Despite a facade of fairness, the world only recognizes the spectacular, the brightest, or the most attractive. You probably disappear in that matrix. Yet in grace, even your tiniest actions become eternal.
What Folks Didn’t See
On July 20th, 1969, I got permission to stay up late so I could watch the first human being walk on the moon. It was a global television event.
I knew how the astronauts had managed the feat. They had flown in a giant rocket. That was the seven-year-old version, at least. Adults could have added more, by talking about fuel, thrust, artificial atmospheres, pressurized suits, and sundry other items.
Yet few of the viewers, young or old, appreciated how math enabled the moonwalk. This second grader would have found it incomprehensible that his worst subject, arithmetic, had played a central role in the landing. Even adults, who saw Neil Armstrong bobbing about on the lunar surface, weren’t thinking about equations, or mathematical symbols.
The movie Hidden Figures, demonstrated how a group of African American women used complex mathematics to enable the early part of the American space race. Later, around the time of the moon landing, computers were mostly doing this work, but it was all still math.
In the Christian experience there are plenty of hidden figures—small moments of power and selfless grace critical for what God is doing. Sometimes these slip into obscurity. We experience them and then forget about them, because they seem unimportant. There’s no drama directly attached to them, or any immediate outcome. Yet, the Lord often bases the work He does today on an accumulation of past secret grace.
We should learn to value these hidden figures.
One way of doing this is to isolate a dramatic moment in Scripture, and then track it backwards to find out where it came from.
Big Drama in the Book of Revelation
In Revelation chapter 1, John had been exiled to a desert island called Patmos, where he received a vision of Jesus Christ:
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
This is not the way we’re used to thinking about Jesus; it’s not the image that pops into our minds when we hear His name. This is Christ in glory, and the description of Him here should invite wonder and awe and praise.
The setting of the vision is important as well, since He didn’t appear in a cornfield.
Verse 13 tells us He is walking in the midst of the lampstands—the churches (v. 20)—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, and Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (v. 11). In a mysterious and invisible way, the glorified Christ was moving amidst these churches, interacting with its members, sometimes encouraging them, sometimes rebuking them and calling them to repentance. The whole picture is like the moon landing for drama.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
But as we’ve said before, certain hidden figures lie behind the external fireworks. In order to see them, we need to rewind approximately 35 years from this point in the Book of Revelation back to a time when six of those seven churches probably didn’t even exist.
We find the Apostle Paul settling down in the city of Ephesus for a while:
“And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:8-9)
This nearby hall (“skole” in the Greek, from where we’ve likely derived our English “school”), was the school of Tyrannus who was probably a local educator of some repute.
Paul’s daily reasoning/teaching “continued for two years.” This relentless teaching ultimately had the effect “that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:9).
It is appropriate to assume that the genesis of the seven churches was in that school house in Ephesus. G. Campbell Morgan wrote of these verses, “It is a window through which we see…those seven churches referred to in the Book of Revelation.”¹
Some Simple Q & A
Now I want to call your attention to some hidden figures behind this scene. For instance, do you think anyone was praying during the time Paul was in that school, teaching? We’d have to say, yes, even though prayer is not specifically mentioned in these verses. Prayer was something of a hidden figure in this situation. We don’t know who prayed, but it’s safe to say someone was doing it.
Also, do you think anyone who heard the Apostle teach went to their friends, neighbors, or relatives, and passed on what they heard? Is it reasonable to suggest that personal evangelism was taking place, and by word of mouth the gospel was spreading? I doubt that all of Asia came to that school. It seems more reasonable to think that the word of God radiated out of it and got carried by word of mouth all over the place, eventually settling into those seven cities. However again, the verses don’t specifically tell us who was preaching or what they said. It is a hidden figure.
I leave you with one final question, and that is, who paid for the use of the school of Tyrannus? Remember, it was a regular, daily, ongoing cost that lasted for two years. I bring this up, because my church meets in a school, and the city does not donate the space to us. We have to pay for it. This kind of practical reality couldn’t be much different from Paul’s day.
So, who paid for the school? There are three possibilities: First, perhaps Tyrannus actually donated the space. That means He would have absorbed the long-term cost. A second possibility might be that Paul himself shouldered the expense. He did, after all, work part-time while he was in Ephesus (20:33-34). A third possibility is that all of the disciples collectively chipped in and bore the burden of the rental cost. The Bible doesn’t tell us, and therefore, we don’t know. But one thing’s for sure—Jesus knows.
Hidden transactions went on between Christ and someone concerning financial needs at that time. This hidden figure, this personal grace, enabled someone to reach into their pocket on a regular basis and pull out Roman shekels. That grace of theirs was a part of what enabled the Lord’s work at that time.
When You’d Rather Have the Grace than the Money
Some years back, a ministry decided it needed a facility upgrade, so it appealed for help from area churches. My church was one of those. It was a small congregation with about a hundred people, but we went to work fundraising, and in about two and a half weeks, raised $52,000. That’s not bad for a small church in such a short time. I was a young church leader then, immature and ambitious. I hoped that our efforts would become known in the larger circles of fellowship.
The leaders got together and began to report what they had raised. It wasn’t long before their larger donations blew our little 52k out of the water. My hopes of notoriety dashed, I relaxed and listened to others. Eventually, the representative of another small Church stood up. His congregation was one whose membership mainly worked minimum wage jobs. The leader said they couldn’t raise much, but that some of their people had sold their cars. That rattled my bones.
I have long-forgotten who gave the most money that day, but I can’t forget that testimony. It meant someone had sold his junker, and offered up the $300. That probably also meant they were stuck relying on public transportation for a ride to work at Jack-in-the-box.
I remember feeling that this was both foolish and beautiful all at the same time. In other words, it sounded like grace. I found myself that day not so concerned with who gave the most, but coveting that kind of winsome power that seemed so happily able to overcome self-centeredness.
After many years, some things have changed. I came to question the legitimacy of that ministry’s need for fancier digs. I can’t remember the name of that little church that sacrificed so much for it. I don’t know the identity of the believers who sold their cars. But Jesus knows. He has no doubt treasured up such hidden sacrifices to Himself and will reveal them in the great day when all things become known.
My small church today is exceptionally generous, having survived in a state of relative financial independence for the greater part of a decade. The leadership has always taken time to celebrate this fact, and pass along the blessing to the needy outside our walls. We also make sure to credit not simply the people, but the grace of the Lord that enables such generosity.
However, we are human. The thought crosses our minds that we’ve done this for many years and we’ve been financially faithful and have never lapsed even one month in our commitments. What would it hurt if we scaled back our offering for the sake of getting caught up on some bills? Why not take a break from giving and save for the down payment on that new home, instead? Would it really matter? Would anybody even miss it?
We don’t give just because there’s a need to pay church rent, or keep the lights on. We don’t give because we feel guilted into it. We don’t give because we have extra left over to give, nor do we do it because we are good people. We give because the grace of Jesus Christ enables us to flow out what he has first given us.
We hope that the foolish, beautiful, hidden figures of today will become the foundation of His work tomorrow.
¹G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles, (Tappan, NJ: Revell Publishers, 1924), pp. 450-451.