Few names have survived the test of time like John Calvin. During the Protestant Reformation, he was one of the most prolific writers and teachers producing numerous volumes of commentaries as well as his magnum opus: the Institutes of the Christian Religion. To this day, his legacy echoes in the footsteps of parishioners gathering in Reformed sanctuaries around the world, in the development of Protestant theology and in the city of Geneva where he devoted the majority of his life to teaching and preaching the Word of God.
Yet, as the end of his life approached, Calvin recognized that his contributions had created a level of fame for him that would likely endure beyond his days. Because of this, he made a strange request—he asked to be buried in an unmarked grave in order to prevent future pilgrimages to his gravesite. In death, he desired not that future generations would look upon him, but that they would look upon his Savior.
The Faithful Unnamed
Such sentiments have little place in our world today. We live in a culture that constantly urges us to make a name for ourselves. One can barely step out the front door without feeling squeezed by the pressure of performance. Bookstores have stocked their aisles with suggestions for how to embrace our destiny and realize our potential. But when we look at life through this lens, God becomes a means to an end rather than the Lord of our lives.
Many of us have a natural proclivity to read the Bible and place ourselves in the shoes of its heroes. We tend to draw prescriptive truths from figures like Moses and David in ways that cause us to overlook the many nameless, faceless characters decorating the foreground of the biblical narrative. Certainly, some individuals play more visible roles than others in advancing the story of God’s redemptive work, but the majority of the Bible is composed of anonymous figures included for their faithfulness in bringing renown to God.
Consider the story of Moses, perhaps the most famous figure in the Old Testament. The mere mention of his name conjures images of a burning bush, plagues in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. But his story never would have happened if not for the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, who found the infant Hebrew and took him in as her own (Exod. 2:1-10). Scripture never gives a name to this woman, but God used her to secure not only Moses’ future, but also the exodus He had promised to Israel.
Following the Exodus, God led His people to the foot of Mount Sinai where they spent a year learning to follow His law, which included the building of His tabernacle. Prior to construction, the Lord appointed two men—Bezalel and Oholiab—to lead the project as well as “all able men” involved in the work to be done (Exod. 31:6). These able men are never named, yet they are an integral piece of building the tabernacle by God’s good design.
This pattern ripples through the Old Testament and into the New, with many unnamed individuals appearing on the narrative stage. Amidst the birthing pangs of a teenage peasant come the cries of a newborn who is laid in an animal feeding trough, the one we call Jesus, the Savior of the world. Following His birth, two groups of travelers came to see the child—the wise men (Matt. 2:9-12) and a ragtag collection of shepherds (Luke 2:15-20). Scripture records none of their names, yet they gathered around the manger to herald the birth of Christ.
Throughout the ministry of Jesus, the Bible introduces a number of nameless individuals commended for their faith. There is the woman suffering from a prolonged discharge of blood (Luke 8:43-48) and the Roman centurion concerned for the well-being of his bedridden servant (Matt. 8:5-13). Neither is named, yet both become the benefactors of Christ’s healing mercies. Perhaps the most famous anonymous figure of the New Testament is the Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well outside of her community. After a brief conversation, she beheld Christ and raced back to her town to declare the saving mercies of the Messiah (John 4:1-45). Many of her neighbors experienced salvation as a result of her testimony, yet we never learn her name.
We build a satisfying life not by storing up our own accolades, but by turning our focus to the hero of the drama—Jesus Christ.
Anonymity is a feature common to each of these individuals. God has seen fit to include them in His story of redemption, but Scripture omits their names. Not because they are without value, but because the point of their lives, like ours, is to make great the Name Above All Names—the Sovereign God, I Am. That is the legacy we are called to leave behind.
As is often the case, Scripture asserts an upside-down logic compared to that of our world. Consider the legacy of John the Baptist. Despite the fact that he lived in the wilderness, wore camel skin for clothing and consumed a diet of locusts and wild honey, Jesus declared that no one greater had been born among humanity (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28). John did not receive such praise due to his own accomplishments, but because he sought in every way to make great the name of Christ without claiming any recognition of his own. As he himself said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
A Name for His Glory
From Genesis to Revelation, we are exposed to the redemptive narrative of the Lord’s work across time, one in which we play a part today. N.T. Wright describes our role in the story of God by saying, “The earth goes round the sun. Jesus is the hero of the play, and we are the bit-part players…[we] come on for a moment, say one word, and disappear again, proud to have shared his stage and, for a moment, been a tiny part of his action.” We build a satisfying life not by storing up our own accolades, but by turning our focus to the hero of the drama—Jesus Christ.
None of this is meant to say that we should live our lives void of ambition. If God has given you a passion, pursue it. If He has gifted you with the capacity to meet a particular need, follow through. If He has granted you a dream, chase it. But consider the aims of your heart. Are you working to build a name for yourself or for your Savior? Have you devoted your life to His increase or your own? Your answer will make an eternity of difference.
Our lot in life is not to make ourselves great, but to make Christ great in all that we do. Ultimately, that is a freedom because it releases us from the pressure of performance in order to live within the call of God. Odds are, you and I will not be remembered like David or Moses. In fact, we ought to consider ourselves fortunate if our great-grandchildren can recall us to their own children. More than likely, we will not have our names etched in the stones of history. But we have reason to praise nonetheless.
Rejoice not that you have made a name for yourself in this fleeting life. Rather, rejoice that God knows your name and has written it among the halls of heaven.