The Sweet 16 Victories of Faith
March Madness has nothing on the Bible when it comes to underdogs
For only the second time in college basketball history, one of the bottom dwellers of the annual NCAA tournament beat one of the top teams in the country on March 17. Fairleigh Dickinson University, a small school in New Jersey that got into the tournament on a technicality, beat No. 1 seed Purdue University by a score of 63-58.
It’s the kind of sports moment that has motivated underdogs for generations. The best of them are memorialized with catchy terms like the “miracle on ice” in hockey, the “immaculate reception” in football, or the “team of destiny” and “perfect game” in March Madness. All of them have one thing in common — faith. The coaches believe in their players, the players believe in themselves, and the fans believe in their teams.
It’s the same type of faith you see in the longshot scenarios in the Bible. God’s people scored amazing victories, accomplished great feats and beat the odds when they trusted in Him. With that in mind and in the spirit of this week’s Sweet 16 stage of the NCAA tournament, below are 16 sweet victories of faith from the Bible:
Gideon’s 300 soldiers rout Midian (Judges 7:1-8:27). When Israel went to battle against Midian, God whittled the fighting force under Gideon to 300 so they would attribute the victory to God. They surrounded the Midianite camp, blew trumpets, smashed pitchers and shouted. The ruckus confused the Midianites. Israel pursued them and killed about 150,000 swordsman. (Note: This underdog victory barely made the cut for the Sweet 16 because of what happened next: Gideon made an ephod from the gold of the Midianites and led Israel into idolatry.)
Joseph rises to power in Egypt (Genesis 39:1-41:45). You can’t get much more underdog than Joseph, the slave who became Pharoah’s second in command, but that status didn’t come easily. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. The wife of the Egyptian officer Potiphar lied and had Joseph thrown into prison after a failed attempt at seducing him. And the chief cupbearer forgot about Joseph for a while after he returned to his place of prominence in Pharoah’s house. Joseph’s faith stayed strong through it all as he watched God turn evil deeds into something great.
Jesus heals those with great faith (Matthew 8:5-13, Mark 5:25-34, Matthew 15:21-28). On three occasions during His ministry, Jesus came across people who demonstrated great faith in His ability to heal them or people they knew. All were underdogs in the sense that they didn’t have ready access to the Messiah. A centurion trusted Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant with just a word; a Syrophoenician woman stopped a 12-year hemorrhage by touching Jesus’ garment; and a persistent Canaanite woman convinced Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter even though He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Kings of Judah defeat their enemies (II Chronicles 14:9-15, 20:1-30, II Kings 18:28-19:37). This slot in the Sweet 16 goes to a “team” of kings who ruled over nonconsecutive generations of Judah. All three turned to God to prevail in battle:
1) During Asa’s reign, Judah routed Zerah the Ethiopian, with his 1 million men and 300 chariots. 2) After Jehoshaphat prayed for help in resisting the sons of Moab, Ammon and Mount Seir, Judah didn’t even have to fight because the enemies killed each other. And 3) Judah escaped Assyrian oppression when Hezekiah appealed for help “so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You alone, Lord, are God.”
Israel rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:11-20, 4:1-21, 6:1-16). Inspired by the God-fearing leadership of Nehemiah, the people of Judah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in only 52 days after returning from Babylonian captivity. They achieved the feat despite mockery and interference from Sanballat, the regional governor, and his Ammonite, Arabian and Philistine allies “They lost their confidence; for they realized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God,” Nehemiah said.
Noah builds an ark (Genesis 6:11-7:24). Noah literally stood alone against a world full of people who only thought about evil, but he didn’t lose faith in that wicked environment. His faith actually grew stronger, to the point of building an ark designed to save him and his family from a flood, a foreign concept when it probably hadn’t even yet rained on the earth (Genesis 2:5-6; Hebrews 11:7). A righteous and blameless man, Noah walked onto the ark with God and claimed victory over the elements.
Job endures numerous trials (Job 1-2, 42:1-6, 10-17). God had so much confidence in Job, a blameless and upright man like no other, that He let Satan go to war against him. The loss of wealth, family and personal health took a toll on Job, but he eventually leaned on God and passed the test of his faith. “You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful,” James wrote (James 5:11).
Esther saves the Jews (Esther 4:7-17, 7:1-8:7). In a fit of ego, Haman plotted to kill all the Jews because Mordecai refused to honor him. Mordecai turned to his cousin Esther, the queen to Persian King Ahasuerus, for help. Approaching the king without an invite was punishable by death, and Esther was challenging Haman, a favorite of the king. But she agreed to help the Jews, saying, “If I perish, I perish.” Instead, the game played out quite differently. Haman was hanged on his own gallows, Mordecai was honored, and “for the Jews there was light, joy, jubilation and honor.”
Samson crushes the Philistines (Judges 16:4-30). It’s hard to picture Samson as an underdog, but in his clashes with the Philistines, he was. Even before Samson fell for the conniver Delilah, he alone, on different occasions, killed 30 Philistines (14:19), “struck [the Philistines] ruthlessly with a great slaughter” (15:6-8), and killed 1,000 of them with the jawbone of donkey (15:14-16). But Samson secured his biggest upset in death. After regaining his strength through prayer, He toppled a house onto more Philistines than he had killed his entire life.
Joshua leads Israel against Jericho (Joshua 6). In theory, Jericho was a secure city, “tightly shut” and protected by “valiant warriors.” But Israel had God on their side. They marched around the city once a day for seven days and seven times on the seventh day; then all it took was the sound of trumpets and a shout to make the walls of the city fall. Israel spared Rahab the harlot and her family in gratitude for the help she gave to Israel’s spies, but otherwise they “utterly destroyed everything in the city.”
Elijah humiliates the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18:20-46). In an effort to awaken Israel from their Baal-worshipping stupor, Elijah challenged 450 prophets of Baal to a game of miracles by fire. Being a false god, Baal never showed up — no matter how much his prophets begged. Then at Elijah’s appeal, God appeared with a fiery vengeance and consumed the entire altar. Elijah ordered Israel to seize the prophets of Baal, and he killed them all in a resounding victory of faith.
Daniel and his friends survive lions and fire (Daniel 3:8-30, 6). Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego rose to prominent positions while in Babylonian captivity, but despite their status, they stayed true to God — even at the threat of death for doing so. King Nebuchadnezzar had Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship a golden statue, and King Darius reluctantly had Daniel delivered to a den of lions for praying to God. They came through the ordeals without a single singed hair or scratch.
Abraham and Sarah birth a nation (Genesis 12:1-5, 15:1-16, 17:1-8, 21:1-8, 22:9-19). It wasn’t physically possible for Abraham and Sarah to conceive a child at the time God told them they would. That’s why they both laughed at the idea. But by faith they beat the odds of nature, and Sarah gave birth to Isaac — the start of the “great nation” promised to Abraham. This also set in motion God’s third promise to Abraham of blessing all nations of the earth through Jesus.
Moses parts the Red Sea (Exodus 14). The hard heart of Pharoah moved him to pursue Israel soon after he freed his former slaves. The Egyptian army caught up to them at the Red Sea, and the Israelites thought the game was over. “For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” they cried. Moses knew better. By the power of God, he parted the waters. Israel walked through on dry ground, and when the Egyptians tried to follow, the sea swallowed them.
David topples Goliath (I Samuel 17:20-54). Read enough news and you’re bound to come across regular references to David-versus-Goliath comparisons. It is the classic underdog story of all time, pitting a shepherd boy with a slingshot against a well-armored warrior giant. The fight didn’t last long — one stone to Goliath’s forehead put him face first on the ground. David then chopped off Goliath’s head and took it to Jerusalem. The giant’s demise emboldened Israel to victory over the Philistines.
Jesus conquers death (Matthew 27:33-28:7). For three days after the crucifixion, Satan might have thought he had beaten God because the body of Jesus was in a tomb. But that was just the end of regulation play. The game actually went into overtime, and it ended with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the throne in Heaven. Or as God put it, “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel” (Genesis 3:14-15). Jesus ended his season of life as the Son of Man undefeated by temptation or sin, and in so doing He gave hope to all mankind.
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