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Acts 19:21-41: No Little Disturbance

May 15, 2022 Speaker: Josh Tancordo Series: Acts: You Will Be My Witnesses

Topic: Default Passage: Acts 19:21–19:41

Acts 19:21-41: No Little Disturbance

We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Acts, and today the next passage we come to is Acts 19:21-41. It says,

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. 

May God bless the reading of his Word.

Let’s pray: Father, we understand from Hebrews 4 that your Word is living and active. So may it be living and active in our lives today. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen. 

When most of us today think of the Salvation Army, we usually think of various thrift stores around the city, bell-ringers during Christmastime, and an organization that, overall, isn’t that much different than many of the other charities that exist. Yet, back in the 1800’s, the Salvation Army was a lot more controversial than it is today. It was started in London by William and Catherine Booth in order to reach out to alcoholics, gamblers, and prostitutes and lead them to faith in Jesus. And the organization was very outspoken about their desire to wage war on the sins that plagued society. Not only did they adopt the militaristic name “Salvation Army” and structure themselves like an army—with generals and colonels and all the other ranks of an army right down to ordinary soldiers—they also even went on marches in protest of the evils they saw in society. And they began to really get significant traction—expanding rapidly throughout the nation of Great Britain and even throughout the rest of the world. In fact, they were having such an impact that surprisingly strong opposition soon arose against them. 

You see, as a result of the Salvation Army’s efforts, the owners of bars and brothels across the nation were losing a lot of money. So, these businessmen whose bottom line was being affected organized themselves into what eventually came to be known as the Skeleton Army—which was formed for the express purpose of mocking the Salvation Army and doing whatever they could to disrupt the Salvation Army’s efforts. They adopted various symbols such as skulls and crossbones as well as pictures of monkeys, rats, and even the devil. One common tactic they employed was to disrupt the Salvation Army’s meetings and marches by shouting, banging drums, and even physically assaulting members of the Salvation Army by throwing various projectiles at them such as rotten eggs, dead rats, and even rocks. In fact, there are several recorded occasions on which Salvation Army members died as a result of injuries they sustained during these attacks. There were also numerous instances in which these confrontations escalated into full-fledged riots by the Skeleton Army. 

For example, in one town named Worthing, over 4,000 members of the Skeleton Army rioted in opposition to the Salvation Army’s reform efforts. Several months later in that same town, a Skeleton Army mob chased a large group of Salvation Army members back to their barracks and then tried to burn down the building with them inside. And, surprisingly, the police often didn’t do very much to help the Salvation Army either. Many local politicians and police leaders tried to deny what was happening or claim that it was outside of their jurisdiction to deal with it. Thankfully, toward the end of the 1800’s, the Skeleton Army eventually faded away. 

Yet, as we’re going to see in our main passage of Scripture today, what happened between the Salvation Army and Skeleton Army in the 1800’s actually wasn’t anything new. It was simply one particularly notable example of the same basic reality we find at work in our main passage of Acts 19:21-41. And that reality is this: the gospel is a radical message that produces radical change that often provokes radical opposition. That’s the main idea we see here. The gospel is a radical message that produces radical change that often provokes radical opposition.

Now, the context here is that Paul’s in the city of Ephesus preaching the gospel and seeing incredible things happen. For example, look back at what we read last week in verses 18-20: 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their 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. 

So, as you can see, there was a rather significant spiritual awakening taking place in Ephesus. Even those who were steeped in the occult and made their living from the magic arts were coming to faith in Jesus in droves. They even had a good old-fashioned book burning, where they brought their magical books of occult practices—worth approximately six million dollars in today’s currency—and publicly burned them. And, by the way, that’s what genuine spiritual awakening looks like—not necessarily a book burning per say but an awakening to the heinousness of sin and a wholehearted determination to abandon sinful habits and practices. That’s what marks a spiritual awakening as much as anything. Awakenings aren’t just about having an exhilarating “spiritual mountaintop” experience. That may be one component of a spiritual awakening, but by no means is it all that’s involved. 

Listen: any genuine awakening involves real and radical repentance of the deepest-rooted sins people are holding onto. In fact, that might even be the most reliable indicator of how genuine an awakening is—because exhilarating emotions can come from a lot of things and are often mistaken for being from the Holy Spirit when, in reality, they may simply be the result of someone being caught up in the moment. Repentance, however, is a much more reliable indicator that something genuine is happening—especially when it leads to a changed pattern of life. And what we see here in these verses is great illustration what repentance looks like. It’s a wholehearted repudiation of sinful practices in which someone seeks to eliminate not only the sinful practices themselves but also anything that might leave the door open for those sins in the future—burning the bridges to sin, as it were. 

Then, moving along in the text, after a brief note in verses 21-22 about Paul’s travel plans and his dispatch of two of his missionary companions to the region of Macedonia, the account of the events in Ephesus picks up again in verse 23. It says, “About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.” Pause right there for a moment. Not only is that phrase “no little disturbance” a great title for today’s message, it’s also a massive understatement, as we’re going to see in the subsequent verses. This “disturbance” is also said to be “concerning the Way.” “The Way” is a phrase utilized numerous times in the book of Acts to refer to Christianity—probably stemming from Jesus’s statement in John 14:6, where he says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.

We then learn in verses 24 and following that this disturbance is instigated by a man named Demetrius. We’re told that Demetrius is “a silversmith who made silver shrines to [the pagan goddess] Artemis.” A little background here: although people throughout the Roman Empire worshiped Artemis, the city of Ephesus was the epicenter of devotion to this pagan goddess because it was home to the Temple of Artemis—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and, at that time, the largest building in the world—four times as large as the Parthenon. As a result, many visitors traveled to the city of Ephesus each year, especially during the city’s huge festival to Artemis that took place each Spring. So, you can imagine how important the worship of Artemis was to the city’s economy—and that included the making and selling of various Artemis paraphernalia, such as the shrines that Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen made. These shrines would have been sold to people to display in their homes or perhaps to present to the goddess at her temple. 

And that lucrative industry is apparently being threatened by Paul’s missionary activities. So, Demetrius, apparently the president of the local silversmith labor union, decides that he’s had enough. He gathers together his fellow craftsmen and gets them all riled up. And he’s very clever in the way he does it. He mentions the economic impact that Paul’s ministry is having but then quickly moves on to lament in verse 27 that the great goddess Artemis may be “counted as nothing” and “deposed of her magnificence.” I’m sure he really cares about a lot Artemis her honor. It kind of reminds me of those signs you’ll often see in hotel bathrooms inviting you to help reduce their water usage and save the planet by reusing your towels instead of requiring them to exchange your towels each day. Although these signs are written to sound very sincere in their concern about the environment, it’s, at the same time, quite convenient that this incredible concern for environmental issues just so happens to align perfectly with what’s financially advantageous for hotel. And I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a similar kind of “coincidence” going on here with the deep concern Demetrius expresses for the worship and prestige of Artemis. Nevertheless, his speech to his fellow craftsmen proves very effective, and he’s able to whip them up into quite the frenzy. 

Yet, we understand that, ultimately, at the root of all this commotion and the chaos that’s about to follow is the greed of Demetrius and his associates. As Demetrius himself admits in verse 25, it’s “from this business [of selling shrines of Artemis] that we have our wealth.” That’s the underlying motivation here. What we see playing out in these verses is exactly what Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:24, where he says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” And we see how true that is in Acts 19, where Demetrius and his associates are flipping out over the way Paul’s ministry is cutting into their profits. It’s also hard not to think of Matthew 16:26, where Jesus asks, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” What a tragedy it is whenever people allow their desire for temporary wealth to keep them from escaping eternal judgment. Don’t let greed keep you from God. You know, there so many people who are so busy pursuing the mighty dollar that they scarcely give any thought to the things of God. There also many who are so intoxicated with their desire for material comforts and possessions and luxuries that there’s no room left in their hearts for any desire for God. 

And, unfortunately, this is something that even Christians can get caught up in to a certain degree. Understand, dear brother or sister, that the way you use the money God’s entrusted to you is one of the most accurate indicators there is about the state of your heart and your spiritual condition. Understand that money is something that makes a great tool but a horrible god. God’s given us money as a way of graciously providing for our needs and so that we can steward it for the glory of his Name and the advance of his Kingdom. We’re not owners of that wealth but simply stewards or managers who are charged with the responsibility of using God’s money in accordance with God’s purposes. Yet, the temptation is to act as if that money belongs to us and idolize it and use it for our purposes rather than God’s. That’s why Paul warns us in 1 Timothy 6:10 that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” and also why Jesus instructs us in Matthew 6:19-20 to lay up treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth. We need those reminders. And, similarly, for someone who’s not yet a Christian, their desire for money and their pursuit of earthly wealth often keeps them from taking any significant steps toward God. And, returning to Acts 19, that’s what we see happening with Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen. 

We then find a description in the subsequent verses of how chaotic things became after that—resulting in something close to a riot in the city. Verse 28 records how the craftsmen were “enraged” and began to cry out “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” This soon ignited an uproar throughout the city so that the whole city, verse 29 says, was “filled with…confusion” and grabbed hold of two of Paul’s companions and was trying to find Paul. Then, when a Jew named Alexander tries to quiet down the crowd in order to make sure everyone knows that the Jews had no part of this, the crowd becomes even more enraged. Verse 34 records, 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!” Can you imagine that? Can you imagine continuing a chant about something for two whole hours? And these people didn’t even have Twitter or other social media to stir them up into this frenzy. This was wild!

And I believe the reason things got so heated isn’t just because of blind delirium—although that was undoubtedly part of it. But even more fundamentally, it was because of the profound effect Paul’s missionary activities were having on Ephesian society. The gospel message of Jesus was having such an enormous impact on people’s lives that it was literally threatening the local economy that revolved around the worship of Artemis. So I believe we should view the radical opposition recorded in Acts 19 as a testimony to the radical change brought about by the gospel—and to just how radical that change was. Again, the gospel is a radical message that produces radical change that often provokes radical opposition. 

Think back, for a moment, to what Paul’s opponents said about him and his missionary companions in Acts 17:6. They said, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” There you have it—from the lips of Paul’s opponents no less. Paul’s ministry of telling people about Jesus was turning the world upside down. And that’s what was happening here in Ephesus. The gospel was turning the city of Ephesus upside down—and a lot of people didn’t like it. 

You know, I’m reminded of an awakening that took place in Wales in 1904-1905 and of the effect that that awakening had on Welsh society. One of the most prominent leaders in the awakening was a young man named Evan Roberts. Leading up to the awakening, Roberts was known to spend long hours of both the day and night praying. He would typically wake up every night at 1am to be “taken up into divine fellowship” and would continue praying until 5am. Then after sleeping for four hours, he would wake up again at 9am and continue in prayer until noon. Eventually, in September of 1904, Roberts experienced something of a spiritual breakthrough in prayer. He prayed for an awakening and desperately cried out to the Lord, “Bend me! Bend me!” 

And God did. God took hold of this young 26-year-old and filled him with an unusual passion and started using him to ignite spiritual awakenings in towns all over Wales. Before long, the entire country had been caught up in the awakening. It's estimated that, during that one-year period, over 100,000 Welsh may have been converted. And, not surprisingly, it had a profound effect on society. Political meetings were cancelled, sporting events were cancelled, theaters were closed down, and bars and casinos lost their customers. Not only that but debtors paid their debts, denominational barriers were broken down, crime rates were radically reduced, and racial barriers began to crumble. 

Friends, the gospel changes everything. When the gospel really starts to gain traction among the people of a society, every area of society is affected. Changed hearts result in changed lives, and changed lives result in changed societies. 

This is documented in a very helpful way in a book I’ve been reading lately called How Christianity Transformed the World by a British author named Sharon James. The book was written in response to those today who claim that Christianity has done more harm than good to our world. However, Sharon James argues, even though there are historical examples of things being done in the name of Christianity that have been harmful, Christians have actually been on the front lines of much of the positive social change that’s taken place in the past two thousand years. 

For example, in the area of freedom, the Bible’s teaching that all humans have been created in the image of God means that every individual has inherent value, dignity, and worth. This understanding has led many Christians throughout history to risk their careers, reputations, and lives in the fight against slavery and eventually to play a key role in abolishing the practice of slavery in both Britain and America in the 1800’s. Keep in mind that slavery’s something that’s been practiced for almost as long as the human race has existed. Yet where else have you ever heard of any society voluntarily freeing its own slaves? Did the Babylonian Empire ever free its slaves, or the Assyrian Empire or the Persian Empire or the Greek Empire or the Roman Empire? No. Rather, it’s the societies that have been influenced by Christianity that have eventually abolished slavery. Similarly, it’s also these same societies that have the least oppressive governments in general. Just look at a world map today. The freest countries on the planet are those that have been most influenced by Christianity and Christian ideals. 

Another example Sharon James discusses is the dignity of women. Throughout human history, women have been almost universally oppressed. They’ve had few, if any, rights and have usually been treated like property rather than people. Many societies have allowed men to beat their wives or even kill their wives without any legal consequences. This was the case in the Roman Empire, where the husband, legally speaking, owned his wife and had the authority to do basically as he pleased with her, even to the point of inflicting capital punishment. Yet Christianity had a seismic impact on the way women were treated in the Roman Empire, giving women legal protections and rights and the dignity that’s rightly bestowed on all people as those, again, who have been made in the image of God. 

This pattern has also continued throughout church history. Even though Christian missionaries of the past several hundred years are often criticized for the effects they’ve had on the cultures to which they’ve gone, one thing that can’t be denied is that missionaries have done wonders for the status and dignity of women in those societies. It was Christians who put an end to the practice in India of forcing widows to burn themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands and Christians who have opposed the oppression of women through child marriage and Christians who have opposed female genital mutilation and Christians who have insisted on educating women. Again, just look at the world map. The countries today in which women have the most legal rights and protections are those that have been most influenced by Christianity. 

So those are just two examples that Sharon James cites in her book. And since I don’t have time to even summarize the other positive ways she outlines in which Christianity has transformed the world, I’ll just list them. Ways in which Christians have transformed the world include government recognition of human rights, adherence to the rule of law and the curbing of tyrannical power, respect for the sanctity of all human life, unprecedented levels of philanthropy and compassion for those in need, monumental breakthroughs in science and technology and medicine, a worldwide movement to bring modern healthcare to underprivileged areas of the world manifesting itself in the stunning number of hospitals founded by Christians, universal education for people regardless of gender or social class, a recognition of the inherent dignity of work and the importance of a good work ethic, and principles that have led to free and prosperous national economies rather than oppressive and impoverished economies. Christians have been at the very forefront of all of these social changes in the world—and, in many cases, have been the driving force behind them—as Sharon James carefully documents in her book. Again, the gospel is a radical message that produces radical change—first in individuals and then spilling over into entire societies. 

And I believe it’s important to note that the way this change is brought about isn’t through external coercion but rather by changing people’s hearts. That is the Christian way. Just think about Acts 19. Verse 20 tells us that these changes came about in Ephesus because “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” Notice that Paul didn’t try to start a city-wide petition or lobby the city authorities to forcibly ban idol-worship. Rather, his focus was on telling people about Jesus and allowing the gospel to have an effect on their hearts. Paul unleashed the gospel on the city of Ephesus—and it resulted in monumental change. Now, to be clear, there is a place for various forms political engagement. In today’s society, I’d even say that Christians have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the privilege of voting and may also choose to participate in various public demonstrations. However, our focus should be on the gospel and on seeing the gospel change people’s hearts. Political engagement is important, but heart change is primary. Listen to me: laws can’t change people’s hearts. Even Supreme Court decisions can’t change people’s hearts—as is abundantly clear especially at the present time. Only Jesus can change people’s hearts—and he does it through the gospel. And when hearts are changed, everything else follows. Changed hearts result in changed lives, which result in changed societies, which result in changed laws. 

And for any here who are not yet Christians, let me say that God doesn’t just want to change society in general. He wants to change you. You know, there are so many theories out there about how to experience positive change in your life—so many books that have been written and podcasts that have been created and articles that have been published that offer what’s commonly known as “self-help” advice. But really, there’s no way we can help ourselves in the sense of bringing meaningful and lasting change to our lives. We need God to help us and change us. And the way he does that is through the gospel—that is, through the Person and work of Jesus Christ. 

You see, the Bible tells us that we’ve sinned against God and, in fact, are sinners by nature and that our sinfulness has alienated us from God and made us deserving of his just judgment. That’s what’s coming to us and what we deserve. Yet, in his astonishing grace toward us and because of his love that is so amazing, God didn’t leave us in that condition but sent us a Savior in the Person of Jesus. Jesus came into this world as a human being. He became one of us—so that he could one day die in our place. That’s what happened on the cross. Jesus was crucified on the cross not as a helpless victim but rather as one who was voluntarily suffering the penalty for our sins. God the Father’s wrath was poured out on him so it wouldn’t have to be poured out on us. But that wasn’t the end of the story, because three days after Jesus died, he resurrected from the dead so that he’s now able to save everyone who will look to him for rescue. 

And that rescue involves him not only forgiving our sins but also changing our hearts so that we become new people with new desires, new priorities, and a totally new perspective on life. Jesus takes everything that’s wrong and broken in our lives and puts it back together—effectively restoring the image of God within us that’s been defaced. We become what we were always meant to be and, eventually, are able to enjoy the all-surpassing pleasures of God in his presence for all eternity. 

And, you know, the wonderful thing about the gospel is that it can change anyone’s heart. If you have some time when you go home, look up the name “Charles Jeffries.” You remember the confrontations I described at the beginning of this message between the Salvation Army and the Skeleton Army? Well, Charles Jeffries was a member of the Skelton Army and, in fact, had attained the rank of “lieutenant.” He had personally assaulted several Salvation Army soldiers and officers and had become quite well-known for disrupting Salvation Army meetings. On one occasion, he even jumped on the back of a Salvation Army leader who was marching through the street, pushed the man’s top hat over his eyes, and then used the man’s hat as a drum and his own legs as a goad in order to “drive” the man down the street. So this guy was quite the character.

Yet, guess what happened to Charles Jeffries? Eventually, the gospel got ahold of his heart. As a result, he left the Skeleton Army and joined the ranks of the Salvation Army. He then devoted the rest of his life to propagating the message of Jesus that he had once so violently opposed. Of course, he was disavowed by all of his old friends, but it didn’t matter. Jeffries attended the Salvation Army training college and started preaching the gospel in the streets, resulting in approximately three hundred converts within the span of seven months. He then traveled the world in the ranks of the Salvation Army, starting churches, organizing Christian initiatives, and eventually becoming the third highest-ranking officer in the entire Salvation Army. The gospel is indeed a radical message that produces radical change—not just in society but even in the hearts of the very individuals who seem furthest from God. Therefore, while many in today’s society might seek to see their opponents cancelled, Christians seek to see their opponents saved. 

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