“We should ask the question John the Baptist faced: Would I gladly fade into obscurity if it meant more attention for Jesus?”
It was a recent tweet from Kevin DeYoung.
That’s a word I’ve thought a lot about. I wrote about obscurity back in 2016 after a blog post unexpectedly went viral. I’m a no-name guy, and suddenly I was trying to process hundreds of thousands of views, tweets, and comments.
In a follow-up I wrote, “So now I go into sermon mode once again, and I have no idea how long it will be until I post something else or write something else that isn’t going to be preached from the pulpit. And whenever I do write again, I doubt very seriously that more than a handful of people will be reading. I’m okay with that. Obscurity in the world is not obscurity with the Lord.”
That’s what came to mind when I read that tweet. The idea of obscurity for the believer is a bit of a misnomer. Certainly, it’s wrong to seek earthly fame for the sake of pride, but at the same time, no child of God should entertain the idea — even for a second — that he lives in true obscurity.
Unless You Become Like Children
In Matthew 18, the disciples of Jesus ask who the greatest in heaven is. Jesus puts a child in front of them. There was no one so insignificant in the first century world as a child. As much as we celebrate children today and make their sporting events, clubs, and personal achievements focal points in our lives, this was not done among the common people of the ancient world. Children weren’t worthless, but they were about as far from “greatness” as a person could get.
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus told them (Matthew 18:3).
If that seems like a call to embrace obscurity, then perhaps it is — but only an earthly form of it. In the same passage, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).
That’s not obscurity.
Every child of God is well-known in heaven. The dramatic shifts of your life may not garner the sympathy of your neighbor, but they’re not meaningless. The poor man “Lazarus” is as well-known as his notoriously self-absorbed counterpart who ends up in torment. The angels of heaven know the God whom we serve, and they look to him with a curious expectation whenever something good or bad happens to us.
They know he is our Father. They know we are his children. Hence, our lives are not obscure or insignificant — not truly.
Unnamed Celebrities in the Hall of Faith
We often refer to Hebrews 11 as the “Hall of Faith” — a play on words with the phrase “Hall of Fame.” So many of the famous names in the Bible are mentioned in Hebrews 11: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David.
The first 35 verses of Hebrews 11 remember hero after hero from the Old Testament and all the great things they accomplished through faith. All of these heroes “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection” (Hebrews 11:33–35).
And if you read Hebrews 11 to that point in the chapter, you might be tempted to believe that what the author is saying is this: “If you just have faith like these people, then you can do great things for God, too! You can conquer! You can be strong! You can subdue kingdoms!”
It really does read like the ancient equivalent of a modern-day Hall of Fame. Until you get to verse 35.
From there, we begin to read about the “others” of the chapter. These are the ones who never conquered kingdoms, tore down walls or pillars, slew giants, or escaped fiery furnaces. These are the obscure children of God in the eyes of the world.
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy. (Hebrews 11:35–38)
I often cry at that last phrase. Of whom the world was not worthy.
That’s the judgment of all those watching angels from Matthew 18, who always see the face of the Father. From the dimly lit corners of the Hall of Faith, the earthly afterthoughts find their way into Hebrews 11 to testify alongside Abraham and Moses: obscurity in the world is not obscurity with God.
The world was not worthy of these great people.
Height of Human Glory
If we see our importance only through the lens of the world, then we will be a depressed and defeated generation of Christians. If we judge the value of our contributions by the number of retweets and likes that our expressions of faith garner, then the overwhelming majority of us will feel a sense of failure in our daily ministries.
“We only had three visitors at the clothing ministry today.” Is that failure? Three people were registered, sat down, and heard the gospel.
“Only four were baptized this year.” Were all those sermons a waste?
Brothers and sisters, the obscurity that DeYoung wisely calls us to embrace — accepting a place of insignificance in the world — must be counterbalanced in our hearts by a faith that all of heaven is an audience. Just like the “others” of Hebrews 11, we may find ourselves among the no-names of God’s people. Most of the children of God from the foundation of the world onward never won a battle like Gideon or parted the sea like Moses.
Our lot on this earth is probably poor and lowly, unknown and uncelebrated outside of our dearest brothers and sisters. But is this obscurity? It is not.
It is the height of human glory to become a child of God through Jesus Christ. For now we see the meaning of all our troubles through a mirror dimly, but the day is coming when we shall know, even as we are fully known in heaven (1 Corinthians 13:12). And we are fully known there.