How often do you think you’re forced to choose between what you’re told to do by your boss, by the government, by your spouse, by your parent, and what you think that you’re supposed to do based on what the Bible has to say?
Once a day? A week? A month?
What pressure do you face? Is it the loss of a job, or a friendship, or status? How do you decide what’s “right” for that instance? We’d all like to say that we always do the right thing… but we don’t. And frankly, neither did the people in the Bible. Peter got it wrong several times; so did Abraham, David, and Adam… but we still remember them well. It’s not always getting it right or wrong though that matters in the Bible– it’s usually most important how God shows up.
In Daniel 3, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar set up his first conflict with his favorite dreamcatcher Daniel. Now, he didn’t mean to, but his pride caused him to think that it would be a great idea to have a thousand-foot-tall statue built of himself and set up out in the middle of a field so that everyone could come and worship it.
The announcement was made that when the Babylonian band started playing, that everyone would fall down and worship the statue. The worshipping of the statue would be an indirect worshipping of the king, but it wasn’t the kind of worship we understand today, where people willingly and voluntarily gather for worship of Yahweh God, or Buddha, or Mohammed. No, this was the kind of worship that was followed with a threat: Anyone who didn’t bow down and worship the statue would be burned alive in a fiery furnace.
Imagine if that’s what we understood church to be like. If you don’t come to church, if you don’t worship God, if you don’t read your Bible or pray, you’re going to burn. Wait, isn’t that what many of our churches preach as the main reason to go to church? That your choices are the “smoking or non-smoking section” in hell? Jesus certainly did say that he was the way, the truth, and the life, and the only way to the Father (John 14:6). But is that kind of forced relationship what Jesus was talking about?
I think not.
Jesus wanted to create a sacred space where God and humanity were present together and the people who chose to embrace what God was offering would worship. He didn’t spend nearly as much time on judgment as he did on grace, and hope, and love. But in Daniel’s day, there was no grace proffered in the king of Babylon’s ordinance.
Even though Daniel and his three friends had already proved important to the king, when a group of astrologers, men who were no doubt displaced by Daniel’s abilities, came and tattled on Daniel’s crew, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, for not bowing. They weren’t buying into the order, death sentence or not, because they knew that they should have no other gods before Yahweh God.
The king had the three men brought before him, and specifically told them that it if they did not bow that they would be thrown into the fire. And he threw in a zinger about the fact that their God wouldn’t be able to save them from burning to death.
So you bow, right? You give in, you say “yessir,” and you drop to your knees. And you go back to worshipping the way you know is right the next day. Right?
Instead, our trio challenged the king’s authority: “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. 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.”
First off, they are reasonably sure that the Biblical God that they serve will save them from the fire, and from the king’s wrath. But second, if God chooses not to save them, they still have faith in God- they will not be deterred by the momentary setback of dying!
That is crazy, outlandish, bold faith, isn’t it? “We’re not reducing our standards. We’re not going to be threatened into going against our beliefs. And we don’t care if you do hold our feet to the fire!” Well, honestly, it doesn’t immediately speak to the king’s good size. It says that he’s so infuriated that he forgets how impressed he was by them, and orders them thrown into the furnace immediately.
The fire is stoked to be seven times hotter. So hot, in fact, that the soldiers escorting the men to their deaths died when they got closer to the flames. But those three men, they didn’t die: they multiplied. Remember that verse where “two or three are gathered in my name” that Jesus issues to his disciples (Matthew 18:20)? It says that the three men were joined by a man that Nebuchadnezzar said looked like “a son of the gods.”
The Gentile, the non-believer, recognized that God had shown up, and he remembered what the men had said before he had them thrown into the fire. He immediately attributes the fourth man’s presence to their faith; he knows that something holy just happened even if he didn’t understand it before.
The king sees that they are not burned, that their clothes are intact, that they don’t even smell like fire! Now, I know that was some kind of miracle: my parents heated their house with firewood while I was growing up, and the wood burning smell filled the house, and our clothes, when we sat by the fire. To be immersed in the fire, and neither burned nor smelling like it, were two more signs of the Lord God’s hand being over these three men.
The fire couldn’t hurt them, no, the fire couldn’t touch them.
Nebuchadnezzar goes from antagonist to chief evangelist in an instant. “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.”
The obedience of three men changed a king, and a country. Because they chose well, and followed through. Because they knew who they were and who they were not, regardless of the consequences.
Do you have that kind of intense faith? Are you the rarest form of person, who is willing to follow through, to stand when others kneel, to speak for truth when others are willing to buy the lie? Or are you well done, cooked, burnt up by the adversity of the world’s denial of Jesus, of faith, of God’s movement in the world?
Brian Doerksen’s song, “Refiner’s Fire,” comes to me in moments like this:
Purify my heart
Let me be as gold and precious silver
Purify my heart
Let me be as gold, pure gold
My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy
Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy
Set apart for You, my Master
Ready to do Your will
Purify my heart
Cleanse me from within
And make me holy
Purify my heart
Cleanse me from my sin
Gold doesn’t burn in fire. It gets refined, refreshed, made new. If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bow to the statue that day, they are destroyed: they’ve given up who they are and who they are supposed to be. They’ve sold out, bought in, given up the ghost. But by staying true to their faith and who they were supposed to be, their lives blossomed, and their influence increased exponentially.
What would it look like this week if you turned back the gossip or the inappropriate jokes or the instructions to fudge numbers or to lie when the truth was harder? What if you chose to say that you were called by God not to worship the things of the world and that God was with you, whether He saved you in that moment or not?
Those who bowed (and escorted the men to the fire) were left extra crispy, smelling of bacon. But the three men who loved God above all else? They came out smelling like a rose.
In Isaiah 43:2, God said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
I pray today that you will be fireproof, bound for heaven. That you will be flame retardant, refined by the fire but not burned. May God see your struggle and walk with you as you bear his name.