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The Spreading Flame - Series 6: Episode 1

Strong opposition at Ephesus

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 19:21-41

Demetrius, a silversmith, organised a demonstration against the new faith that was taking away his livelihood and turning people away from following the cult of Artemis. The city clerk calmed the crowd in the amphitheatre indicating the need to use the law courts and the danger of rioting in the Roman empire.

Demetrius, a silversmith, organised a demonstration against the new faith that was taking away his livelihood and turning people away from following the cult of Artemis. The city clerk calmed the crowd in the amphitheatre indicating the need to use the law courts and the danger of rioting in the Roman empire.


Welcome to Series 6, the final series in our journey through the book of Acts. It is also the longest series because there is a lot of travelling, a lot of speeches, and a lot of events to take place in this particular series.

Background and Introduction

We’re moving from Series 5 which was focused on Paul’s mission into Europe for the first time. This was triggered by the Macedonian vision that Paul had when he was in the city of Troas, and you would have heard about that at the beginning of Series 5. Then he travelled through Macedonia and Greece to various cities, ending up in Corinth and then coming back to Asia Minor and we find him in Ephesus, which is where the story finished in the last episode of Series 5.

Here we are in Series 6 and the Gospel is now going to be going to Rome. Paul’s ultimate destination is to go to the capital city of the Roman Empire and to preach the Gospel in the centre of imperial power. This is both symbolic and practical. Everything from now onwards will be focused on his ultimate goal to get to Rome but there are many places he has to visit first and many things he has to do.

Let’s think about Ephesus and go back to the last episode. Paul had a spectacular two-to-three year period of time spent in Ephesus, where literally thousands of people became believers and many miracles were performed, and churches were planted in the surrounding area. What appears to be a very large church was developing in the city itself. It says in Acts 19:10, to summarise the extent of the impact of chapter 19 concerning Paul’s preaching and teaching:

10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.

Acts 19:10, NIV

In the last episode, we saw that there had been opposition from some Jewish exorcists but this had led to a further revival and more people becoming believers. Paul is still in Ephesus. He is there with his team: he has got Timothy , Priscilla and Aquila and others in his team with him.

Paul’s Goals

We will start this episode with Acts 19: 21 and 22 to remind ourselves of Paul’s goals,

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.

Acts 19: 21-22, NIV

I mentioned this briefly at the end of the last episode, but I want to come back to this strategic plan. Paul is going to stay in Ephesus a bit longer but he has got a plan in mind, and there are three things he wants to achieve in the next part of his work. First of all, he is going to go back to Macedonia and Achaia which basically means the areas of Greece where he has preached the Gospel. He wants to go back to strengthen the young churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth and other churches that have developed out of those. His policy always was to try and get back to the places where he planted churches as soon as he could, to strengthen them, making sure that they are steady and strong, having good foundations and developing maturity. That was his first goal. He is going to go there and he is sending his two associates, Timothy and Erastus, in advance. Paul had flexible teams, and he moved people around from place to place to achieve multiple goals. He has got Priscilla and Aquila staying with him in Ephesus, while he does more work there. But to Timothy and Erastus he said, “Go to Macedonia and Achaia.”

Another reason for going there was to ask those churches for money because he is going to take money from those churches in Greece to Jerusalem and Judea because we know, from other texts in the New Testament, that at this time they were experiencing real economic hardship and financial shortage in Jerusalem and Judea, the mother church and the home territory of the Church. Paul wanted these Gentile churches to contribute financially to help them. We’ll hear more about that in another context. Timothy and Erastus will be helping prepare the way for an offering that he is going to take. This becomes clear in the letters of 1 and 2 Corinthians, where Paul describes this offering in some detail. He is going to strengthen the churches and collect from them some financial resources. Then he is going to go to Jerusalem to take this big collection of money, and from there he wants to travel, ultimately, to his final destination - Rome. There is something very symbolic about this. The Christian faith started on the very edge of the Roman Empire, in one of the most despised provinces in Judea, and in the surrounding areas - Galilee. The Christian faith was insignificant to the Romans, they weren’t interested in Jewish faiths and all the ideas that came from Judaism. They seemed completely foreign to the Romans. Christianity is gradually spreading through the eastern part of the Roman Empire and for Paul, he wanted to get to the emperor himself - his court, the military leaders, the civil service leaders and the business leaders of the whole empire and have an opportunity to witness to them, in some way. It is an incredibly ambitious thing for him to do but that is his long-term goal. So, he sends Timothy and Erastus off to Macedonia to begin this long and complicated journey through Greece and back to Judea and then across to Rome. That is why this series is called ‘The Gospel to Rome’.

Demetrius Causes a Disturbance

Meanwhile, things are not finished in Ephesus by any means. We have another very dramatic and dangerous event that takes place at this time, Acts 19:23 - 27,

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 to 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.”

Acts 19:23-27, NIV

The cult of Artemis, as I mentioned in the last episode at the end of Series 5, was a major feature of the region and of Ephesus itself. Ephesus laid claim to this regional goddess, the goddess of fertility and health, who was called the great mother of that province, known in other ways as Anatolia. This goddess was linked to the Roman goddess Diana and had a vast temple, high up above the city of Ephesus - one of the biggest and grandest temples and buildings in the whole of the ancient world. We know that pilgrims came from all over the area, in their many thousands, to pay tribute and make sacrifices to Artemis. There were also processions through the city going up to the high point, regular religious processions of worshippers bringing devotion to the goddess Artemis. This was an economic opportunity, any religious site is an economic opportunity for those in business, and that is true today all over the world. This was a fantastic business opportunity. The silversmiths, of whom Demetrius was a representative, made silver images of the temple itself, and probably of the goddess Artemis. We’ve discovered through archaeology, examples of the silver representation of the temple which may go back to this period. Demetrius is a trade union representative and he’s gathering the silversmiths and the other people in local businesses who sold these silver products to thousands of visitors. He brought them together with his great concern that trade was declining. People weren’t coming to their shops in the marketplace, they weren’t buying their silver products any more. He had noticed that people were changing their beliefs, people were becoming sceptical about Artemis. It really worried him because the trade was declining and the whole culture of the city was being changed. This is the extent of the power of the Gospel in Ephesus. In a couple of years, Paul had had such a big impact, the people were beginning to doubt the foundational religious idea of the whole city, and the silversmiths were suffering. Demetrius was horrified that Paul was saying that their gods were not really gods at all, they’re just gods made out of human hands - they are just idols. Demetrius was offended and horrified, and he wanted to get all the tradesmen together to make a protest and to slow down Paul’s influence and perhaps get rid of him from the city or perhaps attack the church. We don’t know exactly what he had in mind but at least he wanted to form some kind of a demonstration against Paul. This tells us how influential Paul must have been that Demetrius took such radical action against him. This group of tradesmen were stirred up, they were animated, they were angry, they found a spokesman, they found an opportunity and they created a public demonstration against Paul in the city. Acts 19:28 - 31 gives a dramatic account of how quickly this issue escalated into a major challenge for Paul.

A City in Uproar

28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 Soon the whole city was in uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theatre 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 theatre.

Acts 19:28-31, NIV

The silversmiths and the other related trades people managed to stir up a crowd. If you go to Ephesus today, to the ruins of Ephesus, you’ll see there’s a very large marketplace on the edge of the city where the city meets the port, where goods would come in from the sea. Next to that marketplace is a huge amphitheatre which can seat 25,000 people. It’s still there today, you can visit it. I visited it myself. The amphitheatre was the place of gathering and this is one of the largest amphitheatres in the ancient Roman world with incredible acoustics so that you could hear people on the stage below when you were seated in your stone seating row that went up and up and up to the back of the amphitheatre. You could be right at the top and you could hear beautifully what people said at the bottom. It was a great place to gather people. We have the marketplace and the amphitheatre right next to each other. One imagines that Demetrius and his friends went to the marketplace and started talking to the other traders and the people passing through and said, “We’ve got to do something about Paul. We’ve got to do something about this religious sect which they call the Way.” They gathered a crowd into the amphitheatre, they wanted to have speeches and they wanted to get Paul to come and defend himself and be challenged by this crowd. They seized two of Paul’s companions because they couldn’t find Paul at that particular moment, and took them there. Paul himself, when he found out what was going on, wanted to go and appear but his friends refused to let him appear. There is a tremendously tense situation. This rioting could easily turn to violence at any point. You know in your country and I know in my country that demonstrations can turn to violence in an instant, and once that violence starts, it can get out of hand. A public order incident was going to take place. If Paul had appeared in the amphitheatre, that violence would probably have happened, and his friends wouldn’t let him appear because they thought he wouldn’t come out alive. 25,000 people at the maximum and Paul, 25,000 angry people, it was going to be dangerous. A chaotic scene began to develop in the amphitheatre, confusion reigned. Acts 19:32 - 41,

The City Clerk Takes Control

32 The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people didn’t 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 defence 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’ve 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.’

Acts 19:32-41, NIV

It is interesting to note that a lot of people didn’t really know what was going on. The people who had stirred up trouble were gathering a crowd to put enormous pressure on Paul and his companions and try and force them to leave the city, or kill them, or get them taken into custody. There was confusion because so many people were milling around and it was unclear what was happening. When the Jews pushed one of their representatives forward to explain why the Jews were against Paul, he couldn’t even get the people to listen to him. People kept shouting and chanting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”. The city clerk is the most important official in the city and he is very worried about this situation because it’s an illegal assembly. The city is ultimately controlled by the Roman authorities, and the Romans have a military presence in Ephesus and if this rioting doesn’t stop, the city clerk knows that the Romans will bring the soldiers in to disperse the crowd, to arrest the ringleaders and perhaps initiate violence against the crowd, and then start taking sanctions against the city of Ephesus because the Romans were very careful not to allow these kind of demonstrations to develop because they could turn hostile to the Roman imperial power. So, the city clerk warns his fellow citizens, “The Romans can send in their army if we don’t behave ourselves properly, and if we’ve got a case against these people, we’ve got law courts. Let’s use the law courts.” From his point of view, he didn’t believe that Paul had a case to answer but the law courts were there. Amazingly, he managed to settle the crowd and he could make himself heard because of the acoustics of the amphitheatre. Once people settled down and they heard that the city clerk was there, and they could see him at the bottom, they listened to him. He could tell them his opinion and give them his advice. It all died down and a very dangerous situation for Paul was averted. His life was at risk whilst the rioting was going on.

Our chapter and our episode ends. Very shortly, Paul is going to depart from Ephesus and go on that journey that I told you about at the beginning of the episode, heading to Macedonia in northern Greece, and following a journey through Greece back to Jerusalem and then ultimately on to Rome, his final destination. What happened in Ephesus is amazing. These last two episodes are astonishing. This is one of the most successful missions that Paul ever undertook.


What can we learn? What reflections can we bring to our study of this text? My first one is about spiritual battle. This particular passage illustrates many different dimensions of the spiritual battle that Paul fought. As he advanced the Kingdom and preached the Gospel there was a negative response with spiritual power associated with it. There are five dimensions of it that we can see in the two passages that we’ve studied in the last two episodes.

Number one - resistance came from the Jewish community, a religious, legalistic resistance to the Gospel. This happens in cultures today as the Gospel advances, other religious cultures can be very hostile from a legalistic, religious point of view, saying that religion has to be done in this way with these rules and these regulations. That is what the Jews said very firmly to Paul in verse 9, we see their opposition very strongly. They became obstinate and resisted him. There is a spiritual power behind that legalism that wants to construct a religious system that is not based on simple faith, God’s grace, the power of the Holy Spirit.

The second aspect that we found in the last episode was people operating with occult power, such as the sons of Sceva, who were mentioned in the last episode. Occultism, demonic power, the use of demonic power in witchcraft operates all over the world and will often become clear and visible as a response to a hostile response to the advance of the Gospel.

We see beyond that here a third factor in the spiritual warfare, which is a regional spiritual power, the cult of Artemis. Our world has regional spiritual powers and regional deities that many people will worship in tribes and nations and communities and regions of this world. They carry spiritual power and ultimately they are false gods, such as the cult of the goddess Artemis in Ephesus.

The fourth aspect of this spiritual battle is economic interests that are challenged by Christianity. The silversmiths and Demetrius represent an economic interest that is challenged, and when economic interests are challenged by the advance of the Gospel, there will be conflict.

The fifth aspect of this spiritual battle is popular prejudice. People sometimes react just out of prejudice and emotion when the Gospel comes as a new faith into the community, as this crowd began to do. They didn’t really know what was going on. They just didn’t want anything to change. They didn’t want the worship of Artemis to change. Spiritual battles have many different dimensions and here are five that are illustrated in this particular story.

My second reflection is that this is an illustration of what Paul often calls in his teachings in the Epistles, ‘idolatry’ - the putting of a false god in the place of Jesus Christ. The greatest challenge of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ dethrones anything else that would claim the allegiance and the loyalty of individual people, whether it is a formal religion, an economic interest; witchcraft, or for personal goals for success and independence and power that we follow at all cost. All these things are challenged by the Gospel. Paul calls people to follow Jesus Christ and to give up their idols, just as the Ephesians were called upon to give up their worship of Artemis, their long-standing, regional goddess - a massive battle to overcome idolatry. This sort of battle is being carried out all over the world today. As the Gospel advances, the idolatry in any particular culture will become apparent. But we have to have complete confidence in the Gospel and we have to call people to a total allegiance to Jesus Christ. That is what Paul did. It created conflicts but it also created disciples - people whose lives were fundamentally changed, and there were thousands of them in Ephesus.

We end this episode here and we’ll be following the story as Paul goes back to Macedonia and Greece in our next episode. Hope to see you then.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What are the ‘idols’ in your society?
  • Discipleship
    1. What ‘idols’ have you overcome in your life? Do you still have idols - things or people you love more than God?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What different levels of spiritual battle are found here? Do you see the same types of spiritual battle in your society?
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