Do You Require Signs?

| Romans 12:1-2

Lesson Focus: This lesson explores the dangers of asking God for signs and explains a better way of discerning God’s will.

Fleeces Then and Now: Judges 6:14-16, 36-40.

[14]  And the LORD turned to him and said, "Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?" [15]  And he said to him, "Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house."

[16]  And the LORD said to him, "But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man."  [36]  Then Gideon said to God, "If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said,

[37]  behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said." [38]  And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. [39]  Then Gideon said to God, "Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew." [40]  And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. [ESV]

[14-16]  Gideon’s specific charge is to deliver Israel from the grasp of Midian. The commissioning formula, do not I send you?, presents Gideon with all the authority he will need for the task. This fearful and cynical farmer is hereby informed that God has indeed heard the people’s cry of pain, and he has personally chosen him to solve the problem. As in verse 13, Gideon’s response to the Lord’s message is to question the wisdom of the command: please, Lord, how can I save Israel? He obviously does not yet recognize the person who has addressed him. Like Moses in an earlier era, Gideon expresses his sense of incompetence and inadequacy, particularly his lack of social standing in Israel. He complains of two weaknesses in particular: my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house. Gideon does not realize that in the Lord’s work it does not matter what one’s social position is; the authorization of the Lord is all he needs. Having no experience with the divine presence, he cannot imagine beyond his own human resources or lack thereof. In response to Gideon’s objection, Yahweh offers two words of encouragement. First, playing on Exodus 3:12-14, He promises His presence in the undertaking. As in the case of Moses, the fearful Gideon is to be transformed into the deliverer of his people by the powerful presence of God. This utterance provides the clue to Gideon’s actions later when he finally goes on the offensive against the Midianites. Second, the Lord predicts an easy victory: Gideon will smite Midian as if he were engaging a single person.

[36-40]  These verses catch the reader totally by surprise. Even though Gideon has been empowered by Yahweh and is surrounded by a vast army of troops, he hesitates. He continues to test God with demands for signs, this time specifically for assurance that God will indeed use him to provide deliverance for the nation, as you have said. This expression which occurs twice [36,37], is the key to this text. Contrary to popular interpretation, this text has nothing to do with discovering or determining the will of God, the divine will is perfectly clear in his mind [16]. Gideon’s problem is that with his limited experience with God he cannot believe that God always fulfills His word. The request for signs is not a sign of faith but of unbelief. Despite being clear about the will of God, being empowered by the Spirit of God, and being confirmed as a divinely chosen leader by the overwhelming response of his countrymen to his own summons to battle, he uses every means available to try to get out of the mission to which he has been called. The remarkable fact is that God responds to his tests. He is more anxious to deliver Israel than to quibble with this man’s semipagan notions of deity. Gideon does not confess his motives at the beginning, but in the end he admits that he has been testing [39] the Lord, which places this event in the same category as Israel’s testing of Yahweh at Rephidim [Exodus 17:2,7]. Gideon’s test of Yahweh occurs in two stages, first, he proposes to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor overnight. If the fleece is wet with dew in the morning but the ground around it is dry, then he will know (and presumably accept) that Yahweh will fulfill His promise to deliver Israel through him. That is precisely what happened. In fact, God’s demonstration of the veracity of His word exceeds normal expectations. In the morning the fleece is so wet Gideon is able to wring a bowl of water from it. Unlike Yahweh, Gideon is not true to his word. Gideon’s refusal to believe and/or accept the divine word and the divine sign leaves the reader suspicious that Gideon is trying to get out of his assignment. In any case, although he initiates his new demand apologetically, this should not blind the reader to the manner in which Gideon is trying to manipulate God. As we have witnessed so often before, the remarkable fact is that Yahweh lets Himself be manipulated. Despite the nation’s spiritual disaffection, he is obviously more interested in preserving His people than they are in preserving themselves.

Warnings About Signs: Matthew 16:1-4.

[1]  And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. [2]  He answered them, "When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ [3]  And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. [4]  An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah." So he left them and departed. [ESV]

[1-4]  The opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus continues. On this occasion they are joined by the Sadducees. This is part of the way Matthew brings out the growth of hostility on the part of those opposed to Jesus. We should not miss the point that Jesus has only just returned to Galilee from Gentile territory and that this opposition leads Him to go away from Galilee again [5]. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the principal religious and political parties among the Jews and together they represent official Judaism in its entirety. They were far from friendly with one another, and it is a measure of their hostility to Jesus that they combined on this occasion in an endeavor to discredit Him. They had little in common, but it could be said that they both stood for the old ways as against Jesus, whom they saw as a dangerous innovator. They apparently reasoned that it was better to combine to discredit Him; that done, they could resume their normal opposition to each other with which they were familiar and which represented the old paths. The two groups came to test him, where the verb mostly has a bad meaning, testing with a view to failure. It signifies that they were not sincere in their seeking a sign. They evidently thought that Jesus could not produce it, and their intention was not so much actually to see a sign as to show people that Jesus could not produce one. In the Synoptic Gospels sign is mostly used in the sense of wonderfully impressive miracles accrediting the person who performed them. Jesus was asked for such a sign on a number of occasions, but He consistently refused to give it. The demand for a sign from heaven means that they want a miracle with divine significance, a miracle that will show beyond all contradiction that God is with Him. They demand that Jesus accredit Himself by performing some spectacular marvel. It might reasonably be argued that Jesus’ miracles of healing were signs from heaven, but that was not the way His enemies saw them. They wanted something spectacular, not healings that others also claimed to do. Jesus answers them by referring to their ability to predict the weather based on signs in the sky. He compliments them on this ability but links that with their inability to discern the great events that were taking place in their midst. In the person of Jesus God was visiting His people, but the Pharisees and Sadducees were quite unable to perceive what was happening right there where they were. You cannot points to complete disability. They were quite imperceptive, totally lacking in spiritual discernment. The proof that they cannot discern the signs of the times is that they come to Jesus asking for a sign when the sign from heaven is right in front of them. A generation here signifies the people alive at that time. He castigates it as evil, for it has turned away from goodness and right. It is also adulterous, for it is false to its vows; it professed to be the people of God but walked in the ways of evil. The people earnestly seek for a sign but the only sign that they will receive is the sign of Jonah. At this point Jesus says no more, but in 12:38-40 He makes it clear that the sign of Jonah was that prophet’s reappearance after being in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights. The resurrection of Jesus would be a sign comparable with this.

Keys to Discerning God’s Will: Romans 12:1-2.

[1]  I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. [2]  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [ESV]

One of the notable features of Paul’s teaching is that he regularly combines doctrine with duty, belief with behavior. He insists both on the practical implications of his theology and on the theological foundations of his ethic. The people Paul is about to exhort he calls brothers. All believers, irrespective of their ethnic origin, are brothers and sisters in the same international family of God, and so all have precisely the same vocation to be the holy, committed, humble, loving and conscientious people of God. The ground of Paul’s appeal is indicated by his use of the conjunction therefore and by his reference to God’s mercy, literally His mercies in the plural, a Hebraism for the many and varied manifestations of His mercy. For eleven chapters Paul has been unfolding the mercies of God. It is, then, by the mercies of God that Paul issues his ethical appeal. There is no greater incentive to holy living than a contemplation of the mercies of God. God’s grace, far from encouraging or condoning sin, is the spring and foundation of righteous conduct. Having considered the objects and the ground of Paul’s appeal, we note its double nature. It concerns both our bodies and our minds, the presentation of our bodies to God and our transformation by the renewal of our minds. In order to maintain the sacrificial imagery throughout the sentence, Paul uses five more and less technical terms. He represents us as a priestly people, who, in responsive gratitude for God’s mercy, offer or present our bodies as living sacrifices. What, however, is this living sacrifice, this rational, spiritual worship? It is not to be offered in the temple courts or in the church building, but rather in home life and in the marketplace. It is the presentation of our bodies to God. Paul is clear that the presentation of our bodies is our spiritual act of worship. No worship is pleasing to God which is purely inward, abstract and mystical; it must express itself in concrete acts of service performed by our bodies. Similarly, authentic Christian discipleship will include both the negative ‘mortification’ of our body’s misdeeds [8:13] and the positive ‘presentation’ of its members to God. Christian sanctity shows itself in the deeds of the body. So we are to offer the different parts of our bodies not to sin as ‘instruments of wickedness’ but to God as ‘instruments of righteousness’ [6:13,16,19].

The second part of Paul’s appeal relates to our transformation according to His will. We are not to be conformed to the prevailing culture, but to be transformed. Both verbs are present passive imperatives and denote the continuing attitudes which we are to retain. We must "go on" refusing to conform to the world’s ways and "go on" letting ourselves be transformed according to God’s will. As for the change which takes place in the people of God, which is envisaged in Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18, it is a fundamental transformation of character and conduct, away from the standards of the world and into the image of Christ Himself. These two value systems (this world and God’s will) are incompatible, even in direct collision with one another. The two sets of standards diverge so completely that there is no possibility of compromise. How then does the transformation take place? By the renewal of your mind. This is because only a renewed mind can test and approve, that is, discern, appreciate and determine to obey, God’s will. Although Paul does not here tell us how our mind becomes renewed, we know from his other writings that it is by a combination of the Spirit and the Word of God. Certainly regeneration by the Holy Spirit involves the renewal of every part of our humanness, which has been tainted and twisted by the fall, and this includes our mind [1 Cor. 2:14-15; 2 Cor. 5:17]. But in addition, we need the Word of God, which is the Spirit’s sword, and which acts as an objective revelation of God’s will.

Here then are the stages of Christian moral transformation: first our mind is renewed by the Word and Spirit of God; then we are able to discern and desire the will of God; and then we are increasingly transformed by it. To sum up, Paul’s appeal is addressed to the people of God, grounded on the mercies of God, and concerned with the will of God. Only a vision of His mercy will inspire us to present our bodies to Him and allow Him to transform us according to His will.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Describe Gideon. Why does he keep testing God? Why is the phrase, as you have said, the key to the text? What can we learn from this passage concerning asking God for guidance and direction?

2.         Why did Jesus refuse to give a sign to the Pharisees and Sadducees? What was their problem? What do we learn from this passage about asking God for a sign? (Note that the problem here was lack of spiritual perception. When asking God for guidance we need to also pray that He will open our spiritual eyes so that we may perceive and understand what He is telling us).

3.         What are the two keys to discerning God’s will in Romans 12:1-2? What does Paul mean by the renewal of your mind? Why is this necessary before we can discern God’s will? What can you do this week in order to grow in the renewal of your mind?


Judges, Ruth, Daniel Block, NAC, Broadman.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, John Stott, Intervarsity.