You’ve probably seen it happen. You’re in a tense meeting. Emotions are running high. People are polarized, and no one’s listening.
Then someone with authority and a cooler head speaks calmly and sensibly. Everyone quiets down and listens to reason.
Okay, maybe you haven’t seen that. It doesn’t happen very often. But it does happen.
As we’ve seen in recent posts, an Ephesian silversmith named Demetrius, worried that Paul and his gospel were undermining his trade, stirred up an angry mob against the apostle. They grabbed two of Paul’s traveling companions (it didn’t help that they were from out of town) and dragged them into the local stadium. On the surface, this had the semblance of a civic hearing. But below the surface, violence was waiting to erupt.
Who would swoop in to save the day?
Enter … cue superhero theme music … the town clerk, cape billowing and snapping in the breeze. Here’s Luke:
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? Since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. You have brought these men here who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess. 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. If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly. For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” When he had said this, he dismissed the assembly. (Acts 19:35-41, NRSV)
The town clerk was more than a paper-pusher. His job was not only to maintain records of civic proceedings, but to act as the go-between with the imperial authorities stationed in Ephesus. The Romans allowed the different peoples of the empire a certain amount of freedom — but if they let things get out of hand, if things got disorderly, there would be consequences.
The clerk thus had the gravitas to quiet the crowd. His words were strategic and masterful. He appealed first to their civic pride: “Fellow citizens! For the last two hours, you’ve been shouting, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ Well, of course — everyone knows how great Artemis is! Moreover, everyone knows that our great city is the keeper of her magnificent temple, and of her statue, which came from Zeus and fell from the sky. Things like that don’t happen every day, and again, everybody knows about it. So calm down. Our reputation is secure.”
Some believe that the “statue” in question was a meteorite: not much of a likeness to Artemis perhaps, but a little imagination goes a long way. Such an object, which indeed fell from the sky, would easily have become subject to superstitious veneration from far and wide.
The appeal to their pride is the carrot. Now the stick: “So don’t do anything foolish. These men haven’t broken any laws. They haven’t robbed the temple and they haven’t slandered Artemis. If Demetrius and his cronies have a legitimate complaint, let them take these men to court and press proper charges. Everything must be settled in an orderly, lawful fashion, and what you’re doing now is anything but. So go home — before you all get charged with disturbing the peace. The Romans are always watching, and trust me, you don’t want them to see you acting this way.”
The story comes at the end of Paul’s Ephesian ministry, indeed, at the climax of his missionary activity. Note, though, that Paul has at best only a secondary role in the story. Why?
Luke is not simply trying to illustrate how cooler heads prevail in a crisis. He wants us to know, as Paul makes his way step by step to Rome and through the final chapters of Acts, that his entire journey is in the hands of a sovereign God. The apostle’s adventures may often take center stage, but ultimately, the story belongs to God, not Paul.
Thus, the gospel goes out through Paul, but also through others. Paul is persecuted, but so are his associates. God may intervene in the action in earth-shaking ways, as he did in Philippi, or through more ordinary means, like the calm and measured words of a town clerk in Ephesus, or even the dismissive indifference of a Roman proconsul in Corinth.
Our stories may have their own drama, and we may feel in need of rescue. This may come in spectacular or ordinary ways. Or it may come much later than we would like, or not at all.
What matters, in the end, is that we remember Luke’s perspective in Acts: our stories are important, but so are the stories of others, and the main story belongs to God.