It was a Riot, I tell ya! (Acts 19:21-41)

Today’s passage talks about a riot that occurs in Ephesus, which is located today in the country of Turkey. I was in the center of a riot in Turkey one time in my life … really … it’s true! And I narrowly avoided being swept up in another. And I was a part of a secret underground meeting with church leaders from the region where the ruins of Ephesus are today. This may take some explaining.

All three of these events happened in the late 90s when I was on a missions research trip with a group of EFCA pastors and our international missions leader.

The near riot – Our group stumbled upon and was suddenly caught up in a traffic jam in the capital city of Ankara. We found out that we drove up upon an event of tens of thousands of people marching through the streets chanting, “Turkey will not become Iran.”  A prominent national news media figure (with a moderate political perspective) had been murdered by extremists, and this was his funeral procession.

The underground meeting – We were invited to come to a gathering of about 20 Christian leaders in Istanbul, which was a secret meeting in the basement of a business. We were to arrive at a certain time, not coming in any group larger than two people, so as to not draw attention. The topic of the meeting was how the church (local congregations) should respond to the increased hostility of local police groups. That previous Sunday the local authorities in the area of Izmir (near where the ancient city of Ephesus was located) had come into the church meeting to question what was happening, doing so with guns drawn. It was deemed best that we not actually go to the Ephesus ruins at this time and connect with the Christians there.

The riot – In Ankara, our local missionary there from that region was showing us around some historic sites. Nearby was an Islamic holy place – a shrine to a particular man who was venerated for his committed, holy life and many trips to Mecca. People could buy candles or other sorts of trinkets from local vendors, pray at the site (which was like a cave) and leave their objects with hopes of the prayer being honored. One could also buy cloths and trinkets that were said to have been somehow blessed by being in the cave for a time, supposedly thereby transferring blessings to the purchaser (and profits to the salesman). As this was being explained to us by our host, several local men were listening. One of them offered some additional comments, holding up a bandaged arm that he said was being healed because of his prayers. Another local man heard this and disagreed vehemently with certain points of the first fellow. Before long, others joined the increasingly heated discussion. As we slithered away through the rapidly going crowd, people were running into the center of the fray, yelling and fighting. The police were descending upon the scene as we escaped the crowded plaza. The whole episode was not unlike our passage today where a riot ensued, with the additional comment that most folks did not even know what the riot was about!

Acts 19:21 – After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.” 22 He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer.

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.

What is it about the gospel message that creates such a stir, then or now? It is radical truth that changes everything. The gospel is an offence that upsets the natural ebb and flow of life in the natural world. It takes the emphasis away from material things and calls upon the natural self-centeredness of man to willingly yield to the true authority of God and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. And far from creating a new sort of bondage, this frees people to live truly independent lives of worldly systems by being dependent rather upon the truth of Scripture and a right relationship with God. Those who most benefit from the control systems of the natural order will be those most vehement in rejecting this message.

An interesting development from all of this is that the attention drawn to the gospel by loud opposition sheds a light upon God’s people. As Christians respond well to this with clarity about the gospel message, demonstrating and bearing witness to the truth through committed, godly lives, it is attractive to many who observe. Thus the church may at some times and in some places be purified and ultimately grow through the opposition that seems to merely be negative oppression.

How many of us may in our lives and in our country face such events is a question I often ponder, especially when looking at the news and observing the evolution of culture over decades now of life. May it be that we are willing in such an hour to not be ashamed of the gospel and to live openly for Christ.

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