[Note: In this message the historical and archeological information about Ephesus comes from William Barclay, Thomas Constable, T. Alton Bryant, and others.]
Ephesus was dying. It was the most important city in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Its harbor opened into the Cayster River, which, in turn, emptied into the Aegean. But even in Paul’s time, the harbor was silting in. Today the old Ephesus harbor works are separated from the sea by 20 miles of reedy marshland. Ephesus was at an intersection of major trade routes, but the deterioration of the harbor reduced commercial activity significantly.
As legitimate trade declined, Ephesus leaned more and more heavily on its pagan cult. The temple of Artemis/Diana was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was 425 feet long, 220 feet wide, and 60 feet high (four times the size of the Parthenon). There were 127 pillars, each one made of glittering marble. The temple altar was carved by Praxiteles, the best Greek sculptor. The image of Artemis was a black, squat, many-breasted figure. The story was that it had fallen from heaven. Perhaps a meteor stone roughly shaped like a woman with numerous breasts had fallen from the sky. Artemis was a fertility goddess. As in Corinth temple worship included sacred prostitution. Craftsmen made big profits by selling silver souvenirs to visiting worshipers.
“About that time,” the Bible says, “there arose no little stir concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen” (Acts 19:23-24). Demetrius called a meeting of the guild he led. Wasn’t anyone else paying attention? Artemis worship was taking a serious hit. People weren’t buying as many model shrines and goddess images as before. And the man to blame was that pesky preacher Paul: “And you see and hear that not only at Ephesus but almost throughout all Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable company of people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods” (v. 26).
Demetrius couched his complaint in religious terms. The great goddess was in danger of being deposed from her magnificence. But make no mistake. The money was the main thing. Squeeze a man’s wallet and he will howl: “There is danger […] that this trade of ours may come into disrepute” (Acts 19:27).
When the craftsmen heard this they were infuriated, “and cried out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ 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” (Acts 19:28-29). The semi-circular outdoor theater in Ephesus seated 25,000 people in 66 rows. The Arcadian Way was a major thoroughfare connecting the harbor and the theater. Perhaps the craftsmen gathered their crowd as they moved along this boulevard—hurrying, shouting, pointing to the theater.
Demetrius laid hands on two of Paul’s friends but failed to find the apostle. Paul wanted to enter the theater and make a defense, but his friends in the church and community talked him out of it. A mob knows no reason. Entering the theater was suicide. Paul took the advice and stayed away.
In the theater “some cried one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together” (Acts 19:32). The Jews tried to put Alexander forward (v. 33). He would have explained that the Jews in Ephesus didn’t condone Christianity. The church of Jesus Christ was not a Jewish sect. But Alexander was shouted down: “When they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all with one voice cried out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!'” (v. 34).
The town clerk (Acts 19:35) was the mayor. He finally managed to quiet the mob. Then he told everyone that if Demetrius had a problem, he and his silversmith friends could file a lawsuit. But rioting was unacceptable. Rome would never approve. Having said these things, “he dismissed the assembly” (v. 41).
The behavior of the Ephesus mob is strikingly relevant to our own times. Completely uninformed people mob the streets, chanting slogans. On TV news programs reasonable discussion has been replaced by shouting matches. And most people absolutely will not listen to the truth.
Think of the glorious opportunity the Ephesians miss! Here is Paul, wanting to stand on the theater stage and deliver one of his masterpiece addresses. His messages are full of hope and transforming power. He is to become one of the most cherished speakers and writers in human history. But no! The Ephesians don’t want to hear a word. They’d rather kill Paul than listen to him.
A tragic story in the news is an interesting illustration of the Ephesian group-think mindset. On October 1, 2015, a gunman killed nine fellow students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Nine other students were wounded but not fatally. Our hearts are heavy with sorrow for the grieving families. But celebrities, news analysts, and politicians couldn’t wait to grab their microphones and clamor for gun control: Gun control! Gun control! We need more laws and less guns!
Let’s stop shouting for a moment and think. Where did the shooting happen? In a gun-free zone. Why isn’t there ever a shooting rampage at a gun show? And why were there no school mass shootings in the days when American boys brought their rifles to school? A teenager would prop his hunting rifle in the cloak room, retrieve it in the afternoon, and shoot a squirrel or rabbit for the family table on the way home. As recently as 1975, New York State (not known for its conservatism) had over 80 school districts with rifle teams. But no mass shootings at school.
And how can a gun kill someone without a human hand holding it, pointing it, and pulling its trigger? Some people are so busy shouting “gun control” that they cannot take in a simple truth: Murder victims are murdered by murderers. In the U.S. we are bringing up boys who murder their own classmates. What can we do about it? Do you want to hear the truth? The truth is that everyone in our great country can make a difference in the lives of our boys.
What can families do? Fathers can stop making babies and disappearing. We keep hearing that these murderous boys are mentally disturbed. They certainly are. And there is nothing more disturbing to a boy’s mind than the disappearance of his father. Mothers can stop having babies with men who refuse to commit to marriage first. Moms and dads can keep their wedding vows—for the sake of the children if for no other reason. Divorce wreaks havoc in a child’s heart. Fathers and mothers can teach their children right from wrong instead of pampering their every whim. And parents can follow Jesus and urge their children to do the same.
What can educators do? Teachers can stop telling children that we evolved from monkeys and that every belief is equally deserving of respect. Some cultural beliefs are contemptible and should be treated as such. And instructors can teach the skills necessary for academic and career success (math, science, English) instead of promoting the latest disgrace popular in Hollywood.
What can celebrities do? They can stop talking about gun control and start modeling self-control. Our children are watching them, practically worshiping them. The messy lives of celebrities are imitated by impressionable young people. And celebrities can write songs, books, and movies that encourage integrity, sacrifice, character, sexual purity, and respect for human dignity and life. Americans are hungering for wholesome movies. Even if a faith-based movie has inferior cinematography or acting, people are eager to see it.
What can the government do? Politicians can stop getting in the way of people with good sense. We don’t need new laws about guns. We need the old law about “Thou shalt not murder.” Why can’t we display the Ten Commandments on a community college campus or a courthouse square? Why can’t teachers pray with their students? The night of the Oregon shooting, Megyn Kelly was interviewing a shaken girl who had hidden under her desk near the murder scene. Kelly asked her what the students were doing under the desks. The student said, “We were praying.” Why is it that students can pray at school only when being shot at? And why can’t politicians see the ridiculous irony of shouting gun control to protect our children and funding Planned Parenthood so that our children can be torn apart and sold for money?
What can the church do? We can stop looking for social or political answers to spiritual problems. The government cannot solve our moral problems with a new bill or program. Such an expectation is like looking for the answers to algebra equations in an English literature book. Church, let’s stop looking in the wrong book! In our homes let’s turn off the TV, shut down the computer, and read our Bible. Let’s turn to the God who wrote it and pray, pray, pray! Let’s live a life that truly honors Jesus instead of playing church. And let’s tell lost people what we have found.
That’s what Paul wanted to do in Ephesus, wasn’t it? He loved Jesus. He was so grateful for the cross, for the sacrifice that had atoned for his sins. He longed for other people everywhere to know the grace, the peace, the joy, the hope, the life, the boundless love of God in Christ Jesus his Lord.
Paul knew that the temple of Artemis was dedicated to an empty nothing. Just two centuries after his stay in Ephesus, the Goths destroyed the fabulous temple (in AD 263). No one worships Artemis anymore. Don’t be guilty of group-think. Don’t chant meaningless things.
Paul wanted the Ephesians to know the living God. Do you know him? Is Jesus your Lord? Listen to the truth! Obey the truth! Live the truth!