Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 31. Faith that faces death
Heb 11:33,34 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies
In the previous meditation, we moved from the more general description of Old Testament faith actions to the first of the specific events alluded to, noting that the first reference to those “who shut the mouths of lions,” must surely refer to Daniel in the lion’s den found in Daniel, chapter 6. We now move on to the second specific event being alluded to. When the writer speaks of those who “quenched the fury of the flames,” he surely refers to Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, in the fiery furnace found in Daniel, chapter 3.
It is an amazing story and one that has a unique element to it. It starts with King Nebuchadnezzar, not at one of his finest moments. He has made a great idol and instructs that all the leading men of his kingdom should come and bow down before it. (see Dan 3:1-7) Now of course, for those Jews who fitted in this category such a requirement went against the first of the Ten Commandments and so they would feel obliged to disobey this command. When they did that, others pointed them out to the king and required them to be put to death by being thrown into a fiery furnace. (see Dan 3:8-12) Nebuchadnezzar has them brought before him and challenges them (see Dan 3:13-16)
It is then that we find this amazing declaration by these three men: “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan 3:16-18)
Now note what they are saying. First of all we believe our God will deliver us from this death. However, second, if He in His sovereign will decides He wants us to die, then that is fine by us, but we won’t disobey Him and worship your idol.
Now see the strength of this. First, they are willing to withstand the king’s command because it is wrong. It is wrong before the Lord and it is only because of the Lord that it is wrong. He is the one who decrees what is right or wrong, and wrong tends to be that which goes against His design for humanity. To worship idols is superstitious nonsense and detracts from knowing the Lord, so it is wrong. It is that simple.
Second, they are willing to do it, knowing that there will be consequences, bad consequences. The reality is that standing up against the world’s values and against Satan and his agents has consequences. The world seeks to get us to conform to their ways of thinking and behaving. They reinforce their behaviour by flaunting it on TV and in films and if we dare speak against it, the wrath and derision of the world is forthcoming. They would seek to write us off, remove us from the equation of community living, pretend we are not there or, in other words, destroy us. In communist and fundamentalist Islamic or Hindu countries Christians are severely persecuted and in some, even seeking to share the Gospel incurs a capital punishment.
In the West we have not got to that yet, and yet as the Western world tries to combat terrorism, the enemy takes the opportunity to lump Christians into the category of extremist religious zealots who are a danger to society. The first signs are there. The enemy is working to annul us in this way and so we must pray against it and seek to be such good examples of life-giving salt and light that we will be seen to be essential elements of society. I am told that in the early days of the Church, in some parts of the Roman Empire when a particular Caesar issued an edict against the Christians, local Roman governors who knew the value of having these Christians in their midst, warned them to flee until the dust had settled and it had passed by.
Third, they believe that God can deliver them. They believe in the supernatural intervention of God. The whole of the Bible testifies to this truth, that God is all-powerful and can act on behalf of His people to deliver them. There is a certain, almost humorous thread running through the Acts of the apostles as the Lord delivers His men. We see it in the early days: “Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed. Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life. (Acts 5:16-20 ) The apostles heal large numbers (v.16), the Jewish authorities get jealous (v.17), have the apostles put in jail (v.18), but in the night an angel lets them out (v.19), and tells them to carry on preaching the Gospel (v.20). Excellent! The same thing happened with Peter (Acts 12) and the earthquake that shook Paul & Silas lose (Acts 16) was clearly more than an earth shaking, as all the chains also fell off! God at work.
Fourth, and here is the really challenging thing, these three men are willing to accept the sovereign will of God, even if it means their death – and that will not change their stance. There are times when the Lord does not step in to save people from death. Stephen was the first Christian martyr (see Acts 7). Herod had the apostle James put to death (Acts 12:2). In the early years of the Church there were hundreds of martyrs. In the two thousand years of the Christian church there have been thousands of martyrs. For the Christian, death is merely the stepping stone into their inheritance in eternity. Do we have a robust belief in heaven? If that part of our faith package? Do we believe in a God who saves both from death and through death? Perhaps the biggest question is, are we receivers of His grace in such a measure we can cope with whatever the world puts before us, trusting that our God will do what is right and be there for us with all that we need to meet any circumstance? May it be so.