“In this way the word of the Lord flourished and prevailed.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever watched a movie, gotten to the “and they lived happily ever after” part, and thought, “There’s got to be more to that story”? So often, when a movie ends—especially a romantic comedy—it ends at a point where there is still a whole lot left to sort out between the characters. We’re just to assume love will work everything out. The fact is, in the real world, life keeps going. Here in Acts, we see this incredible victory by the believers in the city of Ephesus and for me at least, it gets me thinking there has to be more to the story. Well, there is.
Ephesus was one of the big, cosmopolitan cities of the Roman Empire. It was home to the famous temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It still stands today, if in ruins. Paganism dominated life in Ephesus. It was the controlling narrative for how people went through their day. It affected how people thought and interacted with one another. It was also one of the city’s primary economic engines. The buying and selling of things related to idol worship was a big business.
The thing about this ancient paganism, though, is that while its stories were powerful, they weren’t particularly good. Now, we look back today with great interest to the stories of Ancient Greek mythology. Living in a world defined by those stories wouldn’t have been so fun. Life was hard and short. Personal freedom was rare and societal roles were rigidly defined and mostly deeply inequitable for everyone not at the top tier. For women and children in particular, life was incredibly unfair.
Generally speaking, when the first Christian missionaries rolled up into town, they made a splash. Their ideas were fresh and different. The implications of what they were claiming were truly transformative and most everybody who heard them recognized that. Because of that, many rejected them. In some places, the rejection was stronger than in others. Ephesus, because of its very cosmopolitan spirit, was a place where the ideas of the Jesus followers actually took hold and began to grow and flourish.
And in a moment of remarkable success, what we see here is that they took hold to such an extent that a crowd of people voluntarily began to give up their artifacts of idolatry. They trashed their idols and burned their magic scrolls (not really magic, but the selling of scrolls with spells for various things written on them was big business). It would have been a little like a movement of the Spirit in a city where drug use is common resulting in hundreds of people coming together to destroy their drugs and commit to not buying them ever again. Powerful stuff. The net economic impact, Luke tells us, was 50,000 pieces of silver. This was no small splash. It was a tidal wave.
If this was the end of the story, it would be a powerful one. The church conquered its opposition and advanced in transformative ways. If this was a movie, the director would end with Rome hearing about it and being worried over this potentially successful threat to its reign. The movie might close with a postscript showing Constantine’s famous edict so we can see how the victory became complete.
But the thing about a tidal wave is that it’s hard to miss when you’ve been hit by it. This one wasn’t. Remember how paganism was big business in Ephesus. Well, all of these people refusing to participate to the tune of 50,000 pieces of silver was a dent in their bottom line the industry couldn’t ignore. Most businesses then were part of a guild which was kind of like a union, but more controlling of its members. The silversmith guild which was most impacted by this spiritual revival sparked a huge and violent riot that was only calmed down when a city official reminded them that if they wouldn’t quiet down on their own, Rome would make them do it and that wouldn’t go well for anybody. If there was a legal complaint, let the courts handle it.
Paul tried to go out and speak to the crowd, but local believers prevailed on him to stay out of sight (they probably had to lock him in a closet) for fear that the mob would kill him. Instead, they snuck him out of town to the next stop on his journey. But you can bet that life for the believers in Ephesus was about to get difficult. Really difficult.
That’s all well and good, but what does this mean for us. Beyond being a really gripping story from the earliest days of the church, what kind of timeless truths impact our lives here. Are there any? I think there are—two in fact—but you probably aren’t going to like them. They certainly aren’t very comfortable.
The first is that the Christian worldview, when introduced or otherwise advanced in a culture, is going to have an impact on it. Sometimes that impact is going to be more profound than others. Apart from it, sin dominates the landscape in a way that affects everything. Like the blanket impact of paganism on the life of the Ephesian people, sin touches every part of a culture. Whole industries owe their existence to it. When the Christian worldview begins to advance, rolling back the impact of sin, some of those industries are going to be affected. Seriously affected. Bottom-line-crumbling affected. In the big picture, this is always a good thing, but in the immediate picture, it is going to be highly disruptive of the way folks are accustomed to doing life.
This leads us to the second timeless truth, when the Christian worldview advances with its disruptive, positively destructive impact, it is going to face resistance. At times that resistance is going to be fierce. Sometimes even violently so. Our happily ever after isn’t coming until Jesus returns and so we should not expect one before then. We will experience profound victories along the way, but the enemy will keep finding ways to make those victories as painful as possible until his final defeat has arrived. This means that when the going forward gets tough things are just exactly as they should be. If we are pushing toward the kingdom together, there are going to be days where it feels more like we’re slogging forward rather than walking with boldness. We keep going.
If you are a part of advancing the Christian worldview and the kingdom of God into this world, you should expect some rough days ahead. But our faithful God will never leave us alone in the journey. Not even once. Have confidence and keep going. Our victory is on the horizon.