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"Counter-Attack"

MESSAGE FOR JULY 31, 2011 FROM ACTS 19:21-41

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Read: Acts 19:21-41

          This week as we bring chapter 19 of Acts to a close, we come to one of the more unusual accounts in the entire book.  Last week, we saw Paul moving into the highly charged spiritual environment of Ephesus.  You’ll recall that Ephesus was a demonic stronghold—Satan had established a very firm presence there in ways that were openly visible.  As Luke gives his account, his purpose in this first part of the chapter is to communicate God’s supremacy over the forces of darkness as he works through Paul and the gospel in Ephesus.  The power of God is on display in extraordinarily ways that are all the more impressive because he is doing these things in the midst of fiercely hostile spiritual opposition.  In this dark place, amazing miracles of healing and deliverance occur as the afflicted need only to touch Paul’s handkerchief—his sweat rag.  That miraculous power of God through the humble means of one of Paul’s sweat rags is set in direct contrast to seven Jewish exorcists who were steeped in the occult background of Ephesus. These men attempted to cast out a demon from a man using “the name of Jesus whom Paul preached.”  This met with humiliating results as they were beaten and stripped naked by the demon.  They were shown to be completely powerless—even in comparison to one of Paul’s rags.

The result is in verse 17, “And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.”  The supremacy of Christ is so powerfully displayed; it incites fear in the unbelievers.  A second wave of this divine assault on Ephesus is seen when the new believers bring their books filled with occult spells and incantations and publicly burn them at great financial sacrifice.  As they dramatically turn to him, away from all the dark power they had through the magic in these books, the supremacy of God is exposed.  The result is in verse 20 where Luke writes, “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

This was a powerful—awe-inspiring display of God’s supremacy in a city where Satan had reigned in overt ways.  In the second half of this chapter we heard read a few moments ago, Luke takes us into what was the central hub of demonic activity in Ephesus—the magnificent temple of Artemis. The temple of Artemis was so massive and impressive; it was dubbed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Its 120 beautifully decorated stone pillars were 60 feet high.  How do you even position a pillar that high without a crane?  The temple would have been much larger in area than a football field—making it the largest building in the Greek world[1]--larger than the Parthenon.  There were also 33 shrines to Artemis across the Roman Empire and the central headquarters of this idol worship was this temple in Ephesus.  Artemis (known as “Diana” to the Romans) was a Greek goddess of fertility who Homer called “a mistress of the wild beasts.”[2]  That title is important because Paul refers to it in his first letter to the Corinthian church he wrote while in Ephesus.  In chapter 15, one of the ways in which he was willing to suffer because of Christ’s resurrection is in verse 32.  What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus?” 

We know he is talking about the demonic powers of Ephesus because he is obviously not referring to any conflict with Artemis--who was a Greek myth!  She was a lifeless idol, but the Bible teaches that behind these dead idols are very real spiritual forces—demons.  Deuteronomy 32:17 says of Israel, “17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.”  In light of Artemis’ identification with beasts, when Paul speaks of fighting with “the beasts” of Ephesus, that seems to be a reference to Artemis or, more precisely--the demonic powers that lie behind Artemis.

Also, Luke places his sharpest focus on the opposition Paul faced.  Unlike most of the other texts in Acts, the stress in these verses is not directly on God or his apostolic representative.  God is mentioned only once in the first verse of Luke’s account and is not even alluded to again in this passage.  Likewise, Paul appears only once and it’s clear he’s not the main focus.  Now, back up and think about the flow of this chapter.  In the first half of the chapter, Luke records the overwhelming supremacy of God displayed in his massive assault on the darkness of Ephesus as he powerfully delivers people from Satan and from Satan’s service.  The second half of the account, as we have seen, focuses on a spiritual attack on the gospel.  This kind of overwhelming and humiliating defeat recorded in the first half of the chapter could not go unanswered in a strategic center of Satan and so in this section; it feels very much like Luke places direct his focus on the forces of darkness in order to record their counterattack against the gospel.

With that lens through which we read this text, we see that it divides almost evenly into two major sections.  In verses 23-34, we see this counter-attack intended to stop the advance of the gospel and to some degree discredit what has happened in Ephesus up to this point.  These verses are very helpful first because they help us see the nature of Satan’s attack.  Much of this is transferrable to our church context and to our individual lives as we wrestle against the powers and principalities.  In Luke’s account, I see three marks of a satanic attack against the gospel. The first mark is seen beginning with verse 23.  23 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.”   The first mark of an attack of the enemy is—There is generally a galvanizing ring leader around whom the opposition gathers.  Luke makes clear that the trouble begins, is fed by and encouraged by one man—Demetrius the silversmith.  He arises out from the other craftsmen who have been economically crippled by the fact that many Ephesians were turning away from the idols he and the others crafted.  History consistently teaches us that the enemy often uses one evil person who can galvanize support around himself to carry out his evil agenda.

There are dramatic examples of this in the last century.  The three greatest attempts at genocide in the 20th century would almost certainly not have occurred without three singularly evil leaders whose evil deeds reveal they were deeply influenced by the powers of darkness.  These were galvanizing leaders who were able to rally many around them to accomplish their missions.  The best known is of course, Adolph Hitler who, historians agree was the main cause of World War Two.  He killed more than 12 million people in concentration camps, six million of which were Jews who he tried to completely exterminate.  The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in his purges killed over 20 million of his own people and China’s Mao Tse Tung killed somewhere between 50 and 75 million in his cultural revolution.  In each case, historians agree that these genocides were not spawned by a government or a nation or a committee, but were the direct result of one evil leader who used his power to exert great influence and carry out his personal vision of widespread destruction and death.

This dynamic should not surprise us—it is completely consistent with the teaching of Scripture.  Jesus compares us to sheep.  Sheep must be led.  Jesus is the Shepherd we are to follow, but if we do not follow him, we will follow someone and eventually anyone.  It’s hard-wired into us—we are sheep.  God created humanity as a servant race to serve him.  We have a deep drive to serve someone with authority over us.  In a fallen world, that reality allows for the rise of certain, dark figures who acquire tremendous power to exact unbelievable pain and suffering.  All of these super-villains who rule through deception and intimidation point to the ultimate super-villain, the anti-Christ who will one day come with far more power than all the other villains combined and do far more damage as he works under the direct control of Satan.

A second mark of Satanic attack is found when we pick up the narrative in verse 25.  Luke writes, “25 These he [Demetrius] gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” 28 When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”  A second mark of a satanic strategy is the outward expression of a noble agenda that deceptively masks a self-serving one. 

One mark of the enemy is deception—he’s the father of lies according Jesus in John chapter eight and Demetrius’ appeal here is riddled with deception.  He lays out his real agenda in verse 25.  Men you know that from this business we have our wealth.”  That is clearly his self-serving motive.  Paul needs to stop persuading people that idols are not real because it is really cutting into my bottom line.”  These men made little silver statues of Artemis, miniature shrines and other religious souvenirs that people would buy when they came to Ephesus for a glimpse of the magnificent temple and to worship Artemis.  In the first section of the chapter in verse 10, Luke tells us that Paul continued teaching for two years with the result being that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.  In the next section, these occultists burn their scrolls and the result was [verse20] “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”  This was a full-fledged route of the forces of darkness in Ephesus who saw their kingdom shrinking by the day in perhaps their most powerful enclave.

Now, in this third and final section on Paul’s ministry to Ephesus, it’s no surprise that Demetrius now appears to counter attack the gospel.  Paul himself says in Ephesians 6:12 that, “For we do not wrestle against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  In this context that means that Demetrius, in his opposition to the gospel was not working alone, but was aided and inspired by the evil one.  After citing his real agenda of personal profit, he cloaks it with ones that sound much more noble.  He tells them that their honorable trade may come into disrepute.  The integrity of silver-smithing and related trades must be preserved!  Second, and even more appealing is his feigned concern for the temple—which all of Asia took great pride in, especially the Ephesians who claimed it as their own.  He says in verse 27, “…the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing…”  Demetrius is in effect saying, “My concerns are not really rooted in my own bank account, but in the higher goals of protecting the reputation of our glorious temple.”  Finally, his coup de grace is “…she [Artemis] may be counted as nothing, and she may even be deposed of her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

What higher motivation could there be to oppose the gospel?  The great goddess Artemis needs our protection from the impact of Paul’s ministry.  She may be completely diminished—deposed of her magnificence and this would be a train wreck for “all Asia and the world worships.”  Demetrius wants these other Ephesian men to believe that they have a divinely inspired mission to protect Artemis’ reputation and in so doing, they are heroically serving Asia and the whole world.  Demetrius knows that his own profit and that of the other tradesmen is not sufficient reason to produce the kind of spectacle he knows is necessary to do violence to Paul and his ministry.  So, he deceptively manipulates the emotions of his followers by telling them that their temple and even their world-renown goddess have been threatened by this outsider Paul and therefore immediate reprisal must begin.

This kind of emotional manipulation is common among wicked leaders.  The three 20th century leaders I cited earlier deceptively used a transcendent—in some cases, even divine cause to convince people that extreme measures must be taken.  If Hitler would have come out and in 1929 said, “Look Germany, I want to rule the world and exterminate the Jews and anyone else I deem to be unworthy to live.” He would have been dead before he started—even though he had pointed to these goals in his writing.  Instead, he gradually built up his influence through a series of lies and deceptions about what he was up to.  He consistently appealed to the much higher cause of the pride of Germany which had been so unjustly crushed by the allies at the close of World War One through the Treaty of Versailles, which basically made Germany a terminally weak, defenseless debtor nation to the allied powers.  He used that noble, patriotic cause of German nationalism to stir German emotions to the point where they would be willing to do about anything for him.  Demetrius operates on a much smaller scale, but the emotional manipulation through deception is the same.

We do the same thing all the time.  Not only to others but perhaps most of all to ourselves.  We have a self-centered desire—we want to possess something—we covet power, influence, prestige, material possessions.  But we mask our often covetous desire with a noble motive.  We want a promotion at work and the accompanying pay raise, so we convince ourselves that we are “duty bound” to report an ethical breach committed by our main competitor for the job. When it happened months earlier-- BEFORE the promotion opportunity, you had completely blown it off, but NOW you must “end your silence.”  We turn a covetous desire into a noble cause.  We want a new or larger or better (fill in the blank with your favorite material possession) car, boat, house, property, television, food processor, power tool, wardrobe).  As we think about whether or not we should purchase said commodity, it occurs to us that there is a spiritually redemptive way that God could and would use this new and bigger possession.  The fact that our desire originated, NOT in a time of deeply seeking after God for how to better minister to serve others, but when we saw a picture of it in a magazine or on car lot or at the mall—that fact does little to convince us that we are plastering over what is really a self-centered desire with a spiritually transcendent cause. 

That is—It doesn’t start with us praying, “Oh God, please show me how to minister to my neighbor in order to win him to Christ” and then, completely unexpectedly you hear back—“Buy a larger, feature-laden table saw so he can have your old one.  That’s not the way it works.  We look through the tool catalog or find ourselves in the tool section at Sears, and as we are debating the purchase with ourselves or maybe our spouse, it occurs to us that this will in some way be a great blessing to “our neighbor,” thereby transforming this purchase into a sacred acquisition.  Probably everyone in this room has done this in some way but God is never fooled into seeing our sin as something other than what it is.  This is simply an example of the truth of Jeremiah 17:9. 9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”  The redeemed heart is certainly far better, but our unredeemed flesh isn’t and that’s what’s often in control in these decisions.  The really frightening thing is—we can actually end up believing our lies and if we do this consistently, self-deception just becomes a regular part of our decision-making process.

A final mark of the enemy is to create emotionally-driven confusion and chaos so that his evil agenda seems reasonable.  That’s what happens here.  Luke says, “they [this assembled crowd] were enraged and were crying out  ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ So the city was filled with confusion, and they rushed together into the theatre, dragging with the Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.”  Luke says the crowd was so confused in verse 32 that, “most of them did not know why they had come together.”   This is textbook mob-mentality.  These people are out of control because they have been stirred up into a frenzy by the combined energy of each other’s irrational passions—confusion reigns.  In the Bible, confusion is always a bad thing and is often even a judgment from God.  One of the curses for violating the covenant of Moses is in Deuteronomy 28:28 and says, “28 The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind,”  In many of the battles between Israel and the Canaanites, Israel prevailed over their enemies because, as in First Samuel 7:10, “the LORD…threw them into confusion…” 

Chaos and confusion are breeding grounds for satanic activity because Satan hates the truth and well reasoned decisions.  He much prefers purely emotion-driven contexts because they open the door for him to introduce destructive and irrational ideas that are much more likely to be accepted in a confused, emotionally charged environment.  Again, Hitler knew this. He would use his dramatic oratorical skills to whip people up into a lather and he would then verbally assault a nation or a race or a person he wanted to destroy, convincing his audience with emotion driven, but false and irrational arguments not supported by the facts.  In the midst of that emotion-driven chaos, he could get them to believe about anything…and tragically he did.

In verses 35-41, Luke reveals the miserable failure of the enemy’s counter-attack in Ephesus. Let’s briefly see the elements in God’s complete neutralizing of this counter-attack.  First, God raised up counselors to restrain Paul’s compulsive zeal.  Paul hears his companions have been dragged out to the crowds and he wants to go out and rescue them.  This was brave, but foolish.  Paul going out to these crowds would have been like throwing raw meat into a tank full of piranhas.  God used these Asiarchs in verse 31—leading civic figures in Ephesus to convince Paul of the foolishness of this approach.  Second, God brought his agent of authority—the law to bear to restrain evil. The town clerk, who was responsible to maintain order, quiets the crowd by appealing to Roman law. He points out in verse 37 that these men had broken no laws.  He then indicates in verse 38, “…the proconsuls are open.  Let them [Demetrius and the craftsmen] bring their charges against one another.   Finally, he suggests that the parties could settle this matter in what Luke in verses 39 calls the “regular assembly” which was a legal counsel that met three times a month. 

Romans 13:1-2 speaks of God’s relationship to human authorities like a nations’ legal system and says, 1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”  The town clerk utilizes the precise tool God has created to maintain order and keep the people in line—Rome’s judiciary system—even the pagan human authorities represent God.  The town clerk again appeals to a law against rioting as a further legal appeal in verse 40.  For we are really in danger of being charged with rioting.”   A final way God put down this counter attack and displayed his supremacy is, God brings reasoned arguments against the emotion-driven confusion of the enemy.  In verse 35 he says, “35 And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash.”  The town clerk points to the supposed invulnerability of Artemis by citing as “evidence” a legend of a meteor falling from the sky.  The Ephesians saw that as a sign that proved her divine status.  Although it wasn’t true, this appeal to reason over emotion had the effect of cooling off the people’s rage.  He injects what these people believed to be reliable evidence of Artemis’ invincibility into the discussion and in so doing diffuses the emotion-driven response. 

If reasonable people under an oppressive regime were early on, able to broadcast the truth about their leaders and their true intentions to sufficient numbers of their people, in many cases that would bring down these oppressive regimes.  That’s why would-be dictators always and very early take control of the press and tightly control all information that might expose their lies. Truth sets people free from the emotion-driven, irrational arguments of the few.  When Satan attacked Jesus in Luke chapter four, each of his lies was met with the truth—the sword of the Spirit, as Paul calls it.  An offensive weapon that will cut through the lies of the enemy.

As we close, here are three further points of application.  First, expect Satan’s attack in times of your weakness and vulnerability.   First Peter 5:8 says, “8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” The devil prowls about as an opportunist.  He looks for low-hanging fruit to consume.  Like lions in the wild, he focuses his attention on potential prey that is weak or sick.  He doesn’t play fair—he will kick you when you are down every time he can.  We shouldn’t be surprised at that—that’s what evil people do—why wouldn’t the ultimate evil one do it?  He will attack us with discouragement when we are sick—he will condemn us when we are down.  He will pluck us up like a trapper checking his traps if, through habitual, unconfessed sin, we become ensnared through our own iniquity.  We must be especially watchful when we are weak and vulnerable and do all we can to decrease our vulnerability by walking closely with God.

Second, be brutally honest with yourself about your motivations.   Many people in the church are self-deceived about why they do what they do.  Jesus pictures the end of these kinds of people in Matthew 7:21-23.  21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” These pathetic souls were completely self deceived about why they did what they did.  What they thought were noble, God-centered ministries was actually all about themselves.  We must get people in our lives who will question us about our hearts if they see sufficient reason for doing so.  We also need brothers and sisters who will be honest with us when we ask them, “Do you think I am being sincere here or am I just lying to myself?”

Finally, don’t allow undue enemy influence into your life by being driven by your emotions. We have to be so careful about not saying things or deciding things or forming judgments when we are enraged or deeply hurt or confused.  We are a sitting duck for the enemy’s influence when we are in that place and we must be wise and not do anything that could have long term negative consequences when we are enflamed with emotion. May God give all of us the grace to battle the adversary in God’s power and glory in his supremacy for his glory and our joy.


[1] Bock, Acts, p. 608.

[2]As cited in The Book of Acts.Bruce, NICNT, p. 373.


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