The Least Likely Disciple | Acts 9:1-19a

The Least Likely Disciple | Acts 9:1-19a

Who is the least likely person you know who would ever become a Christian? Take a moment and think of them. Is it a family member, a friend, a coworker? Is it because they’re apathetic to Christianity? Or is it because they’re totally against Christianity? Maybe they identify as an atheist, or Buddhist, Muslim, or even Jewish. All you know, is they’ll never follow Jesus

Nabeel fit the description of someone who would never follow Jesus. His parents were from Pakistan and they were devout Muslim believers. They moved to the U.S. and Nabeel grew up obedient to Islam. By the age of five he was saying the five daily prayers and had memorized the entire Koran in Arabic. He knew what he believed and practiced it rigorously. 

His family blamed American Christianity for the moral compromises they saw all around them, for the immorality of culture. These people claim to be Christians but they promote all this stuff. The Christians Nabeel encountered as a child and teen didn’t know their faith beyond a surface level. He would question them and they didn’t have the answers. This only confirmed that Islam was true and that he was on the right path. Nabeel is the kind of person who if we were friends with him, we would assume he would never come to Jesus. Nabeel is a little like Saul. Saul was a devout Jew who practiced his beliefs rigorously.

Saul was the least likely of disciples.

Saul identified himself as “zealous” for his faith (Acts 22:3; Gal 1:14). To understand what this means we need to understand Judaism at that time. I’ve been reading Paul, A Biography by N.T. Wright. In it Wright talks about Saul’s teacher, a man named Gamaliel. Gamaliel was a part of a school of thought called “Hillel” that generally allowed for disagreement and debate within Judaism. In Acts 5 when the Sanhedrin put Peter and John on trial for preaching the gospel, Gamaliel argued that they should let these men go and see what happens. If their mission has human origins they will fail. If not, Gamaliel doesn’t want to fight against God (Acts 5:38-39). Gamaliel is from Hillel and took a “live and let live” policy.

But there was another school called Shammai who were a little more fiery, who believed in prayer, but with a sword strapped to your side. Saul likely identified more with Shammai than Hillel. Those like Saul who were especially zealous would have identified strongly with the Old Testament hero, Phinehas. After Egypt, when Israel wondered in the wilderness, the men of their camp became interested in foreign Moabite women. These women took the Israelites away from the one true God and they began to worship Baal. God sent a plague on the people in judgment and ordered the Israelites to kill any who committed this act.

Numbers 25:6-8 (NIV) 6 Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped;

Phinehas is so zealous for God’s law and holiness that he took a spear and rammed it through the Israelite man and Moabite woman. The Psalms actually say this was reckoned to Phinehas as “righteousness.”

Psalm 106:30-31 (NIV)
30 But Phinehas stood up and intervened,
        and the plague was checked.
31 This was credited to him as righteousness
        for endless generations to come.

So Saul must have been thinking, “If I am zealous for God’s law, and put to death those who are spreading false teachings, this too will be credited to me as righteousness.” Christianity was a threat to Judaism. You have to eat the body and blood of a dead guy they claimed rose again from the grave? How is this not pagan? To not act would bring down God’s wrath on Israel. That’s why Saul helped kill Stephen and now is dragging believers from their homes. He thinks he’s like Phinehas, protecting Israel from judgment.

Acts 9:1-2 (NIV) Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

So as Saul is going to Damascus to capture more believers, you can see he would have been completely confident in his position. “I am like Phinehas who put the idolaters to death. I am like Elijah who put the prophets of Baal to death. I am zealous. I am doing the Lord’s will!” 

Who do you know who is zealously anti-Christian, who could never come to faith? Zero possibility? Do they remind you of Saul? Do they remind you of Nabeel? Saul and Nabeel are the least likely of disciples. Neither one seems like they could ever come to faith. I can think of a bunch of people like this in my own life. Most people I know seem like they’ll never come to Jesus. Why have I given up on them? 

Jesus loves to save the least likely of disciples.

Saul is nearing Damascus when suddenly a light brighter than the sun shines all around him (Acts 22; 26).

Acts 9:3-4 (NIV) As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Instantly, Saul knew this was the Lord. He knew the throne room vision in Isaiah 6. He knew the vision of chariots in Ezekiel 1. He knew the vision of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7. Here at last God was rewarding him and his righteousness for his zealous crusade for God! But falling to the ground he hears the words he least expects, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” In this moment his whole worldview shifts. His understanding of God and Scripture is flipped upsidedown. In fear and trembling he asks. 

Acts 9:5 (NIV)
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.

“This changes everything! This means the martyr Stephen was innocent! This means the man named Jesus who died on a cross was more than a rebel or a heretic. He was the Messiah, God’s special king. This means I was right about some things. The God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, is the one true God. But I was wrong about Jesus. Jesus is the Son of Man. Jesus is God in the flesh!” 

Do you ever wonder why Jesus chose Saul? Why choose him? Saul later writes:

1 Timothy 1:15-16 (NIV) 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 

Jesus loves to save sinners, bad sinners, the worst sinners. If Jesus can save Saul, he can save Nabeel, he can save David, he can save your friend or family member, whatever their name may be. Let’s pray they too would ask, “Who are you, Lord?” Maybe we can challenge them to ask Jesus that. Lord willing, Jesus will graciously reveal himself, “I am Jesus…” 

When Nabeel got to college he finally met a Christian who understood what they believe and why they believed it. He finally met someone who could answer his questions and arguments, who was genuinely following Christ like he was following Allah, and who could explain the gospel to him. This man’s name was David. David became a friend to Nabeel. He spent time with him. He cared about him. David was willing to walk through what it meant to truly follow Jesus—that it isn’t just a quick prayer but a laying down of your entire life for Jesus. 

As Nabeel tried to disprove the death, deity, and resurrection of Jesus, three things Muslims deny, he found the evidence for those things to be compelling. This took years. Finally he began to make Islam take the same truthtests he required of Christianity and he found Islam was far weaker than he expected. So that’s when he asked Jesus to reveal himself to him in a dream or vision. 50-70% of Muslims that come to Jesus come because Jesus appeared to them in a dream or vision. Jesus answered his prayer.

In Nabeel’s dream he was standing outside a very narrow doorway. It was just tall enough and wide enough for him to fit through. On the other side of this doorway there was this really nice feast where everyone was seated, waiting for the owner or speaker to arrive. He knew this was a vision of heaven. Nabeel saw his friend David in the room but no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t get in. He asked his friend, “David. I thought we were going to eat together.” He said, “You haven’t responded.” That’s when he knew he needed to respond. When he woke up he told his friend David the dream and he pointed him to Luke 13 where Jesus says this:

Luke 13:24-25 (NIV) 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

This vision led to Nabeel counting the cost, the deep price he would have to pay converting from a Muslim family to Christianity. He finally took that step of faith to come to Jesus. Jesus loves to save the least likely of disciples. Whose your Saul? Whose your Nabeel? How do you know Jesus won’t save them? Have you ever talked with them about Jesus? Maybe it’s time to prayerfully try again.

Jesus loves to save the least likely of disciples through us.

Jesus tells Saul to get up and go to Damascus. Saul get’s up but he’s blind. He’s led to Damascus where he spends the next several days thinking and praying and repenting and reexamining his life. Now God has done all the hard work. God has moved in Saul, but he still wants to use a fellow believer in Saul’s story.

Acts 9:10-14 (NIV) 10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

God could have just showed up and told Paul everything he needed to know. But God had something in this event for Ananias as well. God wanted to give him the opportunity to see him moving. Maybe God wants to give you the opportunity to see him move in an incredible way. 

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

God is including Ananias but Ananias doesn’t see it that way. Ananias sees all the reasons why Saul will never come to Christ. He’s persecuting us! He came here to kill us! That’s not the kind of guy you expect to come to Christ. Think of the person in your life who you think could never come to Christ. How many excuses have we used to not tell them about Jesus? Sometimes the Holy Spirit calls on us to wait, but how many times have we ignored him when he said it’s time? Jesus came to die to forgive them of this sin.

Acts 9:15-19a (NIV) 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.

Not only is Saul a Christian now. God intends to use him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. It’s amazing how God is going to work through Ananias to bring Saul into Christianity, but then God is going to use Saul to bring others into Christianity. We can’t lose hope for our friends not only for their sake, but for the sake of those God might want them to share Christ with. After Nabeel Qureshi became a Christian and later joined Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), an apologetics ministry (aka. good reasons to believe). He wrote the book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity. He’s told lots of others about the faith he discovered in Christ. God might work through you to save the one on your heart, and then work through them to save a bunch more. But it won’t be easy.

16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

The quickest way to get people to sign up for Christianity is to tell them Jesus will make their life easy. But it’s also the wrong way. In some ways Christianity is easier (Matt 11:30). We’re forgiven. But in other ways it’s harder. Jesus tells us to pick up our cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23). In 2016 Nabeel was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died in 2017 at the age of 34. Jesus doesn’t promise us an easy rode once we join him, but he does promise he’ll walk that road with us, no matter where he takes us. Till the very end Nabeel prayed for healing but believed God is good no matter what. 

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

God’s Holy Spirit anoints Saul a special way for ministry. Ananias gets to be part of it. He gets to lay his hands on him and call him “Brother Saul.” God used Ananias, another believer, to help make it happen. God used David, a friend in Nabeel’s college years, to bring him to faith in Christ. God can use you and me to bring those around us to Jesus. Jesus loves to save the least likely of disciples through us.

Who might God be using you to bring to a relationship with him? Nabeel made the point in an interview if becoming a Christian really is picking up your cross and following Jesus, we really need to support and encourage people in that commitment. We need to have real relationships with them. Who might you need to encourage? Whose questions do you need to answer? Who do you need to make time for, over Zoom, over the phone, over a social distancing campfire, over a picnic in the park. Let’s pray and walk in line with our prayers. God is already at work in their lives, preparing them. We get to be like Ananias who shows up and helps them along their journey. Jesus loves to save the least likely of disciples through us.

Romans 10:13-15 (NIV)
13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Pastor Jonathan Romig preached this message at Cornerstone Congregational Church. You can download a PDF copy of this sermon above, which includes endnotes and references, or share it through Apple podcasts or Google Play Music. Read the story of our church here.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who is the least likely person you know who would ever become a Christian? Why do you think that? 
  2. How should you begin praying for that person? 
  3. When might the Lord provide an opportunity for you to share Christ with them? 
  4. What about Saul/Paul’s story is encouraging? 
  5. What about Ananias’s story is convicting?
  6. What about Nabeel’s story is motivating? 
  7. What are you going to do next? 

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