Saturday, February 2, 2008

Paul, the Call and the Calendar

This term in VLI (Vineyard Leadership Institute, a two-year college level study in theologhy and leadership) we're studying the writings of the apostle Paul. As a result, I've had to read all of Paul's letters in a short time period and I'm getting a ton of background information about both Paul and the culture of the times in which he lived.

One of the things that makes reading the Bible at any level difficult is that ancient writers had a different style of writing than we have today, and as a result they leave out things that we would think are very important. One of the things they tend to leave out is dates (not to mention that they sometimes don't write in chronological order, either!). So sometimes it's really hard to figure out what the timeline is of the story that is being told.

There's a pretty good example of this surrounding Paul's story in the book of Acts. Paul's famous encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus occurs in chapter 9. Immediately after that, Paul begins preaching around Damascus that Jesus is the Son of God, but nobody trusts him. In case you're wondering why not, he was attempting to imprison and kill the followers of Jesus just a couple of paragraphs earler. In any case, as a result of Paul's conversion the tables are turned and certain Jews in Damascus decide they want to kill Paul. Even though they don't trust him yet, his new "Christian" buddies (they weren't really called Christians yet) get him out of town safely and send him to Jerusalem from whence he is sent back to his hometown of Tarsus.

Now, here's where the timing gets tricky. It only says next that the fledgling church "enjoyed a time of peace" and "it grew in numbers." The next thing we know the story turns to Peter and recounts two significant stories that center around him before returning to Paul at the end of chapter 11. Still in Tarsus, Paul is sought out by Barnabas who wants his help in pastoring a new church in Antioch, which is not all that far from Taursus.

So, two chapters, a couple of stories about Peter...how much time has elapsed? I think in my head, the answer was always, "A few months, maybe." Do you want to know the real answer? About 10 years!!

Now why is this important to me? Well for one, I always had the impression Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, heard Jesus' calling for him to "carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings" and- boom!- sent him on his way. Two out of three ain't bad I guess. The first two things are true- he encountered Jesus and through another disciple named Ananias heard his calling from Jesus. But then there's this 10 year gap.

Now we don't have any idea what Paul was doing during those 10 years, but my guess is at times he must have questioned what happened at Damascus. Did he really hear from God? Is He really going to use him to carry the gospel to the Gentiles? Even if Paul spent a lot of that decade honing his preaching skills and carrying the gospel as best he could to non-believers in Tarsus, don't you think that would have appeared to Paul to be a dismal disappointment compared to his grand calling to carry the gospel to the Gentiles "and their kings"?

We see this kind of story repeated throughout the Bible. Abraham, Moses and David all experienced this kind of "delayed fulfillment" of God's purpose for them. But God uses that time to develop character, to develop skills, to develop obedience, to develop relationship with him. He hasn't fogotten us. Steve Robbins, the primary teacher of VLI puts it this way: differentiate the call from the calendar. In other words, God's will for me is not dependent on my timing.

That's important to me. There are things I believe God has called me to do that haven't happened yet. Maybe there are for you, too. If so, at least it's good to know he's not done with us yet!

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