There’s a human trait which leads us to conform to what others expect of us. This social pressure can affect us individually and it can also affect whole groups: a herd-mentality can be created in a mob. A whole society, even, can insist that citizens believe certain things to be true or else face expulsion, or worse. Acts 19 gives an example of this in the Asian (Turkish) city of Ephesus.
This is seen, firstly, with superstition. Paul is rigorously building a hub, in the city, for Christ’s kingdom in Asia (Ac 19:10). God backs him up with some remarkable miracles (Ac 19:11). This activity strikes a cord in Ephesus, which is known for its belief in magic. Now, the world cannot be manipulated through special words or objects. When someone claims they can do it, it is just trickery, suggestion, coincidence or other techniques; where healing power is claimed, the placebo effect is also often a factor. So when a real miracle occurs, it stands out and exposes ‘magic’ as empty (Ac 8:9-13). In Ephesus, this results in believers rejecting their past superstitions (v18), publicly repudiating them by burning their old magic books (v19). Sometimes, Christians testify to their culture of the truth of Jesus by their rejection of what is false. But that can have financial implications, as happens here. The Lord Jesus warned of this (Lk 14:33), but also reassured his disciples that God will provide (Mk 10:28-30). Moreover, a willingness to give up the world’s economic safety for the Lord gives us a freedom we wouldn’t have otherwise. How? That’s seen in the verses which follow, in Paul’s problem with the wealthy goddess of Ephesus.
Ephesus was a city where the emperor Augustus (dead in Paul’s time) was worshipped as a son of the gods because of the ways he had enriched them. But at the heart of the society was a more passionate worship for the goddess Artemis. Her impressive temple was famous and brought in a massive income for the city; people’s whole livelihoods were tied to the imaginary goddess. So when Paul’s powerful preaching (v20) undermines her, it produces a strong reaction. Paul himself plans on travelling to Jerusalem and then Rome (v21), via Greece, and so sends a team ahead (v22). However, before Luke describes Paul’s departure, first he narrates a troubling disturbance (v23). As can so often happen, one man is the spark which lights the fire (v24). Demetrius is a silversmith linked to Artemis and is concerned that Paul’s message will shut down his trade (v25). He’s not interested in whether Paul is right or wrong; all he’s worried about is his livelihood. This man, and many others too, are enslaved to their money and the goddess who provides it to them.
But the Christians have been freed from this slavery. The domination of money has faded for them (1Ti 6:6-10), as seen in the cost of the book-burning. Hence, the fear of the gods is removed (1Th 1:9) and they can live according to what is true, not what is financially rewarding. This is a great blessing. In this world, money plays a powerful role in our lives. But cultures often insist that to be economically active/successful, you have to bow to their beliefs or, at least, do nothing that might challenge them. In Paul’s time and place, that was the gods like Artemis. In our time and place, it is the gods of secularism who demand that certain human behaviour must be celebrated by all. Businesses must bow to the demands of these gods, or face legal action and financial punishment. Individuals must uphold the views of these gods, or face exclusion from employment. But Christians should not fear the threats of these fake divinities.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that the threats won’t be enacted. Financial fear and herd-mentality can create a violent mob, as Paul finds. Demetrius paints a bleak economic picture to stir his fellow craftsmen to action (v26,27). They begin to chant Artemis’ name (v28), a mob forms and two Greek Christians are taken (v29). Paul wants to intervene, but the situation is too explosive (v30, 31). Chaos abounds, with many not even knowing why they are there (v32)! Their gods have enslaved them to a screaming fear, brutality and irrationality. Sadly, this is a human trait which will result in injustice for Christians, at times, when we will not conform to our society. But we must stand firm, resist the pressure and hold onto the truth we have found in Christ.