SERIES: Integrity Is No Accident: The Book of Daniel
Flame Broiled Faith
Note: This manuscript has been edited, and information has been added, by Mike Andrus.
Introduction: I do not frequent Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, but I’ve heard a lot about it. It seems that the secret of their steaks, what really makes them a cut above the rest, is their process of quick flame broiling them over an open fire at 1800 degrees. This searing heat seals in the great flavor of truly fine beef. That is, as long as their chef, also known as “asbestos man,” turns them before they explode.
There is something about fire which gives it the ability in certain circumstances to refine things to the point of greatness. It separates the gold from the ore in which it is found. It brings out the beautiful colors of the glaze on pottery. And it is also pictured as having a refining effect on our faith in God. Peter tells us that our faith will be refined by fire so that it may be proved genuine and result in praise and glory to Christ when He comes again. (1 Peter 1:7)
The fire in our lives is usually metaphorical, thankfully, coming through a variety of challenges to our faith. But in the case of three young Jewish men in Babylon, it was both metaphorical and literal. Our task today is to understand through the example of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah–better known to us by their Babylonians names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—a little bit about what it means for our faith to come under fire. I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to Daniel, chapter three, and follow along with me as I read.
King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. 2 He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. 3 So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it.
4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”
7 Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the nations and peoples of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”
13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.
24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”
They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”
25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”
26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”
So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”
30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
The first thing I want us to do is to examine the ways in which the faith of these men was attacked.
Faith under fire. (1-12)
Pagan gods. (1-7) The first test of the faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Obednego comes from the call to worship an idol, a monument to a pagan god. Despite the warning he had received in his dream that God would destroy all idol-worshiping empires, Nebuchadnezzar seems to have forgotten his newly gained religious insights and has decided to force upon all his subjects, including the Yahweh-worshiping Jews, the worship of his patron god.
Perhaps, like many ancient pagans, Nebuchadnezzar believed one could profess loyalty to multiple gods at different levels, something like serving local, state, and federal governments all at the same time. What is clear is that Nebuchadnezzar was much more consumed with his own arrogant lust for power than with the proclamations of Israel’s God. Some have even suggested that the statue here is of the king himself. That is unlikely. It is probably a statue of his personal god Nabu, but that is almost the same, for to fall prostrate before Nabu is to give total allegiance to his human viceroy, Nabu-kudurriusur, or Nebuchadnezzar.
In any case, the command is all-inclusive. Nebuchadnezzar calls together leaders from every part of his empire and demands that, without exception, they fall on their face and worship his god. Whatever other gods they may have had were fine; nevertheless, they must swear allegiance to his. The way in which this command put the faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to the test goes almost without saying. To bow down to this god would be to violate the second of the Ten Commandments, for God said to Moses:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” (Deut 20:4-5)
The Judea-Christian faith is one of radical monotheism. There is but one God, and He is the only one worthy of worship. To worship anyone or anything else is out of the question, no matter what the cost.
As all of these magistrates gather in front of the statue and the throne of Nebuchadnezzar on the plain of Dura, the three young Jewish men go along with the crowd, as commanded, but only so far. They attend the gathering, dress in their official clothes, and they line up before the king, but as the music sounds and all the rest of the civic and religious leaders touch their foreheads to the ground, acquiescing to the worship of this pagan god, these three men remain at attention.
Now let’s take a moment to bring this event into our modern context. America, while perhaps the most “Christian” country in the western hemisphere, is clearly an idol-worshiping nation. Our culture is obsessed with the worship of pagan gods. 0h, they are not generally of the gold, ninety-foot-high variety. Our pagan gods are more subtle, but no less damaging. Let me suggest a few. First, America has become a willing slave to the god of materialism. The money we spend on unnecessary stuff to try to satisfy our enormous appetites is amazing.
I never cease to be amazed that the company that puts that catalogue of outrageously priced, useless items in the seatback of every airline seat is still in business. Portable electric dog polisher, only $695.00. Obviously, some people must buy those things or else the company would be out of business. We live in a world where we are judged by the clothes we wear, the house we live in, and the car we drive. And we must keep up, no matter what the cost.
Americans also worship at the feet of the idol of youthful and healthy appearance. Wrinkles are bad, pale is bad, fat is bad, bald is bad. Some of us don’t have a chance! Liposuction has become a craze, as has botox, a poison that people purposely inject in their bodies in the pursuit of the ideal shape. People will gladly subject themselves to ultraviolet rays, proven to cause cancer, for the fleeting satisfaction of appearing to have just returned from the tropics. Surely the greatest tragedy in this area is the American epidemic of eating disorders, a death-defying quest for the perfect look and, ultimately, acceptance.
There is the god of sports that takes fathers away from their families and children away from church. There is the god of career advancement, which lures its devotees through the gray area of ethical compromise often necessary to reach the next level. These are some of the idols the church is called to worship today and, sadly, ones to which it has too often acquiesced.
None of us would admit to worshiping these gods. The problem isn’t even that all of these things are inherently bad: possessions, good looks, sports. But worldly pursuits are never satisfied with what we are willing to give them, until we give them our all. How much of anything, even a good thing, does it take to begin to cause us to compromise and water down our commitment to God and godly living? The lines to be drawn are not often black and white, but most of us, if we are honest, know when we have crossed them and have begun to worship pagan gods.
The next test of these young men’s faith comes in the form of public degradation.
Public degradation. (8-12) Notice vs. 8: “At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews.” The word “astrologers” here is really the word “Chaldeans,” which can be translated in a religious sense, as the NIV has done, or in an ethnic sense, referring to the master race of the empire, which is the way most scholars believe it should be translated. What we have here is a group of civic leaders who were already bent out of shape that the king would appoint these lowly members of a conquered race to positions of power and influence. Now they have a chance to humiliate Shadrach, Meshach, and Obednego publicly and perhaps get rid of them.
As is typical of people who seek to defame someone publicly, these men tell the king a mixture of truth and lies. Listen to their accusation in vs. 12: “There are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.” Now the part about not serving his gods or worshiping the image is perfectly true. But the part about their paying no attention to the king is not. The phrase actually means that they have no regard for the king. It portrays them as public employees who have no respect or loyalty to the government. In fact, the entire account of Daniel and his friends demonstrates that these men treated the king with the utmost respect, courtesy, and loyalty.
I imagine that for most of us who have let the light of our Christianity shine in the public square, be it at work, school, or in our neighborhoods, there have been some unkind words, we have perhaps been unfairly stereotyped, and our faith has been misrepresented.
That is to be expected anytime. But I don’t know if ever in the history of our country, Christianity as a whole has been subjected to such inane misrepresentation as it is in America today. Especially is that true of evangelicals–that body of believers who have decided to take the Bible seriously. We are regularly portrayed en masse as neanderthals, bigots, male chauvinists, homophobes, and racists whose main desire is to reshape our society into a place where the libraries are filled with only Christian literature, there is a daily Protestant worship service in every public school, and it is illegal to talk about sex or evolution.
And, believe me, it’s going to get worse. This week President Obama laid down a challenge when he stated he would not defend the Defense of Marriage Act. I can guarantee you that sometime this year he is going to launch a campaign to get rid of it. After that there is going to come tremendous pressure on the church to recognize same-sex marriage. I won’t be surprised if churches’ tax exemption won’t be threatened if they refuse. I have stated before that I honestly believe the church is going to have to abandon civil marriage and make it an ordinance of the church.
Michael Medved, a popular conservative Jewish movie critic has stated that Christians are the only social group that Hollywood can defame without a whisper of public outcry. Public degradation of our faith has become a matter of course in America. They wouldn’t even consider saying about Muslims what they say of evangelicals, because they know they’d be risking their lives, but they know Christians won’t retaliate. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal on January 18 about an astronomy professor at the University of Kentucky who won a settlement against the university for religious discrimination. Some other professors called him “something close to a creationist” and “potentially evangelical” in interoffice emails to other university scientists.[i] Imagine it!
Finally, the faith of these young men is tested by fire, literally.
Personal destruction. (31-45) The cost of remaining true to their faith is personal destruction, a violent death, a public execution. One of the most impressive things to me about these young men is that they had to know even before they left their offices for the ceremony what their attendance would mean for them. There was no turning around at the last moment. These young men prepared themselves to face the worst Nebuchadnezzar could throw at them, for they had seen and heard of his heartless decimation of their city of Jerusalem.
We in America have not yet had to face imprisonment or death for our faith. But we ought not simply dismiss such a reality as impossible in our country. As much as we would all like to see America retain its status as a nation of religious freedom, history teaches us that even societies with godly foundations waver precariously on the edge of barbarism.
As one commentator has noted concerning Daniel and his friends, people respond to a crisis in accordance with how well they have prepared for it. We have not yet had to experience intense persecution for our faith in this country, but in a culture which seems to grow increasingly hostile to all but the most watered-down forms of Christianity, we are wise to prepare ourselves, and especially our children for what it may eventually cost to be a Christian.
Now, having looked at the ways in which this account illustrates faith under fire, we must take a moment to examine how true faith responds.
The response of faith (16-18)
Biblical faith recognizes in all of these fires an opportunity to be refined. But it also understands that such refinement means having to make difficult decisions, decisions of self-sacrifice. For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the first of those decisions is the renunciation of a pagan god.
Recognition and renunciation of pagan gods. Now in the case of these three men, they have come to a point where the pagan god facing them is clear and undeniable. Nevertheless, they surely have already had to struggle with this issue in more subtle ways in their service to the Babylonian government. For Babylon was a government which paid daily homage to pagan gods, and by working for that government, were they not aiding it in the expansion of its conquests, which had already included Israel?
Where do we draw the line between simply being involved in the activities of a culture, which is primarily worldly, and coming to the place where we have begun to compromise the standards of God and his expectations of us? St. Francis of Assisi had a guaranteed method to make sure he would never cross that line and begin worshiping the powers and offerings of the world. Whenever he discovered something his body enjoyed, he just stayed away from it. If he discovered a food he really liked, he never ate it again. He liked the feel of a pillow, so he decided to always lay his head on a rock. It’s perhaps an effective method, but not very realistic, nor even biblical.
Recognizing our own idols is often quite difficult. But we must look for them, because the effects of worshiping them are devastating. When your job becomes an idol, it takes you from your family. When the way your house looks becomes an idol, it results in an inability to concentrate on serving others. When recreation becomes an idol, it allows you to rationalize away more important responsibilities. When personal appearance becomes an idol, it destroys your ability to have open, loving relationships with others.
How do we draw the line between a healthy relationship with this world and the worship of it? There is no easy answer. But listen to the words of the apostle Paul to his young friend, Timothy. “Train yourself to be godly, for physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim 4:7-8). Are the things that we are pursuing in life serving to train us in godliness? It may be time for some of us to examine our lives carefully and renounce those things to which we have given ourselves which have diminished our worship of God and our training in godliness.
A second response of faith under fire is seen in the willingness of the young men to endure degradation.
Endurance of degradation. These young men are much less worried about their reputations than they are with honoring God with their lives. As Christians, we will be ridiculed, unfairly criticized, and inaccurately portrayed. Admittedly, it is important for the church in the public arena to speak the truth about what it believes, but what the church needs most to do in the midst of public degradation is not to defend itself, but to be obedient to the life it has been called to by Christ.
As Cal Thomas noted in one of his editorials, bashing the liberal press, which consistently maligns biblical Christianity, is of no value in accomplishing the will of God. He writes,
“If Christians will begin living what they claim to believe—loving their enemies, praying for those who persecute them, becoming a friend to ‘sinners,’ a new kind of power would be unleashed on the land. It might produce something called ‘revival.’”
Biblical faith responds to public degradation and criticism by anticipating it and enduring it. That means knowing that our co-workers, our neighbors, even our own families may unfairly criticize us, and yet being willing to risk that criticism. It is in placing ourselves in that position of weakness and fear that God can then do great things through us and in us, not the least of which is to bring our own faith to a place of greater maturity. We ought to concentrate less on defending ourselves in this world and worry more, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, about obeying God and allow Him to worry about our reputations.
A final response of faith is its dependence upon God in the face of destruction.
Dependence on God in the face of destruction. The key idea here is dependence on God, the loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God, who will act according to his sovereign, perfect, and good will for us. There may be no more heroic words in Scripture than those at the beginning of vs. 18: “But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” The reason they could stand tall was not because they could snicker while the king was heating up the furnace, knowing that God was going to deliver them the way He did. They did not know that. They stood tall because they knew they were in the hands of the sovereign Lord of history who, whether or not He quenched this fire on their behalf, would rescue them from this life for an eternity with Him.
So much of the teaching about faith in American Christianity has become shallow and petty. There has been an unhealthy shift in concentration from who God is to how He can heal our diseases, make our businesses profitable, and find us the perfect home or job. Faith grows most profoundly when it endures in the face of ongoing impossibilities, not when God simply vaporizes the impossibilities in our path before we even have to break stride.
Biblical faith is that which allows us to entrust ourselves fully to God for who He is without stipulating how He must respond to us in times of crisis and hardship. It is that which understands that God is in total control of the big picture. It is that which looks at the cross and understands the extent to which God will go to love and save us. This is biblical faith.
Finally, we must look briefly at the response of God in the midst of persecution and disaster.
The response of God (24-27)
His presence. God’s first response is His presence, for He is undoubtedly the fourth person in the fire. This is the same One who said, “I will never leave you or forsake you. In the world you will have tribulation, but in me you will have peace, for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) What does it mean that He is with us? It means that in the midst of the fire we can call out to Him, telling Him how much it hurts, and hear Him answer us, “I know. But I have overcome this for you. Stand firm there until I get us to the end.”
Second, God responds with deliverance.
His deliverance. In this case, deliverance is breathtaking, far beyond, I am sure, even what these three men imagined. More commonly, God’s deliverance of his children is through hardship, not from it. As Christ Himself prayed to the Father for you and me, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). The God in whom we have placed our faith is a God who has promised to deliver us from this world and its tribulation. Sometimes He does that in miraculous and breathtaking ways. Other times He chooses to build our faith by the long road of endurance.
Conclusion: Friends, it is the sovereign plan of God to allow our faith to come under fire. He does this because He wants our faith to be genuine, to be refined, and to be mature. He actually brings these fires to us for our own good, so that we can stand before Him without shame at His coming, having remained true to Him in the fire of combat with this world.
But the refinement He wants to accomplish is a two-way process. It is by God’s sovereign will that our faith will come under fire; that is His part. But we must face the fire and engage it. We must face the pagan gods in our lives, the idols that seek to compromise our commitment to Christ. We must say to them, “No, I will not worship or serve you.” We must face the certain degradation that comes with letting our Christianity shine in the public square and choosing to endure the results for God’s glory. We must face the possibility of real-life consequences for proclaiming Christ in a hostile world, and entrust ourselves wholly to God, who is able to deliver us.
If we leave this chapter today with only one thought, I suggest it be this. God is not so concerned that our faith moves mountains, nor that it heals diseases, nor that it quenches the flames of the furnace. What He cares about most is that our faith is refined and proves to be genuine in the face of the flames.
Principles to ponder:
1. God-honoring decisions will often set us apart from the crowd.
2. God is still God whether the outcome is triumph or tragedy.
3. God doesn’t promise to keep us from trial; He does promise to be with us in the midst of them.
4. God uses our trials for His purposes–in the lives of others and in us.
DATE: July 17, 1994
[i] Following is a newspaper report from January 19, 2011. LOUISVILLE, Ky.—An astronomy professor who sued the University of Kentucky after claiming he lost out on a top job because of his Christian beliefs reached a settlement Tuesday with the school.
The university agreed to pay $125,000 to Martin Gaskell in exchange for dropping a federal religious discrimination suit he filed in Lexington in 2009. A trial was set for next month.
Mr. Gaskell claimed he was passed over to be director of UK’s Student Observatory because of his religion and statements that were perceived to be critical of evolution.
Court records showed Mr. Gaskell was a front-runner for the job, but some professors called him “something close to a creationist” and “potentially evangelical” in interoffice emails to other university scientists.
“We never thought from the start that everybody at UK was some sort of anti-religious bigot,” said Frank Manion, Mr. Gaskell’s attorney. “However, what I do think this case disclosed is a kind of endemic, almost knee-jerk reaction in academia towards people, especially scientists, of a strong religious faith.”
A statement from University of Kentucky counsel Barbara Jones Tuesday said the school’s “hiring processes were and are fundamentally sound and were followed in this case.” The university doesn’t admit any wrongdoing.