Have you ever felt the pressure to compromise? To compromise your principals? Above all, to compromise your identity as a Christian, to compromise your relationship with God?
I’m sure many of us have. How do you resist? How do you remain faithful?
You’ve worked for your employer for years. Long hours. Turned away other offers. They call you in. From now on, they take priority over everything else in your life. It doesn’t matter what promises you’ve made to your family or your church; regularly drop everything for the company.
Or three months into a new job, everyone’s going out for a night’s heavy drinking and some adult entertainment. The bosses are leading by example; everyone will be there. You’re the new boy; if you don’t go, you don’t fit. If they have to cut back, it might make you first.
Another employer who wants you to turn a blind eye to cutting health and safety corners. In theory, the public are in danger of a serious accident. But nothing’s gone wrong yet, everybody else turns a blind eye, and you don’t want to be the one to rock the boat. Do you?
On holiday in Thailand with a group of friends, and tomorrow’s excursion is a trip to the local Buddhist temple. Everyone is going, and they’re each going to show their respect by putting a pinch of incense on the burning coals. Do you go, or stay at the resort all by yourself?
Your old army regiment invites you to a service of remembrance. This year, it will be a multi-faith service. As well as the Lord’s Prayer, prayers will be said to Allah and to Vishnu. Do you go?
The god of tolerance will not rest until everyone bows. So in August, all volunteers at the National Trust’s Felbrigg Hall were asked to wear lanyards supporting LGBT rights. The 30 that refused were assigned duties that weren’t public-facing. The National Trust only backed down when people began to cancel memberships as a result of the fuss.
A friend was arrested for smuggling Bibles into what was then the Soviet Union. He was told that the punishment for smuggling gold bullion was 20 years in Siberia, and he hadn’t declared his wedding ring at the border. Unless, of course, he gave the names of the Christians he was going to give the Bibles to. Was he tempted to betray his Christian brothers and sisters? You bet he was. Did he? No, and he didn’t go to Siberia either.
The pressure to compromise. The pressure to conform. It can be quite intense.
Three factors can make it particularly intense.
The first is the commands of those in authority. If you are ordered by your employer, a policeman, a magistrate, things can be quite intimidating.
Second, the compliance of others. If other people are nodding, bowing and scraping, towing the line, it can be very hard to resist going along. You’re there in a huge crowd, and they all bow to the floor. You are left, like a fence post, conspicuously the only one standing. The pressure to choose that moment to tie your shoelace is immense.
And third, the consequences of disobedience. It’s fine to stand by your principles if it doesn’t cost you anything. But the moment it might cost you – a fine, your liberty, your job, your reputation as a good neighbourly citizen, even your life – suddenly the stakes are much higher.
The Pressure on Daniel’s Three Friends
The commands of those in authority, the compliance of others, the consequences of disobedience. Which is why Daniel’s three friends are facing the perfect storm in Daniel chapter 3. They got hit by all 3 at once.
We’re looking at the book of Daniel together this autumn. It follows four Jews who were deported from Jerusalem to the regional superpower of Babylon.
In chapter 1, they worked out a way to be fully involved in Babylonian life. They were given jobs in the royal court. This needed some gentle compromises along the way, but also some firm boundaries. They didn’t want to lose their identity as servants of the one true God.
This put them in a position where they were able to do a lot of good. Last time we looked at chapter 2. They were able to help a troubled king and to save the lives of many of the king’s advisors.
The trouble comes when they discover that life in a foreign land will not always be plain-sailing. Suddenly, a demand is made that they cannot agree to. And this time they’re not allowed to say “no”.
Nebuchadnezzar builds a huge gold statue. Some 27 metres high. I reckon that’s about the height of this building. It’s pure gold, from top to bottom, unlike the statue he saw in the dream we looked at last week. The entire civil service is to gather. A huge orchestra will strike up, and when it does the whole crowd is to bow down and worship the statue. They’re not to think, they’re just to do it.
I picture Nebuchadnezzar holding a puppet control bar, with strings holding up all his officials. When the music strikes, he’ll simply lower the strings, and he expects them all to droop to their knees together.
Except, they don’t. There are three pesky Jews who persist in remaining bolt upright. And there are some jealous officials who feel it is their civic duty to bring this to the king’s attention.
We, the readers, watch the king’s face turn a deeper and deeper shade of scarlet as he discovers they really won’t comply. And then we hear those two terrifying words, “blazing furnace”.
It is the perfect storm. The commands of those in authority. Purple-faced Nebuchadnezzar demands it. The compliance of others. Everybody else, without exception, is on their knees. Thousands of them. How dare these three think they’re entitled to be different. And the consequences of disobedience. The threat of that blazing furnace will have focused their minds considerably.
And yet they stand firm, literally.
How do they do it? How do they resist such overwhelming pressure to compromise?
The answer is, that they knew their God. Three things about the God of Daniel 3.
Demands Exclusive Loyalty
First, he’s the God who demands exclusive loyalty. He demands exclusive loyalty.
Here’s why the three friends refused to bow down to the statue. It’s in verse 18: “We will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
The statue symbolised Nebuchadnezzar’s gods. The statue was a human construction. “The image of gold you have set up”. Just like his gods. Not real. But they must not worship them.
You see, they knew the ten commandments. Commandment number 1: “You shall have no other gods besides me”. They weren’t at liberty to worship other gods. They had to be exclusively loyal to their God, the one true God.
The easiest thing on earth would have been for them to bow down to the statue. Go through the motions. It wouldn’t mean anything. Bow down today, then go back to worshipping their own God tomorrow.
But the living God is not a God who is willing to share his people’s loyalty. He’s not a god who doesn’t mind who else we worship, provided he gets his share. It’s like a marriage, not like a job. You can have more than one job if you want. As long as your side-line doesn’t stop you doing your main job properly, it’s up to you how you spend your spare time. But a marriage is exclusive. It shuts out all rivals. You give yourself to one person, and to them alone.
God wants our exclusive loyalty. The Lord Jesus said: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” That’s Matthew chapter 10, verse 37.
If we are to follow the Lord Jesus, he too demands our exclusive loyalty. He won’t share us with anyone.
Now: that didn’t stop them from serving in the royal court in Babylon. Just as this doesn’t stop us from serving an employer, a nation, or our family. But we serve those other institutions as an expression of our worship of the one true God. The moment someone else asks us to worship another god, we must refuse.
This was why they would not bow down to the king’s statue. They were loyal to their God. Not because they knew how the story would end. They didn’t.
So in verse 17 they know God can rescue them: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from your Majesty’s hand.” Then come the most wonderful words in the chapter: “But even if he does not…” “… even if he does not…”
They don’t defy the king’s order because they knew they would be rescued. They knew enough history to know that the story doesn’t always end that way. No: They knew that God demanded their loyalty. They would be loyal to him, even if it killed them.
That’s the first thing they knew about God, that gave them the backbone to remain faithful. He demands exclusive loyalty.
Delivers His People
Second, he is the God who delivers his people. He delivers his people.
The story is set up as a contest between Nebuchadnezzar and God. Which of the two is more powerful? If God and Nebuchadnezzar are competing for the destinies of these three Jews, which one will win?
Take a look at the end of verse 15: “But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” That was the sound of a gauntlet being thudded down onto the table. The challenge is set.
And we get the answer. God rescued the men. Everyone crowds round in amazement. Verse 27: “The satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisors crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.”
The story gives four details to highlight just how completely God protected them No harm to their bodies, their hair, their clothes or their smell.
I wonder if you ever light a bonfire in the garden, or on your allotment. If you’re polite, you warn the neighbours first, give them time to bring in the washing. The smell gets into everything. Come in from the garden, and everyone else in the house will know from 10 yards that you’ve been having a bonfire.
Yet here are these three men. They’ve been in a furnace so hot that it killed the trained soldiers who threw them in there. And there isn’t even a whiff of smoke on them. God totally delivered them.
We’ve already said that this wasn’t why they refused to bow down to the statue. They didn’t know whether God would wish to deliver them in this way. But they never doubted that God could deliver them. And now it’s been proven. Nebuchadnezzar thinks there is no god powerful enough to deliver out of his hand. Now everyone can see clearly: There is a God. He’s more powerful than Nebuchadnezzar. He’s the God who delivers his people.
Jesus came as the saviour of the world. One day, he will return and deliver his people. On that day he will remove from this world all that is painful, all that is evil. He will take everyone who is waiting for him into a new world that is free of all those things.
Whenever you’re faced with a tyrant towering over you, they can be pretty imposing. Whether it’s the tyrant of a leader who defies the rule of the Lord Jesus, or the tyrant of a critical illness, or another crisis. Be in no doubt: Jesus is more powerful than the towering tyrant. If you are one of his people, one day that tyrant will be gone, and we will be rescued.
But we can be sure of this. God is able to deliver us, and in the long-run, that’s exactly what he will do. The God who delivers his people.
Third, he’s the God who draws alongside.
God may not deliver. But what he does do here is wonderful. He draws alongside.
Verse 24: “Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisors, ‘Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?’ They replied, ‘Certainly, Your Majesty,’ He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.’”
Who was this fourth man in the fire? We don’t know. We only have it from Nebuchadnezzar’s eyewitness testimony. He worshipped many gods, so he only meant that the figure looked godlike in some way, one member of his pantheon.
Perhaps it was an angel? Perhaps it was god himself, who had temporarily appeared in human form to strengthen his people? We’re not told.
About 600 years later, God was to do this again. Once again, God would come alongside us in our suffering. Only this time, it wouldn’t be a temporary visit, just in the flames of a Babylonian furnace. This time, God the Son would actually become a human being. A human being who was to suffer more intensely than any other human being has ever suffered. The agonising pain of death on a Roman cross. The spiritual agony of separation from God as he bore our sins. No wonder Isaiah 53 calls Jesus a man of sorrows, familiar with grief and suffering.
And this Jesus is with us. Until the end of the age when he returns to deliver us, he is with us. Matthew’s gospel closes with these wonderful words: “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” “Am I with you.” In life’s suffering and hardest moments, I am with you.
In Jesus, the wonderful promise of Isaiah chapter 43, verse 2 comes true: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.” “I am with you.”
The Christian imprisoned for her faith, in an isolation cell, has the risen Jesus with her in that cell for company. The Christian, beheaded in Iraq by ISIL for refusing to convert to Islam, has Jesus with them as they kneel in the sand for their final moments. The Christian who goes to see his line manager to explain bravely why they cannot obey the instructions in that email, has Jesus with them in the manager’s office.
As we go through impossibly hard times, as we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us. His shepherd’s rod and staff remind us that he’s with us. He’s the one who has already been through what we go through. He is the one who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and came out the other side victorious.
God does not promise that we will be delivered from every trial we face. That’s why the fourth man is so wonderful. In the flames, in the furnace, he is with us. He’s the God who draws alongside.
So how do we do it?
How do we remain faithful to God when every pressure is on us to compromise, to let him down?
How do we remain true to our God, when the unholy trinity of authority, peer pressure and threat line up against us?
God has given us this story. It’s a true story, and it’s part of our Christian heritage. It’s from earlier back in the story we live in today. Countless people have drawn comfort and strength from this, and we can too.
This story tells of the God who demands exclusive loyalty. It tells of the God who delivers his people, no tyrant is too strong. And it tells of the God who, in the meantime, draws alongside us in our suffering.