Courage in the Fire!
Courage in the Fire!
Main Idea: Because of the presence of God with us and Christ’s work for us, believers can have courage to resist false gods and testify to the one true God.
- God’s People Will Be Confronted with the Idols of This World (3:1-7).
- God’s People Will Be Criticized by the People of This World (3:8-12).
- God’s People Will Be Challenged to Worship the Gods of This World (3:13-15).
- God’s People Must Be Courageous in the Face of Danger in This World (3:16-18).
- God’s People Can Be Confident the Lord Is with Them No Matter What Happens in This World (3:19-30).
In Philippians 1:21 Paul writes, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” John Piper calls this the ultimate win-win scenario. If I live, I get Christ. If I die, I get more of Christ! Either way I win! This way of thinking of life as walking with God and death as ushering one into God’s presence must have been in the minds of three Hebrew men by the names of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. We know these men, taken captive to Babylon in 605 BC, by their more popular names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
As we watch their story unfold in Daniel 3, which is the last time we will see these men in this book, we will see men of courage, conviction, and commitment. These are Psalm 1 men, Psalm 101 men. These are Titus 2 men, 1 Timothy 6:11-21 men. These are men sold out to God in a way that our churches desperately need in our own day. These are men in rare supply. I often say that a good woman is worth her weight in gold, but a good man is worth twice his weight in gold. Why? Not because men are more significant or more important than women, but because of the law of supply and demand. There are too few good men. There are too few who are willing to take a stand for the God who loves them and has saved them.
It is popular to talk of those who show what we call courage under fire. In this passage we will see three men who demonstrate courage in the fire! Their faith is amazing. Their confidence in God is stellar. Missionary George Verwer says, “We who have Christ’s eternal life need to throw away our own lives” (Newell, Expect Great Things, 50). These men were willing to do just that, and as a result we have one of the most famous and remarkable stories in the whole Bible.
God’s People Will Be Confronted with the Idols of This World
Although we have no way of knowing how much time has elapsed between them, Daniel 3 follows closely on the heels of Daniel 2. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, says Daniel 3 took place in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (587–586 BC). This is the time when he destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and deported, for a third time, Jews to Babylon. This is reasonable but not certain. Daniel had interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great statue (2:31-45), telling him that as the head of gold (2:38) he would have an awesome and powerful kingdom. But he was only the head and not the whole statue. His would be a kingdom that would not endure.
Nebuchadnezzar paid homage and praise to Daniel’s God (2:46-47), but it was a shallow and surface praise that would not last long. In fact, 3:1-7 suggests that Nebuchadnezzar did not accept God’s will that he was only the head of gold and a temporary king. He wanted it all; therefore, he set up a great gold statue ninety feet high by nine feet wide, gold plated from head to toe (v. 1). It probably looked like a missile on a launching pad, perhaps something like the Washington Monument. Our text goes to great lengths to note the idolatrous nature of this statue of gold. The word “statue” (Aramaic tselem) occurs more than ten times in the chapter. Whether this is an image to a particular god (possibly Marduk or Nabu) or an image to Nebuchadnezzar we cannot say. It probably involved both! Either way Dale Davis is right:
The story is first commandment material (Exod. 20:2). . . . The writer holds before you this episode because he wants you to make the same response as Daniel’s friends: I will believe and obey the first commandment even if it kills me (and it may). (Message of Daniel, 51)
That the pressure on these Hebrews, now young men, would have been enormous cannot be overstated. Note the following details: First, it was “set up” in a unique location on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon (v. 1). Dura simply means “wall” or “fortress,” so we cannot be certain of a specific location (Longman, Daniel, 97). The mention of Babylon recalls the story of the tower of Babylon (Gen 11) and its goal of unifying all the nations, all the ethnes on the earth.
Second, the Who’s Who, the movers and shakers of Nebuchadnezzar’s vast empire, were invited to the dedication service (v. 2). Third, Nebuchadnezzar set a time when national and religious allegiance to him would be put on public display with everyone participating (v. 3). This was a service of national, political, and religious unification. Fourth, grand and emotional music was to accompany the moment of dedication, adding a powerful psychological element to the service (v. 5). Fifth, a precise moment is specified for the time of submission and worship (v. 5).
Sixth, there is a death warning to anyone who refuses to “fall down and worship” (v. 6). Seventh, when the moment of commitment came, it appeared that everyone present pledged allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar and his idolatrous image (v. 7).
While we may not be confronted in the precise way these Hebrew men were, we can be certain the idols of our day will present themselves to us again and again. Some may come quietly and without drawing much attention. Others, however, will be public and put on display for many to witness. When that happens, what will you do? We may not live in the ancient city of Babylon, but we are exiles in a foreign land that is not our home, and idols can be seductive. The fact is, many idols are good things when properly viewed and used. But when a good thing becomes a god thing, it then becomes a bad thing. It becomes an idol. And do not be in doubt or deceived: God’s people will be confronted with the idols of this world.
God’s People Will Be Criticized by the People of This World
Honoring and obeying God are not always popular. Sometimes they get us into serious problems and even life-threatening situations. While the latter may not often be the experience of Christians in America, it is a daily reality for many of our brothers and sisters around the world. Simply trying to live a life that is faithful to the God and Savior they love leads them to be criticized, ostracized, and hated. Still, with the apostle Peter they will declare by words and actions, “We must obey God rather than people” (Acts 5:29).
When the time came to bow down and worship the golden image King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, three men conspicuously remained standing: the three Hebrew men known in Babylon as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (3:12). There was no spectacle or outburst of protest, just a quiet and simple act of civil disobedience. Quickly, however, their enemies sprang into action, as “some Chaldeans” (NIV, “astrologers”) came forward (v. 8). Andrew Hill notes, “The accusers are either Babylonian officials generally or members of a special guild of diviners or priestly class of wise men” (“Daniel,” 79). I have no doubt that they were rivals to the three Hebrew men and jealous of their significant positions in Nebuchadnezzar’s administration. It is possible they were also anti-Semitic (e.g., like Haman in Esth 3:5-6; see also Ps 83:1-5). They stepped forward to “maliciously accuse the Jews.” Literally, “They ate their pieces!” They sank their teeth into them!
This approach was a strategic one, for the evil one is a scheming and wise serpent. They butter up the king with a common but reverential word of praise, “May the king live forever” (v. 9). But then they give him a subtle and backhanded word of criticism that would strike at his “mega-pride.” They remind him that he gave the command to everyone to bow and worship the idol (v. 10) and decreed that everyone who failed to do so would face immediate execution (v. 11). Then they remind him that “there are some Jews you have appointed to manage the province of Babylon” (emphasis added). These are your boys, Nebuchadnezzar, and (1) they “ignored you, the king”; they don’t respect you and who you are. (2) “They do not serve your gods” either. (On this one the accusers were correct!) (3) Nor do they “worship the gold statue you have set up.”
Interestingly, the idea of the king setting up or establishing his idol appears seven times in this passage. This stands in striking contrast to Daniel 2:21, where Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar, “[God] changes the times and seasons; he removes kings and establishes kings.” Nebuchadnezzar is playing a role that only God plays! And in the process he is setting up a showdown that he is going to lose. But it certainly appears that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are in a no-win situation. The critics have come out in the open; they have carefully called out the king, and now he must do something to save face. The stage is set; and things do not look promising for these three Jewish men, these devoted disciples of “the God of the heavens” (2:18, 36, 44). He gave them favor and wisdom in chapter 1. The pressing question before us is, Now what will he do?
God’s People Will Be Challenged to Worship the Gods of This World
It takes courage not to compromise, and your mind needs to be made up before the pressure comes. If you wait until “the moment of truth,” you may find out it is too late.
Nebuchadnezzar set up an image made of gold to glorify himself and unify his kingdom. Everything was moving along nicely until these three Jews (v. 8) refused to go along to get along. To say that the head of the Babylonian government was unimpressed by their religious convictions is an understatement. Nebuchadnezzar was “in furious rage.” The three Jews had resisted the herd mentality and bravely stood alone. (Apparently Daniel was not present, for there is no doubt he would have stood with them.) Nebuchadnezzar commanded that they be brought before him (v. 13). He questioned them, asking if the accusations were true that they would not serve his gods or “worship” (used eleven times in this chapter: vv. 5, 6, 7, 10,11,12, 14,15[2x],18,28) the golden statue he had set up (v. 14). But before moving to their execution, he gave them a second chance (v. 15). Maybe he suspected they had been accused by jealous rivals. Perhaps he genuinely liked them and was looking to provide a way out of this political mess. If they would simply repent of disobeying the king, bow down, and worship his idol, all would be well and good. But if they did not, they would be immediately put to death by being burned alive in the fiery furnace. The options are clear and plain.
In providing them a second chance, Nebuchadnezzar asked the question that is the key to the entire episode: “Who is the god who can rescue you from my power?” (emphasis added). I know we do not naturally incline ourselves to identify with Nebuchadnezzar at this point, but I suspect we should. Do we not sometimes exalt ourselves beyond what we should? Do we not often act as if matters of destiny are in our hands and not God’s? Do we not draw attention to who we are, whom we know, and what we have done? Is not the same pride that is in the heart of this king lurking in our own? I want so badly to identify with these three Jewish men, but before I do I must first ask, Who is the God who will deliver me from my sin, pride, and arrogance? Who will deliver me from me?
The three Jews know the answer to the king’s question, and they will give it in verse 17. They will not trust in themselves, and they will not trust in the powers of this world even if it costs them everything. They will stand strong and trust in “the Most High God” (see Gen 14:18-20, 22). Nebuchadnezzar’s question indeed is the question of the ages: “Who is the God who will deliver?” The three Jews were glad he asked. The question had been settled in their hearts long ago. If challenged to worship the gods of this world and be praised or worship the one true and living God and be burned to a crisp, it is no contest. As Joshua said, so would they: “As for me and my family, we will worship the Lord” (Josh 24:15).
On September 27, 2015, the president of the United States of America spoke at a Democratic National Committee LGBT fund-raiser. Speaking on the topic of same-sex marriage, the president stated, “We affirm that we cherish our religious freedom, and we are profoundly respectful of religious traditions.” So far so good. However, the president went on to say, “But we also have to say that our religious freedom doesn’t grant us the freedom to deny our fellow Americans their constitutional rights” (Jackson, “Obama: Don’t Use Religion”). Was the president saying that in the final analysis government trumps God? Should the constitution be obeyed above Christ? Such questions should not surprise us. They were raised in Babylon twenty-five hundred years ago.
God’s People Must Be Courageous in the Face of Danger in This World
In his passion to get the gospel to every nation, tribe, people, and language (Rev 5; 7), God sends us to the nations. And sometimes in his wondrous providence he sends the nations to us. The latter is what he did on this fateful day in the lives of his three faithful servants in Babylon. Note the crowd in verses 2, 3, 4, 7, and 29. All the nations will hear what these men are about to say. Now note the confession of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in verses 16-18 before the most powerful political and governmental official on the earth in that day. These men have embraced a countercultural lifestyle with full and complete confidence in God’s power and God’s purposes.
Regardless of what the immediate outcome might be, three things were clear. First, God’s servants will bow down only to God and no one else. Second, God’s servants will trust in God’s sovereign purposes no matter what. Third, God’s servants will trust in God’s power and protection and leave what happens to his providential plan. Though the words of Jesus would not be spoken for another six hundred years, I wonder if the Holy Spirit had already put the concept of Mark 13:9-11 into the hearts of these three men:
But you, be on your guard! They will hand you over to local courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues. You will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them. And it is necessary that the gospel be preached to all nations. So when they arrest you and hand you over, don’t worry beforehand what you will say, but say whatever is given to you at that time, for it isn’t you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego tell Nebuchadnezzar the king, “We don’t need to give you an answer to this question” (3:16). For them the facts are clear: they did not bow down and worship. Furthermore, their hearts and minds on this issue were made up a long time ago. And finally, they will not adopt some spineless compromise that says something like this: “Well, we will bow on the outside, but we are really standing in the inside.” That is not an option for them!
If things proceed as threatened, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us . . . and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king” (v. 17 ESV). They know beyond a shadow of a doubt God’s power. However, they do not always know his plans and purposes. And neither do we. So they utter one of the greatest affirmations of faith in the whole Bible: “But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” This is a missionary declaration to the nations of absolute trust in their God and only their God. Deliverance and rescue are not the issues. Confession and obedience are, even if they cost them their lives. Their God and only their God “is worthy of the ultimate sacrifice” (Pierce, Daniel, 57). I love the ESV Study Bible’ s note on verse 18:
There was no doubt in the three men’s mind as to God’s power to save them (see 2:20-23). Yet the way in which God would work out his plan for them in this situation was less clear. God’s power is sometimes extended in dramatic ways to deliver his people, as when he parted the Red Sea for Israel on the way out of Egypt (Exodus 14); at other times, that same power is withheld, and his people are allowed to suffer. Either way, they would not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s image.
Nate Saint (1923–56) was martyred as a missionary to the Huaorani people group, the Auca Indians, in Ecuador. His willingness to die for Christ should not surprise us when we consider these words of his:
The way I see it, we ought to be willing to die. In the military, we were taught that to obtain our objectives we had to be willing to be expendable. Missionaries must face that same expendability. (Newell, Expect Great Things, 51)
I would simply add that every follower of the crucified Nazarene should have that same sense of expendability. Jesus is worth it. And he will give you the courage and strength to do it. After all, our God is able!
God’s People Can Be Confident the Lord Is with Them No Matter What Happens in This World
The great missionary to Burma, Adoniram Judson, wrote,
How great are my obligations to spend and be spent for Christ! What a privilege to be allowed to serve him . . . and suffer for him. . . . But in myself I am absolute nothingness. . . . Soon we shall be in heaven. Oh, let us live as we shall then wish we had done! (Newell, Expect Great Things, 51).
How I love this man’s heart! I think our Hebrew friends would have loved it too.
Once again the head of state is “filled with rage” (cf. v. 13). “The expression [lit. ‘image’] on his face changed” against the three Hebrews, and “he gave orders to heat the furnace seven times more than was customary” (v. 19), meaning, “Heat it as hot as you possibly can.”
He ordered “some of the best soldiers in his army,” his Army Rangers, to bind the three men and “throw them into the furnace of blazing fire” (v. 20). Most certainly they would have dropped them down through an opening at the top of the furnace. Another opening at ground level in front would give the king and his subjects a clear view of what happens to those who put their trust in a puny god and disobey the gods of real power. Remember, Nebuchadnezzar had soundly defeated Israel. Therefore it only seemed reasonable to assume his gods were superior to any god these Hebrews had to offer. Their immediate cremation would certainly leave no doubt!
The three Hebrews “were tied up and thrown into the furnace of blazing fire” fully clothed (v. 21). No doubt this would add fuel for the fire. The furnace was so hot the mighty men from the army were immediately consumed and killed (v. 22). As they perished, their last act of submission and obedience to the megalomaniacal king was to push Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego “bound, into the furnace of blazing fire” (v. 23). Nebuchadnezzar and his loyal, pagan, idolatrous subjects could now sit back and watch what would certainly be a brief human barbecue, an object lesson for all who pledge their allegiance to a god no one can see instead of to the gods of this world who wield true power.
But then something unexpected happened. The king himself was astonished and “jumped up in alarm” (v. 24). “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?” he asked his advisers. They responded in the affirmative, at which point the king knew he had a problem. First, the Hebrews did not die. In fact, they were no longer bound and were walking around unhurt as if being in a burning fiery furnace was no big deal (v. 25). Second, and more important, there were now four guys walking around in the furnace, and the fourth had the appearance “like a son of the gods.” In verse 28 Nebuchadnezzar calls the fourth person an angel. However, I think there is a better answer. Some believe this is a theophany, a manifestation of God’s presence. I believe it is this, but more. I believe this is what is called a Christophany, a preincarnate appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God. The Lord was in there with them. The God who did not deliver them from the fire was the God who met them in the fire and delivered them out of the fire!
Nebuchadnezzar invited the three Jewish men out of the furnace for all to see “that the fire had no effect” on them (v. 27). In fact “not a hair of their heads was singed, their robes were unaffected, and there was no smell of fire on them.” He rightly attributed this to “the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (v. 28), the God he called “the Most High God” (v. 26), the One he earlier had called “God of gods, Lord of kings” (2:47). God “quenched the raging of fire” (Heb 11:34), delivered those who “trusted in him” (Dan 3:28), and saved those who “yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their God” (ESV; cf. Rom 12:1-2).
As a result of the miracle in the furnace, the king issued a universal decree that if anyone spoke against this God, they would be summarily executed and their houses destroyed (3:29). Since only the Most High God can deliver from such an end, their fate would be sealed. They would die with no hope of rescue.
In the process of events, the king rewarded the three Hebrews in his kingdom (v. 30). Nebuchadnezzar once again experienced (as in chapter 2) conviction when he met the Most High God. However, conviction is not conversion! Like the beast of Revelation 13, the antichrist, Nebuchadnezzar would still have an image that citizens must worship or die. Like that beast he thought he would have a kingdom that never ends. Like that beast he too was badly mistaken.
Charles Spurgeon said it so well: “Beloved, you must go into the furnace if you would have the nearest and dearest dealings with Christ Jesus” (Sermons on the Book of Daniel, 3). These Hebrew men did just that. And they experienced exactly what Spurgeon says will happen when we do. When you walk into a fiery furnace, rest assured, Jesus is already there waiting for you.
Conclusion: How Does Our Text Point to Christ?
When Nebuchadnezzar looked into the fiery furnace, he saw four men, not three. The fourth, he said, “looks like a son of the gods” (v. 25). Later he said he was an angel (v. 28). That is not a bad guess for a pagan polytheist. We, however, know better. We can say with confidence the fourth person in the furnace was the one we know as Immanuel, “God is with us” (Matt 1:23). Some are hesitant to make a specific identification with the heavenly being as a preincarnate appearance of the Son of God. In all honesty I feel no such hesitation. I believe the One who walked with them in and through the fire is also the One who walked through the fires of hell on our behalf, in order that we too would not have a single cell of our souls singed by the fiery flames we actually deserve. This should not surprise us. The promises of an ever-present Savior with his people are a resounding theme throughout the Bible:
Then he continued, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. . . . “I will certainly be with you, and this will be the sign to you that I am the one who sent you: when you bring the people out of Egypt, you will all worship God at this mountain.” (Exod 3:6, 12)
I will be with you when you pass through the waters, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. You will not be scorched when you walk through the fire, and the flame will not burn you. (Isa 43:2)
All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:18-20)
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:37-39)
I will never leave you or abandon you. (Heb 13:5)
Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed. If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Pet 4:12-14)
I love the way James Montgomery Boice closes his sermon on Daniel 3 entitled “Faith in the Furnace.” It brings encouragement, hope, and joy to my soul; and it is my prayer it will do the same for you as you demonstrate courage in the fire for the One who has delivered us from an eternal fire, a fire he endured in our place!
It is not difficult to know who that fourth person was. He was Jesus Christ in a preincarnate form—perhaps the form he had when he appeared to Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or in which he wrestled with Jacob beside the brook Jabbok. It is a vivid portrayal of the fact that God stands with his people in their troubles. We sing in one of our hymns:
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow:
For I will be with thee thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine. (Daniel, 47)
Reflect and Discuss
- What are some situations in which you may have to show courage under fire the way Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to in this text?
- Nebuchadnezzar’s homage to Daniel’s God in chapter 2 was shallow and short lived. How can we discern when praise and repentance are genuine?
- The Hebrew men faced enormous pressure to conform. How does our culture pressure believers to reject God and conform to the status quo?
- What are some of the idols of our day that vie for our worship?
- How are you tempted to react when accusers and critics come against you? How does this line up with the reactions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
- Why is it often too late to develop our convictions in the moment of truth?
- Why must we identify with King Nebuchadnezzar before we try to identify with the three Jews?
- What does it mean to view your life as expendable for the sake of God’s kingdom? What did these three men care about more than their lives?
- When God doesn’t deliver us from dangers, trials, disease, or even death, does that mean he has abandoned us? Why or why not?
- How does the presence of Christ affect the way you face temptations to worship and chase after other gods?