Through the fire.
How many of you remember hearing the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in Sunday School? Anyone? No? What if I asked if you’ve ever heard of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Yes? Good. We’re far more familiar with their Chaldean names than their given Hebrew names, but, nevertheless, the tale of these three young men’s defiance and heroic stand for the truth is timeless.
A little history…
If you remember, the prophet Daniel begins his book by recounting the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar (roughly 597 B.C.), in which the Babylonians not only brought home physical spoils of war (clothing, riches, valuables, etc.), they brought back some of the Israelite royals and nobles. (Dan 1:1–3) Among these captives, who were essentially hostages ensuring the submission of Judah to Babylon, were Daniel (Belteshazzar), Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abednego). These young men were selected based on their physical and mental prowess. Men that showed potential and could serve as assets to the kingdom if re-educated and assimilated into Babylonian culture. (Dan 1:4–5)
And, so, in a foreign land, learning new languages and customs and ideologies, Daniel and his three comrades were ushered into a three-year training regimen (Dan 1:5) to embrace and integrate and qualify themselves for service in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. And, just as a way to bring more context to the story before us, you’ll recall that during this program, Daniel and his Hebrew friends refuse the diet set before them (Dan 1:8) and request a trial period of ten days to eat their own diet (“vegetables” and “water”; Dan. 1:12), and see which outcome would prove better. And, if you remember, Daniel and his companions, those who only ate vegetables and drank water for the ten days, appeared stronger and healthier than those who ate the king’s diet.
What’s more, after the three years were complete, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego excelled far above and beyond the rest. God gave them a special grace to discern and understand the Babylonian literature and wisdom. Their knowledge was found to be “ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters.” (Dan 2:20) God’s grace enabled these men to find favor in the king’s sight, thus preserving them and giving them privilege even among the extraordinary pressures and stresses of a new life. They were even promoted by King Nebuchadnezzar, giving them further opportunity to promote the peace and welfare of the city where God had placed them.
Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole provide of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Mechasch, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained in the king’s court. (Dan 2:48–49)
It’s with this knowledge that we come to chapter 3 of Daniel’s prophetic book, in which we find the account of the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar commissions. The statue, made entirely of gold, stood roughly ninety feet tall and nine feet wide, serving as an imposing symbol to all surrounding lands, and asserting King Nebuchadnezzar’s absolute authority and dominance. The image was to be a unifying symbol of the Babylonian entire empire under Nebuchadnezzar, both politically and religiously. He summons eight different classes of officials to come and pay homage to the idol (Dan 3:2–3), and the fact that all the people were commanded to “worship the golden image” (Dan 3:5) further suggests the idea that Nebuchadnezzar saw himself as a God, and desired that everyone recognize him as the supreme sovereign of the land.
Then something interesting happens. A group of Chaldeans, that is, the “magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers,” etc. (Dan 2:2, 4), come before Nebuchadnezzar and tell him of Shadrach’s, Meshach’s, and Abednego’s defiance and refusal to worship the image. “These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your God’s or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan 3:12) This group of Chaldeans were most likely jealous of Nebuchadnezzar’s favor of these Jewish captives (Dan 1:20), especially of the fact that they were so quickly promoted to positions of authority within the kingdom. (Dan 2:48–49) Nonetheless, the king is furious, and demands that these three be brought before him. “Who’d dare defy me?” he must’ve thought. He’d set himself up as a deity, so naturally, when anyone rejected that notion, it enraged him. “Who’d be foolish enough to challenge my authority?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are brought before the king, and again, we see the king’s favor of these men, as he gives them a second chance to recant their defiance of his decree and worship the golden image, as was commanded. (Dan 3:14–15) He reminds them of their fate if they deny him again, that they’d be immediately “cast into a burning fiery furnace.” (Dan 3:15) But the three Hebrews don’t acquiesce to Nebuchadnezzar’s ultimatum and remain ardent in their faithfulness to God, answering 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 God’s or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan 3:16–18)
What an amazing display of faith and audacity, which must’ve been seen as quite brazen and insolent to Nebuchadnezzar. In their inmost souls, they had already determined to follow God, and him alone. So much so, that either by life or through death, they desired only to glorify God, refusing to reject him and bow to this false idol. Their response is full of bravado — as they stand in the court of a conqueror and ruthless king, they declare, “We don’t need to explain ourselves; we have no need to answer you or defend ourselves, we answer to God alone.” This is what gospel-living does: it “liberates us to live a life of scandalous generosity, unrestrained sacrifice, uncommon valor, and unbounded courage.”1
“Unbounded courage.” That’s what these three showed, that regardless of the threats and the danger and their impending fate, their faith to God would persevere. Even if they were taken by the fire, their obedience to God wouldn’t be shaken. “God could deliver us, he has that power,” they declare, “but even if he doesn’t, we’ll remain loyal to him.” What an audacious response in the face of death! I find it hard to believe that if presented with the same lot that I’d be able to remain as faithful and trusting as these three. But this is what living under the power of the gospel does to us and for us: it emboldens us and empowers us and enables us to live this life of scandalous courage, even in the face of certain death.
Constantly and perpetually reminding yourself of what Jesus has already done for you liberates us to “spend our lives giving instead of taking; going to the back instead of getting to the front; sacrificing ourselves for others instead of sacrificing others for ourselves.”2 This is the freedom of the gospel and the deliverance of grace. Jesus has already done everything and secured everything. Therefore, we don’t need anything from others, everything in Christ we already have. (2 Pt 1:3) “Since there is nothing we ultimately need from one another,” writes Tullian Tchividjian, “we are free to do everything for one another.”3
Faith in the flames.
This denial and outright refusal of him only enrages King Nebuchadnezzar more. He’s so furious that he orders the furnace to be heated “seven times more than it was usually heated” (Dan 3:19), as hot as they could make it! He was so incensed as these Jewish rebels that he wanted them swallowed up by the flames and eviscerated on the spot. The “mighty men” are summoned to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and throw them into the fire. But the furnace was so hot and raging that these “mighty men” that were sent to throw the Hebrew three to their doom were burnt up themselves! (Dan 3:22)
And this is where the glory of this story manifests itself. In the midst of the flames, through the fire, Jesus appears. “Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’ They answer and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ He answered and said, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth is like a son of the God’s.’” (Dan 3:24–25) In what is a graphic fulfillment of Isaiah 43:1–3, Jesus himself emerges in the midst of these three faithful men and perfectly delivers them. I have no doubt that this fourth figure was Christ, a “Christophany,” a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Savior, Jesus Christ. And what a change takes hold of Nebuchadnezzar after this deliverance, from having set up and image of himself for all to worship, to now declaring that “there is no other God who is able to rescue in this way.” (Dan 3:29)
Stepping into a mess.
But, despite the great rescue and deliverance that this story reveals to us, it all merely points us to a greater deliverance and greater rescue to come. Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we’re in the furnace! That’s us in the flames, in the fire, and without Jesus we’re doomed to die in the pit of hell, in a “lake of fire.” (Rv 20:10; 21:8) Until we realize that, we’ll never be free. Until we see ourselves as absolutely incapable, we’ll never feel delivered. We’ll resign ourselves to championing our own self-salvation and self-rescue projects that will end up falling far short of the salvation and rescue that Jesus offers.
The only way we’ll ever rejoice over Christ’s salvation is if we first understand our complete inability to save ourselves. Just as the Son of God met them in the midst of the fire, so too does God meet us. Jesus steps into our madness, our mayhem, our mess to show us his mercy. God condescends to where we are, in the midst of the muck and mire and filth of our sin. It’s there that God finds us, favors us, and loves us — where we are, not where we should be. What outrageous grace and unconscionable love that’s showered on us in the work of the Son!
Grace does not stand upon the distant mountain-top and call on the sinner to climb up the steep heights, that he may obtain its treasures; it comes down into the valley in quest of him; nay, it stretches down its hand into the very lowest depths of the horrible pit, to pluck him thence out of the miry clay. It does not offer to pay the ninety and nine talents, if he will pay the remaining one; it provides payment for the whole, whatever the sum may be. It does not offer to complete the work, if he will only begin it by doing what he can. It takes the whole work in hand, from first to last, presupposing his total helplessness. It does not bargain with the sinner, that if he will throw off a few sins, and put forth some efforts after better things, it will step in and relieve him. It comes up to him at once, with nothing short of complete forgiveness as the starting-point in all his efforts to be holy . . . Such is the grace that is still going forth to us. It is absolutely and unconditionally free; it comes up to us where we stand; it finds us “in a desert land, and in a waste, howling wilderness.” And there it does its work with us.4
This, though, is the story of Scripture, that as we run from God, Jesus runs after us. It’s a story about great sinners in need of and met by a great Savior. The Bible tells the tale of a Heavenly Father that sees his prodigals afar off and hikes up his robe and comes running to them (Lk 15:20–24), meeting them where they are and embracing them with mercy and grace. All throughout Scripture, we’re seen as absolutely desperate, and Jesus is seen as the perfect Deliverer.
The Bible’s plot-line.
Charles Spurgeon is famous for saying, “I have a great need for Christ: I have a great Christ for my need.” This is the plot-line of the Bible, and of the Christian life. “The Bible is not the record of man’s groping after God,” writes D. G. Barnhouse, “but is the record of the revelation of God to men.”5 The focus of the Christian life isn’t you getting “better,” it’s Jesus coming down! (Phil 2:5–11) It’s not you earning grace, it’s grace finding you and delivering you, despite and in spite of you. This is the glory of this story, and, moreover, the glory of God’s goodness: not that “I would die for Jesus,” but that “Jesus has died for me,” for you. Christianity isn’t you white-knuckling God; it’s God gripping you with a cross. Jesus’s sacrifice is vastly superior to our own and anything that we could ever offer.
The redemption that Jesus accomplished and secured not only liberates you and rescues you from condemnation (Rom 8:1), it also clothes you in Christ’s very righteousness. (2 Cor 5:21) “Because God is gracious,” declares Charles Spurgeon, “therefore sinful men are forgiven, converted, purified, and saved. It is not because of anything in them, or that ever can be in them, that they are saved; but because of the boundless love, goodness, pity, compassion, mercy, and grace of God.” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego emerged from the flames unharmed, with “no smell of fire” even on them (Dan 3:27), as if they’d never even been near a fire! Likewise, we emerge from the abyss of grace perfectly clothed in Jesus’s righteousness, so that when God sees us, he sees Jesus — and now, there’s not even the smell of sin on us! What a beautiful picture of salvation this is!
Live and move and breathe in the grace of God. “Let Jesus be your all in all,” says Spurgeon, “and let free grace be the one line in which you live and move. There is no life like that of one who lives in the favor of God.”6 It’s then that the feel of full rescue and deliverance will capture your hearts and captivate your lives. Through the fire, Jesus is with us. In the midst of the flames, Christ rescues us. Wherever you are right now, God loves you. Let that joyous truth compel you and constrain you to live bravely and courageously for him! (2 Cor 5:14–15)
God’s love for me, his approval and commitment to me, does not ride on my transformation but on Jesus’s substitution. Jesus is infallibly devoted to us in spite of our inconsistent devotion to him. The Gospel is not a command to hang on to Jesus. It’s a promise that no matter how weak your faith and how unsuccessful your efforts may be, God is always holding on to you. In this light, life is simply the chronicle of God’s successes perfectly meeting our failures.7
Rejoice, Christian, for you’ve been rescued from the flames! Praise God, sinner, for you’ve been delivered from sin!
Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013), 189.
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857), 62–63, 65.
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vol. 3 (Philadelphia: The Evangelical Foundation, 1963), 3:170.
Charles Spurgeon, All of Grace: The Infinite Love of God (Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1981), 135.