Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
A Passage in God's Providence
This morning, as we open to a passage in Scripture that describes a riot in Ephesus, I can imagine many of us might have been thinking of some recent events that have occurred in our nation. It always amazes me to see how God orchestrates these things. When we walk through a book together, every week, passage by passage and verse by verse, God seems to find the right passage for the right occasion. When I was preaching through Mark in Arizona, when you called me to be your new pastor, it “just so happened” that the last passage I preached to the folks in Arizona from that Mark series involved Jesus beginning to say his farewells. It was a passage that, as I was studying it, naturally came to realize the passage itself was “about finding comfort, strength, and hope when it’s time to say good-bye.” I couldn’t believe that God had just given me that passage to preach on, for my last sermon to our church family in Arizona.
This morning, we're coming off the heels of a historic week when thousands celebrated—while many other thousands rioted—at the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade. I usually don’t make a bee-line to politics in a sermon, but it’s hard not to, this week. Our churches have been praying for this moment for decades, and God has extended his merciful hand to answer our prayers with the affirmative.
Yet, it’s not as though the decision brought simple peace and tranquility to our land. The hostilities are strong, and many are fuming with rage, and others have taken to riots throughout our American cities. We can expect it, given how far our nation has drifted from God.
Then, here we are this morning with our Bibles—and, it just so happens that the next passage in Acts leads us to consider the raging and rioting impulses of godless societies (and how fruitless their rage is before God). This is the sort of passage that might call Psalm 2 to mind—
Ps 2:1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
Ps 2:4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
We know what God thinks of all the raging and rioting. He looks at it and laughs—not because it’s comical or amusing, necessarily. He laughs because it’s empty. It’s a fruitless endeavor to riot against God’s truth and goodness. It’s pitiful. It’s the two year old who tells his dad, “I’ll tell you!”, and proceeds to swing his fists with furrowed eyebrows.
When God strikes a society with an unexpected crack of his truth and righteousness, it’s always going to invoke such a response—unless God mercifully works revival and repentance alongside moments like this supreme court decision. We should pray it would be so. Just as Ninevah repented when Jonah delivered an unexpected crack of God’s truth and impending wrath, we’d do well to keep praying for repentance in our own nation.
Revolutionaries and Reformers: We Must Keep Working
Yet, of course, we must press on with more than prayer alone. We must keep serving our king with all, just as I pray we have been for the last 50 years. Godless societies have their tactics, their methods for reaching the masses with their ideologies. We as Christians have ours: prayers, Lord's Day worship, faithful service and witness to our neighbors.
You can read one example of the world’s methods in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, for example. It’s a book that Obama and Clinton both are quite fond of, along with its power tactics. You might say it’s a book that inspires revolution rather than reformation. While full of clever insights, Alinsky ultimately seeks to grab power through any means possible. His thirteen rules for radicals are ruthless—and, they form a method for cultural revolution that won’t hesitate exploit mob rule and the vulnerable populations if it means winning the battle. Yet again, as we know—Alinsky didn’t invent the wheel, here. The nations do rage. They will rage. Alinsky, it might seem, simply found a better way to do it.
It’s often said that Christians don’t seek revolution, but reformation. The difference is that reformation seeks change through submitting to truth, rather than trying to create our own truth or dismantle truth and peace. As Christians, we submit to God’s truth in everything we do and say—and, we can’t break his truth in pursuit of his truth. We can’t take shortcuts if we want peace and joy and prosperity. God says there’s one way for salvation and joy and peace—and it’s offered through one person, Jesus Christ. God says there the only hope is found in Jesus Christ, and in receiving him through faith. This is the heart of Christian reformation and ministry.
Here at Covenant, we stand in a long line of reformers—men and women who have submitted their lives to Jesus Christ and trusted that his ways are far superior to their own ways. It’s a hard, long battle—but, it promises secure hope and salvation for eternity. It promises that the results are not only left up to God, but also secured by God already at the cross. The alternative, as we’ll see in our passage, is the way of the world. Empty riot and rage against the living and true God.
A Random Detail, for our Amusement?
Take a moment to think about our passage, this morning. In some ways, it’s a bit odd. When we read through
Acts, intriguing stories like this usually accompany a reference to conversions and the church’s growth. We might hear, “so the churches were strengthened… and they increased in numbers daily” (16:5). Or, we might hear “and after she was baptized, and her household as well…” (16:15). At some point in any given story, I’ve always been able to point out obvious fruit of Paul’s ministry—new salvations and growth within the church.
Yet this passage is a bit different in that respect, isn’t it? From what we read, you essentially have a story about a riot in Ephesus, sandwiched on both sides by two descriptions of Paul’s travel itineraries. There’s no reference to new conversions, here. The riot came, it dissolved, and that’s the end of the story. In fact, you see Paul make an attempt to go into the riot (probably to preach the gospel to them), but he was stopped by his companions in verses 30–31.
So, what’s the whole point of this story? Is it just for our amusement? If you like ancient maps and geography, the travel itineraries might be intriguing to you. Or, if you like exciting news of riots—this riot in Ephesus might be interesting. What’s the point in all this? I’ll only give you a hint at this point, just to connect what we’ve been talking about to this passage. There’s a striking contrast in this passage between reformation and revolution—between faithfully trusting God’s ways and hastily tearing down God’s ways. Ironically, both end up glorifying God. Yet as we might expect, faithfully trusting God’s ways reaps a far greater fruit.
So, let’s dig in to see what reformation (i.e., what faithfully trusting God’s ways) looks like first. Then, we’ll consider man’s rage and revolution.
Paul's Patient, Obedient, Fruitful Ministry
Where do we see Paul patiently trusting in Jesus, like a good reformer, in this passage? Look again at the beginning of our passage with me, in verse 21—
Now after these events, Paul resolved in his spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “after I have been there, I must also see Rome.” And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.
Then, were told “about that time there arose” the uproar—the riot, after which Paul quickly says his farewell and departs for Macedonia. So, Paul is at the end of his stay in Ephesus, and it would seem he knows it. We’ll consider the impact his stay in Ephesus had for Christ’s kingdom in a moment—but, these opening two verses open up a whole discussion for us concerning the greater perspective of ministry Paul was concerned with while he was at Ephesus.
Paul was an amazing apostle. He himself said “I worked harder than any of [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that was in me” (Colossians 4:13). He worked hard—and with his hard work, he had a God-given vision. I am reminded of the prophets of old who had no ability to keep God’s word or direction contained. Jeremiah testified in Jeremiah 20:9, “If I say ‘I will not mention [God] or speak any more in his name’, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot”. That’s what it’s like when God’s grace fills his prophet—or his apostle—with his mission and his words. God had given Paul a mighty mission, an outstanding burden. It really was a grace.
Paul's Resolve: An Intriguing Itinerary
In verse 21, Paul “resolved in his spirit” to take the journey proposed in our passage. Truth be told (if you’re wondering), he did take that journey. But it’s a strange journey. From Ephesus (modern day Turkey), he says “I must pass through Macedonia and Achaia (modern day Greece) and go to Jerusalem”. So, his destination is Jerusalem, and his route is through Macedonia and Achaia (i.e., Greece). Why? If you know your geography, that’d be like saying “From Amsterdam, I’m going to take a boat across Lake Ontario to Toronto in order to get to New York City”. It’s a round-about itinerary. He has to have a reason in mind.
His reason was nothing other than to build up the church, and serve the church faithfully as Christ would have him. There’s a lot of “reading between the lines” in these two verses (verses 21–22), but Paul’s letters help us understand what’s happening.
During Paul’s time in Ephesus, he was not only burdened with preaching the gospel to the lost people of Ephesus and (the area then known as) Asia. He was burdened with cares of the whole church—especially, the churches in Jerusalem and Corinth. To see how Paul sought the work of patient, global reformation, let’s take a quick moment to see how Jerusalem and Ephesus burdened Paul during his time in Ephesus.
Paul’s Burden for Jerusalem
On one hand, during his stay at Ephesus, Paul was receiving reports that the Christians in Jerusalem were having a rough time. As the organized Jews in Jerusalem became more firm in their opposition toward Christianity, Christians fell into economic ruin. Essentially, to become a Christian meant you’d be disowned by your family, and you’d lose your membership in the synagogue.
We often talk about how much tax collectors were hated by Jews. They too lost their membership in the synagogue, and they likely were disowned by their families. However, tax collectors did it to gain profit—they’d make a fortune by taxing the Jews for the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire essentially set it up like a commission system—the more taxes you get, the more income you get. So, it was competitive taxation, with huge incentives to betray your Jewish kin.
Christians were hated like that—except, they didn’t make money. They were left with nothing but each other, the church, and their eternal riches stored up in heaven. Earlier in Acts, when the church in Jerusalem still had some economic stability shortly after Pentecost, this wasn’t a problem. The Christians were selling all their goods so that nobody had a need. There was a thriving diaconal ministry of mercy to the poor. Fast forward thirty years to Paul’s time in Ephesus, it was totally different discussion.
Paul was burdened by this—as he should have been. So, he “resolved in his spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem”. His passing through Macedonia and Achaia were support-raising trips, to collect money for the church in Jerusalem. That’s why verse 22 says that he sent two of his helpers (Timothy and Erastus) to Macedonia ahead of him. They probably were sent to begin motivating the churches to give, so that the offerings were all prepared when he himself would arrive.
This was a big burden on Paul. We see Paul mention this collection to help the saints in Jerusalem in several of his letters—1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and even Romans. In First and Second Corinthians, Paul calls the Corinthians to prepare their offering for the saints in Jerusalem. But, in Romans, he gives both a theological reason for this collection as well as a profound statement of his commitment to this collection. This is all in Romans chapter 15, starting in verse 22. He says, “this is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you [i.,e to Rome]…” (jump to verse 25) “…at present, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints”.
Paul is writing in Corinth, here, as he was picking up the Corinthian collection en route to Jerusalem. Paul is saying “I’d come to Rome to see you now, but I have to bring this help to Jerusalem first!”. It’s odd—don’t you think Paul could just send someone else to deliver this money? If you keep reading, you’ll see Paul’s theological motivation in all this. He says in verse 26, “For Macedonia and Achaia”—just as our passage in Acts describes—“have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought to also be of service to them in material blessings”.
Here, we see Paul’s love and loyalty to his Jewish kinsmen. They were the nation that God used to bring the Messiah. “They are Israelites”, Paul says in Romans 9:4, “and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises”. All the promises of God—his salvation, his fellowship, his peace, his victory over sin and the devil—were their promises which God brought to the world through them! Yet, as they rejected the promised Christ, God deferred the promises and grafted in the gentiles, that they might enjoy Israel’s inheritance forever. So, Paul says these gentile churches should feel a certain responsibility to the Jerusalem church, even through financial provision.
I’m not saying we need to be giving a portion of our weekly tithes to the nation of Israel. That’s not even what Paul was doing. Paul was helping the desperately poor and marginalized church in Jerusalem—the very Jewish believers that remained in Jerusalem to preach the gospel to a very hardened and stubborn Jewish nation. Paul, himself a Jew, was committed to seeing the Jewish church flourish, and the Jewish nation converted through their witness. He was willing to die for this. That passage in Romans concludes with these words—pray “that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea…” (Romans 15:31). That not only tell you how hard it was to be a Christian in Jerusalem at this point; it also tells you that Paul was radically committed to this collection for his Jewish kinsmen. All of this, while fulfilling his duties as the apostle to the gentiles—and, with his eyes on Rome and Spain. Paul was doing the long, patient, obedient work of reformation here, folks. This is not the short-sighted shout of a revolutionary.
Paul’s Burden for Corinth
So, Paul resolved to go through Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem, to help the church there. However, Paul had more in mind for his travels through Macedonia and Achaia, than to simply collect their money. He wanted to strengthen these churches—but especially the church in Achaia. “Achaia”, if you haven’t caught on, is also known as “Greece” (chapter 20 verses 2 and 3 of our passage), which for Paul’s purposes, is also the home of “Corinth”. When you see Paul reference his travels and his time in Achaia, you can just read that as a reference to Corinth. We see that Paul spends three months in Greece—or Corinth—after encouraging the churches in Macedonia.
Paul had a vested interest in Corinth. I mentioned last week that other than Ephesus, where he spent 3 years, Corinth was the longest time he spent in any city during his travels. He spent 18 months, there, building a church up from raw paganism. The Corinthian church was, in modern terms, the church comprised of ex- drug addicts and ex- convicts. You see hints of that in First Corinthians, especially. They had all kinds of problems with sin and sexuality, with division and factionalism within the church. Yet because of their faith Jesus—who washes our sins away with his blood, and clothes us with his pure righteousness, Paul calls them “saints”. He says “such [sinners] were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Paul never gave up on them.
Here’s the history between Paul and Corinth. After planting the church in his first missionary journey, Paul begins to hear word about their struggles during his three years in Ephesus. So, Paul writes a letter to them, which we don’t have. Paul alludes to that first letter throughout First Corinthians. After that first letter, Paul receives more reports—and even a letter—from the Corinthians. They’re still struggling (mind you, this is while Paul was preaching Jesus to all of Asia from Ephesus). They’re all confused about marriage, and divorce, and participating in pagan religions, and what worship should look like, and “what’s the resurrection going to be like?”.
You’d think Paul might have had a brain aneurism with all this, as he’s trying to commit his work and attention on his mission in Ephesus!
So, Paul then writes another letter—the letter we call First Corinthians—in order to respond to all this. Then, at some point, Paul must have heard more reports that the Corinthians were still struggling. So, he puts a parenthesis to his time in Ephesus in order to personally visit Corinth for a brief time, and then to return to his work in Ephesus. There’s a few references to this visit in Second Corinthians.
Now, it’s at this point that Paul eventually leaves Ephesus, sending his companion Titus to Corinth with another letterthat’s particularly painful. He sharply calls them to repent.
Now, if you send someone a letter like that to a church or a person you love—what might consume your mind at that point? You’ll be wondering how they received it! So, when Paul needed to make his fund-raising circuit for the Jerusalem church through Macedonia, he essentially makes a bee-line to find Titus. To Paul’s great relief and joy, Titus reports that the Corinthian church finally repented. That’s the occasion for what we call 2 Corinthians, which Paul sent back to Corinth through Titus—a letter rich with encouragement and joy.
Phew. What a journey—and, forgive me for taking us away from our passage for so long. As I said, verses 2 and 22 compel us to read between the lines as we compare Acts with Paul’s letters.
But again—all this as Paul was ministering in Ephesus, spreading the gospel throughout all of Asia from the hall of Tyrannus. Paul was a burdened, busy man with a huge vision for Christ’s kingdom. The fruit God worked through him, ladies and gentlemen, was of infinite value. Churches are being built, churches are being encouraged and given physical relief, churches are helping one another, churches are repenting, churches are wrestling with theological discussions that bear weight on how we might honor and glorify God. That’s Christ’s kingdom, folks. That’s what Christ works into his kingdom, through his humble servants. “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me”, Paul acknowledges. Paul humbled himself under Christ’s vision, Christ’s mission, Christ’s grace and strength. It’s the work of godly reformation—and as we’ll soon see, it’s the hopeful and bright backdrop against the world’s godless revolution and rage.
Yet, it’s important to notice that effective ministry that transforms the world isn’t just seeking and saving the lost. It means tending to real pastoral problems, as churches and Christian’s struggle. It means seeing to it that Christians who are sucking on milk graduate to meat and potatoes—and that through all of it (as Paul’s Corinthian letters make plain), we keep the gospel of Jesus central to our repentance, Christian growth and maturity, Christian fellowship.
Now, that’s how Christians seek to change the world. That’s the work of obedient, Christian reformation we’re after. It did have an effect, you know. The riot at Ephesus didn’t get stirred up for nothing. Let’s look at that story, and see what comes out of it.
The Empty Riot and Religion of Man
Let’s begin reading at verse 23—
23 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen.
Notice the repetition of “no little”, there. In other words—everything that is about to happen, happens on the big scale. It’s a big disturbance brought about by a guy who runs a big idolatry business. He makes silver shrines of Artemis.
If you know your seven wonders of the ancient world, you’ll know that the Ephesian temple of Artemis was one of them. It was massive. It was beautiful. It was a money-trap, a tourist attraction, and a religion. Here, in our story, we learn that the faithful ministry of Paul which we just learned about became so noticeable that people stopped buying their idols because Jesus is better. The hall of Tyrannus, when Paul was preaching, was far more glorious than the great temple of Artemis. The word of Jesus is a powerful wonder, folks.
These [i.e., his craftsmen] he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth."
He’s brutally honest, there, isn’t he? It’s an easy target, though. If you want to get people stirred up, tell them their job and income and freedom is on the line. Then, verse 26—
"And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods."
So, Demetrius sees what we were already told in verse 19:10, that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord”. Yet here, Demetrius even says that Paul “persuaded and turned away a great many people”. He persuaded them that manmade gods are not gods—and that Jesus alone can save.
So, this Demetrius has money concerns, and more specifically, he has a concern about Paul’s greater effectiveness at turning people away from his business. Only after these concerns does he add on his concern for the great (and vulnerable) Artemis herself
"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 may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
You almost have to feel sorry for her, the way that’s worded. She has a guild of idol-makers at her service, and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world ascribed to her name. Yet, one preacher of Jesus comes in, and can make her to be “counted as nothing”, that she’d be “deposed from her magnificence”. What a shame.
It’s a shame to all who trust in her—or to all who trust in empty gods like her. Your life is only as secure as the platform you build it upon. You could literally build your business and dreams and hopes upon one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and you’ll still be lacking. You’ll still be vulnerable.
We’ve recently seen politicians’ platforms and careers have their foundation stripped from under them. Some of the interviews of the radical pro-choice advocates were painful to watch, as though their lifetime of work and pride had just been stripped from their souls. When you’re at a loss like that—you can crumble to despair and ruin. You can sit senseless and numb. Or, you can do what many others choose to do. You raise your voice in the hopes that your god will hear you, and change the situation. Maybe the government will hear you. Maybe the populace will hear you. Whatever the case—raging and yelling in the spirit of a riot and a revolution is symptomatic of misplaced hopes and values.
That, of course, brings us to verse 28—
When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.
Jump down to verse 32—
32 Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.
Sound familiar? There’s nothing new under the sun, folks. The riot turned into a big event for opportunists. “Some cried out one thing, some another”. Just like today, I imagine people had all sorts of reasons to be really upset. When the riot gathers, we’re not sure if it’s racism or if it’s sexism that’s the problem. Is it the Jew or the Christian? Neither one helps the Ephesian cause of Artemis. All we know is that our gods have failed us, and we demand they hear us. Verse 33—
Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. 34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
This is the classic “I won’t let you speak” tactic. He wanted to make a defense—to engage in thoughtful discourse with them, but they decided to chant their rhetoric at them for two hours. If your hopes and gods—your deepest comforts—are challenged, just declare them enough times until they’re true. That’s the spirit of man’s rage and riot.
It’s dangerous, you know. Perhaps you’ve been in sin, and you try to cover up the Lord’s Spirit of conviction by repeating the same phrase that you know isn’t true. “I’m not guilty, I did no wrong”. If you repeat that enough—two days instead of two hours, for example—you’ll destroy your conscience. You’ll quench the spirit. You can literally make your brain to believe a false narrative. It’s not how we deal with guilt. Jesus died on the cross to make confession and repentance possible. You need not keep your self-preservation instincts in God’s presence. Confess quickly, repent boldly, and receive Christ eagerly, and reap any temporary consequences of your sin with humility. That’s how we deal with sin as Christians.
Now, this leads us to how this mob quickly dissipated into nothing. The town clerk was one person appointed by Rome in order to keep the peace in Ephesus. Rome was vigilant about keeping peace—it didn’t tolerate uprisings well. So, the town clerk quieted the crowd and gave a speech. He first appealed to the apparent absurdity of Demetrius’s argument. Verse 35—
"Who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky?"
A wonder of the ancient world isn’t going to die that fast. The clerk was essentially saying, “stop over-reacting!”. We are oddly protective of our gods—our comforts—aren’t we? Then, the next argument is actually an argument in Paul’s favor. Verse 37—
For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess.
Here, we see an insight into Paul’s ministry again. He wasn’t rash. He didn’t needlessly blaspheme Artemis, and lose his ability to preach at Ephesus. We are to be wise as serpents, and as innocent as doves. It’s the work of a faithful reformer, if you will.
Now, in the rest of the clerk’s speech, he basically tells the mob that if they have any justifiable legal charges to bring against the Christians, do so lawfully in the Roman court of law. Then, he dismissed them.
It’s really shocking, this whole thing. They cried out “great is Artemis” for two hours, thinking their whole occult and livelihood was unjustly robbed. Then, this one man stands up and states back to them what they had just been saying. “Yes, Artemis is great, and everyone knows it—why are you over-reacting?”—to which, the crowd basically says “good point”. Putting your hope in false gods like this is terribly unstable. It makes you insane. It’s like walking on a bridge made of glass—I’m not sure you’ve seen images of that sort of thing. You’re hundreds of feet up in the air, and you look down see-through glass is all that’s holding you up. With every step, you say “I hope it’s still there”—but, you’re really not sure. You need someone to remind you.
In the gospel, God himself testifies to us in our hearts that Jesus is a firm foundation. God himself reassures us—and, he does work fuller and greater assurance in us over a lifetime. With that assurance—unshakable peace and joy. Through all Paul’s trials that we learned about today, Paul said “I have learned the secret to contentment”. Jesus had shown himself faithful time and time again, that he can be trusted. That his kingdom will prevail. All other ground is sinking sand.
So, we’ve seen the bright ministry of Paul and his fruitful work set against the backdrop of the Ephesian riot. Paul’s ministry produced a sizable impact throughout Rome—and, it grew a rock-solid church from Jerusalem, to Ephesus, to Corinth, to Rome. It was a slow, patient, obedient ministry that bore the sort of fruit that shook fear into a wonder of the ancient world. Set that against the backdrop of the frivolous, empty riot and rage of man, and find encouragement in the goodness and surety of our Savior, Jesus Christ.