There is a tendency for church members to think that if only we had more numbers we could really achieve something for God’s kingdom. This sentiment is so strong that members will engage in political and social activities with Christians from various churches in the belief that it is okay to trade off unity in the truth for unity of purpose in the mistaken belief that the greater the numbers the greater the chance of success. But Scripture shows a different way. It is the way of faithfulness and reliance on God, who is so mighty that He does not need numbers to achieve His purpose.
Remember how, when Joshua sends out spies to check out the lie of the land and determine how best to attack the Canaanites across the river Jordan, he discovers that the LORD is a big step ahead of him. Joshua sends scouts to provide him with strategic information for the battles ahead, but from their report he discovers that the LORD has already worked defeat in the hearts of the Canaanites. This the spies had heard from Rahab the harlot who tells them:
“I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh 2:9-11)
The spies report to Joshua: “Truly the LORD has delivered all the land into our hands, for indeed all the inhabitants of the country are fainthearted because of us” (Josh 2:24). What an encouragement! When Joshua hears this, he doesn’t hesitate. Early next morning he and all Israel immediately head for the Jordan. There’s no mention of the spies reporting the strategic military purpose for which they were sent out. No report about the lie of the land, the possible obstacles, the strength of the enemy, the impenetrable three-metre thick walls of Jericho. No ‘what if this, or that’; no such human considerations. They discover that the LORD has already been ahead of them, for the battle is the Lord’s and it is simply for Israel to head down to the overflowing banks of the Jordan River and follow the LORD’s directions.
We hear something similar when Gideon is to attack the Midianites and Amalekites who were “as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the seashore in number” (Judges 7:12). Gideon managed to gather an army, but the Lord tells him to send the men away lest, when the Lord gives Israel the victory, Israel claims it is through their own power. Left with just 300 men, and scared, Joshua is told that if he is afraid he should go into the Midianite camp and listen. So with his servant he sneaks up to an outpost and hears a Midianite soldier telling of a dream in which he saw a loaf of barley bread tumble into the camp, strike a tent and flatten it. His companion says, “This is nothing else but the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel! Into his hand God has delivered Midian and the whole camp” (vs 14).
As with the land of Canaan in Joshua’s day, so too here the LORD has gone ahead and put fear into the hearts of the enemy. God troubles the Midianites with a dream. He has already conquered the Midianites before Gideon even begins. Gideon doesn’t need to fight; just to mop up after the Lord has caused the enemy to destroy itself.
Prof. B Holwerda says the Lord fights for us in the same way today. We think in the church so often that we need to make sure that in evangelism, politics, etc., we have plenty of helpers, otherwise it won’t bear results. But the Lord does not need us, let alone those who don’t want to serve Him in truth.[i]
In a sermon on Joshua 2, [ii] Holwerda says it’s in our flesh and blood to find support in numbers rather than trusting in the Lord. But supposing the numbers diminish drastically, and we are left with a small number, a minority, would you then say, like Luther: Here I stand; I can do no other; God help me—even if I am the only one left? If we don’t cling to the fact that we must always be in the minority—because the battle is the Lord’s, and at stake is God’s honour—we have lost the battle before it’s begun, and we won’t be able to withstand the powerful allurement of the big numbers.
We’ve seen how this developed in The Netherlands after the Church Liberation of 1944. With small numbers the RCN(GKv) started their ‘own’ political party, their own church schools, their own newspaper and social organisations. But eventually they could not withstand the lure of greater numbers, and where are they now? Their political party joined and was swallowed up with other parties, the church schools compromised their unique church-school status and were opened to ‘outside’ students and teachers and association members, their newspaper broadened its base by hiring outside editors and is no longer reformed.
And in other religious bodies we see the same focus on numbers. Churches with widely different interpretations of Scripture join forces for evangelism. Holwerda calls it the sickness of our time. People want to fight Christ’s battle, but in order to form a powerful front together they do not take seriously the idolatry and denial of Christ in participating churches. It’s smothered by lots of talk about love. But understand well that the big numbers brought together this way are not qualified for the battle of the Lord. The Lord will turn against them, says Holwerda, because even though they speak of our ‘unique common faith’ and that we’re all serving the ‘same God’ they in fact deny Christ and engage in idolatry.
Holwerda asks: how is it that Christians lose the plot and so easily trust in great numbers? Is it not, he answers, because we see the battle too much as our battle, as a battle where human strength and relationships and weapons play a decisive role? But the battle is the Lord’s; the Bible stresses that the battle is between the Lord and the idols, between the Lord and false religion. Whilst on both sides people play a role, the real parties in the battle are the Lord and his great enemy, the devil.
Of course, we are caught up in that battle, a battle for the honour of His name. And the Spirit may seize us, as He did Gideon, for His purpose. But as Joshua and Gideon both learned: the Lord was streets ahead, and had already obtained the victory. He had sowed panic in Canaan and in the Midianite camp.
When our Lord Jesus Christ was born in a lowly stable the Roman Empire was at the height of its power and glory, ruling the world. Mary sings a song. In the spirit she sees the Roman empire tottering, even though the eyes don’t see it yet. But she knows that the Lord goes ahead. The prophetic vision of Daniel is worked out through history: while one kingdom after the other comes and goes, the Lord is establishing His eternal kingdom—the Rock that smashes and pulverises the kingdoms of the world.
Some 60 years ago a small group of Free Reformed immigrants in Armadale, Western Australia (and the story is mirrored elsewhere), saw the need for reformed education for their children. Was it the right time to begin? Did they have sufficient numbers? Should they wait for more immigrants to arrive? Did they have the resources? Could they get the teachers? Would they face opposition? Lots of unknowns. But they simply went ahead, with feeble efforts, trusting in the Lord. And this trust was not misplaced. The fruits of their labours were blessed beyond their wildest dreams.
Holwerda points to Pentecost, where the Spirit called us to His battle. The enemy today is extremely powerful, and the church is very small and weak. But don’t look to the numerical strength of our numbers in promoting His kingdom. Just be faithful and trust Him. Scripture says: it is His battle which He will fight through His power and to His honour and in His way; He alone goes ahead, does the work and engages in the battle. We are called to go in and reap the fruits of His victory. Perhaps you already see in the enemy camp traces of dissolution, perhaps not. No matter; the Lord is already busy, and His Spirit will deal with His enemies. He has fought the battle and gained the victory. And who of us will not follow Him now when He blows the trumpet?
[i] B Holwerda, Seminarie Dictaat, Jozua en Richteren, vdBerg, Kampen, 1971, p. 141
[ii] B Holwerda, Een Levende Hoop (A living Hope – collection of sermons), Boersma, Enschede, 1953-5.