But If Not

faith-under-fireCompromise can be a very good thing. Happily married couples know “a compromise is an agreement whereby both parties get what neither of them wanted.” And that’s OK because loyalty to the other preserves the “I love yous.” Compromise is a kind of social game we play to preserve relationships, to keep the peace, and to prevent everyone from suspecting they got shortchanged. Clearly compromise pays…sometimes.

Does it ever pay to compromise your core religious and moral beliefs? If life is just a series of games to win (or avoid losing)—like office politics, investing for retirement, or playing King of the Hill—then the answer must be Yes: “you have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” But if life is about glorifying God and enjoying him forever (WSC 1), then it never pays to compromise the most important things. Consider the first two commandments (Don’t worship other gods, don’t bow down to idols). Can they ever be compromised? Can you win a victory for God while playing according to the world’s rules? Or are these commandments not to be toyed with and instead worth dying for?

Daniel 3 shows us the pressure to bow before false gods can be enormous, especially when faced with threats and the prospect that God will not miraculously deliver. God may choose to save, vindicate, and exalt in this life those who entrust their lives to him, but if not he will certainly walk with them through every trial.

Abounding Idolatry

Bad news for God’s people (vv. 1-6)

Here is the setting: exile in Babylon, the city that became the biblical paradigm of wickedness. King Nebuchadnezzar’s empire is impressively vast and glorious. God says he and his kingdom are “gold” compared to lesser kingdoms that would come later (Dan 2). Now it seems the king let it go to his head. So he made a giant gold statue (probably representing his god), set it up on a plain outside the city, and called for all the governing officials to prove their loyalty to his majesty. The test? Fall down before the golden image and pay homage. Translation: worship the idol. The price of noncompliance? Execution by cremation. If you’re a pagan, then no problem. Just add one more idol to the list, pay your dues to the king, and off you go. But if you’re a faithful Jew, then this is a life-or-death crisis. How can you even consider bowing to an idol? You’d cease being you! You’d betray your God with one decisive action. Maybe some people will be able to opt out as conscientious objectors?

What if everybody’s doing it? (v. 7)

When the moment arrived to hit the floor, it seemed every single person fell in line with the king’s command! How could this be? How could groupthink and herd morality become so comprehensive? Now the pressure to comply really begins to mount. Without conviction to the contrary, people naturally and easily change their beliefs and thereafter modify their behavior. When the “plausibility structure” is strong, it becomes increasingly difficult to go against the crowd because you think there might be something true about what’s happening all around you. Add an ominous threat to the mix and bowing to a false god seems more reasonable. Even when we know it’s wrong, we still tend to justify our actions by rationalizing that good will come of going along.

“Tolerance” is the idol de jour in Western cultures and one current manifestation of bowing to this idol is paying homage to the LGBT god. It’s cheap and simple to do (just put a rainbow flag on your Facebook or bumper), everyone’s doing it, praise from the world is the guaranteed reward, and dissent is harshly punished. How quickly the masses fall in line and bow their noses to the ground. Paying homage is cheap, withhold payment is expensive. That’s why it seems everybody’s doing it.

The apostle John didn’t think Christians are immune to serving false gods. His final words of instruction in 1 John are “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn 5:21). Apparently God thinks you and I need reminders to watch out for the seduction of idol worship, and that we best receive this warning as little children—with all sincerity. Someone will object, “Hey, I don’t bow to anyone or anything but God.” Really? Take a closer look. All the people bowing to this statue were paying homage, paying their loyalty dues, to the Babylonian gods. Who did Babylon worship? Marduk and Astarte. Their Canaanite counterparts were Baal and Ashtoreth. These were the gods of fertility, virility, and war. In other words, prosperity, sex, and power. Those are the Big Three. They show up again and again throughout the Bible as ever-present temptations. They derive their seductive potency from the world, the flesh, and the devil. In this episode in Daniel 3 the emphasis is on the world flexing its muscles to compel idol worship. But on a personal level, who hasn’t put God in the backseat while you pursue prosperity, sex, or power? If you’ve been poor or in need of something that you couldn’t just go out and buy at Walmart, you know the intense pressure to stop trusting God and get what you want your way—to compromise your convictions and hope no harm will come. If you’ve been weak or on the bottom of society’s pile, you know the temptation to play the victim or take revenge after you’re back on your game. If you’ve been lonely or bored with a lack of fulfillment in your relationships, or just lusting for a cheap thrill, you know the siren screams of pornography or other sexual sins. You know when you compromise how it’s a little easier to give in when testing comes the next time, and how you’re more prone to excuse others who do the same. You may not feel the pressure to fall down and worship a golden image, but it’s what the idol represents and the pressure to give yourself over to it that is so hard to resist.

Opposing Idolatry

Quiet subversion vs. loud accusation (vv. 8-15)

Three Jewish friends (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) didn’t make a public show of their noncompliance before the king. He hadn’t noticed they had not bowed down. Their godly unassuming defiance contrasts with the jealous and boisterous protests of the Chaldeans, who are probably astrologers who work alongside the three accused in the royal court. There is a lesson here. Opposing idolatry means standing firm when everyone else is falling down, but it doesn’t require drawing attention to your subversion. Martyrs shouldn’t have a death wish. If they do, then their testimony is tainted by questionable motives. As model subversives these three men show us how to oppose idolatry. Nebuchadnezzar still raged at them, even daring them to call on a god who might have the power to deliver them from the burning fiery furnace, but their calm composure demonstrated loud and clear they feared their God more than their king.

A hard answer to an easy question (vv. 16-18)

To a believer, the king’s question is easy if you remove all the external pressures. “Will you bow to this golden image that I set up?” “Uh, no.” That’s Bible 101. Don’t worship other gods. Don’t bow down to idols. They didn’t even have to think about how to answer. But that was the easy part. The remarkable thing about their response is they didn’t feel the need to stop and consider how to soften their words. No diplomacy, no compromise. They knew what they needed to say, and they said it plainly. They know God will deliver them out of the king’s hand (escaping the temptation to worship other gods). And they believe Almighty God may even deliver them from the fire. “But if not,” they will still not bow the knee to worship the king’s idol. Here I stand, so help me God! In the moment of temptation, God granted them gracious words that opened up the way to escape temptation. God strengthened them to give a hard answer to an easy question.

Columnist George Will tells the story of how in early 1940 the British and their allies sent 350,000 men to halt the Nazi advance across Europe. But the German army pushed them back to the beaches of Dunkirk in Belgium. Like king Nebuchadnezzar, the Nazis paused to regroup and prepare the fatal blow. As England held her breath for her besieged sons, a cryptic three-word message was transmitted from the army trapped across the English Channel: “And if not.” It was a hard answer, straight out of Daniel 3, to an easy question. No matter what happened, the British soldiers declared they were in fact victorious because they would never bow the knee to evil. Energized and inspired, the British public rallied nearly every sea-worthy boat, large and small, into service. Thousands ferried their boats across the channel until every last man was rescued from the furnace. Historians call this event the “Miracle of Dunkirk.”

“But If Not” moments don’t always make headlines or become legendary. Sometimes such tests come to us in the course of everyday life experiences. I have a friend who shared with me her “But If Not” moment. Pregnant with child, she faced a potentially life-threatening medical condition that was unrelated to the pregnancy. Her doctor strongly pressured her to abort considering the circumstances (“Do you want to die and leave a grieving husband to take care of an infant?”). Imagine the pressure she felt! But she could not imagine coming face to face with her God with the blood of her unborn child on her hands. So she made the decision to save her baby’s life, even though she expected to die soon. The question was easy but the answer was hard. Do you know where she found strength? Daniel chapter 3. She clung to the words “but if not” and that fiery trial turned out to be a turning point in her life of faith. And yes, her medical condition improved, removing the threat to life. Sometimes God does miraculously deliver his faithful servants in this life.

Defeating Idolatry

By mitigating the danger through ridicule

bow-before-meChuckle at the repetition (governing officials, musical instruments, the image the king set up). Laugh at the irony (the king’s image is meant to control others, but he cannot control the image of his own face). Mock the mindless action (when the music plays, everyone falls on cue). Roll your eyes at the pomp masking the pomposity (dedication ceremony to stroke the king’s massive ego).

By being faithful whatever the cost (vv. 19-23)

Keeping the first and second commandments is worth dying for (and you might). How did these faithful men find the courage to pay such a steep price? Because they were faithful in the little things first, God strengthened them through small tests to prepare them for big tests (Dan 1). In turns out that refusal to pay homage subverts the idol’s power to crush integrity and suppress truth. Mother Teresa said, “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” She understood Jesus who said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Mt 25:21). This means getting serious about the nitty-gritty of God’s commands is like cultivating and sowing seed with a future harvest in mind. Pay careful attention now to the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit and heed the call of repentance and new obedience. If you don’t know what I mean by “gentle promptings,” or if you do but don’t get them anymore, then start reading the Bible in earnest. It won’t be long before God begins to show you little ways to be more faithful in everyday life. When you pay the cost to be faithful in small things, you train your heart to not compromise in big things. It will always cost you to be faithful, but consider the high cost of unfaithfulness. Consider the rewards and blessings you will miss.

By receiving vindication from God and men (vv. 26-30)

Nebuchadnezzar and his governing officials were watching the furnace to see what would happen to the three men. And they got the message. God had preserved his servants because they had been faithful not to betray their God. Their total and complete deliverance from the fire was God’s seal of approval. God always vindicates his faithful servants—mysteriously in this life but obviously in the next. But that is not all. The king and his men undermine idolatry when they publicly vindicate God’s servants. In verse 28 they echo missionary Jim Elliot who famously wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” And so Nebuchadnezzar issued a new decree, in effect neutralizing the danger of state-compelled idolatry, and promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Earning vindication from men also has the effect of defeating idolatry.

By expecting to walk with the Fourth Man (vv. 24-25)

“Images” are everywhere in this story. The golden image is mentioned 11 times. And yet there is a glimmer of the true image of God in this story. The fourth man, God’s “angel,” who appeared in the midst of the fiery furnace with God’s servants, walking with them and protecting them from the fire, looked to the king like “a son of the gods.” You see, even the heroically faithful need a savior to defeat idolatry. Having a savior is the key. You absolutely need the Son of God, the Fourth Man, to walk with you through your trials and temptations, to give you strength to resist serving other gods and to resist the pressure to pay them homage. Without hoping in a savior, you’ll either cave to the pressure, or you’ll die a proud and stubborn sinner. Without trusting a savior, you’ll act cowardly or brave under pressure, but you’ll still perish.

As hot as Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace was, the cross of Christ was a crucible infinitely hotter. Jesus, faithful to the end, died alone on the cross. The furnace of God’s wrath against idolatry consumed him, but three days later God raised his Son from the dead because Jesus bowed before no other gods and trusted instead his heavenly Father. Now Jesus lives to walk with God’s servants through their fiery trials (Isa 43:1-3a). He opposed and defeated every idolatry that abounds in this world. And so can you through him. Actually you must or this world will eat you alive with all its pressures to worship other gods. So the next time you are confronted with the pressure to prove your loyalty to a person, party, or ideology, or to burn just a little pinch of incense (if you know what I mean) to prove you’re with the crowd on the “right side of history,” or even to give into those mundane daily temptations that regularly arise from your heart, remember the four tools to defeat idolatry. (1) Ridicule it. (2) Decide now to pay the price of faithfulness. (3) Look forward to vindication. (4) Expect Christ to walk with you and deliver you through the fire.


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3 Responses to But If Not

  1. Dave says:

    Thanks for this Brian – the only thing I missed in your sermon about this was what the phrase “but if not” meant! – I must have stepped away at that precise moment. I am glad I can go back and read this post and find it – now it makes more sense!

  2. Dave says:

    PS The really really good director Christopher Nolan is making a movie about Dunkirk.

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