28 Jun Against all odds: The King in the furnace
14 Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. 20 And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21 Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. 22 Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. 24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” 25 He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”
How many of you loved the documentary “The Last Dance”? I am a latecomer on this one. I just started watching the show recently. I don’t even like basketball, but I loved the last dance. Watching the last dance made me wished that I am Michael Jordan. Anyone else feels the same way? At the very least, that show made me want to sing, “I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky. I think about it every night and day. Spread my wings and fly away.” Let’s end the sermon here and let us worship together. Kidding. One of the part that struck me in this show was when one of MJ’s brother said something along this line, “If you want to see Michael at his best, tell him that he can’t do it, and he will prove you wrong.” Jordan was driven by the desire for greatness. He was the epitome of humankind. There is a desire for greatness inside of us. There is a deep desire for us to be somebody and make our mark in the world. We might not be Michael Jordan, but we want people to recognise our greatness. And if people do not recognise our greatness, we will make sure they know. Why am I telling you this story? Because our passage today is about a man who desires everlasting greatness for himself. Today we are in part 3 of the series. But before we get there, let’s review part 1 and 2.
Previously, in against all odds, Daniel and his friends were sent into exile into Babylon. And this created a tension straight away. The values of Babylon were very different from Biblical values. For example, Babylon believed in many gods while the Jews believed that there is only one true God, the God of the Bible. And the temptation was either to withdraw from Babylon or to assimilate with Babylon. However, the boys chose the gospel way. They chose to work and pray for the prosperity of Babylon while remaining faithful to their God at the same time. And so far, so good. Daniel and friends were quickly promoted to the highest positions in the kingdom. However, good time did not last forever. Eventually, the two different values are at odds with each other and they must choose one over the other. And that is what is happening in this chapter. What do you do when the authority works against you? What do you do when you are persecuted for doing what is right? Where do you draw the line? This leads to the question, when is it right for you to disobey authority? Let me give you the general guidelines. It is right to disobey authority when the authority commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands. And we can see both cases play out in the book of Daniel. One on this chapter and the other in chapter 6.
This is one of my favourite stories in the Bible. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace. Sunday school teachers love to tell this story. It captivates our imagination. The point of the story is clear. God is working for his people against all odds. This story is extremely relevant to help us live as sojourners and exiles in our city. We may not face life and death situation because of our faith, but we are tempted to bow down the gods of our culture all the time. The boys will show us what to do when we are forced to forsake our faith to conform to the culture. And before we start, let me make something clear. Do not ask me, “Where is Daniel?” Because I do not know. He is probably on a holiday to Hawaii or he is taking care of a problem elsewhere. But he is not in the story. The narrator decided to leave Daniel out of the story and focus on his friends instead.
I divided this chapter into four sections. The temptation; The accusation; The stand; The fiery furnace.
The temptation (V.1-7)
Remember what happened in chapter 2. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a monstrous statue made of different materials. It represented different kingdoms that will come after Babylon and how none of those kingdoms will last. However, Babylon stands supreme above other earthly kingdoms. They are the gold in the statue. But look at what happens at the beginning of chapter 3. Daniel 3:1-2 – King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Don’t miss it. This is Nebuchadnezzar attempts to achieve everlasting greatness. Daniel told him that he was the gold in the statue. But Daniel also told him that his reign won’t last. Only the kingdom of God will remain forever. However, Nebuchadnezzar missed the point of the dream. Rather than seeking the everlasting Kingdom, Nebuchadnezzar now tries to make his kingdom as permanent as possible. Instead of a statue where only the head is made of gold, he creates a statue where it is gold from top to bottom. He probably thinks, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all were gold instead of just the head? Wouldn’t it be nice if Babylon to remain forever?” This is Nebuchadnezzar attempt to be the sovereign king over the everlasting kingdom. That is why the statue is monstrous. It is about 30 metres high and 3 metres wide.
We are not sure what sort of image it is. Is it an image of Nebuchadnezzar? If yes, he must be extremely narcissistic. Or is it an image of one of the gods of Babylon? We do not know. But it doesn’t matter. We know what the image stands for. The image stands for everything Babylon is. Their values, their culture, their gods and possibly their king as well. And Nebuchadnezzar gathers all the leaders from every province for the dedication of the statue. What happens is that if people in public space hear the music starts playing, they are to stop whatever they are doing, bow down and worship the statue. This is a very strategic move. Remember that Babylon believes in the plurality of gods. They also have different nations with different gods under the reign of their kingdom. What the statue does is to unify all the different nations under Babylon. It is a sign of pledge of allegiance to Babylon. So, Nebuchadnezzar is not saying that the image he set up is the only god they must worship. He is not saying that at all. He is saying that this is one of the gods you should worship. You are free to have other personal gods, but you must also accept this new god as one of your gods. This statue is the common god that will unite all the nations under Babylon. But that’s not the only problem. The main problem is that Nebuchadnezzar commands that everyone who refuses to worship the image will be thrown into a fiery furnace. So here is the problem. The problem is not only that the culture is against you, but you are forced to conform to the pattern of the culture or face the consequences.
This creates a big problem for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. There is a triple pressure for them. One, the authority demands it. Two, everyone is doing it. Three, there is punishment for not doing it. What do you do? If it is just one and two, it is still okay. They can live in that tension. They can still love and work for the prosperity of the city while remaining faithful to God. But now, there is a high consequences for not doing it. They will be human barbecue if they refuse. It is a matter of life and death. However, they also know the ten commandments. Do you guys remember the first and second commandments? You shall have no other gods before me, and you shall not make a carved image and bow down to them for the Lord God is a jealous God. So now, the two value collides, and they must choose. If they follow the gods of their culture, they will prosper. It will advance their career. But if they defy the gods of the culture, they will face the consequences.
Let’s apply it to our situation. Here is the question that all of us must answer. What do you do when you are pressured to do something that God forbids? This is the temptation we face every day. Our culture is tempting us to serve multiple gods every day. They are not telling us to forsake our Christian faith. They have no problem with us being Christian. What they tell us is to keep our faith private. You can be a Christian at home but when you are in public, you must serve the gods of this culture. Be you in private space but be like Babylon in public space. Don’t talk about your faith in public and don’t try to convert others. It is intolerant to do that. In public, you must live like everyone else. Otherwise, you will face the consequences.
Let me give you a few examples. For the business world. The culture is telling you to make as much profit as possible. Be very ruthless in your business practice. Don’t worry about others as long as you make as much money as possible. Other businesses are barely legal. They keep bribing people in authority to get their way. But you are a Christian. And these are your competitors. The way everyone else does their business put tremendous pressure on you to do the same. After all, how can you compete with them if you do not follow their way? But if you are a Christian and you decide, “I am going to have to be as ruthless and barely legal as everyone else to compete with them,” then you are conformed to the pattern of the culture. You say you are a Christian privately and you believe in the importance of honesty and generosity but when it comes to how you do your business, you are just like everybody else. You even sugar coat it by saying that the profit will be used for the kingdom of God. But the truth is, you have bow down to the gods of this culture.
Another example. LGBTQ. The culture is telling you that LGBTQ is a matter of human right. Everyone is entitled to pursue their desire. “Who are you to say that I can’t pursue the innate desire within me. It is my body. It is my life. It is my right. I can choose whatever I want in life. You can disagree with me but keep it to yourself. I am free to be me in public.” This is what most people around you are saying. What do you do? Let’s say that a homosexual couple comes to me and ask me to do their wedding ceremony. And they threaten to sue me if I refuse. They have the culture on their side. They have the government on their side. It is legal for same sex to get married. But I know what the Bible said about homosexual’s activity. It is a sin. I know that God created marriage to be a union between male and female. What should I do? What is the church position toward LGBTQ? If I accept LGBTQ, the culture will celebrate me. They will call me a hero. That is why many pastors accept LGBTQ today. But if I refuse, I will be persecuted. They will call me a hater. The temptation is to think, “I know what the Bible said. I believe in the Bible. But I am going to keep my belief private. After all, God knows my heart. But in public, I am going to be like everybody else.” If I do that, I am bowing to the image. Do you see what happened? We face this temptation every day. Our culture puts tremendous pressure on us to privatise our faith. They do not tell us to forsake our faith but to keep it to ourselves. Do you feel that temptation? Are you resisting? If you do not feel that pressure, then you are not resisting. You have bowed the knee. Let’s continue with the story.
The accusation (V.8-12)
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego started at the bottom of the ladder in chapter 1. They were exiles from Israel. But then they got promoted really quick. At the end of chapter 2, they were put in the best positions available in Babylon. And not only that, but they were so much better than others. And many people did not like what they see. It happens all the time today. Students, how many of you did not like the smarty pant in your class? Raise your hand. I can’t raise my hand because I am the smarty pant that people dislike in my class. But here is the truth. As you pray and work hard for the prosperity of your city, as you grow in influence, you will have people who do not like you. Especially if you are much better than them. The people around S, M, A are jealous of their quick rise. So, they come to king Nebuchadnezzar and maliciously accuse the boys. And they are really smart about it. They start by praising King Nebuchadnezzar first. “O king you are amazing. You are the greatest king. May you live forever and may your kingdom last forever. May people worship the statue that you have set up.” Nebud likes what he is hearing so far.
But listen to what they say next. Daniel 3:12 – There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. These people put S, M, A, directly against king Nebuchadnezzar. It is true that S, M, A, do not serve the gods of Babylon and worship the golden image. But they do that because of their faith. Not because they ignore the king. It is a matter of their conviction and not a personal attack against the king and Babylon. They are giving their life for the city. But now they are accused of ignoring the king and not caring about Babylon. And the king is extremely furious.
The stand (V.13-18)
The king summons Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and he asks, “S, M, A, is it true that you do not serve my gods and worship the image that I have set up? Here is what I am going to do. I am going to give you another chance. You guys are important people in my kingdom. I need your wisdom. But I also need you to bow the knee. That’s it. Just bow the knee and worship the image when you hear the music. If not, I will immediately throw you into a fiery furnace.” Look at what he says next at the end of verse 15. “And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” Apparently, Nebuchadnezzar has forgotten about his dream. He thinks that he is in control. He thinks that he is the greatest. He thinks that he is sovereign. The stake is higher now. It is not only confrontation against S, M, A, it is a confrontation against the God of S, M, A.
I want to hit a pause button here for a bit. What would you do if you were S, M, A? Don’t answer quickly because they have many good reasons to compromise. I can think of three. First, rational reason. They can compromise for the sake of other Jews in the exiles. Their refusal to bow the knee could lead to the annihilation of the rest of the Jews in Babylon. But if they bow the knee and remain in power, they can protect the other exiles. In fact, they can do many good for the exiles with their positions. So, they can bow the knee for the sake of a greater purpose. It is rational right? Second, wise reason. Nebuchadnezzar really likes them. If not, why would he give them a second chance? All they must do is appease Nebuchadnezzar’s current anger and appeal to him again in the future when his mood is better. Surely, he sees their value in his kingdom. All they need to do is bow the knee for now and find a better time to talk about it in the future. It sounds wise right? Third, theological reason. The Bible is clear that idol is nothing. There is only one God and every other god is no god. There is no harm in bowing the knee to an idol. They love God and God looks at their hearts. So, they can bow down on the outside and standing on the inside. It is theological right? But look at their response. This is the heartbeat of the passage. They choose none of the above. It is beautiful.
Daniel 3:16-18 – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
What an answer! There are two parts to their answer. First, they are confident of God’s power to save. “If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.” They know their God is able. They have heard how God split the red sea into two. How God delivered the land of Canaan to their ancestor. How God showed them the dream and its interpretation when they sought him. They know God wouldn’t let anyone steal his position as the Sovereign King, especially when people from every tribe and nations are gathered. It is the perfect opportunity for God to show the world that he is the only one to be worshipped. They are confident that their God can save them from the fiery furnace. And not only that he is able, but he also will. He will do it. But it does not stop there.
Second, they trust God’s sovereign purpose. With it comes the most powerful 3 words on the statement of faith. “But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” But if not. These three words expressed what faith truly is. They have full confidence that God is able to save. But if not, they will still trust him and they will not bow their knee. With another word, their faith is on who God is first and foremost and not on what God can do for them. They love God for God. For them, obedience to God is more important than deliverance from God. Did you get that? Let me put it this way. True faith trusts in who God is and not simply in what God can do.
This is extremely relevant for us. We live in day and times where many people leave their Christian faith because God did not give them what they expected. They believed in some form of prosperity gospel where God will always give you what you want if you have enough faith. Their understanding of Christian faith is that it is God’s will for you to be healthy and wealthy. It is not God’s will for you to be a human barbecue. If you do go through suffering, it is because God is setting you up to be the next Prime Minister of Egypt. Are you with me on that? That is a bunch of lies and it is not a Christian faith. Christian faith is a but-if-not faith. Christian faith believes that God is able. But Christian faith also believes that God often works in different ways than we expected. Sometimes God miraculously intervenes with supernatural power, sometimes he withholds that power and allows his people to suffer. It means that if God is glorified through our deliverance, praise him. If God is glorified through our death, praise him.
I see this truth plays out in my own life. When I was diagnosed with leukaemia, the doctor was not sure if I was going to make it or not. Apparently, my leukaemia was a rare lethal type that if I were just a month late, I would be gone already. So, when we pressed him to tell us whether chemotherapy would make me better or not, he refused to answer. As a doctor, he was not allowed to give false hope to his patient. All he said was he would do his best. And many people prayed for me. The perk of being a pastor kid, every pastor my parents knew prayed for me. My dad even anointed my head and feet with oil. Charismatic. Long story short, eleven years later, I am still here. God answered our prayers and extended my life. And now I am your pastor. Praise God. It was not chemotherapy that healed me. God might have used chemotherapy, but it was God who healed me. I believe that with all my heart. But then, because I was healed from leukaemia, people started to ask me to pray for those who had leukaemia. And I did. Up to this day, I have prayed for four people who had leukaemia. And I am proud to say that I have a 100% rate. I have successfully sent all those four patients to be with Jesus. Do I believe that God can heal? Absolutely. Do I believe that God still heals? For sure. Do I believe that God always heals if we have faith? Definitely no. This is the reason why I hesitated to share my cancer story in the past. I was invited to different places to share my miraculous healing, but I refused. Why? Because they were only concerned about the first part of faith, the power of God to heal. Even though I know that God is able, I do not pretend to know God’s way. He works in mysterious ways. Can faith lead to disappointment? Yes. But if you walk away from Christian faith because God did not give you what you want, you never trusted God in the first place. Let’s continue with the story.
The fiery furnace (V.19-30)
Nebuchadnezzar is not happy with their answer. In fact, it makes him even angrier. So, he commands the furnace to be heated seven times more than usual, to the point that it kills the soldiers who take S, M, A into the furnace. So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the burning fiery furnace. What happens next? Daniel 3:24-25 – Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” Nebuchadnezzar is shocked. He does the math, “One, two, three, and four? Hey guys, how many we throw into the furnace again? And why are they walking freely in the fire? And who is that fourth man? Why does he look like a son of the gods?” So Nebuchadnezzar commands S, M, A to come out of the furnace and he is absolutely shocked by what he sees. Daniel 3:27 – And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. It is as if they were not even in the fire. God is just showing off right now. He is showing Nebuchadnezzar who is in charge. Nebuchadnezzar challenged God when he said that there is no God that can save them from his hands. And here is God’s reply. Not even a hint of fire is found on them.
Don’t miss the point. How did God save them? God saves them in the furnace and not from the furnace. Did you see that? I mean, God could have destroyed the fiery furnace by sending lighting from heaven and save his people from fire. He could have torn down the roof and grab his people out of the furnace. But he did not. Instead, the God who did not deliver them from the furnace is with them in the furnace. Every time I read this story, I am reminded of the verses that my dad gave me before I had to go through chemotherapy. Isaiah 43:1-2 – But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Notice that God does not say that he will deliver us from fire. But he will walk with us through fire.
What is the implication for us? It means that suffering is inevitable. Living as sojourners and exiles will require you to take the stand and it will be painful. You cannot avoid suffering. If you avoid suffering, you have assimilated with the culture. But God promises that if you trust God, he is with you in the furnace. How beautiful is that? And not only that. But look at the fourth person in the fire. Who is this fourth person? This is one of those moments where the pre-incarnate Jesus shows up in the Old Testament. Why does he show up in the story? Because this story is first and foremost about him. We are not Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Their story points to Jesus. Their story is Jesus’ story.
Just like S, M, A, Jesus is offered to bow down and worship the gods of this world. All Jesus has to do is worship Satan and Satan will give him all the kingdoms of this world. Jesus does not need to go to the cross. Satan offers him a short cut. But Jesus refuses to bow down to Satan. Just like S, M, A, Jesus has to take the stand. In the garden of Gethsemane, he prays to God, “Father, if you are willing, you can take this cup away from me.” With another, Jesus is saying, “Father I know you are able. You can do all things. You can remove this cup from me. You are that powerful. I am confident in your power.” But he continues, “However, not my will be done but yours.” This is a but-if-not faith. Jesus is saying, “I know you are able. But I trust your way and I trust your purpose over my will. So, let your will be done in my life.” And because of it, Jesus enters the fiery furnace of God’s wrath. But unlike S, M, A, God is not in the furnace with Jesus. At the cross Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For the first time in his life, Jesus loses some sense of the presence of God. God is not with him. Why? Because Jesus is taking the punishment of our sin upon himself. Jesus is judged for our sins. He endures the ultimate fiery furnace of God. So that you and I who put our faith in him today can have the confidence that Jesus is walking with us through the fire. My friend, this is the gospel. We are not S. M, A. We need Jesus to rescue us from the ultimate furnace. We might not be S, M, A, but in Christ, we are more than S, M, A. We are covered by his perfect righteousness and he is with us every single step.
How can we face our fiery furnace today? We must see Jesus went into the ultimate furnace for us. This is the only way. I love the way Keller puts it. “If you know Christ is thrown into the ultimate furnace for you, you will sense his presence in your smaller furnace. Furnace only makes you better. Jesus suffered not that you might not suffer, but that when you suffer, you become like him.” One of the questions that we often asked amid suffering is this, “Why? Why did God allow me to go through this suffering?” And here is the answer of the gospel. We may not know exactly why God allows us to go through suffering, but we know for sure that it is not because he does not love us. Jesus went into God’s fiery furnace for us so that he can be with us in our furnace.
Let me close with this. At the end of the story, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that S, M, A are right to disobey him. And he praises the God of S, M, A and confesses that there is no other God who can rescue in this way. This is crucial. Nebuchadnezzar has yet to be converted. As we will see next week, he must sink much lower first before he is truly converted. But he is making progress. From chapter 1, 2 and 3, Nebuchadnezzar is making progress slowly. Here is my point. Your suffering is not just about you. Your suffering is a display of the beauty of the gospel. People are watching how you deal with suffering and their faith is slowly growing. So, do not be afraid to take the stand for what is right. Listen to Jesus’ words. John 16:33 – I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. You will enter a fiery furnace in this world. But when you walk into a fiery furnace, Jesus is already there waiting for you. The King is in the furnace.
- List out some examples from your daily life where you are pressured to do something that God forbids. What is the common theme in those lists?
- Recall the three reasons to compromise (rational; wise; theological). Which one do you often used? Why?
- Read Daniel 3:16-18. There are two parts of what true faith is. In your own experience, which one comes more naturally for you? Confident in God’s power or trusting God’s purpose?
- Why is it important to hold the two parts together? What happen when you hold one but not the other?
- What does this story teaches us about living a spiritually bi-cultural life?
- John 16:33 – I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. How does Jesus’ words encourage you today?
- Take time to pray for one another as we deal with our own ‘little furnaces.’