21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 22 And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.
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. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 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. 27 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.”
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. 30 But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. 31 And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. 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. 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!”
35 And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, 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? 36 Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. 37 For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. 38 If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. 39 But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. 40 For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” 41 And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly. – Acts 19:21-41 ESV
Paul had a burning desire to go to Rome. He expressed it many times in his letters and it remained a driving focus throughout his life. As we begin this final section of Luke’s book, he confirms that Paul was desirous of making Rome one of his destinations, and Luke indicates that it was a desire given to Paul by the Holy Spirit. This urge to visit the capital of the Roman empire was driven by the Spirit of God. Repeatedly, Paul had felt the compulsion to take His ministry to the great capital city of the Roman, but the timing had not yet been right. Paul expressed his intentions to visit Rome in the letter he wrote to the believers living there.
13 I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. I want to work among you and see spiritual fruit, just as I have seen among other Gentiles. 14 For I have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and the rest of the world, to the educated and uneducated alike. 15 So I am eager to come to you in Rome, too, to preach the Good News. – Romans 1:13-15 NLT
Paul was not interested in seeing the sights of Rome, but in spreading the good news about Jesus Christ, and building up the church. And Rome was not the only place Paul desired to visit. He took seriously Christ’s commission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, confessing to the believers in Rome that he saw their city as a stepping to stone on his way to yet another distant land: Spain.
23 But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. 24 I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey. – Romans 15:23-24 NLT
But while Paul had his heart set on visiting Rome, he did not neglect his responsibility to continue spreading the gospel throughout Asia. He sent Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia, while he remained in Asia. Luke picks up the story in Ephesus, where Paul had been “reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9 ESV). It is obvious that the church was growing and the gospel was making an impact on the city, because Luke indicates that “there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way” (Acts 19:23 ESV). The transformed lives of the believers in Ephesus had made an impact on the city and its economy. If you recall, Luke made note of the fact that the new converts to Christianity had been led to give up their pagan practices.
19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. – Acts 19:19-20 ESV
It seems that the evangelistic efforts of Paul were making a real difference, not only in the lives of those who were saved, but in the community in which they lived. A local craftsman named Demetrius, who manufactured idols made of silver, had seen his business suffer greatly due to the increasing number of believers in Jesus. He contended that his business losses were directly attributable to Paul’s assertions that idols were not really gods at all. Paul had no doubt shared his views on idols and had likely used passages like those found in Psalm 115.
4 Their idols are merely things of silver and gold,
shaped by human hands.
5 They have mouths but cannot speak,
and eyes but cannot see.
6 They have ears but cannot hear,
and noses but cannot smell.
7 They have hands but cannot feel,
and feet but cannot walk,
and throats but cannot make a sound.
8 And those who make idols are just like them,
as are all who trust in them. – Psalm 115:4-8 NLT
When Paul had addressed the believers in Corinth regarding the debate they were having about eating meat sacrificed to idols, he agreed with the assessment of some, saying “we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’” (1 Corinthians 8:4 ESV). There were those in Corinth who saw no problem eating meat sacrificed to idols, because idols were not really gods at all, and Paul had agreed with them. But he took it a step further.
5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. –1 Corinthians 8:5-7 ESV
This was likely the sentiment he had shared in Ephesus, and it had made an impact on the people there. So much so, that the sale of silver statues of their god, Artemis, had plummeted. Demetrius, driven by his anger over the loss of revenue he suffered, tried to couch his words in spiritual rhetoric, accusing Paul of doing harm to their great god. And there is a subtle irony in this, because he implies 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.” (Acts 19:27 ESV). His statement begs the question: Is she a great goddess? If so, what do they have to fear? Can’t she defend herself? If not, why do they worship a goddess who can be so easily deposed, and due to nothing more than the words of an itinerant Jewish missionary?
But the words of Demetrius accomplished what he intended. The crowd, filled with other local craftsmen who also benefited from the notoriety of Artemis, were whipped into a frenzy by Demetrius’ little speech. They turned into a mob and grabbed the first Christians they could get their hands on, two men named Gaius and Aristarchus. We are not told where Paul was when all of this happened, but he must have been elsewhere in the city at the time. Luke tells us that, when Paul heard what had happened, he wanted to rush to the aid of his fellow believers, but was restrained from doing so. Even some of the local political leaders, referred to as Asiarchs, who had developed relationships with Paul, urged him to stay away.
The scene in the local theater, where the mob had grabbed the two men, had devolved into chaos and confusion. Many in the crowd had no idea why they were even there. When Alexander, one of the local believers tried to address the crowd, he was drowned out by the voices of the crowd as they shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
But cooler heads prevailed. A local official finally calmed the crowd and warned them that they must have just cause for their actions. As far as he could tell, the charges against Gaius and Aristarchus were unfounded. He said, “you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess” (Acts 19:37 ESV). They had not destroyed any idols themselves. They had not said anything worthy of the charge of blasphemy. He warned them that they were close to violating Romans laws against rioting, which could warrant stiff penalties. If Demetrius had a legitimate legal case against Paul or anyone else, he would need to bring it to the local assembly. With that, he dismissed the crowd and Gaius and Aristarchus were released.
Why did Luke include this story? What was his point? Paul was not even directly involved in the affairs described in this passage. It seems that Luke was providing a glimpse into the lives of those who had placed their faith in Jesus. Their joy was real, but so were the dangers they faced. This story is a reminder that Christianity, in its purist form, is life-changing, and changed lives tend to make an impact on their environment. Christianity is not a threat to the government. It is not a movement designed to radically alter the status quo or disrupt the religious plurality of a community. Any influence it may have will come from the radical nature of the transformation of the lives of its proponents. Believers, indwelled and empowered by the Spirit of God, are to exhibit the characteristics of their new natures and live in such a way that their lives impact those around them. The believers in Ephesus had not started a campaign to get rid of Artemis. They had simply shared the good news about Jesus. They didn’t need to attack the false gods of the Ephesians, but simply share the truth about the one true God. And their lives had become the best testimony of what faith in Jesus can do. The light was dispelling the darkness, simply by its presence.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.