On earth, at least. Flawless records, right down to giving “one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple,” are kept above.
An unknown disciple, in a story recorded in E.H. Broadbent’s Pilgrim Church, when told that he was to be executed for his faith in Christ, responded: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’” One of millions of disciples described in Paul’s words, “as unknown and yet well known” (2 Cor. 6:9), I believe heaven will be full of such stories of God’s grace translated into real history through simple faith and rigorous obedience to the Lord.
The other three
This issue of Uplook has said little about Nathanael (also called Bartholomew), James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus (nicknames meaning “a man of heart” and “large-hearted” rather than constantly calling him “Judas, not Iscariot”). One reason is that so little is recorded of these men in Scripture. But isn’t it fitting that some are virtually anonymous in what they do for the Lord?
Anonymous for Jesus
The Lord Himself described the ultimate in anonymity: “When you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt. 6:3). Imagine being anonymous even to yourself! This, He said, was one good kind of forgetfulness (along with forgetting wrongs others have done to us), when we forget kind deeds we have done to others.
The Lord, as usual, was the greatest exemplar of this self-effacing trait. “He made Himself of no reputation” (Phil. 2:7). The word here, sometimes translated “emptied Himself” can be misunderstood to mean He emptied Himself of certain attributes, a false idea sometimes referred to as Semi-Kenosis. The passage is an exhortation to us to do the same, but surely we can’t empty ourselves of our personality characteristics. He emptied Himself, poured out as a drink offering, as Paul (v. 17) and Timothy (v. 20) and Epaphroditus (v. 26) were also willing to do.
A significant part of this emptying was that our Lord “made Himself of no reputation.” The Designer of the ages, the Architect of the worlds, the Upholder and Heir of all things, He became known as “the carpenter’s son” (Mt. 13:55). Grace!
Reasons for anonymity
1. Sometimes being unknown is the best policy for safety’s sake and so the work carries on unnoticed by the authorities. There are thrilling accounts about God’s amazing work in many troubled parts of the world, but they must remain unspoken until heaven. The best stories can’t be told until God’s people are all safe Home. Remember the “And others…” list in Hebrews 11? If things continue on their present course, we will soon have some additions to that list from our lands, too.
2. The recording of Church history has been very uneven. Its characters mostly have European roots. I was privileged to hear the stories of some heroic African and Indian disciples for whom we prayed at our table. In my childhood I learned there were many giants of the faith who were unknown in the West. Since then it has been my privilege to meet some of these Others in lands of persecution “that know their God” who are “strong, and carry out exploits” (Dan. 11:32).
3. Of course, there are many, even in this part of the world, where notoriety for any reason is considered valuable, who choose to be unknown. In the words of J.N. Darby, “Say little, serve all, pass on. This is true greatness, to serve unnoticed and work unseen. Oh, the joy of having nothing and being nothing, seeing nothing but a living Christ in glory, and being careful for nothing but His interests down here.” And why should we choose such a path? First, because pride lurks at every corner, waiting to trip us up. Second, because we cannot make people think we are great and Christ is wonderful at the same time.
When people told John the Baptizer that he was losing his disciples to Jesus, he made three key points: i) all that you enjoy through my ministry came from heaven; I’m just the channel of God’s blessing (v. 27); ii) you should never confuse me with “the Christ”—I merely bear witness of Him (v. 28); and iii) my joy finds its fulfillment in Christ getting all the attention (v. 29). John concludes: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (v. 30).
Of course there are no anonymous disciples in heaven; we’ll all be on a first-name basis there (see Rev. 3:12).