Pictures of Faith: Certain Advantage—Judges 7

This week at Woodland it was “Game on” with VBS! Our hook for the week involved sports, and we naturally talked about some of the things teams and athletes do to get a competitive advantage—training, exercises, drills; that sort of thing.

Really, though, we weren’t talking about games, but life. And, like this week’s passage from Judges 7 teaches us, we learned that God doesn’t always work through our advantages but through our disadvantages.

Judges 6-8 starts with an apparent problem for Israel: the Midianites have overrun God’s people, and everybody is afraid. The actual problem is that Israel has not obeyed God (6.8-10).

The Angel of the LORD visits Gideon who, out of fear, is threshing grain underground, because he too is afraid. The LORD charges Gideon with delivering God’s people, to which Gideon responds by listing his disadvantages (6.12-16), but then asking for a sign. Two signs are given. One involves the lighting of a sacrifice in Elijah-like fashion, the other is the famous account of the fleece which is first wet then dry. Pretty arbitrary really, but clearly from God.

Does Gideon now believe that having the LORD on his side is a good enough advantage? 

Chapter 7 opens with Gideon having raised a decent army—32,000. The Midianites, however, have a much bigger army and are encamped in the Jezreel Valley, probably about four miles to the north of the Israelites.

Gideon receives his “advantage” (:1-8). Here, we get the crucial verse in the account: The LORD said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, “My own hand has saved me” (:2).

In other words, Israel, disadvantaged as they are, is still too strong to trust in the LORD. God thins their ranks. Those who are afraid are allowed to leave, and 10,000 remain. Then, all are given an opportunity for a drink, and those who lap up water like a dog are told to stay. Only 300 now remain, and that’s finally looking like an impossible disadvantage.

Gideon recognizes his “advantage” (:9-14). At this juncture, Gideon gets his third sign. He’s told to go down to the enemy camp and listen in to a conversation. In the dark, listening outside a tent, Gideon hears a soldier give an account of a strange dream involving a piece of barley bread (eaten by the lower classes and clearly representing Israel) tumble into the Midianite camp and destroy it. Strange indeed, but the Midianites interpret the dream as an omen and recognize Gideon’s imminent victory. Gideon responds by worshipping God and beginning, finally, to act like a general.

Gideon respons to his advantage (:15-25). Now, Gideon divides his troops, gives each man a trumpet and a torch concealed in a jar, and then leads his small company to surround the enemy camp. At the signal, everybody blows, jars are broken, torches are lifted up, and the Israelites just stand there while the Midianites run around killing one another and then running for their own country. The battle scene ends with Israel pursuing their enemies right out of their land and the heads of the two Midianite generals coming back to Gideon as a couple of souvenirs.

God’s lesson for Gideon was that Gideon’s advantage wasn’t in what he thought, but that his real advantage was in his relationship to Him.

How about us? Where do we have a perceived disadvantage in life? Could it be that some of us grew up without a father or mother, and we now have kids but feel clueless? Or, maybe some of us have adult children who are now making decisions that aren’t good, but we feel like spectators? Or, maybe, some of us are students, and we’re excluded from the group and wondering how this growing up thing is going to work when we feel alone?

This week at VBS our theme verse was 2 Peter 3.1: His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life an godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his glory and excellence. 

Can you believe it? God is creating a new reality all based in the power of a man who died on a cross. The work of the (apparently) seriously disadvantaged Jesus Christ is God’s way of overturning every other perceived advantage in the universe. And, like Gideon, we sometimes have to endure our apparent disadvantages to learn that God through Jesus is enough! And when we do, we boast in the LORD and not in ourselves.

God wants to meet you in your perceived disadvantage and be enough for you, so that where you are weak He will be strong.

My greatest advantage in this life isn’t where I (often) think but it is in Christ’s work … And God loves a (dis)advantage. 



Pictures of Faith: Certain Deed—Judges 4

During these summer months we’ve been watching a good bit of baseball in the Northwoods. In the age groups in which most of our Woodland kids play, games are a battle between the pitcher with himself and the batter with himself, the catcher somehow figuring into the action and helping a little.

Most kids start the season knowing they’re to hit the ball. But, as pitchers struggle to find the plate, batters get used to just kinda standing there. So, in the event of an actual good pitch, lots of kids just choke. Lots of walks, lots of called strikes, lots of strikeouts. So it goes …

Today’s account from Judges 4 is about a military leader who couldn’t swing at a strike. God wins the game, and Barak (ever heard of him?) gets to play on the team, but somebody else gets the glory.

The Book of Judges begins with Israel’s failure to occupy the land. Joshua dies, and the people turn from God. God provides judges who act as both civil and military leaders, but the people return again and again to the gods of their neighbors, so that there is a downward spiral in society: And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD … That’s the refrain that separates the different sections of the book.

Women figure prominently in Judges, both as heroines and as victims. Men are halting and hesitant to obey God. It’s an R-rated book that glorifies God by giving us a realistic picture of what it looks like to mess around with sin and not follow God.

Have a read through Judges 4. When you do, you’ll notice that God disciplines so that Israel is oppressed by her enemies (:1-3). And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD … (:1). In response, God delivers the nation to Jabin, a Canaanite king whose general is Sisera who commands iron chariots. At the end of the Bronze Age when warfare involved punching holes in soft metal, a nice hard, iron chariot would have been the final deterrent, and Sisera has 900 of them. After 20 years of oppression, the Israelites cry out to God.

Deborah judges while Barak chokes (:4-10). Now, we meet Deborah. She’s the first of the heroines in the book and she judges Israel while sitting under a tree in the hilly country of Ephraim. These are primitive times in Israel, but God has a witness, always. God, through Deborah, summons Barak: Has not the God of Israel, commanded you, Deborah tells Barak, Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into you hand? (:6b-7).

Barka hesitates. If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go, he answers Deborah (:8). This might or might not have been fear, but clearly God isn’t enough for Barak. He’s choked, and Deborah agrees to go with him, but announces Barak’s loss of blessing: And she said, ‘I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’ Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh (:9).

God glorifies Himself, and two women act (:11-24). Before giving us the outcome of the battle to follow, we’re given a picture of Heber the Kenite, who has pitched his tent in the vicinity of the battle. Then, Sisera calls out his chariots to Mount Tabor where Barak and Deborah have assembled their army. Sisera camps near the river Kishon. And, Deborah gives the command: Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the LORD go out before you? 

God then delivers Sisera’s army into Barak’s hands. The text is sparse in description, but the song of victory that follows in the next chapter gives us a hint as to the natural means God used: The torrent Kishon swept them away, the ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon (5.21). It seems Sisera had camped near a wadi that suddenly made the chariots about as useful as 900 iron folding chairs.

Sisera escapes on foot and makes his way toward his friend Heber the Kenite. Heber isn’t home, apparently, but his wife is. Unknown to Sisera, Jael the wife is a good Israelite, and when she invites him into her tent and covers him up, he’s secure enough to fall asleep. Bedouine women, I have read, are good with hammers and tent pegs, and Sisera never wakes from his nap. Jael hails Barak who is running by, and Deborah later celebrates Jael in her song: Between her feet he [Sisera] sank, he fell, he lay still; between her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still; where he sank, there he fell—dead (5.27).

The lesson of Barak is that hesitation in obedience results in loss of blessing. 

We all need to take seriously the perils of hesitating to obey God. Failure for the Christian will not result in judgment (this fell on Christ!), but loss of blessing, and the discipline of the Lord.

The writer to the Hebrews, addressing Jewish believers in a season of hesitation, writes: For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12.11).

This is a good word for all of us who have trusted Christ. Sometimes, we feel dry in our faith, distant from others who usually refresh us, discouraged. It might not be, but could it be that we’ve choked. Like Barak, God has asked us to put to death some fleshly pattern or practice, but God wasn’t enough for us. It’s worth thinking about.

Even so, the lessons from Judges 4 aren’t all in the negative. It’s not enough not to sin; it is enough to seek God’s glory! This is because the Christian life isn’t simply a list of rules to obey, but an opportunity to seek God’s glory in any and every situation.

Seeking God’s glory in my obedience magnifies God and blesses me. 

Hitting the ball is the fruit of a good swing of the bat. And, seeing God made big in my circumstances is the fruit of obedience. This blesses me. I am alive with hope and the best of all desires when I see God change my heart and the hearts of other people.

So, how does God desire to bring glory to Himself through your obedience in your situation today? It’s worth thinking about, because God’s glory is the biggest window through which we can view reality. Don’t choke, then; swing the bat. Seek to serve the LORD in obedience today!


Pictures of Faith: Certain Mercy—Joshua 2

Heaven will be home to some unlikely people, and Hebrews 11 records some of them—Barak, Jephthah, Samson. But today, we’re thinking about the most unlikely figure from that list of Old Testament persons who trusted in a Redeemer who was to come.

Rahab not only came from among Israel’s enemies, the Amorites, but she was a professionally immoral person, a harlot. What does it look like when a harlot from among Israel’s enemies is saved by faith?

In the backstory to Joshua 2 Israel has long since been freed from Egyptian bondage. But now, after God’s great feats under Moses and Aaron, the nation has wandered for forty years. Joshua leads Israel, and he’s urging its people to take the land God has promised: … be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD God is with you wherever you do (1.9).

Then, Joshua sends spies. Will the debacle of Numbers 13-14 be repeated from forty years earlier—when only he and Caleb believed the LORD would deliver the land to them? No, this time things will be different, largely through the ministry of an Amorite prostitute named Rehab.

Rahab tells a falsehood (:1-7). After crossing the Jordan, the spies slip into Jericho and mingle in the home of Rahab. This home might have been a brothel—perhaps a loud and seedy place where a stranger could get lost, mind his business (or not!), and gather news. But, somehow, the spies’ cover is blown. Soldiers arrive, and Rahab hides them on her roof and covers for them with some barefaced lies: I didn’t know where they were from … they went out last night … I don’t know where they went (:4-5).

Some have struggled with the way the New Testament rewards Rahab for her deceit. (See Hebrews 11.31 and James 2.35). Important to remember is that God has removed the authority of the Jericho leaders. So, we’re justified  in concluding that they know longer deserve to know the truth. Rahab is changing her allegiances. Her faith “looks” like something. That’s the point James 2 makes. And living out her newborn faith will look like a heart-change toward the one, true, God of Israel.

Rahab falls on God’s mercy (:8-14). Late at night, when the bounty hunters have departed, Rahab visits the spies on the roof of her house. It’s here we see her heart, together with the evidence of God’s mercy and her right response to God’s work. She shares what’s been going on in Jericho, and in her own heart. She cites God’s work in Egypt, the destruction of the Amorite kings Og and Sihon, and gives her new estimation of the God of Israel: … the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on earth beneath (:11b). Then, Rahab falls on God’s mercy: Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign (:12). “Kindly” … that’s the Hebrew word hesed, “unfailing, loyal love based on a covenant relationship”. Rahab is saying, “Show me how to be on the side of the one, true God; I want to be in relationship with Him and you!”

The evidence of God’s mercy in Rahab’s life is a changed heart toward God. That’s what faith looks like in the life of an Amorite prostitute, or anybody for that matter!

Then, Rahab enters into covenant (:15-23). The rest of the passage is about how Rahab helped the spies escape, and about the terms of the deal they make with her. She’s spared their lives; they’ll spare hers in the coming invasion, but she’s got to stay at home and reveal her whereabouts with the scarlet cord they give her. But, here I have a question and an observation. Why is the wall mentioned in verse 15? Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was built into the city wall, so that she lived in the wall. 

We join the original readers of this account in knowing what is going to happen to these walls. They’re all coming down, right? (See Joshua 6). And, we get to puzzle over the irony that Rahab is being told to stay at home on the wall that’s about to fall. I’m not sure how the mechanics of this worked, but we know that Rahab kept the terms of the covenant and was spared. The point here, though, is that there’s only one way out of Jericho, and it’s through God’s mercy!

The picture of Rahab and her family huddled on the wall trusting in the one, true God and flinging herself on God’s mercy because of her changed heart makes an easy intro to talking about the cross of Christ, doesn’t it?

Among many New Testament verses, Romans 14.10b-12 makes it clear where we’re all headed: For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the LORD, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God’. So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. 

We’re not all prostitutes, but we’re all sinners. And, we’re all in need of God’s mercy. For us who live after the coming of Jesus, bowing the knee before we meet God looks like trusting God’s mercy in the work of Christ. The wall of Jericho involved God’s judgment but involved a way out through God’s mercy. God’s judgment on Jesus at the cross is all about God’s mercy, because Jesus took our sins on Himself. We show we “get” this truth by a changed heart toward God, involving trust in Jesus and His work. This looks like a changed heart toward, just like it did for Rahab.

So we say, my right response to God’s mercy is a changed heart toward God. 

The account of Rahab in Joshua has a happy ending. Rahab is not only numbered among the faithful of Hebrews 11, she’s numbered among those who joined Israel (6.22-25). She’s also numbered among the physical ancestors of King David and Jesus Himself! (Matthew 1). Most importantly, she joined the family of God through God’s mercy and by faith.

How about you? Have you ever read this Old Testament account this way? Have you ever seen before how it points toward Jesus and His work? And have you recognized your need for God’s mercy, understood how Jesus took your sins on Himself at the cross and then trusted Christ?

If not, why don’t you trust Him right now? And then, you can say with all God’s people: “the LORD [MY GOD], he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. And, I have received His mercy, in Christ!”

Pictures of Faith: Certain Remembrance—Exodus 2.23-4.17

Have you ever felt forgotten by God? Maybe you were serving with all your might, but the circumstances (the ones we talked about last week, maybe) didn’t line up with your best efforts.

When you (and I) feel forgotten by God, maybe we need to ask a follow-up question: What would it look like for God to remember you? 

In Exodus 2.23-4.17, God remembers Israel by sending the Nation a (reluctant) deliverer. Israel is oppressed in Egypt as slaves. All the good will we see at the end of Genesis has melted away into 400 years of bondage. But then … God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. And God saw the people of Israel—and God knew (2.25, ESV).

God raises up a deliverer in the person of Moses—a burnout figure pasturing his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness. But when God appears to, summons and commissions Moses at the burning bush (3.1-9), it isn’t like Moses is thrilled to be God’s deliverer. Moses has tried the delivering thing before (see Exodus 2), and now he’ll need to get over himself to recognize God’s remembrance. And, it’s here that we see that nothing has changed for us. Moses’ objections to God strike us as remarkably contemporary. We who live after the cross and know Jesus sometimes have the very same objections when we realize that the cross of Christ is all about God remembering us!

Here are Moses’ four objections to God’s remembrance, in the way we’d say them:

Objection #1: “I’m not worthy” (3.11-12). 

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt? (:11). Shepherds were untouchables in Egypt, and now Moses, who used to be in Pharaoh’s court, has identified with the Hebrew people, shepherds. And he probably figures he’s in retirement from the delivering business. How does God respond? But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain (:12).

Do you ever feel unworthy? The self-esteem movement might respond to our sense of unworthiness by telling us that we’re good enough, smart enough and have a right not to be bullied. But what does the New Testament say? We are worthy because Jesus is worthy. For as by the one man’s disobedience [that’s Adam] the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience [that’s Jesus] the many will be made righteous (Romans 5.19).

Through the perfect life and the holy God-satisfying death of Jesus we are made worthy for right relationship with God when we trust in Jesus. God’s answer to Moses anticipates this. I’m worthy, and I’m going to do this for you, God tells Moses. But, you’ll need to respond in faith to see it … God remembers you by giving you His Christ!

Objection #2: “I can’t do this by myself!” (3.13-22). 

If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?; what shall I say to them?” (:13). Moses expects to be asked about the nature of the god who has sent him, and God responds: I AM WHO I AM (:14). God is the one who is always present. Moses won’t be by himself!

Do you ever feel alone? The New Testament reminds us that Jesus, by His very nature, is with His people. Before Abraham was, I AM, Jesus says in John 8.58 (and was killed for saying it). And then in His final words to his disciples: And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28.20) … God remembers you by giving you His Christ!

Objection #3: “I won’t be believed” (4.1-9). Here, God gives Moses three signs involving his staff turned into a serpent and then changed back to a staff (God’s power over nations); Moses’ hand turned leprous and then healed (God’s power to restore broken health); and, Nile water turned to blood (God’s power to judge). Importantly, these are power signs for God’s people, Israel. Moses is afraid he won’t be taken seriously by his own people.

Do you ever worry that you won’t be taken seriously if you bring up the cross of Christ as a serious solution to peoples’ problems? You hear of fellow Christians’ struggles and learn of their work with counselors and psychiatrists and then just feel so silly asking, “So … what does your pain have to do with the Gospel?”

The New Testament assures us that Jesus will make Himself known through you in the hour of your need. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Sprit of your Father speaking through you (Matthew 10.19-20). Jesus is talking about our testimony to His cross! And there we encounter ultimate reality in Christ’s work that is supremely real! … God remembers you by giving you His Christ!

Objection #4: “I don’t know how!” (4.10-17). 

I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue (:10). Moses is not really a local-yokel, but he knows the rhetoric necessary to persuade Pharaoh.

God responds: Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now, therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak? (:11-13).

Do your problems ever seem too complicated for you? The New Testament tells us to go to the cross of Christ. The Apostle Paul got this. In 1 Corinthians 2, pressured by Greeks in love with smooth, Sophist teachers, Paul proclaimed the Gospel of the cross of Christ, crisp and clean: And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (:1-2).

God’s remembrance of Israel looked like His providing a deliverer—Moses, reluctant as he was. God’s remembrance of you and me looks like His providing Christ and His cross—Jesus, willing and able. The problem we each have is that so often we don’t really believe God remembers us by giving us Christ. We’re like Moses, trying our hand at self-deliverance and then being a burnout in the end. We worship on Sunday, but search for worthiness, feel alone, worry about the evaluation of others and don’t know how to solve our problems during the week.

The Good News here is that Christ meets us in every area of our lives and then goes with us as we learn to trust Him.

God remembers you by giving you His Christ!