Serving Jesus in Obscurity

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Jonathan is the pastor of a small country church. Each week he stands in front of mostly empty pews and preaches to an ever-dwindling congregation. Around thirty people show up for church on a good Sunday, but the crowd numbers closer to twelve most weeks. Jonathan encourages the attendees to sit closer to the front, but they refuse. Somehow, the scattered crowd appears even smaller than twelve.

After finalizing his sermon notes on Saturday night, Jonathan drives to the dollar store to buy pipe cleaners, cotton balls, goldfish, juice boxes, and anything else the teacher needs for children’s church. There are no children in attendance some Sundays, and the craft supplies go unused. The same can be said of the juice and crackers Jonathan prepares for communion. Though he fills thirty cups, most remain untouched at the end of the service. Jonathan can’t help but wonder what he is doing wrong as he dumps Welch’s down the sink. He is keenly aware that he will never shepherd a mega-church, write a best seller, or have a clip from his message turned into a sermon jam for YouTube. Nevertheless, he continues to serve Jesus and his congregation in relative obscurity.

Does Jonathan’s obscure service matter? I found myself pondering that question as I read the first chapter of Acts. In these verses, the apostles are choosing a replacement for Judas. Peter announces that Judas’ replacement should come from the group disciples who had accompanied Jesus and the apostles from the very beginning. The apostles put forward two men for consideration: Joseph Barsabbas (“Joseph”) and Matthias. After praying, the apostles cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias.

Joseph’s biblical footprint begins and ends with his “loss” to Matthias in Acts. After the lots are cast, Joseph slips off into biblical obscurity. Luke tells us that Joseph was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, but, other than longevity, what qualified Joseph for apostleship? Undoubtedly, he witnessed countless miracles. Perhaps he performed some. Was he a wedding guest at Cana? Did he taste Jesus’ wine? Did he carry baskets of bread and fish at the feeding of the five thousand? Did he hear Jesus tell Nicodemus, “You must be born again”? We can’t know for sure. What’s certain is that Joseph played a significant role in Jesus’ earthly ministry. Still, his impact is merely a footnote in Acts.

I wonder if Joseph questioned whether he was making a difference for the kingdom of God when the lot fell on Matthias. Nikolaus von Zinzendorf famously said, “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” But putting those words into practice isn’t easy when you’re dumping grape juice after communion. I imagine they’re equally difficult to apply when the lot doesn’t go your way after years of faithful service.

Obscure disciples have nothing to lose and everything to gain by praying for their less-obscure counterparts.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Joseph was discouraged after the lot fell on Matthias. What I do know is that many of us tend to question whether our obscure service makes a difference today. Pastors are not the only ones serving in obscurity either. Jane works in the nursery more frequently than she attends the Sunday service because her church has a shortage of volunteers. Sue cleans the church building after everyone leaves to eat at Texas Roadhouse and watch football. Apart from the occasional “thank you” from the church leadership, no one notices that Sue stays late or uses her modest retirement income to purchase cleaning supplies. Both Jane and Sue wonder if they are making a difference for the kingdom.

I hope to offer a bit of encouragement, and a few suggestions, for those serving Jesus in obscurity.

1. Do not conflate earthly recognition and kingdom impact.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus’ inner circle consisted of Peter, James, and John. Much of the dialogue in the Gospels involves those three apostles. There are other apostles who, although not part of the inner circle, are widely recognized for remarkable stories (Thomas) or written contributions (Matthew). However, some apostles, such as Bartholomew and Thaddeus, are scarcely mentioned in the Gospels. Many Christians might struggle to name Bartholomew and Thaddeus if asked.

Bartholomew and Thaddeus walked with Jesus. They walked with Peter, James, and John. They ministered. Yet, most of what we know about them comes from extrabiblical tradition. We would be mistaken to confuse their biblical obscurity with their impact for the kingdom, however. According to tradition, Thaddeus faithfully ministered until he was martyred with an axe while preaching the gospel in Syria. Tradition records that Bartholomew was flayed and beheaded in Armenia for the same crime.

For the twelve named apostles, the biblical accounts of their contributions vary. However, virtually all the apostles paid the ultimate price for spreading the gospel. In short, an apostle’s biblical recognition does not reflect his impact necessarily. Your level of earthly recognition doesn’t reflect your impact, either. God sees our obscure service.[1]

2. It’s okay to serve Jesus in obscurity. Most of us will.

For every Peter, James, and John, there were thousands of anonymous disciples who served Jesus faithfully during his earthly ministry. I mentioned Joseph earlier, who, despite being present for the entire ministry of Jesus, is a footnote in Acts.

Eusebius records that both Joseph and Matthias were among the 72 nameless disciples that Jesus sent ahead to minister and prepare the way in Luke.[2] Those disciples were sent out because the harvest was plentiful, but the laborers were few (Luke 10:2). Assuming Eusebius is correct about Joseph and Matthias, what do we know about the other 70 disciples? Despite their faithful ministry, the Bible doesn’t tell us who they were.[3] They shared the gospel, healed the sick, and cast out demons, yet they remained unnamed. For every Peter, James, and John, there are thousands of Jonathans, Janes, and Sues. Just like the 72 unnamed disciples in Luke, we too can make a profound impact while serving Jesus in obscurity.

3. Pray for less obscure disciples.

While it’s true that many of us will serve Jesus in relative obscurity, there will certainly be those who receive substantial recognition while serving Jesus. When we consider how to respond to recognized service, considering F.B. Meyer’s (“Meyer”) story will provide helpful guidance.

Meyer pastored in London at the same time as Charles Haddon Spurgeon. If you are familiar with Spurgeon’s preaching, you will understand why Meyer’s ministry seemed overshadowed by Spurgeon’s at the time. Meyer would observe countless people passing by his church each Sunday morning on their way to Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle. At the same time, Meyer’s pews remained bare. Meyer probably felt the same way as Pastor Jonathan at times, wondering what he was doing wrong. It would have been easy for Meyer to harbor resentment towards Spurgeon, but he did not.

Instead, Meyer prayed for his less obscure co-laborer.

Meyer explained, “I find in my own ministry that supposing I pray for my own little flock, ‘God bless me, God fill my pews, God send me a revival,’ I miss the blessing; but as I pray for my big brother, Mr. Spurgeon, on the right-hand side of my church, ‘God bless him’; I am sure to get a blessing without praying for it, for the overflow of [his] cup fills my little bucket.”[4]

Those who are serving Jesus in obscurity would be wise to follow Meyer’s example. He understood that his contribution to the kingdom was not contingent on matching Surgeon’s attendance numbers. Obscure disciples have nothing to lose and everything to gain by praying for their less-obscure counterparts. Joseph prays for Matthias. F. B. Meyer prays for Spurgeon. Pastor Jonathan prays for John Piper. We know that our obscure service matters. Keeping that truth in mind, we should pray for those who serve faithfully in the limelight.

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[1] Matthew 6:4; Hebrews 4:13; Proverbs 15:3; Ecclesiastes 12:14
[2] Eusebius. Historia Ecclesiastica, I, 12
[3] There are extrabiblical accounts naming the 72.
[4] W. Wiersbe, The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers, p. 193

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Stephen Howard

Stephen Howard

Stephen is an attorney and M.Div. student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds degrees from the Pennsylvania State University, Dickinson School of Law and North Greenville University. He resides in Enola, Pennsylvania with his wife, Abby, and their two children. If you need to find Stephen, he is probably fishing at the river.

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