“Do You Remember What’s-His-Name?”
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“Do You Remember What’s-His-Name?”

Nehemiah 11:1–12:26  (ID: 1756)

Most of us avoid studying lists of names in the Bible, concluding that they are either irrelevant or useless. Alistair Begg shows us, however, that Nehemiah compiled a list of names to serve as a reminder, a warning, and an encouragement to God’s people. We can be encouraged knowing that Nehemiah recorded the names not because of personality traits or physical appearance but because they were ordinary people committed to the basics of obeying God’s Word.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Nehemiah, Volume 3

God’s Glory in Our Goodness Nehemiah 9:38–13:30 Series ID: 11603

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn together to Nehemiah and to chapter 11:

“Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem, and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. The people commended all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.

“These are the provincial leaders who settled in Jerusalem (now some Israelites, priests, Levites, temple servants and descendants of Solomon’s servants lived in the towns of Judah, each on his own property in the various towns, while other people from both Judah and Benjamin lived in Jerusalem):

“From the descendants of Judah:

“Athaiah son of Uzziah, the son of Zechariah, the son of Amariah, the son of Shephatiah, the son of Mahalalel, a descendant of Perez; and Maaseiah son of Baruch, the son of Col-Hozeh, the son of Hazaiah, the son of Adaiah, the son of Joiarib, the son of Zechariah, a descendant of Shelah. The descendants of Perez who lived in Jerusalem totaled 468 able men.

“From the descendants of Benjamin:

“Sallu son of Meshullam, the son of Joed, the son of Pedaiah, the son of Kolaiah, the son of Maasseiah, the son of Ithiel, the son of Jeshaiah, and his followers, Gabbai and Sallai—928 men.”

Now, be honest: you’re thinking to yourself, “He’s surely not going to read the complete list all the way through chapter 11.” How many of you were thinking that? Mm-hm. All right. Well, we’ll pray, and then we’re going to talk about that.

Father, we ask, because we prize and value your Word, that you will grant us grace to study it carefully, respectfully, expectantly; that you will save us, both in speaking and in hearing, from ourselves, from distractions; and that we will have cause, at the conclusion of our time, as we crown the worship of the morning, to thank you for answered prayer. We look to you, Lord Jesus, for this and for everything. Amen.

Well, for those of you who were thinking to yourselves, “This surely cannot be the foundation of our study this morning,” if you looked ahead at all, you would notice that the lists run right through to 12:26, and you recognize that it may be somewhat daunting (and perhaps you even think less than profitable) as an exercise to give consideration to this.

If you feel that way to any degree at all, first of all, I want you to know that I can identify with that. I recognize that. Indeed, in 1983, when we studied Nehemiah together, we went directly from 10:39 to 12:27. We did an immediate fast-forward through the lists. I don’t know whether it is I am more mature or braver or just whatever it might be, but I determined this time in our study that I had presumably missed something of significance in doing that, and I was determined that I wouldn’t do the same thing twice. And so for that reason, we give ourselves this morning, deliberately and purposefully, to the long lists which run right through this section.

Now, it would be obvious to some that if we were living in the immediate generations following the writing of these lists, that we certainly would recognize a measure of interest in them. Because all of us, without exception—in the same way as we might do when, perhaps, we’re in a city far from us, we might pick up the telephone book and look and see if there are any Beggs or Robinsons or Jenkins, or whatever it might be in that particular city. I don’t know if you do that, but every so often, I do. If you’ve got a long time to wait for a plane, you’ve got to do something. And there are quite a few Beggs in Auckland, for those of you are interested—which is, of course, not many of you. But in any case, every so often we may examine lists.

Some of you tell me that you’ve gone to Scotland and to Edinburgh, and you have spent laborious hours examining long lists in significant offices in the city of Edinburgh because you want to try and find your heritage. You want to know whether your great grandfather stole sheep or whether he had a castle. I want you to know that the odds are that he stole sheep. And there are not enough castles around to inhabit all the families that I keep meeting from America who tell me, “Oh, yes, my forefathers lived in such and such a place. We had a castle.” Unless, of course, we are using “castle” somewhat obliquely to refer to any kind of dwelling at all.

But the reading of lists, if there is some kind of familial context, is understandable. But here we are, separated by generations—thousands of years and a phenomenal distance. So what possible relevance can there be in this? We know the Bible says that all Scripture is inspired by God, and it is profitable for correction and for reproof, for instruction, for training in righteousness.[1] But we recognize, too, that not all Scripture is equally applicable. And some of you are perhaps saying, “Yes, and this is probably going to be as unapplicable as many a study as we’ve ever had.”

Well, hold your fire. Because Nehemiah has clearly not compiled a long register of names simply to have a list of names. There is purpose in this. And some of the purposes may not be immediately apparent to us, but a moment or two of careful study and clear thinking will help us to realize some of the factors involved.

What Nehemiah’s List Tells Us

For example, the very existence of these lists is a reminder of the necessity of establishing orderly patterns for the people of God. And Nehemiah, in response to a God who wants to see everything done decently and in order, provides a substantial record of the people who were present at that time within the framework of Jerusalem. And it is a reminder to us in passing of how quickly we let people and lists and significant events of the past to pass through our fingers in late twentieth-century Western culture. There are few contemporary church buildings that have any plaques—and I’m not suggesting this; it’s just an observation—that have any plaques that recall the existence of previous generations, any recognition of who went before or whoever did what; whereas, when you go back about a hundred years into church buildings, you will find that they established a sense of history and a record of those who had gone before, recognizing that there is value to be gained from that.

The lists also make clear that the individuals so recorded understood their identity and realized their responsibilities. And in that simple statement there is a wealth to be pondered, so that the people of God in every generation might understand who they are and might understand what they’re supposed to be doing—so that we could go, for example, through a church like this and ask the question, “Good morning! Who are you, and what are you doing here?” And you’ll get a variety of answers, and they will all be significant, and some will be more intriguing than others, but everybody should be able to say, “This who I am,” and identify oneself, “and this is what I do,” to declare a sense of responsibility.

At the same time, the list of names is a reminder to us of a number of significant factors.

First of all, I think this list of names makes clear that Nehemiah recognized that he wasn’t a one-man band. That he wasn’t a one-man band. It’s very tempting to be in a position such as Nehemiah had, I’m sure—to believe that you really are the linchpin in all of it and to begin to conduct oneself in a way that displays that before others. And one of the ways in which an individual makes it clear that they do not believe that is the case is by ensuring that others who are significantly involved in the project receive the recognition that is their due. And there is a great challenge to men in leadership—and women, too—in the world of business and in the world of education and, not least of all, in the family of faith: Do we, in creating lists, as it were, bear testimony to those who are vital and significant around us? Something that we can often overlook. I know that I find it easy to overlook.

And one of the disciplines that I tried to exercise when I was in Australia was, as I was running, to pray for all the people who were within the framework of my orb of encouragement and influence and their influence and encouragement on me. And I’m not sure I can recall it even now, but it went alphabetically. It started with Andy and went on down through the list. If I start, I will have left somebody out. But it went on for a long time, and it engaged my mind. And it was a reminder to me, with frequency and on a daily basis, of how important all these other people are. And indeed, it extends to the whole church.

Nehemiah, then, in writing the list, declares that he wasn’t a one-man band. The list is also a reminder to us of the fact that each one is important to God. Everyone on this list was important to God. Whether we know who they were or we don’t, they were important to God. And everyone that is seated here this morning is important to God. Every name in the book, every name on the list is of significance—simple and yet important truth. This is a list, in some respect, of the unsung heroes of the army of God.

The list of names is also a reminder to us that each one who’s represented here learned how to accept their limitations—namely, not to do what they hadn’t been set up to do—and assume their responsibilities—namely, not to neglect to do what they were put together to do.

And also, the list of names challenges any preoccupation that any of us might be tempted to have with ourselves and with our significance and with our desires to be seen. Of course, if you can’t identify with that at all, then you’re living in a very rarefied realm of the atmosphere. Because all of us who live and breathe within some realm, at least, fight the tendency to become preoccupied with ourselves and our significance. And in Christian service—would that it were not so!—the fact is, it is highly prevalent.

Jesus recognized this. And in Matthew chapter 6, he warned the individuals of his day against doing things because you wanted to be seen. And he says, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.” That’s the significant phrase—so that people will say, “Oh, my, my! Didn’t you do well? Aren’t you gifted? Didn’t you do a fine job? Aren’t you super?” Jesus says, “If you do [that], you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”[2] All you’ll have is people going around slapping you on the back, telling you, “Oh, wonderful job! Super!”—immediate gratification, immediate response, finding all of our significance in the accolades of people. Because you know that that’s why you’re doing something if, when you do it, you don’t get that in response, you’re ticked or disappointed. That’s how you can tell. If in doing something, you’re standing back waiting for the response, then you know you did it to be seen by men. If you just do something and an encouragement comes along the road, you say, “My, that was nice!” you know that you weren’t doing it to be seen by men. You were doing it because you were supposed to do it. But if you do it so that people will say, “My, my!” Jesus says, “Fine. You’ve had your reward. Don’t expect to get to heaven and get another reward. There’s nothing there.”

And in case they were in any doubt about this, he applies it in two key areas. He says there are a group of people—he calls them “hypocrites”—who “love to pray … on the street corners”—this is still in Matthew 6—“to be seen by men.” And then he says, “I tell you the truth, they[’ve] received their reward in full.”[3] That’s all they’re going to get. They went out, and they dressed up, and they prayed, and everyone saw them. And they felt good because everyone saw them. And then they went home. Jesus says, “I hope they enjoyed it, ’cause there’s nothing else coming.”

All of us who live and breathe fight the tendency to become preoccupied with ourselves and our significance.

And what about those who displayed their Christian sanctity by disfiguring their faces so that everyone would know that they were fasting, that they were peculiarly devoted to God? And so instead of going out and just getting on with their lives and smiling about their business, they lightened up their faces and they disfigured their faces so that they might be seen by men. Jesus said, “Hope they enjoyed it. They’ve had their reward. Nothing else is coming.”[4]

It is one of the great tyrannies of Christian service. The church is bedeviled by those of us who are self-preoccupied. And the significance of this long, long list surely lies in the fact that from a superficial reading, after all this time, no one individual stands out beyond the rest—and indeed, in the majority of cases, we’re hard-pressed to find out who these people were at all.

So what, then, is the essence of what we’re doing here this morning? It is this: that to look at these lists together provides us with a striking warning—that is, any of us who are tempted to believe that we matter too much. And it provides us with a stirring encouragement—that is, to those of us who are prone to reckon that we don’t matter at all. And somewhere within that pendulum swing, all of us live our lives. Some of us are prone to discouragement and to despondency. And we go in little rooms and go in quietness by ourselves, and we say, “Nobody loves me. Nobody hates me. Think I’ll go and eat worms. I think I’ll just fade away. I’m so insignificant, and I don’t matter.” It’s usually a form of pride. On the other hand, some of us are so focused on what we’re doing and what we’re saying and who we are that we believe we matter to a degree that is totally ridiculous. And this long list corrects the guy with a fat head and encourages the individual who is despondent.

The Significance of the Ordinary

Now, the immediate background to what is described here in chapter 11 can be found in 7:4, which I’m sure many of you will remember. If not, you should turn back a couple of pages. And the fact is that they had a large city, “spacious” city, “but there were few people in it.” So what good is a big city, fabulous walls, a nice temple, and no people? What good is a big church building with no people in it? No good at all! Unless, of course, what you’re building is a mausoleum or a ghost town. If you’re trying to build a ghost town, then you’ve just about got it right: the fewer people that are in there, the better. But if you’re trying to build a city, you need people in it.

Recognizing that, the leaders decided in 11:1 that they were going to repopulate the city of Jerusalem. And it would appear that this was not an attractive proposition for most. The leaders had exercised their servanthood by playing their part there, but most of the people, it would seem, preferred the outlying districts, perhaps the opportunities of agriculture and of prosperity, a little more space, the chance of building a sense of community, being with their families—said to them, “We would rather be out here than in there.” And so the leaders said, “Okay, this is how we’re going to do it: we’re going to cast lots, and one out of every ten is going to be in the city.” If you work the figures out, it ends up with about ten thousand in the city and therefore the population of Judah somewhere around a hundred thousand people.

Now, in the lists which follow, what we discover is this: the significance of the ordinary.

The significance of the ordinary. I can’t say this forcefully enough. These people are recorded for us here not because of a dramatic commitment to the spectacular but on account of their devoted consistency to the basics. We’re tempted to believe that unless we’re doing something dramatic and spectacular, we’re not doing anything at all, when in point of fact it is a steady, faithful, consistent commitment to the basic, ordinary events of life which makes the world turn round: showing up when you say you’ll show up, calling when you say you’ll call. Letting “your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ [be] ‘No.’”[5] If you made a commitment to your loved ones to pray with them and for them, you’re there, and so on. The kid at school asks you a question, and you say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll have it for you tomorrow morning,” and in the following morning, going to the child’s desk and saying, “You know the thing you asked me yesterday?”—which, of course, they have long since forgotten. They had forgotten it five minutes after they asked it, in many cases. But you are there consistently.

Ask yourself the question: How much of the last week in your life has been marked by spectacular, dramatic events? Not a lot! I had a few. I had four shots with a laser gun this week. That was dramatic and spectacular! I’ll tell you about it in private. But those of you who haven’t had that, believe me: when you get it, it is dramatic and spectacular. But it lasted nanoseconds, whatever they are—something like minus nine to the power of ten or something like that. Is that it? I don’t know what it… I mean, it’s like, you can’t react to it. I mean, nobody needs to hold your head, because no matter how fast you move your head, you can’t move your head in nanoseconds. So I got four nanoseconds that were dramatic and spectacular. But the week has been a long week.

How ’bout you? Any laserizing this week in your life? Most of it’s just been the same old stuff, hasn’t it? Same old get up, same old alarm, same old voice, same old National Public Radio, same old WCRF, same old car, same old garage, same old office, same old 13H on the plane, same old whatever it is. So either we’re going to make a difference in the basic routines of life, or else we’re going to sit around and wait for the drama to unfold. I figure some of us are waiting for the drama before we get started.

There’s no drumroll here, no crescendo, no trumpet blast—just a long, long list of people. If we moved amongst the crowd and said to them, “What’s your name, and what were you doing?” we would get essentially six replies. How do you know that? Well, these are the only six things that I can find in all these verses that actually tell us they were doing something. And I want to chronicle them with you.

Some people would reply—“And what were you doing in Jerusalem?”—answer: “I was living in Jerusalem.” Verse 2 of chapter 11: “The people commended all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.” Doesn’t seem like a big deal, does it?

“What Did You Do?”

“So, what did you do?”

“Well, I lived there.”

“I mean, you got anything a little more dramatic than that? Maybe a little more oomph to it? I mean, we’re writing a list here. You know, we want to put something down. I mean, what shall we say about you? What marks you out?”

“Well, just say I lived in Jerusalem.”

You see, because the people who lived in Jerusalem were commended just for living there. They just showed up there. Now, whether the volunteers were a separate group from the conscripts or whether the conscripts of verse 1 responded in such a spirit of enthusiasm that they were commended for their voluntary hearts’ emphasis, as it were, it’s not clear from the text. But essentially, we understand this: there were people who by just their very existence, taking their place in that day and in that time, they reestablished the community, and they maintained the reality of what was happening. Just by being there. Just by being there.

Now, we often make much of the fact and say, “You know, all that I do in Parkside Church is, you know, I’m really just there.” Well, I want you to know something: that’s really good, for a start. I for one don’t want to downplay that. Because if you weren’t where you are right now, who would the person next to you be sitting next to? A space! And some of you are sitting next to a space, because for whatever reason, those who have said they will be here are not here—some because of illness, some because of travel, some because of disinterest, some because of sin, some because they’ve wandered from the way. And the very fact of people’s simple maintenance of the day-to-day events of the work of God—because that’s what we’re talking about doing: God’s work in God’s way. We need faithful people just to live out their commitment in the ordinary mainstream of life. “What were you doing?” “I was living there.”

Secondly, in verse 12: “And what were you doing?” “Oh, I was working there. I was working in the temple.” You find here that we’re told of these individuals “and their associates, who carried on work for the temple—822 men.”

Now, you’re not going to be very significant as one of 822—just another one in the group; just another one with your name on your jersey, standing on the sidelines at the high-school football game. Far more people than seems to be necessary, but each one with a sense of purpose, each one with a sense of belonging, each one with a sense of team, and each one with a sense of commitment. And whether the work is big work or wee work, whether it is extravagant or apparently insignificant, these men were identifiable in the long list as those who committed themselves to the essential and yet unflamboyant establishing, maintaining, and caring for the temple.

We need faithful people just to live out their commitment in the ordinary mainstream of life.

“And how about you?” we say to another. “What were you doing there?” Verse 16: “I was serving there. I had a responsibility as the son of Bunni.” “Shabbethai, and Jozabad,” who were two heads of the Levites—actually, “two of the heads of the Levites,” not Levites with two heads—“had charge of the outside work of the house of God.”

Doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it? But it is a big deal. It’s a big deal out there when you’re trying to come in here and park your car. It’s a big deal out there when you drive in of a day, and you bring a guest to see the place, and you look around, and you say, “My, this looks really nice.” It’s a big deal when you’re trying to see inside the windows, and someone cleaned them. It’s a big deal when you go to open the door, and it actually works. It’s a big deal!

See, we devalue the significant necessities of life by exalting to undue prominence things that are really not that significant. For example, I think without any question, most of us would assume that that which is most public and most visible is inevitably most significant. After all, why would we make it public and visible were it not significant? But in fact, that is a warped way of thinking. And Paul makes that clear when he identifies the members of the body of Christ as being many but all one body and existing for one another and existing under the authority of the Head.[6] And he points out, he says, “It is our unpresentable parts of our body that are the most significant”[7]—that the renal function of our bodies is not on public display, mercifully; that you’re unable to see the way our hearts are oxygenating and deoxygenating blood, but it is absolutely essential to what’s going on; that the whole neurological function of the brain as it processes information is not there for everybody to see. That’s why we have a skull on top, and some of us have a bit of hair on top. Otherwise, I guess you could look in and see it all happening, like the inside of a telephone or something, or a computer. But it’s all underneath. It’s all unseen. And it’s all vital. Vital.

Are you prepared to be totally unseen for the kingdom? Are you prepared to live your life in such a way that no one knows your name and no one even cares, for the kingdom? You say, “Well, that’s an easy question for you to ask. Because after all, you’re not even facing that issue.” Well, I don’t want to be self-focused in any way, but I want to tell you that when I came to Cleveland, Ohio, I came to total obscurity. I faced the issue in coming here to this church. I didn’t know a living soul in America, bar two or three or five people. No one in America knew me. Nobody cared! And frankly, nobody really does, apart from a few of you good folks, my friends.

But the issue was, when I sat in that room on Fairmount Boulevard in those early days, in 1983, and sat in there, I walked into total obscurity. I faced the question: “Do you want to stay in Scotland, which is a small place with only 5 million people, and be notorious? Or do you want to go to the land of the free and the home of the brave, to a place called the Great Lakes, with a continental land mass that is so vast, with 250 million people, and be lost in total obscurity? Are you prepared to go and bury yourself in what is not, clearly, the ‘Garden City’ of America?” “Yes, Lord!” Now, what God does with that, after that, is his business. But the issue confronts us all.

I read a magazine edition this week which was rejecting wholesale the missionary hymn “So Send I You.” You may know this hymn. “So Send I You.” It has lines like “So send I you to suffer unrewarded, to toil unknown, unsought, unloved,”[8] etc. And the person writing the article said, “This is ridiculous! This is totally non-Christian. This is not Christianity. Christ does not call us to live our lives in obscurity. Christ does not call us to serve unsought and unknown.” And the person is completely crackers in the way they’re thinking. Because he does call us to that! And if he chooses to do something other than that, then we will live with the implications of that. But that is not our prerogative. We will not be a footnote in a footnote on a footnote in the whole of church history when the records are reckoned up. No one will remember us—except God! So therefore, if all that I have to think about is how my service is responded to by other people, if all of my jollies come from the accolades and the immediate gratification of those around me, then what I’m saying is I have never learned to serve. And I see myself in the mirror of that all too clearly.

You see, the heroes in looking back, for me, are people you will never know except I told you about them. Who knows T. S. Mooney in the whole world, except a bunch of you folks, ’cause I keep talking about him? Why would I talk about a wee man who was a bank manager all of his life, never, ever married? Well, because he was such a fabulous wee guy. Had a boys’ Bible class for fifty single years of his life. Fifty years a boys’ Bible class, so that the boys in his class would have a Savior in their hearts, a Bible in their hands, and a purpose in their lives. Nobody knows T. S. Mooney beyond the immediate environs of Londonderry, Northern Ireland. But he’s on God’s list.

What about Miss Sybold? You know Miss Seybold, don’t you? I mention Miss Sybold every so often. How many of you know Miss Sybold? One or two. One or two. See? The vast majority don’t know Miss Sybold. See, Miss Sybold had a really significant job in the church I was assistant in in Edinburgh. The ladies had a Bible study on Thursday mornings. Hundreds of people came to it. They had a speaker; she didn’t speak. They had a soloist; she didn’t sing. They had a committee; she wasn’t on it. But she was first there every Thursday, because she put out the cups for the tea and the coffee—every Thursday did the cups, without fuss, without bother, and, frankly, most Thursdays without any sense of appreciation. There’s no plaque in Charlotte Chapel that says, “Miss Sybold was in this hall for fifteen years of Thursdays, laying out cups.” Few people know. Few people care. But she’s on God’s list.

See what this says? See what Jesus is saying? Says, “You can get on all the wrong lists, thinking they’re the right lists, and not be on the one list that really matters.”

“I was living there.” “I was serving there.” “I was working there.” Verse 17: “I was praying there.” “So what were you doing?” “Mattaniah son of Mica, the son of Zabdi, the son of Asaph, the director who led in thanksgiving and prayer”—that’s what he did. He encouraged the people to come before God in prayer. That was his thing. If you met him, he said, “Why don’t we pray about it?” If you knew you had a burden and you needed some encouragement, you could go to this fellow and say, “You know what? Maybe you could pray about this with me.”

Isn’t it a staggering thing to think about how our lives are sustained by those who pray—I mean, people we don’t even know about who pray for us? We wonder how it is we make it through our days. We wonder how it is we’re even sustained. It’s because there are great armies of people who undergird us with prayer. We’d not necessarily know who they are. We don’t know their names. That’s not important. God knows.

Do you have a prayer list? Do you pray for people regularly? Do you pray for the pastors and elders and leaders of this church? Weekly? Daily? You say, “Well, that’s not much.” That may be the difference between usefulness and failure: your prayers.

Fifthly: “And who are you, and what were you doing?” “Well, I was watching there.” Verse 19 of chapter 11: “I was on the gates”: “Akkub, [and] Talmon and their associates, who kept watch at the gates—172 men.” They were alert. They were aware. They were keyed in to external threat. In 12:26 you find the same emphasis: “And they served in the days of these men and in the days of Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the scribe.”[9] They “were [the] gatekeepers,” verse 25, “who guarded the storerooms at the gates.”

Now, I don’t know how that applies, in the sense that I’m not going to try and come up with some elaborate way to spiritualize the text, you know, and say, “Here’s the gates, and here’s the storerooms.” Just understand this: here’s another relatively unspectacular task fulfilled with faithfulness.

And sixthly: “What were you doing there?” we ask another, and in verse 22 they reply, “I was singing there. I was one of Asaph’s descendants responsible for the service of the house of God.” “The singers were under the king’s orders, which regulated their daily activity.” If you study this carefully, you find that these are the great-grandchildren of David, the singing boy. He got singing going in his family, and it was ricocheting down through the generations. And all these generations later, there they are, still to the fore, still singing! Still praising the Lord! Because their great-grandpa sang, and their grandpa sang, and their dad sang, and they sang, and they gave glory and praise to God.

And when you go to 12:8 and the Levites are listed, you realize that they were together, there, “in charge of the songs of thanksgiving,” and “Bakbukiah and Unni, their associates, stood opposite them in the services.”

“Oh, hello! What did you say your name was? Bakbukiah? Hm. Interesting name. And your sidekick here, Unni? Bakbukiah and Unni. Now, what did you do?”

“Oh, we stood opposite the singers.”

“Oh, yeah. That sounds really great.”

But it was. Because it was antiphonal singing. They tell me that means one side sings, and the other side echoes. If you don’t have anybody standing opposite on the other side, you ain’t got no echo. So you just got a group going “Praise the Lord,” waiting for the echo, and there’s no echo; there’s no response; there’s no reverberation in the heart. And these people stood opposite the other people, and the people said, “Isn’t God good?” and they said, “Isn’t God good?” When they said, “We praise his name,” they said, “We praise his name.” When they sang, they sang. And they are listed here for that and that alone. And the psalmist says, “Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works [towards] the children of men!”[10]

In other words—and we could go on, but we won’t—in other words, read the list, and what you realize is this: nobody is described here in terms of their personality. And we live in a personality-driven world. People’s personality is far more significant than their intelligence, or their wisdom, or their grace, or their tact, or their purity, or their ability to govern the country. It wasn’t their personality. It wasn’t their faces, ’cause there’s no pictures. Go through the list and imagine: “Was he tall? Was he small? Was he fat? Was he thin? Long hair, short hair? Blonde hair, black hair? Blue eyes, brown eyes? What in the world did he have? Green eyes?” Who knows? It doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Because these things are superficial. They don’t matter! And yet these are the things that we spend all our time thinking about: “Well, is my hair right? Is it not right? Are my eyes nice? Are they not nice? Am I fat? Am I thin? Am I tall? Am I short? Is it the right color, the wrong color? The right shape, the wrong shape? After all, this is what is so significant in my life.” It’s ultimately irrelevant! Because the issue here was not their faces; it was their function. It was what they did.

I had the strangest experience yesterday. I took a photograph from off my shelf of my mother and I when I was eight years old. And as I looked at the picture of us standing together, I couldn’t remember what my mother looked like, even though I was looking at the picture. Twenty-two years on, it was as if I wanted to see right inside the picture. I couldn’t! It frustrated me. I couldn’t bring her back to my mind anymore. It was gone from me. But not what she did. Not what she said. Not how she cared. Not how she laughed. Not how she prayed. Not how the two of us got thrown out of church services for laughing when we should have been quiet. None of those things were gone from me. (Were thrown out by my father, that is.) None of those things were gone to me, but I couldn’t remember her face. And then I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter if I remember her face. Because all of that function is what has touched my life.”

Do you remember your very first Sunday school teacher’s face? I can’t. You may. Do you remember her name, his name? I can’t. You may. But I do remember what they told me. They told me, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”[11] They told me that I needed to know Jesus as my own personal Savior. They told me that God had ultimately one significant list. He kept it in heaven. It was a book, and it was called the Book of Life. And they told me that if your name was entered in the Book of Life, you may go safely to heaven, and if your name was not entered in the Book of Life, then it didn’t matter what in the wide world book you name was ever entered in. And because of that function, God brought me to faith.

You see, the issue in the list is not that the people were famous. It is that they were faithful. If you and I take care of being faithful, we let the Lord be concerned about whether he wants anybody to know us or not—whether they recognize what we do or not. Whether… Whatever. The issue is faithfulness.

The issue is being faithful; it’s not being powerful. You can read this in Luke chapter 10. The disciples come back, and they say to Jesus, around verse 18 or 19, “You know, we went out, and even the demons do what we say. We just say your name Jesus, and the demons even obey us. They go places when we tell them.”[12] Jesus says, “Don’t rejoice that the demons are subject to you, but rejoice that your name is on the list. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”[13]

And when some of us, as we make our journeys through our day, realize that any sense of earthly recognition we enjoy is minimal—we feel as though we’ve been laboring hard and long and in obscurity, and somehow or another, what we’ve done has been missed. There’s no excuse for it being missed by those of us who should have recognized it, but listen here. Hebrews 6:10 will be a great encouragement to you: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people.” This is great, isn’t it? “God is not unjust,” and “he will not forget your work”—the work that is displayed in the fact that you have shown love for him. “How did I show my love for him?” By helping people and by continuing to help them. God doesn’t forget.

We take names off the list all the time. Somebody dies, somebody moves, somebody goes here, goes there, we remove the name from the list. God doesn’t take the names from the list. And his list is the only one to be on.

A few months ago now, a friend and I were talking about this and how God grants notoriety to some and obscurity to others in the service of the kingdom. And he ran through a scenario for me that I found immediately intriguing, and I asked him to give it to me, and he did. And you’ll be able to get this in his book when it comes out—his latest book. I may as well plug it, since he gave me the great material. You can wait in anticipation for Dr. Joe Stowell’s latest book from Moody Press. And in it you’ll get this. When you say to yourself afterwards, “Well, I wish I had written that down,” don’t write it down. Buy the book. Send Dr. Stowell this tape, won’t you please? All right. This is how he did it.[14]

Most of you know the name of D. L. Moody, right? Famous evangelist, American evangelist, etc. D. L. Moody was responsible for leading Wilbur Chapman to faith in Jesus Christ. Those of you who know church history know that Wilbur Chapman became a great national evangelist in the generation that succeeded Moody’s generation. Wilbur Chapman was involved in all kinds of evangelistic campaigns. And on one particular Sunday afternoon in Chicago, he and some others trailed a gospel wagon, as they called it, from the Pacific Garden Mission into the streets, and they came down State Street in Chicago. As they came down State Street in Chicago, there were various people standing around, and one young man, who played baseball for the White Stockings and had a Sunday off, was standing, leaning against a bar—it was the White Stockings at that time, incidentally—was leaning against a bar on State Street.

They issued an invitation to the people standing in the street to come down to the meeting at two thirty that afternoon, and at two thirty that afternoon, this young man came, heard the gospel, professed faith in Jesus Christ, and Billy Sunday, the baseball player for this particular Chicago team, became a committed Christian. Two more years playing baseball, and then he began to work for the YMCA in Chicago, which was a fine Christian organization, especially during that time. Wilbur Chapman came back through town, said to Billy Sunday, “Would you like to join my evangelistic team?” “What am I supposed to do?” “Well, you go ahead of me and kind of soften up the troops, and then I’ll come behind and preach.” Billy Sunday said, “Fine, I’ll do it,” makes a commitment to do it, and then Wilbur Chapman leaves—quits as an evangelist and becomes the pastor of one of the largest churches in America, thus leaving Billy Sunday as the evangelist.

So then we have Billy Sunday’s evangelistic crusades, and he continues where his mentor had left off—travels all across America. And in one of his meetings, a young man by the name of Mordecai Hamm became a Christian. Some of you won’t know that name. You probably think I got it from chapter 11 of Nehemiah. But others of you will know the name Mordecai Hamm. And Mordecai Hamm accepted Christ.

He in turn became an evangelist, and especially south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and was greatly used of God in evangelism. He’s got an evangelistic crusade going, and as a result of that, people are inviting their friends, and one young guy says to his reluctant friend, “Why don’t you come to the crusade and hear Mordecai Hamm?” The guy says, “Well, not really. I don’t want to.” The fellow prevails upon him, and he comes. The two sit together, and the young man who came reluctantly committed his life to Christ as a result of the ministry of Mordecai Hamm—he being Billy Graham. Billy Graham in turn obeys Christ, and many of our lives and the lives of our friends and family have been impacted by all of that.

But that is not, as Paul Harvey says, “the rest of the story.” Because the rest of the story is back at the beginning. Question: Who led Dwight L. Moody to Christ? What was his name? Well, it was his Sunday school teacher. And the Sunday school teacher determined that on a given day, he would go and visit all the boys in his class, and he would ask them one question: “Where do you stand in relationship to Jesus Christ?” And on a particular Saturday afternoon, he enters a shoe store in Chicago, and he is taken into the back of the shoe store, amongst all the shelves and all the shoes, and he confronts this teenage boy, Dwight L. Moody, and he says to him, “Hey, son, where are you in relationship to Jesus Christ?” And right there amongst all the shoes, he leads Dwight Lyman Moody to faith in Jesus Christ. Now, what was his name? Most of you don’t know. But it was Edward Kimball. Who knows? Who cares? God knows. God cares.

But that’s not even all the story. What was the pastor’s name who, encouraging the Sunday school teachers in his church, suggested to them that they may want to take some kind of radical action in the lives of those under their care and go and speak to them about their souls and about their relationship with Jesus Christ? What was that faithful guy’s name? Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Well, actually, God knows, and God cares. But that man died in anonymity, not knowing that a simple word of encouragement set in process a chain that, under God, has meant thousands upon thousands of people coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

Do you remember what’s-his-name? God does. God does.

[1] See 2 Timothy 3:16.

[2] Matthew 6:1 (NIV 1984).

[3] Matthew 6:5 (NIV 1984).

[4] Matthew 6:16 (paraphrased).

[5] Matthew 5:37 (NIV 1984).

[6] See 1 Corinthians 12:12.

[7] 1 Corinthians 12:23 (paraphrased).

[8] Edith Margaret Clarkson, “So Send I You” (1954). Lyrics lightly altered.

[9] Nehemiah 12:26 (paraphrased).

[10] Psalm 107:31 (KJV).

[11] Anna Bartlett Warner, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” (1859).

[12] Luke 10:17 (paraphrased).

[13] Luke 10:20 (paraphrased).

[14] The account which follows, including some specific language, is drawn from Joseph M. Stowell, Shepherding the Church: Effective Leadership in a Changing Culture (Chicago: Moody, 1997), 93–94.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.