This is message #6 is our sermon series, The Faith-FULL Life.
I have a concern for my children. That concern is that they be prepared to navigate life as disciples of Jesus in a post-Christian culture where their voice will increasingly be the minority. I don’t want them to be shocked, nor do I want them to be self-righteous. Rather, I want them to be equipped to engage our culture with truth and grace as ambassadors of Jesus to a world that needs the gospel almost as much as they do. We actually have this conversation at the dinner table quite often.
It may begin with me asking a question like, “Is the United States a Christian nation?” To which they accurately respond, “No.” My follow up question is this, “Was the United States founded to be a Christian nation.” The answer to that question also is no. After all, if the answer were yes, then either everyone in America would be required to be a Christian, or our founding documents would explicitly mention the Bible or Christianity.[i]
Yet, there is a third question: “Was the founding of the United States influenced by Christianity?” The answer to that question undoubtedly is yes. While our foundational documents do not explicitly reference Christianity in particular, they were profoundly influenced by a biblical world view.
John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”[ii] Adams was not saying that it was made for a good people, but a people who agreed on a moral framework from which righteous laws could be established that would enable the people to flourish rather than flounder.[iii]
This does not mean that Americans have been consistent in applying a biblical worldview, as slavery in particular attests. This is important to recognize, or else we may be tempted to glorify the American past and talk as if our country today is going to hell in a handbasket. The truth is that the world has been going to hell in a handbasket ever since Adam and Eve rejected the wisdom and ways of God in the garden.[vi]
So, the concern that I have for my children and their children is not that they or we move to a remote island to avoid the challenges of living in a post-Christian world. No, my concern for them and all of us is that we understand and face the challenges, but also that we take hold of the opportunity of living in a post-Christian culture.
It is a similar challenge and opportunity that we see in the Old Testament book of Daniel, which was written in the sixth century B.C. during the Israelite captivity in Babylon.[vii]
The King of the Babylonians was Nebuchadnezzar, who sacked Jerusalem in 605 B.C., carrying off Jews to serve as slaves in Babylon. Yet there were four uniquely gifted Hebrew young men whom Nebuchadnezzar appointed to serve in his royal court. Their names were Daniel, who was given the Babylonian name Belteshazzar; Hananiah, who became Shadrach; Mischael, who became Meshach; and Azariah, whom we know as Abednego.
For these young men and the rest of the Jews, living in Babylon would be a challenge to their faithfulness to God. Would they be faithful, or would they compromise and just blend in? Faithfulness wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, each of these four men would all be forced to make life and death decisions.
We pick up the story in Daniel 3, where Nebuchadnezzar has built a massive, golden statute and has required the leaders of the kingdom to attend the dedication ceremony. Although Daniel is absent from the event, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are present, when an order is given that everyone must worship the image or be cast into a burning furnace.[viii]
When they refused, they were met with…
I. The King’s Demand (vv. 13-15)
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?”
Babylon did not have a Bill of Rights. They did, however, worship many gods. Which means that it was okay for the Jews to have their own God as long as they paid homage to the gods of the state. In other words, it was fine if they kept their personal faith private. But if they failed to bow to the King’s god, they would pay the price.
Nebuchadnezzar portrays the ultimate in what we call political correctness. The earliest expressions of that phrase are connected to post World War II Soviet Union, where political correctness was associated with the authoritarian political and social doctrines of Joseph Stalin. You could hold personal views. But if you expressed them publicly, you would pay the price.
Some fear that the same thing is happening today in America. So, a concern I have for my children is that they recognize the dangers inherent in being a disciple of Jesus when being faithful is not politically correct.[ix]
I want them to be prepared for social and political marginalization or even criminal prosecution. I don’t bring this up to scare them, but to prepare them ~ to be faithful when they will be tempted to compromise.
Apparently, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were prepared. We see this in…
II. The Believers’ Reply/Decision (vv. 16-18)
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. 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.”
These young men decide to suffer the consequences of faithfulness. But let’s not pass by the severity of their decision. If there are ways to die, the option set before them would be one of the most feared. It would have been understandable if they had compromised. After all, they are not being required to denounce their God – just bow to a golden idol. They could at least claim coercion. No, they were prepared to be faithful unto death.
There comes a time when the rubber hits the road, and faith must be tested as to whether it is genuine or not. If you were in their shoes, what would you have done? I fear that I would have bowed to the image. After all, I’ve bowed before and the alternative wasn’t anything close to a furnace. We all know the pressure. Most of us have resisted speaking truth out of fear of what others might think or what it might do to our career.
What I want my kids to know is that the furnace is only going to get hotter. The pressure to conform and adapt to the new state religion of political correctness is going to become greater, not lesser.[x] [xi] [xii]
This is where we need to emphasize not only the challenge, but the opportunity of living in a post-Christian context. After all, Christianity has never been at its best when culturally comfortable. I think that an era of religious persecution is going to require the church to become distinctive again. The church is going to be pruned, and in pruning, I think it will grow healthier and be far more fruitful in the coming generation. The church will no longer be a social club, an entertainment center, a self-help center, or a fortress. It will be a lighthouse for a new dark ages, where biblical truth and gospel grace will be the distinctives of a church that I pray will be known not only for speaking truth humbly, but for preaching grace boldly as we love our enemies by serving them, blessing them, clothing them, feeding them and praying for them.
Those who decide to be faithful to Jesus unto death will need…
III. The Lord’s Protection (vv. 19-27)
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.” 26Nebuchadnezzar 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.
Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego faced the furnace and survived. In their faithfulness, they received the Lord’s protection as the pre-incarnate Jesus appeared to them, being with them in the furnace.
Indeed, the Lord’s promise in Isaiah 43:2 was literally true for them, where we read, “When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, the flame will not consume you.”
So, what furnace are you are facing? Where are you are being tempted to compromise or tempted to feel ashamed for being a disciple of Jesus? I wonder if it would help to envision Jesus with you in the furnace when you are being called names, in danger of losing the promotion, or facing a lawsuit because of being faithful to Jesus’ Lordship?
This is what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego needed – the presence and power of God to be with them. So do we. And when he is, we will see…
IV. The Eventual Impact (vv. 28-30)
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… 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.[xiii]
Obviously, not all faithfulness results in a promotion, or the King granting religious freedom and privilege. But I believe that a willingness to suffer the consequences of faithfulness is going to be a pre-requisite for the kind of impact and influence that is possible as God works the grace of missional humility in the lives of his people, where we engage culture not from a position of the self-righteous majority, but as the God-dependent minority.[xiv] The world is going to notice. And it may be, like Tertullian wrote in the second century, that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” It may take modern-day, faithful martyrs in the west for the church to experience another Great Awakening.
But the ultimate cultural impact is not going to be the result of our faithfulness, but the impact of Jesus’ faithfulness. In the New Testament, Jesus spoke of another fiery furnace which was reserved for those who rejected, not Nebuchadnezzar, but the One True King, not a golden statute, but Jesus. What is most striking is that Jesus himself is the one who is willing to face and endure the horror of the furnace in the place of the unfaithful and sinful – people like me, and like you.
On the cross, Jesus endured the flames of judgement so that we, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, could pass through the flames … and not be burned.
This is what it means to receive Christ as Savior. To believe upon him as the one who faced your furnace, endured your judgement, and has set you free from fear so that you can live as an ambassador of his truth and grace, unashamed and unafraid of any furnace, because Jesus has gone ahead of you… and promises to be with you.
[i] In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was a state religion, called a theocracy, from the Greek word Theos, which means God, and kratos, which means rule. In a theocracy the laws of the state are not designed by the citizens, but are received directly from God. By contrast, a democracy is rule by the demos, or the people.
[ii] In a letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts.
[iii] Noah Webster stated, “The moral principles and precepts contained in the scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws. All the miseries and evils which men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery, and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible.”
[iv] Even with the inherent problems associated with human government, in their genius, the founders designed a government where the people would elect representatives, and those representatives would be accountable to their constituents and to each other, whereby the government would exist to preserve life and protect freedom. This did not mean that citizens were given the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. That is anarchy. But the founders gave broad freedoms, whereby citizens could hold beliefs and express those beliefs freely, without fear of punishment. In this way, they sought to prevent not only anarchy, but also sought to prevent governmental tyranny.[iv]
[v] Although we share concerns for racial equality and environmental responsibility, there are many Christians having a hard time contemplating how quickly the original, foundational value system of the nation is being replaced by a system with implications that bear upon the sanctity of human life and euthanasia, embryonic genetics, what constitutes a legal marriage, which gender should be drafted for war, and which bathroom each gender should use.
[vi] Although church attendance was high during the days of the Pilgrims in the 1600s, by the early 1700s fewer than 20% of Americans attended church services on Sundays. That is still the statistic today.
[vii][vii][vii] At this time, Babylon, which is about 50 miles south of modern-day Baghdad, was the largest and most influential city in the ancient world, on par with a modern-day New York, London or Tokyo.
[viii] [viii] Robert B. Chisholm, “The Major Prophets,” in Holman Concise Bible Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 334.
[ix] By the mid-1990s, political correctness had become a term used by social and political conservatives in America to describe a left-leaning movement that they believed was attempting to reshape the moral landscape of western civilization by demanding that certain social views be accepted. Two common tactics used to achieve their agenda were limiting freedom of speech and demonizing opponents.[ix] However, some on the left have charged those on the right with hypocrisy, as conservatives have tended to use the same tactics against their cultural rivals, including name-calling and political intimidation. This led to what has come to be known as the culture war. Not a war over territory as much as ideology. The problem is that in war, you don’t engage to persuade; you fight to win. Many well-known Christians were sucked into the culture war, and in the process forgot that believers are not to view enemies as those to defeat, as much as those to love by serving them, blessing them, praying for them and engaging them by speaking truth with humility and respect.
[x] There are generally two biblical reasons for civil disobedience. One is when you are commanded to disobey the Lord, like the Hebrew midwives in Egypt being told to kill the newborn males. They refused. The other occasion is when you are forbidden from obeying the Lord, such as when Peter and boys were told to stop preaching about the resurrected Jesus. They, too, refused.
[xi] They will be made to feel socially ostracized, politically marginalized and may face criminal prosecution for holding certain theological and social positions, as well as how they choose to raise their children and what they will teach them, especially when what they teach comes in conflict with the acceptable, politically correct doctrines of the state
[xii] Edmund Burke the 18th century British statesman and philosopher said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” I find it ironic that a country that fought two massive wars in order to preserve democracy and prevent socialism, communism and tyranny, would be so quickly trending in that direction.
[xiii] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Da 3:13–30.
[xiv] In the second century AD, early church father Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” implying that as the culture sees believers living faithfully as disciples of Jesus, even faithful unto death, they will be affected and eventually the entire culture will be transformed.