At this point in the story, the Church is really starting to take root. Miraculous things keep happening through the power of the Spirit, people’s lives are changed, and the good news of Jesus is spreading like wildfire.
Everyone was in awe of what God was doing. Especially in the city of Ephesus.
Some crazy stuff is going on there. People are being healed by handkerchiefs that had touched Paul, and there’s an incident where some non-Christians try to cast out a demon using the name of Jesus, and the demon possessed man beats them all up.
Word of all this gets around. And people in Ephesus realize “we’d better take this spiritual stuff seriously.”
Take a look with me at Acts 19:17.
The story of what happened spread quickly all through Ephesus, to Jews and Greeks alike. A solemn fear descended on the city, and the name of the Lord Jesus was greatly honored. Many who became believers confessed their sinful practices. A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire. The value of the books was several million dollars. So the message about the Lord spread widely and had a powerful effect.
So, people in Ephesus are filled with “fear” at what’s going on. Now, as I said in the very first week of this series, this word fear, phobos in Greek, it does mean fear, as in terror. But it also means awe and wonder.
I think both are true in this case. Some people are astonished and others are a little bit scared!
The language in verse 19 implies that some of these sorcerers had already become believers in Jesus but were still doing a bit of sorcery on the side.
This was the moment when they realized, “I need to take this seriously. I can’t serve the dark powers of this world and follow Christ.”
And so there’s this huge bonfire. It says the incantation books they burned were worth several million dollars. That’s in today’s money.
It literally says “50 thousand silver coins.” Each of those coins was payment for one day’s labor. Which means it would require 137 years worth of work to cover the cost of these books.
You can imagine this spectacle had an impact in Ephesus. Followers of Jesus were changing the spiritual dynamics of the city.
Which is a big deal, because Ephesus was very spiritual. It’s no wonder there’s some friction.
RIOT IN EPHESUS
Let’s read what happens next.
About that time, serious trouble developed in Ephesus concerning the Way. It began with Demetrius, a silversmith who had a large business manufacturing silver shrines of the Greek goddess Artemis. He kept many craftsmen busy. He called them together, along with others employed in similar trades, and addressed them as follows:
“Gentlemen, you know that our wealth comes from this business. But as you have seen and heard, this man Paul has persuaded many people that handmade gods aren’t really gods at all. And he’s done this not only here in Ephesus but throughout the entire province! Of course, I’m not just talking about the loss of public respect for our business. I’m also concerned that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will lose its influence and that Artemis—this magnificent goddess worshiped throughout the province of Asia and all around the world—will be robbed of her great prestige!”
At this their anger boiled, and they began shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was filled with confusion. Everyone rushed to the amphitheater, dragging along Gaius and Aristarchus, who were Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia. Paul wanted to go in, too, but the believers wouldn’t let him. Some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, also sent a message to him, begging him not to risk his life by entering the amphitheater.
Inside, the people were all shouting, some one thing and some another. Everything was in confusion. In fact, most of them didn’t even know why they were there. The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander forward and told him to explain the situation. He motioned for silence and tried to speak. But when the crowd realized he was a Jew, they started shouting again and kept it up for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
I won’t read the whole story, but after a lot more confusion and shouting the city’s mayor (town clerk) comes out and convinces the crowd to disperse.
And they ultimately do, but this riot shook the Church in Ephesus. There was genuine risk that people could have been murdered. If Paul had gone into the crowd, he might have died right then and there. This was a terrifying moment.
In fact, later in chapter 20, when Paul is making his way back to Jerusalem, he intentionally sidesteps Ephesus. He avoids the city. This could be why.
Ok, let’s talk a bit about why this riot happened. It’s important for us to understand the dynamics at play here.
Luke wants us to see this because there’s a pattern in Acts, especially in the missionary journeys of Paul, in which the gospel is preached, lives are changed, the good news of Jesus takes root in a city, but then the world starts pushing back.
Imprisonment, unrest, even violence… The riot in Ephesus is just one example.
Let’s talk about why it happened. Because the same dynamics are at play today.
Ephesus was an influential city on the west coast of modern day Turkey. And it was home to the temple of Artemis [image: Temple] - one of the great wonders of the ancient world. It was four times the size of the Parthenon.
The whole city was built around the worship of Artemis.
On top of that, Ephesus was a hub for all kinds of dark and powerful magic arts. Like all those former sorcerers burning incantation books.
As Paul would later say in his letter to the Ephesians, there were dark powers at work in Ephesus. And Christians were threatening their control.
We are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.
Now, when Paul talks about these rulers and authorities, he is talking about demons and the Evil One, and he’s talking about the “little g” gods like Artemis that people worshipped in his day.
But he’s also talking about the more fundamental powers which lay behind the idea of these gods. Powers like greed and lust and pride and violence and even death itself.
These powers - they rule over humanity. They make demands of us, and we keep giving them power.
But Paul’s message was clear - on the cross Jesus robbed these powers of their influence.
Look at what the silversmith Demetrius says in verse 26. “Paul has persuaded many people that handmade gods aren’t really gods at all.”
In other words, these gods have become powerless. Humanity no longer needs to listen to their demands.
We can be free! That’s the gospel. This is the “fight” he’s talking about in Ephesians 6.
Now imagine this message in a city as spiritual in Ephesus. Artemis worship and sorcery… It’s no wonder that these powers - and the people who served them - started pushing back. Christianity was spreading and these gods were losing their sway.
Not only is this bad for business (the gods of greed and Prosperity don’t love that), but listen to how the Demetrius frames it in verse 27.
“I’m not just talking about the loss of public respect for our business. I’m also concerned that… Artemis… will be robbed of her great prestige!”
It’s about power and influence. This is why the crowd is whipped into a frenzy, shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians. Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
Actually, the chant sounds better in Greek: Megalē hē Artemis Ephesiōn! Megalē hē Artemis Ephesiōn! Megalē hē Artemis Ephesiōn!
When the gospel takes root the powers of this world are threatened. Sometimes these powers push back.
That’s what we see happening in this riot in Ephesus. And this was only the beginning.
In time, the gospel began to threaten the power of Rome itself. Not just the empire, but the spiritual principles it was built on. And then the real persecution began. Burned homes, torture, mass execution…
When the gospel takes root the powers of this world are threatened.
So, ok. What are we supposed to do with this today? What do we take away from this story?
Well, I’ll start with this. There are still powers at work in our world today, and we keep serving them.
I’m not talking about Artemis and Zeus. I’m talking about the deeper powers. Greed and lust and pride and shame and fear... The “authorities of the unseen world,” as Paul says, which give humanity our marching orders.
What I want us to wrestle with together is this question:
Do our lives in Jesus threaten those powers at all? Are we robbing them of influence by the way we live out our faith? Are they pushing back? Or is there no need?
I’m going to be honest with you and say that as a pastor I’m concerned. About two of these powers in particular. Because I don’t see them pushing back on us much at all.
I’m concerned that they have a strong foothold in the American church, even to some degree here at Grace.
In some ways I feel like we are those new Christians in Ephesus still practicing sorcery on the side. We’re trying to have it both ways – trying to obey Jesus and these powers, when what we need is a bonfire.
The powers of this world should be terrified of us because we’re walking in the freedom of the Spirit (that’s where the awe and wonder of our community comes from, as they see us living in freedom), but I’m worried that sometimes we live like we’re still in chains.
So this might be a bit uncomfortable, but I think we need to go there.
First, I want to talk about The god of Reputation.
This is a power that is alive and well in our world.
Reputation makes demands of you. It demands that you present yourself in a way that others with think highly of. That you play up your strengths, you tone down your weaknesses, and cover over any mistakes you’ve made.
And this has never been more prevalent than in the age of social media.
Since we now live our lives online, the god of Reputation demands that we portray a flawless, photoshopped vision of our lives. Smiling children, joyful vacations, perfect skin… Your life has to appear amazing, doesn’t it?
The god of Reputation demands that we flex that new car, or new outfit, or new phone… We must curate our image.
Those of you in Gen Z? I know you probably scoff at the idea of photoshopped perfection. “That’s not what I post.”
No! Because the god of Reputation demands that you post a perfectly imperfect vision of yourself. Just enough imperfection to show everyone how amazingly real and authentic and humble you are.
Reputation makes demands of all of us. And far too often we are just happy to oblige.
Online and offline we want the world to think highly of us.
Now, look. I know this may seem like just a normal part of the modern world. Everybody in Ephesus had an Artemis shrine in their house. Everybody in America gives into the demands of Reputation. But should we?
I mean, if you are truly following Jesus in this world, then your life should look like his. And Jesus was despised and rejected by the world. He spent his time with losers. His life flew in the face of Reputation.
Here’s how the Apostle Paul put it:
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave.
Living like Jesus means wading into the brokenness around you in ways that are not glamorous or sexy. It means being honest about your sin and darkness in a way that does not get you points for authenticity.
It means being in loving community with people who don’t agree with you politically or ideologically. People of different generations.
People who are awkward or uncomfortable or who take too much of your time. People who may embarrass you. That’s who you associate with.
Following Jesus means growing and serving and being generous in ways that nobody will ever know.
The god of Reputation hates true Christ-followers because we rob him of his power. We set ourselves aside. We live like it’s not about us. We imitate the self-giving love of Jesus.
So let me ask you this. Is the god of Reputation frustrated with you right now? Or are you still trying to have it both ways?
Does your faith threaten the powers of this world?
The second power I’m concerned about is even more deeply woven into our culture. The god of Prosperity.
I’m not just talking about money. Prosperity is an idea. The American Dream.
Prosperity makes demands on your life too. Because if you’re not dedicating yourself to prosperity, then something must be wrong with you, right?
The god of Prosperity demands that you constantly consume. Buy, buy, buy, more and more… Live beyond your means! Go deep into debt so you can show others how successful you are. Get that new device so you won’t fall behind.
Prosperity demands that you sacrifice your family to it. Work late hours, bring home the emotional table scraps leftover from your busy day, miss your kids’ recitals, let your spouse do all the housework…
All so that you can provide for them and give them a better life, right? So they can prosper.
I say this a lot. Do you know how much money you need to be perfectly happy? Just a little bit more.
Now, look. I’m not here to judge the way you spend your money. Every one of us is a peasant compared to somebody and a king or queen compared to someone else.
The truth is, only you and God know your heart. Only you and God know whether you are sacrificing your life to the god of Prosperity.
Only you and God know whether you have surrendered your wealth and possessions to Jesus. Or whether you’re holding them with a white knuckled grip.
I can’t tell you which god you’ve chosen to follow. But I can tell you this: you have chosen one of them.
Jesus himself taught it this way:
No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.
I’m asking you to think about your values. To think about your priorities. In Ephesus, the god of Prosperity was getting threatened by this Christian movement.
New Christians there were burning millions of dollars worth of their incantation books. They were drying up the silver idol market.
Not to mention the fact that they were consistently giving their money away to meet each others’ needs. They were selling their property to support the Church. They were overflowing in generosity.
Yeah. The god of Prosperity was threatened by the Church. No wonder he whipped up a riot. Because he was losing his power.
Is he losing his power in your life? Are you making Prosperity frustrated? Does your lifestyle disrupt his plans?
This is America. The god of Prosperity is making demands of you every day. Are those demands falling on deaf ears? Is he pushing back at all at the way you handle money?
Is he going to whip up a riot in the streets against you chanting, "Great is the American Dream! Great is the American Dream!" or are you one of the ones doing the chanting?
Does your faith threaten the powers of this world?
Now, look. I know this is a bit intense. Sorry if I stepped on your toes a little bit. But this is important stuff for us to wrestle with.
I’ll end with this. I am concerned, but at the same time I’m hopeful.
Because as I look around at Grace I see what’s going on. The Holy Spirit is moving. The tides are turning and lives are being changed. The days of awe and wonder are being rekindled.
I see volunteers and staff who think nothing of doing work that’s “beneath them” if it means serving the Church and who don’t want any recognition. You know who you are. The god of Reputation is so frustrated with you and I love it.
Or those of you who are led by the Spirit to give so generously, so sacrificially, to support one another, to support what God is doing here. Again, you know who you are. The god of Prosperity can’t stand you guys.
And of course there’s all of you who are dedicated to growing in Jesus. You have surrendered your life to him, and even though some days it feels like you’re taking three steps forward and two steps back, you’re staying on the path.
You’re working so hard to rid your life of the powers of this world - fear, lust, pride, shame - I see the transformation happening in you. The powers are losing their foothold in your life as the Spirit grows in you, and that fills me with awe.
I think our community is starting to see it too.
As it says in v.20, “the message about the Lord [is spreading] widely and [having] a powerful effect.” This is what gives me hope.
When the good news of Jesus takes root, the powers of our world are threatened.
And Grace Church, when I look at you, I think they’re breaking into a sweat.