Unlikely Converts

Men on the subway

In the following passage, James described a scenario in which two individuals visited the assembly of the church. After they arrived, the brethren treated them differently based upon their appearances.

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” (James 2:1-4).

James warned these brethren that they were not to treat others differently based upon their appearances. He explained in the next verse that “God [chose] the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5). Yet they treated the poor as if they were unimportant. By this kind of treatment, they were putting a barrier between these individuals and the salvation that the Lord offered to them – all because they made a judgment about them based upon their appearance.

Sometimes when we think of evangelism and converting the lost, we might have a picture in our minds of the type of person we could see being receptive to the gospel. However, if we are not careful we could subconsciously reject or overlook some who might have otherwise been interested (the single mother, the person with tattoos, the immigrant who speaks broken English, or, in the example given by James, the poor man who cannot afford nice clothes to wear to the assembly of the church). Sometimes the ones who are converted to Christ are not the ones we would expect.

The New Testament contains several examples of individuals who would have been unlikely converts because they did not fit the mold of one who might be considered a good prospect. Yet they obeyed the gospel and became disciples of Christ. Let us notice some of these in this article.

Examples in the New Testament

[Note: We will not be producing the entire text of the passages containing these accounts in this article. You are encouraged to look up these passages and read the Biblical record of these individuals to confirm the observations being made here.]

The sorcerer in Samaria (Acts 8:9-13) – This man was a deceiver who was “claiming to be someone great” and leading people to believe that he was “the Great Power of God.” Yet when Philip came to Samaria preaching the gospel and performing actual miracles, even this man “believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.” The lesson from Simon the sorcerer is that we should not think that one’s arrogance will forever disqualify him. It could be that the gospel will be what finally humbles him as it did with Simon.

The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39) – Despite going “to Jerusalem to worship,” this man had no real contact with Christians. He went to and from Jerusalem without ever learning about Jesus. He evidently was completely isolated from the influence of the Lord’s disciples until his encounter with Philip. The lesson from the Ethiopian eunuch is that we should not let a lack of proximity deter us from reaching others. We may be able to influence those in other places – even around the world – who might not know any other Christians. Yet they can still learn the gospel and obey it.

The Roman centurion (Acts 10:1-8, 34-48) – Cornelius was described as “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household.” Yet he was a Gentile. This meant that he lacked a basic knowledge of the Old Testament which Paul later described as a “tutor to lead us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24). The lesson from Cornelius is that we should not think that one without a Biblical background is unreachable. One who is honest and sincere – like this centurion – can see the truth when it is presented to him and then accept it.

The Philippian jailer (Acts 16:22-34) – When Paul and Silas were arrested and beaten, this man was given the responsibility of keeping them secure. He “threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.” Besides being diligent to keep them confined, it is possible that he was even one who mistreated them. But even if he was not directly involved in that, he was still willing to overlook their harsh, unjust, and illegal treatment. Yet that night, after an earthquake that initially caused him to think that all of the prisoners had escaped, he was asking Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” The lesson from the Philippian jailer is that we should not think that one who persecuted us (or willingly overlooked our persecution from others) would never be receptive to the gospel. Yet it could take a crisis for them to have a change of heart, just as it did with this man.

The leader of the synagogue (Acts 18:8) – Many Jews opposed the gospel as they had opposed Jesus. In fact, when we read through the book of Acts, we see that much of the persecution against the church was started by the Jews in different places. Yet “Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household.” The lesson from Crispus is that we should not think that a “leader” of some other religious group could never be open to the truth. This man saw that the message of Christ was true and was willing to change his convictions to follow Him.

Those in Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22) – When Paul referred to the “saints…of Caesar’s household,” he could have been referring to either family members of the Emperor or his servants (or both). This was written during the reign of Nero who severely persecuted Christians. Yet there were some in his household who became Christians. The lesson from these individuals is that we should not assume that one will be uninterested in the gospel because of certain associations they have. Each one will make his own decision about whether to follow Christ or not. Some will be willing to become a disciple even if they have family, friends, or others in their lives who are vehemently opposed to the way of Christ.

The chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:12-16) – Paul described himself as the epitome of an “unlikely convert.” He was “formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.” He considered himself the “chief” (KJV) or the “foremost of all” sinners. The lesson from this is that if Paul can be saved, anyone can be saved. No matter what someone has done in the past, God is willing to forgive if he repents and turns to the Lord.

If we encountered these individuals prior to their conversion, it is very likely we would not consider them to be very promising candidates for becoming followers of Christ. Yet as they were able to be converted, there are others we encounter in our lives that might not seem to be promising candidates but could very well be receptive to the gospel.

Remember the Parable of the Sower

Jesus gave the following parable describing the different ways the gospel would be received when it was proclaimed:

The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great” (Luke 8:5-8).

The seed, which represented the word of God (Luke 8:11), was sown on various kinds of soil. Yet not every soil was receptive or produced sustainable growth. The roadside soil produced no growth. The rocky and thorny ground both had some growth at the start, but it did not endure. Only the good soil allowed the seed to grow and bear fruit.

As Jesus explained, the different types of soil represented people’s hearts (Luke 8:11-15) – not their background, appearance, or anything like that. Paul reminded us that we cannot know the hearts of others. He asked, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11). We do not know what type of heart one might have according to Jesus’ parable. All we can do is sow the seed.

We should not judge anyone as being unworthy of hearing the gospel. The Lord’s will was that His apostles “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). His “grace…has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). Since we cannot know who might be receptive and who will not, we simply need to plant and water and allow God to give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6).

Conclusion

We have a responsibility, both individually and collectively, to try to reach others with the gospel. However, we need to be careful not to sabotage our own efforts by prejudging others. Jesus reached sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, and more. The early church reached Gentiles, Roman soldiers, slaves, government leaders, and others. We never know who could be receptive to the gospel when it is presented to them.

Paul described the gospel as the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). Let us work to plant and water so that God will give the increase.


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