When God calls us to great tasks or tiring work, it can feel extremely rewarding to receive applause for what we’ve done. Even in more backstage roles, it can feel validating for our previously unseen obedience to be recognized in the spotlight and commended.
But when our labor goes unacknowledged, our sacrifices go unappreciated, and our contributions are overshadowed by other roles that receive far greater honor, our true motives and goals in ministry crawl out of the shadows.
The apostle Paul is one of the most familiar and dominant characters in the New Testament. Most Christians could probably provide an overview of his ministry and work (at least the highlights). He healed, prophesied, exorcised, preached, and penned the very word of God. But far fewer Christians could likely even name servants like Tychicus (Colossians 4:7), Prochorus (Acts 6:5), Onesimus (Philemon 1:10–12), Trophimus (Acts 20:4), Mnason (Acts 21:16), Gaius (Romans 16:23), or Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16) — all of whom, among many others, God used to support and further Paul’s ministry. They are inspiring models for Christians in quiet, behind-the-scenes supporting roles today.
League of Seconds
Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher, trained him in the Old Testament (Acts 22:3), which prepared Paul to receive Jesus (Luke 24:44). Gamaliel defended the early Christians with an open-mindedness and fear of God that may very well have softened Paul’s own heart to the Truth (Acts 5:33–39).
Ananias obeyed and followed the Lord rather than hiding in fear or running in self-preservation, laying hands on the once martyring Paul that he might regain his sight and be filled with the Spirit (Acts 9:10–19).
Luke, Paul’s physician and scribe, faithfully chronicled the meticulous details of his travel, teachings, and work, documenting God’s miracles and truth for lands and generations he could not even imagine (Colossians 4:14).
Barnabas, Paul’s encourager and companion, was the first to defend Paul to the disciples, advocating for his acceptance among them (Acts 9:27), before accompanying Paul on the first of his missionary journeys.
Priscilla and Aquila, Paul’s co-laborers and hosts, allowed him to stay and work with them in their common tentmaking trade before accompanying Paul to Syria and helping to explain his message more accurately to others (Acts 18:3, 18, 26).
Paul’s unnamed nephew foiled the plot of his murderers. He caught word of a planned ambush and delivered the news to the tribune, convincing him to send Paul safely away, thereby sparing his life (Acts 23:16–22).
Timothy, Paul’s child in the faith (1 Timothy 1:2), was a brother and fellow worker for the gospel (Romans 16:21; 1 Corinthians 16:10; Philippians 2:22), an envoy for Paul and other believers (Philippians 2:19; 1 Thessalonians 3:6), and an exhorter of the churches in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:2).
This doesn’t include Silas, Titus, Dorcas, Jason, Agabus, or a host of others who worked hard with and under Paul for the spread of the gospel. Each role was indispensable, and each deed was prepared beforehand for God’s unique workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). They knew that while some planted and others watered, God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6–8). No single laborer — neither Paul, nor anyone else — deserved the glory, but the Lord himself alone (Colossians 3:17).
Casting the Great Commission
We may not celebrate the dedication, labor, and service of these supporting roles nearly as widely as those of the man they served on earth, but they were each ultimately serving not Paul, but his King — the one who arranged each member of the body to need the others (1 Corinthians 12:14–27), the one who will make all hidden things known (Matthew 10:26), the one who will repay all people according to what they have done (Matthew 16:27), and the one who assures us that all our service, even unto the least of men, is ultimately done unto him (Matthew 25:40).
The perspective of the world and the pride of our heart often lead us to give greater attention to more dominant roles while desiring that same recognition for ourselves. But God commissions and interweaves a whole cast of roles to fulfill every critical task towards one great and glorious end.
He may make you like Paul — front-and-center speaker, talk-of-the-town tortured, or renowned writer for centuries to come. If he does, may the many who have supported you receive your gratitude, and may our God receive glory (Isaiah 60:19). But more likely he will use us to play a supporting role for some other Paul — positioning us to be a Gamaliel who mentors, an Ananias who prays, a Luke who documents, a Barnabas who encourages, a Priscilla and Aquila who house, a nephew who protects, or a Timothy who cheers along to the end — even when it means that another member of our team gets recognized for the work, or someone else benefits more than we do from what we have done.
And if God does — against all temptation to resentment or despair when our service goes unrecognized or unappreciated altogether — we confess any feelings of worldly entitlement and envy, and turn to serve with the humility that seeks to please God, not impress men. We anchor our hope in the ultimate glory of God, who writes the story of his glory through a whole cast of individually fashioned, distinctly positioned, and intentionally appointed roles. That hope produces unshakable peace, contentment, and joy in whatever way God calls us to serve.
Even in our most grueling tasks on our most thankless days, God sees us (Genesis 16:13). We can entrust our soul to a faithful Creator and continue doing good (1 Peter 4:19), because no labor done for him is ever done in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
And as we love and abide in the Author of life — so passionate about his story, so desiring of its end, and so grateful to have been written into it — he fills our hearts with gratitude for every role we are assigned. And when the curtain falls, whether we have sung center stage or swept in the wings, we will love seeing the one who wrote every plotline and role come and take the final bow.