One of the great themes of the Bible is that God uses nobodies. The Apostle Paul wrote that not many wise or mighty or noble are called, but God chooses to use those that are foolish, weak, and base to show the world what His grace can do (1 Corinthians 1:26-27). Some of God’s “best stuff” is accomplished through nameless nobodies who were considered outcasts in their day.
I could cite numerous stories of overlooked biblical heroes, but here are five that mean so much to me. Enjoy!
1. The woman who anointed Jesus (Luke 7:36-50).
In all of ancient literature there is nothing like this story. It’s about Simon the Pharisee who thinks he is a big-shot, and a nameless woman who believes she is less than nothing. Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus and His disciples over for a dinner party, and the party is “crashed” by an uninvited guest — the woman (who also happens to be a prostitute).
Talk about an awkward moment! Simon is horrified, but Jesus is not. Simon is “respectable.” She is not.
Here is the scene from the 1976 film “Jesus”:
Isn’t it interesting how Jesus brings together people who normally would never meet? Simon had heard of Jesus, and just wanted to impress his neighbors with his open-mindedness. There are plenty of people like Simon: they are religious and say nice things about Jesus, they might even visit church on occasion, but they keep the Savior at arm’s length.
This prostitute apparently had heard of Jesus, too. That’s why she had to break into the dinner party to meet Him and to show her love and gratitude. Her actions show that something transformative had taken place in her heart, soul, and mind.
Simon and the legalists are filled with contempt and are blind to their own need. The woman does not care what they think; she only wants to worship Jesus. What was Simon’s problem? He thought he was better than everyone else. He never realized that he was just as bankrupt before God as the prostitute. The prostitute understood her need of a Savior and walked away with her sins forgiven.
Notice how Jesus has the last word in the story: “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” No rituals or ceremonies saved her. Now she would live out her deliverance in peace, while Simon was left to stew in his legalistic religion of human effort.
2. The woman at the well (John 4:1-29).
I love this story so much because it presents a wonderful blueprint for talking to people about the Lord. Notice how Jesus builds a bridge to the woman at the well. First, He builds a relationship. He doesn’t just start talking about eternal life and heaven and hell. He asks for a drink of water.
The Visual Bible depicts this scene from John 4:
Then Jesus talks about her need. He talks about living water, which if anyone drinks from it they will never thirst again. She is obviously curious now — who is this Jewish man talking to a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day? That sort of thing just did not happen in that time and place.
Jesus next addresses her sin. Notice how gentle He is. He does not gloss over sin and the need for repentance, but He does not run her down or call her names either. He just says, “Go, call your husband and come here.” She admits she has no husband. Jesus jumps on that statement and tells her that it is quite right that she has no husband. In fact, she has been married five times before, and is currently living with another man. She realizes that He supernaturally knows about her sin.
(Isn’t it wonderful, though, that Jesus is the seventh man in her life? Seven is the number of perfection in the Bible; she has had six men in her life but no satisfaction. Here is Jesus, the seventh man, to bring her wholeness and redemption.)
She nervously tries to get Him off the subject, but Jesus calmly just brings her back to the most important issue: who is He and what should we do with Him? He finally identifies Himself to her as the Messiah (John 4:28-29), and makes her the very first evangelist to the Samaritan people. This unnamed, outcast lady runs into town telling everyone, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”
Just think about all the people the Lord has you “bump into” throughout your week. One of them just could be the “woman at the well” Jesus wants you to have a conversation with. Don’t pass up the opportunity!
3. The Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
Does a Roman centurion fit the description of a nobody? It depends. In this story, he was actually highly esteemed by the Jews because he had been so kind to the Jewish people, but he was still a soldier in the occupying army and a foreigner who had not converted to the faith of Israel. For many Jews he still represented Caesar and all the abominable practices of the pagans.
Yet the Bible says this Roman officer sent emissaries to urgently get Jesus. In Matthew’s account, it appears that the Roman went out personally to meet Jesus. Luke, however, adds the detail that he sent servants to speak for him to Jesus (typical of Luke to add extra detail like that).
Is this a contradiction? Not at all. John 19:1 says that Pilate flogged Jesus. We know, however, that Pilate did not personally do it; his soldiers did. This is simply a literary device abbreviating the sequence of events.
This story shows great faith from an unexpected source. How many people really honored Jesus and trusted Him and loved Him? Not that many Jews at that time. A whole lot fewer Gentiles believed in Jesus.
Be careful who you write off. God likes to mess with your mind sometimes and show you people who want the Lord — people you sometimes think are so far off that they would never come to the Lord.
I also learn from this Roman soldier that you can always come to Jesus for help. If a centurion could, then I can, too. I love Jesus’ response: “I will come and heal him.” It was Jewish tradition at that time that if you entered a Gentile’s home, you would be defiled, even though the Law of Moses never said that. Jesus was not afraid to break silly traditions that had no basis in truth.
As Jesus is approaching, the centurion sends more people out to stop Jesus and tell Him that He does not have to appear in person. All He has to do is say the word and His servant will be healed.
That is true, humble faith, folks. It seems that everyone else in Israel demands a sign that they can see before they will believe. This man believes without seeing a thing. He says, “Just say the word, Lord.” He knows his place — with what little light he had from God, he knew that he could not boss Jesus around. He does not demand or claim or declare anything. He simply throws himself at the mercy of God.
Only two places in the New Testament say that Jesus was amazed: here in this story in Matthew 8 and Luke 8; and in Mark 6:6. Mark 6:6 says that Jesus was amazed at the unbelief of Israel after all the mighty things He did. Here, He is amazed at the faith of a Roman who was coming out of paganism and had hardly any light at all.
Have the faith of a Roman soldier who hung on to Jesus with just the little bit of faith he had — which was enough to be amazing faith.
4. The thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43).
This is without a doubt one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible. I preach it at every funeral and explain it to everyone who asks me how they can get to heaven.
Here in this short little story is a picture of everyone, and it’s not very pretty. The hateful world surrounds Jesus at the cross. The religious are mocking Him. The Romans don’t really care; they are apathetic. The disciples were either scattered or faithfully standing at the foot of the cross, but not really comprehending what was going on or what would happen on Sunday. Then there were the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus. Matthew 26:44 says that both the robbers joined in the chorus and reviled the Son of God.
Here is an interesting adaptation of the story with footage from the movie “The Passion of the Christ” and music from Third Day:
However, Luke gives some additional detail, thank God. He explains that in all this darkness, one thief came to his senses and asked the other thief why he was mocking Jesus. Didn’t he know that they were getting exactly what they deserve, but this Jesus had done nothing wrong?
That unnamed thief is a picture of us all. Time was running out on him, and he saw that Jesus was innocent, but he was totally guilty. If we want to have eternal life with God, we must first come to that conclusion.
Then the thief turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He didn’t know much, but he knew that no one dies the way Jesus was dying. All men resist death and try to protest and delay it. Jesus embraced it. The thief knew that Jesus was a King who was coming into a kingdom even though he was dying a criminal’s torturous death. That thief knew a lot, by God’s grace.
When he said “remember me,” he was simply repeating a common biblical figure of speech (Genesis 40:14; 8:1; 19:29; 30:22). It simply meant, “be gracious to me; please give me what I DON’T deserve.” Jesus did. He gave that unnamed nobody what he did not deserve: paradise. Jesus said, “I tell you the absolute truth, today you shall be with me in paradise.”
Not a single drop of water hit that thief’s head; he could not join a church or obey enough rituals or ceremonies to earn a spot in heaven. All he did was put his faith in Jesus — and Jesus took him all the way home to paradise. The same formula works today just like it did on the cross 2,000 years ago. If we take our place with that dying thief, admit our absolute inability to save our guilty selves and put our trust in Christ alone, then the Lord will, without fail, save us and take us all the way home to glory.
We still don’t know the names of these people. They are the great unnamed nobodies to us. But to the living God, they are known quite well and they have a name written in glory. Someday, I will meet them, learn their names, and thank them for the great lessons they taught me. I can’t wait!