The God of Small Groups

Typically, these blog entries have been very personal, or were supposed to be, and a lot of it was first-person. Since I’m using the ones from Judges as articles in a guide to study Judges, I’ve been rewriting them, removing the first-person references. Rather than re-write this next batch on Judges 7, I’m writing them as I would for the book, but still putting them out through this blog site. Just FYI.

It’s an often use cliche about God, that He works in mysterious ways, whatever is meant by that. Still, we see that Jesus seems to never use the same process to heal someone in the Gospels. And, in the Hebrew Scriptures, Yahweh seems to work with different people differently. He rejects Saul when he sins, and forgives David when he sins. So, it shouldn’t surprise us when we read Yahweh working differently with Gideon than He does with other Judges.

Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him, rose early and camped beside the spring of Harod; and the camp of Midian was on the north side of them by the hill of Moreh in the valley. The LORD said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’ Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead.'” So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000 remained. (Judges 7:1-3 NASB)

Just prior to this in the Book of Judges, Deborah and Barak face down 900 chariots of iron with 10,000 men of Naphtali and Zebulun. So, why is 32,000 men, from basically the same tribes, too many men to face down more desert nomadic raiders than anyone can count? That’s really different. At least he has 10k men now, but even so, losing 22,000 men is okay with Gideon. So far, the tests of an offering and two fleeces seems to have given him faith to use 10,000 versus too-many-to-count camel-riding raiders. But Yahweh’s not done.

Then the LORD said to Gideon, “The people are still too many; bring them down to the water and I will test them for you there. Therefore it shall be that he of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go with you; but everyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water. And the LORD said to Gideon, “You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue as a dog laps, as well as everyone who kneels to drink.” Now the number of those who lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, was 300 men; but all the rest of the people kneeled to drink water. The LORD said to Gideon, “I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home.” So the 300 men took the people’s provisions and their trumpets into their hands. And Gideon sent all the other men of Israel, each to his tent, but retained the 300 men; and the camp of Midian was below him in the valley. (Judges 7:4-8 NASB)

Even though 10,000 men worked last time, now, with vast numbers of foes, it’s too many. Now 300 is the right number. Keep in mind this happens long before the king of Sparta faces down the entire Persian army at Thermopylae. Even there, he probably had more total people than 300. Here, that’s all Gideon gets to face the camp of Midian. So, how are those three tests bolstering his faith now? And what is Yahweh doing anyway?

Look at the explanation Yahweh gives Gideon as He reduces his force. Yahweh claims that Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’ Or, more likely, give praise to Baal, the regional god they worship. Remember from the previous chapter, they still worship Baal, they’ve not repented. They’re watching Gideon to see if Baal “smites” him. The sons of Israel around Gideon, the other tribes and clans, they weren’t a part of his “rebellion” in tearing down the altar, Asherah pole, building a new altar to Yahweh, and offering a bull on it.

So, whether they claim the victory for themselves, or give praise to Baal, the battle would have been less of a divine victory for Yahweh. But now, it’s impossible to see it any other way. Why is this so important for Yahweh when His people seem so disinterested in Him? They cry out to Him for help, but not in repentance. They seem confused when He reminds them of His “exclusivity of worship” clause in their covenant. The prophet He sends has no impact, even Gideon is sarcastic with Him when He shows up in person to enlist him. Gideon even blames their problems on Yahweh, all the while Gideon has an altar to Baal in his dad’s front yard. What is Yahweh’s fascination with this collection of ignorant boneheads?

Because of grace. That often-touted quality of Jesus, Christians mistakenly believe was invented by Paul, is the eternal quality of Yahweh described here. These ignorant boneheads are the same as the ignorant boneheaded Christians running around in Paul’s churches, and in ours today. The cultures are different, the belief systems are different, even the covenant defining the relationship has changed. But the Person to whom we relate is the same!

Jesus chooses fishermen, Israeli terrorists, Israeli collaborators, and others to change the world. Here, Yahweh chooses 300 confused ignorant descendants of Abraham to challenge an army no one can count. Both tasks demonstrate the power of Yahweh, not those chosen. Both tasks are impossible, yet get done. Both tasks are miracles, and yet who marks them as such? Who speaks of them as the wonders they are?

Why, even with all this overwhelming evidence of the power of small groups, are we fascinated by large numbers? Why do we believe some things are only possible in larger churches, more people, greater resources? What better “resource” is there than the One forming stars, and tracing quarks? Who is more impressive than the One walking on water, calming the storm, and defeating unnumbered foes with 300 confused men?

In John 6, Jesus basically runs off a multitude of over 5,000 people. He then turns to his disciples and asks them if they intend to leave as well. Confused as they were, Peter says for them all, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life?” (John 6:67-68 NASB). From 5,000 plus a bunch of disciples, down to twelve, and He’s willing to go even further down. Yet, we can’t imagine a vibrant church ministry without 300 regular attendees, at least.

That doesn’t describe every church, every pastor, nor every church attendee. It describes an attitude way too common among churches of various denominations. It’s not that large numbers are wrong. Over 6,000 were baptized at Pentecost. This is about an attitude that judges differently than our Savior does, that measures success in the Kingdom of Jesus on larger numbers. It’s an attitude that measures ourselves by ourselves, and pits us against each other.

So, if our Savior calls a group of 300, awesome, get them together and run. But if, in His call, He only provides 5, don’t delay. Don’t wait for the other 295 to show up someday. Run anyway, obey in spite of the small number. Be faithful even though there’s too few to do so much, face down so many, or even surround the given territory. Remember, it’s not about us, or you, or your “crew”. It’s about Jesus. And He can do anything with nothing. Or with five.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation