A reading, a reflection, and a prayer
Acts 19: 21 – 41
Now after these things had been accomplished, Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, ‘After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.’ So he sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he himself stayed for some time longer in Asia. About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the way. A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, ‘Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 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 will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.’
When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ The city was filled with the confusion; and people[c] rushed together to the theatre, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travelling-companions. Paul wished to go into the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; even some officials of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theatre. Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. Some of the crowd gave instructions to Alexander, whom the Jews had pushed forward. And Alexander motioned for silence and tried to make a defence before the people. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours all of them shouted in unison, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ But when the town clerk had quietened the crowd, he said, ‘Citizens of Ephesus, who is there that does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple-keeper of the great Artemis and of the statue that fell from heaven? Since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. You have brought these men here who are neither temple-robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the artisans with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges there against one another. If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly. For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.’ When he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.
A church leader once said, ‘Wherever St Paul went to preach, there was a riot. Wherever I go, they serve tea.’ There would certainly have been some thirsty people in Ephesus, after two hours of shouting. What got them so worked up?
Ephesus was proud patron of the Greek goddess Artemis. Her temple was massive and magnificent, she shaped much of the city’s culture and calendar, and a steady stream of pilgrims came to spend good money in the town. If you managed to trespass on the territory of Artemis, Ephesus would surely react strongly.
There was a long-standing Greek tradition of democratic assembly. Trade and craft guilds were organised and influential. The open-air theatre had some twenty thousand seats. Behind it all, the Roman Empire ruled – firmly, when necessary.
That was the setting in which Demetrius and his colleagues set off a hefty protest. The success of the gospel was costing them business. The good name of Artemis was at stake. Alarm and confusion followed, and only wise words from the city clerk kept the whole affair off the radar of the colonial power.
We see often in Acts that the good news of Jesus disturbs and unsettles. It challenges values and traditions, and threatens money, position and power. There were indeed riots. Yet only rarely were Christians convicted in court. Despite all the civil disorder, there is not much by way of formal legal action against the Church. The gospel goes forward, and the empire can neither grasp it nor stop it.
So what of our preaching and presence? What is the good news of Jesus doing in our community? Raising up disciples who make a difference? Stirring, disturbing? Tea is good; but people have deeper thirsts too.
Pray for anyone you know whose lifestyle has been seriously challenged by the good news of Jesus?
If we don’t know anyone to whom that applies, maybe we should pray for ourselves, and for the confidence to set a clearer Christian example.