When Good People Go Bad (Judges 7-9)

Well, it happened again. Just over a week ago, I was reading the newspaper about a horrific crime that had happened in the city. The details of the crime aren't what I want to highlight; what I want to highlight is a description that seems to be more common than I'd like that goes something like this:

A church-going dad accused...was always a "gentle giant" and a "solid Christian" who had a great relationships...He showed no signs of mental illness, didn't have a temper, and was never violent or abusive, said one of his best friends. "He wasn't evil, he wasn't bad, he wasn't twisted. He wasn't anything (like that). He was just a great guy, a gentle giant, a fun guy. He was a great father."

Somebody else said of the man charged with this crime, "He was a regular guy...He's a church-going guy. Nobody expected this."

You've had this experience. Have you ever really looked up to somebody within the church, wishing that if you could be half as spiritually mature as they are, only to be crushed with disappointment when they let you down badly? It's the same experience as when we hear about the church treasurer or secretary that everybody trusted who, it turns out, had been skimming money from the offerings for years. It's the same experience as when yet another pastor is found to have been living a double life.

What do you do with this? How do you keep from becoming judgmental or disillusioned? What do you do when over and over, the people who seem to be spiritually alive, maybe even powerfully used by God, are found out to be less than we thought?

There's a story I'd like to look at that will help us answer this. More importantly, it will also lead us to reflect on something that is absolutely crucial for our own futures. So follow along as we look at a case study and ask how we handle when a good person goes bad.

Gideon the Good

We've been looking at the book of Judges. Today we're continuing the story of a man named Gideon. If you know this story, I think that you would have to agree with me that by almost any standard, Gideon is a good man. Out of all of the judges in this book, God is most visible in the story of his life. Out of every judge, it is to Gideon alone that an angel appears. It's the longest story in the book of Judges, which speaks to its importance. As well, Gideon wins a resounding victory.

Centuries later, the writer of Hebrews gave Gideon as an example of someone who through faith conquered kingdoms. Even later, in our time, we have the Gideons, a Bible society that's named itself after Gideon. It's almost all good.

Of course, Gideon wasn't perfect. If you were here last week, you'll remember that Gideon didn't start out that well. When we first meet him, he was hiding in a winepress because he was scared of the Midianites, the enemies of Israel at that time. When an angel appeared to him and says that he will save Israel from the hands of the Midianites, he came up with every reason in the book why was not the man. But this almost makes Gideon more real. It helps us appreciate that he was an ordinary man. We appreciate his flaws in a way because it helps us relate to him.

But then God accomplished something unbelievable through him. Remember how scared Gideon was? You would expect God to make allowances for Gideon given his fear. Gideon was afraid of the 135,000 warriors who were lined up against him, and frankly, who can blame him? 135,000 warriors. I think I would be scared too. The text says that the Midianites were "settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore" (Judges 7:12).

Gideon had good reason to be afraid, because Gideon was vastly outnumbered. Gideon only had 32,000 warriors. He was outnumbered 4 to 1.

But what did God do? God told Gideon that he has too many warriors. He asked Gideon to dismiss anyone in his army of 32,000 who is afraid, and 22,000 leave. Now he's down to only 10,000 warriors. He's outnumbered 14 to 1. If Gideon was afraid before, he should be petrified now.

But God isn't done with him yet. God said that Gideon still has too many. God devised a plan that resulted in a further reduction in Gideon's troop strength, and Gideon ended up sending everyone but 300 people home. Gideon is down to less than 1% of the warriors that he started out with. He's outnumbered 450 to 1 now.

Why would God do this? In Judges 7:2, God said, "You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, 'My own strength has saved me.'" One of the great dangers we face is that if God uses us, or if God grants us success, then we'll take the credit.

So picture you're Gideon. Remember that he was scared. God takes someone who was scared, somebody that is compared in this chapter to a barley loaf - plain, tasteless, bland. God takes what meagre resources he had and strips them away, leaving him with practically nothing. As far as we know, God doesn't give him any battle plan. God just left him there with the assurance that everything would work out.

What happens next is brilliant. I don't know how Gideon came up with the idea, but he knew that if he had each of his 300 warriors act like army officers, the Midianites may get confused and think there's a massive army rather than just 300 guys. Ordinarily, only army officers used trumpets to give directions. The plan worked. The 300 guys blew the trumpets; the Midianites thought that behind each trumpet was a massive number or troops. They panicked and turned on each other. Gideon's plan worked. It shouldn't have, but it did.

It gets even better. Gideon had to face down an additional problem. At the beginning of chapter 8, one of the tribes of Israel, the Ephraimites, complained that they've been left out of the battle. They killed two of the Midianite leaders, but they hadn't been part of the battle and victory from the beginning.

Gideon's just defeated the enemy; now he has to deal with grumbling among his own people. How is he going to handle this? His response is brilliant. He talks them down. He gives them an incredibly diplomatic answer: "What have I accomplished compared to you? The leftover grapes from your tribe are better than the best grapes from my tribe." In other words, they accomplished far more than he did. Not only is Gideon a mighty warrior, he's also a diplomat who defuses tensions among his people.

You would expect all of this to get noticed, and it does. The people see how powerfully God is using Gideon, and they asked him, "Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian" (Judges 8:22). They've noticed God's hand on Gideon. Who wouldn't want him as their leader?

But notice Gideon's humility. Gideon replied exactly as he should: "I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you" (Judges 8:23). Gideon understood that becoming king would take too much of the credit away from God. It would replace the Lord's rule. So Gideon did exactly the right thing and encouraged people to trust in God.

You read all of this and you can't help but admire the man. He was someone that God chose to use in powerful way. He's smart, victorious, diplomatic, and humble. One Old Testament scholar has gone through this story and identified twenty admirable things about Gideon in this story. He's listed in Hebrews 11 as a hero of the faith who through faith conquered a kingdom.

I would not hesitate in choosing Gideon to serve as an elder at Richview. What's not to like? He's like many of the people, perhaps, that we look up to. I've got my list. They're smart; they are profound; they really seem to have a close relationship with God. I look up to them. It's easy to look at these people, like Gideon, and wish that we could be just like them.

I wish I could stop here. But there's a tough reality that we need to confront. It's a reality about Gideon, but it's also about the people that we look up to. If you're completely honest, then you'll also realize that it's a reality about you. We need to look at the other side of Gideon's life, because the picture I've given you so far is accurate, but it's not the whole picture. It never is. There's a dark side to Gideon, just as there is in all of us. If we don't face up to it, we're going to continually be surprised when seemingly good and godly people let us down.

Gideon the Bad

I wish that I could end at Judges 8:3, because then we could avoid the brutal truth about Gideon and ourselves. We could end with Gideon as a saint; we could avoid the hard truth that Gideon was both at the same time a sinner. He was a terrible sinner.

Just when you think that Israel finally has a good and righteous judge, things fall apart. For the very first time, it wasn't the Canaanites who led Israel into idolatry. It's a judge. It's Gideon. For the very first time, people began to backslide during the tenure of a judge.

Look at how bad things get in chapters 8 and 9.

  • When Gideon crossed the Jordan and asked for bread from the Israelite cities of Sukkoth and Peniel, they rudely turned him down. This time Gideon wasn't diplomatic. He lashed out at them and threatened to get revenge. Later, he came back and tore the flesh of the townspeople of the first city with thorns and briars, and pulled down a tower and killed the men of the other city. He's on a vendetta of revenge, killing his own people.
  • Gideon has two Midianite kings captured. He decides they have to be killed. But we discover that the reason he wants to kill them is not a noble one. He wants to kill them so he can pay them back for killing his brothers. And he doesn't want to do it himself; he asks his son to perform the killing - a boy! Again, Gideon is on a personal vendetta.
  • Remember how Gideon turned down the kingship? That was good. But his behavior afterwards was bad. Even though he turned down the kingship, he began to act like a king. He took earrings from all the plunder, and made a gold ephod weighing some forty pounds. He made his home town a religious center. "All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping [the ephod] there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family" (Judges 8:27). He may not have been a king in name, but he took all the privileges of kingship, and led the people into idolatry.
  • When Gideon died, his legacy was brutal. One of Gideon's sons set himself up as king - the first king of Israel - and murdered his seventy brothers so they're no longer a threat. Under his son, Abimelek, there was all kinds of senseless bloodshed. For example, they set fire to a tower with a thousand people inside. Read chapter 9 sometime. It's a brutal chapter. And all the slaughter, all the senseless destruction, is Gideon's legacy. At the end of the chapter, God delivers Israel, but this time not from foreign oppression. God rescues Israel by ending the life of one of Israel's leaders. Israel needs saving from itself.

Even at Gideon's finest moment, you're left wondering a little bit. Remember what Gideon's soldiers yelled as they charged the enemy? "A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!" Why did they include Gideon's name? You could make a case that Gideon was merely the human instrument that God was using, and that it was appropriate for his name to be there, and I could buy that. But you have to wonder if already Gideon was getting a little bit big for his bridges, taking a little too much credit for what was happening.

It's ironic that God whittled his army down to 300 so that they couldn't possibly take credit for the victory, and so he would have to get the glory. Ironically, this may have led to even greater pride. Gideon could brag about how great a victory he won with so few resources. What was meant to bring God greater glory may have in fact become twisted so that it led to Gideon taking more of the credit.

But you're left with this troubling picture. Gideon has all these great qualities, and was powerfully used by God. But he becomes a self-serving leader who is vengeful, and who leads Israel into idolatry. The after-effects are brutal. All of this has led one scholar to write a paper called, "Will the real Gideon please stand up?" He listed 20 admirable things about Gideon in this story, but he also lists 16 questionable elements in this story as well. He says, "The greatest threats to Israel's existence do not come from outside enemies who may occasionally oppress them. Israel's most serious enemy is within. She is a nation that appears determined to destroy herself." And leading the charge is Gideon.

So what do we make of all of this? How is it possible to be both a mighty warrior, someone greatly used by God, and at the same time be egotistical, vengeful, and idolatrous? Is Gideon a hero or a villain?

What We Learn

What this passage reveals for us is something that will help us as we struggle with other Christians who let us down. What's more, it will help us even more as we look within our own hearts and realize that we're not all that different from Gideon ourselves.

The thing that will help us the most is something that Martin Luther has taught us. Martin Luther was a Catholic monk who grew concerned with some of the abuses that he saw taking place within the church of this time. One of the teachings that Luther developed is summarized in a Latin phrase: simul iustus et peccator. It means "at the same time righteous and a sinner." In other words, those who trust in Christ are justified, declared righteous before God. We are counted righteous in God's eyes because of Christ. But at the same time we are sinners. God begins to transform us, but we are a work in progress. At the very same time as we stand righteous before God, we continue to struggle.

So, at the very same moment, we are both justified and we are sinners at the same time.This is not a condition that will ever be transcended in this life.

This has led one person to say, "Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but, through you, I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope." When we really understand the gospel, we understand that at the very same moment we are weaker and more sinful than we ever believed, but we are also more loved and accepted than we dared hope. We are at the same time righteous and sinners.

What this means is that we should never think too highly of anyone. In the end, the best of us are just like Gideon. We may be greatly used by God. We may win great victories. We may appear to be spiritual giants. But we are never that far away from completely blowing it.

George Whitefield, the famous preacher who lied in the 1700s, wrote:

I cannot pray but I sin. I cannot preach to you or any others but I sin. I can do nothing without sin; and, as one expresses it, my repentance wants to be repented of, and my tears to be washed in the precious blood of my dear Redeemer. Our best duties are as so many splendid sins.

The reality is that we're sinful enough that we can't even do good things without sinning. As Whitefield said, even our repenting needs to be repented of.

We should never be surprised by our capacity for sin. We should never pin our hopes on people, because even the most godly person will ultimately let us down.

The hymnist who penned the hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing nailed it:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

The famous preacher Spurgeon once said, "For my own part, I desire constantly to stand at the foot of the cross, with no other testimony concerning myself than this — I the chief of sinners am, But Jesus died for me."

Repentance

So what do we do with this knowledge that at our best, we are still unprofitable servants? When we understand that we are, like Gideon, both righteous and sinners, what do we do?

There's only one thing we can do. If we believe that we are saved by grace through faith through the substitutionary work of Christ alone, that we are simultaneously sinners in ourselves and completely accepted in Christ - we will understand that we're sinners but infinitely loved. We're as loved now as we will be a million years from now.

This gives us the freedom to see sin everywhere in our lives. You and I begin to realize that we are sinners, just like Gideon. Because we understand that we're accepted unconditionally based on the work of Christ alone, we don't have to be in denial about our sins. We can face up to the truth that we are just like Gideon. And there's only one way to respond.

So what do we do about this? When Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, the document with started the Protestant Reformation, his first point said, "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent,' he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." The entire life of believers is to be one of repentance.

Listen: What if we really believed that we're weaker and more sinful than we dreamed, but more loved than we hoped? We would repent. My greatest prayer is that we would see the truth about ourselves like never before, and that our entire lives - the entire life of this church - would be one of joyful repentance.

Let's pray.

Father, forgive us for those times that we put people on pedestals. We're continually surprised when people that we thought were spiritually mature fall. We're always making idols out of people instead of putting our hope in you.

Today we face the truth about ourselves, and understand that we are at the same time righteous because of the work of Jesus Christ, and also sinful because the Spirit's work of sanctification is not done. The fact that we're accepted gives us the freedom to face this truth about ourselves.

May you teach us like never before that when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent,' he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. And may we live this out in our lives and in this church. By your grace and for your glory, Amen.

More Than History (Judges 6)

On Thanksgiving weekend, my brothers and my sister were comparing notes about our children after dinner. We all have good children, and we really have no right to complain, but we're going through the normal things that parents go through with their children. As we compared notes about our joys and our struggles, my mother smiled and said, "You kids weren't so different yourselves." The joys and the headaches our kids are giving us are exactly the same joys and headaches that we gave our mother when we were kid.

We are looking at the book of Judges right now, and one of the reasons is that you and I aren't so different from the people that we're looking at. The theme of this series is, "What's wrong with the world?" Often we look around and blame all kinds of people and groups for what's wrong with the world: liberals or conservatives, secular humanists, lobby groups, feminists, non-feminists, capitalists, socialists - whoever. But Judges holds up the mirror and says, "The problem with the world is you." In the book of Judges, the greatest problem wasn't the Canaanites or the people who didn't believe in God. The greatest problem, to be frank, was staring back at them in the mirror. What is wrong with the world is us.

The Problem

Today we get to one of the most detailed descriptions of oppression in the book of Judges. We read in the first verse that the people of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and then we read all the consequences of that disobedience. The Midianites overpowered them. The people of Israel fled to dens they made in the mountains and hid in caves. Every time they planted crops, the Midianites and Amalekites came and raided all of the produce. They would take everything, including the livestock. We read that these enemies were so numerous that they were like a plague of locusts that devoured absolutely everything. And verse 6 of chapter 6 says, "And Israel was brought very low because of Midian." They were made very small. They were experiencing the very opposite of what God had promised to them in the covenant. The oppression was so bad at this time that the prophet Isaiah mentioned it centuries later. This is one of the dark periods of Israel's history when everything was going wrong.

Do you ever look around and wonder why God's people aren't experiencing what he seems to have promised? God's people can get themselves into a real mess.

Someone close to me just resigned from the church where they were serving. I saw them a few months ago, and the pastor's wife lifted the sleeve of her blouse to show me a giant bruise. One of the people at the church who didn't like them had grabbed her in church after the service and left this bruise. All kinds of nasty things have been happening at that church, and I ask, "This is supposed to be the body of Christ?" We get ourselves into a real mess.

I've been reading a book lately about evangelical churches. The author writes convincingly of our call to be robust theologically, people who transcend the barriers of race, culture and social status. We should be a vibrant movement of churches that embody the kingdom of God, care for the poor, and that transform culture for the good of all people and the glory of God. But instead, the author says that many of us are living out an individualistic, consumeristic gospel. We have bought into "individualism and a consumer-oriented, homogeneous-unit-principled, safe-haven church where a family-friendly faith protects Christ's followers from those who think, look, and even sound different than they do." He goes on and talks about what someone else wrote about "pop psychology" replacing sound doctrine, as well as our preoccupation with "success, wonderful marriages and nice children," our fixation on "numerical growth and money," and our neglect of "the great social issues of the day, above all racism and the plight of the poor" (Consuming Jesus).

I read all of this and think, "This is the church?" Then we look at our own lives. Most of us, I think, long for God to really move, and for his power to be shown in our lives. But we're not experiencing it.

I don't mean to start on a negative note. However, when I read about God's people living in caves while the enemies of God thrive, I can relate. I wish I didn't, but I can.

We seem to be living less than what God promised. God's people can get into a real mess, and we're left wondering, "Why? Why aren't things the way they're supposed to be? Why aren't we experiencing God's power as we should?"

The Real Problem

Well, notice what happened when things got really bad in this passage, and the people cried out to God. Usually what happened in the cycle that repeats over and over again in the book of Judges is that when the people cried out to God, he sent them a deliverer. But not this time, at least not right away. This time, God sent them a prophet.

Why would God send a prophet instead of a deliverer? Because the reason they were living in fear in caves wasn't because of the power of the Midianites. The reason they were living in fear in caves is because they had forgotten the gospel. They had forgotten God's saving acts, and that the same God who saved his people in the past was still available to save them today. Read what the prophet said in verses 8 to 10:

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. I said to you, 'I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.' But you have not listened to me.

Why is Israel living in caves? Why have they been brought very low? Why are we today not experiencing what we should be? The problem isn't the Midianites. The problem is us. The problem is that we really don't believe the gospel - at least we don't believe it enough to transform us. We may believe it as a set of facts, but we're not living as if we really believed it. And as a result we've been brought very low, because we have forgotten the gospel.

In the rest of the chapter we have a case study of someone who personifies this, and it may surprise you who it is. Let me ask you what you think of when you hear the name Gideon. How many people think of Bibles? Gideon is definitely a household name for people who don't even know a lot about Old Testament history, because we have a group of people today who have named themselves in his honor.

For those of you who actually know the story of Gideon in the Old Testament, he is a good guy. He is one of the judges who delivers Israel when they were in this mess. He is listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the heroes of the faith. But you may not know that he is also the personification of a person who has forgotten the gospel, or who is at least left the gospel back in the history books. Virtually everything that we read about Gideon in this chapter highlights his lack of faith and his reluctance to follow God. He is an example of what the prophet has just said is wrong. In this chapter, Gideon is the personification of what's wrong with God's people. In this chapter, Gideon is just like us.

So we get to verse 11, where Gideon is beating his wheat in a winepress. If you know anything about how this was done, you know that you're supposed to do this in a wide-open space. But Gideon is doing it in a winepress. Why? He's scared. If he does this in a wide open area, he's afraid of what the Midianites will do to him.

Then an angel appears to this guy hiding in a winepress because he's scared, and the angel says, "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." There's a bit of irony here - this man hiding for safety is a mighty warrior? If so, Israel's in a lot of trouble.

Gideon responds by asking the question on everybody's mind. Why doesn't our faith and experience match? Verse 13:

"Pardon me, my lord," Gideon replied, "but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian."

In other words, Gideon asks the question that should be on all of our minds: Why are God's people in such a mess? Why, if the promises of God are true, and if God has acted so powerfully in the past - why are we in such a mess? It's interesting that the angel doesn't answer Gideon. For one thing, the prophet has already given the answer. Besides, Gideon is about to provide the answer himself through his own actions.

What happens next is that the angel calls him to be the deliverer. "The Lord turned to him and said, 'Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?'" (Judges 6:14) And for the rest of the chapter, Gideon throws up reasons why God is wrong to use him, and doubt after doubt:

  • In verse 15, he argues that he's from the wrong family, despite the fact that his family were probably aristocrats.
  • In verse 17, he asks for a sign as proof that what the angel said is true. He wants to see evidence because he can't believe what the angel says is true without seeing proof.
  • In verse 27, he pulls down the family idols, but he does it at night because he's afraid of all the townspeople.
  • And at the end of the chapter, verses 36 to 40, he famously lays down a fleece. He gives God a test, and if God passes the test, then Gideon will obey and do what God said in the first place.

I still hear people talking about laying out a fleece like Gideon did. They say, "If God really wants me to do something, then he should make the phone ring at 8:42 p.m. or make somebody say these exact words, and then I'll know that God has spoken." They say, "Lord, if you want me to do missions work, then give me a sign," and then they open their newspaper and see an ad for Hawaii, and think that God is calling them as a missionary to Hawaii.

But Gideon's fleece isn't given as a positive example. Gideon wasn't asking for God's will. He already knew God's will; he just didn't want to obey it. He's stubbornly resisting doing what he knows he should be doing. The fleece isn't a model of how to find God's will; it's an example of hesitating to obey when we already know what we should be doing.

Why was Israel in such a mess? Because they were all like Gideon, and so are we - at least those of us who claim to believe the gospel. Gideon is an example of someone who knew what God had done in the past, who has memorized the Bible verses and knows all of the theology, but who has a hard time believing that God is at work right now. The gospel - God's saving acts - is a theory to him, but it has no relevance to today. It's only a theory. The reason we're in such a big mess today is that we've left the gospel in the history books.

It is possible to believe everything that the Bible teaches - every line. It's possible to sing worship songs and talk about how God saved us. It's possible to talk about God parting the sea, and about Jesus walking on water and calming the storm, about Peter being released from prison, about Jesus being raised from the dead. It's possible to believe all of that - and then live as if it wasn't true. We believe it in our heads as a set of facts, but like Gideon we don't believe it in our hearts.

When Gideon asks the question, "If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?'" the answer is: when we forget the gospel, we lose our identities and act like everybody else. We also lose the resources to face our problems.

The same is true today. When we forget the gospel, or treat it like history, two things happen:

We lose our identities - One of the major themes of the book of Judges is that the God's people had become Canaanized. They became just like the neighboring nations, and nobody could tell the difference.

The same is true today. You've probably heard about all the studies of how our behaviors really aren't that different from the culture's. When we forget the gospel, we lose our identity and become just like everyone else around us. We believe the gospel, but it hasn't become personal for us yet. It's just history. It hasn't formed the basis of who we really are.

We all get our identities from something - from our jobs, our relationships, our power, our possessions. When we get our identities from any of these things - and they're good things - then we won't be any different from anybody else. But when we get our identity from the gospel, it will change us. Getting our identity from anything or anyone else will let us down, and we'll end up like everyone else. But when we see what Christ did for us, and when the gospel seeps into every area of our lives, it will truly change us.

When we forget the gospel, we also lose the resources to face our challenges - The people in Gideon's day had problems, and they had no idea how to handle them. We're the same. To paraphrase Andy Stanley:

Speaking from my limited view I feel like so much of our problem is that we are just scared to death. We're scared of their people, we're scared, we're scared, we're scared. The irony is we stand up and talk about Daniel in the lion's den but then we won't even confront our own situations. I think that dynamic alone is a big part of why the church is where it is. It's a fear of people. I don't know where that comes from...

So how do we handle this? We could respond by giving to-do lists - good advice on how to handle our problems, therapeutic tips, keys to relationships, and so on. But that really doesn't take the pressure off. It's still more stuff that we have to do. It turns us to ourselves to find the resources for our own struggles. If there's one thing that's clear from Gideon's day, it's that the people didn't have the resources for their problems within themselves, and neither do we.

But we don't need good advice. We need good news. When we remember what God has done - when Gideon remembers how God delivered Israel in the past, and when we remember what God accomplished through Christ for us - then we have all the resources we need to face whatever comes our way. It's why Paul could write: "God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32). It's why he could also write:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed....Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18)

Could it be that we have forgotten the gospel? When we do this, we lose our identities and we also lose the resources to face our problems. But when we remember what God has done through Christ, we have an identity that can't be taken away, and we have every resource we need to face whatever comes our way.

Let's pray.

Father, we confess that we are people of little or no faith. We're in a mess, and the reason is often because we've left the gospel in the history books. We don't live and act as if it's true today.

Thank you that you use people like Gideon, people with very little faith. Thank you that you took the disciples, to whom Jesus often said, "Oh you of little faith," and he used them to turn the world upside down.

Help us to bring the gospel out of the history books, to really grasp it, and to believe that the same God and gospel are just as powerful as ever before. We believe; help our unbelief.

As the apostle Paul prayed, may the eyes of our heart be enlightened so that we would know the hope to which you have called us, the riches of your glorious inheritance in your people, and your incredibly great power for us who believe - the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead.

Help us bring the gospel out of the history books, and experience its power today. We pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.

When God Uses People (Judges 4-5)

This past September marked the 150th anniversary of a lunch-hour prayer meeting that started in a small church in New York City. When this prayer meeting started, the nation was in turmoil. 30,000 men were idle on the streets of New York. Drunkenness was rampant, and the nation was divided by slavery.

A church at Fulton and William Street decided to relocate, and they left a man behind to start a mission in that area. His name was Jeremiah Lanphier. He walked the streets and began to notice the worried looks of the businessmen in the area. He decided to call a prayer meeting. On September 23, 1857, the lunch-hour prayer meeting started. Six people showed up a half hour late. Not a very promising start.

The group decided to meet the next week, and 14 people showed up. The week after there were 23. The following week there were 40. Within three months there were over a hundred meetings in the city with more than 50,000 New Yorkers pausing to pray daily.

God moved so powerfully that the prayer meeting spread across the nation. Within about 18 months, it is estimated that nearly 1 million people were converted out of a national population of 35 million, including 10,000 weekly conversions in New York City for a while. The effects of this prayer meeting are still being felt today.

One researcher says, "When we look back, we really see that this was not a movement of great men or great women. This was a movement of a simple layman who was left behind by a relocating church" (Ed Stetzer)

There seem to be times when God takes an ordinary individual - often unexpectedly - and initiates something far beyond that person's abilities. In many of these cases, the impact is felt today.

We're going to look at a case study of how God uses people today. When we look at today's passage and meditate on it, we will discover three things:

  • First, when God uses people, he initiates.
  • Second, he initiates with unexpected people
  • Third, he uses them far beyond their abilities.

First, God initiates

When we start today's passage, things aren't looking so good. We read in verses 1-3:

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.

This is pretty bad. We know that God had promised Israel this land, but now because of their disobedience he has sold them into the hands of this enemy king. What is worse, this king had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron. This is really serious business.

But in the middle of this crisis, God initiates. He doesn't give up on his people, because he gives them a prophet. Her name is Deborah. Verses 4-7 say:

Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, "The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: 'Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.'"

From here God initiates with two people. One knows it; one doesn't. But in both cases, God initiates.

First is Barak, who is a warrior. Through Deborah, God tells him to take ten thousand men and go to war against Sisera and his nine hundred chariots. How would you feel getting this assignment? It reminds me of the ad that explorer Ernest Shackleton supposedly placed to find a crew for his trek to the South Pole:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

But when God wants to move, he often taps someone on the shoulder and initiates his action through them. When God wants to do something, he always seems to want to use people.

God is God, and he can do anything that he would like. If he wanted to, he could have defeated Sisera himself. He didn't need Barak's help. He could have started the Fulton Street Revival any way he liked. But he often initiates and uses someone. In this case, it was Barak. In the Fulton Street Revival, it was Jeremiah Lanphier. God may be initiating with some of you to do his work right now.

You'll notice, though, that Barak was a little hesitant. Look at what Barak says in verse 8: "Barak said to her, 'If you go with me, I will go; but if you don't go with me, I won't go.'" Barak appears hesitant, and so are we at times. Some of us have sensed God initiating his work through us, but we've backed off. Maybe we've been afraid or unsure.

Deborah responded to Barak's hesitancy. "Certainly I will go with you,' said Deborah. 'But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman'" (Judges 4:9). As a result of Barak's hesitancy, he will go into battle, and he will be victorious, but he will not get the glory. God still initiated with Barak, but Barak missed out on all that he could have experienced because he held back when God initiated.

I know that there have been times when God has initiated in our lives, and we have held back for whatever reason. If you read later on in the next chapter, you find that entire tribes held back and missed out on what God was doing. If God is initiating and would like to use you, how will you respond? How you respond will determine how much you will experience of what God would like to do through you.

So God initiates, and sometimes we know it. But sometimes he initiates and we don't know it. We just happen to be in the right place at the right time. We're not even aware of how God is using us; he just does and we happen to be there. Verse 11 says: "Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses' brother-in-law, and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh."

You know what's happening here? God is positioning Heber and his wife just where they need to be, and they don't even know it. He's sovereignly working things together so that Heber and his wife make choices - in this case, to switch allegiance - that lead them right to where he wants them to be.

Every time God does his work, he initiates. Could it be that God is initiating in your life this morning? Maybe you know he's been initiating but you've been hesitant like Barak. Maybe he has positioned you to be in the right place at the right time without you even knowing it. When God uses people, he initiates, and how we respond can determine how much we experience of what he wants to do through us.

But as we look at this passage we also see that:

Second, God initiates with unexpected people

When God initiates with Barak, and you learn that Barak has 10,000 soldiers, who do you expect God to use to defeat Sisera? Barak, right? That would be the obvious choice. To a certain extent, God does use Barak. Verses 14-16 say:

Then Deborah said to Barak, "Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?" So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. At Barak's advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.

Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, and all Sisera's troops fell by the sword; not a man was left.

So God does use Barak, but he's not really the person who wins the glory in this victory, because Sisera is still free. God uses him, but not as we expect.

Do you remember what Deborah said? "But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman." Who do you expect that woman to be? Deborah, right? She's a prophet. I think we preachers sometimes give the impression that God does his best work through preachers. We sometimes act as if we are where the action is, and the rest of you have just missed out. Nothing could be further from the truth. God didn't win the victory through the warrior or through the preacher.

When God defeated Sisera, he did what he often does: he used an unexpected person. Just like when God initiated the Fulton Street Revival, he used a businessman. It's amazing how many times he has moved not through the clergy or the people that we would expect, but with unexpected and ordinary people.

In verses 17 to 21, we read that as Sisera flees, he comes to Heber's tent. Knowing that The Kenites and his king had friendly relations, Sisera thought he was home free. Jael invites him in. He asks for water and she gives him milk. She promises him safety, and he goes to sleep. And while he's sleeping, verse 21 says, "She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died."

In those days, setting up and taking down the tents was considered women's work. So you have this stay-at-home wife who takes a common household tool and wins the victory. Being killed by a woman, especially in a time of battle, was considered an insult, but that didn't matter to God. It's not the preacher who wins; it's not the warrior; it's a stay-at-home wife that God uses. God uses people, and he doesn't always use the people we expect.

After this incident, Deborah wrote a song which is recorded in the next chapter. It's the more poetic and theological account of the battle. But Deborah captures what we need to learn perfectly. Read Judges 5:1:

When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves— praise the Lord!

God initiates. He initiates not with the people that we would expect, but with ordinary, unexpected people. And when he does, God gets the glory.

One last thing we discover about when God uses people as we meditate on this text. When God uses people, he initiates, and the people he uses are unexpected. But finally we discover that:

Third, God uses them far beyond their abilities

These couple of chapters are unique, because we get two versions of the same events. In chapter 4 we get the narrative version. In chapter 5, we have the poetic version. We're seeing the events through two lenses.

In both, we see that God uses people far beyond what they are able to accomplish by themselves. In chapter 4, we see that what Jael does looks ordinary in a sense. She knew how to use a tent peg. It was gruesome but it really wasn't hard to use that tent peg to kill someone. But she could never have orchestrated events to make this happen. God put her in the right place at the right time and gave her an opportunity that she couldn't have engineered by herself.

But we see how God uses people beyond their abilities even more clearly as we look at the two accounts of the battle. In chapter 4, verses 14 and 15 we read: "So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. At Barak's advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot." Notice that Barak and the ten thousand people moved, but it was the LORD who routed them.

But look at the details that Deborah's account gives us in chapter 5, verses 20-21:

From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon. March on, my soul; be strong!

Do you realize what happened? Sisera and his army were trapped. God himself fought them from heaven with storm and caused a flash flood, and he washed away the army. Picture Barak charging down the mountainside with ten thousand men as the heavens pour down against their enemies and wash them away. God himself went to battle that day and won a decisive victory - a victory that was won before Barak even started. That's why Deborah said to him, "Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?" (Judges 4:14)

Donald Gray Barnhouse said, "It is our business to see that we do right; God will see that we come out right." We allow ourselves to be used by God; God is in charge of the results. He is "is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20).

The Fulton Street Revival and the victory over Sisera are both examples of how God uses people by initiating with unexpected, ordinary people, and using them far beyond what they could do themselves. God gives his grace to undeserving people by saving them when they did not deserve it. Christ gave his life so that we could live by grace, not because we were worthy at all. And then God by his Spirit uses us, not because we have the power, but because he initiates with unexpected people and does more with them than we could think or imagine.

Father, we want to be used by you. Today we ask that just as you did in the days of Deborah and Barak, in these dark days, that you would move again and show your power. Just as in the days of Jeremiah Lanphier, raise up people through whom you will do more than we could ask or imagine.

And when you initiate, would you help us respond without hesitancy so that we can experience all that you want to do through us. And most of all, may the glory be yours and yours alone. Through Christ we pray. Amen.