The quest to save the world is a competitive sport. There are hundreds of visions, factions and groups that vie for power. What they have in common are not their envisioned ends, but their means. They are all using power to try to triumph over their enemies.
What Jesus did not to not only challenge every competing world-saving vision, but overthrew and mocked the common method they employ: crowd-sourced-bullying.
The bit of this story I will work through can be seen in the life of the Apostle Paul and the story of his work in Ephesus.
The Apostle Paul
On his second missionary journey the Apostle Paul was likely intending to head for Ephesus after visiting the new churches in Phrygia and Galatia (what is today central Turkey). It is then in Acts 16 that Paul is mysteriously prevented from heading into “Asia”, the Roman province where Ephesus was located. Paul then attempts to head north into Bithynia but is again blocked by the Holy Spirit. Paul then has a dream where he is called across the water over into Macedonia where he will found churches in Philippi, Athens and Corinth. On his way back to Jerusalem from this trip he will stop briefly in Ephesus, is well received, and promises to return again.
The Broader Gospel Movement Underway
Luke then shifts focus and draws our attention to Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila. By broadening the focus a bit away from Paul Luke gives us some insight into how broadly and messily the Holy Spirit is constructing his church in the Roman world. Priscilla and Aquila had been Christians in Rome but were forced to leave for a time and eventually met up with Paul in Corinth. Now Priscilla and Aquila bump into Apollos at Ephesus, and although Apollos is already a Christian his knowledge of Jesus seems deficient. The tradition in the Gospels of John the Baptist’s ministry being a fore bearer of Jesus’ work seems to be far more broad than just the episodic contact we find between Jesus and John in the synoptics and in the gospel of John. Somehow people baptized into the ministry of John were primed to be easily assimilated into the ministry of Jesus.
Paul in Ephesus
After Paul’s return to Jerusalem and Antioch Paul once again heads out to visit the places where he has either established or strengthened churches. He again heads through central Turkey but this time follows the presumptive route all the way to the important city of Ephesus.
Ephesus became the focus of Paul’s ministry for three years. Luke’s account of Paul’s time is dramatic.
Acts 19:8–12 (NRSV)
8 He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord. 11 God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.
Acts 19:13–20 (NRSV)
13 Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” 16 Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. 17 When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. 18 Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. 19 A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. 20 So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
Ephesus was dominated by the great temple to Artemis. Within it was an image of Artemis. It appears from the statues and images that endure that the appendages on her chest were breasts.
Pagan temples in the ancient world were spectacles, tourist attractions, in this case sort of a banking center and part of the glue that held society together. The gods were human like, but more-so, as we can imagine in this image that possibly depicts part of the meaning of Artemis for the worshippers.
Christianity as Disruptive to Paganism
What happens next in Luke’s account witnesses to that disruption.
Acts 19:21–20:1 (NRSV)
21 Now after these things had been accomplished, Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, “After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.” 22 So he sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he himself stayed for some time longer in Asia. 23 About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way. 24 A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. 25 These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, “Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. 26 You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by 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 will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” 28 When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 The city was filled with the confusion; and people rushed together to the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travel companions. 30 Paul wished to go into the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; 31 even some officials of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theater. 32 Meanwhile, some were shouting 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 gave instructions to Alexander, whom the Jews had pushed forward. And Alexander motioned for silence and tried to make a defense before the people. 34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours all of them shouted in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 35 But when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Citizens of Ephesus, who is there that does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple keeper of the great Artemis and of the statue that fell from heaven? 36 Since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. 37 You have brought these men here who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess. 38 If therefore Demetrius and the artisans with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges there against one another. 39 If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly. 40 For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” 41 When he had said this, he dismissed the assembly. 1 After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples; and after encouraging them and saying farewell, he left for Macedonia.
Political Methods Common to Paul’s Opponents
Luke’s picture of the context of Paul’s missionary work usually seems quite realistic. Opponents to Paul’s work commonly have motivations we can understand.
Luke has painted a picture that the enduring work of Paul in the region is beginning to change the religious landscape and that change in the religious landscape is impacting the economic landscape. Artisans have been deriving an income from the small statues that image the large statue in the temple. They are seeing that if allegiance to the cult of Artemis of Ephesus begins to diminish their livelihood will be impacted. The reasonable thing for them to do is to create pressure to get civic officials to use the power of the state to undermine Paul’s work.
If you’ve been reading through the book of Acts you’ll notice that this scene is repeated over and over again. Sometimes Paul’s opponents are the synagogue leaders who either have political connections or stir up popular tumult to force the authorities to get rid of Paul. In Philippi it was the owners of a divining slave girl who Paul liberated from her spiritist occupation.
Crowd Sourced Bullying Power
As I read the book of Acts and listen to the blogs one thing is clear. Human nature and political systems haven’t changed much since the first century. Last week it was Christians fighting over Jared and Doug Wilson’s statements about women and sex. This week it is the larger political bruhaha over Chick-fil-a and the statements of its owner. Whether it is the wrong we want to see righted or our vision of the world that we wish to make the law of the land, crowd sourcing bullying power is the vehicle of choice.
In the Chick-fil-a commotion Jonathan Merritt wrote a piece carried by The Atlantic defending Chick-fil-a. Apparently years ago Merritt had an encounter with another blogger Azariah Southworth. Southworth thought it inauthentic and hypocritical for Merritt to take this position since Southworth considered Merritt a gay man in denial. Southworth used his blog to out Merritt. Merritt then told his story and explained where and why he lives the lifestyle he does today. Southworth has since expressed a conflicted sense about what he did but of course the deed was done. In the Roman empire you needed an organizer to assemble a mob. Today you just need a blog on the Internet and a following.
For more irony Southworth previously posted a youtube video about bullying. Just because we understand bullying and know it is wrong, doesn’t mean we won’t grab onto that power when we think it serves an end that we imagine to be good.
What we see in Luke is a contrast between the coercive power of the world and the love power of the gospel.
Temple of Artemis as the First Battle Against Pagan Temples
If you know the history of how Christianity triumphed in the Roman Empire you can see how this was in fact simply the first fruits of how Jesus would conquer “the world”.
A hundred years after Paul Tertullian would explain how Christians worked.
The early leader Tertullian (160-240 C.E.) wrote: “Though we have our treasure chest . . . [it] is not spent on feasts, and drinking bouts and eating houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined to houses . . . and if there happens to be any in the mines or shut up in prisons.”
By the year 251 C.E., the resources of the church in Rome had grown so large that it was supporting more than 1500 widows and needy persons. Besides caring for widows, the church freed believers who were enslaved, buying them out of slavery from the money taken from the common fund (Tertullian’s “treasure chest”). “The assistance provided by the church was impressive in a world where . . . the government did not expect to undertake a generous program of social welfare.”3
After Constantine emperor Julian the Apostate tried to rally the pagan priests to challenge the Christians in charity.
The Christian movement’s example reached to the Emperor. After the church was legitimized by Constantine, a succeeding Emperor (Julian the Apostate) tried to stem the tide of the Christian faith. He launched a campaign to motivate pagan charities to match the generosity of the Christians. Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galation that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of the Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their “benevolence towards strangers.” In writing another priest, Julian lamented, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galleons [Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence . . . [They] support not only their poor, but ours as well, even they can see that our people lack aid from us.”4
Paganism was utterly incapable of generating the commitment needed to motivate compassion and charity. Not only were many of its gods and goddesses of dubious character, they offered nothing that could motivate humans to go beyond self-interested acts of appeasement.
This would play out through the time of Augustine, when the city of Rome fell, and Augustine had to define the conflict between The City of Man and the City of God.
What happened in Ephesus with the artisans of the image of Artemis was the beginning of the end of the pagan Roman Empire.
Could the Christians of Paul’s day have imagined that this would come? If you doubt it, read the book of Revelation.
The Gospel Gives the Power to Love your Enemies
Christians love, they don’t bully. Jesus could have easily moved either his Galilean crowds or his Jerusalem crowd into a mob to sieze power and use the levers of the government (the power of the sword) to pursue his agenda. This was the original temptation from Satan he resisted when he was tested. This was the temptation he resisted again and again. This was the way that the disciples probably imagined Jesus would use. He always resisted.
What do you need in order to resist such a method to bring God’s kingdom?
1. You need to know the end of the story, not the specific pathway to that end.
The resurrection marks out the future and pulls history towards it.
2. You need to know that loving enemies is costly. It will cost you your life.
Again, the resurrection enlivens the Christian to live a cruciform life today, to lay down their life in a practical, loving way all the way until death, because this life is only a tiny bit of our live in the age to come, and this body will be replaced by a body that will not decay, so spend that confederate money.
As Tertullian noted, in contrast to the pagan feasts at the temple, Christians could use their resources to love their neighbors, not to amuse themselves.
3. You need to live out of gratitude, not duty or competition.
If you set out to make society like ______________, and you make that your god, you will fail. You can seek to change the world for the better but always in the knowledge that the world HAS BEEN saved and you are joyfully participating in the process that will result in the inevitable conclusion. In this way you will resist despair, disappointment and worry.