Faith and the Fiery Furnace

Pastor Kyle McIver

Faith and the Fiery Furnace
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Last weekend my wife and I were watching a favorite show of ours together after the kids were in bed. During a commercial there was an ad for a new show about love and relationships (I can’t honestly remember what it was called), and the tagline at the end of the commercial came up on the screen: love will find its truth. And we read this and looked at each other and Allie says to me, “That makes absolutely no sense. That doesn’t actually mean anything!” And she’s right! We hear empty phrases like this constantly today: believe in yourself, you just gotta have faith, live your truth. And all of these phrases, like love will find its own truth are hollow. They don’t mean anything.

Yet they are wildly popular and treated with something of a religious reverence amongst many who share them. It’s fascinating though, that mantras like these rely on such flimsy ideas. The word “love” all by itself, with no context, no substance, no absolute truth, doesn’t really mean anything. If it just means whatever you think it should mean, then what is love? Do I even want to love someone or be loved by someone if I have no clue what that actually entails? Or think about faith - you just gotta believe… just have faith and everything will work out… - faith with no actual object, nothing substantive and real and trustworthy that you have faith in, is just foolishness! It’s like standing in an empty room and then attempting to sit on a chair that isn’t there just because you have faith that there will be a chair there when you try to sit! You’re going to fall over! Simply believing in a vague, non-specific sense doesn’t do anything. I think there’s a crisis right now in that words and ideas that are beautiful and full of meaning: faith, believe, love, are being emptied of that meaning by these hollow, bankrupt modern day mantras.

Now, praise the Lord, there is something so much more solid to hold on to in this life. In a troubled world where everyone seems to sense they need something greater than themselves, we don’t have to guess at what that is. We don’t have to settle for vague feelings and anonymous hopes. Sturdy faith built on a firm foundation is possible, and it’s exactly what we find in this incredible story here in Daniel chapter 3.

So here is what we’re going to do for our passage this morning - we’re going to look at an overview of the story and the structure of the passage, which is going to help us see the main point, the central moment in the narrative. And then we’re going to settle in there and see how God’s grace creates vibrant, rugged faith that sustains us through life’s most difficult trials.

Danial chapter 3.

This chapter opens with an ambitious project - the construction of a golden image nearly 90 feet tall and 9 feet across. King Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of Babylon, has ordered this constructed on the plains of Dura, in the province of Babylon.

Now to understand where this image came from, we need to look back at chapter two. As we saw last week, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of an enormous image, which Daniel ends up interpreting, leading to his promotion within Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. And looking at this image in the dream, the head was made of gold, and Daniel tells the king that this head of gold represents his very own kingdom: “you are the head of gold” (2:38). But it seems that Nebuchadnezzar has what some of us might call “selective hearing.” My parents told me I had that all the time growing up… that I’d hear calls for food and entertainment, but somehow managed to miss the instructions for chores and bedtime. Does this king suffer from the same selective hearing? Well… we’ve gone from a statue of mixed materials representing multiple kingdoms in chapter two to a statue of only gold representing one kingdom in chapter three. This image is a monument commanded by Nebuchadnezzar intended to exalt and empower Nebuchadnezzar. He clearly didn’t listen when Daniel interpreted the dream and told him that “the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the might, and the glory” to him; that another kingdom would arise after his, clearly inferring an end to his own kingdom. But Nebuchadnezzar didn’t have ears to hear that everything he had was given him by God, and that his own kingdom would pass away like all others before him. So the constructing of a golden image to open chapter three is a visible representation of the king’s profound pride.

But King Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t stop there - he’s not only constructed this enormous image, but now he commands that all people, great and small, bow down and worship it at his whim. He is after total control. He wants to unify all those under his rule around the worship of this image, over which he alone has power and authority. I don’t think Nebuchadnezzar is religious. I think Nebuchadnezzar’s play is to bring about unity in religious observance in order to consolidate power under this one image. And if he controls the worship of this image, he becomes the supreme authority in the land. He’s already king, and he wants more.

So Nebuchadnezzar has exalted himself in Babylon. He has declared that he holds all power and authority. And now the stage is set for a conflict with Yahweh himself, the one true God who does not take lightly assaults on his sovereign rule. Yet this conflict comes in an unassuming way: three Israelites among a host of worshippers bowing to this image, who have the nerve to stand up - literally - to a tyrant ruler.

Now before we get into the conflict here, I want to highlight the overall structure of this passage. Chapter three forms a chiasm - a literary structure which highlights the center-point of the passage by the way the narrative is presented. You might think of a chiasm like a series of bookends, with a book in the center that is meant to be seen as the focal point. Here’s how we see that structure - there are three bookends, three complementary pairs, and one passage in the middle which is the center-point of this chapter.

The outermost bookends are royal decrees: at the start of the chapter there’s a royal decree to bow and worship this image when the music plays or else be thrown in the fiery furnace, and at the end of the chapter there’s a decree that if anyone speaks against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they will be torn limb from limb and their houses laid in ruin (which is the same threat he made to the wise men and magicians in chapter two).

The next pair of bookends focus on our three Israelites. First they are condemned by the king who sets himself up as the supreme authority, then on the other end they are delivered by the God who truly holds all authority. The last pair right around the high point of the passage are two instances of King Nebuchadnezzar’s outrage, followed by giving orders concerning Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego: first that they be brought to him after refusing to bow down, then second ordering that the furnace be heated to its extreme and that they be thrown in after they’ve defied him once again. So the structure of this passage helps us zoom in, to focus on what the text itself presents as the centerpoint of the story, which are verses 16-18.

Interestingly, for all that this story holds up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, these few verses are the only place they speak. The King has threatened them with death in the fiery furnace and issued a challenge to their faith by arrogantly asking: And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands? If you didn’t think Nebuchadnezzar was proud yet, he just closed the deal. In essence, he’s just declared before all of the officials and important people of the greatest nation on earth and to these three Israelites that there is no god in existence who can overrule him. No god who is stronger or mightier than he. No god whose word is supreme over the lives of men like his own.

And now the time has come for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to speak. And what a moment this is. Think about everything they’ve been through. Exiled to a foreign nation. Along with Daniel they risk inciting the wrath of this foreign king by refusing to eat the food that is served, only to be blessed by God with wisdom, learning, and favor before the rulers of Babylon so that they are lifted up and planted in the king's own court.

Not long afterward they find themselves under the threat of being killed if someone among the king’s men cannot both reveal and interpret the king’s dream. These four men seek the mercy of God together in prayer, and God reveals both the dream and it’s interpretation to Daniel, who then declares these things in the presence of the king. And now again these four are lifted up, and given even higher positions of honor. Daniel remains in the king’s court, and at Daniel’s request, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are placed over the affairs of the provinces of Babylon.

In a short amount of time these men have gone from captives to captains, from those with no status whatsoever to rulers in a faraway nation. They had wealth, status, and comfort. Power, prestige, and liberty in their new home. And then they are confronted with a choice. A command from the king to do as every other leader in the nation was doing and bow down to this golden image. And in that moment they say “no”. They refuse to bend their knees and bow down to this image - and it doesn’t go unnoticed! They are dragged before the king and once again commanded to conform. And to top it all off, the king calls into question the existence and nature of the God they worship by brazenly declaring that there is no god who can save them.

So what will they do? What will they say? These verses are so short that we can blow right through them, but let’s see if we can get inside their minds during this pivotal moment when their very lives hang in the balance. What are they going to do? What will they say? Their incredible response was not just spur of the moment inspiration. Rather, a bold answer in a circumstance of such significant consequence is the fruit of a life of faith. These are God’s people. They know and worship Yahweh, who revealed himself to them with mighty acts, miracles, and his covenant word.

You know how in movies when it comes to a climactic moment, the pinnacle of the action, things often slow down? The scene seems to hang in slow motion, and you might see flashbacks from the main character’s life that have led them to this very moment. Consider what might have played in slow motion across the minds of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in this moment:

They remember the story of thunder roaring across Mount Sinai and the people trembling in fear of the holiness and majesty of God… and then the first two commandments spring to mind: “you shall have no other gods before me”... “you shall not make for yourself an idol… you shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” They can imagine scenes from Israel’s history in their mind’s eye: Pharaoh utterly defeated and drowned in the Red Sea... Samson pushing down the pillars on thousands of Israel’s Philistine enemies... David dropping Goliath with a single stone… They recall God’s command to be holy, because he himself is holy… maybe they hear their mom and dad’s instruction from their younger years when they learned one of the fundamental confessions of their faith: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.

And now we’re back in the moment with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Things are moving at full speed and they look into the eyes of a king, eyes filled with murderous rage because they have dared to disobey him, and in spite of the very real and possible consequences, the answer is clear to them - verse 17: O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God who 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.

With a faith formed by God’s covenant revelation to Israel and fueled by the redemptive history of their nation and the promises of their sovereign God, they defy the tyrant king.

One quick comment on this moment before we get to the rest of the passage: I think this moment wonderfully exposes the folly of cheap grace. Today, we often think in moments of temptation: well… I tried. I’m going to give in this time because God will forgive me and I’ll do better next time. I promise I will God. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego thought: well… it is better to die than to disregard a command from God. And the author of Hebrews says the same in Hebrews chapter 12: In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. There’s grace here for conviction of sin, and conviction about how lightly we take sin compared to these three men. May the Spirit bring about such conviction in our hearts this morning.

Now let’s look over the second half of this chiastic structure, the other side of the bookends, which flow from this momentous moment of faith. Nebuchadnezzar is enraged by their response, the furnace becomes an inferno, and these three Israelites topple into the flames. And for a brief moment, the King thinks he’s won. He’s put these rebellious foreigners in their place and vindicated his supreme authority in the eyes of the watching leaders. Until he peers into the flames and sees not just the three men walking about unharmed, but a fourth standing with them! Now at this point, I’m sure a lot of you, like me, are wondering, “is that Jesus in there with them?!” Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t know. I don’t think there’s enough here to say for sure that it’s Jesus. But here’s what I do know: whether it’s Jesus or an angel, God was with these three in the furnace. God visibly demonstrated his presence with his people in this trial. And through this visible demonstration, God shames Nebuchadnezzar. Just moments ago he brazenly declared there was no god who could deliver from his hand. And now he is looking into an inferno where these three men are standing, unharmed, accompanied by one whose appearance is like a son of the gods. And they walk out completely unharmed! They don’t even smell like fire! They have been completely delivered, saved to the uttermost.

And so he’s forced to recant. To walk it back. And as I look at how the end of this chapter plays out, I don’t think what we’re seeing here is repentance from Nebuchadnezzar. I don’t think his heart is really in the right place, worshipping Yahweh and recognizing his own pride and folly. If you look ahead to chapter 4, starting around verse 29, we find Nebuchadnezzar looking out over his kingdom and begins boasting about his greatness and what he has built. And in that moment, God judges him and determines that it’s time to humble the king. Based then on yet another display of pride in chapter 4, here at end of chapter 3 the king is still in a place of pride and folly. The only thing that’s changed is which deity he’s positioning himself behind in an attempt for absolute authority. He still wants control, he still wants power, he’s still trying to enforce worship at his own command, which is where Dan is going to pick things up next week.

But what a story this is - it is such a rich narrative and there are so many things we can draw from it. What stands out to me most clearly in this chapter though, is the nature of true faith.

Remember at the start of the sermon this morning I gave you some modern day mantras about faith and belief, empty phrases that don’t mean anything. The faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stands in sharp contrast to such flimsy faith. In the moment of trial, standing before a tyrant with their very lives on the line, their faith was not fluid. They didn’t change their mind or cave to external pressure. Their faith endured - because real faith, saving faith in the one true God, is distinct from flimsy new age faith in a few crucial ways.

The first is that faith is a gift. Faith isn’t something you dig deep within yourself to find, it’s not something you create from your own resources. Faith is a gift of God’s grace. The book of Ephesians makes this very clear when it says: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Faith is a gift, a work of pure grace in the heart of sinful people. So we aren’t the source of our own faith, God is.

Once we’ve been given the gift of saving faith, it then grows and strengthens in the grace that God supplies. I said earlier that the faith of these three men was formed by the covenant revelation of God and fueled by his redemptive work and promises. I’d add to that as well that true faith finds it fullness/fulfillment in Jesus. And I want to unpack this a little more. These men grew in faith - maturity is a process, it takes time. That’s how it worked for them, and that’s how it works for us. So when we talk about growing as Christians, we grow in the ways God has given us to grow. Our faith is given shape and substance by God’s revelation in the Bible. We are taught the truth and put our trust in God and his truth as it has been revealed to us. And when trial comes - because it will(!) - our faith is fueled and sustained by looking back at the redemptive works of God for his people, the way that he has repeatedly saved and delivered and redeemed them. And then we press on, trusting God’s promises that he will continue to work on behalf of his people.

So faith is formed by God’s revelation, fueled by his redemptive work and promises, and faith finds it fullness in Jesus Christ. When we read this story as Christians, we read it differently now that Jesus has lived, died, and risen to the Father’s right hand. Jesus has shed new light on the Old Testament so that we’re able to see him everywhere. The Old Testament is full of categories that help us more fully understand the person and work of Jesus. The Old Testament contains so many powerful narratives of God’s love for his people, which help us better understand the character of Jesus.

Think about the way that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego courageously submit themselves to God’s will in this trial. In essence, they look at the king and say: “If God saves us, so be it. If he doesn’t, so be it. But either way, we’re not bowing down to the golden image.” And God delivers them! He works wonders for them! Now think about Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Like these men, he cries out to God: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” It’s the same thing - he knows the Father can deliver, but if he does not then he’s prepared to endure. Yet unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the Father does not in this moment deliver - he does not let the cup pass. Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath toward our sin. Jesus suffers horribly to make atonement for us.

You see, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego teach us so much about saving faith - substantive, sustaining faith. And then you shine the light of Jesus’ redemptive work on this story and it serves to do more than teach us about faith - it displays the glory of Jesus. He is like these three men, but unlike them. Jesus is human and cries out to his Father for reprieve, yet Jesus suffers and bears a burden far greater than any he ever asks one of his disciples to bear. Jesus displays the same courage, the same trust in God’s sovereign will - and then he doubles down and shows an even deeper degree of faith by following it through all the way to the cross and then the grave. And he never waivers. He doesn’t flinch. Jesus perfectly kept the law, perfectly trusted God on our behalf, laid down his life as our sacrificial lamb, our substitute, and accomplished our salvation. And then he gifts it to us by grace through faith in the gospel.