Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King 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 deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” – Daniel 3:16-18
In Part Three I mentioned near the end that when our government establishes a law, we are to show them our respect and obedience. We do this even when we are in personal disagreement with the policy. We do this even if the government—established by God for our good—decides that it will instead oppress those who call on the name of Christ.
This obedience is, generally speaking, unconditional. They speak, and we act.
But there is an “if” hiding among the whole conversation. In fact, more than just a few times we find examples of this conditional civil disobedience.
If the governing authorities—for us, the President or Congress—were to order a Christian to perform an action that is in direct violation of God’s will for his people, we are to disobey our government and instead obey our God. If the two options placed before the Christian are mutually exclusive—you either obey God and disobey the government, or you disobey God and obey the government—then the choice is simple. God, not government, receives our obedience.
Let’s go back to our Scripture passage. When the people of Judah were exiled into Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon made wise use of the more learned and wise Jews by employing them in his royal court. One of these men, Daniel, wrote a book of the Old Testament in which he recounts parts of his tenure under the king. Among the most famous of these historical events is the story of three of his friends. Their Babylonian names were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. You might know them better as “the three men in the fiery furnace.”
During that time King Nebuchadnezzar, drunk on his own power, made a huge idol out of gold—probably a statue of himself—and demanded that the people bow down to it when they heard the royal music playing. He was ordering all the people of his country to worship him and to give him the honor that is due a god. Anybody who did not submit with obedience was to receive a fatal punishment.
Those three friends of Daniel—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—refused to obey King Nebuchadnezzar’s decree. Notice that they didn’t raise a stink about it. They didn’t assemble a coordinated march on the capital city Susa to protest. Their disobedience was private and respectful. It took some officials who disliked the Jews—especially disliked the fact that guys like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were in positions of power—to tattle on them. So the three men were gathered by the king to face their punishment, which was to be thrown into a superheated furnace and burned alive. The king was rather fond of these guys, though, so he decided to give them a chance to prove their innocence, show their loyalty to him, and spare themselves. He simply told them that the appointed music would play, they could bow down in front of him, and all would be forgiven.
And they all three flat-out refused. Their response to his demand composed the words of the opening Scripture passage. “King 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 deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
You might know how that story ends. God did save them. They walked around in the furnace for a bit, an angel showed up, and then they came back out completely unharmed.
We see this story unfold with the hindsight of having the whole account recorded before us. Those three guys did not. They couldn’t know whether God would save them from the fire. He had not guaranteed their physical safety. Surely they had heard of plenty of prophets in their own people’s history who had been murdered for their faithful obedience to God.
Fast-forward a few centuries. In Jerusalem, now shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and some of the other apostles were brought before the Jewish ruling body of the time called the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin ordered them to stop teaching about Jesus. They were a legitimate authority over the Jewish people and over the Christians who lived in their city. But the Sanhedrin was telling them to be silent about Jesus, when Jesus had told them to tell everyone about him! So Peter and his friends replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
You know what? Eleven of those Twelve Disciples would have their earthly lives ended because of that obedience to God. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were saved from the furnace. But soon after the Christian Church began in Jerusalem, a deacon named Stephen would die for his disobedience to the Jewish rulers. James would have his head separated from his shoulders within a few years. Even Peter would die under the Roman persecutions by being crucified upside-down.
Our obedience to God rather than the governing authorities will almost certainly be met with the temporal consequences of those actions. What was true for the early Christian Church, what is true for many Christians around the world today who live in countries that oppress them, may well be true for us also someday. Just as the three Jews in Babylon faced the consequences of the fiery furnace, we also will likely face consequences when we obey God rather than men.
So be it. Our hope does not rest in these bones and muscles. Nor does our hope rest in the continued agreement of the American government to continue allowing us our freedom to worship God and to teach his truth. That’s why we don’t need to take up arms or raise public outcries over injustices done to us. We can respectfully and privately—if possible—refuse, because we obey God rather than people, because he is our hope and our future. With our hope fixed firmly upon Jesus as our Savior from sin, we do not need to worry about our future in this nation. We don’t need to be anxious about our place in a culture which seems to despise us just a little bit more each year.
Besides, this isn’t my real country anyway. We will wrap things up tomorrow by examining more closely our true citizenship—and in doing so, properly refocusing our perspective.
In the face of all this world’s pressures to forsake him, may your Lord Jesus grant you the courage to obey him in all things.