With God in the Flames

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Imagine yourself some years in the future. Britain is now a hard-line Muslim state. And the Quran has contradictory things to say about how a Muslim state should treat the non-Muslims within it. On the one hand, surah 2 of the Quran says this: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’ (Q2:256). But on the other hand, surah 9 says this: ‘Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them.’ (Q9:5) And since one principle of reading the Quran is that later surahs abrogate (ie, ‘trump’) earlier ones, fighting and slaying the pagans is logically what a hard-line Muslim state might do. So imagine you’re in it. And there’s a knock on the door. And it’s the religious police. And the question is what thousands of our brothers and sisters in Indonesia have faced: will you submit to Islam, or die?

That’s the situation we’re going to look at tonight as we continue our series in the Old Testament (OT) book of Daniel. We’re going to look at the example of three OT believers faced with the same choice: submit to a false god, or die.

Now I realise you may already be tempted to tune out because you’re thinking, ‘I will almost certainly never face that situation.’ But we may. And even if we don’t, we need to learn that being a Christian means being willing to lose anything and everything rather than deny the Lord Jesus. And to see that from his own mouth, would you turn first to Mark 8.34. Jesus has just predicted how he will be rejected and die on a cross.V34:

34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself [ie, what self wants, is no longer what rules your life, but what Jesus wants. He must deny himself…] and take up his cross and follow me [ie, be willing for what Jesus predicted for himself – namely rejection up to and including the point of death as a result of siding with him]. 35For whoever wants to save his life [by denying Christ] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8.34-35)

We like to think there are two types of Christians: 1) the ‘elite’, who are willing to lose anything and everything for Christ; and 2) those who are just willing to lose a bit - but nothing too extreme. And Jesus says: no. There is one and only one definition of a Christian and it’s Mark 8.34. The definition is that I am a person who is willing to lose anything and everything rather than deny the Lord Jesus. And if I can’t say that, as well as show some evidence of what I have so far lost for Christ, I am not a Christian. And if you can’t say that as well as show some evidence of what you have so far lost for Christ, you are not a Christian, either. So Daniel 3 is not just about an extreme situation with no relevance to us. It’s about the mark of a genuine Christian – and whether or not we can see that mark in ourselves.

So would you now turn to Daniel 3. This is the example of three believers who were willing to lose anything and everything rather than deny the Lord. You’ll remember they’d been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon, and were now living in a pagan culture under a pagan king. In chapter 1 we saw how King Nebuchadnezzar re-trained them for his own civil service and how, under pressure to conform at every point, Daniel and his friends drew a line over eating the king’s food. Then in chapter 2 we saw how Daniel interpreted one of the king’s dreams which showed that God is the ultimate King and his future kingdom is the ultimate kingdom – ie, that there are bigger realities in life to take into account than, for instance, pagan kings who threaten to kill you. But in chapter 3, that threat is exactly what comes to Daniel’s three friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. I’ve got three headings:


First, THE THREAT TO BELIEVERS (vv1-7)

[Verse 1:] King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. (v1)

So this was basically the Angel of the North minus its wings and with more gold plate than Gateshead council could possibly afford. And it stands for the gods that Nebuchadnezzar worshipped. Read on, v2:

2 [Nebuchadnezzar] then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. 3 So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it.

4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed, "This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace." (vv2-6)

So that was the threat to believers: government-enforced submission to a false god. So what would be similar situations today?

Well, one would be the hard-line Muslim state. Because in Islam, government and god are linked, just like Nebuchadnezzar and his false gods were. And as we’ve seen, one strand of the Quran’s teaching permits the Muslim to fight and slay the pagans. So here’s a quote from a contemporary Muslim leader in Nigeria explaining to Muslims how to apply that part of the Quran:

“If you are living with a non-Muslim in your area, and you want him to go, you simply call him and tax him [that’s the tax the Quran talks about as a sign of submission to Islam]. You tell him that he will live in your neighbourhood only on condition that he pays tax… If he refuses… then you have to advise him on three occasions that I will be coming at [a certain] date to wage war against you. Only when he consistently proves obstinate are you allowed, in Islam, to wage war against him. The intention is to ensure that he is well prepared.” [Cross & Crescent, Colin Chapman, IVP, p287]

That’s Islam: government and god linked. So that although Islamic states differ, it’s consistent with one strand of the Quran’s teaching to demand that non-Muslims go, submit, or die.

In some other political regimes, government is ‘god’. Eg, Communism: it’s officially atheistic, it says there is no God. And the government then takes the place of god and tries to make absolute demands on people, including demands on what they believe. And although the situation in China, for instance, is changing, there is still a large amount of government-enforced persecution of Christians.

Just for the record, the Biblical view is that God – the one true God of the Bible – is above government, and that the church is independent of government (it should not be influenced by government, but should be trying to influence government); and that although we are under government, we are ultimately under God so that if government requires of us submission to a false god, or any other course of action against God’s will, we must say No.

So coming closer to home, our Government is working on the Equality Bill. The false god in this case is the god of the individual, the god of my individual right to have my lifestyle choices affirmed by everyone. And the Bill will almost certainly affect charities which own buildings (eg, us). It’s been proposed that charities should lose their charitable status unless they’re willing to rent their premises to anyone. So you couldn’t legally refuse a Muslim group, or a pro-gay group, or the Satanists. But as Christians, we would have to say, ‘No.’

But it’s not just government that can enforce submission to false gods. The culture does it. And the false god which our culture enforces is pluralism – ie, the belief that the many (plural) religions are all equally true. And it’s just like Nebuchadnezzar setting up his image. He wasn’t asking you to stop worshipping your own god. He was just asking you to worship his as well. And, today, pluralism says, ‘We don’t mind you worshipping your Jesus; but you must affirm that other religions are valid paths to God as well. And if you don’t, we’ll call you intolerant or bigoted or (insult of insults) fundamentalist.’ To which a Christian has to say, ‘No.’ Because Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14.6)

But it’s not just government and culture. Lesser powers can enforce submission to false gods. Eg, a school head teacher may try to enforce pluralism. So when he asks a Christian to do an assembly, he says, ‘You must only talk about God in a way that people of all faiths could agree with. And only pray in a way that people of any faith could go along with. Don’t mention Jesus.’ To which a Christian has to say, ‘No.’ Or, eg, a hospital trust may try to enforce pluralism. A Christian surgeon I know of has just been suspended without any hearing. And the only possible thing against him is that he’s known for asking everyone on whom he operates whether they’d let him share his faith with them. But pluralism says, ‘You shall not evangelise’ (because that is to imply what someone else currently believes is wrong), to which a Christian has to say, ‘No.’ Or, eg, a business may try to enforce submission to the false god money. This isn’t true of all business, but I’ve mentioned before the friend of mine who was asked at interview whether he would lie for the company (eg, ‘Will you tell them we can deliver by the date they want, even though we can’t, in order to land the contract?’) To which a Christian has to say, ‘No.’

Those are exact parallels to this situation in Daniel 3. Where the powers that be try to enforce submission to a false god - whether by written or unwritten law. And it has wider application to when the powers that be try to enforce anything against God’s will – eg, if doctors were ever obliged to provide euthanasia. So, back to Daniel 3 and v7:

7 Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. (v7)

So most people do bow down to this god Nebuchadnezzar has set up – even though it’s obviously false and foolish to do so. And nothing has changed. So, today, most people do bow down to pluralism even though 10 seconds’ thought shows that it’s false and foolish: eg, if Christianity says Jesus is the Son of God and was crucified for us, and Islam says he isn’t the Son of God and wasn’t crucified, then obviously they cannot both be true. Pluralism shown false in less than 10 seconds. People don’t believe pluralism because it’s true but because it’s convenient. Again, today, more and more people bow down to the god of the individual whose lifestyle choices must be affirmed. But experience of those lifestyle choices shows that that, too, is false and foolish. Eg, I helped a guy (not from Newcastle) recently who’s actively gay and considering turning to Christ. And he said how ‘awful’ and ‘disgusting’ and ‘utterly unsatisfying’ the gay scene is (his words). So why do you do it? ‘I’m addicted.’

And if you’re not yet a Christian, you’ll find yourself there in v7, bowing down with the majority to gods, to values, to politically correct ideas that you know in your heart of hearts are false and foolish. (And I must confess on behalf of Christians that we are still inconsistent in this regard.) But peer pressure and fear keep you a regular worshipper. Non-Christians often look at Christians and think, ‘Poor people. Can’t get drunk, can’t have sex outside marriage, etc, etc. I’m so glad I’m free.’ But in actual fact, if you’re not yet a Christian it’s you who’s not free, who’s there in the crowd in v7, conforming like everyone else.

That’s the threat to believers.


Secondly, THE RESPONSE OF BELIEVERS (vv8-18)

8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, "O king, live forever! 10 You have issued a decree, O king, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, O king. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up." (vv8-12)

I take it that means Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s first response was quiet non-conformity. They didn’t directly challenge Nebuchadnezzar; they had to be ‘shopped’ to him by others. And sometimes quiet non-conformity is the best we can do – eg, as here, under an absolute dictator, where you’ve no way of changing things. But in a democracy, we do have a way of attempting to change things - and should use it. And numerous MP’s have said that what changed things over the Religious & Racial Hatred Bill was Christians campaigning. But sometimes, quiet non-conformity is the best you can do for the Lord. But you may then get shopped. Read on, v13:

13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, "Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?" (vv13-15)

And in those last words you catch something of the megalomania of the man. It would be similar if in the case of that suspended surgeon I mentioned, the director of the hospital were to call him in and say, ‘You know, your name will be black-listed. You might never work again. And I know you’ve still got kids to get through university. Where will you be able to go from here if we sack you?’ As if you’re ultimately in a hospital director’s hand, or Nebuchadnezzar’s hand, rather than in the hand of Almighty God. As if he couldn’t get you another job, or rescue you one way or the other from a furnace. So here’s the next part of the believer’s reaction, v16:

16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. [Ie, we are certain he is able to rescue us, and we are confident that he will. But you can’t be certain that God will rescue you, you can’t presume to know the future that only he knows, so,…] 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." (vv16-18)

Ie, we’re willing to lose anything and everything rather than deny the Lord. So what enables a believer to say that? Keep a paw in Daniel 3 and turn back to Mark 8.35. Jesus speaking, v35:

35For whoever wants to save his life [that is, by denying the Lord] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man [ie, Jesus] will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels." (Mark 8.35-38)

What enables a believer to say ‘I’m willing to lose anything and everything rather than deny the Lord Jesus’ is the conviction that what matters more than anything in this life is where we spend the next life – in the new creation with Christ, or in hell without him. Jesus died and rose again, as we remember in communion, to pay for our place in the new creation. And if we’ve accepted him, and therefore know we’re going there, we must learn to say to ourselves, ‘That will compensate for anything and everything I lose now as a result of following him.’ So, what if being an active, evangelising Christian loses us the approval of friends? We have the compensation of knowing that on that last day, we will have the approval of Jesus. And at that moment we’ll be in no doubt that it’s better to have his approval and welcome, than the approval of others.

While I was doing my bit against the Racial & Religious Hatred Bill, I thought about being prosecuted and prison. I think that’s a likelihood for some of us in our lifetime, and that it would be very hard. Some of you remember Bishop Howell Davis who’s visited us. He worked in Uganda and was imprisoned by the regime. He once joked to me that it gave him more time for Bible reading. But I don’t doubt that that joke covered over a lot he wouldn’t wish to remember or speak about. It’s very hard when a society says ‘You don’t belong’ by putting you in prison. But actually, we don’t ultimately belong here. And we can’t ultimately be comfortable here – in prison or out – except by being compromised. But we have the compensation of knowing we will one day belong in a sin-free world where there is no longer any opposition to Christ – either within us, or around us.

And worst case scenario: what if I, what if you, had to be thrown into a furnace (or equivalent)? I hate pain. And I don’t know how long it would last. But the compensation is that your next conscious experience beyond death would be to be with Christ forever.

That’s what enables the response of believers.


Thirdly, THE WITNESS OF BELIEVERS (vv19-30)

Would you turn back to Daniel 3.19:

Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king's command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, "Weren't there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?"
They replied, "Certainly, O king."

25 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." [Ie, in some way, God is present with them.]

26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, "Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!"
So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
(vv19-27)

You may be thinking that sounds like fiction, not fact. So can I say: the other details of this account are supported by evidence outside the Bible. We do know there were these huge images in the ancient world; we do know of these titles for government officials from other writings of the time; we do know that these furnaces were used for capital punishment. The only detail that really raises the question is the miracle. And if you’re saying, ‘It couldn’t have happened,’ I’m saying, ‘It could if the God of the Bible is really there. And there’s not much point in investigating the Bible if you’ve closed your mind in advance to the possibility that he is.’

Look finally at Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction:

28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, "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."

30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon. (vv28-30)

Now Nebuchadnezzar didn’t ‘become a Christian’ at this point (to use our language). But he did get some sense that their God was real. And look at what gave him that in v28: it was partly the miracle. But partly also the fact that they ‘were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.’ And that part of their witness would have been the same whether or not God had chosen to rescue them. And it’s vital to say that because the lesson of this passage is emphatically not that God will always rescue his people like this. Read the rest of Daniel, read the rest of the Bible, read church history (in which there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in the previous 19 centuries put together), and you cannot reach the conclusion that God will always rescue like this.

And the point is: we witness to God’s reality by being willing to lose anything and everything rather than deny him – regardless of any rescue here and now. So think of my friend who said in that job interview, ‘No, I wouldn’t lie for the company – I’m a Christian.’ There was no ‘rescue’ or miracle for him. No-one on the panel said, ‘At last, a man of integrity: give him a job! In fact, make him managing director!’ There was no miracle. But they saw the witness of a man who was willing to lose a job rather than deny the Lord Jesus. And the reality of Christ was felt in that office that day.

And that’s the mark of the genuine Christian. Not the one whose life is a string of rescues and vindications in the eyes of the world. But the one who says, ‘I’m willing to lose anything and everything rather than deny the Lord Jesus. Because I know that, when he comes again, I will be the winner beyond a shadow of a doubt.’

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