The Reward of Faithfulness
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Daniel 3:1-3:30 (NIV, NIRV, TNIV, KJV)
Sermon Series: Daniel
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The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the burning, fiery furnace is a favourite in the Old Testament and it has enjoyed its popularity since the earliest days in the Christian church when the first generation of Christians in Rome were being persecuted for their faith.
The story was painted in the catacombs by believers persecuted by the Romans and has been an inspiration to all who have been oppressed. It is a story of rugged faith and uncompromising faithfulness to God.
We first meet Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in chapter 1 where as colleagues of Daniel they refused to defile themselves with the tainted royal food and wine, and now their commitment was again to be challenged. Perhaps this tells us that one spiritual victory is not the end: in fact each day sees us at the foot of a different mountain to climb. Every day we are subject to being tempted to deny the Lord whom we love and serve. We can find help and encouragement as we focus our attention upon these brave men who honoured the Lord in their time of fierce testing. Notice first:
THE CHALLENGE THEY FACED
The circumstances were that the proud king Nebuchadnezzar had set up a golden image. It was a huge monument, 90 feet high and 9 feet wide. It may have been an image of himself or a heathen god, and may have been inspired by the vision he had seen in chapter 2. Perhaps he had been worrying over the fact that the image of mixed metals and clay had ended up in dust and he wanted to restructure his society. No base metal of deviation from his religion and culture would be tolerated; he would exclude all possible sources of division and disintegration. Everyone must conform.
All the high officials of the Babylonian empire had been summoned to the dedication ceremony, a great orchestra was raising the emotional temperature, perhaps a warning that people can do silly things in this type of hyped-up atmosphere, especially in religious situations. I remember being at a meeting in London where an American evangelist was making an altar call: as a friend told me, it took more courage to stay in your seat than to go out to the front for prayer! But here at Nebuchadnezzar’s big occasion there was also fear, for evil was in the air.
I wonder where Daniel was? For some reason not recorded he was not present - perhaps he was absent on a state mission. I expect his three friends missed him terribly - they were on their own. They had to make their own stand without the guidance of their acknowledged leader. It is good to have senior friends in the Lord but we must not be over-dependent on them for we never know if a situation will arise when they are not there to help.
So the scene was set for a great cultural and religious spectacle. Yet there was something sinister about it because as a last resort Nebuchadnezzar had imposed the sanction of death by the fiery furnace to deal with a possible lunatic fringe of anti-social cranks. The pride of the ruthless dictator would tolerate no opposition, for refusal to obey would be an affront to Nebuchadnezzar’s dignity and an insult to his god.
This was a challenge the three young men simply had to face; it was a problem that would not go away. A choice had to be made there and then. Choices have to be made by all of us at some time.
A poet (James Russell Lowell) put it like this: "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide; Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight; Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right; And the choice goes by for ever, ’twixt that darkness and that light."
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down. They refused to renounce God and his commands. They refused to follow the crowd. They were determined to stand out against this evil thing and to be faithful to the Lord at any cost. Here was courage of the highest order, for they were prepared to face a fearful death rather than dishonour their God. But the story does not end there because the Biblical account tells us that Nebuchadnezzar offered them a second chance. We go on to learn of:
THE COMPROMISE THEY REFUSED
Nebuchadnezzar ordered the rebels to be brought before him. He recognized them as the Jews he had recently honoured and was prepared to give them the benefit of a doubt in his mind that they had made a mistake. He assumed that it could not possibly be their deliberate intention to defy him and so he would give them a second opportunity to conform. What a temptation! In a multi-faith society, surely it is reasonable just to bend the joints of your knees as an appropriate act of respect for the king’s wishes? Why not just go along with it and humour him? Surely it would be seen as ungrateful to publicly oppose him after he’d showed such kindness? In any case, we can almost hear the tempter whispering in their ears, "it’s a long way from Jerusalem"! It was Spurgeon who said that "character is what you are in the dark".
Yes, it is easy to compromise - on morality, honesty, faithfulness to the Scriptures - to cut a few corners. But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would have none of it. With great courage and dignity they told the king that they were not going to argue with him. The three young men made no attempt to excuse themselves. They refused to save their situation at the expense of their consciences; they were prepared to defy their king rather than offend their God. It took courage to stand out, to be among the three out of, say 300,000, who refused to bow the knee and yet this is a marked characteristic of the faithful. God’s people are not called upon to go out of their way to be martyrs, but they have to be ready to make their stand if need be.
They were following in the tradition of Moses - "By faith when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharoah’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill treatment with the people of God than enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin" (Heb 11:24,25), and then there was Jesus sorely tempted in the wilderness, rejected outright the tempting compromises offered by the devil. This action of the young Jews took courage - how do we account for it? The secret was in:
THE CONFIDENCE THEY POSSESSED
Nebuchnezzar threw down the challenge - the gloves were off. "Who is the God that shall deliver you out of my hands?" demanded Nebuchadnezzar. They made a classic reply, "The God we serve is able to deliver us from the fire, and will rescue us from your hand, O king" (17). God was their God. He is theirs and they are his. They felt secure for their hope was based on a deep covenant and personal relationship. Their faith in their God is so strong that they could not imagine any ultimate harm at all coming to them at the hand of a mere pagan emperor. How can God possibly forsake those who are his?
The faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego was unquestioning; their God was omnipotent. Flames and kings meant nothing to him. He could deliver. The basis of their confidence was their trust in God. Had he not delivered the Israelites from Pharoah’s clutches and provided for them throughout their forty years in the wilderness? Had he not fed Elijah in a time of famine and drought? When we’re up against it, we need to recall these wonderful deeds of our God. He has not changed. This is the kind of knowledge that builds up faith for the day of testing.
The young men also had confidence in the purposes of God. Here we have some magnificent words, "Our God can deliver, but if not..." (18). What they are saying is this: "God can deliver, and if it is his will, he will deliver us - but he may not! It may be his will to let us suffer and die. We do not know what his will is, and we do not mind, for his will is best." What a statement to make. They felt that loyalty to God was of greater importance than life itself.
One of the bishops in the century following the church of New Testament times had a similar experience. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna was brought before the Roman authorities and told to curse Christ and he would be released. He replied, "Eighty-six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?" The Roman officer replied, "Unless you change your mind, I will have you burnt." But Polycarp said, "You threaten a fire that burns for an hour, and after a while is quenched; for you are ignorant of the judgement to come and of everlasting punishment reserved for the ungodly. Do what you wish."
We know that God is able to save. He is able to heal. He is able to deliver from temptation. He is able ... but we have a God who may not save. This is a hard saying, and yet faith in God is more important than faith in his works. Ultimately, faith must rest in the character of God irrespective of what he does or does not do.
Many years ago one of my colleagues at work was dying of cancer. He was a young man, with a wife and baby and it was so sad to see him on the threshold of death. But he was a Christian and I shall never forget how he told me only a few days before he died that "he had put his trust in God and he wasn’t about to change now." I class him as a noble successor of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
This story from the book of Daniel is an important reminder that faithfulness to God may result in problems. Refusal to conform to this world’s pattern may well involve trouble and loss. But surely it is better to accept the narrow way that leads to eternal gain rather than follow the way of the world which will result in eternal loss? True faith is a readiness to trust God to fulfil his purposes whatever that might be, and to say, as Job did, "though he slay me, yet I will trust him" (13:15). Faith cannot always be proved by cause and effect; to demand that God acts as we think fit is a type of "payment by results" prosperity theology but it is not authentic Christianity.
The steadfast refusal of the young men made the king furious, and he commanded the furnace to be heated again and again, and they were thrown into the fire. What a terrible experience. And yet what a wonderful experience it turned out to be, as we notice:
THE COMPANIONSHIP THEY ENJOYED
The three young men were in the fire, but they were not alone, for the Lord was there with them. Nebuchadnezzar was filled with amazement. He could hardly believe what he saw - he had expected their bound bodies to be incinerated within seconds. But to his astonishment, in the middle of the blazing flames men were walking up and down, unhurt by the fire and quite unaffected by their fearful surroundings.
It is little wonder that he could hardly believe his eyes and had to seek confirmation from his ministers that it was only three men that had been cast into the fire. He looked again - "no, it wasn’t three," 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." One thing is perfectly clear: if God had not delivered his servants from the fire, he had delivered them in the fire. For their sake he had deliberately suspended his natural laws and had performed a miracle; there is no other word for it.
God had gone even further than that, because in the hour of his people’s trial, he had strengthened their commitment by his presence in a physical form. Was it an angel or was it even an appearance of Jesus, a "theophany"? The important point to remember is that the Lord was with them in their fiery trial. If God is omnipresent, he must also be the God in the midst of our burning fiery furnace, whatever form that might take. God is omnipresent in pain and his presence makes faith possible. C S Lewis said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences but shouts in our pains."
The apostle Paul expressed it magnificently when he wrote, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or danger or sword? ... (Nothing) will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:35,38). What a companionship this is. It is something from which we can draw strength as we remember that throughout our earthly pilgrimage, as the song says, "You’ll never walk alone". In fact the last words spoken by Jesus to his disciples were, "I am with you always" (Mat 28:20). Nebuchadnezzar realised that something remarkable had taken place and it made a profound impression on him, as we hear:
THE CONFESSION THEY WITNESSED
Nebuchadnezzar openly acknowledged that the three young Jews were "servants of the Most High God" and he called on them to come out of the furnace. They emerged from the fire completely unscathed : not a hair had been singed and there was not even a smell of fire on their clothes. The king and his courtiers were amazed. Nebuchadnezzar realised he had made the worst mistake in his life; he had demonstrated before his eyes a power greater than his. Perhaps he recalled the vision of the image being shattered by the stone made without hands - he was up against a supernatural God.
Nebuchadnezzar had come to the moment of truth. He had to choose whether to allow himself to become either humbled or offended by the truth. This is an experience which comes to all who meet up with God. There are many instances in the Scriptures of those who hardened their hearts : take for example, Pharoah in Egypt or the pharisees when Jesus confronted them. Jesus said, "Blessed is he who takes no offence at me" (Mat 11:6).
Fortunately Nebuchadnezzar ceased to resist the truth and accepted the wound to his pride and self-confidence. It is difficult to tell how deep was Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance, but at least he freely acknowledged that the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had delivered them and he ordered that not a word should be said against such a God. He also recognized that their survival meant his own personal deliverance too and he began to make amends by giving them an instant promotion.
The message of this chapter of Daniel is clear. It is the need for the believer to grow in the grace of God so that when face to face with a challenge to faith, there will be no compromise on Christian principles. But when the fire of pain, disappointment or disillusionment comes God will be with us for the God of deliverance is also the Lord of the furnace.