THE SMALL START OF BIG THINGS
The prophet spoke under God’s authority and said, “Do not despise this small beginning, for the eyes of the Lord rejoice to see the work begin …” (Zechariah 4:10, TLB) In the American mind almost everything has to have a major grand opening with the media called in to help. The ribbon has to be cut with officials present if possible. It seems we must do it in the biggest way possible, a big splash.
We think, even in Christian witness, that it is required to have a grand send-off and a dedication ceremony on the largest stage possible. The words of the prophet are not today believed by most of us, and even the words of Jesus about the “two or three” (Matthew 18:20?) do not seem to matter to us. We think it has to start big!
When the story is told of the 1904-05 Welch Revival, it is hardly mentioned that it started on Monday night with Evan Roberts and an almost insignificant gathering of eighteen at Moriah Chapel; in the schoolroom next door and just a few young people—the trickle produced a mighty river surging! The Lord rejoices to see His work started with a “small beginning.”
Maybe the most breathtaking example is with God’s dealings with Gideon with his thirty-two thousand strong army and then to think how many men the Midianites had prepared to go to war against them, and then to be told, “… The people that are with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands” (Judges 7:2). Before Gideon could express his shock with his mouth wide open, God revealed His reason why, “… lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand has saved me.”
God says, they will boast that they saved themselves by their strategy and strength. Paul admitted, “This so-called ‘foolish’ plan of God is far wiser than the wisest plan of the wisest man …” (I Corinthians 1:25, TLB) He goes on to explain, “… God has deliberately chosen to use ideas the world considers foolish and of little worth in order to shame those people considered by the world as wise and great.” (verse 27), and His grand purpose is “so that no one anywhere can ever brag in the presence of God.” (verse 29) The words “Do not despise small beginnings” have special meaning.
So, those men with Gideon were divided into three distinct groups. With mastery of alliteration the British pastor Dr. Graham Scroggie divided them this way: those that dreaded, those that delayed, and those that dared. Vance Havner, with the same skill divided them this way: the coward, the careless, and the courageous. There is no doubt today’s church would be divided much in the same proportion.
God knew the situation and He sent home twenty-two thousand! They were the ones filled with fear and lacking in courage. They would have been worthless in the heat of battle, for fear is the beginning of defeat. When a love for the honor of God is very weak, a fear of the things of this world will be very great.
The others were identified as people controlled by selfish desire. They went down on all fours in the stream, burying their heads in the cool stream to drink. That is what mattered most to them, they were totally controlled by satisfying the immediate, not the ultimate. With heads down, they put themselves at the mercy of the enemy and disqualified themselves for God’s army as a result. Because they were consumed with satisfying their own desire, they let down their guard.
The New Testament used a word we are really not familiar with. Paul said, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15). The word is not hard to analyze: “cir”—all around, “spectly”—notice; “all around you constantly” is the simple explanation. They lacked that quality and character, so God sent them home. They were disqualified. It was for a lack of vigilance that another ninety-seven hundred more were eliminated.
Gideon looked up and had only three hundred left! They were distinguished for never looking down but drinking with their hands cupped to their lips. We focus on them because while they were thirsty, thirst did not control them. Water was an incidental issue; there was an enemy to be defeated. They were committed, which made them competent—it was rare then, and it is now!
These are the three attitudes we see today of which we, all of us, need to be aware constantly; judging ourselves. But talk to the typical Christian about the battle we fight and the enemy we face, and he will laugh it off and water it down. The standards of God seem to be too extreme and radical. We seem to have forgotten ours is a secular society constantly denying God, people controlled by materialistic ideas. And more, to say nothing about the powers of darkness. “… we wrestle not against flesh and blood,” Paul told the people of Ephesus, for we are “fighting against … evil rulers of the unseen world, those mighty satanic beings and great evil princes of darkness who rule this world; and against huge numbers of wicked spirits in the spirit world. (Ephesians 6:12, TLB) Such language, while Biblical language, seems too extreme for us, I fear.
The attitude is, “No, we are not really winning the battle against secularism, but we are making a reasonable and a satisfactory stand.” The cowardly and the complacent Christian does not see the world today as a deadly menace. Most feel there is no serious threat, so it is too strong a word to say that we need desperately a fresh baptism of fire and awakening by the Holy Spirit. The typical follower of Christ does not sense a great lack toward “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
There is astounding modernity in this story and there is no denial of it. Fact is, these truths leap off the pages of the Old Testament and confront us now. We admit a gap widened between profession of faith and the practice of it. Think of the painful reduction and the pathetic number of their only 300 left with Gideon. They walk away and head home. They are not “more than conquerors.” They are not men of heroic qualities. All this is of immense relevance today; many of us would be classified by God as the puny people of God not fit to confront the enemy. God chooses quality over quantity, 300 over 3,000 or 30,000! He does not despise this reduction of numbers, “… this small beginning …” Less can be more, and little can be much—that’s the way God thinks! “… with you are too many”!
I cannot help but say all this is of immense importance in the difficult and oftentimes discouraging days. We must get this vividly clear in our minds and to realize what is being taught to us.
Could we say of these 300 that they “endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27)? At that moment, victory was a long way from a reality, but they saw it—the invisible! So here is the question before us and worth a serious pondering. In our calling as Christians and if we think of them as heroes of the faith, is there something we can learn from these 300 whose lives are an inspiration to us? But also a challenge and even a deserving rebuke. These are the shining souls who are triumphant because they were courageous, and they are courageous because they, the few, see the invisible as a coming reality.
We might think—only 300, and logically they should have looked around and said, “If they are going home, so should we!” But instead they dared—“We will go on with Gideon!” Do we dare? Call them fools if you will. Paul talked about that very thing. Doing things for God that seem, humanly speaking, foolish and impossible, “fools for Christ’s sake” (I Corinthians 4:10).
Seemingly “foolish” action, like four men tearing tile off the roof to place their paralyzed friend before Christ when they found the doorway blocked. Or Zacchaeus offering to give away so much of his accumulated wealth when he found Christ. Or Bonhoeffer standing up to Hitler and brought to the gallows to be hanged at daybreak. Or men like C. T. Studd or William Borden walking away from family fortune to tread the path of uncertainty to follow Jesus. Foolish?
Let’s admit it, “fools for Christ’s sake” doing the preposterous and the daring things that bring victory for Jesus! And yet, take heed that you do not despise the small 300 of Gideon’s band and others we could mention, for such as these make up the kingdom of heaven. James Stewart of Edinburgh points out those God uses are not “the cool, calculating, dispassionate spirit whose only watch word is security.”
Do you not think how God thinned them out to show us all something? He would rather have a dedicated minority of the committed. Call them, if you choose, the faithful few as opposed to the cowardly crowd, or the motley mob. Do we “despise the day of small things”?
Now we further reduce them into two distinct groups and we ask, “Which one am I in: the expendables or the dependables?”
Conventional Christianity is little more than the membership of mediocracy. That is those who are tedious and dull, nothing like what was required of Gideon’s 300. They were on the path of high adventure. In them we see the gallantry of the godly. And so we see the truth—it was impossible to fight Midian with only 300. Yes, we admit indisputably—impossible, but is not this the very standard Jesus describes to the twelve? “A greater work than I do, you shall do.” (John 14:12) Also, does not Christ make real to us the doing of the impossible by the minority? Is this not the speciality of God?
Over fifty years ago I encountered T. S. Eliot’s writing called Murder in the Cathedral, and it concludes with these final words:
“Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man, Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire; Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required …”
So we commonly think, “To win, it must be a massive army,” and in doing so, we thwart God’s purpose as we “sit by the fire,” doubting and waiting until we have enough. We fear we need more while God says we need less of the kind we have. With this kind of thinking, as T. S. Eliot said, “We acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man,” the kind Gideon sent home and who missed the blessing of God.
Will somebody not see that we can end up ashamed, wretched, and miserable because we “despise the day of small things”? — Do not doubt, just because we are believers, that this kind of thing does not mean we are immune to the danger of being disqualified to serve in Gideon’s band. Zechariah tells us God rejoices to see the three hundred. “… the eyes of the Lord rejoice to see the work begin …” It’s been said before, let it be repeated, “Little is much if God is in it!”