Destroying our self-sufficiency.
There are so many misconceptions about the Bible, but there’s one truth about it that’s inescapable, and must be realized and readily admitted before any serious study of it can ensue: that is, the Bible isn’t about you! Yes, the Bible is for you, but it’s not about you. The Bible is all about Jesus — it tells one story and points to one figure, namely, Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:2) Indeed, the Song of Scripture is the cross of Christ!
Today, I’d like to show you a portrait of Jesus as we see him in the Book of Judges, specifically, in the story of Gideon. As with many other Old Testament accounts, the story of Gideon is widely misinterpreted, misused, and misconstrued by the majority of its readers, especially Sunday School teachers.
Gideon the valiant?
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor. And Gideon said to him, Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian. 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? And he said to him, Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house. And the Lord said to him, But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man. (Jgs 6:12–16)
This is the account of Gideon’s call, and too often, when it’s read, the focus is on Gideon’s “might” and “valor,” instead of the One who imparted him with that might and valor. Or, we’ll hone in on Gideon’s “fleecing of God” (Jgs 6:36–40), and determine that to progress anywhere in our Christian walk, we must pray for signs and miracles and confirmations and clear indicators of God’s will, expecting him to answer before we move one finger for him. But that’s not at all what this story is about. We’re not to read this account of Gideon and (spoiler alert!) his victory over the Midianites and conclude that it was Gideon who was valiant and courageous, or that “fleecing God” (testing him) is an adequate substitute for faith. Not at all. As a matter of fact, what the story of Gideon shows us is who God uses, and what God does through those he uses.
Who God uses.
As Americans, we’re obsessed with strength. We’re in love with heroes and feats of strength that display the fearlessness and bravery that we want to believe is in our makeup. Just think about nearly every movie that’s coming out in theaters right now — almost everyone deals with “end-of-the-world” stakes. The plot of virtually every film, nowadays, is “Stop this villain or our world will be destroyed!” And to make matters worse and increase the tension, the “heroes” are always given well-nigh insurmountable odds that must be overcome in order to stop the diabolical plan that’s destined to obliterate our world as we know it. (It’s almost comical how many films are like this.) If that weren’t enough, our desire to be strong and “LiveStrong” shines through in our “World’s Strongest Man” tournaments and “CrossFit Games.” We want the world to see us and see how strong we are. We want to be the hero, the one who saves the day by summoning some spark of inner strength.
This same mindset has infected the way many Christians interpret the Scriptures (especially accounts such as this). We’ve come to believe that the Bible is all about us and that it’s here to show us how to be strong and get better. Our lives, then, become a testimony of our strength and our achievements and our “heroism.” Likewise, many come to Judges 6-7, and read, “Gideon, thou mighty man of valor,” and, because of his triumph, conclude that God uses the mighty, the valiant, and the strong to do his will. Thus, I have to get stronger and better and more courageous before God can use me.
The reality is, to read God’s Word in such a manner entirely misses the point of God’s Word. To miss Jesus, here, is to miss the point! What’s more, the irony is that to fixate on strength, no one readily admits or wants to admit the one thing that can make them truly strong — that is, in ourselves, we’re woefully deficient, but in Christ, we possess unparalleled strength. (Phil 4:13) Honestly, those who reckon Gideon to be this lionhearted warrior aren’t really reading the entirety of this story. He’s not some “Herculean warrior” who’s unshrinking boldness is what gives the Israelites the victory. Nor is he a type of King Leonidas leading the mighty 300 against the evil Midianites, as he’s often portrayed. Actually, Gideon’s a man who repeatedly doubts God, even when the victory he so longs for has already been secured, assured, and declared to him. In fact, this promise of victory was voiced to him by Jesus himself.
The Scriptures declare that “the angel of the Lord” appeared unto Gideon (Jgs 6:12, 14), which (as I interpret it) is a clear instance of a Christophany, or a preincarnate manifestation of our Savior, Deliverer, and Rescuer, Jesus Christ. The assurance of victory was given by the Son of God. “This was not the prophet before mentioned,” John Gill notes, “but the Angel of Jehovah’s presence, the Word and Son of God, and who is expressly called Jehovah himself.” Moreover, this promise of victory was a sweeping one, an absolute one. God promises him, “I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” (Jgs 6:16) Literally, that is, “I will be with you. And you will destroy the Midianites as if you were fighting against one man, leaving none alive.” (Jgs 6:16 NLT) The conquest for Gideon and his men could only result in success, in a landslide defeat of their enemies. And yet, despite the covenant of victory, Gideon cries, “My family is the weakest . . . and I am the least in my father’s house.” (Jgs 6:15) “What can I do? I’m the smallest and weakest: how am I going to do Your will? How am I to accomplish this incredible mission?” Gideon’s faith wavers despite God’s promise and pledge to him. And, by waiting for signs, Gideon was seeking after the assurance he’d already been given.
Are you sure, God?
Throughout this story, Gideon receives four signs from God, four distinct confirmations of what he was supposed to do. Not only was the Angel of Lord with him (Jgs 6:14), but he also received the sign of the burnt up cakes (Jgs 6:20–24), the sign of the wet fleece (Jgs 6:36–38), the sign of the dry fleece (Jgs 6:39–40), and the sign of the soldier’s dream. (Jgs 7:13–15) And sometimes, this is us. We often wait around for something miraculous to happen in order to give us “assurance” or confirmation of God’s will. Sometimes we sit, idly waiting for something to show us that Jesus is there, when all we really need to do is get up off our feet and stand in the deliverance that’s already ours. God doesn’t wants us to wait around for a “sign” but to act upon what we already know and are assured of in his Word of grace.
The fact is, “fleecing God” isn’t proof of your faith in him, it’s actually the direct opposite: it reveals your distrust and unbelief. True faith doesn’t depend on signs or evidences or proofs or miracles. (Mt 12:38–39) Remember Jesus’s words to the doubting disciple, Thomas? “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn 20:29) True faith and trust and belief in God is a commitment and declaration to hope in him — a Lord and Savior who never fails and always fulfills that which he promises.
The fact that God answers Gideon despite his unbelief is a testament to the marvelous grace of the gospel. Just as God condescended to Gideon’s weak faith, likewise, Jesus condescends to the earth and to the cross to ransom and redeem us: feeble, frail, filthy, fallible mankind. God works in vastly different ways than we expect him to or think he should. His ways “are far beyond anything you could imagine.” (Is 55:8) We’ve flipped the script here. Gideon’s not valiant and courageous because of anything inside of him. He’s only valiant and courageous because God is with him! (Jgs 6:12) There’s no strength or might in this story without God, outside of his presence. (Jer 1:7–8)
Recruiting from the pit.
Again, we’ve got it backwards. God doesn’t go after the big, the strong, the mighty, or the most qualified. He doesn’t go after those with power or prestige, or that boast in their own significance. God doesn’t recruit the heroes or the champions. God calls the weak, the feeble, the unimportant, the insignificant to do his will. God uses those who realize how small they are and how big God is. In order to do big things for God, we have to realize how small we are.
This is what propelled Jeremiah’s ministry, when he said, “O Sovereign Lord, I can’t speak for you! I’m too young!” (Jer 1:6 NLT) That is, “How could you pick me? What can I do? I’m too young; You’ve got the wrong guy!” That’s us, oftentimes . . . that’s me. I think that way too. I’m not strong. I’m not qualified. Surely, there’s a better Christian out there who can do what God has called me to do! But the confounding thing about God, as Jon Acuff writes, is that “he tends to recruit from the pit, not the pedestal.” He often does the opposite of what we’d naturally do, and, moreover, seeks out those who we’d naturally assume he’d reject. Just look at who God chooses to do his will: a murdering (Ex 2:12), stutterer (Ex 6:12) in Moses to lead his chosen people out of bondage and into the Promised Land. A chronically-depressed prophet named Jeremiah is called to bring God’s message of judgment and repentance to the nations. Even those whom Christ chose as his closest comrades, the twelve disciples, were fishermen, carpenters, and tax collectors: the lowest of the low on the social scales. This is who God chooses and who God uses — the outcast, the poor, the oppressed, the weak, the small. (Lk 4:18–19)
By choosing and using those who are the smallest and the weakest, God gets the highest and greatest glory. “Man chooses those who would be most helpful to him: God chooses those to whom he can be the most helpful,” Charles Spurgeon proclaims. “We select those who may give us the best return: God frequently selects those who most need his aid . . . God chooses his friend according to the serviceableness which he himself may render to the chosen one. It is the very opposite way of choosing. We select those who are best because they are most deserving; he selects those who are worst because they are least deserving, so that his choice may be more clearly seen to be an act of grace and not of merit.” This echoes the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. (1 Cor 1:25–31)
A spotlight on sovereignty.
It’s through our weaknesses and shortcomings that Christ works, bringing the most honor and merit to his name. How true it is said that “divine power is best displayed against the backdrop of human weakness.”1 It’s against the darkness of our sin that the grace of the gospel shines the brightest. We learn more about our Creator in him saving lost, depraved sinners than by any other means. “Grace shows us far more of God than we could ever learn in any other way,” writes Horatius Bonar.2 Before we can do anything for God, we must admit that Jesus is everything, and that without him, we’re nothing. (2 Cor 4:7; Lam 4:2) God creates ex nihilo, or “out of nothing” — and, as Martin Luther says, “as long as we are nothing, he can make something out of us.” “God does everything through people who understand they’re nothing. And God does nothing through those who think they’re everything.”3
God intends to show us the sharp contrast between our sheer unworthiness and the grandeur and majesty of his gospel, so that we’re continually pointed to his all-surpassing power and glory in the work of redemption. He’s at work in our weakness, in our brokenness. When we feel the smallest, or the most vulnerable, or the most inadequate, he desires to show himself to us as all-sufficient. It’s there, on the ground of our own frailty and infirmity that God promises, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
The fact is, “you and I will never know Christ to be a great Savior unless we first understand ourselves to be great sinners. We’ll never really feel deliverance if we don’t first feel desperation. We’ll never experience the glory of real freedom if we don’t first experience the grief of our own slavery.”4 God uses people, who, when looking in the mirror of Scripture (Jas 1:23–25), exclaim, “Woe is me! For I am lost . . . I am a man of unclean lips.” (Is 6:5) “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4) He calls and chooses and works in and through those who are honest with themselves and that know that without him, they’re nothing.
What God does through those he uses.
God’s in the business of showing us who we really are. All throughout life, God reveals to us how small we are and how big he is. He shows us how fickle and frail we are and how steady and faithful he is. Over and over again, God destroys our self-sufficiency to reveal himself as our Sole Sufficiency. Throughout this story, God continually tests Gideon by removing everything that might’ve brought him victory. His army was reduced from 32,000 to 300 (Jgs 7:3–4), and instead of going into the fray with swords and spears, they engage the enemy jars and torches. (Jgs 7:16) God likes to stack the odds against himself, for it’s then that he’s seen as the sole victor. In the same way, against all odds, Jesus comes and does for us what we could never do for ourselves: redeem and rescue us from sin.
The fact that Gideon’s army emerged victorious is a testament to God being with them. He alone gets the honor and glory for the victory! (Jgs 7:2) By this, God desires to show us that he is our Sufficiency; that he isn’t just like a strong tower for us, he’s our Strong Tower; that he’s not just like a rock, he’s our Rock; that he’s not just like a shield, he’s our Shield; that he’s not just strong, he’s our strength; that he’s not just a Savior, he’s our Savior, yours and mine! As Luther famously quipped, “The sweetness of the gospel lies mostly in pronouns, as me, my, thy.” (Mt 9:2; Gal 2:20; Phil 3:8) Jesus didn’t just die for all humanity, he died for you! Christ went to the cross with a purpose. He took names there, your name, my name! It’s this that sustains us, from beginning to end. It’s this that is our sufficiency all throughout this journey of life: God’s gospel of free, liberating grace. (1 Cor 15:10; Eph 2:8–9)
Therefore, why are you proud? Why are you boasting? What are you boasting in? In yourself? In something you do? In who you’ve become? If so, you’re building your life upon the shifting sand, a foundation that will swiftly be swept away. (Mt 7:24–27) Our whole lives are to be built upon the groundwork of Jesus’s finished work on the cross. Everything we are and do is predicated on Christ’s love, mercy, grace, and strength alone!
The irony is the last thing we want to admit is the one thing that can set us free: that we’re weak and completely incapable of saving ourselves. We’ll never be used in the salvation of others until we readily admit our dire need of saving. We’ll never experience victory until we realize we’re already defeated. We’ll never revel in the fathomless grace of God until we recognize our desperate need of it! Our cry must be, “Only a sinner saved by grace!” We must continually say, “I’m a poor sinner, and nothing at all; but Jesus Christ is my all in all!” God exalts and lifts and uses the humble. (Mt 23:12; Jas 4:6, 10; Prv 11:2) His victory is given to those who’ve put their faith in him — he alone guarantees absolute victory! God alone is the Author of our salvation, the Creator and Sustainer and Finisher of our victory!
Roy Zuck and John Walvoord, Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2002), 583.
Horatius Bonar, The Grace, the Service, and the Kingdom (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851), 29.
Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 20.