Possessing the power to make the timid brave, the good better, or the bad devastating: crowds. When passions are shared, they swell, exciting actions to the status of legend or infamy. The power of assembly can build a better society or destroy it.
We have already witnessed (and perhaps taken for granted) the good and sanity of groups. We have seen peaceful protests in our own day, as well as read stories about those who have stood (and suffered) together for transcendent causes in the past — some of us fortunate enough to hear them firsthand from parents and grandparents. Above these, the church itself is a gathered people, an unassuming congregation that is taking over the world. But for what feels like the first time, my generation has begun to see the destructive power of the assembly — or, to use a phrase from a recent book title, the madness of crowds.
Old proverbs have become visible: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Bad company, when a company, can make the good corrupt and the bad worse. It takes brazen wickedness to attempt to burn down a business, loot a Target, or break into a town hall, but even a decent man, drunk on the adrenaline of the herd, may do just this when others are doing it too.
Anatomy of a Riot
In a time of uncertainty, fear, anger, and corruption, we can take some solace in the realization that there is nothing new under the sun. Today’s issues, as real as they are (and can grow to be), were first yesterday’s issues. That makes it an unspeakable blessing to own a Bible. Its solutions never expire.
The stirring up of the people to madness is everywhere in Scripture (something I notice more now than ever). Perhaps one of the most unconsidered characters in the Bible is the crowd — none more infamous than the one who used its voice to sound with Satan, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
So also we see the madness of crowds in Acts 19. A mob was stirred up against Paul, an experience he likely later summarized to the Corinthians: “I fought with beasts at Ephesus” (1 Corinthians 15:32). If beasts are let loose in our land, I pray that as with Paul in Ephesus, the madness of crowds would be met with the insanity of Christian love. But first, the anatomy of the riot in Ephesus.
About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius . . . (Acts 19:23–24)
What many citizens recognized as a religious riot in Ephesus started, as I venture many do today, with smaller, less-visible motives. Men with hidden agendas conspired together and utilized the masses to their hushed purposes. This “no little disturbance” began with the greed of a silversmith named Demetrius.
Demetrius made his fortune crafting idols in service of Artemis, the Ephesian fertility goddess, rumored to have been born in Ephesus. Several times a year, the Ephesians hosted month-long celebrations in her honor, with music, theater, banquets, athletic contests, and even death matches. These festivals attracted many visitors, and even more money. Such celebrations “brought no little business to the craftsmen” (verse 24), craftsmen such as Demetrius.
Now Christianity, through the apostle Paul, hurt this business by persuading many “that gods made with hands are not gods” (Acts 19:26). In an attempt to protect his wallet, Demetrius employed three strategies to destroy Paul.
First, he created a tribe. He did not go after Paul himself, nor pursue legal recourse; rather, he assembled a tribe. Demetrius “gathered together” his fellow craftsmen, “with the workmen in similar trades” (Acts 19:25). He rounded up others hemorrhaging money on account of the Way. Demetrius knew the power of a mob, and he needed a small one to beget a bigger one.
Next, he did what all demagogues do: “He gathered together . . . and said” (Acts 19:25). Inciters are talking men. They speak, persuade, impassion. He begins,
Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. . . . This Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 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. (Acts 19:25–27)
Observe his well-crafted propaganda. He is careful to include multiple incentives to enlist them in his cause. He begins first with his primary concern, wealth, and then moves on to a tertiary concern directly tied to the first: religion. The best hunters lay several traps. In religious societies, agitators often twist religious sentiment to their own ends.
“When [the craftsmen] heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” (Acts 19:28). But what about “this” made them enraged? Was it the threat to their goddess’s fame — or the loss of wealth tied to that fame?
Yet notice that Demetrius’s and the craftsmen’s chief concern of finances isn’t visible once they move into the streets. Their mantra becomes simply “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” They mask financial incentives with religious. They consider how they might be heard. They know their campaign would not survive if their narrow interests were championed, shouting, “Great is the wealth we accumulate from the idols of Artemis of the Ephesians!” So do all effective demagogues today.
The (Clueless) Crowd Swept Up
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. (Acts 19:32)
Mobs often depend on general slogans, unspecified grievances, vague (if any) purposes for uniting, and little to no solutions for change other than destruction. They think with their rage, and many get caught in the tide. Something important seems to be happening — many seem to know why they gathered, so why not join? It is just a Tuesday after all, nothing better to do. The uproar of the group quiets the small voice of the conscience.
So it was in Ephesus. After the small mob fills the streets with, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” “the city was filled with the confusion” (Acts 19:29). Not the confusion that causes you to pause and ask questions, but the confusion that participates in assault and abduction: “They rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.”
Now the Holy Spirit informs us that — wait for it — “most of them did not know why they had come together.” Most had no clue why they were really there. They weren’t craftsmen, they didn’t attend Demetrius’s pep rally, and they agreed that Artemis was great, but what that had to do with taking hostage two Jews most could not tell. But they remained, aiding and abetting those who did know.
Installment of Cancel Culture
And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. 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.” (Acts 19:33–34)
The time it took for me to learn what “cancel culture” meant embarrasses me as a millennial. But as new as such terminology was to me, the concept wasn’t. The Ephesians practiced it two millennia ago.
Alexander’s appearance marked him instantly. Everyone knew that Jews were no friends to Artemis. He belonged to that narrow monotheistic religion. He had nothing to say that they wanted to hear. Ironically, it is most probable that since the Jews put him forward, he was an enemy, not a friend, of Paul (possibly the same Alexander that Paul “handed over to Satan,” 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 4:14). His “defense” would most probably have been an attempt to distinguish Paul (a Jewish man) from the Jews who were there to persecute him and his Christian companions. Regardless, the crowds wouldn’t hear it.
The clueless majority, not knowing why they were there to begin with, knew enough to shout down someone who sought to speak — for two hours. Here identity politics and cancel culture were on full display.
A Just Man Speaks
The situation in Ephesus was defused through the almighty God giving the common grace of a cool head to the town clerk. Words incited a mob; perhaps words could defuse it.
You ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. . . . 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. . . . There is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion. (Acts 19:36, 38–39, 41)
He does not pretend to be judge in matters he knows so little about. He states his views about Paul’s innocence, but points to the open courthouses for resolution of the matter. He does condemn, however, the injustice he sees with his own eyes, calling out the leader, Demetrius, by name.
This is the common courage it will always require to stand against a mob. Sometimes good men, just men, stand up and succeed. Other times they stand up and get killed. And sometimes no good men can be found, and tyranny thrives unchecked.
Insanity of Christian Love
There really is nothing new under the sun. Today’s issues, as desperate as they can be, were first yesterday’s issues. This means one convenient and profound truth for the Christian: the solutions have not changed.
Christ is still the only hope for the world. He, as the light of the world, still shines, and the darkness — with all its cold and confusion — has yet to overcome it. This world is still full of condemned masses, rabid with sin, following the devil, and teetering upon the edge of eternity — as we once did — breaths from everlasting ruin. All while a narrow way still exists — a hard way, a dangerous way, yet the only way that leads to heaven. A way that might attract a mob or lead you — in love for others — to desire to enter the heart of one as Paul did.
Paul wanted to run toward, not away from, the murderous mob: “Paul wished to go in among the crowd” (Acts 19:30). When he considered his brothers Gaius and Aristarchus captured by the crazed multitude looking for him, he wanted to enter the theater to stand (and die, if needed) with his companions. The madness of crowds in that theater set the stage for the madness of Christian love — a dramatization of Christ’s: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Only If the Dead Are Raised
Paul did not go into the theater that day, for “the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater” (Acts 19:30–31). It was not wise — this time — to venture so boldly into harm; God had other means for deliverance. But his faith, his hope, his trust in Christ, his love for his brothers are recorded for us. Does it not stir you?
What gave Paul his boldness? He tells us,
I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:31–32)
Fighting with the madness of crowds is nothing if there is nothing after this life. If death were the end, Paul and his companions would go out for drinks, have some laughs, and never cause a commotion for Christ. But Paul believed in the resurrection. He believed he possessed eternal life. He knew his God. He knew his Savior. He knew he was immortal. He was free to face the mob (and the consequences), as he did from city to city and persecution to persecution.
Perhaps a time is coming, perhaps the stage is being set — though I pray we might live peaceful and quiet lives — for Christians in the West to be treated as most Christians have been throughout most of church history (and as many are treated now throughout the world). And should it come, we must decide now, will we be mad enough, should our God call us, to face the mobs and persecution in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit? Only those who know this world is not the end can do so.