Online Text Sermon - The Boldness of Faith, Daniel ch.3 vv.16-18
|Preacher||Rev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness|
|Sermon Title||The Boldness of Faith|
|Text||Daniel ch.3 vv.16-18 |
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"Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up" (Daniel 3,16-18).
1. Was it sin to disobey the king?
2. From whence arises all authority?
3. God vindicates the faithful
Now, here we have one of the most stirring stories in the Word of God. It is, of course, not a mere story - it is a piece of history; it is something which really did happen in the real world. We're not talking about fables, or legends, or myths, but about what has actually taken place in the history of the people of God in Old Testament times.
Everything in this chapter is very gripping, very stirring indeed. Here we have this portentously powerful king Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. He takes it upon himself to issue a decree, or an order, or give a law, in which he commands all the people within his dominions to worship this golden image which he has had set up - a huge statue representing some god. And as so often happens, he accompanies his command with a great deal of pomp and ceremony. We're given the lists over and over again of these beautiful instruments associated with the worship of this particular god: when you hear the sound of "the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image" (verse 15).
This was the command. It didn't matter what they were doing. They might have been in the midst of their own private responsibilities and duties as families, but as soon as the music struck up they stopped what they did and they fell down on their faces worshipping this god. They might have been in the midst of a wedding ceremony, or a funeral service, or anything, but as soon as they heard the sound of these musical instruments, everything stopped everywhere and everyone prostrated himself on the ground - except these three Jews, evidently; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. They absolutely refused to do so, with the consequences that they were drawn before the king and had to give an account of themselves.
And they still refused, even in the presence of this awesome and terrible monarch with absolute power of life and death. They absolutely refused - point blank - in the words of my text at verse 16, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up."
1. WAS IT SIN TO DISOBEY THE KING?
Well that, then, is the text that I wish to look at today. And I want to ask the question first of all: Were these three men not being discourteous? Can we not make out a case to show that they were committing a sin of disobedience to the authority of the government of the land? Were they not being rude? Were they not being too blunt? "O Nebuchadnezzar," they said, "we are not careful to answer thee in this matter" (verse 16). Surely, you could easily make out an argument and a case to say that they were being highly offensive; they were being cheeky in the highest degree; they were being rude and discourteous and sinning, by a shameful failure to comply with the king's command. Now let's look then at that argument and see how much of a case we can present.
(a) ALL AUTHORITY IS FROM GOD
The first thing we have to say is that Nebuchadnezzar received his authority from God. This is something which is very clear. It comes, for instance, in the book of Jeremiah where God tells the people again and again that the authority given to Nebuchadnezzar was a God-given authority. God Himself had raised up this tyrant as a scourge to the whole earth in order to punish the nations, Judah included, for their sins and their complacence and their failure to give glory to God. So here was a king who, according to the Word of God itself, was appointed by God to have authority over the whole world at that time. And we know, of course, from the reading of the book of Romans, chapter 13, that "the powers that be are ordained of God" (Romans 13,1).
Governments receive their authority, ultimately, from God. The apostle Paul in arguing his case in Romans 13 tells us that as Christians we must needs be subject not only in case we are punished, but also we should be subject to the authority of government "for conscience sake" (Romans 13,5) so as not to grieve our conscience by sinning against God. We cannot just write off the authority of governments and kings and queens. We can't dismiss it as though it were entirely human in origin. The powers that be are ordained of God, and "whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God" (Romans 13,2). He does not bear "the sword in vain" (Romans 13,4). We refer to the power of governments as the power of the sword. They have a right, says the Bible, to put men to death when they go against lawful authority.
And, of course, if you were to listen to the popular rumors of the day when Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-nego were living, no doubt all the writers of newspapers or whatever there were in those days equivalent they all to a man concluded that these three Jews were scandalously disobedient; they deserved what was coming to them; they hadn't the slightest right to resist the authority of the king.
(b) LAWFUL AUTHORITY IS TO BE OBEYED
Well now, we have to admit that it is sinful to go against lawful authority. We have to admit that - and it is only proper that we should do so. Children are to obey their parents; the authority of parents is God-given. And I daresay that every young person and child here has realized that. Your parents have an authority over you which God Himself has given them to bring you up, and if they command you to do something then - unless there is some very good reason - you must do it; or refuse to do it according to their command. Their authority and their command are God-given, as I say.
The same is true of secular government. We are to obey Her Majesty the Queen, and we are to obey her ministers of state in the laws of the land. We may sometimes feel that we don't like the laws, but we have to obey them - unless there is some very special reason why not. We are to obey the secular powers.
And also we are to obey the powers of the church. When the church issues commands and orders and ordinances and comes to findings, then - unless there is some very good reason - we are to obey the commands of the church, because God has placed power in the church as well. We refer to this as 'the power of the keys': the power to open the kingdom of heaven, or to shut the kingdom of heaven.
So the power of the state we refer to as 'the power of the sword', and the power of the church we refer to as 'the power of the keys'. All these spheres of power are God-given: the powers of parents in their own homes; of governments within their own territory; of the church among those who profess to be the people of God. And, of course, if we disobey these things, then we have to pay the penalty.
Do you remember how that in the Old Testament the power of the church was visible in punishing the sin of Achan when he disobeyed the commandment not to take of the spoils of Jericho? He disobeyed and he brought death upon himself.
You may remember also a man in the Old Testament in the days of King David called Uzzah. Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark of God when the oxen were stumbling carrying the ark into the tent or tabernacle, which David had arranged for it. He was smitten by God - and he died! - for his presumption to steady the ark of God. He had no business to touch it; it wasn't for him, nor for the priests, to touch it.
And you know in the New Testament that Jesus Christ has said that if a man will not heed the authority of the church, then we are to regard him as a heathen man and as a publican. In other words, we treat him as a complete unbeliever and an outsider.
So, I say, you could make quite a convincing case to show that these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, had sinned against God in disobeying the lawful authority of the king. You could state it like that.
And the king's officers evidently looked at it that way. They came to the king in great consternation, and they said, 'Oh king have you not made a decree that whosoever will not fall down and worship this god of yours, that he will be cast into a burning fiery furnace? Well there are three Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego within this realm of Babylon, within this very city and province of Babylon, and they refuse - point blank - to do what they are told.'
'Nebuchadnezzar's countenance was filled with fury and with wrath'.
Let's not forget it must have been a terrible thing to be brought into the presence of this king Nebuchadnezzar. He was, after all, a king of kings - he was one of the most terrible kings who ever lived. God gave him a face, no doubt, which terrified people when he was angry; he was like a thunderstorm! And these three Jewish men were brought before the king - and they defied the king! in the words which are my text this morning: "O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us", and so on (text). "Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against" these three men and he commanded that the furnace should be heated seven times hotter than usual (Daniel 3,19).
Well now, that is stating the case as well as you can. I say there would have been plenty of men in those days who would have talked about the three Jewish men here in terms of their sin, their disobedience, their lawlessness, their provocation, their discourtesy to the king, and so forth. You can scrape together some kind of case, some kind of argument, to represent their position like that.
(c) WHEN DISOBEDIENCE IS AN ACT OF FAITH AND NOT SIN
But now I want to explain that not only were they right in what they did, but it would be a sin to do anything else than what they did. Let me explain how it is that these three men never sinned, but did what was a great act of spiritual heroism for which they were greatly honored by God.
(i) ALL AUTHORITY IN THIS WORLD IS LIMITED
The first point we have to make here is that all authority - in this world - is limited. There is no such thing in this world as absolute, unlimited authority or power. It is true that governments have authority from God; it is true that churches have authority from God; and parents authority from God - but mercifully, and kindly, God has never given to any human institution absolute power or total power or unlimited power.
Unfortunately for the peace of mankind, both churches and governments have occasionally assumed that they have absolute power. It is what we call The Theory of Absolute Monarchy. This was the view held by certain kings in Great Britain three hundred and so many years ago. It came in, I'm afraid I have to say, with the Stuart dynasty who ruled in Scotland and of course in England too. James VI of Scotland and First of England believed in absolute monarchy; so did his son Charles I, and his son Charles II, and James VII. There were four of these Stuart kings in the 17th century, in Puritan times, and they all held to this theory of absolute monarchy. They believed that God had given them such power and such authority amongst the people and over the people of the country, that whatsoever they commanded it was people's conscientious duty before God to do.
It led to a most important development in Scotland. In the 1630's, in Edinburgh, in the church which we call Saint Giles Cathedral (it was then the high kirk of Edinburgh), a Church of England dignitary, or an Episcopal dignitary at any rate, was reading the service book before the people. The people of Scotland were Presbyterian, but the king was trying to turn them into Episcopalians as to make them into the Church of England in their style. The people of Scotland didn't want it, but they were told that the king had the right to impose upon them whatever religion suited him. He took the view that there's 'no bishop, no king', but he couldn't reign nor rule properly without bishops, so he insisted there should be bishops and he dictated to the people of Scotland that they must have their service book, as he called it - no more free style prayers from the pulpit which they'd been used to before. So he imposed, as far as he could, this ritual and this religion upon them.
As the minister was reading his service book, you will know that there was a woman sitting on a stool - her name was Jenny Geddes - and she was so outraged at this provocation that the people of the land should be imposed on by this minister, by the king of the country, that she lifted the stool which she was sitting on, and she took it and she threw it at the man reading the service book, and she shouted at him, "Will you say Mass in my ear?!" She was indignant! She was outraged! She was angry at the provocation - she knew that this was an offence to God! And the whole congregation rose up, and the minister fled for his life.
That led to the signing, in Edinburgh, of what is called The National Covenant of Scotland. Hundreds and thousands of people signed their names to a large document which bears that title. Some people actually made little cuts in the veins of their arms and hands so the blood would drip out, and they would dip their quill pen in the blood and write their name and signature to this document. The nature of this National Covenant of Scotland was to say that they would defend true religion - even to the death. They would not allow either king, or government, or bishop, or archbishop, or anyone on earth to impose upon them a religion which they did not believe was from the Word of God.
It led to a tremendous change for good in Scotland. It saved the gospel. It saved the church in Scotland. Of course, it led to very hard times. It meant that the king was against the people and eventually came to a civil war, and many other things. But that was the issue: had the king the right to impose his views of religion upon the whole land, or had he not? And the people believed that he had not. Great books were written about it. Lex Rex, by Samuel Rutherford, is one of these great books, meaning, in Latin, Law is King - there is a law above the king; the king hasn't got unlimited power. That was the argument - but God's law has absolute power.
(ii) TWO AUTHORITIES IN CONFLICT
Now that is how we justify what is done here by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. They respected the king, and they honored his laws. They knew he was a man with God-given powers, but, you see, they were facing this important question: Which of two authorities must we respect first? There is first of all the authority of the king - but then there's the authority of Almighty God. And the Ten Commandments make it very clear that Almighty God has told us all, Commandment One: "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20,3). Commandment Two: "Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image" (Exodus 20,4). Commandment Three: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Exodus 20,7).
So here you have two authorities clashing - the authority of the government versus the authority of God; the authority of the king, Nebuchadnezzar, versus the Ten Commandments given by God on tables of stones. And the issue became an issue: which of these two authorities takes precedence over the other? Does the king's authority take precedence over God's authority? or God's authority over the king's authority?
And in their heart of hearts they knew - God must come before all men. We must "render unto Caesar," as Christ said much later, "the things that are Caesar's" (Caesar being the name for the government) and we must "render unto God the things that are God's" (Luke 20,25). We give to the government taxes, and tithes, and offerings of various kinds; we keep their laws, as far as we in good conscience can - but there are things that we give to God. We give to God His worship. We give to Him the acknowledgment of His truth - His Lordship, His sovereignty over our consciences. No human authority has a right to dictate to our consciences. God alone is Lord of the conscience.
Now the same mistake as was made by those Stuart kings, was made in the Middle Ages, and still is being made, by the Church of Rome. The Church of Rome has this theory: it says that all kings, all governments, all human authorities are under the authority of God, and of Christ. So far, we agree - they are. But they say that the authority of Christ has been vested in the Pope, and in the Cardinals, and so the Pope is above all earthly governments; supreme authority is his; he reigns and rules on earth, and so he has a three fold tiara - a triple crown - indicating his authority over heaven, and authority in earth, and authority over hell itself, or 'purgatory', as they say. And so he wears that crown; that is a symbol of his total authority - he is above all law (that's the Pope) and he is above all human authority of every kind. Now that is the theory, and, of course, it was because they had this theory that there had to be the Protestant Reformation.
The whole question revolves around the issue: what authority is to be obeyed? When there's a conflict of authority, whose authority is to be obeyed? Well let's work it out.
Take the commandment that parents have authority over their children. Children are to obey their parents - but only in the Lord. That is to say, if parents command their children to break God's laws, then children must disobey their parents. If parents were to command their children, let us say, to go to the shops on the Sabbath day and buy food, unless it was a matter of great urgency the children should say, I refuse to do it. Or, if the children were asked to steal, or to tell lies, then the children must say to their father, I cannot do it - and they must take the consequences.
Similarly, if governments say to the people who live in their countries, You must do what we tell you in terms of worship and religion, and we command you only to worship in this way and in no other way, if they command us to worship God in a manner which is not according to the Word of God, then the duty of Christian conscience is to disobey - and to pay the consequences.
Now that is what is happening in many countries today. It is happening in Sudan. It is happening in Mainland China. It is happening, no doubt, in many other nations of which we know very little. The Lord's people are suffering because of this very thing - they are putting conscience toward God ahead of every earthly consideration. God's laws take first place.
And it's happening in Roman Catholic countries too, where the Catholic Church has supreme control, or perhaps the Greek Orthodox has supreme control, and the Christians who are Bible believers cannot in conscience obey what those churches command them to do in terms of worship and service - and they have to disobey and pay the consequences.
(iii) FAITHFUL DISOBEDIENCE
Now, my dear friends, that is the way in which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego behaved. They said, We owe to God something which we cannot be compelled to withdraw from. The only way to keep a good conscience is to walk in the commandments of God. The only way in which we can do what is right in this situation, O king, is, regrettably, we have to disobey all that you say - and we have to pay the consequences.
Listen to them, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter" (text). You see, it's not a matter of uncertainty. We're not talking about tiny details. It's not a question of a fine point or a gray area - it's absolutely clear, O king! Absolutely clear! We're not in the slightest uncertainty as to where our duty lies, O king. Our God is able to deliver us from your burning fiery furnace - if He pleases - and if he pleases not to do, know this, O king, we still will not obey your wicked command! They don't put it so strongly, but that's really what they're intending to convey to him.
Well, my friends, they acted in faith, as I say, and they acted in the only way in which conscientious men and women can act. They, of course, act heroically. They act spiritually. They are an example to us all. That and that alone is how a man or a woman must act when there is a conflict of authority - God's authority versus man's authority. Now that's not to deny that authorities in this world are God-given; whether in the state or in the church or in the home; some other spheres also there's God-given authority - but it is always a limited authority. No authority in this world is absolute, total, or unlimited.
3. GOD VINDICATES THE FAITHFUL
Well I move on from there to show that God demonstrated and proved that they were right, these three men. God shows it. God shows that they were right. Now, notice first of all in that connection, the Lord did not spare them this terrible ordeal. It was no easy thing for them to stand before this ferocious king, with his face like thunder. That was a terrible ordeal for these men. Still more an ordeal was to be bound with ropes, and thrown into this burning fiery furnace so hot that even the soldiers who threw them in themselves lost their lives. Incidentally, those who are tyrants always do harm to those of their own kind and on their own side.
But the Lord vindicates them. My friends, it is a sublime and a wonderful proof which Nebuchadnezzar notices. There must have been some kind of window in which he could look into the burning fiery furnace. He was not content to roast them alive, he was also wanting to watch it. Isn't that strange about human nature. He was wanting a window so that he could not only throw them in and kill them - he wanted to watch them dying there. So he had some sort of opening for seeing into this terrible furnace - and what did he see?! - Not three men, he says, but there's a fourth one there! and the form of Him is like the Son of God! No wonder he was amazed!
Jesus Christ our Lord was with them in their burning experience! fulfilling His gracious promise, When thou goest through the fire and the flame, I will be with thee. It's one of the great moments in the history of the world - Jesus Christ our Lord in His preincarnate state. He was with His faithful, believing people in their trials and in their pain.
Well, the same promise was granted to Stephen. He was the same. He put the authority of God before the authority of the Jewish council, and he gave his great oration, his wonderful defense made before them. Can't you see all the Pharisees and Sadduccees all around Him in this huge assembly of learned professors and dignitaries, brilliant men. He made his defense, and he ended up by saying to them that they had crucified the Son of God, their own Messiah, and hadn't kept the law as they had received it from the disposition of angels. And they were furious! and they flew upon him! They dragged him out. They stoned him to death. And notice what he said as he was dying: "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God" (Acts 7,56). You see, Christ was with him in his sufferings!
And the same was true of the apostle Paul when he was about to suffer death for the faith. We are told in second Timothy that Paul was put on trial the first time before Nero, and he said, "At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me," but then he says, "notwithstanding the Lord stood with me and strengthened me" (2 Timothy 4,16-17).
The Lord will not forsake those who stand with Him and for Him. The Lord will not turn His back upon you when you go through the tyranny of men for His sake. The Lord will stand by you. And sooner or later - He will vindicate all those who are faithful to His Word. He will stand by them and He will show and demonstrate that they were right.
It's an amazing ending to this chapter. Listen to what Nebuchadnezzar says. He begins to praise these men: "Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king's word, and yielded their bodies, that they may not serve nor worship any god, except their own God" (Daniel 3,28). That was an unexpected source of praise, wasn't it? The very one that was wanting to roast them alive is the very one now who is praising them and praising their God! It led to a reformation of religion in the land: "I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill" (Daniel 3,29).
What a change.
And then he makes his own tribute: "because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort" (verse 29).
My friend, if we want blessing, we had better do the right thing. None of this 'facing both ways.' If we pray for revival or pray for blessing, then we had better live according to our own prayers! And we had better put the authority of God before all authorities that are in this world, be they never so venerable. When they exercise their powers according to the Word of God, then we submit to them. But if any of them exercise their authority above their proper sphere, or if they go beyond their proper powers and become 'beyond their power', then we must say no - in the name of God we say no! We cannot do this thing if it is binding our consciences to some form of insubordination to the Word of God - then we had better die. As Professor John Murray put it, "If the only way to do what is right is to die, then we had better die - because we don't have to live." But we have to avoid sinning against God at all costs - far better to die than sin against God.
That was the philosophy of these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. That's why they're an example to us. They knew very well it's far better to suffer than to sin - far better. But not everybody in the world understands that.
Martin Luther understood it at the Reformation. That's why he gave his whole life to the promotion of the true gospel of justification by faith.
Also, there is a very important account of what happened two hundred and so many years ago in the 18th century to the Erskine brothers, who started off as a session church in the 1730's. They also were driven out, exactly on the same basis that men are going out now, because they would say no! to any infringement of conscientious obedience to the Word of God.
The same thing happened in 1892 when the Declaratory Act was brought into the Free Church of Scotland, and again in 1900 when our forefathers had to say no, and were driven out of their own church. It happened in America in the 1930's with a very eminent and great man called J. Gresham Machen in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in the 20's and 30's - the same thing happened then. Good men had to say no the authority of the General Assembly. Machen was driven out and excommunicated. It happened in Wales in the 1970's when Mr. Vernon Higham and others were driven out. Exactly the same principles were at stake.
We must obey God rather than men.
And Jesus told us in His own preaching, "They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service" (John 16,2). It's happened many times.
Thank God that there are men like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego alive in our country still, who put principle ahead of their own comfort. Our God, they say, is able to deliver us. And if there were not such men alive in our country today, there will be no gospel left in Scotland tomorrow.
I commend these men to you as they go out in these coming days, and I pray you to give them your whole heart and affection and respect and honor - they are worthy of it, because they are men who stand, in their own way, with these three Jews of whom we've been speaking today; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego.
Listen to their testimony as I close just now: " O king, we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up" (text).
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