The man with the plan

When I first became a Christian, it was because someone showed me a gospel tract declaring that God had a wonderful plan for my life. The tract had a little diagram depicting how chaotic and disorganized life can be when we live on our terms, and how well-ordered it can be when we live on God’s terms.

“Which kind of life looks better to you?” I was asked. “Which one do you want?” Well, obviously, I thought. I prayed the prayer, and received Jesus as my Savior.

That was nearly 47 years ago.

I still believe, though I can’t say I put much stock in that diagram anymore, nor even in the language of a “wonderful” plan. “Wonderful” from whose point of view? It sounds like religious ad copy. Don’t tell the prophet Jeremiah his life is going to be “wonderful” or orderly. Don’t tell the apostle Paul. Don’t tell any of those who have been tortured, imprisoned, or martyred for the faith, lest you be accused of a spiritual bait-and-switch.

Yes, there is a plan of salvation. Yes, God will win the final victory. That day is our wonderful, wonder-filled destination, and we will experience many smaller victories along the way — many previews, as it were, of coming attractions. But until that day, we should also expect to continue to suffer chaos and pain, and to look to God for sustenance and hope.

Yes, Jesus is the man with the plan.

But sometimes, we have plans of our own, and it’s a wonder that God is as patient with us as he is.

. . .

In previous posts, we’ve looked at the beginning and middle sections of Paul’s defense before the Jerusalem mob that wanted to kill him. We’ve seen how he attempted to connect with them through a bit of rhetorical judo: You’re obviously all zealous Jews; so am I, in fact, even more so! 

For the moment, it’s working. Instead of baying for his blood, they’re listening. So Paul presses on with the story:

After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw Jesus saying to me, “Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.”And I said, “Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you.And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.” (Acts 22:17-20, NRSV)

More judo: Paul had gone to Damascus under the authority of the high priest, then returned to Jerusalem — notice, of course, that he leaves out the part about the Jews in Damascus wanting to kill him (Acts 9:23). Upon his return, as a pious Jew, Paul went to the temple to pray (no doubt to make sense of all that had happened to him since meeting Jesus). Luke left out that detail in his earlier narrative; he didn’t need it. But Paul includes it here for the benefit of his audience.

Then Paul narrates a scene that surely would have reminded some of his hearers of Isaiah’s vision in the temple, in which God commissioned him as a prophet. At first, what Jesus said to Paul sounds more like a warning than a commission: Get out of the city, Paul. They’re not going to listen to you.

And Paul pushed back: “Yes, but…” There seem to be two sides to the pushback. One is, “Yes, but don’t they know my reputation for zeal? Doesn’t that earn me an audience?” The other is, “Yes, but I’m not done here, Lord. My plan was to evangelize the Hellenistic Jews (Acts 9:29) who were responsible for Stephen’s death. I share their guilt and need to do this.”

Paul, it seems, was also a man with a plan. But it wasn’t the Lord’s plan. Jesus’ response was not, “Go! Leave. I’m telling you it’s not safe for you here.” His response was, “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). That’s the plan, Paul. That’s your commission.

And that’s where Paul suddenly loses his audience. Wait, what’s he saying? Gentiles? That’s the plan?  Luke describes their reaction: “Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live'” (Acts 22:22). They quickly understood the implications of what Paul was saying, and were back to baying for blood.

So much for the strategy of conspicuous piety. So much for rhetorical judo. From here on out, Paul will either be on trial or on his way to one.

Because that, apparently, is the plan.