‘It is finished’ said the Saviour as he closed his eyes in death (Jo 19:30). To reach the point at which a task is done can be precious to us, especially if it is on our conscience as a duty before God. In Acts 20 we see Paul laying down one such duty that he had, in the city of Ephesus.
This ancient city on the Aegean Sea’s east coast (today its remains are inland due to silting) was large and wealthy. But for Paul it was important for other reasons. After a brief first visit (Ac 18:19), he was soon back to be greeted with the conversion of 12 disciples of John the Baptist (Ac 19:1-7). This event was encouraging, but it was also a sign of the changing place of Christianity. Soon it would no longer be seen as a Jewish sect (Ac 18:14-15). Jesus’ kingdom had far outgrown the nation where it all began and, in the next decade, ancient Israel would be judged by the Lord, leaving her capital and temple flattened, and Judaism having to reinvent herself. In Ephesus, Paul saw the signs of this. Not only in the completing of John the Baptist’s work, but also in: Christian separation from the synagogue (Ac 19:9); demonic attitudes to the Jews (Ac 19:15); the honouring of Jesus (Ac 19:18); the power of the Lord’s Word (Ac 19:19); and the clash with the temple of Artemis (Ac 19:26). All spoke of Christ’s kingdom pulling away from old Israel.
Paul, therefore, worked hard in the city for 3 years (Ac 21:31), planting gospel churches across Asia (Ac 19:10 – modern western Turkey). A few years later, Jesus would describe these churches as a temple (Rev 1:10-20). But as the Lord’s kingdom rose, Paul knew Israel’s time was ending and so was keen to visit Jerusalem one last time (Ac 19:21) to warn her. Racing there from Greece, however, Paul feels he needs to speak to the Ephesian church elders (Ac 20:16) since he does not expect to see them again (v25) and there is something solemn that he needs to say. Yes, he’s planted churches in many places and they are all valuable in the kingdom. But Paul gave himself in an extended way to Ephesus; poured his life into the church. In each generation the Lord has his key centres of kingdom life, which have a peculiar role to play. That changes over time as churches rise and fall in different lands. Here, it’s the time of Asia to rise even as the mother church in Jerusalem vanishes (Lu 21:20-22). That means Ephesus is going to face some testing days ahead, as Satan’s enmity turns on her. But Paul can honestly say that he has prepared the church for this, he has completed his task in the city. Or as he puts it (strongly): “I am innocent of the blood of all men” (Ac 20:26). His conscience is clear.
Not all tasks in our life have to be completed by us – some we hand on to others. But there are others which weigh on our consciences and we must finish off all we’ve been given to do by the Lord. Paul carried that burden in Ephesus. For Christians today, it will be in a variety of ways: maybe with our families, neighbourhoods or churches. The Lord brings responsibilities into our lives which we know we have to see through. We must take them seriously so that we can come before our God, in the end, with our consciences at peace, knowing we completed our work.
But back in Ephesus, how did Paul perform his task? How did he prepare the church? He says it was by proclaiming the whole will of God (v27). Paul’s later letter to the Ephesians can help us to understand what he means. There he writes of how his God-given job was to bring together Jews and Gentiles in Christ Jesus (Ep 3:6-11). This was God’s plan and Paul was tasked with making it clear to all. In earlier years he beavered away in many places to plant churches which showed this plan. But in Ephesus all the thinking and battling he had done came together; there he laid it all out in his teaching and built a church upon it. Of course, we may not think the mixing of different types of people so shocking today; but this was radical in Paul’s time. The barrier between Jews and Gentiles was rock solid, yet Jesus took a sledgehammer to it (Ep 2:13-17)! From childhood, Paul was programmed to react against Gentile ways, yet Jesus transformed him so that he loved Gentile Christians as his family. In Ephesus, Paul preached and taught that with perspicuity.
Though the Jewish/Gentile question has vanished in many ways, the need to pull down all barriers remains. Christians have to root out any traits, attitudes or sins which separate us, so that we can say honestly before God that we took all possible steps to unite lovingly with our fellow believers. Others may keep the barriers up, of course. But let’s make sure our consciences are clear.