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Acts 19:21-41 17.05.20
In the late 1800’s in England, under the ministry of the Salvation Army, thousands of people turned their lives around. Men who had been alcoholics began to provide for their kids; others who regularly visited brothels became faithful husbands. The crime rate dropped and some jails were closed.
The Salvation Army came under attack for that. From whom? From those who owned the brothels and the pubs, as their profits took a big hit.
Could they really have been more concerned about their profits than about sobriety, faithfulness and good family life? When you make an idol of money, you despise whatever stops you having more.
A friend of mine got a job in a top law firm in Sydney. When he didn’t arrive at work by 7 in the morning, and wanted to leave by 6 in the evening, and didn’t come in on Saturdays, he was told it was clear that he didn’t really want the job. He explained that he wanted to be part of the lives of his 2 little children, but the expectation was that his children had to be sacrificed to the idol of professional success.
An idol is something you think will give life. People will look up to you. It will make you somebody. Your life will have meaning. Your idol can make you feel good about yourself.
You feel alive because your kids are nice, your spouse loves you, you achieve in sport, or in class, you can do things with your hands others cannot. You’re now somebody.
Is there anything intrinsically wrong with money? With sporting success or hard work? With having children or being married or being knowledgeable or being able to fix things? Of course not. They are good things, but, as Tim Keller says, when good things become ultimate things, things that give life and significance, and you cannot do without them, they have become idols and idols are deadly.
If you don’t think that take a fresh look at this last section of Acts 19.
It was said that hundreds of years Before Christ, a meteor had hit the ground near the Turkish city of Ephesus. Out of that meteor a statue was made of the goddess Artemis.
She was so important, so beautiful and so powerful, that statues of Artemis turned up all over the place, including in Roman temples under the name Diana. She was said to be very fertile (therefore all the breasts), and Ephesus owed her fertility and wealth to Artemis.
The Ephesians built a temple to her, the ruins of which you can still see today. It was huge – twice as big as the Parthenon whose ruins dominate the city of Athens today – at 130 metres long, half as wide and 20 metres high.
When Paul came to Ephesus with the gospel of Jesus, her temple would have looked something like this. It was so beautiful, and so majestic, that it was regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world at the time. Only the biggest and the best was good enough for Artemis.
If people from all over are going to come to see Artemis and her temple, what are you going to find around here?
What you find near every big drawcard: shops. Near the Eiffel Tower in Paris you can buy a replica of the Tower inside a snow dome (small toy souvenir encased in plastic)for the dashboard of your car. At Stone Henge, you can buy a DIY model kit of the stones. At the Jenolan Caves you buy a set of wind chimes made of what look like stalagmites.
In Ephesus you can buy a silver statue of Artemis for a niche in your bedroom wall, or a replica of her temple for the dresser. Buy one right there at the temple, take it home, and it is likely that she will make your life as fertile and beautiful as hers.
Here comes Paul. He is preaching the gospel about Jesus, the true and living God. The idol makers of Ephesus smell trouble.
Perhaps Demetrius is the secretary of the silversmiths trade union. At an emergency meeting, he says “Men, you know that from this business, we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia (modern Turkey) this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 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 worships.” (19:25-27)
Can they allow their goddess to be deposed? Or her temple lose its fame? Or their bank accounts empty? The members of the union can hardly sit in their seats, and they all shake their fists as they call out “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (v28).
It is time for a march, a demonstration. Soon people from all over the city join in as they make their way through its streets.
Where are they going? Luke says, “to the theatre”. He doesn’t mean something like the Capitol cinema here in Tamworth.
He is talking about the great open air stadium you can still visit in Ephesus. It could seat 23,000 people. How much noise can a crowd even half that size make as for 2 hours, they shout “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”, but many people there haven’t got a clue as to what the agenda is.
Luke says in verse 32 “some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them didn’t know why they had come together.”
Really powerful and logical debate of the issues facing them all, do you think? Not at all.
Pauls’ two Greek companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, have been hauled onto the stage. Paul wants to join them, no doubt to explain himself and tell the gospel. However the church members stop him – no point trying to reason with a lynch mob.
Contrast this with Paul. What have we seen him doing for 7 chapters? Stirring up frenzy? Giving people slogans to chant? Threatening the order of society? Wanting to hang someone?
He’s been doing the very opposite. Observing law and order. Respecting people in authority. He hasn’t been revving up crowds of protesters. We have seen him explaining, reasoning, dialoguing, persuading and declaring.
The smarter men in Ephesus know who is in the wrong here. There is a group Luke calls the Asiarchs (v31). Perhaps they are members of the City Council, magistrates, or even officials from nearby temples. They can see who is out of control and dangerous – and it isn’t Paul. They also persuade him from going into the theatre.
There is also the town clerk (v35) – is he the general manager of the city council, or the man who issues warrants for arrests. He alone disperses the mob and sends them packing.
>>> Is Paul a rabble rouser? No. The idolaters are the rabble. Is Pauls’ gospel likely to bring down law and order? No – the idolaters are doing a good job of that.
>>> Does Caesar have anything to fear from the gospel as it spreads across the empire? No. The dangerous people in any culture are those who worship idols.
>>> Will lives be better in a society because of the gospel Paul brings, or because of idolatry? The answer is as plain as the nose on your face.
>>> Who will deliver more?
The sad thing is that too many don’t see the deadly nature of idolatry until it is too late:
Here in this passage, God is showing us idolatry in its true colours – all its ugly colours. Whether the idol is made out of a meteor or made in your head. So that we can choose wisely, now, before we have to learn too late how deadly idolatry really is.
Idolatry enslaves and blinds. The gospel of Jesus sets free and makes beautiful. When people walk away from their idols and to Jesus, they become better citizens, kinder neighbours, more loving spouses and parents.
Does anyone in Tamworth need to worry that we might be bad or dangerous for the life of this town? Of course not. Idolatry in all its shapes is that, but not the gospel of Jesus.
Do you sometimes fear it is the other way round? That the majority with many idols may be right? That we are wrong when people get upset because we say that gods made by human hands are no gods at all?
If the thought of the majority wanting to shout you down frightens you, it might help you to hear what man wrote about the lynch mob in Ephesus: “In the final analysis the only thing heathenism can do against Paul is to shout itself hoarse.” (Haenchin)
Look again at where idolatry takes you. Look also at the wonderful things that happen when the gospel of Jesus transforms people and impacts workplaces and political parties and families and societies. Read your history!
Christian history is not all good, but it was Christians of the Bible-thumping sort who led the fight to close down slavery and reform laws for children working in mines; they began the RSPA and trade unions and so much else.
There is something important to add before I can finish. What if you have been living an idolatrous life? If you have a record of taking good things and making them ultimate, life-giving things?
I’ve great news for you … Jesus deals with records like that. By his dying for sinners, he wipes clean even the worst kinds of idolatries. So clean, that God doesn’t even remember it.
It gets even better. Jesus not only works FOR people who were idolaters … he also works IN them. He makes sinners know that they are secure and safe and significant in him, that they don’t need their idols and they can do and enjoy good things without making idols of them.
When you are set free from idols you are free to serve rather than get, free to compete without resenting your rivals, seek what’s truly best for your kids, and a hundred other good things.
How did we ever think Jesus was second best? Working FOR sinners, to make their records clean. Working IN sinners to change them from being idolaters. No story is better than that one.
Within a lifetime of these events, there was a Roman governor just down the road, in Bithynia, by the name of Pliny. He didn’t know what to do with people who were becoming Christians, so asked advice from his boss, the Roman emperor, Trajan.
He said he had examined some of them personally, and as far as he could tell, they were good citizens and lived upright lives. All he could discover was that they had some strange religious ideas, which means, he said, “They have stopped going to the shrines.”
That meant he had the local butchers on his back. Their meat supply, brought in from the temples, had dried up. The economy was changed, not by a protest, but by the gospel changing people.
What do you reckon would change in our culture, if Christians in 2020 no longer went to the shrines? What would it mean for shops and advertisers who want us to find life in the stuff they sell? What would it mean in our work places, our sports, our political parties? For the alcohol, gambling and pornography industries?
What riches that would bring to all of life when the good things are seen as good, and enjoyed as good, but not idolised.
Who can change people like this? Who can change cultures and societies and families and church like this? Jesus. Only Jesus.