heed to the teaching of the whole counsel of God and would have expected that Christ-saturated disciples would see the reign and rule of Christ over time making a profound difference in this world. They fully expected the stone cut out of the mountain to eventually cover the world (Daniel 2:44-45). They fully expected that one day the knowledge of the glory of the Lord would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). But there is a world of difference between this conviction and that of aiming deliberately to be an enemy of the state.

In the early days of Christianity the church was, humanly speaking, in a struggle for survival. There were many who viewed Christianity as merely a sect of Judaism. The problem with being labelled a sect is that such an idea is pejorative, which often resulted in danger for the early church. There were those, particularly among Judaistic Jews, who wanted to use such misrepresentation as a means to shutting down the church. For instance, if they could convince local and even regional governments that Christianity was a threat to the Roman Empire, then Christianity would be declared by the Romans as a religio illicita—an illegal religion. The church would have been greatly persecuted in its early days and perhaps greatly hindered. The Judaisers and the apostate Jewish leaders therefore sought to present Christianity and hence the church as subversive to good Roman governance.

It was to guard against this that Luke wrote this account of Acts. In doing so, any political leaders who wanted to know the facts could consult this record and they would soon discover that actually the biggest troublemakers in the Empire were often the Jews who rejected their Messiah! In fact, that is always how it is. Those who reject King Jesus are the ones who disrupt civil society, not those who continually bow the knee to Him.

There is much that could be said here, but suffice to say that the best citizens of a society—best as defined by God—are Christians. A nation is blessed to have disciples of Christ in its midst. And to the degree that a society sees this, to such a degree the church will have increasing freedom to proclaim the gospel on behalf of the God who desires to save (see 1 Timothy 2:1-8).

But having acknowledged this, it must also be recognised at the same time that, by its very nature, the gospel that the church proclaims is a threat to the kingdoms of this world. Because the gospel is light it exposes the darkness. It is a threat to the evil of the domain of darkness. The gospel, by its very nature is countercultural, and so it is a threat to those who choose sin over the Saviour. Such a threat often results in publicly entrenched opposition to Christianity. We have such an example before us in Acts 19:21-41. Harrison notes, “The fact that the account is narrated at some length seems to indicate that it had a special relevance for the overall purpose of the book.”2 And as we have seen, there was an apologetic relevance.

In this account, we have the record of a riot that broke out after Paul’s long ministry in Ephesus. The riot broke out for the obvious reason that the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the power of God unto salvation, became a very tangible threat to those who chose to remain in their sin.

In this study, I trust that we will learn to expect the gospel to be a threat to society while at the same time learning that the church of God is the greatest blessing to its enemies.

Background

Paul has come to the end of what has been nearly three years of intense labour in Ephesus. As we will see more clearly in chapter 20, he laboured with his own hands to support himself and then would spend many more hours each day preaching and teaching the Word of God. After a couple of years, the gospel had gone forth to the entire region of Asia Minor and many churches were planted as a result. And with the ongoing proclamation of the gospel, the society in Ephesus, and doubtless beyond as well, began to be influenced. As people were born again their lives became increasingly sanctified. And coupled with this growth in grace was the reality that they were turning from their idols to serve the living and true God. The church was strengthened and its salt began to get into the open sinful sores of the surrounding culture. The light of the gospel, which shined in the face of Jesus Christ, and which was now shining forth in the lives of the church, was penetrating the dark idolatrous and covetous society around it (see 2 Corinthians 4:1-6). And the darkness did not like being exposed (Ephesians 5:8-11). This cultural impact of the gospel was about to experience some push-back as found in the passage before us. Let’s pick up the story in v. 21.

The Gospel Advances

Sometime after the events of 19:10-20 Paul made plans to re-visit areas where churches had been planted in Macedonia and Achaia.

When these things were accomplished, Paul purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” So he sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, but he himself stayed in Asia for a time.

(Acts 19:21-22)

He no doubt wanted to see how the churches there were doing and apparently planned to spend some length of time there. He therefore sent Timothy and Erastus ahead to make preparations for his visit. But he did not plan to stay there indefinitely, for he had “purposed in the Spirit” to head on to Jerusalem and then to onward to Rome (and from there to Spain, see Romans 15:20-28).

Much discussion has taken place over whether or not “Spirit” should be capitalised (as in Holy Spirit). Did Paul purpose in his human spirit, thus setting up potential criticism of his decision later? Or was he moved by the Holy Spirit to travel to Jerusalem. I am satisfied that, for a Spirit-filled man like Paul, the two uses are in fact the same. His spirit was so in tune with God’s Spirit that either interpretation can make good sense.

Paul wanted to go to Jerusalem, and in fact the mention of this trip here introduces us to the final panel in the several-part history of Acts. The apostle would eventually leave Jerusalem as a prisoner and would end up in Rome where, though under house arrest, he would be found faithfully proclaiming the kingdom of God (28:31).

Paul, however, would remain in Asia Minor for a time before the above journey and events took place. And as he wrote from Ephesus, he was in the midst of both adversity and opportunity (1 Corinthians 16:8-9). As Stott notes, “Both the opportunity and the opposition necessitated his continued presence in Ephesus.”3 No doubt, a large part of this adversity was the riot recorded in this passage.

The Gospel Threatens

While Timothy and Erastus were preparing for Paul’s planned travels to Macedonia they miss out on all of the fun!

And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen. He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: “Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. “Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. “So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship.”

(Acts 19:23-27)

I assume that, as Paul remained in Ephesus, he continued doing what he had been doing, which was to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. No doubt, people kept being saved. And as they were saved, the surrounding culture felt the impact of King Jesus. We see this in these verses.

The text tells us that “there arose a great commotion about the Way.” That is, a great social disruption was occurring because of those who embraced the gospel way. And as more and more people followed Jesus, who is the Way, it began to touch the pocketbooks of those who were going the wrong way!

A man by the name of Demetrius, who was probably a leader of the local guild of idol makers, called a meeting. He was concerned to point out that Paul was affecting their profits. He contemptuously referred to him as “this Paul.” Demetrius was upset because Paul was telling others that the little silver statues of Diana (Artemis) were simply that: statues. They were merely silver statues that had absolutely no life or power. Paul had become the enemy of the covetous (Colossians 3:5) simply by telling people the truth. But the truth hurts—especially those who make their living on lies.

From the start, Demetrius showed his hand and displayed his motives before all when he spoke of the “no small profit” that he and his fellow craftsmen enjoyed from their idol industry (v. 24) and by declaring that their trade was very prosperous (v. 25). But perhaps he caught himself, for in v. 27 he turned religiously patriotic. “Like many other men in similar circumstances he tries to veil his covetousness beneath a show of great religious zeal.”4

Demetrius claimed that their famed goddess was being dishonoured by the influence of Paul, and that that would have negative repercussions for their city. Not to mention, of course, that the less the temple was frequented, the less income they would enjoy!

There is much exaggeration here for it is simply not true that the whole world worshipped Artemis. But the fact remains that Paul’s ministry of the Word was deemed to be a threat by these idolaters. And it was. The gospel of God is always an assault on idolatry.

Several important observations can be made at this point.

First, note that the gospel has ethical implications and applications. Paul preached the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), but his ministry included more than these things. This is obvious from v. 26. Paul also identified the folly and emptiness of idolatry. He exposed the darkness in Ephesus. This is important to note, for the gospel message does pry into many areas of life. You cannot be faithful to the gospel without at the same time exposing lies in all areas of life. The gospel is holistic and so affects every sphere of life.

Second, we cannot accuse Paul of a pugnacious attitude with reference to idols. We have other accounts of Paul opposing idolatry (Acts 14 and 17) and we can learn from these that he did not mock the idolaters or their idols. You usually don’t open the door for gospel communication when you mockingly attack the wrong religious beliefs of others. In fact, the cases of such mockery which we do find in the Old Testament are always in the context of those who should have known better; namely, the Jews. We need to be careful without being apologetic. We need to be as winsome as possible (see Colossians 4:5-6). As Harrison notes, “To attack idolatry among people who cherish their gods and know nothing better, since they had not yet received the gospel, is to leave them in a vacuum.”5 In other words, let us be committed to winning souls, not merely arguments.

Third, we should be encouraged that the story that we have to tell to the nations will indeed, over time, turn their hearts to the right. The gospel makes a difference—a profound difference—in a society.

Fourth, don’t underestimate the influence of the individual who is passionate about the Great Commission. Is it not astounding to read that Paul was accused of having such influence in this entire region? No doubt, the church in Ephesus was a huge part of this, but the point remains that God uses those who are devoted to Him. Paul was faithful to preach and teach God’s Word and so he ended up making the right kind of enemies. This was not some intramural contest but one between two opposing kingdoms. We should not relegate Paul’s impact to another time and place, but rather take encouragement that the gospel is still the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16).

Fifth, though we are not to engage in evangelism looking for a fight, the fact remains that we cannot avoid conflict if we are faithful to the gospel. The gospel always, by its very nature, is an assault on idolatry—all kinds of idolatry. As MacArthur writes, “The gospel makes people angry because it confronts them with their false religion and their sin and forces them to recognize the inadequacy of their world view, exposing the emptiness of their lifestyle.”6

The Gospel Threatened

Those listening to Demetrius became angry and a riot soon followed:

Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theatre with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul’s travel companions. And when Paul wanted to go in to the people, the disciples would not allow him. Then some of the officials of Asia, who were his friends, sent to him pleading that he would not venture into the theatre. Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together. And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander motioned with his hand, and wanted to make his defence to the people. But when they found out that he was a Jew, all with one voice cried out for about two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”

(Acts 19:28-34)

Note the mixture of religion with a large dose of nationalism. This is always a dangerous mix.

As this guild meeting spread throughout the city, “the whole city . . . rushed into the theatre.” This was a massive meeting place that could seat up to 25,000 people. As they gathered there, they seized two of Paul’s companions—Gaius and Aristarchus. Perhaps they could not find Paul and so seized his companions. These brothers were clearly being threatened. Gospel preachers throughout history have experienced this. After all, if you can’t defeat the message, then shoot the messenger(s).

When Paul heard about this, his shepherd’s heart was stirred and he “wanted to go in to the people.” I love this guy! What concern, what courage and what confidence in his Lord! Paul never went about looking for a fight, but when he faced one he was willing to face it. But here his fellow disciples would not allow him to do so (see 1 Corinthians 15:32; 2 Corinthians 1:8-11). It may be that at this point Aquila and Priscilla risked their lives for Paul (see Romans 16:3-4).

In addition to believing friends who sought to protect Paul, according to v. 31 there were also “officials of Asia” who held him back because they were his “friends.” This, to me, is one of the most fascinating facets of this story.

The word translated “officials” is the word (as in the ESV) “Asiarchs.” This was an official title, given to those who were loyal officials of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Asiarchs were responsible to ensure that the Roman Emperor was duly honoured. In cities, like Ephesus, where emperor-worship was practised, they were responsible for the proper exercise of this. Think about this: These were pagans, who had an idolatrous view of the emperor, and yet were “friends” of Paul. Let that sink in; let it sink in deeply.

Paul was fearless in his proclamation of the gospel, and when appropriate he was unhesitating in his denunciation of sin, including that of idolatry. He therefore was a threat to emperor-worship. Yet apparently he was winsome in this. No wonder we read in Philippians 1:12-13 of people coming to Christ under Paul’s influence—while he was a prisoner under Rome! Further, in Philippians 4:22, Paul refers to believers in “Caesar’s household.” Doubtless, they had come to Christ through Paul’s winsome witness. Though it is true that we must beware when all men speak well of us (Luke 6:26), we should also beware when no man speaks well of us!

Once again, we see that being bold for the gospel does not mean that we are called to be belligerent. Even when people reject our message we can often enjoy a relationship with them. And this is important because it keeps the door open for future evangelistic opportunity.

I wonder how many unbelievers I have sought to win to Christ would count me as their friend. That is a probing question—for all of us.

Like most riots, this one was marked by chaos and irrationality. After a while people were joining with no idea why they were doing so. Thus it was marked by confusion (vv. 29, 32). The idea pictured in this word is of people being “poured together,” in the sense of being stirred up.

It would seem at this point that the unbelieving Jewish element got caught up in it and so they tried to put a spokesman before the mob. Perhaps they wanted to make it clear that though they were also against idolatry7 but were not to be confused with these Christians. As Robertson comments, “Paul had cut the nerve of their business. There had long been a Jewish colony in Ephesus, but their protest against idolatry was nothing compared with Paul’s preaching.”8

Their appointed spokesman, Alexander, could not get a word out. Rather, the frenzy continued—now with a two hour chant by the mob: “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” This must have been disconcerting at the least and frightening at worst. I have been in India during Diwali, and I can well imagine what this scene must have looked like.

Clearly, the gospel that was threatening their worldview and therefore their lifestyle was now itself under threat by the mob. That is, those who proclaimed the gospel were now under threat. This should not surprise us.

In my brief lifetime I have seen an increasing cultural onslaught against the gospel. Christianity, Christians and churches are increasingly hearing the shouts of an idolatrous society proclaiming with a mindless and therefore irrational, “Great is the sexual freedom of South Africa”; “Great is the atheism of Europe and America”; “Great is homosexual marriage”; “Great is sport on the Lord’s Day”; “Great is money and things”; etc. Clearly these are shouts of threat against the gospel and against those who follow the Way prescribed by the gospel. But we must never forget that this gospel is still true, that it still changes lives and that it will still accomplish God’s purposes.

If we are not careful we will respond to such shouts with a temptation to shout even louder. We are not called to do so. Rather, we are called to proclaim, to herald more clearly and more intentionally. He who sits in the heavens scorns the followers of the dianas in our world and His enemies will be made His footstool. As Haenchen puts it, “In the final analysis the only thing heathenism can do against Paul is to shout itself hoarse.”9 And when it does, let us be ready to speak.

Once again, let us pause to make a few pertinent observations.

First, the tone with which we proclaim must be consistent with the truth that we proclaim. Be a herald, not a hater; a speaker, not a shouter.

Second, though our worldview contradicts that of the surrounding culture, we need to realise that, ultimately, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). The people to whom we witness are not our real enemies. And this goes for disagreements among believers as well!

Third, note again that unbelief is irrational; be prepared for it!

The Gospel Triumphs

“All’s well that ends well,” as the saying goes. And apparently things ended pretty well here. In fact, it appears that Paul was able to hang around a little longer after things quieted down.

And when the city clerk had quieted the crowd, he said: “Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple guardian of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Zeus? Therefore, since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rashly. For you have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of your goddess. Therefore, if Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a case against anyone, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly. For we are in danger of being called in question for today’s uproar, there being no reason which we may give to account for this disorderly gathering.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.

(Acts 19:35-41)

What I find interesting in this passage is that the riot came to an end without Paul’s direct involvement. The Lord once again used a Roman official to protect His people. Verse 35 tells us that “the city clerk” quieted the crowd and then spoke some diplomatic sense into the situation.

This title refers to what we might call the mayor, a position overseen by Rome. “As the most important native official of the city, he was held responsible for disturbances within it. He argued with the crowd that a riot would hardly enhance the prestige of the city in the eyes of Rome.”10 This ruler brought a voice of reason to the situation. The crowd listened and dispersed.

This official argued that actually their tumultuous behaviour was wrongheaded, for since Ephesus was the home of such an esteemed goddess no one would seriously dispute either her reality or the greatness of her abode in Ephesus. This was a subtle hint that their economy would not suffer as they had feared.

Further, he indicated that it was a well-attested fact that the image of Artemis fell from Zeus (Jupiter). Since this could not be disputed(!) they should stop making sp much ado about nothing. The implication is that the tourists would continue to come and the money would still flow into the coffers of the idol-making silversmiths.

But to his credit, he also defended Paul and his companions (Aristarchus and Gaius) from the charges of sacrilege and blasphemy. “These men . . . had so conducted themselves that no charge could be placed against them in act or word. . . . Paul had used tact in Ephesus as in Athens in avoiding illegalities.”11 He therefore cautioned them that if they had any legitimate grievance against them, they should make it known in a court of law (such a court was held three days a month in Ephesus). Otherwise, they should drop the matter and get back to work, lest they bring down the wrath of Rome for their disorderly conduct.

His speech was sufficiently persuasive and the riot came to an end.

Once more, a few observations are in order.

First, it cannot be overemphasised that Paul’s behaviour as a bold proclaimer of the gospel was not disrespectful towards the false religion to which these lost pagans were devoted. The mayor himself acknowledged that. We must be winsome if we will win some.

Second, we need to realise that the kingdom of which we are part and to which we are devoted stands in stark contrast to the kingdom of darkness. Without apology, we desire to plunder that kingdom through the gospel that its citizens might be translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13). Nevertheless, we can do so without unnecessary angst. Expect conflict indeed, but often we can win the respect of those even while not winning their souls—at least not initially!

Third, and related to the above, the gospel is a threat to the domain of darkness, and hence it is a threat to many governments. We do desire to see changes in the secular governments of the world. Nevertheless, such change is the by-product of the gospel. We dare not create unnecessary obstacles and unnecessary conflicts by a wrong emphasis. “Luke’s purpose in recounting this incident was clearly apologetic or political. He wanted to show that Rome had no case against Christianity in general or Paul in particular.”1[. Stott, The Message of Acts, 311.]

Finally, God is sovereign over each and every government. Let us faithfully proclaim the gospel and pray for gospel impact in those with whom we bureaucratically have to do. We might be pleasantly and providentially surprised by what the Lord does. You see, we have biblical promises that assure that the gospel will triumph. Though such triumph may look different than we might envision, nevertheless the gospel is a very real threat,  for it will triumph!

As MacArthur says, “The Ephesian believers weathered the storm of persecution unleashed by Demetrius’s speech and the resulting riot. Indeed, the church at Ephesus would play a prominent role in church history for several centuries. So again in Acts, God cause the wrath of men to praise Him (Ps. 76:10).”12

May God grant to us the grace to continue to proclaim the gospel in a world that does not want to hear, knowing that God has His people who one day will hear.

In a winsome kind of way, may we be a threat to the way things are knowing that one day things will be as they should be.

Show 12 footnotes

  1. Luke’s medical training adds an interesting element to his record of the miracles seen in Acts.
  2. Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 316.
  3. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 308.
  4. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 152.
  5. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 321.
  6. John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 186.
  7. Everyone, by the way, already knew this but apparently they had no cultural impact with their worldview.
  8. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:324.
  9. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:502.
  10. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:504.
  11. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:332.
  12. MacArthur, Acts, 190.