There are points in history when a society is affected deeply by the Christians within it. That can be seen in this story of Paul’s gospel work in the city of Ephesus.
Paul has spent a long time building up not only the church in Ephesus, but gospel endeavour across that whole western end of Asia (Ac 19:10 – modern Turkey). Paul knows that he will soon be going to Jerusalem (Ac 20:22) to testify to Israel of her Messiah, before the terrible judgement of the Lord falls (Lu 11:47-51). Before that happens he wants to see a stronghold of the gospel built in Asia. However, his endeavours to that end, although successful, have also brought trouble into the city. The impact of Christian belief has made many Ephesians nervous for their future (Ac 19:26,27). A riot has ensued which threatens the lives of believers in general and Paul in particular (Ac 19:29-31). The tension is huge.
It’s not only believers who feel it, however. The Jews, with whom Paul has fallen out (Ac 19:9), sense danger for themselves. The Christians are seen as a Jewish sub-group (Ac 18:15) and so antagonism towards them could affect the freedom and prosperity of the Jews in the city. They, therefore, send Alexander to distance them from Paul’s gospel (v33). But the chaotic crowd aren’t interested in hearing him (v34). In this tale, we see one of the effects of Christian lives upon others. Family and friends can suffer problems when a Christian stands faithful to the Lord in his/her life; that can spread out to other social links too, such as here with the Jews. Today, there are churches which tie themselves up with the national culture and can become angry when Christians will not stand with them because of Jesus’ teaching. In history, Baptists found themselves persecuted by the Church of England for not accepting her arrangements with the UK state. In the present, some churches are angry with Christians who will not support current fads in sexual or other ethics as they do. In these ways, Christian lives affect their society.
But there can be a broader effect. It’s also the pagans who feel the presence of Christian lives in our verses. The city clerk reassures the locals that that the goddess Artermis’ glory remains fully intact (v35) and so they need not rush to her defence (v36). He also points out that the Christians are not guilty of any criminal actions (v37). This is true. Paul hasn’t organised a public campaign against the local religion. All he has done is teach, at a lecture hall, what it is to be a disciple of Christ, and performed some miracles (Ac 19:9-11); but that is enough to unnerve the community. This is the salt and light effect of the kingdom which Jesus described in his teaching (Mt 5:13-16). His standard of living often stands out in society (Mt 5:20). Salt flavours and preserves what it is put into; light changes the darkness into which it shines. Both have to do this: it’s is fundamental to what they are. For them to do otherwise would be ridiculous. Equally ridiculous is a hidden Christian life. Believers are to live publicly for Christ. Those around us will taste and see that; it will have some effect upon them. Their reactions will vary – sometimes good, sometimes bad. But if they are negative (as in Ephesus) we are not to hide away; our call is to be true to the Lord.
Such Christian living, however, may also extend into the legal realm. In Ephesus, the clerk points the rioters to the courts as their solution, lest the higher authorities decide to come down hard on them (v38-40); his appeal works (v41). Still today Christians can come into the legal sights of a society. The result varies: sometimes in our favour, sometimes to our detriment. Not that Christ calls us to play the legal system for him – it’s simply another effect of living true to his teaching. When it helps us, we should rejoice. When it hurts us, we should not despair since we follow a king who was treated unjustly but was ultimately vindicated by God who raised him from the dead. What we can, and should, do is pray that those who rule over us would act justly so that we can live peaceful, godly lives (1Ti 2:1,2). We don’t try to convert a nation to Christianity. The Lord converts individuals, brings them into God’s eternal nation and works out the effects of that on their society. All we have to worry about is remaining faithful to Him in our living.