But when they recognized that he was a Jew, a single outcry arose from them all as they shouted for about two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
–Acts 19:34 (NASB)
Paul spent three years in Ephesus during his third missionary journey. These were fruitful years. So fruitful, in fact, that Luke tells us everyone in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10). As commonly happened, though, opposition arose. This time it was the Gentiles. They were concerned that the success of Paul’s ministry was leading to the downfall of their goddess Artemis and all the businesses associated with her temple.
Luke recounts one particular event in Acts 19 where the whole city is thrust into confusion and uproar. A crowd fills the amphitheater, hoping to have Paul brought before them. Paul isn’t there, so the Jews put forward someone else. The crowd then explodes in an uproar and chants, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” for two hours!
In one sense, the crowd was right. Artemis, or at least the temple and cult of worship surrounding her, was great. The famed Temple of Artemis is now known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. No one knows exactly what it looked like, but most representations look something like this.
One of the major themes of Acts is the expansion of the kingdom of God, often in spite of such opposition. Given that Paul was never able to confront the crowd, one might wonder what history has to tell us about the greatness of Artemis in the face of the advancing Christian church.
There is a reason the temple in Ephesus is a wonder of the ancient world and not the modern world. It was severely damaged on several occasions and met its final end around 400ad. In its place today is an open field with a few broken columns laying around, one of which has been pieced back together and propped up.
It is believed that several of the columns were transported to Constantinople to be used in the construction of the Hagia Sofia, the Roman Empire’s first Christian cathedral that stood at the center of the eastern church from the 6th century to the 15th century.
Maybe Artemis isn’t so great after all, and those Ephesians who chanted her name for two hours surely know it by now. Just before Luke tells the story of the riot in Ephesus, he observes that “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (Acts 19:20). Luke’s commentary was accurate in the first century, and it is accurate today.
Were I to stop here, though, this article would just be a cheesy Christian anecdote that sounds nice to those of us who agree with it but doesn’t really hold any water, for just over the hill from the rubble of Artemis is a church. It was built by the Byzantines, supposedly over John the Apostle’s tomb, and its proximity to the site of the pagan temple surely once demonstrated the church as superior to Artemis. The only problem is that the church today is in the same condition as the pagan temple.
One could easily take this evidence and make the same argument about the church that I have made about Artemis, but my conclusion is not that church buildings are superior to pagan temples. Rather, it is that the word of the Lord always prevails, and the rubble of St. John’s Basilica proves it.
Subsequent to Paul’s ministry in Acts, John made his way to Ephesus, which had become one of the more significant Christian communities in the known world. That, however, does not mean that all was well in the Ephesian church.
From John’s exile on Patmos, he wrote to them to give them a warning from the Lord Jesus himself, “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent” (Rev 2:4–5, NASB). No one knows exactly what became of the Ephesian church of the first century; but by the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks had conquered Anatolia, and the Christian church was virtually extinguished.
The lampstand of the Ephesian church was removed, just as Jesus said it would be, and the rubble of St. John’s Basilica lays on the ground as evidence that the word of the Lord always prevails.
This ought to be a stark warning to every Christian community today, no matter how great or small. If we lose our first love, if we turn from the God who saved us, if we lose our affection for the God-man who laid down his life for us, we will be reduced to rubble.