Martin Luther walked into the courtroom at the Diet of Worms to defend his writings and his life. On his way into the assembly, an Army General made his way through the crowd and told Luther he was about to make a more noble stand than he or any of his captains had ever made on a battlefield. He said, “If your cause is just, and you are sure of it, go forward in the fear of God.”
Undoubtedly, fear was a real factor for Luther. Would he recant or continue to stand firm and endure the consequences? Not recanting would mean excommunication from the church and his life would be in jeopardy. The threats against him were real, but he was captivated by something higher and more formidable than his fear; the Word of God.
After being asked to recant, he replied, “My cause shall be commended to the Lord, for He lives and reigns and preserved the three children in the furnace of the Babylonian king. If he is unwilling to preserve me, my life is a small thing compared to Christ. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. So help me, God.”
The Lord did strengthen Luther, and those famous words sparked a great revival and the start of the Reformation.
Bow or burn
But centuries before Luther stood before the furnace of the religious counsel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood before the white-hot rage of king Nebuchadnezzar and a literal furnace. The choice before them was to either bow before an idol, or burn to death.
Like Daniel, the three Hebrew young men had gained favor and position in Babylon. But when king Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image of himself and required that when the music played every person would bow down and worship the image, the three teenagers refused.
This was a direct violation of the First Commandment which forbade worshiping any other gods (Exodus 20:3), and the Second which forbade bowing down to carved images (Exodus 20:4-5). The consequences of their refusal were clear. Nebuchadnezzar said, “If you do not worship, you will be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands” (Daniel 3:15)?
Not a question of who
Nebuchadnezzar’s rule and power lead him to believe that he alone was god and that he was preeminent. But the invisible reality was there was one true God, who ruled over heaven and earth, and even arrogant earthly kings, like Nebuchadnezzar.
The Hebrews were on such a different playing field than Nebuchadnezzar that they didn’t even qualify his question with an answer. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew he was blind to the truth and any explanation would be futile. Perhaps a puff of heat from the nearby furnace blew across their faces as they answered 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 gods or worship the golden image you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).
Nebuchadnezzar was fixated on who could deliver them, but for the Hebrews that issue was settled. The question wasn’t who could deliver them, but what if he didn’t?
But if not…
The question of “but if not” is the hardest part when we stand before our own fiery trials. We know God is able, but he doesn’t always deliver in the ways we hoped. Whether the outcome is life or death, safety or tragedy, acceptance or rejection, will we stand true if deliverance doesn’t come?
We don’t know if there was any wavering or hesitation in their response to the king, but maybe Isaiah’s words rang in their ears. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2).
Even if deliverance doesn’t come right now, his presence goes with us and that means we won’t be overcome by whatever it is that threatens us. The Lord’s physical presence with the young men in the midst of the fire is the most glorious part of this story. For when Nebuchadnezzar looked into the furnace and asked, ”Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? I see four men unbound walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:24, 25).
We know it was not a son of the gods, but the Son of God with them. The three walked out unharmed, and not a single hair of their heads was singed nor was the smell of fire upon them.
One furnace we’ll never have to face
We may not come out of all of our fiery furnaces unharmed, but as believers there’s one furnace we’ll never have to face.
Praying in Gethsemane before his crucifixion, the furnace of God’s wrath was set at its max capacity, and Jesus was sweating great drops of blood (Luke 22:44).
Jonathan Edwards said, “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane had then a near view of the furnace of God’s divine wrath into which he was about to be cast. He was brought to the mouth of a furnace more terrible than Nebuchadnezzar’s furnaces that he might look into it, and stand and view its raging flames, and see the glowing of its heat, that he might know where he was going and what he was about to suffer. This was the thing that filled his soul with sorrow and darkness. This terrible sight as it were overwhelmed him.”
While he prayed to the Father to let the cup pass, Jesus prayed his “but if not” prayer. He said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
God’s will was not to deliver Jesus from his furnace, and praise God! For Jesus suffered in the furnace of God’s wrath, so that we would never have to (Romans 8:32).
So help us, God
If you’re not facing a furnace of affliction now, chances are, you will again soon. Take courage from this familiar story, and from others who’ve stood before counsels and kings and determined they would rather burn than bow. Luther, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and even Jesus, prayed for God to deliver, but knew that if he didn’t, they’d still obey.
The three Hebrews knew it was better to be in a furnace with the Lord than to be outside of one without him.It's better to be in a furnace with the Lord than to be outside of one without him.Click To Tweet
Do you believe that’s true? If so, let’s pray that we’ll face our furnaces with faith and not betray our conscience or his Word. So help us, God.
P.S. We’ve been looking at stories from the Old Testament that strengthen our faith to stand firm, even when we stand alone. Do you ever feel that way? May the stories of Noah, Elijah, and Daniel encourage you today!
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