The riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41) is an important story in the developing plot-line of Acts, although Paul is not really a part of the story. We are told that the silversmiths fear the rise of Christianity in Ephesus, Paul’s companions are arrested, and the city manager calms the crowd. The reader does not know what happens to Paul during and after the riot.
For this reason, some speculate Paul was arrested and imprisoned in Ephesus, a time reflected in 1 Cor 15:32, “if I fought the wild beasts in Ephesus…” The implication is Paul was forced into some sort of gladiatorial punishment, although the text may refer to his opponents rather than literal animals. If Paul was in prison in Ephesus, then he may very well have written Philippians, Colossians and Philemon while under arrest, rather than from Rome. As a Roman citizen, it is doubtful Paul would have been sent into the gladiatorial games, and if he had, it is even less likely he would have survived. Although Paul’s imprisonment in Ephesus is an argument from silence and not particularly persuasive, it does solve some problems with those books.
The main point of the riot in Ephesus is that that Christianity has made such an impact on the culture of Ephesus that the culture begins to “fight back.” At the end of this attack on Paul’s mission in Ephesus, the city official concludes what Paul preaches is not against Rome nor is it illegal according to Roman Law. This seems to be a major sub-text in the book of Acts. Luke wants to inform us the Romans found Christianity compatible with Roman Law.
A second problem addressed by this section of Acts is the “parting of the ways.” When did Christianity become distinct from Judaism? As far as the Romans are concerned in Acts 19, Christianity is still the same thing as Judaism. In Acts 18 the Jews in Corinth argued that Paul was not one of them. In the riot at Ephesus the crowds do not make a distinction between Alexander (a Jew) and the Christians. At this point in the development of Christianity, any decision about the Christians may have had an indirect impact on the Jewish community.
Perhaps the most important theme of this incident is the fact Christianity challenged the greatest pagan cult in the ancient world and was seen as a serious threat to that cult. I think that this is the challenge of the story: how has contemporary Christianity impacted culture?
The answer is (sadly) either “not at all” or as something which secular society mocks and then promptly ignores.