Mission Unstoppable - A Pagan Backlash

Updated: 19 April 2012

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Mission Unstoppable - A Pagan Backlash

Collision Course

The book of Acts in the New Testament, in chapter 19, shows us what happened when the early Christians, who had "turned the world upside-down" (Acts 17:6 ESV) collided head-on with the paganism of the Greek-Roman culture of the day.

Background - Ephesus, Paganism and Paul

was the capital city of the Roman province of "Proconsular Asia", roughly what is now the country of Turkey, and one of the most important cities after Rome itself. It was famous as a cultural and educational centre, having a population of 400,000-500,000 people in the first century AD. The Roman Proconsul (governor) had his headquarters at Ephesus. It was also a major trading centre, being the port of Asia Minor facing west to Greece and the rest of Europe. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the great Temple of Artemis, was at Ephesus, and was the size of a 6 storey high football field.
there are many definitions of paganism, the narrowest being any religion that does not trace its descent from Abraham, that is, any but Judaism, Christianity or Islam. A broader definition is that pagan religions all have many gods, with an emphasis on nature worship; the gods of Egypt, the Baals and Astartes of the ancient Middle East, the Norse gods of the North-men, Bel and Ishtar of the Babylonians, the multitude of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses in their "Pantheons" - literally "all the gods". Wicca is a modern form of paganism, as was ancient Druid-ism. Hinduism is not strictly a pagan religion, being by their definition monotheistic, as Hindus follow the idea of but One God, made visible in many forms, hence the multitude of their idols; "Many gods in One God". Buddhism at its purest is not a religion at all, but a philosophy, acknowledging no gods.
Pagan religions
almost always include occult practices such as necromancy, magic and sorcery. Many in the past have used human sacrifice and loveless sex in their rituals (though this seems to have been rare in Greek culture). Secret knowledge, only for the initiated ones, is a common part of paganism.
Pagan practices in Israel
Idolatry, including human sacrifice, magic and sorcery, were rife among the Israelites throughout their history. They were continually falling back into such things. This was one of the chief reasons for God sending the Assyrians and Babylonians to destroy their land and take the survivors into exile. They did not learn well, however, and magic and sorcery, with their offer of power over nature and people, continued into Jesus' day, and on through the centuries, and are still alive and (un)well (this is far from saying that magic is widespread among Jewish people, but the interest in it is still present). In Acts 8 you can meet Simon Magus (called the "Great Power") the Jewish sorcerer of Samaria and in Acts 13, Bar-Jesus, the Jewish sorcerer on Cyprus. (if you want to learn more, search the web for Kaballah, or Cabala. Wikipedia is helpful -->
the great Apostle stopped for nearly three years at Ephesus, on his second missionary journey.
A strategic city
for the spreading of the Gospel. In that time, many people, both of Jewish and Gentile background, came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah/Rescuer long promised by the one true God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. A vibrant church came into being there. "And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia (Minor, ie, Turkey and its regions) heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks." (19:10 NIV)
It is from here
that we take up the story in Acts chapter 19, from verse 11, of the unstoppable growth of Christianity (ie, of Jesus the Lord building His church, just as He said he would) and the inevitable backlash of Paganism under threat.

Jesus Magnified, v11-22

By extraordinary Miracles
in Jesus' Name. Paul was used by God to do remarkable miracles of healing, including healing from evil spirits. Even Paul's sweat-rag and apron (from his tent-making trade) brought healing. (Paul often supported himself in this way, and it was a rule among the Jews that every man, Rabbis, Pharisees included, should have a manual trade too, for they valued work as a gift from God) It may be that God was shaming the many magicians and wizards who gathered at Ephesus, displaying Jesus' power as so much greater than theirs.
By the Magicians' lips
Even some magicians/exorcists showed the great power of Jesus' name, by trying to use it to drive out demons. They would say "In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out" (v13 NIV. Especially among the Jewish magicians the "hidden" name of God, which they pretended to know by their magic arts, was considered the ultimate incantation, the ultimate weapon.
By an evil spirit
The seven sons of Sceva appear to be seven of the Jewish magicians in Ephesus. They also were using Jesus' name as an incantation for exorcisms. When they tried it on just one demon-possessed man, the evil spirit said with sarcasm "Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?" Then the man leapt on them all and "gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding." (v16 NIV) Seven "mighty" magicians shamed in public by one demon who himself trembled at the name of Jesus.
By fear of God
seizing all in Ephesus. "When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor." (v17 NIV)
By public confession
"Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds." (v18 NIV) It is not clear who these believers were, but whether those who had previously used the sorcerers' services, or sorcerers themselves, they publicly confessed the greatness of their sins, and the greater greatness of Jesus, Who was now their Lord and Christ, their Rescuer.
By cooking the books
there was costly destruction of the sorcerers' magic books, and note that they burnt their own books. This was not a mob of Nazis burning someone else's books! "A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas." (v19 NIV). These books of sorcery and magic spells where worth a fortune, especially in Ephesus, the hub of magic, and when any book was costly, being hand made. A drachma was a silver coin worth about a day's wages for a skilled worker, so the total value was about $14 million dollars in today's money! Their owners reckoned it well worthwhile to bear such a loss for the name of Jesus. And they were right.
By Jesus Christ Triumphant
He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19:16) "In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power." (v20, NIV). But this is not enough, that Asia (Minor) should hear. Rome, the great capital and seat of Caesar, must hear too. Paul plans to go there "After I have been there (Jerusalem)" he said, "I must visit Rome also." He did indeed get to Rome, conveyed there with an escort at the expense of the Roman government, and "lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance." (Acts 28:30,31, NIV)

Pagan Backlash, v23-34

When any upheaval occurs
in a society and culture, there is usually a backlash of some sort from those entrenched in the old ways, especially if it affects their vanity or their pockets! So it proved here (and re-occurred often in Christianity's history, and still does, for the change that is Christianity is still turning the world upside down)
The Artemis Temple
was a source of enormous civic pride to the Ephesians, and a source of great wealth, for people came from over the known world to see it and to worship there. Tourism was a major part of the economy. The manufacture of silver shrines to Artemis, portable enough to be purchased by the tourists, was lucrative. This Artemis was not the same as the Roman Artemis, who was borrowed from the Greeks' Aphrodite, goddess of love. Rather Artemis of Ephesus was a mother/fertility goddess borrowed from the Phrygian culture, where she was the state deity known as Cybele.
Demetrius the silversmith
possibly an official of the silversmith's guild, could see what would happen if this new "religion" about Jesus continued to spread. "Our business will be ruined!" He calls together the brotherhood of the silversmiths and whips them up concerning Paul and the Christians "Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all. 27 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, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty." (v25-27)
Gold before goddess
Demetrius puts the income problem before the honour of Artemis, v25, "we get a good income from this business" v27 "a danger - that our trade will lose its good name -"
Grudging honour to Jesus
is given by Demetrius, v26 "Paul - has convinced and led astray large numbers - in Ephesus and --- Asia (Minor)". See how blind his paganism is. He cannot receive the evidence of his senses in the great numbers of Christian converts and in the overthrow of so many magicians. If Artemis is so great, cannot she defend herself. How can Paul or anyone else rob a real god of "her divine majesty"?
Man-made gods
Demetrius rather gives the game away when he accuses Paul of saying "that man-made gods are no gods at all" v26. Paul probably did say it, but Demetrius taking offense at it shows that he believed in such "man-made gods", which is as good an oxymoron as ever you'd get; man can only make something lesser than himself, not greater. (See the withering sarcasm God pours out on such an idea through the prophet Isaiah, 44:16-20 "Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." 17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." 18 They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 19 No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, "Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?" 20 He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?" (NIV)
Mob Violence
soon erupted, with the furious crowd yelling "Great is Artemis of Ephesus!" over and over, till the city was in uproar. They grab Paul's companions and rush them into the great 25,000 seat city theatre.
Confusion & Ignorance
"The assembly was in confusion: some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there." (v32 NIV) - how typical of any mob!
Paul is kept safe
there is a time for boldness and a time for caution. Christians and city officials alike begged him not to go before the mob. v31
Alexander agitates the mob
though he did not want to. He was put forward by the Jews of Ephesus to speak for them, and it is likely that he hoped to clear the Jews of any blame for Paul's activities, lest the Jews be lumped in with the Christians as dishonouring Artemis.
2 hours of shouting
"Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" they shout, till they weary themselves.

Backlash Defused, v35-41

Sometimes God lets bad men do their worst, and brings honour to Jesus through it (He Who did not spare His only Son does not always spare His people from the evil of this world, but in Jesus they have a greater victory over sin and death and hell).

Here God acts to thwart the malice of the mob. "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. (Proverbs 21:1 NIV)

Mayor defuses mob
The "city clerk" was head of the city's ruling assembly, responsible to the Roman governor for law and order in civil matters.
He soothes the mob
being himself a recognised man of authority and a pagan. He points out that Paul and his friends have done nothing illegal, nor openly spoken against Artemis (John "Amazing Grace" Newton used to say that the best method for opposing error was to proclaim the truth, and Paul worked like this, not stirring up unnecessary trouble with Jews, pagans or the Roman government when it could be avoided).
The courts are open
he tells them. If you have a real grievance, take it to court! Or wait till the next three-monthly Assembly and bring it up there.
Riots make Romans nervous
"We are in danger!" The Roman governor may not care two hoots about Artemis or Jesus, but he does care about riots. And he has the army!
He sends them home
meek as lambs.

Pagan Backlash Today?

Maybe, maybe not, maybe later.

Many Pagans, Few Atheists
The militant "New-Atheists" lead by such men as Professor Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins, are much in the news of late, but throughout history atheism has been a minority view. Pagans, if we include all who believe in or practice the "magic arts" of the occult, as I think we should, are a vast number now, and have been throughout history.
God focuses on Paganism
Nave's Topical Index of the Bible list 4 passages about atheism, but about 200 for idolatry. Paganism is a bigger problem, because it is natural for man to worship something. "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles." (Romans 1:21-23 NIV)
Paganism on the rise
a quick google survey gave 461 million hits for the words pagan, witchcraft, Wicca, sorcerer, voodoo, shaman and magician. For atheist and atheism it gave just 108 million. 4 to 1. Who would have suspected regular "Physic Fairs" and fortune tellers in the shopping centres 30 years ago?
Sign of the times?
Florida Special Prosecutor Angela Corey is running the controversial case against George Zimmerman, who recently shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. In her press conference she thanked "all of those people across this country who have sent positive energy and prayers our way". She probably is more in the prayer camp, but it sure makes you wonder what lots of people think, with positive energy streams replacing prayer to God Who created and sustains all things. A google search for "prayer and positive energy" got 2.7 million hits. That's a lot of pagan positive energy!
A bigger problem?
Only God knows, but it is wise to be aware, and not to be surprised if paganism becomes once again a major force in the world, and a major opponent of the gospel of Jesus. Paganism is not dead yet. In the Bible's last book, the Revelation, the characteristic of the world as the end approaches is not atheism, it is paganism.

Acts 19:11-41

New International Version - UK (NIVUK)

11 God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to those who were ill, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

13 Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, 'In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.' 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 One day the evil spirit answered them, 'Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?' 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.

17 When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour. 18 Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. 19 A number who had practised sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas.[a] 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

21 After all this had happened, Paul decided[b] to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. 'After I have been there,' he said, 'I must visit Rome also.' 22 He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer. The riot in Ephesus

23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: 'You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 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; and the goddess herself, who is worshipped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.'

28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: 'Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!' 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul's travelling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theatre together. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theatre.

32 The assembly was in confusion: some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defence before the people. 34 But when they realised he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: 'Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!'

35 The city clerk quietened the crowd and said: 'Fellow Ephesians, doesn't all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? 36 Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. 37 You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38 If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39 If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 40 As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.' 41 After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

"Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973,1978,1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House."

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