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."
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.
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.