My task this morning is a daunting one because my time is so abbreviated. Indeed, I have more verses than I have minutes.
Daniel chapter 3 will be the focus of our attention here briefly. We typically think of commencement as being an occasion for the spring. But over these recent years, institutions like ours have also celebrated a Christmas commencement. Every time you think of commencement, you think of final words of address, final words of exhortation, charges given to the graduates before us. If we were in a secular context, those parting words would often be things like, “Be industrious, be forward thinking, manage your brand wisely, be intentional to cultivate relationships, professionally pursue all that is before you with vigor.”
In Christian or even seminary contexts in certain years, you might hear charges about calls to be faithful, to be fruitful, to be a visionary, to be kind-hearted, to be gracious, or to be passionate. All of those words are fitting and right, but as I have reflected on this year and on this occasion with these December 2018 graduates before me, a different word has come to mind. The word my mind kept coming back to is a character trait that I want you to cultivate, to steward, and to nourish. That word is “courage.” I want you to be courageous.
As said before, Daniel chapter 3 is the passage before us. For those of us who have been reared in Christian contexts and Christian families and churches, it is a passage that you, no doubt, have some familiarity with. As verse one begins, we are told this story about these three men who face a great trial and a great crisis of faith. Look down with me at verse one, and we will read until verse thirty:
Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, the height of which was sixty cubits and its width six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent word to assemble the satraps, the prefects and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates and all the rulers of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up. Then the satraps, the prefects and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates and all the rulers of the provinces were assembled for the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then the herald loudly proclaimed: “To you the command is given, O peoples, nations and men of every language, that at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe and all kinds of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king has set up. But whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire.” Therefore at that time, when all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.
For this reason, at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and brought charges against the Jews. They responded and said to Nebuchadnezzar the king: “O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree that every man who hears the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, and bagpipe and all kinds of music, is to fall down and worship the golden image. But whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the administration of the province of Babylon, namely Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These men, O king, have disregarded you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”
Then Nebuchadnezzar in rage and anger gave orders to bring Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego; then these men were brought before the king. Nebuchadnezzar responded and said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, very well. But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with wrath, and his facial expression was altered toward Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. He answered by giving orders to heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated. He commanded certain valiant warriors who were in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in order to cast them into the furnace of blazing fire. Then these men were tied up in their trousers, their coats, their caps and their other clothes, and were cast into the midst of the furnace of blazing fire. For this reason, because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace had been made extremely hot, the flame of the fire slew those men who carried up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. But these three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, fell into the midst of the furnace of blazing fire still tied up.
Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astounded and stood up in haste; he said to his high officials, “Was it not three men we cast bound into the midst of the fire?” They replied to the king, “Certainly, O king.” He said, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the furnace of blazing fire; he responded and said, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, come out, you servants of the Most High God, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the midst of the fire. The satraps, the prefects, the governors and the king’s high officials gathered around and saw in regard to these men that the fire had no effect on the bodies of these men nor was the hair of their head singed, nor were their trousers damaged, nor had the smell of fire even come upon them.
Nebuchadnezzar responded and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him, violating the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies so as not to serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree that any people, nation or tongue that speaks anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb and their houses reduced to a rubbish heap, inasmuch as there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” Then the king caused Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to prosper in the province of Babylon.
A few introductory matters are worth mentioning. First of all, this is a remarkable story. It is astonishing to read verse-by-verse, play-by-play. We see an individual, King Nebuchadnezzar, who appears schizophrenic, at times eager to make concessions toward Daniel, his God, and his friends. At other times, he demands worship of himself. Whatever decision he makes, you cannot fault him for making it half-heartedly. Second, because this story is so amazing, you can read it and wonder, is this actually factual and true? Did it historically happen like this? As a matter of public testimony I want to say, I believe every syllable here is true with all that I am. It is God’s word, and we believe it to be holy and inerrant and inspired and authoritative.
In this story, the people of God find themselves in captivity; they are in subjugation to the Babylonians. Daniel finds himself working as a God-fearing individual in a secular context before secular authorities, indeed, before a secular king. In fact, chapter two concludes, interestingly enough, with Daniel in favor and Yahweh being extolled. We are told there that King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face and paid homage to Daniel and gave orders to present to him an offering and fragrant incense. Moreover, the king answered Daniel and said, “Surely your God is God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries since you have been able to reveal this mystery.” Yet, we find ourselves thrust into chapter three where the stakes are high, the demands are clear, persecution is ripening, and we are presented with, in this crucible, a picture of courage and Christian faithfulness.
There is a danger in this story, though. That is, to merely summarize it as three men who found their way through a fiery furnace and to simply conclude that the moral of this story is that God always preserves his people. Of course, that is true in an ultimate sense. The Lord’s church has marched on triumphantly for 2,000 years, and there is no ambiguity in our minds or in the Scriptures that everything is going toward to its eternal appointed end. But individually, we know emphatically that the blood of the martyrs has often proved to be the seed of the church.
The moral of this story is not that whenever you find yourself in a challenging ministry place or a culture bent on persecution, that you will be delivered. The story is that Christ, who shows up here in preincarnate fashion, will be there with you.
I will not clutter these verses with a heavy outline, and we will move very quickly given the fullness of this service. But just to remind you of a few of the major movements here, we first see this test that these three men encounter in verses one through seven. Our passage begins with a description of Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold. It is intended to be worshiped. Thus, it is imposing in size -60 cubits by six cubits, roughly 90 feet high, and nine feet wide. It is placed on the plain of Dura and exalted in a visible location. Then, verse two tells us that everyone who is anyone shows up and comes together to engage in what is the newly announced state religion and worship.
The choir and orchestra are assembled, verse four makes plain this is comprehensive and compulsory. All are to worship; none are to be excluded. In verse six, an ultimatum is expressed -“You worship or you die.” In other words, everyone was doing it. Who then would want to be found on the wrong side of history? It was the place to go and the thing to do. Yes, they were forced to do it, but doubtless, they convinced themselves it was the attractive thing to do as well. In verse seven, the band is cued, the instruments play, and the masses bow down.
We are a nation without a sanctioned state religion. We are a pluralistic society, but at times it feels like we actually have drifted into a state religion. It is the religion that approves anything and everything with the exception of anyone who would make an exclusive claim about the salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ. I have been reminded anew of this in watching some of the funeral proceedings of the late president, George H. W. Bush. He was a man who was so inspiring in so many ways. This is not a criticism of him in any way; however, in all of the national proceedings day after day after day, something became evident. It was as though whoever set out to arrange all the proceedings had one goal in mind, namely, not to offend any religious observer of any type, any place, or any religion anywhere. When that takes place, you have, my friends, no religion and no Christianity at all.
Idolatry is a primary concern in Scripture. It runs throughout, ensconced in the Ten Commandments, enforced in Deuteronomy, and articulated in the greatest commandment. It shows up again, and again, and again. Our culture in the 21st century increasingly demands that we forego Christian conviction and that we get ourselves in line with the worship of this age. Our nation worships sexual liberty and personal eroticism. We are told to dispense with any exclusive truth claims, and that we must get along and go along with anything and everything. If we do not, we will be found on the wrong side of a culture that makes such weighty demands.
There is a second movement here in verse eight. We see the trust that these three individuals exhibited. By the way, where is Daniel in this story? We do not know. We can only speculate, but we do not see him in the middle of this, though he is obviously throughout this book. What we do see are these three individuals and the trust that they exhibit. In verse eight, accusations are stated. We are told that these three are brought forth and the Chaldeans make charges against them. They remind Nebuchadnezzar, “This is your decree; this is your law; you are to be honored.” Testosterone is kicking in at this point. Who will back down? Surely not Nebuchadnezzar. Verse 11 is a reminder, whoever does not fall down and worship will be cast into the midst of the furnace of blazing fire. In verse 12, the trap is expressed, “There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the administration of Babylon, namely Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These men, oh king, have disregarded you. They do not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”
If they were conspiring to see the ruin of three individuals, they orchestrated the perfect trap. Who will win? Will the king eat humble pie? Will he back down? Will he renege? Will he jeopardize a broader anarchy if he is seen as a monarch who does not keep his laws and back up his edicts? In verse 15, the ultimatum is made plain:
Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, very well. But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?
It is a rhetorical question. The answer is there is no god and there is, indeed, no “g” god. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego respond to the king and remind him, “Oh Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter.” In other words, we have a higher authority. We answer to one, and his name is not Nebuchadnezzar. We bow to a God, and you are not him. We serve a master; it is not you. We will live and we will die for the Lord our God, regardless of what you mandate. Verses 17-18 are powerful verses. They say this:
If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.
Notice their response, as to what God might do, is conditional. Their response as to what they will do is not. This would have been a perfect opportunity for word of faith theology to strut on the scene. But these three make no claims of what God will do by way of their own temporal deliverance because they are certain of what God has done for their eternal deliverance.
So what takes place? We see unfolding here a great triumph. Notice they are not saved from the furnace. Water does not fall from heaven and put out the fire. In fact, we read the fire is intensified so much so that the soldiers, the guards, die in transporting these three to the furnace. Verse 19 tells us that the king is filled with wrath. As a reminder, false gods always rage when they are not worshiped.
Verse 23: “But these three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, fell into the midst of the furnace of blazing fire still tied up.” Somehow Nebuchadnezzar can see what is taking place and this king is astonished.
[He] stood up in haste; he said to his high officials, “Was it not three men we cast bound into the midst of the fire?” They replied to the king, “Certainly, O king.” He said, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!”
Nebuchadnezzar does not know of whom he speaks, but clearly, we are seeing a Christophany, a pre-incarnate occurrence of Christ. He is there with these three men; he is there for these three men; he is there delivering these three men. They went into the furnace not anticipating what happened, not expecting what happened, yet, they come out of the furnace having realized what happened. There is a danger in this story to merely conclude that the remarkable turn of events is that these three men came out of the furnace. But, the truly remarkable turn of events is that one went in.
I say to you this morning brothers and sisters, graduates before me, pursue your ministry and Christian life in such a way that does not presume upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather, be committed to him with all that you are. Know in your fiery furnaces, whether it be a culture that presses in on you or religious liberty in your station of service or cantankerous church members or an unregenerate deacon or whoever would seek to do you harm, that you are committed to Christ. Be men and women of courage who are trusting in Christ and have the settled courage and confidence of these three men. Whether or not you enjoy temporal deliverance is up to the inscrutable wisdom and perfect providence of God. In the end, I know with all that I am, because I know in whom I have placed my faith, that my eternal deliverance is secure. You must know the same.