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Crowd psychology is easily explained after the fact, but difficult to predict. I recall at a raucous campus election at McGill University thirty-five years ago, one student heckler made a couple of telling points that embarrassed the candidate in question. The crowd was instantly on his side, cheering him on. Thus emboldened, he attempted another sally, but this one was anemic and pointless. The candidate looked at him disdainfully and asked, “Is there some point you are trying to make?” Unable to reply with a quick and direct barb, the student immediately found the crowd hissing and booing him and telling him to shut up and sit down. In two minutes the crowd had turned from avid support to dismissive scorn. It was easy enough to analyze after the fact; it was difficult to predict.
Demetrius the silversmith learned this lesson the hard way (Acts 19:23–41). In the face of Paul’s effective evangelism, and therefore the threat of a diminution of his business as an artisan producing silver figurines of the goddess Artemis (her Latin name was Diana), Demetrius tries to stir up enough opposition to stop the Christian movement. Planned or otherwise, the result is a full-fledged riot. Paul sees this as a glorious opportunity to articulate the Gospel to a huge crowd; his friends, however, see this crowd as so dangerous that they succeed, with whatever difficulty, in persuading him to stay away.
Eventually the “city clerk” (more or less equivalent to a mayor) quiets the crowd. Ephesus is a free city; it is trusted by Rome to govern itself and remain loyal to the empire. The city clerk well knows that reports of riots in Ephesus could prompt an inquiry that might result in a change of status. Roman troops could be imposed and a governor commissioned by either the senate or the emperor himself. The Christians, says the mayor, are not guilty of desecrating the temple of Artemis. So why the riot? If Demetrius and his friends have a grievance, there are courts, or they can await the calling of the next properly constituted city “assembly” (Acts 19:39—interestingly, the word is ekklesia, from which we derive “church”). So the city clerk quells the crowd and dismisses it.
Some of the lessons are obvious. (1) It is usually very foolish to whip up a crowd. The results are unpredictable. (2) God remains in charge. Despite some desperate moments, the results in this case are wonderful: the Christian cause has been exonerated, Demetrius and his cronies have lost face, no one has suffered harm. (3) God can use strange economic and political pressures, including, in this case, a pagan artisan and a mayor, to bring about his good purposes.
This podcast is designed to be used alongside TGC's Read The Bible initiative (TGC.org/readthebible). The podcast features devotional commentaries from D.A. Carson’s book For the Love of God (vol. 2) that follow the M’Cheyne Bible reading plan.