by Roger McCay
27 September 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 19:21-41
Link to Audio Version
The chorus of the song “Awesome God” by Rich Mullins is one that can easily get stuck in the head, and you probably know it:
Our God is an awesome God
He reigns from heaven above
With wisdom, power, and love
Our God is an awesome God
I love that song.
Considering the overwhelming power and awesome nature of the living and true God, by comparison, any idol is exposed to be a truly pathetic joke. Hence, the humorous and absurd illustration given by Isaiah in chapter 44, our OT reading this morning: an idol carved from a block of wood, with the rest of the wood being burned for warmth or to bake bread, with the man who carved the idol then bowing down to his carving in worship. Jeremiah provides another, more terrifying comparison in Jeremiah 10:10-15:
10 The Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation. 11 Thus shall you say to them: “The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens.” 12 It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. 13 When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses.
14 Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, for his images are false, and there is no breath in them. 15 They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment they shall perish.
The worship of idols is just plain foolishness. They are nothing. Nothing good comes from them. Yet, despite the foolishness of worshipping anything other than the Lord, various forms of idolatry persist in the world.
Providentially, in the midst of our idolatrous society, the Lord casts down idols through his people’s faithfulness. Unsurprisingly, the righteous influence of the faithful church on the culture brings down vicious opposition from the enemy. The enemy seeks, and always has sought, to make the Lord’s people ineffective, impotent for Christ, in society, in whatever way he can, through both subtle and overt methods of attack. The question is, will we roll over and concede defeat? Or, will we take seriously our status and calling as Christians?
Will we live according to the Lord’s call as disciples of Christ? Will we faithfully stay on watch for idols, recognizing them and purging them from our lives? Oblivious apathy is no excuse. Such plays into the devil’s hands, making irrelevant lives that have no impact for the Kingdom of God.
The situation in Ephesus, described in our passage today, paints a picture of what happens when Christians are serious about being Christians. Culture, society, and lives are transformed for good; evil resists. God’s Kingdom clashes with the rebellion of the world; conflict ensues.
The faithfulness of all the folks becoming Christians in Ephesus … You may remember from last week how they burned a fortunes worth of their own books of magic in repentance. Well, as more and more people became Christians, their faithfulness to the Lord started to make a noticeable mark on the normal practices of Ephesian society, it’s culture. The business of idolatry was losing profits. Hence, in a rage, Demetrius the silversmith accused the Apostle Paul’s teachings to be at the heart of the silversmiths’ business decline.
Look at vv. 26-27 again.
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.”
The worship of Artemis was a major aspect of the Ephesian culture. The Temple of Artemis, one of the great wonders of the ancient world, provided Ephesus a thriving industry centered around idol worship and cult prostitution. Thus the silversmiths, who made these idols, had become quite wealthy due to sales of the image of Artemis.
But the Word of the Lord, the gospel, came to Ephesus through the faithful teachings of Paul and the other missionaries. Demetrius even knew a little bit about what Paul was teaching, such as the teaching that “gods made with hands are not gods.” Perhaps Paul even used the humor and ridicule of Isaiah 44, concerning idols, to make his point. And while there were many who rejected the teaching (like Demetrius and the enraged crowd), so many people were enlightened by Paul’s teachings (recognizing the foolishness of idol worship), they abandoned their idols (especially the new Christians).
Paul’s teaching surely included how at the top of God’s list of unacceptable actions sits idolatry: the 1st commandment being “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3); the 2nd commandment being to not make or worship idols, for the Lord is a jealous God (Ex. 20:4-6). Thus, for anyone serious about being a Christian, having anything to do with idols, both then and now, is abhorrent, incompatible with our faith and lives, and opposed to who we are in Christ.
As it is, no-one worships Artemis of the Ephesians today. Her worship had completely disappeared within 300 years of the events in Acts 19.
Nevertheless, idolatry is weaved throughout our society. How so? Well there are those who have statues made by human hands that they worship as gods—Hindus, for example. But there is plenty of idol worship that is not so overt. Tim Keller has defined this type of idol saying,
An idol’s anything in your life that is so central to your life that you can’t have a meaningful life if you lose it. Idolatry is anything you look at, and in your heart of hearts you say, If I have that, then my life has value, then my life has meaning. If I would lose that, I don’t know how I would live.
So, what does such an idol look like?
Idols can be broken down into various categories, for example personal, religious, and cultural. Today, though, we’re just going to touch on a few examples of idols in the personal category.
One particular idol is wealth, personal affluence—money. Jesus referred to this idol as Mammon in Luke 16:13. Its worship is quite evident in Acts 19. Notice the motivating factor behind Demetrius’ speech to the silversmiths. The impact on their monetary income was the major reason behind their anger.
In fact, Artemis could be considered the goddess of money. She was the goddess of the moon, the hunt, and fertility. The fertility aspect was tied to a good harvest and prosperity. Thus she was the goddess of business and money. But, as a goddess, she symbolized an idolatry of the soul. Such idolatry has continued long after most people abandoned Artemis worship.
In our society the pursuit of personal affluence, wealth, is the overall passion for many. It is the reason they wake up in the morning. The making and accumulation of money has become the purpose of their existence, taking priority over everything and everyone. It is their god whom they serve. To lose their affluence would, to them, make their life not worth living. Hence, they sacrifice to their god. They sacrifice their family, friends, even their health – work, work, work so they might be successful in business and the accumulation of money.
See, idols own you and control you, like a master owns a slave. Your very identity becomes subordinate to them. In their thrall (sometimes with detached horror, and sometimes in oblivious devotion) you’ll justify any action, any sacrifice, any sin, to satisfy your idol.
Hinged to the idol of personal affluence is the idol of materialism—the passion to possess certain things. Materialism is the attempt to give life meaning through possessions—which turns those possessions into idols, whatever they may be. Yet, such is a misdirected attempt to fill a hole in their life that only the Lord can fill, with himself.
Perhaps one of the most-worshipped idols in our society is the idol of self. Worship of the self is putting oneself above all other things. The satisfying of selfish appetites is the overall pursuit of life in such a worshipper. We see this in hedonism—the overall pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence. We see it in abortion, which is a human sacrifice to oneself.
Anything or anyone into which you or I invest our time, effort, and passions can become a temptation and a danger towards idolatry—making he, she, or it into a god. An idol can be your career, your body, sports, achievement in sports, romantic love. Idols can be your family, your spouse, your children.
Yes, we can make our children into idols. When people live for their children, wrapping their lives up in their children, finding their significance in the love of their children, deriving their self-worth from how their children turn out, judging themselves as a success or failure based on their children’s success or failure, they tread the dangerous ground of making their children into idols.
Now, career, sports, family, and so forth are not evil in themselves, of course. It is when we elevate them to a position above God in our lives, when they provide the meaning of our lives, our identity, our salvation, that they become idols, and we become idolaters. It is critically important that we, as Christians, recognize this phenomenon not only when it happens, but especially before it happens. Idolatry for a Christian is spiritual adultery (Ezekiel 16). It is the bride of Christ giving unto another what only belongs to God. It’s being a faithless spouse.
– What or who is it in my life that I value above all else?
– What or who is it that I pursue after more than anything?
– What or who is it that gives me my sense of self-worth?
– In what or whom do I ground my identity?
– In what or whom do I find the meaning of my life?
– To what or whom do I look to first and foremost for my salvation, my confidence, my security in life?
Is your answer to these questions “the Lord God?” “Jesus?”
I know a pastor that realized his shotgun had become an idol for him. True story.
As a people serious about being Christians, who love the Lord God, let us always be on the alert, self-aware, and watchful against the temptation towards idolatry. The people of Ephesus, who came to know Jesus as Lord, were serious about being Christians. Paul’s teaching of God’s Word enabled them to recognize the foolish idols in their society. We have that teaching right here in our Bibles. Armed with God’s Word, let us be vigilant to identify and recognize idols in our own society—in our own lives. We must be serious about recognizing idols.
Look again at v. 23:
23 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.
What is this Way that Luke refers to here? Well, Jesus referred to himself in John 14:6 as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In following Jesus, his disciples follow the Way. It is the way of life, the path one walks in obedience to Christ.
Thus, the Ephesian Christians, enlightened by God’s Word (the Truth), recognized the idols in their society, and they reacted against them according to the Way, in repentance and obedience, following Jesus. Serious about being Christians, they became a counter-cultural movement in Ephesus. Rejecting idols, purging idolatry from their lives, they spent no more money on them.
So, over a short time, so many people had followed Jesus that the economy of Ephesus was impacted. The silversmiths making the idols were being put out of business, which led to the riot that Acts 19 describes.
Such counter-cultural impacts of sincere Christians on city and national economies was not unique to Ephesus. James Boice tells of another incident that happened about seventy years after the incident at Ephesus:
In the province of Bithynia there was a Roman governor named Pliny. The emperor was Trajan. Pliny wrote a number of letters to Trajan to ask him how he was to handle problems that were coming upon in his province. Some of these letters concerned Christianity. Pliny had examined a number of Christians personally, he said, and as far as he could tell they did not seem to have done anything wrong. They were not subversive; they were not immoral. The only thing he could see is that they had some queer ideas about religion. “But it has had this bad effect,” he said. “The people have stopped going to the shrines.”
We might wonder why Pliny would care about that, until we remember that the shrines were big business. They were places where priests, prostitutes, and artists were employed. When people stopped going to the temples, a large block of an ancient town were unable to support themselves…
Pliny indicates that the butchers…had been having the greatest problems. They sold meat that had been offered to idols…The Christians…weren’t buying it.
Boice concludes that “if our Christianity is not affecting the economy of our world, we do not have much Christianity.”
Are you serious about being a Christian? Then be serious about idolatry—recognizing the temptation, the danger; repenting if necessary; taking action against it, purging it from your life; following Jesus, living according to the Way. Pray about it. We prayed this today: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom, the power, the glory forever.” Pray the Lord will deliver you from idols—to identify them, avoid their trap, and purge them. Pray he will give you the strength in the power of his Spirit. Pray the Lord will be glorified in your life. Pray his Kingdom purposes would be advanced, through us, his people.
Brothers and sisters, know that in rejecting idols or attacking them in the world, you will come up against opposition, sometimes as subtle pressure, sometimes as a violent attack (John 15:18; 2 Tim. 3:12). Expect resistance, both on a spiritual level and from the world. The enemy, the evil one, wants to keep you enthralled to idols, under their thumb. He knows how purging idolatry frees you from their emptiness, opening you up to the fulness of Christ. He knows how faithful Christians, living according to the Way, impact society for good; weakening his position, his hold; opening up avenues for the gospel. The light of the gospel shines through us. Jesus not only saves us from the spiritual forces of evil that would control us, but he also, through us, overcomes them in the world around us.
Imagine all the fallout of idolatry that would dissolve if the bulk of confessing Christians were consistent on this front—purging idols—the addictions, perversions, broken marriages, broken families, the ruined lives, the hopelessness, anxiety, despair. Many of the idols of society, at the heart of such brokenness, would collapse in their mainstream form, like Artemis, providing openings for the voice of redemption from idolatrous enslavement—redemption found in Christ Jesus. This starts with you and I, my friends.
But as long as there is no difference between a professing Christian’s life and the life of the pagan next door, and especially if our idols are the same, “The world looks, shrugs its shoulders, and turns away.” We must be serious about purging idols.
Are you serious about being a Christian?
The gentleman I mentioned whose shotgun became an idol to him. Serious Christian. He got rid of it. Idol gone.
Too bad it’s not always that easy. Sometimes you can’t get rid of the idol, so you must purge the idolatry, putting whatever it or who it is in its right place in relation to God in your life.
What idols are in your life?
Let us seek, through the sanctifying power of the Spirit of God … let us seek to recognize and purge any idolatry that might be in our lives. Because the Lord casts down idols through faithfulness, we must be serious about being Christians.
 Rich Mullins, “Awesome God,” Winds of Heaven Stuff of Earth (Brentwood, TN: Reunion Records, 1988).
 Tim Keller, “Gospel Preaching That Radically Changes Lives: How to Discern, Expose, and Challenge the Idols,” https://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/themes/preachingwithauthority/gospelpreachingthatradically.html.
 James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 330.
 Ibid., 331.
 Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of A Christian, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, vol. 4 (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 195.