The great and the good assembled in rows according to their rank under the cloudless sky, for the dedication of the latest extravagance of this most ambitious regime. The relentless sun beat down on the multitude as they shielded their eyes to gaze at the shining golden figure in the centre of the plain.
This was not just an image; another Babylonian deity to be revered; this was a towering figure of the great Emperor himself, Nebuchadnezzar. The sycophants in the royal court had applauded this display of self-aggrandisement, encouraging the king to require each one of his subjects to worship the image as a sign of their devotion to him. The instructions were pronounced by the heralds leaving no one in any doubt about the consequences of non-compliance. The orchestra would play an overture, then everyone, without exception, had to fall down on their faces and pay homage to the golden colossus. Anyone refusing to bow would be thrown into a fiery furnace.
For three young men this was looking to be a particularly tough day. These men were trophies of war; aristocratic sons snatched from their homes in Jerusalem to be schooled and developed as part of the Babylonian intellectual elite. They were likely to have been made eunuchs before undergoing an intensive indoctrination in astrology, Babylonian literature and economics. Now they would be forced to completely abandon their loyalty to Yahweh, the God of Israel, or refuse to bow down and have to face the fury of the flames. The story is the stuff of legend—the friends stand resolutely upright as the surrounding sea of humanity prostrates itself before the idol. Instantly the king is informed of their blatant rebellion and the three are dragged before him. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; the pagan names issued them as part of their assimilation programme; now stand before their earthly master. Possibly in recognition of their excellent record of work, the king adopts a conciliatory tone: perhaps they hadn’t understood the original instruction. He offers them a second chance.
They had not misunderstood. They bravely answer the king,
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18 (NLT)
The king’s reasonable facade is gone in a second. His colour changes as his features contort; in unbridled rage he commands that the furnace be heated seven times hotter than before. The Hebrew boys are snatched up by the strongest soldiers and thrown into the fire, fully dressed in their royal turbans and robes. So hot is the fire, that the soldiers are burned to death as they hurl our heroes in through the entrance of the furnace.
As Nebuchadnezzar sits back to observe the spectacle, he suddenly leaps up in amazement: there are now four people in the furnace—not only that, but they are walking about in the core of the fire, unharmed.
“Look!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted. “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire unharmed! And the fourth looks like a god!” Daniel 3:25 (NLT)
Even despots have to change when brought face to face with God
Even despots have to change when brought face to face with God. The king orders the young men to step out of the fire and stand before him once more, this time calling them “servants of the Most High God”. As he examines them, he sees that not one hair, or item of clothing is slightly singed by the flames; they don’t even smell of fire. The only things to be burned are the ropes that bound them.
No one normally chooses to be plunged into a fire. In the New Testament the apostle Peter uses fire as a metaphor to describe intense trials; he tells us that trials are normal part of a process which draws out the gold in us. He says,
Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world. 1 Peter 4:12,13 (NLT)
In his same letter he had previously written:
These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. 1 Peter 1:7 (NLT)
The fire accomplished three things for the three Hebrew boys:
1. They were set free from the ropes which held them bound.
2. They encountered Jesus himself in the moment of most intense trial.
3. They came out of the experience into promotion in their sphere of influence.
Their faith was tested to an extreme level, but as they came through for God, God came through for them. At the Prayerhouse we are currently experiencing a trial by fire. The building we have occupied for 20 years was badly damaged in an arson attack three weeks ago. God didn’t save the building, but I personally encountered the Prince of Peace, at 6am on Friday April 5. I had responded to the call from the Fire Department and arrived at the Prayerhouse to see an ocean of blue lights flashing from the six fire engines and an army of firefighters coming in and out of a hole in the wall. At no point did I feel panic or despair, just a sense of calm and an illogical peace.
What happens next for us? I am convinced that God will come through in an amazing way, releasing us from limitations which had held us back, bringing us into a closer relationship with himself, whilst making us more effective in our spheres of influence.
The amazing truth of Jesus, is that he experienced the hell of separation from God, even though he overcame it, so that we wouldn’t have to. Jesus “tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). There is no one who has to be excluded from God’s family, simply because Son #1, tasted death for everyone. Jesus voluntarily stepped into the furnace of God’s punishment of sin to take the full brunt for you and I.
Without Good Friday, there is no Resurrection Sunday.
There was another in the fire
Standing next to me
There was another in the waters
Holding back the seas
And should I ever need reminding
Of how I've been set free
There is a cross that bears the burden
Where another died for me
There is another in the fire
Words and Music by Chris Davenport & Joel Houston
© 2018 Hillsong Music Publishing CCLI: 7124907