Acts 19: 23 – 41 The riot in Ephesus
About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 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. 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. There is danger that not only will our trade lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshipped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.’
When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s travelling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theatre together. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theatre.
The assembly was in confusion: some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 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. But when they realised he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’
The city clerk quietened 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? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 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.’ After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.
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Probably because I’m a writer, I like to read scriptural passages like today’s in the same way I would read a piece of fiction. And in this case, when I reached the end, I would ask, “Why did St Luke choose to include this in his account of the Acts of the Apostles?”
It’s a graphic piece of story-telling. We have conspirators plotting to silence Paul; the exploitation of religion and nationalism to enrage the citizens of Ephesus; a riot (I admire the way Luke puts us in the moment, with his description of the crowd chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” over and over for hours!); and the heroism and diplomacy of the unnamed city clerk. And isn’t that striking? The city clerk faces down a large crowd of enraged and potentially violent people and sends them home – and we don’t even know his name!
Read in this way, this passage is a tribute to civic virtue, Roman-style. There is a system in place and easily available for citizens to get justice; “If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls.” Just as important, there is a civic official whose concept of duty was to deal with the situation and ensure a peaceful resolution at whatever cost to himself.
So why did Luke include the story?
I think it was possibly to illustrate the nature of the threat faced by Paul and his co-workers. They are no longer facing spontaneous anger from individuals or small groups. It’s no longer only the Jews who reject his message. It’s organised opposition by people whose self-interest is threatened by Paul’s preaching of Jesus. They’ve taken care to ensure there is a solid coalition among those whose livelihood may be damaged. They deliberately appeal to the base motivations of nationalism and fanaticism. This is ruthless and dangerous.
In the case of the Ephesians, it was the worship of Artemis in the temple that brought prosperity, and which was undermined by Paul’s teaching. The worship of a false god wasn’t remotely compatible with Christianity. What false gods are there in my life that may compromise my faith in Jesus?
Thank you for Jesus, whose life shows us what it means to love you, and to love each other. Please help me to follow him more obediently.
In Jesus’ name, Amen