Among The Pagans

No deep exegesis today. Not too long ago I read through the book of Daniel. There is plenty to study in the book of Daniel, and if I were to continue banging my most recent drum about the relation of Christ to the eternal kingdom and blessings of Israel, I would take up an examination of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the great mountain in Daniel chapter 2. But I’m not prepared to write on that now, so if you want to look at the promises of blessing in the latter portions of Ezekiel and their relation to what is written in Daniel (which would be an interesting study) you’ll have to do it yourself.

Today my comments are directed at a more general thought, something I see implicit in the book of Daniel worth considering.

Babylon was a completely pagan nation, and the court of the Babylonian king was steeped in idolatry. I think perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, the book of Daniel contains more vivid and extensive first hand accounts of the rampant and pervasive idolatry of a pagan nation where the multiplicity of gods, magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers are a given. And into this setting are thrust men seeking to serve and honor God. Not, of course, that this is the first or last time that God’s people have been put into such situations, but it is one of the most gritty and extensive first person accounting of life in such a situation. If you stop to think about it, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego where practically pressed cheek to jowl with the most pagan elements of pagan society. They were given pagan names, and sent to live among the circle of pagan wise men–those magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers. Talk about culture clash. But, more to the point, talk about moral clash. Talk about a place where your integrity and conviction about what is right will be continually tested.

Once you read the book of Daniel and consider the full extent of the depths of depravity into which these four men of God were plunged, you begin to realize the mammoth challenge facing these young men of God. The question that looms large is, “How do you live in such a situation? With pervasive sin all around, how do you live?”

And, more than an abstract question regarding Daniel and his friends, this becomes a practical one. Because, we too are servants of the Most High God, away from our “homeland” out in this sea of a pagan world. With this depth of pagan thinking and living all around us, how should we, like Daniel and his friends, live?

Anyone coming to the book of Daniel looking for a book of rules whereby one could determine exact conduct in various situations would be sadly disappointed. For, the conduct of Daniel and his friends would pleased neither the pharisee nor the libertine. The pharisee, who would consider himself ceremonially unclean should he so much as step inside a gentile house, would not approve of Daniel and his friends service in the kingdom of Babylon. They would consider such service a shocking moral compromise. The libertine, on the other hand, would be made greatly uncomfortable by Daniel and his friends’ stiff-necked unwillingness to fit in. They wouldn’t go along and eat the food everyone else was eating. They wouldn’t go along and bow down to the statue. They wouldn’t go along and pray like they were told to pray. Such uncompromising activity would be a great embarrassment to the libertine.

The activity of Daniel and his friends would please nobody, and that is exactly the point. They weren’t trying to please anybody except God. God convicted them in their hearts as to what they should and should not do as a proper witness for Him, and in obedience to Him that is what they did, though human pressures and reasoning might seek to lead them either to the right or to the left.

Those same issues are still issues for today. There are plenty of Christians who, when they see the corrupt idolatry of the world, seek to wall themselves off from the world. They would build the proverbial wall and moat around their house to keep themselves separate from the unclean world that is outside. Then there are the Christians who say it is all “no big deal” and in effect become just like the world around them with their libertine attitude. Both of these groups fall into the same error, that is, the failure of following the motivation of fear rather than faith.

The former Christians, afraid they might become like the world, wall themselves off from the world. The latter group, afraid of the rejection and scorn of the world, become like the world to win the approval of the world. But the one who truly grasps the life of faith understands, in faith, that God is able to preserve, protect, keep, and guide His people. Such people go forth in faith, understanding that God has called them to be His vessels of blessing in this fallen world and trusting Him to lead and strengthen them for every task–all to His glory. Such a path requires faith because there are no easy answers or a nice little rule books that clears up all the choices and problems. A person walking such a path must constantly rely upon God for the wisdom and strength for each day.

Such was the case for Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It is evident that these four were men of deep faith who constantly walked with God, and relied upon Him to see them through every trial. They didn’t have the strength–God was their strength. And, in trusting God and going forth into this pagan world, God used them as a great witness to the world, and as tremendous vessels for blessing.

I find the lives and activities of these men to be a great exhortation. When I see the moral compromise and degeneracy in the world around me, I find it easy to give into fear and despair. How can I go out into the world without becoming like the world? How will I know what to do out in the pagan world? There is such temptation on every side to compromise and give in–How will I have strength to do what is right?

The answer is that in both the big things and in the small things we can’t. We don’t have the wisdom or the strength and any thought that we do is a self-delusion that will come crashing down at the worst moment. We don’t have the strength, and we would all do well to fix that truth in our minds. We can’t figure things out in our wisdom, or plan and anticipate all that will come. But God does have the strength and the wisdom. He can. He can move the heart of chief court officials, the heart of kings, and when He doesn’t move them He can preserve us through all trials that come. It is He who gives us the wisdom and strength, and with the faith He provides we are called to trust in Him and to depend on Him to strengthen us through the lives we must live, to His glory, among the pagans. Get your conviction from God, and do what He says, no matter what the consequences. Those who trust in Him will be victorious.

But we also need to keep in mind what type of victory we are talking about. It is a great snare to think, “I will trust in God and when I do He will give me wealth and fame.” (Or some similar thought.)

The world says, “Live like the world lives to gain the treasures of the world–wealth and fame.” But we are not to live as the world lives, and neither are we to value the things of the world.

Far too often Christians fall into this trap. They determine that they are not going to live as the world does, but they still value and seek that which the world values and seeks.

The world says, “You fool! If you live like that you will be poor, you will be lowly, you will be a failure, you will have nothing!”

And the Christian responds, “I am not a fool! I will be wealthy, I will be famous, I will be more successful than you because I am following God!”

That is in error, and presumptive against God, because the Christian is accepting the standard of the world. God has never guaranteed us victory according to the standards of the world. We do not follow God because He will make us richer than the pagan and heathen. We don’t follow God because we will live longer than the pagan. We don’t follow God because He will give us greater fame that the pagan. We follow and obey God because He is God.

Consider what was said between Nebuchadnezzar and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the confrontation over the idolatrous statue. We read:

Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. 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?”

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.”

Daniel 3:13-18)

The attitude of the world can be distilled down to that one phrase of Nebuchadnezzar, “Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” Or, “How can you possibly be successful if you will not live like I live?

But what was the response of the three men? “The God we serve is able to save us [. . .] but even if he does not [. . .] we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up

So much of modern Christianity has drifted far from this. People boast about how, because they serve God, they will be more wealthy, more successful, and more famous than the heathens. And then when God doesn’t live up to their terms, they have a crises of faith. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, on the other hand, had a healthy understanding not only of the power of God but of the sovereignty of God. They proclaimed that God was able to save, but also that it was totally a matter of His sovereign choice, and their obedience to Him was not based upon a quid pro quo guarantee of outwardly, worldly, success. We would do well to live our lives among the pagans in the same humble manner.

We do not serve our God the way the pagans serve their gods, (be it the “gods” of silver, gold, or personal gratification,) and we do not serve our God because we think we will gain the things the pagans chase after–wealth, fame, or personal safety. But, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abenego, we serve our God as He commands us, in life or death, in wealth or poverty, because He is God.

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