Our reading today consists of the account of a riot in Ephesus that occurred over a disturbance about the statue of Artemis (called “Diana” in the King James – due to the later Latin influence of the name for this goddess). The belief was that this magnificent object had actually fallen from the sky many, many years ago. This was largely accepted as an undeniable fact.
In my early ministry years in a more traditional church, it was the common experience to have an annual “Watch-Night Service” on New Year’s Eve. It could tend to be a rather long evening – meeting from 9:00-Midnight. So I would try to include a variety of items to break up the time. One observance was a yearly tradition that I began of looking back over the past year of church life, and with a David Letterman sort of “top 10 countdown” I would rehearse 10 very humorous events that had happened – the final winner getting the “Buchman Cup.” This was a grotesque trophy that an awards shop friend would put together for me of the most bizarre collections of metal parts from around his business. As two examples of winners: one fellow won it for going to the hospital to visit his wife and newborn, and not realizing he went to the wrong hospital until he got to the information desk. Another guy won for coming into the service late, sitting down next to a woman with long blond hair, putting his arm around her … only to realize after several minutes that his wife of the same general appearance was actually seated three rows closer to the front. He tripped and fell to the floor while trying to quickly correct his error.
To give me a “payback” on this annual treat of mocking everyone else’s misfortunes, one year, after I made my presentation, the fellow with the mistaken wife incident walked to the front and presented me with the pictured trophy. As you all know, my wife is named Diana. And in an effort to be funny one time while preaching the text of today’s reading, I made some wisecrack about how the worship of the goddess Diana had transferred now to Harmony Township (where we lived). Well, Artemis/Diana is a rather … uh … well … uh … seductive goddess associated with fertility and … well … I can’t really say what else. I can’t even put a picture of the goddess here, but if you really want to see it, click HERE (warning … just sayin’). Anyhow, my wisecrack came out all wrong, as it sounded like there were unspeakable things going on at my residence – hence the award.
Ephesus was famous as the location of the shrine of Artemis. People travelled from all over the ancient world to see it. And as with any tourist attraction, there was a thriving trinket business going on nearby. Having recently been in Paris, it is sort of like how one cannot practically get away from the Eiffel Tower without being hounded to buy some miniature trinket of the thing.
Well, the preaching of the gospel by this articulate fellow named Paul had caused such a conversion of people in Ephesus and Asia, that the silversmith business of Artemis objects was much afflicted. This created a stir, which led to a union meeting, which led to a small riot, which became a large riot … to the extent that another of the top 100 most humorous passages of Scripture is included – saying about the noisy mob that “Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”
The city clerk, who recognizes the dim view that the Romans would have of such a mob, steps forward with a voice of reason and quiets the crowd. The interesting point of his series of remarks is to say that Paul and his followers had not maligned the goddess or committed any crimes … so shut up and go home!
It appears clear in this passage that the success of the gospel proclamation was the good news of salvation – the fulfillment of Scripture that God had wrought through the work of Jesus Christ. Certainly the Christians had a negative view of the goddess, idol worship, and the associated immorality, but the focus of their preaching was on the positive message of Jesus Christ and the eternal life to be found in him.
So while there are times where we have to speak the truth about the evils of the culture of our day – and surely they are abundant – it is better for us to remember that the power of the gospel is in the positive message it presents. Perhaps if we focused more on that, Evangelicals would not so much be thought of as a stodgy group of Neanderthals who only know and talk about what they are against.
The Riot in Ephesus – Acts 19:23-41
23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.
32 The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. 34 But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
35 The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? 36 Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. 37 You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38 If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39 If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 40 As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” 41 After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.