Over the past fortnight we have been following the story of Daniel and his three friends – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. It is the sixth century BC, and they are Jewish exiles in Babylon. Able, intelligent and faithful young men, they were seeking to be obedient and loyal to the God of Israel in the midst of a foreign land. They were subject to the imperial rule of King Nebuchadnezar of Babylon, but were seeking to serve the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
As devoted Jews, Daniel and his friends would have been very familiar with the opening words of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image 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.”
Their obedience to these words is seriously put to the test in today’s passage. A passage in which we see enormous pressure to conform placed upon God’s people. A passage which reminds Christians today of the potential cost of obeying God, rather than man. But its also a passage in which we see the power of God to sustain and save all those who trust and obey him.
A golden idol
Daniel chapter 3 begins by telling us that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up an enormous golden statue in the plain of Dura, just outside Babylon. Standing approximately 90ft or 30 metres high, this golden idol was a symbol of Nebuchadnezzar’s power and authority. Its not entirely clear from the text whether the statue was a depiction of Nebuchadnezzar himself, or of one of his gods, or of a symbol of the Babylon empire in general.
But whatever it was exactly, Nebuchadnezzar made adoration of this statue a test of loyalty to him and his regime. For that reason he gathered all the leading officials of his realm and ordered them to give reverence to his statue. When his orchestra struck up their instruments, the gathered officials were required to fall to their knees and worship the golden statue. The whole scene is faintly comical, and rather pompous, were not so much at stake. Nebuchadnezzar’s golden god may well have been fake – no more divine than any other man-made item – but failure to comply was punishable by death.
This of course presented a huge problem to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. As devoted Jews, they could not worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue without violating the first commandment. To do so would have involved giving reverence and adoration to an idol, instead of to God.
Today of course, Christians may also be tempted to worship idols. Not stone statues, of course, but tempted or told to give excessive loyalty and adoration towards things that are less than God. Towards things like our football team, our favourite celebrity, our employer, or our hobbies. In other parts of the world some Christians face pressures rather more similar to those the three friends faced – pressures to worship pagan gods or oppressive political leaders. In each of these occasions God calls us as Christians to be obedient. To give him our highest loyalty and love, not anyone or anything else.
A courageous stand
To their great credit, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down before Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue. They stood firm when everyone around them fell to their knees. These three men of faith held to their principles despite peer pressure to conform.
As Christians in twenty-first century Britain, we too face enormous peer pressure. Pressure to conform to the worldview and values of our contemporary society. A secular society that increasingly endorses beliefs and behaviours which are very different to those of the Bible. We all – and especially younger Christians – will need God-given courage to order our lives around his commands rather than the values of our increasingly post-Christian culture. The next generation of Christians will need enormous moral courage to follow different principles to their peers.
As we joined the story this morning (in verse 13), the three friends of Daniel have been ‘dobbed in’ and denounced by some Babylonian astrologers, and dragged before a furious King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar gives them one last opportunity to obey him rather than God. Unless they submit to his authority and worship his image, they will be thrown into a blazing furnace.
Yet still Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to waver. Their words in verses 16 to 18 today are a courageous, defiant, declaration of faith: “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 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.”
Even in the face of an Emperor, even in the face of almost certain death, these courageous young men were obedient to God and remained true to their faith. They loved God more than life in this world, they valued God’s opinion of them above all else – so they stood firm.
In our own country, Christians who take a stand on biblical values or those who proclaim the Gospel in public may face ridicule, redundancy, cancellation or even court appearances. And in other parts of the world to profess faith in Christ is to literally put your life at risk. If we are ever placed in such situations may we be given the grace to stand strong, like Daniel’s three friends did. And let’s pray for fellow Christians around the world who are facing such situations this very day. May they be given the courage to do what’s right, come what may.
A God who saves
Returning to today’s passage, the three friends’ obstinacy enrages Nebuchadnezzar and he orders them to be thrown into a blazing furnace – a furnace so hot that it incinerates the soldiers who are tasked to throw them in!
But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are not incinerated. As he peers into the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar sees them unbound, unharmed – and increased in number! The three friends now have a fourth companion, someone Nebuchadnezzar describes (in verse 25) as “like a son of the gods” and (in verse 28) as an angel sent by God. This remarkable angel clearly provided protection and companionship to the three Jewish men during their fiery ordeal.
We should note two things from this remarkable scene:
God may not make us immune to persecution or immediately remove us from hardship, but he will never leave our side. As Jesus promised his first disciples, “I am with you always”. He is always with us, by his Spirit, in every season and circumstance of life – so turn to him in prayer.
This is the special angel who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush (for example), and some Bible scholars think it may have been him who also spoke to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in that burning furnace. If so, we may call this special angel a manifestation of the pre-existent Christ – a wonderful Old Testament ‘preview’ of the Son of God. A ‘sighting’ of Christ centuries before he was born as a baby in Bethlehem.
If we are Christians, Jesus Christ performs the same service to us that the angel in the fire performed for Daniel’s three friends. As we read the New Testament Jesus embodies God’s personal presence and speaks God’s words to us. And just as the angel saved the three men, Jesus has saved us from judgement by his own death and resurrection from the grave.
So today’s passage is more that a simple story for Sunday School kids. Its an inspiring example of obedience to God in the face of peer pressure and persecution. And its wonderful introduction to a God with the power to sustain and save his people in the face of overwhelming odds.
Nebuchadnezzar’s final words in verse 28 today are a fitting summary on which to end: “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own.” Let’s pray that we may we trust and obey him too…
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