November 23, 2003

CAUSING A COMMOTION

Soon the whole city was in an uproar. Acts 19:29

Demetrius had a problem. His business had been making big money for years, but now demand was dropping and sales were shrinking. The money wasn’t coming in the way it once did.

Demetrius was the head of a company that manufactured silver statues of a goddess called Artemis. Demetrius lived in the city of Ephesus, which had a temple for Artemis (also called Diana by some people). Artemis was a goddess of sex and success. Her priestesses served as temple prostitutes, so if you were a man going to her temple, you could enjoy sexual encounters. When you left the temple, you could count on Artemis to give you a good sex life, a fertile family, a prosperous farm or business, and plenty of fun.

But you couldn’t be at the temple all the time, so how could you make sure that Artemis would be available to help you when you were elsewhere? It was easy, though a bit pricey. You could buy a miniature silver shrine, your own personal icon of Artemis. You could take this mobile goddess with you to any location you wanted. The silver statue would be your charm for sex, prosperity, and pleasure. Selling statues of Artemis seemed like a can’t-miss business, and for a long time, it was. Demetrius made big money as the chairman of Artemis Incorporated, and so did many other people in related trades.

But then sales began to slump. The slump started when a stranger came to town. The stranger, named Paul, said that there was only one God and that this God had come to earth in the person of someone named Jesus. Those who believed this stopped worshiping Artemis. They stayed away from temple prostitutes, and no longer bought silver idols. That upset Demetrius. His income was going down, so he decided to take action. He held a meeting of his fellow idol makers. [non-rhyming alternative: Demetrius opened the meeting by saying,

“Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people… 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” (Acts 19:25-27).

When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” Soon the whole city was in an uproar… The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there… They all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:25-34).

Finally the city clerk managed to quiet the crowd. He scolded them for aggression against Christians who hadn’t robbed their temple or insulted their religion. He warned that they had not followed due process of law and that they were in danger of being charged with senseless rioting. Then he dismissed them.]

The meeting became a noisy protest and then a full-scale riot. The Bible tells what happened in chapter 19 of The Acts of the Apostles, written by a physician named Luke. I’ve taken Dr. Luke’s account and put it into a style more like Dr. Seuss.

With a moan and a groan and a scowl and a growl,

Demetrius snarled, “Shall we throw in the towel?

We can’t seem to sell all these idols we’ve made.

The people won’t buy them. We’re not getting paid.

Our idols were selling for oodles of money,

But now we can’t sell them, and that isn’t funny.

Shall we throw in the towel? No! I say we shall not!”

As he spoke, his friends’ tempers began to grow hot.

Then on went Demetrius, madder than ever,

“You know who’s been wrecking our business endeavor?

This fellow named Paul!” (All agreed with a nod.)

“This fellow keeps saying there’s only one God.

He says Jesus Christ is the one all should trust.

When folks believe that, they stop buying from us.

It’s time to do something. It can’t hurt to try it.

Let’s praise our great goddess and start a great riot.

So that’s what they did, and they did it quite well,

Those furious men with a goddess to sell.

They were stomping and shouting and screaming so loud

That soon they attracted an oversize crowd

Who thought yelling rage seemed the “in” thing to do.

But why they were there, most of them hadn’t a clue.

Before long the whole town had become one huge mob.

How to calm it back down? An impossible job!

For two hours they screamed, till they barely could croak.

Then the clerk of the city stood up, and he spoke:

“What’s all the commotion? We’ve got a great idol.

We give her devotion. We honor her title.

But why attack people who’ve done nothing wrong?

What stand around squawking so loud and so long?

This hubbub could get our fine city in trouble.

So shut your loud mouths, and go home on the double.”

When idol-makers blow their stack

and try to start a fight,

It means God’s people are on track;

They’re doing something right.

But when we worship money, sex,

TVs and sports and song,

Demetrius gets filthy rich.

We’re doing something wrong.

Starting An Uproar

If you read the book of Acts, you find that wherever the early Christians brought the message of Jesus, the gospel changed some people’s lives in a big way and upset other people in a big way. The riot in Ephesus wasn’t the first or last time there was a commotion over Christianity.

Earlier, in the city of Philippi, Paul invoked the name of Jesus to drive an evil spirit out of a slave girl. That angered the girl’s owners, because the evil spirit had been predicting the future, and the girl’s owners had made big money on fees for fortune telling.

When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace … and said, “These men are Jews and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in the attack (Acts 16:20-22).

Did the apostles really push unlawful, anti-Roman behavior? No, although Paul and Silas were Jewish Christians, they were also Roman citizens and broke no Roman law. Their only “crime” was transforming a young girl’s life by the power of Jesus and hurting the cash flow of those who had been exploiting the girl.

Paul and Silas next went to the city of Thessalonica and proclaimed Jesus as Messiah and Savior. Quite a few people were persuaded to become Christians, but others “formed a mob and started a riot in the city.” They shouted, “’These men who have caused trouble all over the world [these men who are turning the world upside down (KJV)] have now come here… They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus’. When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil” (Acts 17:5-8). Were the apostles really defying Caesar and trying to bring down the government? No, but introducing people to Jesus as the ultimate ruler did revolutionize the way people lived. The apostles were turning the world rightside up, but to people standing on their heads, the gospel seemed upside down.

When Paul later traveled to Ephesus, the home city of Demetrius and the temple of Artemis, the pattern repeated itself: the gospel transformed some people and made others want to riot. For two years Paul stayed in Ephesus and had daily discussions about Jesus. Practically everybody in the region heard the word of the Lord. Along with the gospel teaching came healings, release from evil spirits, and other demonstrations of God’s power. Response was dramatic. People revered Jesus. They openly admitted wrong things they had done. Some even decided to have a bonfire and burn their sorcery books. They had paid big money for scrolls teaching them the secrets of sorcery, but now that they belonged to Jesus, they wanted nothing to do with sorcery. Those new Christians burned their evil books, which had cost them a total of about 50,000 drachmas. A drachma was a day’s wage, so that was an expensive bonfire—50,000 days’ wages,  about 150 years of total income, up in smoke.

It was about that time that Demetrius and his cronies noticed that their idol-selling business wasn’t doing so well, and they blamed the recession on Paul. He was bad for business. Paul wasn’t pushing a political agenda or organizing a consumer boycott. He didn’t try to pass a law against the worship of Artemis, but when people got to know Jesus, they lost interest in Artemis. Paul didn’t push for government censorship of bad books, but when people heard the divine truths of Scripture, they knew their sorcery books were good for nothing but a bonfire. Paul didn’t push new legislation, but the Christian way of life shook cities and societies to their foundations.

Demetrius Prospers

That brings up the question: Why were there so many riots against Christians in that society and so few in our society? Well, people like Demetrius don’t riot if business is good. If society remains profitable for idolatry and immorality, if not many people are decisively different because of the gospel, if those who claim to follow Jesus keep buying from Demetrius, he won’t get upset. In the book of Acts, the new Christians were very different from non-Christians around them, and Demetrius’ income went down as a result. But in our society, many church people remain much like those without Christ, and they are as likely as anyone else to buy from Demetrius.

If Demetrius is a Hollywood producer, does he worry about losing money because of people who follow Jesus? Not likely. When Demetrius of Hollywood produces entertainment filled with sex, slaughter, and foul language, church people are almost as likely as unchurched people to buy his theatre tickets, rent his videos and DVDs, and watch his TV shows. If Demetrius runs a music company that cranks out godless, immoral albums, he can count on church teenagers to buy his garbage. Why would a modern-day Demetrius get upset at people who claim to be Christians? They are some of his best customers!

If Demetrius lives in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, does he find that the profits from gambling are going down? No, gambling is big business and continues to expand. Growth in gambling is not just due to formerly illegal gambling being legalized, and it’s not just due to non-churched people gambling more. It’s also due to many church people buying lottery tickets and crowding into casinos. They are so in love with luck, so discontented with what they have, so eager for easy money, so bored with everyday work and wise stewardship of money, that they gamble away money God has entrusted to them. If Demetrius runs a casino or lottery, why would he start a riot against church people? He’s too busy raking in cash from them.

If Demetrius runs a brewery, is he losing money because so many devout followers of Jesus have limited their drinking or have given up alcohol entirely? No, liquor sellers make big money, not least from churchgoers. Despite the Bible’s strong words against getting drunk, many young people from churchgoing families think that getting drunk is the essence of fun. Many of their parents can’t relax and have a good time unless they have several drinks to loosen things up. Many church weddings are followed by receptions with open bars, and what begins as a solemn ceremony ends as a drunken bash. If Demetrius is in the liquor business, does he object to churchgoers? Of course not. He’s too busy counting the profits from their latest party.

If Demetrius runs a store that’s open seven days a week, does he lose money on Sunday because so many Christians want to keep Sunday special for God and won’t shop on that day? If Demetrius runs a professional sports franchise, does he have a problem because Christian players won’t play on Sunday or because Christian fans stay away from the stadium on Sundays and leave their television off? No, Sunday is the number one day for pro sports, and now it’s becoming a day for organized sports leagues at all levels down to youth and children. If a child has practice or a game on Sunday, and if it is scheduled at the same time as a church service—well, why not skip church? Why would Demetrius start a commotion against churchgoers when Sunday is a super moneymaker for him?

 

Demetrius Complains

Here and there some Christians still upset a modern-day Demetrius. Film star Mel Gibson decided to produce a movie about the suffering and death of Jesus, and Gibson said he wanted to make it as historically accurate as possible. Critics objected loudly and angrily even before seeing the film. Many of these same critics liked a play depicting Jesus and his disciples as a gang of homosexuals, and they liked The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie that portrayed Jesus as confused and lustful. Demetrius doesn’t mind Jesus, so long as it’s a phony, sinful Jesus. But any attempt to present the genuine Jesus of the Bible upsets Demetrius.

If Demetrius is in politics, he doesn’t mind religion if it doesn’t interfere with him, but he will cause a commotion if Christians influence public policy in any significant way. Lord Melbourne of Britain was upset at a movement led by evangelical Christians, and he thundered, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.” What made him so angry? Those evangelical Christians were striving to end the slave trade. Slave traders would need to find a new way to make money, and the economy wouldn’t have access to so much free labor. It would have been far more convenient for every slave-trading Demetrius if those Christians hadn’t turned the world upside down by valuing slaves as children of God.

When Demetrius runs an abortion clinic, he is maintaining a temple for people who worship sex and money and offer human sacrifices to their goddess. He has no problem with church people who see his business as a basic right and pay him to kill their unborn babies. But he hates those to consider life sacred. Demetrius claims to be pro-choice, but he wants the choice to be death, not life. If a state license plate says “Choose life” or a television commercial says, “Life: what a beautiful choice!” Demetrius the abortionist howls about the horror of mixing religion and politics.

If Demetrius belongs to a non-Christian religion or has no religion at all, he doesn’t mind churchgoers who keep their faith to themselves. But if Christians call others to trust Jesus as Savior and Lord, and if growing numbers of people become Christians, watch out! Demetrius denounces mission-minded Christians as proselytizers and bigots, and he launches a campaign against them. Demetrius won’t cause a commotion over a brand of Christianity that says almost nothing and changes almost nobody. But he’ll attack Christians who live and speak in the power of Jesus and spread the Christian way to others. A dead, decaying brand of Christianity upsets almost nobody; it fits right in with the world’s way of doing things. But a living, spreading faith in Jesus arouses opposition.

God-Pleaser, Not People-Pleaser

One of the chief differences between a lively Christian and a deadbeat is that the lively Christian wants God’s approval, while the deadbeat cares most about the world’s opinion. The apostle Paul was a God-pleaser, not a people pleaser. Paul said, “We dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition… We are not trying to please men but God” (1 Thessalonians 2:2,4). Paul said bluntly, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

Some of us want to impress intellectuals. But Paul didn’t fear the scorn of scholars. In Athens, the intellectual capital of the world, some philosophers disputed with Paul and asked, “’ What is this babbler trying to say?’ … When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered” (Acts 17:18,32). But Paul spoke the gospel clearly, despite the mockery of many intellectuals, and some became Christians as a result. Why be intimidated by what intellectuals say about you? The Bible says that intellectuals in Athens “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). Many in our universities do the same thing. They have lectures and debates without end, but they have no grasp of the basic truths that give life meaning and direction. If they have no convictions about the things that matter most, why be intimidated if they sneer at your beliefs?

Don’t fear the jeers of intellectuals, and don’t worry about public opinion. In the riot at Ephesus led by Demetrius, a huge mob gathered in the temple of Artemis and yelled at the top of their lungs for two hours. It may have looked like an impressive demonstration, and if such a commotion took place today, it would certainly be featured on the TV news. But the Bible says of these noisy, showy demonstrators, “Most of them did not even know why they were there” (Acts 19:32). They were upset because—well, just because everybody else was upset. Being upset was the thing to do. That’s how it often is with public opinion and boisterous crowds. A few cunning ringleaders (like Demetrius) have an agenda, but many others join the commotion without even knowing why they are there. So let’s not be too upset if we don’t fit into the mainstream of public opinion or if we feel outnumbered. God’s evaluation is what matters.

Paul couldn’t afford to take people’s opinions too seriously. Some people differed wildly from others, and even the same people could swing from one extreme to another in a short time. In one city, Lystra, Paul used the power of Christ to heal a man who had been crippled all his life because of a birth defect. When the man jumped up and began to walk, the crowd shouted, “The gods have come down to us in human form.” But a short time later, that same crowd turned against Paul and pelted him with rocks in an effort to kill him (Acts 14:8-20). One minute Paul was a god, the next minute he wasn’t fit to live.

On another occasion, Paul was gathering wood for a fire when a poisonous snake bit him. A crowd of people nearby thought Paul must be a murderer and this was the divine death penalty for his crime. “But Paul shook the snake into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god” (Acts 28:5-6). A criminal one moment, a god the next—when people’s opinions swing between such extremes, it’s far better not to worry what they think of you. Just focus on God’s evaluation of you.

In one of the many riots that broke out in reaction to Paul ministry, an officer asked him, “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and let four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?” (Acts 21:38). The commander was surprised to learn that Paul spoke his language and was a fellow citizen who had nothing to do with foreign terrorists.

You never know what rumors might spread about you or what people might think of you, and that’s all the more reason to focus on what God thinks of you. The early Christians were rumored to be terrorists, rumored to be atheists, rumored to be arsonists who set Rome on fire, rumored to be cannibals, and rumored to be all sorts of horrible things, but the rumors were false. They were simply followers of Jesus who caused a commotion by trusting Jesus, living for Jesus, and calling others to Jesus. Still today, if you are a Christian worth your salt, some people will despise and oppose you, but your goal is not to be a people pleaser but a God-pleaser. You have one boss, not many. Your boss’s name is Jesus.

Badge of Honor

If Christians are accused of stirring up trouble, it’s not necessarily a disgrace. It may be a huge honor. Jesus says, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you… If the persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18-20). Religion that suits the world is out of touch with Jesus. If it never provokes opposition, it won’t provide salvation.

The only kind of Christianity worth joining is the kind that’s worth opposing. If church people offer religion that is so weak or so much like the world that idol worshipers don’t feel any need to oppose it, then it’s not worth joining by those who seek the living God. This doesn’t mean Christians are eager to make enemies. It simply means that a faithful Christian life and witness will unavoidably provoke hostility from those who prefer life without Christ and who, like Demetrius, feel they have too much to lose if Christianity spreads too much. A gospel that never turns anybody off will probably not turn anyone on to the reality of salvation in Jesus and the revolutionary new life that comes from his Holy Spirit and is taught in the Holy Bible.

There’s one thing I don’t want you to miss in all this: the enormous joy and privilege of belonging to Jesus. Why do you think Paul was willing to face so much misunderstanding? Why didn’t he just stay home and keep quiet and not stir things up? Why do you think he kept telling people about Jesus, despite rumors, riots, beatings, and attempts to kill him? Because none of these problems mattered compared to knowing Jesus and having a real relationship with him. Paul wanted to follow Jesus and stay close to him, no matter what the cost, because he had tasted the Lord’s goodness. He knew that the benefit was so huge it would always outweigh the cost. Paul wanted to bring others to Jesus so that they too could enjoy what he already enjoyed:  a transformed life and eternal life in Christ.

In fact, that’s why I’m talking to you right now. I know that many people outside the Christian church have never tasted the joy of Jesus, and I know that even many in the church have a wimpy, worthless religion. They have none of the thrill and life-changing power of the Holy Spirit whose work is described in the biblical book of Acts. The church needs a revival of power and a renewal of holiness so that the impact of Christ will be impossible to ignore.

When that happens, Demetrius and his pals may be eager to start a riot, but many others will leave behind the emptiness of the sinful world for fullness in Christ. They will turn away from the goddess of sex and success, they will stop buying into lies, and they will believe the truth and receive the free gift of life in through Jesus. Many people inside the church may discover for the first time the Lord they have always claimed to believe in, and many outside the church will get to know Jesus and become part of his living church. Pray that God will make that happen, starting with you.

PRAYER

Father in heaven, forgive us when we fit the pattern of this world rather than the pattern of new life in Christ. By your Holy Spirit, replace our sin with your holiness, and replace our weakness and ineffectiveness with your power. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.