Many of you know Gideon from the name that is on the cover of your hotel bible, as well as the organization that put it there.
I suspect that fewer of you know, however, that the Gideon on the inside of your bible is actually much more interesting than the one on the cover. And more tragic.
Because tucked away in the early stages of Gideon’s story is this simple command from God in Judges 7:2: 2 The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Got that? “Don’t boast, Gideon, don’t take credit for victories that belong to me.”
Yet a short time later, the people of Israel tell Gideon this: The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” Note that: You have saved us from Midian. Actually, he didn’t. God did. And yet presented with an opportunity to correct his people, Gideon abstains.
And in that absention he steals credit from God. That theft begins a downward trend, compromise by compromise, in which Gideon takes more and more of what does not belong to him. By the end of Judges 8, he has stolen credit, stolen women, stolen plunder, and, worst of all, stolen glory from God as his ephod — priestly garment — becomes an object of idolatry for the children of Israel.
Here’s his epitaph in 8:35:
33 No sooner had Gideon died than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals. They set up Baal-Berith as their god 34 and did not remember the Lord their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side. 35 They also failed to show any loyalty to the family of Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) in spite of all the good things he had done for them.
Do you see what he has lost in the progression through Judges 8? He’s lost his honor, his reputation, his legacy—everything that has been important to him. The people at first wanted to make Gideon their king, but by the end of his story they are spitting on his grave! Gideon’s progressive thefts lead to an aggressive loss. Here’s the bottom line we can take away from the ignominious second half of Gideon’s story: When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does.
Gideon took credit for victory, plunder from the enemy, and glory from God—none of which belonged to him—and in return he lost respect integrity, and legacy. He was so concerned with keeping up his appearances that he completely lost face! The more he posed, the deeper he lost. When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does.
How true this is. If we stop and think about it, we realize that we know the truth of this all too well. I’ve known people who have taken romantic partners that did not belong to them in acts of adultery. And in the aftermath of taking that, they lost what did belong to them: spouse, kids, home, church, reputation. Some have taken money or possessions that did not belong to them, and they have ended up losing their freedom as a result. Others have even taken safety from people on the road, and what they’ve lost is the ability to drive legally. If you do this kind of thing often enough at work or in school, you’ll lose friends, you’ll lose respect, you’ll lose opportunity, and you may even lose that job.
You know where this is so applicable? With truth itself. The whole phenomenon of idolatry at the end of Gideon’s story brings it home. One way to understand idolatry is to say that it’s exchanging the truth of God for a lie. It’s worshipping a golden priestly garment instead of the living God. It’s worshiping any false god instead of the true God.
It’s possible to steal truth, to replace it with a falsehood in your mind or in the minds of others, or even to rob people of the very idea of truth so that they don’t have anything concrete to hang onto. In the relatively recent history of the church, people have taken bits and piece of the truth and quietly stolen it, bit by bit, from Scripture and from the Church. Deep truths—like the virgin birth of Jesus, the reality of heaven and hell, and the literal return of Jesus in glory—have been robbed of their power because we have tended to substitute lesser things for them, claiming that they’re mere metaphors or ancient ideas that need to be modernized.
Teachers and writers, even pastors and theologians through the years have exchanged these truths for falsehoods and in the process have stolen what did not belong to them. The truth does not belong to us. Embodied in Scripture and the creeds, the truth is on loan to us. We are to hold it like a borrowed Stradivarius violin. “You be careful with this!” God is saying. “This is the faith passed once for all to the saints!” When we steal bits and pieces from this precious tapestry that’s never been ours to begin with, the result is that we lose the church itself. We lose our own way, and become just another social enterprise. When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does.
The truth is on loan to us.
This is why I try never to use the phrase “my church” referring to the place where I serve as pastor. I never say that, or at least I try very hard to avoid saying that, because it’s not my church. The church belongs to Jesus Christ. I hope never to take what isn’t mine because I don’t want to lose what does belong to me. Confession time: it bothers me even when I hear other pastors mention the phrase “my church.” The church I serve, any leadership position in the kingdom, is here on loan and I know how seriously God tasks us with faithful stewardship of these roles. And I know my heart and how deceitful it is, how much like Gideon I value appearances. So I know my own need for diligence. When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does.
The preceding was an excerpt from the forthcoming Crash Test Dummies: Surprising Lessons From The Book Of Judges, published by Abingdon Press & schedule to drop on September 19. You can pre-order here.