We see in the book of Acts how God can use one person to shape history and to shape the thinking of entire nations. Simon the Sorcerer, The Ethiopian eunuch. i was cleaning out the library this week, and I start looking at the authors. God saves unlikely people.
- C.S. Lewis: One of the greatest Christian apologists who could present his case to scholars in books like “Mere Christianity” and children in the Narnia series. Lewis was a convinced atheist, a professor of literature
- Lee Strobel
- Rosaria Butterfield, “Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert”
Most unlikely convert? Wouldn’t it today be a religious terrorist?
Portrait of a Religious Terrorist: There has been mush research lately on the process of radicalization. The FBI defines radicalization as “the process by which individuals come to believe their engagement in or facilitation of nonstate violence to achieve social and political change is necessary and justified.” Here’s one portrait of a radicalized religious terrorist, based upon his own accounts:
A youth from a visibly minority religious group spends his childhood in one of Europe’s cultural centres. His parents continuously point out to him the depravity of the city and culture around them, and thus the boy spends his childhood in cultural isolation. His parents dream and pray about moving the family to the Middle East, where they can teach their children their faith and customs in a pure and unspoiled environment, closer to the heart of their religion. While the boy is still a child, his parents are able to realize their dream and move the family to Jerusalem. While they are excited to be able to raise the family in one of the central cities of their religion, they also find that the religious tension in the city is much more intense than what they experienced in their hometown. Clashes between the various religious and ethnic groups occur repeatedly, sometimes erupting in violence. What began as feelings of isolation begin to turn darker, sometimes into hatred toward the Western imperialists and the infidels. The boy is an apt student, and the family feels the blessing of God as he is accepted to sit under the teachings of one of the great teachers of their faith. They could not be more proud as the boy grows into a young man, a scholar of their faith, a respectable cleric. However, the tensions in the city grow even greater and the leaders of their faith gather to discern a way forward. Some propose escalating the violence, a show of strength. The young man feels his adrenaline rushing as finally their community is going to take action. However, he is shattered when his own mentor, the man who groomed him and taught him, proposes a course of moderation, which ultimately wins the day. The young man breaks with his teacher and from that moment on, begins to align himself with the more radical elements, first in Jerusalem, but ultimately finds himself leading a delegation up to Syria, to join in the movement to purify his religion by eradicating Christianity from the world. He has become radicalized.
Who am I speaking of? I’m not speaking of anyone named Abdul or Mohammed. I am speaking, of course, of none other than the apostle Paul. It’s his story, a story of religious radicalization.
Paul, then called Saul, was born in the city of Tarsus, in what is now central Turkey. Tarsus at that time was a prosperous capital city, on the Mediterranean sea, and had become one of the major cultural and philosophical centres of the Roman Empire. Saul would have been shielded from the idolatry of the city by his Jewish parents, who moved him and his sister to Jerusalem, as soon as they could, when Saul was still a child, training him in the manner of the Pharisees, a conservative sect of Judaism. Saul did indeed study under one of the great religious teachers of the day, the Rabbi Gamaliel, who did indeed counsel a moderate approach to the tensions that had arisen in the city over the sect of the followers of the Galilean, Jesus of Nazareth. And we’ve seen in the book of Acts already, how Saul began to separate himself from the moderation of his teacher, to align himself with the more radical responses to the emerging Christian movement.
Saul was was present during the first public execution of a Christian by stoning, Stephen the Martyr in Acts chapter 7-8. Here is Luke’s account:
Acts 7:54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 8:1 And Saul approved of his execution.
While Saul is merely holding the coats at Stephen’s stoning, soon after we see Saul taking a more active approach in the persecution of Christians:
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Lest we think that this is an exaggeration by Luke regarding Saul’s agency in persecuting the church, we have Saul’s description of his life at this time in his own words.
Acts 26:9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
1Tim. 1:12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
Now I used to think that Paul was exaggerating. How could the apostle Paul have been “the foremost of sinners.” But i don’t think that he or the scripture are exaggerating. After all, had Paul had his way, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of salvation as a free gift of God’s grace, the good news of God’s transforming grace that has rescued billions throughout history from lives of sin and shame, the good news that is the only way to God, if Paul had his way, the knowledge of Christ and his gospel would have been eradicated before it ever took root.
Now, at the heart of all unbelief is the rejection of Christ. And so every one of us, in our unbelief have a connection to Paul’s unbelief, yet not every one of us has taken the steps to act upon the suppression of others coming to faith in Christ. And even if we were to act, not many of us would have opportunity to bring about the eradication of the gospel. Paul not only hated the gospel, not only took steps to act out violently according to his hatred, but also had opportunity to stop the spread of Christianity in his day. There is not a more unlikely person for God to save.
God saves unlikely people
Acts 9:1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Jesus saves unlikely people and he does so in spectacular ways, but in every unlikely conversion, there is a personal revelation of Jesus Christ, maybe not one that leaves you blind for three days, but one that makes you see the world through new eyes. Saul thought he was going up to Damascus to arrest these followers of Jesus, but he now it is revealed to him that he is persecuting the Lord himself. If you’re hear today and you’re yet unbelieving in Christ, and you think you’re fighting against the idea of Christianity, maybe you’re not fighting against the idea, but against God Himself. It won’t do to fight against God because He’ll win. Surrender. In another telling of his conversion Paul says that God said more to him on that road:
Acts 26:14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
Goads were pointed sticks that farmers used to direct their oxen to go were they wished. If the oxen we to kick against them they would feel a sharp pain. We still use this idiom when we say someone is “goading some on”. God goads us on, we who are unlikely converts. And it hurts, and so we kick against it. You stop coming to church because the goads hurt, but then god turns up in a TV show you watch, or a friend at school, and you keep kicking and it keeps hurting.
And then the car crash happens.
If you’re a Christian, this is your hope for your friends and family, that God’s grace is bigger and blinding. And that what the church had to learn as well, and that’s what we see next:
We need to believe that God saves the most unlikely converts
Sometimes We Need to Go to Unlikely People (Acts 9:10-14): God’s plan for Saul includes using a man named Ananias to go to him. So the Lord says to Ananias, “Rise and Go” and look at Ananias’ response: ““Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.” Are you sure God? Are you big enough and sovereign enough and convincing enough to save a man like that? Because I’m the one putting myself on the line about going to him. And there is risk, Ananias was being asked to go to a house he’s never been to, owned by a person he’s never met, walk in and ask for a person who notoriously hostile toward Christians. (Chuck Colson:
Sometimes we need to gather unlikely people (Acts 9:15-19): Look at the first words Ananias says to Saul. They are beautiful. “Brother Saul”. God uses Ananias to gather Saul into the brotherhood. He prays for him, baptizes him, and eats with him in Christian fellowship. God may use you to gather. the unlikely converts may not be ready to show up at church, and so you might need to go to them. Rosaria Butterfield talks about how she wasn’t ready to start coming to church right away when she became a Christian, she had to sort through her relationship, her reputation, her new life commitment, and so she writes about how thankful she was that her Christian friend continued to meet with her during that times, gather with her, eat with her. Be patient with her. This can be highly frustrating for us, because we want the unlikely convert to come into church fellowship right away, part of it is concern for them, but part of it is pride, we want the trophy. Do you know what the apostle Paul did after his conversion? It’s not recoded in Acts, but in Galatians he tells us that Christ had so impacted his life that he needed to get alone and think and recalibrate his life, so he left Damascus and spent three years in the Arabian wilderness, meeting with Jesus, scouring the scriptures and recalibrating his life. Can you imagine being Ananias? God sent you to gather this new, spectacularly unlikely convert, and they leave and you don’t know what happening with them, and all you can do is trust God. This gathering work is hard work.
Sometimes we need to defend unlikely people (Acts 9:26-27) But Paul comes back from the wilderness, now ready to join the disciples. So he heads up to Jerusalem, where nobody will meet with him. 9:26: And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. He needs a defender, someone who believes him, and Barnabas - remember his nickname? Son of Encouragement. 9:27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.
God often uses the unlikely converts to be great tools in his hands
9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
We of course know of the great exploits of the Apostle Paul, because we’ve seen this call of God work itself out in his ministry through the rest of His life. Jesus had met Him, the holy Spirit gave him new eyes, and now he could never stop speaking and living for what he had seen and heard. God does not waste a conversion - we are all saved to walk in the good works that he has prepared for us. We know of C.S. Lewis and Chuck Colson and Lee Strobel and Rosaria Butterfield because they have testified, like Paul, that though they were unlikely converts, they found grace and love in Jesus Christ.