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Lesson 49: Why People Oppose the Gospel (Acts 19:21-41)

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I have never been caught in the midst of a riot, much less been the target of one. But I have read of Hudson and Maria Taylor’s harrowing experience in Yangchow, China, when an angry, drunk mob attacked their house and tried to set fire to it, and it doesn’t sound enjoyable (see Roger Steer, J. Hudson Taylor [OMF], pp. 217-224)! Somehow God miraculously spared them and their children from permanent injury and death, although Maria, who was six months pregnant, had to jump out of a second story window to escape. If you’ve never read the story of Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission, you are lacking a profound spiritual experience!

Our text reports the story of a riot in Ephesus instigated against Paul and the infant church there. Although Paul was not at the center of the action, it must have been an unforgettably frightening ordeal. He may have been referring to it when he told the Corinthians how he had fought with wild beasts at Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32). He probably was referring to it when he also told them, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope” (2 Cor. 1:8-10).

Most of us have never had to face that kind of severe opposition because of our faith. Hopefully, we never will, but we should not be taken by surprise if it does come. Sometimes I think that the doctrine of the pretribulation rapture has made American Christians naively assume that they will be spared from any serious persecution in the end times. But whether the pretrib rapture is true or not, we have no guarantee of protection from persecution. Christians in other countries have suffered terribly for their faith, and America is not exempt. We need to be ready in case it comes.

Luke’s purpose for including this incident seems to be twofold (I’m following Richard Longenecker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 9:502): First, he was trying to present an apologetic that the Christian faith was a legitimate religion, not at odds with Roman law or government. Therefore any who persecuted the Christian Church were in violation of Roman law. He shows this by telling of the friendliness of Asiarchs toward Paul (19:31). These men were from the noblest and wealthiest families in the province of Asia, and were a quasi-religious association that sought to secure loyalty to Roman rule (ibid., pp. 503-504). The fact that they were friendly toward Paul shows that he could not have been a threat to the state. Also, the city clerk’s intervention to quell the riot (19:35-41) shows that he did not regard the Christians as a threat to the city or its citizens.

Luke’s second purpose for including this incident was to show that spiritually, the only thing that heathenism can do against Paul and the Christian faith “is to shout itself hoarse” (Ernst Haenchen, cited by Longenecker, p. 502). Unbelievers oppose the gospel because Satan has blinded their minds and the gospel confronts their sin. Satan’s fury against the church is great, but pagan religions are impotent and empty in the long run. God’s sovereign providence protects His church, even in the face of fierce opposition. So our text is showing us that …

People oppose the gospel because Satan has blinded them and the gospel confronts their sin; but God rules over all.

This disturbance was not just against Paul personally, but against “the Way” (19:23). The Way was an early designation for the church (now it is the name of a false cult!). It points to Christianity as a way of life, and to the fact that Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). The first lesson to note is:

1. When the church effectively spreads the gospel, Satan will arouse opposition.

You may wonder, “Why would people oppose Christians? Christians care about and help their neighbors. They are good workers on the job. They are good citizens. Why is there such intense opposition toward Christianity and Christians?”

The answer is that there is an evil spiritual being, the devil, who is at work in the world to oppose God and His Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul later explained to this Ephesian Church, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places”(Eph. 6:12).

It is no coincidence that this riot took place after the professing believers confessed their secret sins and openly demonstrated their repentance by burning their sorcery books (19:18-19). As a result of that cleansing, “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (19:20). Whenever the church repents of her sins and the word of the Lord grows mightily and prevails, Satan will not sit around passively wringing his hands. He will launch an attack. If we do not sense any opposition from the enemy, we should examine ourselves to determine whether or not we are doing anything significant enough to oppose.

The power of the Ephesian Church was not primarily political, but spiritual. They hadn’t picketed the temple of Artemis to try to get it shut down. They hadn’t organized rallies or tried to get legislation passed to stop the corrupt practices that went on there. If they had, the city clerk would not have spoken so favorably about Gaius and Aristarchus (19:37). Rather, they had proclaimed the gospel in Ephesus and the outlying area, and they had demonstrated the power of the gospel through their repentance. It was so many people coming under that transforming power of the gospel that now was threatening the business of these idol-makers.

There is a proper place for the church to use political means to accomplish spiritual goals. At times Paul used his Roman citizenship to secure protection for the church and for himself (16:35-40; 25:11). Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all used political power as a part of their overall strategy to establish the Reformation. But our main focus should be to demonstrate by our godly lives the truth of the gospel, and to proclaim that gospel verbally. As people get saved, the culture will be changed. And Satan will not allow that to happen without stirring up opposition. But why do people oppose the gospel?

2. People oppose the gospel because Satan blinds their minds and the gospel confronts their sinful lifestyles.

A. People oppose the gospel because Satan blinds their minds to the glory of Christ.

“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:3-4). Paul also refers to how Christ delivers us from “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). Those who do not know Christ do not have the capacity to accept or understand the things of the Spirit of God, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Cor. 2:14).

Why else would people worship a grotesque statue of a multi-breasted woman? The legend was that Artemis fell down from Zeus (or, Jupiter; 19:35). Probably, a meteorite fell to the earth that looked something like a multi-breasted woman. The superstitious people thought that she must be a symbol of fertility, and so women would invoke her help in childbirth. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and people would flock from all over the Roman Empire to see it. The girls who served the temple dressed in short skirts with one breast bare (E. M. Blaiklock, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Zondervan], 1:341). The annual festival in honor of Artemis, which was kind of like the Mardi Gras, drew a great deal of business to the area, including buyers of these small statues.

These silversmiths had heard of and probably seen evidence of the many miracles that God had been doing through Paul in Ephesus (19:11). You would think that they would stop and ask whether Paul’s message might be from God. But sin and Satan blind people so that they can’t see how irrational they are. Demetrius and the silversmiths knew that Paul was saying that “gods made with hands are no gods at all” (19:26). That seems to me to be a fairly self-evident truth, that if someone made it, it isn’t God. But Satan had blinded their minds.

When we talk to people about Christ, we should try to be as clear as we can be. We should be logical and persuasive. But the bottom line is, if God does not shine into the person’s heart with the light of the knowledge of His glory in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), he or she is not going to respond favorably. You may as well try to get a blind man to appreciate the fine points of a beautiful picture as to try to get an unbeliever to understand the gospel! And so as you share the gospel, pray that God would grant sight to blind eyes.

B. People oppose the gospel because it confronts their sinful lifestyles.

Both the message of the gospel and the lives of those who have believed the gospel confront sinners with their sin. The message necessarily confronts people with their sin, because if people are not sinners, they have no need for a Savior. A “gospel” that presents Jesus as the way to a happier life, but dodges the sin issue, is no gospel at all. The Bible plainly indicts us all: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). While some of us are better than others (when we compare ourselves with ourselves), none of us has perfectly obeyed God’s holy standards. By our thoughts, words, and deeds, we have repeatedly rebelled against Him as our rightful Lord. We have failed to love Him with our total being, as He rightly deserves. Before people can appreciate and respond to the good news, that Christ died for sinners and that He offers forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift, they must hear the bad news about their sin.

But not only the message of the gospel confronts sinners. Also the lives of those who have believed the gospel confront sinners. If everyone is in the dark, doing things that they know they shouldn’t be doing, and some guy walks in with a bright light, it exposes their evil deeds. If people who used to get drunk and sleep with the temple prostitutes suddenly stop doing that because they have trusted in Christ and repented of their sins, it threatens those who still do those things. They can no longer compare themselves with these people, because they make them look bad. So either they need to accuse them of hypocrisy or spread false rumors to discredit their behavior. Perhaps you’ve experienced this on the job. Because you don’t lie or cheat and because you work hard, you make the other employees look bad, and so they attack you.

Demetrius and his fellow-workers should have asked, “Is the message that Paul and others are proclaiming true? If it is true, we’re in big trouble before the Creator of the universe, because we’ve not only worshiped this stupid idol; we’ve helped thousands of others to do the same! If Paul’s message is true, we need to find another line of work!”

But as Paul argues in Romans 1:18-23, men suppress the truth in unrighteousness and end up in idolatry, worshiping the creature rather than the Creator. Idolatry in the broadest sense is devotion to anything other than the living and true God. It often involves using statues or images, which the second commandment forbids (Exod. 20:4). Even to claim that you’re just using such physical objects as “helps” to worship God (as Roman Catholics and the Orthodox do) is to engage in idolatry. Israel would have claimed that the golden calf was just an object to help them worship the god that brought them out of Egypt (Exod. 32:4), but they were clearly engaging in idolatry. To pray to statues or pictures of Jesus or Mary or the saints, or to set them up in your home or yard in the hopes that they will protect you from harm, is to engage in idolatry.

But you can engage in idolatry without statues. It is idolatry to be more devoted to your job and financial success than you are to God and His kingdom. Devotion to sensual pleasure through pornography or immorality is a form of idolatry. A pursuit that may be legitimate in balance, such as a hobby or a sport, can become an idol when a person devotes an inordinate amount of time and money to it. Sitting in front of a TV set for two hours or more every day, or playing computer games for hours, but not having time to spend with the living God and to serve Him, is idolatry.

At first Demetrius plainly states that his concern is that Paul’s message was cutting into their profit margin (19:25). That was the bottom line! But then (19:27) he makes it sound a bit less self-serving by stating that their entire way of life, built around the famous Temple of Artemis, was in jeopardy. If people stopped flocking to the temple, it would disrupt their whole society. The entire economy would be affected. Inns and restaurants would lose business. Merchants who sold goods to the tourists would be hurting. And, the familiar customs and festivals associated with the worship of Artemis would come to an end. Perhaps even the great goddess, whom the whole world worshiped, would be dethroned from her magnificence!

This whipped the craftsmen into an irrational rage. On their way to the theater (which is still standing, and seated about 24,000), they somehow grabbed Gaius and Aristarchus, whom they recognized as being associated with Paul. Only by God’s gracious providence were they spared from being killed. Paul surely would have been killed if he had ventured into the arena as he wanted to do. But in this case, God protected His people, and no one got hurt.

3. God is sovereign to protect His church against the opposition of Satan.

Even in situations where missionaries have gotten killed, we know that God sovereignly protects His church. Satan is on a leash, and can only go as far as God lets him. As you know, on earlier occasions, Paul was stoned and beaten. Here, he was spared. But whatever happens, we can always know that God is never asleep when it comes to watching over His servants. His providential care and direction are ours, even when the enemy ferociously attacks us.

We see God’s sovereign providence in verse 21, where Paul lays out his plans for future ministry. It is ambiguous whether “in the spirit” means in his human spirit, or in the Holy Spirit, but I lean toward the Holy Spirit. When Paul says, “I must see Rome,” the word “must” is consistently used as a word of divine necessity. God was impelling Paul to new regions. In Romans 15:22-29, which he wrote shortly after this, he tells the Romans that after he visits Jerusalem, he hopes to see them and from there to keep heading west toward Spain. God was leading Paul by putting these desires in his heart

If you know the rest of the story, you know that Paul eventually did get to Rome, but not quite as he had envisioned! He got arrested in Jerusalem, detained in Caesarea for two years, and eventually, by way of shipwreck on Malta, got to Rome as a prisoner. We don’t know whether he ever did get to Spain. But Paul’s plans, made in dependence on the Spirit, show us that we should seek the Lord for how He wants to use us in His purpose. But the outworking of those plans is subject to His sovereign control.

In the riot in Ephesus, we see God’s providential protection of Paul and the other believers. If it had been up to Paul, he would have ventured into the arena and tried to address the unruly mob. He saw it as a choice opportunity to preach to thousands all at once! But surely he would have been viewed as the ringleader and the mob would have killed him. Later (21:11-14), Paul gets warned that he will be imprisoned if he goes to Jerusalem, and his friends plead with him not to go, but he goes anyway. But here he heeds their warning. Why did he listen here, but not there? I think the difference was the providential warning of his Asiarch friends. It is significant that Paul had a good relationship with these influential men, even though they were not yet believers. Out of respect for them and their position of influence, Paul held back from going into the theater to try to preach in this volatile situation.

Luke includes a somewhat obscure detail about a man named Alexander to show that Paul would not have gained a hearing anyway. Probably Alexander was put forward by the Jews to try to disassociate the Jews from the Christians. The Jews in Ephesus were against idolatry, of course, and they feared that the frenzied mob might launch a pogrom against the Jews as well as the Christians in this situation. So they wanted Alexander to show the mob that the Jews were not the cause of their loss of business. But he never got the chance. When they recognized him as a Jew, they started chanting for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” We don’t know if this is the same Alexander mentioned in two other places in Paul’s letters (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 4:14).

God finally protected Paul and the Ephesian Church through the wise words of the town clerk, who is comparable to the mayor. He was the one who would have to answer to Rome for this riot. He assured the crowd that the greatness of Artemis was not in danger, and that the two men they had apprehended were not guilty of robbing the temple or blaspheming their goddess. He reminded them of the proper judicial channels if they had a grievance. And he warned them of the consequences if Rome accused them of an unlawful assembly. Then he dismissed the crowd.

Conclusion

I could not find the exact quote, but T. W. Manson once said something like, “These early disciples were completely fearless, outrageously happy, and constantly in trouble.” This story makes me ask, “Am I doing anything significant enough on behalf of God’s kingdom to stir up the enemy’s opposition?” I realize that God sometimes grants the church times of peace (9:31). I also realize that the freedom of religion in our country assures us a certain amount of protection from persecution. But I also think that we should ponder G. Campbell Morgan’s words: “The Church persecuted has always been the Church pure, and therefore the Church powerful. The Church patronized has always been the Church in peril, and very often the Church paralyzed” (The Acts of the Apostles [Revell], p. 465). Are we making a powerful impact on our culture?

Have we burned our idols and cut off our ties with our old life of sin? Surveys show that those who profess to be evangelical Christians watch the same amount of TV and the same TV shows as the population at large. What if all who profess to know Christ stopped watching the filthy TV shows and spent the time studying their Bibles? What if Christians refused to go to or rent questionable movies or videos? Would Hollywood feel the loss of business? What if Christian young people kept themselves morally pure until marriage? What if Christians who were married kept their marriage vows and worked through their problems rather than get divorced? (There is currently no difference in divorce statistics between Christians and the general public.) What if Christians stopped squandering their wealth on frivolous toys and luxurious living and started living and giving sacrificially toward world missions?

Would these things impact our culture? Would unbelievers begin to see the effects of the gospel in our lives and be convicted of their sins? Would the Way of Jesus Christ begin to cause no small disturbance in the United States? Let’s begin in Flagstaff and find out!

Discussion Questions

  1. Should we question our impact for Christ if we are not experiencing Satan’s opposition? Why/why not?
  2. To what extent should Christians use political power for kingdom purposes? Where is the balance?
  3. What are some ways that evangelicals commonly engage in idolatry? How can we rid ourselves of such idols?
  4. When presenting the gospel, how confrontational should we be towards our sinful culture? Where is the balance between grace and salt (Col. 4:6)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Cultural Issues, Hamartiology (Sin), Satanology, Soteriology (Salvation), Suffering, Trials, Persecution