The Idol-Smashing Power of the Gospel – Acts 19:21-20:1
You were born with a factory in your heart. John Calvin once said, “Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual [factory] of idols. In other words, as soon as we are born, operations began at the factory. Idol production started. Most of us think of an idol as a statue of wood, stone, or metal worshiped by pagan people. But the concept of idolatry is much broader and far more personal than that. The conveyor belt started moving, even this morning. You and I are constantly piecing products together on the assembly line that we worship, that we put in the place of God.
Then one day our idol factory was bought out by Someone else. We have a new owner. The factory that is your heart has a sign on the door that says, “Under New Ownership.” But you realize that you still churn out some of that old product. The new boss hasn’t gutted out the entire place. He even uses some of the same machines that used to produce idols. The transition is a slow process. As such the factory sometimes goes back to its old way of working. That’s why we still produce idols.
So many of these products are good products (succeeding at work, making plans for the future, earning money, being in a relationship, having children, etc.), but we build and bow down to these products as though they can give us ultimate security, freedom, and rest. The ironic reality is that the very things we think will give us freedom become our slave masters. The idol of work success doesn’t make you happier, it makes you miserable. It takes over your life. Good things become elevated to god-like things and then those god-like things become demonic. Any god that is not the true God ends up being a demon.
If we are going to be pulled in to the heart of God and pushed out into the mission of God, we have to be growing to see our idols better, remove them and replace them with Christ. If we are not continually confronting idols, we will not be transformed.
What’s on your conveyor belt this morning? Are we becoming more and more aware of the invisible pantheon of idols that constantly reach and angle for our heart’s affection, trust and preoccupation? Are we becoming more and more aware of the things that constantly compete for our heart’s allegiance and affection? If those are not questions you ever think about, I wonder if this is the root of why we are slow to change, superficial in our ministry to others and weak in our walks with Christ?
The title of the message is “The Idol-Smashing Power of the Gospel.” What we will do first is go over the story in Acts 19 and then conclude with some lessons on how the Gospel smashes our idols. We talk about idolatry a lot here at Living Hope, but I don’t think we talk about it enough. When Demetrius goes over Paul’s sermon, the only thing that he seems to get out of it is that their gods are false gods. This tells me that Paul always confronting the idols of his culture. How did he do that? I don’t think he spent all of his time devaluing and dethroning the idols, but valuing and enthroning Christ more. When Christ is put in His proper place, other smaller things fall in their place.
Let’s go over the story. Before describing the chaos of the riot, Luke gives a brief note on Paul’s plans in vv.21-22. We get a peak into Paul’s google calendar. As his three-year ministry in Ephesus drew to a close, the apostle made plans to go to Jerusalem by way of Macedonia and Achaia. His itinerary seems puzzling, since Macedonia and Achaia were in the opposite direction from Jerusalem. We find out from other letters that Paul went there to a largely Gentile church to collect an offering for the poverty-stricken Jewish believers in Jerusalem. Gentiles helping Jews? How do you explain that? Only the Gospel can explain that.
But he’s not planning on retiring after that. He says that he must go to Rome. From this point until the end of the book, the target in the apostle’s mind is Rome. He would eventually get there, although not by the means he envisioned. When he got to Rome, he says at the end of Romans, “I have to see Spain” (Rom. 15:22-24). His vision for the Gospel was always boundless.
But before he leaves, he sends some of his fellow workers ahead (we are not sure who Erastus was) and stays back for a while. Why? 1 Cor. 16:8 tells us that Paul felt like more ministry needed to be done here though there was much opposition. We’ll see that opposition in a second.
“The Way,” in v.23, was how the Christian movement, probably taken from Jesus’ declaration of being “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). We then meet Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis. Artemis was also known as “Diana” to the Romans. She was the principal deity in Ephesus and popular throughout the Mediterranean world. Apparently in v.35, there was a story that a meteorite crashed in Ephesus and taking it as a sign, the Ephesus used that to carve her. One Greek writer says she was worshipped more than any other deity he knew. As a mother goddess Artemis possessed fertility and reproductive power that caused the earth to blossom with life of all kinds. She was the goddess of childbirth and a nourishing mother to all. Animals and wildlife were also a part of her domain and under her control (notice the animals on her bottom portion). We are not sure exactly what the round objects stand for, but people have speculated and let’s just say it definitely stands for fertility.
Her temple, where she lived and which took 200 years to build, was considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the World.” What happens when everyone comes to see it? They make money and lots of it. The Temple functioned as a banking and financial center and large amounts of money would be deposited and borrowed from there. This is no small little cult in Ephesus. There appears to have been at least thirty-three shrines to Artemis throughout the Roman Empire, making it perhaps the most popular cult of all (v.27). This was their life and everything surrounded around this temple. The worshipers of Artemis regarded her as supreme among all the gods and goddesses. They honored her as “first among thrones,” “savior,” “Lord,” “Queen of the World,” and “the heavenly goddess.”
Demetrius’ job, according to v.24, was to make mini-Artemis figurines or statuettes that people used to take as souvenirs when they visited or used to worship in their homes. When the Gospel was proclaimed, idol business started to fail. So Demetrius, the president of all the silversmiths probably, calls a meeting of those who were involved in this trade in v.25, and essentially persuades them to stage a mass protest against the subversive propaganda spread by Paul and his colleagues.
Three charges in vv.25-27: We are going to lose our livelihood since business is failing and poor Artemis is dishonored and counted as nothing and not only Artemis, Ephesus will lose her glory and fame. Their pocketbook was attacked, their fundamental religious beliefs were attacked and then the pride of their city was attacked. Then it turns into a riot in v.28. Now it’s a mob. People who don’t even know what’s going on is joining in and they rush into the public amphitheater. This is the largest public building in Ephesus (v. 29). It was an open-air amphitheater, [with a] seating capacity estimated at 24,500. Town meetings were held there. Along the way, they seize two believers, Gaius and Aristarchus.
Paul hears about this in v.30 and probably is like, “Oooh a gospel preaching opportunity. I have an instant congregation!” But he had friends in high places. Ephesian believers stop him and the Asiarchs in v.31, who were citizens who held high positions in Ephesus, also tell him not this time. It was too dangerous.
But who also looks bad here? The Jews. The Jews did not worship Artemis either. Paul was a Jew and it would have been easy for the crowd to be like, “All of this is because of the Jews!” And so in v.33, they want to quickly disassociate themselves from Paul and Christianity, so they pick a spokesperson, Alexander. Alexander tries to speak, but in v.34, no one cares to listen and it is out of control for two hours of screaming, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
Finally, the town clerk gets them to quiet down in vv.35-41. He was the city’s chief administrative officer (the equivalent of the mayor of a modern city) and liaison between the city council and the Roman authorities, he was Ephesus’s leading citizen. He knew if the Romans found out about this, it would be get tricky. First he says in v.35, Artemis came from heaven from a meteorite, so she is secure and her power was undeniable. What earthly power could threaten her?
He was sincere, but sincerely wrong but partially true. Today many still worship Artemis…sex, silver and stuff. Then shockingly, he appeals to the Christians’ character in v.37. They were not thieves (to commit sacrilege” literally was “to rob temples”), nor did they use insulting language. In other words, nothing illegal was done here. Besides, if Demetrius or whoever has a grievance against the Christians, they need to go through the legal procedures (vv.38-39). Rather than mob action, follow the law and take them to court. If they can’t settle it in court, they can take it to the higher authorities. Finally he warns them in v.40 that, “if the Romans investigated the disturbance, the Ephesians would be unable to defend their actions. That could result in the loss of the privileges the Romans had granted them.” With that, in v.41, they all leave quietly and we don’t know if Demetrius tried anything else after this. There is a great verse in Psalms that says, “God even causes the wrath of men to praise Him” (Ps. 76:10, paraphrase mine).
What lessons are there for us?
- I. When the Gospel is proclaimed, our idols will be exposed and assaulted
Paul preached a big Jesus. A Jesus so big that he cannot simply fit on the shelf with Artemis. He is on a different shelf altogether and that results in anger and violence. I know when I get comfortable and lazy in my walk, I am probably blinded and in the arms of some idol. The Gospel not only comforts the afflicted, but afflicts the comfortable. Salt always irritates the wounds and light always disperses the darkness. The Gospel always uncovers what we truly value. Not to say that we should always be sad and upset, but there has to be a collision in our heart with the sinfulness of sin and the graciousness of grace. There’s a riot in your heart.
When the Gospel is clear, Jesus assaults you with what you are holding on to more than Him. How does Jesus let these assaults happen? He uses people in your lives who know how to push your buttons. We think they’re the problem, but they are God’s messengers to wake us up to our idolatry. A good way to find what your idols are is to ask the question, “What makes me angry?” What things make me really angry? Anger usually erupts when an idol gets knocked off the shelf. Anger is always the emotion when something you love is threatened. When your ego is threatened, your pocketbook, your reputation, etc. you get angry because you love those things. Look at your last fight with your parents or your spouse. What were you defending in that moment? You uncover what that was and you can see an idol that was assaulted.
If love for money is your idol (idol is never money, but money reveals where the idols are), the Gospel comes to you and says, “Look at you working like a dog to get that extra dollar. You don’t have money. Money has you. You are anxious about it all the time. You are worried I won’t provide. It is your security, not me.” The Gospel will cut to the heart, but the idol won’t let you go. “No, the truth is that if only you had more money, then you would be happy.” It repeats that in your heart when the assault comes.
For me I don’t struggle with using money to buy brand label clothing or nice cars, but I do struggle with buying books. Jenny and I have gotten into fights about that. You might think it’s not a bad thing, but it is not about the books. The money I use to buy books helps me feel respected and honored when you come and see my library and say, “You are so smart and well-read.” For others, it is effortless for us to buy clothes, why? It is because we find our identity in how we look and how others see us—fashionable, sleek or pretty or handsome or whatever. Still for others, money gives you security. It is your way to control your uncontrollable world. You hoard it and keep it and you think you need more and more of it. It still makes you anxious and you never feel secure.
If romantic love is your idol, you feel depressed when you are not in a relationship or you use that person to make you feel worthy and feel lovable. Your identity is in your marital status. But what happens? When you need somebody to always be loving you, you will kill them with your expectations and they will kill you with their imperfections. And when you break up, you are not sad, but devastated. But if you let the Gospel speak to you, you hear, “I am the spousal love you ultimately need. Nobody can complete you. I complete you.” That is an assault on the idol that says, “If only you are married, you would be happy. If only, if only…” A riot ensues.
Here’s another one: parental expectations. It’s eating you alive and keeping you prisoner. There you are, climbing that ladder of living up to their expectations. Your knuckles are bleeding as you have been climbing and climbing and they are a few rungs higher. You have to get that right grade, get that right degree, get that right job, right marriage partner or they will be upset. The idol says, “If only they’re happy then I am happy.”
Now you are married and it’s still there. Get the right number of children, get the right house, etc. Your life may be still controlled by something they said. I had a friend whose dad said, “You’re too short. Everyone will walk all over you.” So he buried himself to this day in his books as those words, like a fog over him, almost like a spell, controls him and drives him. He is so competitive in sports and reads a ton. Why? Wanting to please and prove something to his dad. What happens when you don’t meet their expectations? The idols start to assault you. There’s a riot.
And the Gospel comes and assaults these idols. Jesus performed well and lost His Father’s approval to earn my approval. I can rest in His performance and accept His acceptance. I can live in His approval and not try to earn my parents approval. But the idol says, “No! If only they’re happy, then I am happy.”
Is the Gospel exposing idols right now? Are idols coming forward? Is there a toppling happening on the shelves of your heart of things you love more than Him?
- II. When the Gospel is believed, our idols will be removed and replaced
Paul never went to the idol factory and started boycotting idols. He didn’t have to. When Jesus becomes our heart’s beauty, everything else suddenly will turn ugly. It is not enough to expose and assault our idols, but to cherish and treasure the Gospel more. As Keller says, “If you uproot the idol and fail to plant the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back.” We cannot simply repent from our idols, but we must repent and rejoice in His grace. If you repent without rejoicing, you will fall into despair. But you cannot rejoice in the graciousness of grace if you don’t repent at the sinfulness of sin.
So it is not enough to say, “I love money too much. I need to love it less.” The more you start thinking about loving it less, the more you start loving it more. If our heart is set on money for approval or security or pleasure, your heart needs to see a greater treasure. Every other treasure enslaves you, but Jesus, the treasure of Heaven, lost everything to purchase me and make me His treasure. The old fire that said, “If only I had more money is replaced with if only I can see Jesus becoming bankrupt for me right now when I love money so much, emptying Himself to fill me and make me His, I would have true joy.” Money suddenly transforms into…money. Our hands open to give our time and our resources to others since I don’t need to use it to get something only God can give me.
It is not enough to say, “I need romantic love too much. I need to love it less.” What our heart needs is a greater Spouse, one who loved us at the bottom to the skies. We are the wife who runs off with other men while our God never stops pursuing us as the love of His life. He wants to be with us far more than we want to be with Him. The OT said the penalty for adultery was death. He was treated as the adulterer so we can be rescued and transformed into His beautiful bride. When the Gospel becomes clear, our idol of needing romantic love to satisfy us is replaced by His love. We become free to love our spouses or significant others as they are, warts and all, without demanding perfection from them. They are not pseudo-saviors, but just people to love.
It is not enough to say, “I need my parents approval too much. Help me die to their approval.” And the Gospel says, “Don’t die to their approval. Learn to live in my approval.”
Paul’s life was spared when this mob got together, but a few years earlier, the One True and Living God had come from Heaven, not as a meteor, but in real, human skin. His presence always revealed people’s idols. But instead of forsaking our idols and embracing Him as our true God, we joined the mob and revolted against Him. We grabbed Him, assaulted Him and even worse, we executed Him. Every idol has a cost that it demands us to pray. But Jesus is the Only Master who died to purchase us. The Master became a slave so slaves can be sons. And in resurrecting and paying for the sins of us idolators, our idols can now be plucked by the roots and destroyed.
Only the greater love of God can depose the lesser lovers from the throne of your heart. Keller gives us four ways to discern our idols:
Consider your imagination. “…the true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention. What do you enjoy daydreaming about? What occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about?…what do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?”
Consider how you spend money. “Your money flows most effortlessly toward your heart’s greatest love. In fact, the mark of am idol is that you spend too much money on it, and you must try to exercise self-control constantly…Our patterns of spending reveal our idols.”
Consider your daily functional salvation. “What are you really living for, what is your real-not your professed-god? A good way to discern this is how you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes…when you pray and work for something and you don’t get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god.”
Consider your most uncontrollable emotions. “Just as a fisherman looking for fish knows to go where the water is roiling, look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong. When you ask questions like that, when you ‘pull your emotions up by the roots,’ as it were, you will often find your idols clinging to them.”
Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (2010). Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 2, p.
413). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian Religion (xi.8). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible
Adapted from Buzzard, Justin. “Start a Revolt at the Idol Factory,” http://www.justinbuzzard.net/2010/11/11/start-a-revolt-at-the-idol-factory/ accessed 10 October 2013.
Adapted from Leake, Mike. “Is Your Heart an Idol Factory?” http://www.mikeleake.net/2013/08/is-your-heart-an-idol-factory.html accessed 10 October 2013.
Buzzard, J. Ibid.
Adapted from Smith, Scotty. “A Prayer for Being Not Idle about Idols.” http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/scottysmith/2010/09/13/a-prayer-about-not-being-idle-about-idols-2/ accessed 11 October 2013.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (p. 326). Chicago: Moody Press.
Rom. 15:25–27; 1 Cor. 16:1–4; 2 Cor. 8–9.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (326).
Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: John, Acts.
(Vol. 2, p. 414). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. Ibid.
Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Book of the Acts (p. 375). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Polhill, J. B. (1995). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 411). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Bruce, F. F. (377).
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. Ibid.
Larkin, W. J., Jr. (1995). Acts (Vol. 5, Ac 19:35). Downers, IL: InterVarsity Press.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. Ibid.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. Ibid.
Keller, T. (2009). Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (172). New York: Riverhead.
Keller. T. (168-169).