Luke named Sceva as a Jewish chief priest, though there is no record in the Jerusalem temple annals of anyone by that name serving as chief priest. It’s possible he came from a priestly family, the Zadok clan. These were descendants of Aaron through his son Eleazar. Zadok had served as chief priest during the reigns of David and Solomon, and was the first chief priest to serve in Solomon’s temple.

Evidently, because their family was so old and well-connected, Zadok’s descendants would often serve in an unofficial capacity as priests. It is not unlikely that Sceva had served, on the downlow, in at least some high priestly duties.

Other commentators suggest Sceva chose the name for himself, as he and his sons were traveling diabolists, going from place to place to offer their services.

Whatever their background, Sceva and his seven sons were seen as skilled and experienced exorcists. So, to be routed in such a public and humiliating way had a powerful effect on the city. Many had become believers, but had also kept their very valuable scrolls of incantations, their magic talismans and amulets, and their sorcery bowls. Now, however,

Saint Paul and the Burning of Pagan Books at Ephesus
Lucio Massari / Public domain

Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas.

In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

Acts 19:18-20

Once again, the cycle of persecution, prayer, and power turned its course.

The riot was proof that things were going right! The word of the Lord was spreading widely and growing in power. Christian reform was becoming broad-reaching, having a serious impact on the city. It was inevitable there would be some resentment.

Demetrius probably felt threatened by Paul’s preaching, and the burning of so many valuable occultic items. What if people started boycotting the temple, stopped buying idols and other souvenirs, stopped eating meat sacrificed to idols, stopped visiting the temple brothel? The entire city depended upon the tourist trade and the businesses and industries related to the temple.

Demetrius, along with the other craftsmen, fomented such trouble the whole city was in an uproar, though most people didn’t even know why they were there, rioting.        

Interestingly, the Spirit held Paul back, through his friends, from solving this problem. Instead, God chose to work through the city clerk, who, whether he believed in God or not, was still appointed by God as His civil servant, exercising governmental authority to hold back the Ephesian crowd’s lawlessness.

The city clerk made several smart points about why the citizens shouldn’t feel threatened by Paul.

  • The temple of Artemis, and the unique artifact it contained (an image of Artemis that had fallen from the sky, and which many scholars today think was a meteorite) was one of the ancient wonders of the whole world. Nothing would change that.
  • The crowd had not dragged in Paul, but rather two of his Greek travel companions, who had come to him from Macedonia. These men were innocent of any crime, religious or otherwise.
  • Demetrius and his guild had access to the courts and the proconsuls. They could press formal charges any time, and have their matter settled legally, in court.

And then, the city clerk brought up a point no one had thought of—what it Ephesus were to be charged with rioting?

An immediate and sobering calm would have quickly spread through the angry crowd. Roman legions were stationed throughout the empire for this very reason, to decisively put down riots and rebellions, and ask questions later.

Roman legions showed no mercy and no regard for age, wealth, race, or gender. It mattered not to them. With ruthless efficiency, even one legion (anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 foot soldiers) would have proved frighteningly deadly.

This time, God’s powerful intervention involved the natural processes of human systems—the city officials, due process of Roman law, and the weight of the empire’s armies.

This experience would leave a deep and indelible impression on Paul. Several times so far, in Luke’s account, Paul was protected by his Roman citizenship, and the impartial justice of Roman law. And he would be again, several more times.

Years later, when writing to the church in Rome, Paul told them,

Let every person arrange themselves within the protection of those in authority over them.

For authority does not exist, if not in behalf of God; but, being appointed, they are in behalf of God.

So, those who set themselves against authority are opposing God’s ordinance, therefore the opposers will exact judgment on themselves.

For the rulers are not the cause of dread for good conduct, but for bad conduct. And you do not want to be afraid of the authority, right? So, do good, and you will have approval from them.

For God’s servant means good for you. But, if you would do wrong, then be afraid: For not without reason is the sword worn, for God’s servant means wrath to those who do wrong.

Romans 13:1-4 (my own translation)

Most translations say “be subject to the governing authorities,” or something along those lines. But the actual Greek word Paul used, a form of hupotasso, is not about obedience or subjection. It is about arranging oneself in willing cooperation, and to “post in the shelter of” something or someone.

I’ve just been sitting here, thinking about that.

God’s intervention is sometimes exercised in vivid and even shocking ways, huge displays of power that boggle the mind, visions of Jesus, miraculous healings, hair-raising stories of rescue and deliverance from the very teeth of evil. And sometimes God works quietly through circumstances He sets in motion long, long before the event where everything will need to converge in just the perfect way.

God had planned for that day in Ephesus, long before it ever happened, by raising up the Roman empire, appointing the astute city clerk, seeing to the establishment of Roman law, and even arranging for there to be two proconsuls (Celer and Helius) rather than the usual one.

It makes me wonder about all the times I’ve prayed and asked God for help, what vast, complex array of factors God has been arranging and appointing so that He might tend to my needs. And then there’s the people I love and pray for, and the people you love and pray for … Mind. Blown.

The theater where Demetrius and the silver guild dragged Paul’s two travel companions, Gaius and Aristarchus | Austrian Archaeological Institute / CC0

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