The Lord Rewards Unwavering Faith
Reading: Daniel 3:1-30
In the days of our childhood this story of the three young Jewish men who refused to bow to the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up seemed very remote and, while we may not have doubted its veracity, it appeared to be quite without relevance to the times in which we lived. But not long ago a missionary of the China Inland Mission (now OMF International) who had just returned from a visit to Burma, told a comparable story of Titus, a former student of his in China. When he would not deny his faith, Communist officials in southwest China held him over a fire; then urged him to recant, but without success. The ghastly process was repeated until the chariot of fire carried him into the presence of his Lord, charred in body but dauntless in faith. So this story is right up-to-date, very relevant to those who even today may stand in Titus’ place.
Picture the exact circumstances these three young men faced. Impressed by their caliber, Nebuchadnezzar had shown them favor, much to the displeasure of the Babylonian courtiers. Their jealousy was understandable. The courtiers determined that in some way they would remove these interlopers. The edict that all must worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, erected to celebrate his victories and enhance his glory, provided a welcome opportunity.
The three young men were in no doubt of the course they should adopt. Had Jehovah not commanded, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" and "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me"? (Ex. 20:3-4). When they refused to bow to his image, "then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury" (Dan. 3:19). If they would not bend to his will, they would burn in his furnace. "Heat the furnace seven times hotter than usual," he raged. Such is the background of the story.
The Resources of Faith
The magnificence of their faith is seen in their unwavering refusal to be disloyal to their God, with a seven-times heated furnace as the only alternative. Theirs was dauntless faith indeed. It was expressed in these sublime words, "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" (Dan. 3:16-18).
Note the resources of faith in their confession.
Faith in the ability of God to deliver them was their first resource. "Our God...is able to deliver us." We all subscribe to the ability of God to do everything in general, but it takes the exercise of faith to believe that God is able to do the something in particular which is our concern – especially if we already feel the heat of the fiery furnace! Could anything have seemed more impossible than deliverance? Is my God able to deliver me in my particular furnace of trial? Am I willing to step out in faith and trust Him?
Confidence in the willingness of God to deliver them. "And He will deliver us out of thine hand." This is the second resource of faith. Many who concede the ability of God to do everything are not so confident of His willingness to intervene in their case. To know God is to be assured of His absolute willingness to intervene in the way He sees to be in our highest interests. The Lord did deliver the three men, but in a way they never envisaged. Indeed, at first it seemed that they were not to be delivered at all.
Thrice blest is he to whom is
The wisdom that can tell
That God is on the field when He
Is most invisible.
When the leper appealed to Jesus for healing, he said, "Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean" – confident of His ability, but uncertain of His willingness. Jesus immediately corrected his mistaken concept with the words, "I will; be thou clean" (Luke 5:12-13).
But the faith of these young men was not at an end with this second resource. Enshrined in the words, "but if not," they had a third resource which rendered them invincible and fireproof.
Acceptance of the sovereignty of God. "But if not, be it known unto thee, O king…we will not worship the golden image." If we have this third resource of faith, if we can master this lesson, we are on the road to spiritual maturity. Even if God had not delivered them, their faith would not have been staggered. They knew it would be because He had some better thing for them. They recognized that it might not be God’s purpose to exercise His ability in this way and were content to leave the issue in His hands. They understood the principle Jesus stated in parable, "Cannot I do what I will with Mine own?" (Matt. 20:15).
Their attitude was, "Even if God does not do as we expect, our faith will not be stumbled, our confidence in Him and His love will remain unshaken. We know our God so well that we are prepared to accept His sovereign will even if we cannot understand it." In the event itself, there was apparent cause for their faith to be stumbled, for their courageous loyalty was rewarded by their being cast into the furnace after all. The onlooker might be justified in concluding that God was unconcerned, but their faith rose even to this test. To them, loyalty to their God was more important than life itself. They trusted Him where they could not trace His purposes. And God rewarded them on the scale of their magnificent trust. He had secret plans of grace and blessing of which they had never dreamed.
The Implications of Faith
Thomas Carlyle once said, "The final question which each of us is compelled to answer is, ‘Wilt thou be a hero or a coward?’" This question constantly confronts us in one form or another.
Faith is always confronted with a choice. We can choose either the high road or the low road. The choice for these young men was no easy one, nor will it be for us. Often it is an agonizing experience. Think of choosing between worshiping the king’s image or being incinerated in the king’s inferno! Nebuchadnezzar did not demand that they deny their faith, only that they bow to his image. In the days of the early church, the mere offering of a pinch of incense to the emperor would have spared many a martyr from being thrown to the lions. Faith always chooses the highest and best even though it be the most costly.
Faith always involves a risk. If there is no risk involved, no faith is necessary. If we can see the path ahead, we are walking by sight. What constituted Abraham the father of the faithful? The key to his whole life of faith is seen at its beginning. "Abraham went out, not knowing whither he went" (Heb. 11:8). He was willing to risk all on God. We exercise faith only when the way ahead is not clear, when we are so placed that we have no alternative if God lets us down. Not everyone enjoys taking such risks. Many who are bold as lions in taking physical risks are strangely timorous when it comes to taking a step of faith. We like to play safe, to have our plans cut and dried, to have an alternative ready. There is always a risk in the pathway of faith.
Faith always encounters opposition. The pathway of faith is not primrose-strewn, it is blood-marked. Abraham advanced from one test to another, each more difficult than the last. There was always opposition to be overcome, difficulty to be overleaped. Instead of repining at the difficulties we meet we should rejoice at the fresh opportunity they afford for the exercise of faith. If we are advancing in the walk of faith, we can expect to encounter more opposition, inward and outward, than our fellows. How else could faith have its exercise? There would be no incentive to climb.
The Deliverance of Faith
There are two important lessons to master.
Deliverance from trial is not necessarily our highest good. God did not deliver the three men from the fiery furnace but He did deliver them in it. We must get away from the idea that deliverance from trial is the highest form of spiritual blessing. That is an attitude which is entirely alien to the spirit of the New Testament. Was it the attitude of the Lord whom we follow? Paul gloried in enduring tribulation, not in evading it. God could easily have prevented the three young men from being flung into the furnace. He had something much better for them. There has been too much emphasis in Second Advent teaching on escape from the tribulation which is to overtake this old world. Without engaging in any millennial controversy, we should be alive to an emphasis which is unwholesome. Our Lord categorically stated, "In the world ye shall have tribulation" (John 16:33), and it is the complacent church which knows little tribulation which makes little spiritual impact. God nowhere promises us immunity from trial. We learn more in a few days in the fiery furnace than we would learn in years out of it. We emerge from the trials with a greater God.
The incidence of trial is unequal. God does not treat all alike. This obvious fact causes some to be offended in God. These three young men were not concerned with God’s treatment of others. They had their dealings direct with Him. We quickly run into spiritual trouble if we look around at God’s dealings with others. Our Lord taught Peter a salutary lesson on this point. He was concerned lest John should receive preferential treatment. Jesus replied sternly, "What is that to thee? Follow thou Me" (John 21:22). James went from prison to the executioner’s block. Peter went from prison to a prayer meeting. Peter won 3,000 souls. Stephen received 3,000 stones. We have to accept the fact that "the ways of the Lord are not equal." He does not deal with us on the mass-production principle. He delivers some from trial. He delivers some in trial.
"But if not"
Do we have a "But if not" in our spiritual vocabulary? Do we have this third resource of faith? Is our faith fireproof? If wars should arise and son, daughter, husband, sweetheart be taken from our side, have we a "But if not" to carry us through that fiery furnace? If business should fail, or financial reverses be experienced? If ill health grips us? When old age enfeebles us? When bereavement strikes? When desire for a life partner is not granted? When cherished plans are thwarted? If Christian work does not meet with the success we envisaged? When we are not designated to the mission station we expected or to live with the fellow worker we would choose? Let us emulate the dauntless faith of the noble three who maintained their confidence in God in the face of seemingly unrewarded faith. "But if not, we will still go on trusting God," said the three men. They did not fall into self-pity or unbelief.
We may not always understand God’s dealings with us at the time, and He nowhere undertakes to explain Himself. "What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter" is His promise (John 13:7). In the meantime we learn many a lesson in the furnace of testing.
If all my days were summer, how could I know
What my Lord means by His, "whiter than the snow"?
If all my days were sunny, could I say
In His fair land He wipes all tears away?
If I were never weary, could I keep
Close to my heart, "He gives His loved ones sleep"?
Were no graves mine, might I not come
to deem The life eternal but a baseless dream?
My winter and my tears and weariness,
Even my graves may be His way to bless.
I call them ills, yet that can surely be
Nothing but love that shows my Lord to me.
The Compensations of Faith
Their faith did not go unappreciated or unrewarded.
Companionship with the Son of God was their first joyous privilege. "Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God" (Dan. 3:25). In the furnace of affliction the Lord draws nearer than at any other time. It was not until they were "in the midst of the fire" that the Lord joined them. They acted in faith and He responded after they had risked all on Him.
Control of the flames was another compensation. God saw that the flames burned with a strange discrimination. "And the princes…saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was a hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed upon them" (v. 27). The flames burnt only their bonds, enabling them to walk in fellowship with the Son of God in unfettered freedom. Can we not see in this one of the gracious compensations of the fires of testing?
Vindication of their own faith and of their God was one of the rewards of their unwavering confidence. Why the details about their bodies, and hair, and coats? And why no smell of fire? An anonymous writer says: "High in rank and honor was the Babylonian god Izbar, the god of fire. Before the eyes of the Babylonian king and prince, governor, captains and counselors, this god must be defeated. The king had challenged the defeat by his own action. And now the defeat is overwhelming. On their own ground Jehovah has met these ardent believers in the god of fire, and they find that He is present, not merely as a tribal god in Palestine, but as the God of heaven and earth in Babylon also, as able and willing to deliver only three of His children as to help thirty thousand if need were. Let us suppose for a moment that the three men had come out with the marks of fire partially upon them, or even with the smell of it, that here and there the fire had singed either body or garment, and what would have been the attitude of the fire-worshipers? Something like this, ‘Ah, well, it is true Izbar has not been able to destroy them, but he has at least left his mark upon them. They will wear these clothes no more. Their friends will scarcely recognize them as the men they once were. The smell of the furnace will not soon leave them. They have not come out scatheless. Our Izbar is still a god to be reckoned with. They will not be so ready to disobey the king’s mandate another time. They will not come out of the furnace, it may be, a second time as easily as they have done this time.’
"And so the whole moral effect of the protest of these three Hebrews would have been discounted. The dexterity of the world in evading direct issues of this kind is marvelous. But in this case evasion was impossible. Not one loophole of escape was left them. In awe they had to admit that Jehovah had conquered, that the miracle was perfect and unquestionable, and that ‘the smell of fire had not passed on’ the three brave followers of the Most High."
There is many another similar illustration of an undaunted faith which had its "But if not" in the face of devastating alternatives. Each demonstrates a faith that is not only obedient to the divine commands but triumphs over the divine contradictions.
Job lost all – home, herd, family, health, even his wife’s sympathy – yet in the midst his faith triumphed gloriously. Consider his "but if not" – "though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (Job 13:15). Job had the third resource of faith.
Imagine the poignancy of Isaac’s question to Abraham, "Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham had his answer ready. "God will provide a lamb" (Gen. 22:7-8), but if not, I will still trust, accounting that God is "able to raise him up even from the dead" (Heb. 11:19). Such a thing as a resurrection had never been dreamed of, but Abraham’s faith rose to the occasion and he received him back from the dead in a figure.
The Lord Jesus was agonizing in prayer in Gethsemane, in such distress that bloody sweat forced its way through His pores. "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me." But if not, "Thy will be done" (see Matt. 26:39).
Can we wonder that Nebuchadnezzar was impotent against such a faith as this? The fire had no power over the bodies of the dauntless trio and he had no power over their spirits. The world is powerless to lure or daunt men with a faith such as this. The devil is powerless to do more than burn their bonds and send them forth as God’s free men.
In the world of today the testing flames may very well lick around us too. There is always an image somewhere demanding our worship. The form of the furnace may change with the years but not the fact. The world may threaten to cast us into the furnace of social ostracism. If we do not bow to the god of popular custom we will be fed to the flames of ridicule and popularity. It is not inconceivable that actual fires of persecution may rage around us yet. It is for us to be certain that we possess the fireproof faith of the three young men if we are to enjoy the abundant compensations of God.
Taken from Spiritual Maturity by J. Oswald Sanders (pp. 60-69). Copyright © 1962, 1994 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Used by permission of Moody Publishers.