READ : Judges 6
For a biblical hero of faith, Gideon seems to have been a remarkably timid, unconfident fellow. Perhaps his example can encourage us to believe that God can use some not so great people to accomplish great things for his kingdom.
The place was London, the year 1865. A young Methodist preacher named William Booth was beginning a ministry in the dreadful slums of the East End. As he preached, Booth was moved by the appalling spiritual and physical poverty that he saw, so he began to adopt some rather unorthodox methods of ministry. While still winning souls, he attempted at the same time to improve the physical and social condition of those among whom he worked.
He began to recruit both men and women on an equal basis to serve in ministry, a truly revolutionary idea for that time. He wasn’t above using stunts like brass bands to attract a crowd or gospel songs set to catchy popular tunes to appeal to the common folk. Soon Booth had molded a highly motivated and well disciplined force of Christian workers, a force which he organized along military lines. In 1878 William Booth published a set of Orders and Regulations for his organization, and the Salvation Army was born.
The tremendous work of this ministry continues to this day, in part because of the power of the central insight they grasped, that God’s people are, in an important sense, an army on the move. We are called to a life of disciplined service and sacrificial devotion to the Lord. “Endure hardship like a good soldier of Jesus Christ,” Paul urged his young friend Timothy (2 Timothy 2:3). That is a truth that a culture like ours, grown accustomed to self-gratification, very much needs to hear.
The Leader God Chooses
Today I’d like to look at the familiar story of Gideon to learn more about how God accomplishes his work in the world through us and what sort of army we ought to be. Gideon was specially called and commissioned by God to deliver the people of Israel from their Midianite oppressors (6:11-40).
It’s an odd sort of call, in a way. When we first meet him, Gideon is busy threshing his family’s wheat harvest. But he’s doing this not in the open air, as would normally be the case, but in the winepress, “to hide it from the Midianites,” says Judges (Judges 6:11).
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” (v.12, esv)
Some mighty man of valor, cowering among the farm machinery for fear of enemy raiders! I wonder if the Lord’s greeting had just a hint of sarcasm to it. If so, Gideon’s response throws it right back again. His reply says, in effect, “Oh yeah? If the Lord is with us, then why are we so beaten down? Where’s all these miracles, all this divine power we’ve heard so much about in all those ancient Bible stories about Moses and the rest?” And we read,
And the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” (v. 14, esv)
And Gideon responds (once again, I’ll paraphrase), “Who, me? Are you kidding? I’m the weakest member of the smallest family in the land. How can I save Israel?” “And the Lord said to him, ‘But I will be with you'” (v.16, esv). And Gideon replies to this promise by asking God for some I.D. (v.17).
So there’s the story so far from Judges, chapter 6. Let’s summarize what we’ve learned to this point. Gideon’s qualifications for leadership are as follows: He is a timid young man, who remains easily frightened throughout the whole of his career. He has no experience of leadership or training for battle, yet he has to lead Israel’s army in a fight for liberation. At the same time he has very little faith in the presence and power of the Lord; Gideon is, in fact, a persistent skeptic. Finally, before he’ll do anything, he insists on having miraculous proof that God really is with him, and this he demands from a God who – as we learn elsewhere in scripture – does not like to be put to the test (see Psalm 95:8-11; Matthew 12:38-40).
And over against all these deficiencies stands just this one brief statement from the Lord: “But I will be with you.” And that, all by itself, is more than enough to balance all that Gideon lacked. Remember what God said once to the apostle Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9, esv)?
The People God Uses
Gideon eventually does assemble an Israelite army near the camp of the enemy, and he is prepared, reluctantly, to carry out God’s deliverance of his people from their enemies. But first he receives a puzzling command from the Lord. Such a crazy thing, it seemed. Here’s Gideon, no doubt thinking that his men were far too few, and God says to him, “No, they’re too many, we’ve got to get rid of most of them” (7:2). That is some mighty strange generalship.
But there was a reason behind it, as the Lord explains. He knows the human heart. He knows our inveterate tendency to take credit for ourselves for what he is doing for us, so he’s going to diminish Israel’s force to the point where no one will be able to deny that it was indeed the Lord’s hand alone which brought them salvation.
And now a basic principle emerges from the story of Gideon. The force that God uses to win his battles is always relatively small. God’s “majority” is actually a dedicated minority. He accomplishes his work more effectively through a handful who give themselves, heart and soul, to him and his purposes than through a vast crowd of hangers-on.
Some years ago Harvey Hoekstra, one of the great missionary leaders of my church, wrote a book about world evangelization in which he used the phrase “the committed few.” That’s it! Hoekstra was referring here to the church’s missionary force, as well as to those who support it. “The committed few”; that is the way it’s always been.
Jesus, you’ll recall, had just twelve disciples. There were only a hundred and twenty in the Upper Room on Pentecost. Christian pastors today in the U. S. outnumber missionaries from the U. S. by more than ten to one. The average American church spends at least 96 cents out of every dollar it receives on its own buildings and staff and less than one percent on cross-cultural, international evangelism. From one point of view this seems discouraging. As our Lord said, the laborers in the harvest field of the world are indeed few despite the plentiful harvest.
But then we remember that however small and weak we may be in ourselves it is ultimately God who delivers. “Nothing can hinder the Lord,” says the Bible, “from saving by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6, esv). Better we should be few and weak and dependent upon the Lord’s help than many, and confident of our own strength.
The tests Gideon was told to use to winnow his army are interesting in that they show us what kind of people God is looking for. He begins by dismissing the fearful (v. 3). Those with no heart for the battle were given the option of returning home, and immediately two-thirds of Gideon’s soldiers took the opportunity to slink away. I can’t read that scene without thinking of the speech of Shakespeare’s Henry V just before the battle of Agincourt:
He which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart;
his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
God, you see, wants only the committed, the men and women who have a stomach for the fight. Does that mean only the totally fearless can serve him? Did the 10,000 soldiers who remained in camp with Gideon have no fear at all? I don’t think so. But the difference was that in each of them the desire to be used was stronger than their fears and misgivings. The desire to be used is the first great qualification for God’s service. When someone once remarked to D. L. Moody that the world had not yet seen what God would do through a person totally committed to him, Moody instantly exclaimed, “I will be that man!”
But astonishingly the next thing we find out is that Gideon is told by the Lord: “10,000 are still too many,” and so a further test is devised (vv. 4-7) that whittles his army down to just 300 men. The point of this test of drinking at the spring of water may have been to reveal the level of discipline or readiness among Israel’s troops. The Lord, you see, is looking for people who not only want to serve but who are always ready to be used, alert for every opportunity. The individuals who “do something beautiful for the Lord” (in Mother Teresa’s phrase) will put duty above personal comfort.
The Victory God Wins
If you know the end of the story, you know that God did give Gideon and his little band the victory over their enemies. But we must be very clear about the nature of this victory, and of the battle that produces it. We do not fight today, as Israel once did, with weapons of war and with hatred towards our enemies. Our struggle, said the New Testament, is not with flesh and blood. As followers of Jesus we are not literal soldiers engaged in a physical war with people of other faiths.
I was listening to one of Words of Hope’s African colleagues recently and was struck by something he said. He said that in his country they did face much pressure, and sometimes even physical attacks, from those who were opposed to the gospel. But, he added, we have two weapons with which we fight back: and they are: compassion and love, divine compassion and divine love. You know, he’s right, and if we stick to these “weapons” that God has given us and put our faith in his presence and strength, then we will “conquer” the whole world with the grace and peace of Jesus Christ.