Sermon on Acts 19:21-41 – “A Riot and the Rule of Law”

Sermon on Acts 19:21-41 – “A Riot and the Rule of Law”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, July 30th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Sermon Text

[Act 19:21-41 ESV] 21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 22 And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while. 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. 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!” 29 So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. 30 But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. 31 And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. 32 Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. 33 Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. 34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 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? 36 Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. 37 For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. 38 If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. 39 But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. 40 For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” 41 And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.


Paul continues on his travels, visiting the churches and encouraging them. And he comes now to Asia (in modern day Turkey). And he has sent Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia.

And presumably Paul is continuing to preach.

But “about that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.” This is quite the understatement. The “no little disturbance” is a mob that forms and causes a riot.

Here we have that term “The Way” to describe the Christian. Jesus had said “I am the WAY, the truth, and the life.” And so Christians were know as “the way,” as they followed Jesus Christian.

All Christians follow Jesus. Here Calvin says “there is nothing more odious or detestable than for every man to choose, at his pleasure, that which he will follow.” We have one way, and that is Christ’s way, and Christ’s way is Christ himself.

But then there is a man, Demetrius, who wants to go his own way, for financial gain, and his speech against the Christians causes a riot.

I. The Speech of Demetrius

He says:

“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.”

First we find here that the Gospel has been successful. Paul has persuaded many to turn away from idols and to follow Jesus Christ. Such an example was in the previous section of the chapter, as many burned their occult books and believed in the Lord.

Now, as for Demetrius, it is right to work for a living, and it is right to want to work, but it is wrong to cause a riot and go against God in the production of idols so that you can profit. Demetrius pretends that he cares for Diana and the temple and the people in general, but he really is motivated by “filthy lucre.” He’s got a really good deal going in the manufacture of idols or perhaps miniatures of the temples. If he were Christian, he could just simply say “It is a bummer that this trade is declining, but it is God’s will and I can find other work, honest work.” But he cares not for the Lord, and doesn’t want honest work. He wants lucrative work. He’s running a racket.

Those book burners chose God over money, but Demetrius chooses money over God.

His speech is effective because he gets the people to cry out “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Diana and Artemis are the same. Diana is the Roman name, Artemis the Greek name. And there at Ephesus was the greatest temple to her, and in fact perhaps the greatest temple in the world. From all accounts it was large and impressive. It was even one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.

Well not only do the people cry out in favor of their god, but they begin to trouble the Christians. Persecuting them. Dragging in Paul’s companions Gaius and Aristarchus. And Paul is not afraid of danger. He’s been through it a number of times. So he wishes to “go in among the crowd” but “the disciples would not let him.”

We can learn in this episode so far that Christians are not to be primarily directed by financial gain. We glorify God through our work. We provide for our families through our work. But to seek profit by any means necessary is not the Christian way. We must abide by the law of God.

In Demetrius’s speech he had said

“6 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.”

This reminds us of Paul’s sermon at the Aeropagus in Athens. Men of Athens … the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.” And he certainly doesn’t live in idols made by made.

God is a not an idol made of wood or metal or stone, He is Spirit, and is to be worshipped in spirit and truth.

So there is Demetrius’s speech, and then 3 responses to it.

II. Three Responses to the Riot

1. The Response of Paul

Paul wished to go but the disciples would not let him. They must have sensed the danger. Were they in the wrong? The text doesn’t say. We find that Paul doesn’t run. He stays in Ephesus, leaving only, as we see in the next chapter, after the riot was calmed.

2. The Response of Alexander

Then there is the response of Alexander.

Alexander wants to defend Paul and his companions. Alexander is a rather common name. In Mark’s Gospel there is an Alexander who is the son of Simon of Cyrene. In Acts 4 there is an Alexander who is of the high-priestly family. In 1 Timothy there is Hymenaeus and Alexander who have troubled the church. And in 2 Timothy there is Alexander the coppersmith who did Paul great harm. It seems likely to me that none of these are the same Alexander, and none of them are the guy here in Ephesus. So we don’t know much about the Alexander in our text. We only know that he is a Jew.

The crowd, seeing Alexander is a Jew (who opposes idol worship) chants, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” For two hours, drowning out the possibility of hearing Alexander.

Chanting is to me, a low form of persuasion or control. It is a catch phrase rather than a deep understanding.

We have in prayer, the Biblical command not to repeat ourselves. Jesus says [Mat 6:7 ESV] 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

So we don’t repeat Hail Mary’s or even say them at all. Nor do we chant “Ohm” with the Buddhists, or repeat a prayer 33 times like the Muslims. And I would even include some of modern praise music in the category of overly repetitious. We pray once and God hears us. For our benefit we may say the Lord’s prayer or some other prayer multiple times throughout the week or even throughout the day, but each time focusing on understanding the words and not just saying it for the sake of saying it. Our prayers are not mantras. We are not to repeat prayers over and over and over. Such an approach to prayer has wrong motives; usually to be seen/heard by people rather than by God. It is to be seen to be a holy person. But the holy person prays to God in private, not drawing attention to himself.

3. The Response of the Town Clerk

The third response then to the speech of Demetrius comes from the Town Clerk. He finally quiets down the crowd and then speaks on the rule of law. Bring your complaint to the court. No taking justice into your own hands. No martial law.

The town clerk wasn’t a Christian. He didn’t argue against the worship of Diana. He merely wanted to quell the riot, to have the rule of law enforced.

Calvin says “The town clerk concludes that Public affairs must be handled in a lawful, and not in a disordered assembly—in an assembly gathered by the commandment of the magistrates, and not in a concourse which is without considerateness, run together through the motion of one made, and to satisfy his appetite.”

We see the value of the rule of law, and courts of Justice; ot the tyranny of an individual. Certainly this wasn’t a government set up by Christians, but it was a government nonetheless, and the Lord use it for the protection of the Christians in this instance.

And so the tumult ceased. And Ephesian Christians weathered the storm of persecution unleashed by Demetrius’s speech and the resulting riot.


What can we learn of this text? Well, we’ve already learned not to pray with mindless repetition.

Then, also, we learn that the preaching of Christ brings opposition. People don’t like when you preach Christ. They don’t like the effects of it. As the Gospel brings in some, it angers others. While Paul preaches truth, Demetrius takes the other side. Paul represents the kingdom of God, the way and the truth. But Demetrius the kingdom of Satan. Lies and deception. And which direction does the mob follow? Error of course. But the Christian is called to the narrow path, the gate that is Christ. We are not to listen to the “worldly wiseman” not follow in with the mob. We are to listen to the truth of the Gospel and live peaceable lives.

We also learn that God can use the magistrate to the benefit of the Christians. They are not always the enemy. We might not call this exactly “co-belligerence” – that idea of teaming up with the State, but there was a protection given.

No, as for “the rule of law.” Certainly good Biblical laws are better than laws written with no care of the Word of God. But many laws, in the ancient world and modern world, are written with reflection on the natural law given to man; that we should not kill, nor steal. That the innocent should not be punished. Etc. There are many laws that are terrible and evil, but not all of them are.

But when we speak of the “rule of law” we often mean the enforcement of it. Written laws have little or no benefit if they are not enforced.

In our cities these days the rule of law is ignored. In Ephesus it quelled the riot. The town clerk said “go through the courts, don’t take justice into your own hands.”

But in our day the police in many places refuse to defend the law. And it is not that they don’t care, but that court system, the district attorneys always take the side of the accused to the nth degree. And so crime is spiraling out of control, up in many cities.

The rule of law is protection for the innocent like Paul.

And the rule of law is punishment for the guilty.

We must pray for the rule of law to be enforced and respected and effective in our day. Pray that our town clerks stand up against the mob and do what is right.