Missional movements are forged in the furnace of affliction. This statement flies in the face of those who think that anyone led by God experiences only comfort and prosperity. How easily we forget that life is often quite difficult for those who experience spiritual exile. We find support for the fiery furnace claim in Daniel 3. This is the third post in a series featuring how to be faithful in our witness to God while experiencing the threat and reality of spiritual exile (Refer here and here to the previous posts).
Things were looking up for Daniel and his friends with their promotion following Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a golden-headed statue come crashing down and Nebuchadnezzar’s praise of Israel’s God as the “God of gods and Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47; ESV). Just when they presumably thought everything was coming together for God’s kingdom reign in the land of exile, the text reports that Nebuchadnezzar built an “image of gold” (Daniel 3:1; ESV) and required all inhabitants of his kingdom to bow down and worship it. How unpredictable. A herald announced:
“You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:4-6; ESV).
For whatever reason, there is no mention of Daniel in chapter 3. But he was not off the hook. Earlier we find that he and his friends (along with the other wise men) would have been put to death if he had not come forth to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2). Moreover, Daniel later encountered a similar trial, when King Darius’ court required all his subjects to worship him (Daniel 6). While we are not certain whether there is a strict succession of events between chapters 2 and 3, what is certain is that Nebuchadnezzar was quite capricious and inconsistent in his convictions. He vacillated between honoring his gods and himself and affirming Daniel and his friends’ God—the God of Israel—as King of all kings (See chapters 2, 3, and 4).
Here in chapter 3, we find Daniel’s Jewish companions Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to honor the king’s edict to bow before the golden image. Nebuchadnezzar was furious. One can only imagine if the golden image represented Nebuchadnezzar, whose empire was symbolized by the golden head in his dream recorded in chapter 2. Whether the golden image represented him or his god(s), no doubt Nebuchadnezzar viewed these Jewish subjects’ refusal as rebellion against his rule. Worship or homage was not a private matter, but all-encompassing and bearing on political rule and governance of the empire. Thus, for foreign subjects who served in the royal court, such refusal was especially alarming.
Perhaps the alarm stoked by these court officials who should have been most loyal led Nebuchadnezzar to have the furnace heated seven times hotter (Daniel 3:19). Only then were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego bound and thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:23). As the story goes, Nebuchadnezzar was utterly amazed to find that the three men were not burned alive (unlike those who cast them into the furnace; Daniel 3:22). To the contrary, they were unbound, walking about freely in the furnace, unscathed and unharmed. Moreover, they were not alone. A fourth person was with them. His countenance was like “a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:24-25). Some surmise that the figure was the pre-incarnate Christ. Others wonder if it was an angel. The text does not tell us. What the text does signify is that God intervened and protected Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from Nebuchadnezzar’s blazing wrath.
While King Nebuchadnezzar was “astonished and rose up in haste” (Daniel 3:24) because of what he saw, I am even more astonished by what he had heard earlier from the lips of the three Jewish subjects who refused to obey the edict. It is such a potent account, so it is worth quoting it at length and in context:
Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. 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? 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?”
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” (Daniel 3:13-18; ESV).
The previous essay in this series specified the import of reckless abandon to guard against missional movements becoming monuments. These three men’s response to King Nebuchadnezzar reflected such reckless abandon. While acknowledging that their God was able to deliver them from the king’s wrath, they did not presume to think or demand that God would do so. In fact, whether God would deliver them, they made clear that they would not serve the king’s gods or the golden image that he erected.
How many of us would have second thoughts and conclude that it was better to bow the knee in worship of the Babylonian king’s image to retain their royal positions to serve God in exile? Queen Esther faced a similar challenge and temptation. No doubt God had determined to make her Queen of the Persian Empire. She would risk everything if she determined to advocate for her Jewish people who faced the threat of annihilation. So, she was tempted not to come forth and defend them (Esther 4). However, in both biblical accounts, Esther as well as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego risked everything to remain faithful to a higher law than the law of self-preservation. To have put their own welfare over obedience to their God and the chosen people in exile would be the equivalent of idolatry, which was in fact the very reason for their exile in foreign lands (See for example Deuteronomy 28:14-15).
In our day, given the prominence of the prosperity gospel and easy believe-ism, we may be tempted to think that severe trials are indications that we are not following God. In a cultural context involving shortcuts and quick fixes for success, it is increasingly difficult to imagine that major obstacles and hardships, and even failures along the way, signify that God is still leading us.
Yes, God delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But even if they had not been delivered, God’s kingdom mission would still advance. The story ended well in Daniel 3, but more trials awaited God’s people in exile, just as for us today.
No doubt this story and the entire book of Daniel was intended to encourage people living in exile and experiencing duress over the centuries. We all need encouragement, so it is worth recounting the conclusion:
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. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon (Daniel 3:27-30; ESV).
Regardless of whether God delivers us from fiery trials today, or only in the end when Christ returns to reign, know for certain that missional movements are forged and refined in the furnace of affliction in exile.
So, how should we respond to trials along the way as we engage in the forging and refinement process of missional movements? Here are a few suggestions:
First, when tempted to think that smooth sailing always signifies one is following God, remember the book of Daniel: being missional often conveys going upstream with or without a paddle.
Second, when tempted to throw in the towel when experiencing hardships, consider how trials can help forge creativity and resilience as well as refine one’s vision.
Third, it is easy to fall prey to relying on religious, political and economic powers other than God to preserve our sense of security in the face of pending exile or life in exile. Be on guard against Nebuchadnezzar-like rulers’ attempts to sway us with words like “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?” (Daniel 3:15; ESV) Remember that God is still in control and that Nebuchadnezzar-like rulers are in God’s hands. Rulers like Nebuchadnezzar arise and fall, but God’s kingdom will come in its fullness and last forever. Every knee will bow to Jesus who endured and consumed the fiery furnace of great tribulation (Philippians 2:5-11).