Idols, Riots, and Prayers...Oh My!
A hot button topic among many Christians today is the intersection of "social justice" (a term that Kevin DeYoung, writing for the Gospel Coalition last year, rightly defined as "nebulous") and the Gospel. The question at hand is, how does the Gospel (that is the good news of salvation through faith in Christ) influence or determine how Christians are to think or act as members of a society (i.e. politics, social issues, etc.)? Despite disagreement among believers on both sides of the debate, what all believers can and should agree on is that when and where the Gospel of Jesus Christ takes root in a community, an inevitable side-effect of the personal transformation of individuals should be a related communal transformation. In other words, our actions should be in-step with what we profess to believe and who we profess to believe in. Believers who have been impacted by God's grace will live out their faith in the context of the community where they live, work, study, worship, etc. In so doing, they should, as the present and active hands and feet of Jesus, follow in the footsteps of their Lord and Savior in standing for the truth of God's word, promoting equality and fighting to protect basic human rights (especially for those who have been marginalized or victimized), resisting evil, showing compassion and mercy, serving those in need, heralding the Gospel, and calling sinners to saving faith that leads to repentance. When this happens, the watching world, for better or for worse, will surely take notice.
We see this play out in the narrative of Paul's ministry in Ephesus from Acts chapter 19. In this pagan metropolis - a melting pot of people from a multitude of racial, cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds - the large number of conversions to faith in Christ was beginning to alter the societal landscape of the city. For some, this was a matter of significant concern, especially as this shift posed a threat to their finances and/or challenged their authority. One thing that history has taught us is that the surest way to incite someone to action is to threaten their wallet or their throne. When an unstoppable force, like the tide of Gospel-fueled revival, meets an immovable object, like the stubborn unbelief and rampant rebellion of stiff-necked sinners, the fallout from such a powerful collision is sure to drastically impact the status quo.
In Ephesus, the entire identity of the city was rooted in the idolatrous worship of the goddess Artemis. As Cody mentioned, the city was home to a temple devoted to her that was so massive that it is listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. As you might imagine, this mammoth structure, and the culture of worship that surrounded it, were a central component of the lifeblood of the city in which it stood. People would come from all over to worship the goddess and to receive the "blessings" of doing so. This created a number of potential sources of revenue for local merchants and craftsmen, of which there was no shortage who were looking to cash in. Additionally, the fame of the city was a source of civic pride. So, when Paul was converting large numbers of people to Christianity through his preaching ministry in the city, he ruffled some feathers.
As we learned this week, this eventually led to an uproar from among the people that turned into a full-scale riot. As Luke recounts, and as is typical in rioting, what began with a group of angry and frustrated people with a focused purpose, quickly became a hornets' nest of confused activity. I recall watching the Los Angeles riots of April-May 1992 on the news as a young teen. What started with protesting by members of the African-American community who felt betrayed and victimized by law enforcement and the judicial system in the city, quickly degraded into vandalism and looting; not for the sake of justice, equality, or change, but simply for the sake of indulging in anarchy. The "mob mentality" is sure to bring out the worst in people. This is the best picture of human depravity, because we get a glimpse of what the world would look like apart from God's providential ordering of all things...confusion, chaos, anarchy, violence, and destruction...completely devoid of all reasonableness. It is humanity at its most primitive and carnal...pure animal, the absence of what makes us human (the rejection of the imago dei). What a scary place to be.
The story of Ephesus is a mirror to the soul of sinful men. We were created to worship, but instead of worshiping our Creator, God, we worship that which he has created. Instead of pursuing the eternal Giver of every good thing, we devote our hearts and our minds to the pursuit of that which is perishable. We follow after men, gods, and idols, instead of walking in obedience to the Almighty King. We revel in chaos and disorder, and reject the Prince of Peace. This is who we are.
Yet in the midst of all of the turmoil in Ephesus, God sent a voice of reason; a peacemaker to restore order. A lone voice, that of the town clerk, sovereignly administered, calmed the raucous crowd. This story serves as a reminder to all men that no matter how out of control things may feel, there is always a capable captain steering the ship through turbulent waters. No one knew this truth better than the Apostle Paul. Throughout his ministry, he had seen and experienced the worst of humanity. However, he also knew first-hand the hope of the Gospel of Christ. It was this hope to which he clung in the midst of life's storms. It was this hope, and the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which led him to write in his letter to the church at Colossae:
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister" (Colossians 1:15-23).
The message of the Gospel is singular in nature, in that it points to one Lord and one Savior who is the one true hope for the salvation of his people...there is but one faith. At the same time, its roots permeate every aspect of the believer's life. For this reason, the outworking of faith is so multifaceted. It gives hope to the hopeless, peace to the restless, and life to the dead in sin. The Gospel is the power of God in the redemption and restoration of a broken and fallen world. It is Christ's creative power in making all things new. Day by day, he tears down the old, all that stands in opposition to him, and with great care and precision, rebuilds a monument unto himself in us that is worthy of the glory which is befitting to he alone. Paul would later write in his epistle to the Ephesians, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them"(Ephesians 2:10).
When we "walk in [good works]," we shine the light of Christ into dark places. Typically this is met with opposition. Things that are hidden in the dark usually prefer to stay that way. In Ephesus, the early Christians faced rioting. For us today, we aren't likely to encounter such dangers. For others around the world, the same may not be true. However, all of us can rest in the fact that the same God who was faithful to sustain his people then is the same eternally immutable God we serve today.
If you missed this week's sermon (or just want to listen again), follow the link below to listen. Or subscribe to our podcast in iTunes.
Part 44 - When Christianity Is Threatened
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. What was it about Paul's teaching that clashed with the culture in Ephesus?
2. How did God sustain His people in Ephesus?
3. How do you believe God sustains you?
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