Paul’s Third Missionary Journey – 2. Riot in Ephesus

In my last article in this series of articles on the life of Paul I described his three years of ministry in Ephesus. I concluded, “As I look back over Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, the word ‘power’ comes to mind.” However, despite the success of his ministry in Ephesus, the time came when Paul decided that he should move on.

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. (Acts 19:21-22, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

The ESV capitalizes “Spirit” to express the view that the Holy Spirit was behind Paul’s decision to revisit the churches of Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea) and Greece (Corinth) and return to Jerusalem. Although Luke doesn’t refer to it, Paul’s main reason for wanting to visit Jerusalem was to give to the leaders of its church the collection which he had organized in the churches of Macedonia and Greece for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15; Romans 15:25-28).

Sometime before making the decision Paul had heard from the church in Corinth and written a letter to them. Now he sent that letter, 1 Corinthians, to them with Timothy and Erastus (1 Corinthians 16:10). Luke’s last previous reference to Timothy was during Paul’s second missionary journey when Silas and he rejoined Paul at Corinth after visiting Macedonia (Acts 18:5). Evidentally he rejoined Paul again sometime during his ministry in Ephesus. Later Paul himself would visit the churches in Macedonia and Greece (20:1-2) and from there he would go to Jerusalem (21:17) and eventually to Rome (28:14).

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!” (Acts 19:23-28)

Clearly the real problem of Demetrius was that people’s turning from idolatry to “the Way” (Christianity) was hurting his business of making miniature silver replicas of the temple of Artemis. Although in Greece Artemis was venerated as the goddess of hunting and protector of wild creatures, in Ephesus she had acquired the characteristics of the multi-breasted mother-goddess of Asia Minor. Her temple at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and, according to tradition, contained an image of her that fell from heaven (probably a meteorite and referred to in Acts 19:35). The replicas of the temple made by Demetrius perhaps contained an image of Artemis and were used in worship of her or as offerings to her. In addressing other craftsmen, Demetrius added charges that aroused their civic and religious pride, provoking them to run into the street (according to the Western text) shouting “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!” (Acts 19:29-34)

The theatre could hold almost 25,000 people and was the regular meeting place of the civic assembly. As the crowd rushed along the street to it, they grabbed two of Paul’s companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, and dragged them into the theatre with them. (Apparently the two were later released as Aristarchus reappears later as Paul’s companion; see 20:4 and 27:2.) Paul wished to meet the crowd face to face, but his disciples held him back because his life would be in danger. Asiarchs protected and promoted worship of the emperor. Some of them being friends of Paul suggests that at that time the emperor was not hostile to Christianity. Probably Alexander wanted to explain to the crowd that the Jews had nothing to do with the present trouble and were as opposed to Paul as they were. However, recognizing that he was a Jew and knowing that Jews opposed any foreign gods, the crowd howled him down with their shouts of “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. (Acts 19:35-41)

The “town clerk” was the chief executive officer of the city’s civic assembly and the liason between the assembly and the Roman provincial administration. He assured the crowd that they didn’t need to be concerned for the honour of Artemis because everyone knew that her image had fallen from the sky to be guarded by the people of Ephesus. He suggested that if Demetrius and the craftsmen had a serious complaint they take it to the regular courts conducted by the Roman proconsul, the head of government in a Roman province, or to one of the regular meetings of the civic assembly. Then warning the crowd that their present gathering in the theatre had the appearance of an unlawful assembly and could cause their being called to account by Rome, he dismissed them.

The town clerk’s ruling may have provided a basis for Christians in other cities to defend their presentation of the Gospel as not being contrary to Roman rule of the law and not disruptive of public order. Thus Ajith Fernando comments, “Luke saw this event as another victory for the cause of the gospel. In his estimation, the existing legal system, if properly administered, could be replied upon to give the Christians a fair trial” (The NIV Application Commentary: Acts, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998, page 519). Shortly afterwards Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: “[R]ulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:3-4).

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