A Little Town Called Ephesus - Acts 19
Click here for the Word Doc..
Click here for the PDF..
A Little Town Called Ephesus – 07.10.2022
There is a difference between religion and the gospel. Religion is the pool, the gospel is the water. Religion is the picture frame, the gospel is the picture. Religion is an ugly clay jar, the gospel is the beautiful treasure hidden inside. Religion is a framework. We have been gifted with a treasure (the good news about Jesus Christ, the son of God), and so we created an institution designed to help people grow closer to that treasure. To teach people the truth about the divine. Religion, when it operates correctly, is a framework that helps people grow closer to God. Religion is the picture frame, the gospel is the picture – but here’s the problem: over the years we have forgotten the picture, and focused instead on the frame. It’s a nice frame, but it is not what should draw our eyes. This place should never be about the music or the comfy seats, or technology, or that goofy young guy pastor who’s fun to watch. This is all just the frame – what should draw our eyes is the picture. The love of God shown in the person of Jesus – that’s the real treasure. I mean, so many people – the look at religion and they see “church-ianity” instead of Jesus. Human institutions, instead of pushing people closer to Jesus, have actually become a wall blocking the view of Jesus. It took me a long time to get there, but I don’t want people to leave this church saying, “oh the music was wonderful” or “oh the sermon was excellent” – I want people to walk out of here saying, “isn’t God amazing? Isn’t Jesus just so good?” Now, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying music or whatever – but you see what I’m saying. For so long we have been staring at the picture frame. I think we are afraid to look at the picture. We focus on the frame, on the religion, because we are scared that maybe there is no picture. Maybe the frame is empty and this is all there is. Today I have the distinct pleasure and incomparable honor of sharing the good news that the picture frame is not all there is. The pool is not empty, there are deeper waters for you to swim in with the presence of God.
There’s an old Disney movie, one of my absolute favorites, called Tangled. It’s the story of Repunzel, and if you haven’t seen it. The way they set it up is that she is a princess who has been trapped in a tower all her life. But every year on her birthday, the people of the nearby kingdom launch floating lanterns into the sky at night. And every year she watches those lanterns and she dreams of seeing them up close. She wants to see the lights. We get to the end of the movie and she’s in a boat, about the see the floating lights be launched. And she’s excited, but she’s also scared, and she’s with this guy Flynn and she says. “I’ve been looking out of a window for eighteen years, dreaming about what I might feel like when those lights rise in the sky. What if it’s not everything I dreamed it would be? And Flynn reassures her, “it will be.” And then she asks the real question, “and what if it is? What do I do then?” I think this is the real question for all of us in the church. We spend all this time in religion looking at the picture frame, wondering if the picture is real – and then I get up here and reassure you, yes the picture is real. And you respond – well what if it is? What do I do then? Today we are continuing our study in the book of Acts, we’re up to chapter 19 – following Paul into the city of Ephesus – where he answers that exact question.
It starts out, [read v.1-4]. So it’s kind of a strange thing, because we don’t really talk like this anymore – but Paul’s kind of blunt. Did you receive the Holy Spirit? And they say NO. They set it up like there’s two baptisms. You might remember when John the Baptist was out there doing his thing. Back when he was baptizing people, he told them – I baptize you with water, and you repent of your sins. But there is another guy coming, Jesus, who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. These believers have only received the baptism of John. I repent of my sins and they put some water on my head. And Paul is asking them, “well, did the Holy Spirit show up in your life?” No, but I did the first part. I got the picture frame. And Paul’s asking – well, yeah – but what about the picture? You did the religion thing, but did you get the gospel thing? And then I think about the modern church and I realize, we don’t even talk like that. How many of us have received the baptism of John, but not the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Paul sets them straight, [read v.4-7]. I was talking to a friend this past week and he said, “You know, sometimes I get these nudges in my life and I don’t know if it’s the Holy Spirit or if it’s just me in my own head.” And I thought about that, and I was like – yeah, it’s really hard to tell and sometimes we get mixed up. But how many of us, because it’s hard to listen for the voice of God – have stopped listening completely? Paul comes in and says, “this baptism thing it’s about more than just repentance – this is the about the Holy Spirit coming into your life and transforming you.”
So Paul is hanging out in Ephesus, and God is working powerfully through him – performing all kinds of miracles and incredible wonders. And then there’s this odd moment with some Jewish leaders. [read v.13-16]. So Paul comes into town preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not just John’s baptism, but Jesus’ baptism – and authentic connection with the son of God. But then there’s these Jewish fellas, who do not know Jesus. But they’ve heard of him. Maybe, we can use his name to get what we want. They see Jesus as just a name on the wall, just a frame on the picture. They don’t believe in him, they have not given their life to him, they don’t follow Jesus – they’re trying to use Jesus. This is not the gospel, this is peak religion. And it doesn’t work. [laugh]. It’s so good. They show up trying to cast out demons and the demons are like, “who even are you? Not you, I don’t even know you.” And then the evil spirit jumps on the jewish leaders and beats them up so bad that they run out of the house naked and bleeding. I cannot imagine that level of embarrassment. Jesus is not a name to be manipulated, he is a person who has a presence in the life of his followers. Religion is the pool, the gospel is the water – but these religious leaders just tried to jump head first into an empty pool. And it hurt.
Now this little story got the gossip train working, and suddenly people were realizing that this whole Jesus thing was more than repentance, and it was more than just a name you can throw around. This whole religious movement, it’s more than a picture frame – the picture is real. The gospel is true. People start abandoning their sinful lives. Some of them were all into witchcraft and stuff, but when they heard about the power of Jesus’ presence – they burned all their sorcery stuff. They openly confessed what they had been doing, and they start living for Jesus. It was amazing. They even brought all their sorcery, gear, paraphernalia – whatever you call it and burned it together. I mean this is like a heroin addict breaking his needles in front of you and saying, “I’m done” or an alcoholic who pulls the secret bottle out of its hiding spot and pours it down the drain in front of you. This is sinful people admitting their struggles and transforming their lives in community because of the presence of Jesus.
[read v.23-26]. The problem with proclaiming the truth and throwing away idols – is that the guy who makes the idols starts to lose business! If we want to stop focusing on the picture frame and only care about the picture – that picture frame guy is going to be really mad! So this guy Demetrius, he gets all the craftsmen together and rallies them against Paul. And they start this big riot. But this isn’t really about Demetrius or the craftsmen or even Paul. The reality is when you start following Jesus for real, when you start following the gospel and not just religion – it will change your life. See, the reason people love religion is because it’s just a frame. You can fit a picture frame over any type of life you want. But the gospel, the actual presence of Jesus, the real picture – is transformative. It will change your life. It will affect your money. It will affect your decisions. It will affect your schedule, your relationships, your everything. The attraction of religion is that you can stick it over any type of life you want. The attraction of the gospel is that it’s the truth. So ask yourself – is your relationship with God religion or the gospel? Does it sit on top of your life, like a hobby? Or does it shape your life, changing who and how you are - like a friendship with the Divine?
By the time we get to verse 29, the whole city is in an uproar, and the crowds gather in the theater. Paul wanted to go out and address the crowd – but all his friends wouldn’t let him. Seemed pretty likely the rioting people would try to kill Paul. So first this guy Alexander tries to calm everyone down – but that doesn’t work. They’re chanting and screaming for hours – it’s very chaotic and confusing. Then the city clerk steps up. [read v.35-41]. That’s the end of the chapter, and basically the end of the riot. The clerk gets up in front of everyone and says, “what is the big deal here? If Artemis (this god from the city of Ephesus) is real, and everyone knows that – what are you worried about? They didn’t rob the temples or blaspheme – what IS the big deal?” I don’t think the city clerk was a Christian – but he asks the root question. If your god is real, if your religion is true – what are you so afraid of? Which, in this case, exposes that these guys didn’t really care about the religion, they didn’t really believe – they cared about making money off of those idols.
But I think this applies in our lives too. You see, sometimes people in the modern world believe in religion, but not the gospel. They make use of the framework, but they don’t believe in the picture. They want to use the name of Jesus, without ever knowing the person of Jesus. And so sometimes you will hear about “threats to the gospel” – have you ever heard that phrase? You see it with politicians and with televangelists and such – people try to drum up support by saying, “this is a threat to the gospel, and we need to be afraid” - but those guys are just like Demetrius. If the gospel is true, if Jesus really is the son of God who rose from the dead and sends the Holy Spirit into the lives of his followers – there are no threats to the gospel. Nothing can overturn Jesus’ victory. What I want you to realize is that religion is a fragile, human made thing – but the gospel is more. The gospel is bulletproof, fire-proof, recession-proof, scandal-proof. The gospel is even denominational fighting-proof. There is nothing in this world that can hurt the truth that Jesus Christ is the actual son of God who walked on this earth, died as payment for your sins, and rose from the dead in final victory. The gospel is invincible.
The good news this morning is that God is greater. God is greater than just repentance, greater than just using his name, greater than money or little idols, greater than comfort and the status quo. God is greater than any “threat” the world might throw at him. The actual God, the divine that is truly out there is greater. God is the truest answer to the longing of your soul. The one and only thing that can truly and fully satisfy you, complete you. God is greater than your sin. God is greater than your fears, greater than your lack of faith. God is greater than the mistakes you have made, the little doubts that gnaw on the back of your mind. It’s okay to ask questions, to challenge injustice or scandal if you see it. It’s okay to pull the thread, to uncover the truth – to look the gift horse in the mouth. The only people that would ever want to hide are those who don’t believe the picture is real. Religion, when done right, creates a framework that helps people grow closer to Jesus. When it goes wrong – it actually does the opposite, it pushes people further away from God. It’s okay to criticize religion, because religion is man-made, and God is greater than religion. The gospel is what you really want. The gospel is what you really need. And this is the gospel: Jesus is the son of God and he loves you so much. He came to this earth, because your sin was keeping you away from God. Jesus gives you a pathway back to God. He died for you. You are worth the almighty God coming to this earth and dying. If you will claim his name, repent of your sins – you will be forgiven and welcomed into the arms of your creator. Because God is greater.
I keep bringing up the same couple of metaphors because I’m trying to communicate this teaching from Paul. Paul’s time in Ephesus gives a sharp contrast between the religions of the world and the truth about God. And so I talk about empty picture frames and pools. Religion is the frame. Religion is the pool, the gospel is the water. And I know some of us have been pacing back and forth on the edge of the pool. We have grown tired of religion – the world is hot, the pavement uncomfortable, and we want to taste the cool waters surrounding us – the presence of God in our life. But we are afraid. Afraid to leave the safety of religion, because what if the pool is empty? What if the gospel isn’t really there – what if it’s not true? But if I could give you one reassurance – it’s that the pool is full, and there are deeper waters to swim in. God’s presence in your life does not have to be limited to the framework of religion. My challenge for you is to dive deeper into the presence of God. It’s okay to ask questions, to have doubts and wonder – because God is greater than you can imagine. Dive deeper into the presence of God.
This isn’t just a cute phrase, there are actual things in your life you can do to make this happen. There’s this guy John Wesley, he’s like the founder of the Methodist movement – and the Wesleyans and the Nazarenes and all that. He had three rules for life: 1.) Do no harm. 2.) Do good. 3.) Attend the ordinances of God. Now, of course, he lived three hundred years ago and we don’t really talk that way anymore – but he meant was attend to the things that help you stay in love with God. “attend the ordinances of God” basically means “do things that help you stay in love with God.” In our church there’s a simple three step process – we call it the Ministry Process. There’s handouts on the welcome center that go into detail of what you can do – but I’ll summarize. First – worship. Worship God. Show up on Sundays, carve out time for a Sabbath to show God that He is a priority in your life. Second – Wisdom. Christian Education. Learn how to read your bible. Learn how to pray. And then do that every single day. Wisdom is best found in community. Join a Sunday school class or life group, a bible study or prayer group. Worship, Wisdom, and finally Witness. You don’t just learn about God up in your head – you’ve got to live it out in practice. This is where we volunteer! We work at the soup kitchen, or the FCOC clothing center. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick. If you do these things – if you walk the path of worship, wisdom and witness – you can experience God at a deeper level. You can dive into the pool and experience the refreshing, life giving waters of the gospel good news.
In the 2010 hit Disney film “Tangled” Repunzel asks, “what if it’s not everything I dreamed?” She was reassured – it will be. And then she asked, “and what if it is? What do I do then?” And Flynn Rider says to her, “Well that’s the good part I guess. You get to go find a new dream.” In the ancient city of Ephesus, Paul dealt with a lot of people who didn’t believe the picture was real – they just wanted to profit off the frame. Religion is the pool, but the gospel is the water. When you finally dive into the pool of God’s goodness, you will find a depth in the presence of God that will change your life. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you ask every question, admit every fear, pose every challenge you can think of – because God is greater, and he can take it. May you dive deeper into the presence of God, take that next step. And may the gospel refresh your soul like the deep waters of a pool on a hot summer day. Amen.