The great problem with man continues after he is converted to Christ is that of passivity and pacifism. We see it depicted in Melville’s Moby Dick or the Great Whale. There are two characters who appear to know what is right, but are reluctant to do so for different reasons. Both are Christians. The one is named Ishmael, the main character besides the Whale and the villain named Ahab. Ishmael is a Christian with self-interest. It is important to identify what I heard one accurately say—that selfishness is not the definition of sin, though all selfishness is sin. Nonetheless, he is a Christian character who is self-preserving. As a result he cannot conquer Ahab so as to save the ship. But neither can the other candidate for a different reason. Starbuck is a quaker pacifist, but considered another Christian character. He too knows Ahab to be a wicked man, but instead of fighting to save the ship from him, he believes it a sin to fight even against evil. Well, that is exactly the opposite you have in Paul and biblical Christianity. But there is a distinction in Paul’s fighting. Contrary to popular opinion, he doesn’t use a serrated edge to conquer and destroy idols, but a double-edged sword of the gospel of his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, etc.
In vv.21–22 we have the resolve of the apostle to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome. In carrying out his mission according to the promise of Matthew 24:14, he is more willing to neglect his own comforts than to leave those in Macedonia without pastoral and financial care in the form of Timothy and Erastus. Timothy being the pastor sent as 1 Cor 4:17–19 indicates as well; and Erastus, likely a treasurer later noted in Rome (Rom 16:23). He resolves in Spirit, showing his resolve is not some personal resolve, but on that is inspired by the Spirit of God, the second person of the Trinity. He resolves to conquer any and all things that raise themselves up against the knowledge of God and Christ. This comes in the form as we see next of idolatry’s roots. The wisdom of God is that he sets forth his servants, here Paul as a preacher, but even greater, his own Son as a propitiation by his blood (Rom 3:25). Consider how certain salvation is because how great God and Christ are; and how vastly different they are from the religions of fallen men. How much our God cares, unlike idols, for people, that he would give his own Son for us. How much Christ cares for people, unlike idols, to lay down his own life for us, than to preserve, his own at our expense. The resolve of Paul is evidence of he resolve and care and love of God for sinners that is not empty, but empties itself for people. And any who get this and receive it are those who become willing to lay down their own lives for him who gave his life for them.
In vv.23–27 the roots of idolatry are exposed. On the surface one would see only a “disturbance concerning the Way.” It was obviously not a little one, because little gods cause great problems. The problem was that Christ proclaimed as the Way threatened the business of the silversmith Demetrius and all like him. He was a maker of shrines, which I am told elsewhere were a part of homes inside and outside at the time; in addition to the temple which boasted of 127 pillars each being 60 ft high, and four times larger than the parthenon in Athens. Evidently, Paul is going on to conquer greater things with the gospel. But behind or rather below this idolatry are certain roots, and the roots are here exposed in the silversmith’s speech. The first exposure of the root of their idolatry is that of gathering his fellow workmen together (v.25) indicating that the matter had more to do with money than morals. He makes his speech, I think slanderously of Paul based on what is said in v.37 later, that Paul was approaching the whole matter directly. He was not doing this. He was preaching Christ, the Way; that much is clear (v.23). The inference appears to be made by the craftsmen not directly by Paul. Well, the argument goes because what Paul is saying about their gods which are their business and means of livelihood, is a threat to that, but then is added dishonor to the great goddess Artemis. Artemis was a false god of fertility and the hunt. The threat is that she would be deemed to be nothing. Amazing is the contrast between Artemis and Christ. Christ of course did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but made himself nothing (Philippians 2) becoming a servant. The opposite was true of Artemis, the people had to serve her because she needed to be served, lest she and her magnificence come to nothing. The claim that the whole world and Asia worshipped is accurate at the time. This was reportedly the largest religion in the world, and Paul is challenging it with a little Word that threatens to undo them and their idols. The root of their idolatry is the love of money, and it is exposed. So opposite of Jesus Christ our Savior and so opposite of the selfless Paul who gave up his dear companions for the sake of the church in Macedonia. Idolatry is willing to give up nothing.
The fruit of idolatry is chaos and disorder. Contrary to opinion, chaos and disorder did not exist before idolatry, but is its result. Men did not cry out meaningless phrases for hours, or cut themselves in religious ritual until a different god was worshiped than Yahweh. But idolatry yields rage, as v.28 describes, as well as meaningless phrases. Followed by this is “confusion” v.29, and again Babel followed idolatry and did not exist at creation. Paul however was shielded by means of friends and even future enemies. The Asiarchs, high-ranking officers of the province of Asia acted as friends as they were friends. They could be trusted by him. Alexander put forward by the Jews is likely the coppersmith who later did Paul much harm (2 Tim 4); nevertheless, he had no power to stop the riot. For two hours the people cried out their meaningless mantra “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (v.34). Idolatry leads to riot which involves confusion and chaos. It is full of meaningless phrases. It is so opposite of the Christian Way who teaches us to pray not like the Gentiles do, but to pray to Our Father in heaven, etc. (cf. Matt 6). Nevertheless, God put up a shield around Paul by his providence. His resolve evidencing the love of God and preaching the way of God caused the enemy to retreat. Idolatry brings chaos, worship of Christ brings peace.
The gospel is not retreating, but the enemy is, closing its gates at the threat. We see this in the self-preserving care the town clerk in vv.35–41. The town clerk is an Ishmael or Starbuck, self-preserving and pacifistic, unlike church militant, which doctrine is that the church on earth is at war with sin, the world and Satan. The church militant does not march with the world, but against its idols. We do not have to go any further than our own hearts to face these idols, as Calvin called the heart idolorum fabricum, Idol Factories. The Christian church is willing to suffer, is vigilantly defensive, and always on the offense, with God’s Word and prayer to conquer exposing and destroying the lies of Satan (cf. article by Vandoodewaard in Tabletalk April 2023). Anywhere the gospel is preached the enemy must retreat. And that was Paul’s method. He did not as one said, fly in the face of what his audience counted sacred, rather he effectually undermined all idolatry by preaching Christ (Arnot). Just as the Lord shielded Paul by the careless leader Gallio, so again, a self-preserving town clerk is set as a shield to Paul and most importantly a security that the gospel will advance. In the end the town clerk got something right—they were in danger (v.40). He effectively clears the slander that Paul got in their face about their idolatry, the truth was that he only got in their face about Christ and his Cross. This is the way the enemy retreats.
Therefore, the matter is settled that Paul’s method to make the enemy retreat was by the Spirit of God not to fly in the face of what men consider sacred, but to preach Christ and the Cross, and by this God conquers the enemy and makes him a shield for God’s servants. Thus, if we wish to see idolatry conquered in the world in the greatest places of its existence, we must begin conquering the city of our hearts not by preaching its idolatry but by preaching the cross to our idolatry and find that as we lose our lives for Christ’s sake we actually find our lives, and are shielded from future sins caused by selfish desires. Everything will cower in the light of God’s glory and grace, including the idols of our heart, and the idols of our greatest cities. Christ Jesus and His Cross is the answer to this, resolved we must be to take him to the nations, but how can we be, if we do not first take him to our own hearts. Amen.
[after preparing this message, I was greatly encouraged to hear Alisatair Begg’s message on this text, where he closes with these words: “Thank you that there was no charge of disruption that could be leveled against them. They were not bringing down the structures of the day by their overt judgmental posture, but that they were impinging upon the economic sanctity and the religious proclivity of Ephesus as a result of the transforming of the gospel of faith in Jesus Christ.” I pray in unity with this prayer, “Help us to learn this lesson; that you will help us to make an impact upon __________ in more ways than we are even clever enough to envisage. That you will come and surprise us by your intervention. That as a result of the gospel taking root in our hearts and in our homes and in our lives we may genuinely rescue the perishing, care for the dying, and tell them of Jesus who is mighty to save. And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, rest us upon us now and forever more, amen.” ]