I’m sure some of you will remember this story from a couple years ago Callie and I were in for the night, sitting in our living room, eating dinner, watching a football game, with a fire going in our fireplace. Noah was about a month old or so at this point. And Callie, who of course, is far more perceptive than me, notices that there is smoke seeping out of the wall above the fireplace, and well, that, is not normal. And so we call 911, the police race over, so do the firefighters of course, including Raquel’s husband Darrin who’s the fire chief, and thankfully, amazingly due to their quick work, the fire was quickly put out and aside from needing a new fireplace very little was damaged, and more importantly, no one was injured. Truth is, it could have been so, so much worse and we’re so incredibly grateful that it wasn’t, though I will say even still to this day, whenever I see a fire, smell a fire, hear the word fire, or even hear a smoke alarm go off I often think back to that night a couple years. It’s a strong, almost visceral response.
Truth is, fire is a repeated theme and imagery used again and again throughout scripture. And the bible uses this fire imagery specifically in different ways to represent different things. One way in which fire imagery is used in scripture is as a picture of God’s judgment. It’s an image that’s used to highlight God’s wrath, hell and damnation, suffering and punishment. (And yes, that can all be a little scary and frightening but we’ll talk about that more in a bit.) But yet, there’s also another key way in which the bible uses fire imagery and that is in terms of refinement and testing. That fire has this refining, strengthening like quality, that in the same way fire was used to refine and purify metals like silver and gold, God uses the fires in our lives, the trials and tribulations and challenges in our lives, to test us, to strengthen our resolve and grow our faith and trust in Him.
And as we look at our passage today, as we look at Part 2 of the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the fiery furnace, we will see how the fiery furnace represents both of these key themes, both judgment and refinement, and how in the end both of these themes are good news for you and me as followers of Jesus.
But yet, before we dive into the story itself, let’s quickly set the scene, and summarize where we left things last week. Last week we looked at Part 1 of this story here in Daniel 3, where we learned that King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue, a statue that everyone in Babylon was commanded to bow down and worship. And the people were told that if for any reason they didn’t worship the golden statue that they would be thrown into the fiery furnace, which could only lead to their certain death. And so their choices were simple and the stakes were severe – they could either worship or die, with nowhere to hide. And though they knew full well the stakes, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego courageously and faithfully refused to worship the golden statue out of their devotion and commitment to God. And when Nebuchadnezzar eventually finds out, he reminds them of the stakes and their sure and certain fate, and here’s what he says, it’s essentially the teaser, the cliffhanger that sets up the second part of our story today. He says,
“Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”
Well, we’re about to find out. And this brings us to Part 2 of our story today, that Marie just read.
And so it was, just as Nebuchadnezzar promised,
21 So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire.
Now, consider what the fiery furnace represented for these three men. In Nebuchadnezzar’s eyes the furnace represented a kind of judgment or punishment for their rebellion and disobedience with the powers at be. But yet, from God’s vantage point, the furnace was a refinement of sorts,where God uses the trials and tribulations of our lives, to test us, to strengthen our resolve and grow our faith and trust in God.
And in some ways this story is a healthy and sobering reminder that in the Christian life, as followers of Jesus, God never promises us a life free from the fire, a life that is free and void of difficult or challenging times. Truth is, as followers of Jesus there will be times and seasons when we have no choice but to face and walk through the fire. Maybe it’s through a job loss, or financial hardship, family conflict or cancer diagnosis. Maybe it’s in being weighed down and overwhelmed by too many responsibilities and demands at work or at home or at both, maybe it’s a hard season in your marriage or the inability to hug your loved ones in a hospital or nursing home, or maybe like these three men it’s through the persecution and hostility we face from the world around us. Whatever it may be, as followers of Jesus, we can sure that at times we will have to walk through the fire.
But yet, even still this story reminds us of a wonderful and comforting promise that we can hold onto in midst of our trials, and that is, in the fire we are promised that God is there with us and that he will see us through.
After all, remember the next part of this story. Something remarkable happens, something unbelievable happens before King Nebuchadnezzar’s eyes.
After the guards threw the three men in the fire, King Nebuchadnezzar realizes that something odd is going on, something doesn’t quite add up.
He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.”
Now who exactly this fourth man is, we’re not totally sure. Since, as Nebuchadnezzar says, it has the appearance of a god, some think it’s a foreshadowing of Jesus himself. Others think it’s an angel as Nebuchadnezzar speculates later in the story. Truth is, we don’t fully know. But at the very least we know this. Even in the fire, even in our darkest moments, in the most painful seasons and trials, we can be certain that God’s presence is right there with us that he is present with us and will see us through.
Pastor John Ortberg, in a sermon of his on this very story, puts this truth so very well when he says that Jesus says to us, " I'll meet you in the furnace.” Whatever trial and tribulation you’re going through, Jesus says, I’ll meet you there.
John Ortberg also tells a story about how early into his career as a pastorand he was preaching. And how five or ten minutes into the message he started to feel strange. He got dizzy and hot, and the room started to spin around. The next thing he knew he was lying flat on the ground and had fainted in the middle of his message. He said about a year later I got up to preach at the same church and the same thing happened. Which he said was embarrassing for him and made everyone around him worried and uneasy. So, he went to a doctor hoping there would be a simple physical explanation. He went to a Christian psychologist to talk about stress management. It was a scary and uncertain time for him because he had found this thing in pastoring and preaching that he thought he was supposed to do, and now he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to do it long term. So he prayed, " God, make this go away, make these feelings and that sensation go away" but yet God didn’t, at least not initially. For a while there, he had to get up and fight it.
During this time he was reminded of 2 Corinthians 12. Where the Apostle Paul says, " It was given to me, a thorn in the flesh. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me; three times God said no." But then God says to him, " But my grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness." 17 years later he hasn’t fainted since. But to this day he says there are moments when he stands up to preach and feels those same sensations, and he says it's unpleasant and that he’s not always sure whether or not he’s going to make it through a sermon on his own. And in those moments, he remembers God’s words to Paul, “My strength is made perfect in weakness."
In other words, Ortberg says, Jesus says to us, "I'll meet you in the furnace. I won't necessarily deliver you from it, but I'll deliver you in it."
In our trials and tribulations, God meets us in the furnace. It was true for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego long ago, and it’s true for you and me too.
Now, to that you might be thinking, but wait, both in this story of the fiery furnace and in John’s story I just told, there’s a happy ending, where these guys survive the fire and come out on the other side completely unscathed. But yet, you and I both know, that things don’t always turn out so well for us in the fires and trials in our lives, where the couple gets a divorce, or your loved one dies of cancer, where the job search seems unending, where the money situation never gets better, or where the relationship never gets reconciled or unlike Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, many Christians throughout the years, faithful and courageous ones like these three have been put to death and burned at the stake under oppressive regimes.
So how do we make sense of all this? How sometimes in our trials, we see God’s presence among us, or we experience his protection or provision or watch him do the seemingly miraculous but yet other times we wonder if he was truly in the fire with us at all?
Well, believe it or not, this is where I think the fire imagery of judgment is actually really helpful and comforting for us as followers of Jesus. Remember, in the bible fire imagery often is a symbol and picture for either refinement or judgment.
As I shared earlier, in Nebuchadnezzar’s eyes, the fiery furnace was meant to be a judgment of sorts for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and in many ways, these three men and their faith and courage in facing the fiery furnace are a foreshadowing of Jesus himself, who faced a fire of his own as he went to the cross, as he went to the cross and sacrificed his own life out devotion and commitment to his Heavenly Father, he took on the just punishment of our sin and rebellion so that we could have eternal life with Him.
In fact, notice the different outcomes for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in comparison with the strong army guards who threw them into the furnace. The narrator gives us some key details here.
As for the guards, the fire was so hot, that the flames killed the men just in trying to throw the three men into the fire – it’s a picture of the fate for those who are considered God’s enemies.
But yet notice Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the narrator tells us that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics[j] were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.
Incredible. Not even the smell of fire came from them. How could that be? I mean, think about every campfire you’ve ever been to, as soon as you walk away and step back inside the house, the first thing you always notice is how your clothes smell like smoke. But yet, for these three men, the fire had no power over them.
You see, in some ways, their experience in and through the fire is a picture of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. And that because of the promise of eternal life we have in Jesus Christ, we too are ultimately fireproof. And that means, that no matter the trial you’re going through, regardless of whether or not you feel like God is meeting you in the furnace in that moment, regardless of the outcome and whether or not we are left with scars and wounds on the other side, ultimately the fires of this world have no power over us.
So friends, no matter what you have gone through, what you are going through or will go through, if you ever doubt whether or not God will meet you in the furnace, just remember, he already has, some 2,000 years ago when he went to the cross. And that should give us hope, no matter what fires come our way.
Alright, one last thing I want you to see in our story today, and that is Nebuchadnezzar’s response after Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego survive the fiery furnace. In Nebuchadnezzar’s response, we are reminded that in our trials, there’s often an opportunity since often times in midst of our trials the outside world is watching, as our neighbors and coworkers, our non-Christian friends and community around us are watching us in our trials, watching to see how we respond, whether we move forward in hope or despair, or maybe even an opportunity for them to see God’s power and provision in midst of our trials.
And as for King Nebuchadnezzar, he admittedly has a bit of a strange response, on one hand he says, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego” and promotes these three men to higher positions, but yet he also promises death and destruction to anyone who speaks blasphemy against their God. This seems to be a running theme for Nebuchadnezzar – cross him and he’ll have you killed. So he’s still has a lot of growing to do, but nevertheless, there seems to be something stirring in his heart as he witnesses the faith and courage of these three men as well as the power and provision of their great God.
All this said it’s a reminder to us that the world is watching and for us to begin to ask – what does my response and reactions to the trials in our lives communicate to the world about our faith and more importantly, our God?
Christian author Rosaria Butterfield in one of her books wrote about how their family was once robbed and where the thieves took her mother's precious jewelry, beat the family dog, and ransacked the house. Rosaria writes, “We all were in a state of shock. My children's anxiety rocketed through the roof. Not one of us felt OK for months … It was hard to be robbed. It was hard to have God test so powerfully and privately what we proclaimed publicly—that even if you are hurt, people can't take the things that matter most and that will survive to the new heavens and earth: your soul and his Word.”
The day after they were robbed, she said, her family felt compelled to host a BBQ where the whole neighborhood was invited. A bunch of people showed up – both their church family and their non-Christian neighbors. And when some of those neighbors asked how they were holding up, their family was able to share the gospel with them and how though the robbers took material things, they couldn’t take anything of eternal value.
And finally, Rosaria said they were able to share their faith in Christ with more legitimacy because, as she says, “Where God is in your loss matters more to a skeptical, unbelieving, and watching world than where God is in your plenty.”
Wow, so true and so convicting. Friends, no matter what trials you experience, no matter what fires you face, God wants to meet you in the furnace. He is there with you in the furnace. And because of his great love for you, because of his death in our place, the fires in our lives ultimately have no power over us. And as we communicate and testify to how God is at work in midst of our loss, in midst of our trials, in midst of our fires, we remind the watching world that he wants to meet them in the furnace too.