I received an encouraging note from a discerning young man in our congregation. This is what he wrote to me by e-mail: “Pastor Ritch, I am in the seventh grade. My social studies teacher brought up the subject of beliefs of certain religions. He said that Jews and Muslims and Christians all believe in the same God. I went to him and asked him what he meant. He said, ‘We all believe in the same God but we all believe that He sent different messengers.’ I feel that we don’t believe in the same God. How can they believe in the same God as me when they don’t believe that Jesus has come or that He was a prophet and not our Savior? Could you help me with this question because I am not going back to my teacher because he believes what he believes, but I would like to be able to understand why people think this way and if I am right on what I believe. Thanks,” and he signed his name.
I am very thankful for this young man’s note because he understands what many Christian adults don’t understand. He understands that there is such a thing as “religious truth” and he understands that religious truth is bound up in a person, the person of Jesus Christ and Jesus as the Messiah; that Jesus does not allow along side of Himself other gods to take a place. He does not allow Himself to be placed as a peer among many or even as the First among equals. No, Jesus claims absolute supremacy. He claims to be the “One True God”.
This claim is what caused people to hate Jesus in the 1st Century and to ultimately crucify Him. And, it is this claim that stirs up trouble to the church in the very 1st Century on to this very present day. The Roman world in Paul’s day is world in which we enter, as we read our study, was a fairly tolerant community. They were tolerant of all kinds or religions. Roman culture had no interest in prohibiting the worship of any one specific deity, so we have to ask the question, “Why is it here, in Acts 19, that Paul met such great persecution and almost in every city throughout the Roman Empire? If Rome was so tolerant why was it so intolerant of Christianity and its growth? Paul has spent nearly three years in this city and a riot breaks out because of the growth of the Christian faith and the growth of the Christian church. Jesus is being honored in a city that previously had been a stronghold for the worship to the goddess Diana. Ephesus was known to have this huge temple which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and that was dedicated to the worship of Artemis, or Diana.
We learn from this passage that Jesus and other gods do not tolerate one another. They simple cannot coexist peaceably. It is often said that world religions essentially are the same and superficially are different. Ravi Zacharias has pointed out that just the opposite is true, namely that world religions are superficially the same but are essentially different in their fundamental understanding of who God is and what He is about. The fundamental essential difference is, of course, the person of Jesus the Messiah, for Jesus Himself makes exclusive claims and these claims throw themselves in conflict with every other god.
Our world’s chief value today is the value of tolerance. If you were to stand up before a crowd and say, “I believe in Jesus,” most would applaud and affirm you for your personal belief in Jesus. However, if you were to stand up to that same crowd and say, “I believe that Jesus is the only Savior. He is the only way to God. There is salvation in no other name than in the name of Jesus,” that same crowd who politely affirmed you for your belief in Jesus now will turn rather hostile towards you and perhaps even verbally so for making the claim that Jesus is exclusively God and exclusively the Savior. You open yourselves to rebuke and to ridicule for such narrowness of belief and thinking.
It is important to know that we Christians recognize two forms of tolerance as necessary in essential biblical values. Irwin Lutzer speaks of these two forms of tolerance and he calls them “legal tolerance” and “social tolerance”. Both of these kinds of tolerance are very important for us as believers in Jesus to embrace. Legal tolerance affirms the legal right for everyone to worship whatever God or gods they please; that no one should be coerced by the force of law into believing in Jesus or any specific god or faith. We affirm that this is not God’s plan to forcefully and by the weight of law to capture people for Himself. We have a legal tolerance because that is how this country was formed and founded and based – on a Christian view of legal tolerance.
The second correct form of tolerance that we embrace is social tolerance; that is to say that we ought to have a genuine love and a genuine compassion, discern and respect for all people, even when we vigorously disagree with their ideas about God, about eternity, and about spiritual matters. We talk about these disagreements with them with gentleness, with courtesy, and with kindness, because we don’t need more angry, self-righteous, self-pontificating Christians. We need people who are willing to stand up and be clear, but to do so with gentleness and kindness and courtesy.
The tolerance our world values is different from these. It is not the legal tolerance or the social tolerance which is right and good, but it is the kind of tolerance that demands that we respect not only people but that we respect false ideas about God, and that we do not assert that there are some ideas about God that are better than others or that we do not affirm absolute religious truths in our thinking about God.
It was a lack of this kind of tolerance by Christians in Ephesus that gave birth to this disturbance. The Christians of the 1st Century, and Christians all through the centuries, recognize that this in not a biblical form of tolerance; that the Bible and God’s revelation demands that we hold certain Truths as absolute in regards to Himself. Because the believers of Jesus in Ephesus refused to engage in this form of tolerance they became the target of hostility, persecution, and anger.
We read in Acts 19:23,
23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way.
This was no small gathering. It was considered that the Christian community was, in some way, threatening the vitality and the popularity of the goddess Artemis. In fact, that is what the Christian community was doing; it was threatening the vitality and the popularity of the goddess Artemis. It was not through legal force or any physical means, but it was simply through the power of the transforming nature of the Gospel itself. We read that this great disturbance was in regards to “the Way”. This term “the Way” was an early title that people used to refer to Christians and Christianity and the church. It indicates to us, among other things, that belief in Jesus in the New Testament times was much more than praying a prayer and moving on with one’s life. It was much more than a Sunday morning event where one would participate in a few rituals and prayers and ceremonies and then go out and live life as usual. When a person embraced Jesus Christ, people around understood that they were taking upon themselves a whole new way of living because everything changed. They would look at these people and they would look at how “strange” they were acting and they would say, “They used to be our neighbor and they used to be people we could talk to and go to the temple with and participate in all sorts of practices, many of which were very immoral, but now we look at them and they have completely changed and we don’t understand what has happened. They call themselves the people of the Way. They have taken this odd, strange way of life upon themselves.”
What was true in the 1st Century should be true of us today; that is to say, when we trust in Jesus Christ we don’t merely pray a prayer, attend a Sunday morning service, or have a couple of idols in our homes, but our whole lives change and we have a whole new way of living.
A question that we have to ask as we read Verse 23 is: “Why does Jesus pose to other gods? Why does Jesus pose a threat to the goddess Artemis and to every other god?” We are going to address two questions with regards to Jesus and other gods. The first question is why Jesus poses a threat to false religions or other gods and the second question is how false religion defends itself against Jesus.
The first reason that we observe in our study is that Jesus undermines the profitability of false religions. False gods create an economy all of their own. There are all kinds of things that people purchase as a result of worshipping an idol. In 1st Century times that meant a literal idol. Today the idols are often idols of our hearts, but none the less, it is true that there is an entire economy that develops as a result of idolatry, but Jesus, when He comes into a life, so transforms it that people who are born again and made anew change their spending habits and suddenly the economy changes as the church grows because there are more and more people who spend their money on different things. We see this in Verse 24,
24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the craftsmen.
We get the idea from this verse that Demetrius is the head of the local silversmith union – USW Local 391 – and as the spokesman for the United Silver Workers union he calls a meeting, in Verse 25,
25 He called them together, along with the workmen in related trades, and said: “Men, you know we receive a good income from this business.”
Those he called who were in the related trades could have been workmen who carved idols out of wood and other trades connected to the worship of Artemis. These trades were very lucrative. The worship of the goddess Artemis was widespread throughout the entire Roman Empire. The worship of Artemis was the most popular cult in the empire. It has been discovered that there are thirty-three different shrines located throughout the known world of the day and many people devoted themselves to the worship of Artemis. As a result they would do what anyone does when they have an idol, they would purchase things to remind themselves of the devotion, to represent their worship and devotion, and to stay involved in the worship and devotion. They had images that would adorn the homes, businesses, offices, restaurants, and Ephesus was the very center of all of this commerce.
The idea that we get from the lucrative nature of this craft is that worship of Artemis was a very serious deal for these people. We don’t get this idea when we go to museums, but we have some images of Artemis and she is an ugly goddess, quite frankly, if you should come across some of the images that people used for worship. People became very serious, intense, and committed to the worship, loyalty, and passion behind their allegiance to Artemis. In today’s realm, the idol would have t-shirts with various slogans about Artemis. There would be bumper stickers, cd’s, dvd’s, posters, cable channels, an Artemis perfume, foods approved by Artemis, and all sorts of things connected to the worship. The people would be so committed that they would be willing to pay a higher price to get something connected to Artemis.
Verse 26 continues,
26 “And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia.”
What Demetrius is saying that the profitability of their trade was going down. Again, USW Local 391 had great interest in the worship of Artemis both personally, because they were personally committed to her, but they were professionally interested in her worship. Their profits dropped the first year that Paul was in Ephesus and it continued to drop dramatically in the second year. By the third year Paul was in Ephesus, with another decrease in sales, they were beginning to wonder what was going to take place if the trend continued. Can you imagine working in a business and being used to having a profit margin year after year? All of a sudden things begin to go down and it affects your business’s bottom line. That is what Christianity was doing in Ephesus in the 1st Century.
Why do you suppose that this was happening? Not only were more and more people becoming Christians, but the Gospel was making headway into more and more households. Even more importantly, those who trusted in Jesus Christ were serious about following Jesus Christ. The Christians in Ephesus were serious about being Christians.
Remember from our previous study concerning what took place with those who were involved in the occultic practices. In Verses 19 and 20, we read,
19 A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
There was a life change and they were serious about following Jesus. It is difficult to translate forms of currency from one culture to another, let alone from the 1st Century to today, but we could estimate that this was in the millions of dollars in value that was burned. This was a huge investment of family heirlooms that were passed on from generation to generation and they were thrown into the fire.
These Christians were serious about being Christians. These Christians were so thoroughly transformed that they confessed their sins openly, they destroyed things that dishonored Jesus, and they refused to by trinkets, decorations, or gifts that would give honor to other gods. The whole economy of the community changed because of Christians acting as Christians.
This happened not only in Ephesus but it would be a trend that would continue throughout church history. In fact, just seventy years later there was a fellow named Pliny, a Roman governor, who was writing the Emperor Trajan. Pliny would write about some of the concerns that he had as a Roman governor in his particular province. One of the concerns that he often brought up was about the Christians. He would say that he had examined these folks and that they didn’t appear to be unlawful, immoral, and he couldn’t see that they were doing anything wrong; they were not acting in ways that were subversive to the Empire, but he commented that they had ideas about religion that was affecting his province. He said that the Christians didn’t go to the temples. Pliny went on to describe what happened as a result of the people not going to the temples. A large part of the population was unable to support themselves because they relied on the business surrounding the temple to support their families. He asked Trajan if he should make, by force of law, to make them go to the temple or should he imprison them for not. Pliny indicated that the butchers in particular were affected by the Christians not going to the temple because the Christians didn’t want to eat the meat that was sacrificed to the idols and they didn’t want anything that would dishonor the name of the Lord Jesus. Trajan, thankfully, advised Pliny to go easy on the Christians an not press the matter.
As we observe this, the question arises: What would happen to the economy of the United States of America if Christians became serious about being Christians? What would happen to Hollywood if Christians would be serious and not participate in anything that dishonors the One to whom we have committed our lives? What would happen on Wall Street if Christian businesses and workplaces decided not to engage in any practices that were dishonest, or lie, or cheat, or steal from anyone? What if they said that they were going to be honest even if it meant that their business might go into bankruptcy? What would happen if Christians said that they were going to be a people who acted with integrity and who were going to act as Christians? What would happen to the economy of the United States if Christians were serious about being Christians?
This is where social reform needs to begin. Social reform in our country does not begin with government regulations or a host of new laws or a mass rally or pickets or anything else except for Christians being transformed by Christ. But, we have a huge problem in this: Christians still buy silver statues of Artemis. We continue to engage in the purchase of the wares of the silversmiths of our day and the wares of people who have no allegiance to Jesus Christ what-so-ever and in fact they have a firm rejection of Him. We spend our money on things that dishonor Jesus Christ and reflect the values of our world’s idolatry.
Someone may ask, “What idolatry?” There may be idols of sensuality, of raw materialism, of pleasure, of prestige and things that make us feel good about ourselves, of Hollywood personality cults, of music stars and sports stars, of physical beauty, and we could go on and on. The bottom line is this: if our Christianity does not dramatically impact the way that we spend money, then we are not very serious about being Christians, and God will have a whole-life transformation to free us from the bondage that idolatry necessarily places us in. Until we are free from idolatry we will have very little impact upon our community and upon idolaters. We cannot love both God and money. (Matthew 6:24) Jesus diminishes the profitability of false religions.
Jesus transforms the lifestyle of those taken captive by false religion. The world does not care in what we believe just as long as what we believe does not change the way we live and as long as we conform to its values. A Christian living a worldly life will never be persecuted. If we are living very much living like the world and spending our money like the world and acting like the world and talking like the world we have very little to fear from the world in terms of a riot breaking out or in terms of persecution breaking out upon our lives.
We have noted that a lifestyle change in the 1st Century affected their pocketbooks, but I believe that these idolaters, those who worshipped the goddess Artemis, also resented other lifestyle changes that took place. In Verse 26, we read,
26 “And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all.”
Remember the disturbance against “the Way”, the weird Way, the strange Way, the goodie-two-shoes Way, and the odd-sort-of Way. The idolaters of Ephesus lamented, “We used to have neighbors who enjoyed feasting with us and celebrating the festival of the goddess Artemis. Every year was like a big, Mardi Gras party in our neighborhood, but now the neighborhood has changed and they somehow refuse to participate and this place is all uncomfortable. They are being led astray and they have become uptight and self-righteous on us.”
In Verse 27, we see
27 “There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
Artemis was a goddess of fertility. Without getting into strong specifics, there were hundreds of temple prostitutes and as a part of the worship service sexual immorality was involved. They understood that when people stopped going to the temple and participating in the sexual immoral practices that Artemis was being robbed of the worship and the dignity that should be hers. They were upset that there was a life-style change.
All idolatry is motivated by corrupt and degrading desires and passions of various kinds. Idolatry is basically man shaping god and bending god in such a way so that god would approve of the life-style choices that he or she wishes to make after all.
The English biologist, atheist, and humanist Julian Huxley admitted on a television interview, and this is interesting, “The reason that we accepted Darwinism without a lot of scientific proof is because we did not want to have God interfere with our sexual mores.” He admitted that! He is a brilliant man.
We want God to do what we want and we don’t want to bend towards God, but we want God to bend towards us, and so Jesus comes into the midst of Ephesus and He declares Himself to be Lord and He declares Himself to be unbending. That is His claim upon our lives. Jesus bends us. We cannot bend Him.
The last way that Jesus poses a threat to false religion is that He denies the legitimacy of false religion. We read at the end of Verse 26 that Demetrius is talking about Paul, and this is an accurate statement,
“He says that man-made gods are no gods at all.”
Of course, other gods exist as ideas in people’s minds, but other gods do not exist as reality. There are no other gods. This is new to this culture because they considered that there were many different gods and they were all in competition and cooperation with each other. But, now Paul comes, and on the basis of the person of Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is the only True God and there are no other gods beside Him. What Paul is saying is what God has revealed throughout the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah 44:6, 45:22, and 46:6-10.
44:6 “This is what the LORD says—
Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty:
I am the first and I am the last;
apart from me there is no God.”
45:22 “Turn to me and be saved,
all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other.”
46:6 “Some pour out gold from their bags
and weigh out silver on the scales;
they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god,
and they bow down and worship it.
7 “They lift it to their shoulders and carry it;
they set it up in its place, and there it stands.
From that spot it cannot move.
Though one cries out to it, it does not answer;
it cannot save him from his troubles.
8 “Remember this, fix it in mind,
take it to heart, you rebels.
9 “Remember the former things, those of long ago;
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
10 “I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say: My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please.”
This is God and this is Jesus Christ. Jesus claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6) and this is deeply offensive. The only way that the world will love Jesus is if they can make Him into something that He is not. The Jesus of the Bible stands alone.
Paul earlier said that he wanted to go to Rome and before he gets there he is going to write a letter to Rome shortly after this incident takes place in Acts 19, but listen to what Paul will say to the Roman church in Chapter 10:
9 …if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
I have to ask you, have you called upon the name of the Lord Jesus to be saved?
These are the reasons that Jesus posed a threat to false religions. Let me explain how false religions typically respond to defend against Jesus. There are three primary ways. First, false religion appeals to a human authority. In Verse 27, we read Demetrius saying,
27 “There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
Demetrius is making the “everybody is doing it” that idolatry often makes to convince people to continue in it. False religion appeals to human authority and take a pole to see who is right: “How many Americans believe that Jesus is God? How many Americans believe that all religions are the same? Ninety-five percent of all Americans believe that all religions are basically the same so that must be true.” What is the appeal? The appeal is to human authority and here he is making the same argument.
The pressure of the authority of human opinion is enormous upon us today. No one likes to appear odd and out of step, but that is exactly how false religion defends itself. You as a Christian should know that human authority is going to press against you in various forms; whether it is the human authority of the scientific community which says, “A majority of scientists believe this…”, or whether it is the peer group of the sports team you are on, or whether it is the workplace that you are in. Each will pressure you with the notion, “This is the way we all believe so get with it!”
The second way that false religion defends against Jesus is that they play on the emotions. In Verse 28, what did they do?
28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
For two hours twenty-five thousand people gathered together in an arena and there was a mob action. If you have ever been in a pep rally you know how emotions can begin to take over. Can you imagine that for two hours straight this arena erupted in the cheer about the greatness of Artemis? What is Demetrius doing? He is playing on the emotion to prove that they are right because of all of the emotion.
By the way, in these it is important for us as believers to avoid using the means that false religions use to defend against itself. We, as Christians, don’t use human authority in order to convince people of the Gospel and this is especially true in our homes by saying, “You ought to believe because your Granddaddy believed.” That may be a model for some but that is not why people believe. It is not because of human authority, but it is because of the Word of God which says that Jesus is Lord and the Messiah. When we come to encourage others to come to Jesus Christ, again we must avoid the emotionalism.
I have a quick personal story. I was at a huge youth rally at the Civic Center in Fort Worth. There was a Bible teacher and evangelist who did a great job and I enjoyed almost everything about this conference. At the end of the conference it is time to call kids to come to Jesus Christ. I was so discouraged as to what took place because it was all on the emotion of the conference of singing songs, getting people revved up, and then making the alter call. At the alter call, and this put it over the top for me, the methods the evangelist used went back to the false religions. He said, “I just received word that Madonna has been here this weekend and she listened to what we have been talking about. Someone said that they saw her in her car crying.” Why would an evangelist say that? “If it was good enough for Madonna it will be good enough for you,” so if the emotions get attached to Madonna then they will feel like they need to come down also.
The reason why we trust in Jesus Christ is because He is Savior and He is Lord.
The last defense is that false religion relies on physical force. That is the rest of the story isn’t it? This is still true today. We see this church at Ephesus beginning in the context of such spiritual oppression of idolatry and yet there the church thrives. How could they thrive and make such an impact upon their culture? The greater question is: How can we? It is this way, it will not be through the use of emotional appeals, not through the use of physical force, and not through the use of human authority, but here is how it is: that we are faithful to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the power of God and His salvation, even though we are ridiculed and often times we will be rejected and we may be persecuted, we believe that this message, in all of its fullness and in all of its clarity, and not attaching any gimmicks to it, but presenting it in clarity to our neighbors, our co-workers, and our family members, believing that this message is still the power of God and the salvation that will transform a life. And then, we must follow hard after Jesus Christ.
Be serious about being Christians so that the world will look and say, “They are different. I can see it by the way they spend their money and the way that they live their lives and the way they love Jesus Christ.”