In a world that embraces moral and cultural relativism, how are Christians supposed to live? Daniel modeled faithfulness in an alien culture—but it’s God who is the true hero of his story, teaches Alistair Begg. The same God who protected Daniel in the lions’ den moves throughout the world today, working out His plan for His people. In Christ, we can live Gospel-focused lives and remain fearless in the face of idolatry and opposition.
Well, I invite you to turn with me to the Old Testament and to the book of Daniel and to chapter 3. And I’m going to read the first eighteen verses, beginning at the first verse. Daniel 3:1:
“King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And they stood before the image that [King] Nebuchadnezzar had set up.”
Now, you’ll notice, of course, by repetition we’re being reminded of something very important. This is Nebuchadnezzar’s big deal. And the response to it has been comprehensive.
“And the herald[s] proclaimed aloud, ‘You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall [be] immediately … cast into a burning fiery furnace.’ Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
“Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews. They declared to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree, that every man who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’
“Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?’
“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to 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 that you have set up.’”
Father, now to your Word we turn. We have sung about how it is vital for us, and so we pray that you will, by the Holy Spirit, open it up to us and open us up to it. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Let me reread verses 16–18 in Peterson’s paraphrase. This is how it reads:
“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘Your threat means nothing to us. If you throw us in the fire, the God we serve can rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king. But even if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king. We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.’”
Now, the reason for this address—and it is something of an address. It’s not a steady exposition as we are used to. I trust that is entirely biblical. But the reason for it is because I was invited to address a group of a few thousand people who are in the financial realm at a conference that was gathered under the heading of just one word: Fearless. So the conference was called Fearless. And so, I certainly know nothing about money, and so I wasn’t invited there for that. And I wasn’t given any direction at all. And so, as I sat and prepared, this is where I came. And I came to this particular passage.
And many of them, I’m sure, were caught off guard. After all, why would you come to a high-tech group like this and take them way back 2,600 years into the Old Testament, into the land of Babylon, into a story about the way in which the judgment of God had fallen upon his people and the brightest and the best of them had been put into positions of prominence and so on? And I recognize that that was part of the challenge, and it remains part of the challenge. But what I wanted to try and show to them is what I want to try and show to us this morning.
And I do so in the awareness of at least this one thing: that the privilege and responsibility of teaching the Bible, which falls to us in pastoral responsibility here, it is not really a call to inform the congregation of things they don’t know as much as it is to remind the congregation of things they mustn’t forget. We all make discoveries, of course, but there are essential foundational elements that we need to have rehearsed for us again and again.
So, I’m going to leave the sixth century and come almost up to the twenty-first century in this next section of my remarks. In these remarks, I want you to know what you really know, but just in case anybody would be visiting: I’m not a sociologist. I’m not a political pundit. I’m not a historian. I’m just a working pastor. And these observations are the observations of a working pastor. And I can safely say to you: Do with them what you will. When we come back into the territory of the text, then we must all do with the text what we must do with the text. Okay? Don’t be alarmed.
I arrived here in 1983. In 1983, Ronald Reagan was the president. The Moral Majority was up and running. Jerry Falwell and his friends founded the Moral Majority in 1979. It was a force then for social, moral, and religious life. I don’t follow the political realm as much as I follow the cultural realm, and so, for me, I was more excited about the fact not of the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979 but the release of an album by Bob Dylan in 1979 called Slow Train Coming. And if you remember that album, it was the closest that Dylan has come in the trajectory of his life to making any kind of affirmation concerning Jesus as the Messiah. Where he is now I don’t know, but where he was then was pretty forthright. And the one standout song from the album was, if you know any of it, you know was “Gotta Serve Somebody.” “It may be the devil [and] it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
At the same time as the Moral Majority was put in place, the People for the American Way was founded—actually, one year later, in 1980—to counteract what they saw as a very sinister element being promulgated upon the nation, vis-à-vis that which is represented in this Moral Majority. And so the People for the American Way sought to try at least to counteract it, if not possibly to nullify it. That’s at one level.
Again, if you come back to the popular level and to the musical level, what you discover is that John Lennon, who was a fan of Bob Dylan, hated Slow Train Coming. And indeed, he wrote a song, especially in response to “Gotta Serve Somebody,” he wrote a song entitled, “Serve Yourself.” It was never published… It was published posthumously. And mercifully so, because when you read the lyrics, it is a scathing, mean, sad rebuttal of whatever it was that Dylan was saying in that album.
So, what you really have then is an indication of this kind of warfare that exists in this Western democracy. At one level, the sort of sociopolitical level, you see these things colliding, and then, even at the level of popular culture, you have on the one hand this expression of some kind of fledgling faith at least, and then the very vitriolic reaction to it by Mr. “Imagine” himself.
Now, of course, things eventually fade. And just as the Moral Majority was being dismantled, Chuck Colson wrote Kingdoms in Conflict, based almost entirely on Augustine’s City of God. And when that book was published, the cultural wars, as they came to be referred to, were in full swing. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the United Kingdom was bearing testimony to what happens when a society embraces moral and cultural relativism. And it remains for me a painful thing to have to acknowledge this morning that my own homeland is largely a post-Christian country.
But we ought not to be too quick to smile at this, because here in the land of the free and the home of the brave—and I should say, I’m not a prophet nor the son of a prophet—but here in our own nation, sadly, many of those European exports, if I might put them in that way, like a virus have found their way not only into the bloodstream of our nation but also into the bloodstream of the church; and at the same time an increasingly prevailing notion that somehow or other, reason and religion are antithetical to one another, so that if you are a sensible, intelligent person, you will be pooh-poohing the notion of any kind of professed Christian faith. And if you do profess Christian faith, it will not be surprising if people treat you as if somehow or another, you have not really managed to come up to par. So we are then left with our own brand of moral and cultural relativism.
Apart from the significant dip as a result of the coronavirus, the stock market has remained remarkably high, but the ethical capital of our nation is phenomenally low. Witness the halftime show at the Super Bowl. What an unbelievable celebration of immorality. And yet millions and millions of people, Christian people included, sat there and allowed that to gush into their homes. It’s not that they had to go out and look for it; they just happily took it. And combine that with the Me Too movement, at the other side of the fence, and you understand why it is that mothers and grandmothers are running to guard their children and their grandchildren from the influences of all these things and find themselves saying, “How in the world are we going to live this Christian faith in an environment like this?” And every time they have that kind of thought, they put themselves in a very similar position to Daniel and his friends in the sixth century BC.
The prevailing wind is no longer at the back of the sails of professing Bible-believing Christians. In fact, it is blowing hard behind the forces of secularism. And public opinion has turned against biblical Christianity. Think about it in whatever sphere you choose. Think about it in the realm of public welfare and the answers to the problems of crime that are given. Think about it in relationship to the matter of, let’s say, education. Think about it in relation to the concerns of human sexuality and what it actually means to be a human being, what it means to be a man or a woman.
For the first time, I think, in its history, the American church is discovering what it’s like to be the minority, discovering what it feels like to be the outsider at the party. We’re not used to it, we don’t like it, and it’s all too easy to be bewildered by it, to be angry, defensive, or defeated. And we’re being forced to answer a straightforward and simple question: What does it look like to live as a Christian in a society that does not like what Christians believe? That’s the question. What is it like to live in a society that does not like what Christians believe? Or: How are we then planning to live with this new normal? How are we planning to understand what the Bible says, in its timelessness, in such a way that the truths that we seek to instill in the hearts and minds of the generations that are coming behind us will be so laid hold upon that the convictions which undergird them will stand for them in the day when these things come to an even more striking collapse?
And as I move back to the sixth century BC, there is a very important point to make here. Because I noticed in my address… I read people’s eyes, and I could see them. They’re coming along with me, and coming along, and they’re looking forward to the punchline, and they’re waiting for me to engage now in some great political explanation for what’s going on, explaining the answer there. And how disappointed they all were when I told them no, when I explained to them: the United States nor the United Kingdom, neither of them are Israel. We are all Babylon. We are in the world (which is represented as Babylon), confronted by a kingdom that is being raised (which is the kingdom of this world), as members of a kingdom of another world; that the issues of citizenship and political affiliation, as significant as they are—and they are significant—are not the issues when it comes to this matter. The matter, as we see in our friends here, is God’s kingdom and God’s plan.
Now, let’s go back to this, because it is to this that we really want to turn. As I say, do what you will with my ramblings there.
The story of Daniel is incredibly relevant. We saw that. We studied Daniel in 2015, when we were through in the Commons. And this is not a rehash of that. It’s incredibly relevant, but not for the reasons that we might immediately think. It is incredibly relevant not because it provides a strategy to deal with our new lack of status, or certainly not to reverse our new lack of status. Nor is it because Daniel was a great man and we need to emulate him. He was a great man, and we should emulate great men and women, but he was not the hero of the story. God is the hero of the story.
And so the relevance that is to be found in going back in this way is in the awareness of the fact that the God who overruled the events of the sixth century BC for the exiles of his people, that God has not changed in the subsequent two and a half millennia; that he is the God of Abram, Isaac, and of Jacob. He is the God who has called out a people for himself, and the journey of that has been going on—sometimes dramatically, often quietly—but throughout the world today, throughout the entire world, the Spirit of God is moving, and the ascended King—namely, Jesus—reigns. And God is accomplishing his purposes in the world. And he is not uniquely concerned with Brexit or the United States elections. He is supremely concerned with his church throughout the entire world. And so there you have, in this context, if you like, a microcosm of what we find today.
Now, Daniel and his friends were swept up when they were just boys, maybe teenagers, perhaps in their early twenties. Daniel was in his eighties or his nineties by the time you get to chapter 6. Therefore, he had lived an entire lifetime in an alien world. He wasn’t a pain in the neck in that world. He wasn’t out with a big sign explaining how everything was wrong. He wasn’t known for pointing out this and pointing out that and showing what a mess everything was. No, he was one of the brightest and the best. He had an intellect. He had leadership. He was in a position of supreme usefulness—but as an alien! Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the same. The reason these Chaldeans are able to come and say this to Nebuchadnezzar is because they are able to say to him, “There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the nation.” In other words, it’s not that they can go and say, “We found a people, and they’re all protesting, and they’re a real nuisance, and they’ve gummed up the traffic, and they’re spoiling everything. You can’t get your chariot parked for the whole crowd of them, you know. It’s hopeless.” No! No, no, no, no, no. “They’re in positions of influence. But they’re not gonna bow down to your image. They won’t bow down to your image.”
Well, Nebuchadnezzar had set this thing up ten stories high, nine or ten stories high. That’s a big thing! And all the people had come. “When you hear the sound of all these musical instruments, this is what you’re supposed to do.” And I love the transition in verse 7. It says, “Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the [da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da-da-da], they all fell down and worshipped the golden image.” You bet your life they did! “You can either bow down or we have a nice, fiery furnace for you. Choose your plan.” That was the way it was set up. Mercifully, we’re not there yet. Don’t hold your breath.
Now, by way of summary, in terms of learning from the response of these men, I want just to give you three words. We’ll just point to three express illustrations.
First of all, in the opening chapter, it is clear that Daniel and his friends were entirely focused. They were focused. They had been taken away into the heart of an empire that was set up to deny and to defy God. That’s the facts. Their parents would have raised them: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord [y]our God, the Lord is one.” They would have walked with them, talked with them, shared the story. And they would have presumably agonized if their boys were separated from them, and as they ended the day in prayer, they would say, “O Yahweh, look after our boys. They’re away in a strange and foreign land. They’re living in alien territory.”
And what an amazing thing! Because they were relocated, they were reeducated, they were renamed, and yet they drew the line. They drew the line. Fascinatingly, they drew the line at dietary choice. “We’re not gonna eat that stuff,” they said. “I know you call me by a different name, I know you’ve sent me to a different university, and I know that, but there is a point at which I won’t go beyond.” And it is fascinating. And incidentally, parenthetically, we are gonna have to define and decide where the lines are gonna have to be drawn. And I’m not here to tell you what they are. I can help you, but I’m not gonna do it for you.
Why, then, the diet? Well, because actually, their dietary convictions were grounded in deeper convictions. If you like, it was now by means of their diet that they had the thread that would tie them to their Jewish roots. Here was an opportunity for them to say, “No, we don’t do that. And we’re not gonna do that.” They don’t do it, again, in an argumentative way. They do it in a very skillful way. But they do it. And I love it when it says, “And they resolved.” They resolved. Resolution. Focus. “We will not defile ourselves with that stuff.” It’s a reminder, isn’t it? If you won’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
And I say to you again, we’re gonna have to decide where the lines are. Where’s the line? I mentioned education. Are you happy to put your children into an environment where they teach sex education without any moral framework at all? Are you prepared to send them into an environment where the prevailing educational framework tells them that they really don’t know who they are as individuals and that gender is a construct? And if you’re prepared to do that, why are you prepared to do that? You wouldn’t tolerate it yourself. Strange. Are you happy that they live in an environment where they’re told, essentially, pantheism: that we are the earth, and the earth is us, and God is the earth, and we’re part of the earth, and so on; that all roads lead to heaven like they do to Timbuktu? I’m not gonna tell you where to draw the line. I’m only raising the question.
If you go to chapter 6, and Daniel is now an old man, and the challenge for him there is, if you like, it’s now the age-old challenge. “It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom” all of these people, and as a result, again, of Daniel’s usefulness, he’s in a position. So, if they were focused in the beginning, Daniel is faithful in the end. And you see, it’s his faithfulness that causes the trouble.
Incidentally, I love all these children’s books. We use them all the time, and I love the pictures. But it struck me as I was preparing this talk that the story of Daniel in the lions’ den is not really a very nice story to read to your little ones before they go to sleep. Because they’re clever! Children are clever. They realize, “Wait a minute! What is this story about?” Well, it’s a story about an innocent man. He’s around eighty years of age, and he’s condemned to death because he loves God very much and he doesn’t want to do what the people tell him to do. And the children are perceptive enough to say, “Do you think that could ever happen to you, Papa? What if the people told you you couldn’t pray? What would you do? Grandma, what would you do if the edict was ‘No prayer for the next thirty days’?”
Well, see, what is so fantastic about this is: if Daniel’s prayer life had been glandular—in other words, he only prayed when he felt like it—then this wouldn’t have been a problem, and nobody could have caught him out. But when you read the story for yourself, you realize that it says that when the edict was made, he went back to his house, and he prayed—and here’s the key phrase—“as he had done previously.” In other words, it was business as usual for him. He was just going to maintain where he was. He was a faithful soul, and he was gonna be faithful to the end.
I say to you again, if his prayer life had been like mine and like some of yours, perhaps, he would never have been caught out. And every time the cycle comes around, the political cycle comes around, somebody starts off again about prayer in the public schools. I love the idea of prayer in the public schools. Do you know what I love even more? Prayer in the church! Prayer in the church! Three thousand two hundred people at the morning service, and four hundred and ten for prayer. What does that say? It says we don’t actually believe in prayer. Forget prayer in the public schools! Prayer in the church! Prayer between husbands and wives! Prayer in our families! Prayer! Not glandular. Committed prayer! We seek God in prayer.
Focused in the outset. Faithful in the end. And incidentally, the story, again, is not “I want to be like Daniel” but rather “I want to keep faithfully trusting the God that Daniel knew.” Because I don’t become like Daniel by copying his example, except insofar as we bow before Daniel’s God in total and utter dependence.
Finally, to end where we began in chapter 3. Because if they were focused in the outset and Daniel was faithful at the end, these characters were fearless in the face of idolatry.
“Oh,” we say, “well, we don’t have a problem with idolatry.” Pardon? Calvin says that the human heart is an idol factory. We might not have a problem with a gigantic image in the middle of the public square. But there are many things that arise in my selfish, evil heart that invite me to bow down and worship before them. And since I know that you know, then I don’t really need to run through a list of them. But these fellows were prepared to face death for the cause of God’s kingdom. Both Daniel, in terms of the prayer, and these guys, in terms of the bowing down—in each case they could have rationalized. Daniel could have said, “What’s the problem with quitting for thirty days? I’m eighty years old. Think about how many times I’ve prayed in eighty years. I’m sure the Lord won’t mind if I just skip for thirty days. You know, I’ve got a big backlog of praying.”
These fellows the same, tempted to say, “You know what? We’re not supposed to make a fuss. I mean, we’re at our best when we let them know that we’re just like them.” Man, it drives me nuts when I hear people explaining, “You know, it’s so wonderful, because you are just like us.” Every time somebody says that to me, I say, “Well then, I’m doing something wrong. Because I am not like you. Well, I have a nose. I have two eyes. I live here. I go places. But essentially, I am not like you.” It can’t possibly be that I am. Because by God’s grace, he has taken us out of the kingdom of darkness and placed us into the kingdom of light. And in that kingdom of light we live, so that our citizenship is in heaven, from whence we await a Savior, even the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the King. So we’re not the same! It doesn’t mean that we’re weird, that we wear plastic noses or funny hats or something like that. No!
Here’s the issue, though: it’s a question of identity. We don’t know who we are. The church doesn’t know who it is. Are we a political caucus? Are we a social agency? What the world are we? I’m talking Church with big C now.
Well, the Bible tells us exactly what we are. When Peter writes to the scattered believers in his letter, remember, he says to them, “Let me tell you who you are. For you are a royal people, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you could show forth his praises.” There’s your identity. There’s your identity.
Now, what is he doing there? He’s taking Old Testament pictures of the people of God from the very calling of Abraham. They’ve always stood out. It’s always dramatically different, because of their identity. And then he says, “I beseech you as aliens and strangers to live such good lives among the pagans.” You see? Identity first, then activity. Until the church embraces and understands its identity, then all the calls to activity—“Do this, fix that, be that,” and so on—are destined to complete failure. It is in understanding who we are in Christ. To bring it right up to date: we are to be focused on the gospel, we are to be faithful to the gospel, and we are to be fearless in the face of opposition to that gospel.
Jimmy and Carol Owens did a wonderful job when, in the ’60s and early ’70s, they wrote those musicals. I don’t think anybody listens to them anymore, and I just used to have a big LP. I don’t know where it is, but I do remember their songs. And I always loved the one that goes
You are the children of the Kingdom of God.
You are the chosen ones for whom the Savior came.
You’re his noble new creation by the Spirit and the blood,
You’re the Church that he has built to bear his name!
That’s who you are. In a world of identity politics, here is the identity of the believer. And then:
And the gates of hell shall not prevail against you!
And the hordes of darkness cannot quench your light!
And the hosts of God shall stand and fight beside you
Till your king shall reign triumphant in his might!
That’s who we are! That’s who we are! That’s who we are—first, foremost, middle, and last, who we are!
You should all go home and dig out your old copy of Chariots of Fire and watch it before you go to bed tonight. Remind yourself of that movie from 1980 or ’81, when Eric Liddell stood up to the king of the United Kingdom and told him flat out, “I have another King. I respect you, sir, but I submit to a different King.” His focus was absolutely clear. His faithfulness was exceptional. He died as a teacher in mainland China. And fearless. Fantastic!
You remember when he left Edinburgh, Waverley Station, right there—some of you have been—in behind the Gardens, off the side of Princes Street. And when the city of Edinburgh came out to bid him farewell—because he was a huge hero because of his Olympic abilities, because of his ability as a rugby player—he let a window down on the train, and calling for silence, he shouted out, “Christ for the world! For the world needs Christ!” And the people were like, “What?” And then he led them in the singing:
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His kingdoms stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Was his death an abject failure, to die of a cerebral hemorrhage or whatever it was at such a young age? No. Because it remains that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. His commission is your commission if you’re in Christ—your commission as a banker, your commission as a teacher, your commission as a mom, your commission as a dad, your commission in the medical world with all the peculiar ethical challenges that you face every day and about which I and others pray for you in that amazing environment. But God is faithful and has asked us to be faithful too.
Father, thank you that you make clear to us that you’ve done all that is necessary for us to know you, to love you, to serve you. Help us, Lord, to take seriously the challenge of the time in which we’re living—not to become angry, disillusioned, despairing, but rather actually to lift our gaze; not to listen to those who say, “How could we sing the Lord’s song here?” No, we want to sing it louder. We want to shout it louder. But we don’t want to be a nuisance. We just want to be faithful, focused, fearless for your kingdom. In Christ’s name. Amen.
 Daniel 3:16–18 (MSG).
 Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979).
 Deuteronomy 6:4 (ESV).
 See Deuteronomy 6:7.
 Daniel 1:8 (paraphrased).
 Daniel 6:1 (ESV).
 Daniel 6:10 (ESV).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.11.8.
 See Colossians 1:13.
 See Philippians 3:20.
 1 Peter 2:9 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 2:11–12 (paraphrased).
 Jimmy and Carol Owens, “Children of the Kingdom” (1974).
 Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Colin Welland (Warner Bros., 1981). Paraphrased.
 Isaac Watts, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” (1719).
 Tertullian, Apologeticus 50.13.
 Psalm 137:4 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.