In today’s scripture we find one of most well-known biblical stories, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and the Fiery Furnace. In the last post we learned in chapter 2 all about Nebuchadnezzar and his dream. 2600 years ago, this powerful ruler of most of the known world had a recurring dream of a statue of a man with a head made of gold, then a chest and arms of silver, a belly and mid-section made of bronze, with legs of iron and toes made of a mixture of iron and clay. In the dream this statue is just standing there minding it’s business when a stone comes flying through the air and when it hits the entire statue is reduced to dust. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that the golden head of this statue represented him and the Babylonian Empire. The other metals represented other empires that would come after his. And as verse 44 says, the rock represented God’s coming kingdom,“…a kingdom that will never be destroyed nor will it be left to another people.”
When he heard all this, Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face before Daniel. He praised Daniel’s God, our God,the one true God. Nebuchadnezzar seemed to be on the verge of giving up his idols. He even promoted Daniel,and his three friends Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego. Verse 48 says, “Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men. Moreover, at Daniel’s request, the king appointed Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon.”
Sixteen years have passed since that day. As the curtain opens on chapter 3 Nebuchadnezzar is in the 18th year of his reign. And in all these years since his dream none of the prophecies from Daniel’s interpretation have come true. There has been no “silver” kingdom…no “bronze” kingdom…no “iron” kingdom. And there has been absolutely no sign whatsoever of a magical flying stone. So,pumped up with a renewed sense of invincibility,the king thumbs his nose at God and builds a massive idol out on the plains of Dura to be a glittering symbol of his “sovereign” rule. As you can see in this illustration, it was massive,over eight stories tall,and not just the head but the entire towering image was overlaid in gold. Nebuchadnezzar had apparently decided, “No kingdom, natural or supernatural, is going to crush my statue…or my empire. After all, why should my kingdom be succeeded by others? Why shouldn’t this great ‘golden’ Babylon I have built last forever?” So he built this massive statue not to reflect his dream,but his desires.
Once the monument to his ego was completed, verse 2 says he,“…sent word to assemble the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates and all the rulers of the provinces…to come to the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.” This assemblage of powerful people from all levels of society represented every ethnic group and religion under Nebuchadnezzar’s authority,and it was a very diverse grouping. Remember, Nebuchadnezzar had conquered lots of nations and people groups and he had brought the best representatives of each culture to serve him in Babylon. In his commentary on this text Swindoll writes, “As the king surveyed the colorful crowd milling around the base of the statue, the morning sun flashed brilliantly off the polished gold, practically blinding the eyes of the onlookers. When the moment was right, Nebuchadnezzar signaled for quiet, and according to verses 4-6, the herald proclaimed the royal decree: “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: 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. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”
So, apparently there was a furnace near the statue, perhaps it is the same one Nebuchadnezzar’s workers used to shape his towering golden image. verse 7 says that as soon as the throngs of people who came to this dedication,as soon as they heard music, they fell on the ground and began to worship the golden image. The Hebrew literally says, “…as soon as they were hearing, they were falling.” It was a race to see who hit the ground first. No one wanted to face those flames! But then through the idol-worshiping crowd, there was a ripple of noise that grew until everyone lifted their heads to see. The music stopped and nobody looked at the statue anymore. They were looking at the front of the throng where Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, three of the highest ranking officials in the country were still standing. , in the midst of a groveling nation, in an act that looked like either monumental courage or suicidal folly, these three refused to bend the knee to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue.
They refused to bow their heads,and no one had any doubt about what would happen next, because everyone knew these Jewish men had powerful enemies. We meet them in verse 8 where it says, “At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews.” The word “denounced” here literally means “to eat the pieces of them.” It could be translated “slandering” because it was intended to convey intense hostility. In short, if words could kill,these words would,because that’s actually what the astrologers hoped would happen!
Think of it. For the past 16 years these wise men had been forced to follow the authority of these three young Jews which means they had been nursing their grudge for a long time. To them this is their chance to finally bring these three down, so they immediately charged them with treason. You can almost feel their eagerness to do so as you read verses 8-12:
8 But some of the astrologers went to the king and informed on the Jews….10 You issued a decree requiring all the people to bow down and worship the gold statue…12 But there are some Jews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—whom you have put in charge of the province of Babylon. They pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They refuse to serve your gods and do not worship the gold statue you have set up.”
We wonder where was Daniel in all of this? Some say he was on business elsewhere…that the king had sent him to some far away part of his kingdom but I it could be the answer is in Daniel 2:48-49, that says Daniel “…remained at the royal court…” He may have been at his post in the city doing his assigned job,but back to the situation out on the plains of Dura. As if he can’t quite believe anyone would dare defy his orders, the king gives Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego one more chance…he gives them one more shot to pledge their allegiance to the golden image but not without reiterating the punishment if they still refuse. Look at verses 13-15:
13 Then Nebuchadnezzar flew into a rage and ordered that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought before him. When they were brought in, 14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you refuse to serve my gods or to worship the gold statue I have set up? 15 I will give you one more chance to bow down and worship the statue… But if you refuse, you will be thrown immediately into the blazing furnace. And then what god will be able to rescue you from my power?”
What kind of people were Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego? How could they do this, what made them able to stand up when everyone else bowed?” What can we learn from them?
- When Convictions are Tested, Refuse to Compromise
Like Daniel, as God-followers, they had deeply held beliefs, especially when it came to idol worship. They knew God’s commandments from Exodus 20 where it plainly says, “Do not worship any other gods beside Me….Do not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything…Do not bow down and worship them, for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation and those who hate Me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:3-6) So understand. These three young men knew the Scriptures.
They knew what they believed and, more importantly they believed what they knew, so deeply that they were willing to lay their lives on the line. Let me put it this way, they held to their convictions so firmly that they would literally rather “burn than turn.”
This reminds me of an incident from the life of Martin Niemoeller, a well-known German hero of the first world war. During the 2nd world war Niemoeller again displayed heroic bravery as he spent time in prisons and concentration camps because of his firm opposition to Adolph Hitler. Hitler realized that if Niemoeller could be persuaded to join his cause then, due to his popularity, much opposition to the Nazi movement would collapse. So he sent a former friend of Niemoeller’s to visit him, a friend who supported the Nazis. Seeing Niemoeller in his prison cell, the onetime friend asked, “Martin, Martin! Why are you here?” And Niemoeller replied, “My friend, my friend! Why are you NOT here?” Like these three Jewish youth, Niemoeller had convictions based on his understanding of God’s Word, convictions that were dearer to him than life itself. These convictions enabled him to stand up to Adolph Hitler just as the convictions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego enabled them to stand up to Nebuchadnezzar.
Most of us will not be faced with a choice between compromise or execution like these three. But the issue is the same regardless of the penalty.
Many of us fail in the Christian life because we are not willing to pay even the price of a loss of popularity or loneliness or ridicule or economic hardship. Ortberg calls this “furnace avoidance.” And ,only those who have enough conviction to be willing to pay the price, even if the price is death itself, only these people make a real difference in this world.
How firmly do we hold to our convictions? Do we believe what we know? Does the decision-making part of our brain follow the guidance of God’s written Word such that it knows that there is a right and a wrong? Or have we programmed our brain according to the world’s standards? Will we refuse to compromise even when threatened? We’ll never be able to say brave words like these three young men did, and we’ll never make any real difference in this world until we become people of Christian conviction.
Look back at the question Nebuchadnezzar asks in verse 15. He says, “What god will be able to deliver you from my hand if you refuse to bow to my statue?” This is a rhetorical question, but much to his surprise, these three men don’t treat his inquiry as a rhetorical question at all. In verse 16: “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, ‘O 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 save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hand, O king.” What a statement of remarkable faith. What did they say? “Our God is able to save us from the furnace. He is able to rescue us from danger. He is able to deliver us from even your hand, O king. Our God is able.” Did these three have confidence in God or what?! In essence they said, “Nebuchadnezzar, you ask what god will be able to rescue us from your hand, here’s your answer: Ours can! Ours IS able!”
Another reason these three men could be so brave and bold in the face of this particular “worst case scenario” is because they knew they served the only TRUE God, the God Who IS ABLE to do “…exceedingly, abundantly above all that they could ask or think.” (Ephesians 3:20) These three men knew that as Jeremiah says, “Nothing is to hard for God.” (Jeremiah 32:17) In short, they were absolutely certain that God had the ability, the power, to deliver them from this fiery dilemma. When everyone else bowed, they were able to stand up and say these words because of their unshakable confidence in God.
- When in Trouble, Remember God is Able
I don’t know if it’s possible for followers of God to spend too much time reflecting on stories that teach this vital truth so it bears repeating: The God we serve, the God we worship, our God is able!
We know that there is nothing God cannot do. God can do anything!
- He is able to reconcile broken marriages.
- The God we serve is able to liberate people from addiction.
- The God we serve is able to heal damaged bodies
- …and able to forgive the darkest sin.
- The God we serve is able to provide for the greatest need,
- …able to guide with supernatural wisdom,
- …able to inspire spiritual gifting beyond human ability in unbelievable ways,
- …able to soften the hardest heart,
- …able to bring the farthest runaway prodigal rebel back home.
He is able! And these three young men believed that in the depths of their being. They could refuse to bow, they could stand up in the face of this worst-case scenario because they were men of Godly conviction who embraced complete confidence in God.
Their commitment made Nebuchadnezzar furious. He burned with rage, and as a reflection of that he ordered the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual. He ordered them bound and thrown in the fire and the fire was so hot that it killed the soldiers who threw them in. Imagine what it must have been like! The three feel themselves tumbling into the flames. They wait for the searing pain, the numbness, for the smoke inhalation that would suffocate their lungs, but none of that happens. They aren’t even warm! There are no burns, no smoke. They realize that they don’t feel any different, except they are no longer bound. But the best part is they discover they are not alone in the furnace. And they weren’t alone in this realization. Look at verse 24: “Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement. He asks his advisors, ‘Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?’ Look I see FOUR men walking around in the fire, unbound, and unharmed and the fourth looks like The Son of God.” Nebuchadnezzar was correct because this was a pre-incarnation of God’s only Son, Jesus Himself. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego met Him hundreds of years before anyone else. Think of it. They came to this place on the Plain of Dura intending to withhold worship and they ended up worshiping as they never had in their lives, at the feet of the Son of God!! I love how Ortberg puts it. He says, “Sometimes God saves us from the furnace but many times He saves us in the furnace.” And these three young men had the confidence in God that allowed them to experience this truth first hand.
3. When in the Fire, Reveal Jesus
In Christian circles we talk a lot about being FULLY devoted followers of Jesus, but I wonder, is our “full” devotion from one day to the next, is it contingent on just getting from Jesus what we want? What about when He doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want? Are we like these three and other truly committed believers? Are we like Esther who showed her “no-holes barred” commitment to God by saying, “I will go to the king even though it is against the law and if I perish I perish?” Are we like Job who said of our God, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him?” ,how much REAL confidence do you have in our Heavenly Father? Are you like so many believers who say they have faith, but it’s an “if faith?” You know, they pray, “If you do this, I’ll have faith in You God…If you help me pass this test…if you help me find the money to pay my bills…if the doctor’s diagnosis is good…”
“If faith” is not really faith. If there’s an “IF” in your commitment to God, it’s not true commitment, because it shows your relationship with God has no depth.
I believe that we never really get as close to God as we need to be, we never truly meet with Jesus, until we embrace the confident faith these three had. So, no matter what worst case scenario we are facing. I’ll challenge us to pray, “God…even if You do not do this or that, I will trust You and Your perspective on my life. Even if that co-worker continues to be so difficult…I’m going to keep on being Your servant…even if You don’t reward me financially I’m going to trust You…even if I have to go through health problems…I’ve already decided that no matter what comes I’m going to trust You…trust that in all things You work for my good.” When times are tough, people really see Jesus in us.
Just as the iron ore goes through the refining fire and comes out clean and pure and genuine so does our faith. Actually, there may be something questionable about a faith that never walks through the fire. An army going through basic training is not yet ready for battle. Not until soldiers face the battle, and have been under fire, do they consider themselves proven, hardened, worthy. A ship’s builder cannot prove that the vessel is sturdily built as long as it stays in dry dock. Its hull must get wet; it must endure a storm to demonstrate genuine seaworthiness. The same is true of our faith. When we hold fast to belief in Christ in spite of the fiery furnace experiences of life, then we demonstrate the genuineness of our faith and Christ becomes more visible to others.
Jesus was seen, not only from the flames, but also in the flames. A reminder that if we want to experience Jesus, we should expect Him when life gets hot.
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