This sermon is part of the sermon series "Global Preaching Voices ". See series.
People wonder, Is it really possible to be a Christian in today's world? So much of the values of this world are inimical to Christian values. Many people think it's not possible. The Bible, of course, gives us a resounding yes to that question. Yes, we can live as Christians in a fallen world.
Daniel and his friends give us a good example of this. So that's what we are going to look at today—the way Daniel and friends weathered the storms of compromise in their life.
The book starts in a very bleak mood. It says "The third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it." It's a time of defeat for the Jewish people, for God's people. It talks about how the vessels of the house of God were taken and kept in the temple of Nebuchadnezzar's god. It's a time of defeat, but verse 2 is very interesting. It says "And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand." In other words, this period of great defeat for the Jews is presented as something that God was behind.
Is God responsible for the defeat? Well, this reflects the strong belief in the sovereignty of God, which is a major theme in the book of Daniel. I don't think we need to confine belief in the sovereignty of God to only one theological tradition. This doctrine has sustained me as we have lived through a very difficult time in our country. I've seen death, our staff are being killed, and things like that happening. Yet, still there is this strong belief that God is in control. God will ultimately triumph. And even when evil seems to be in control, God is working out his purposes. Wickedness will show its power, but God will use even that to bring glory to his name. And here, of course, the rest of the Bible shows that this was punishment for disobedience on the part of the Jews.
This is the deep foundation which gives courage to go into the world. There is no promise of ease for a Christian, but there is the assurance that God is in control of history. That's one of the key themes of Daniel, one of the good commentaries on Daniel is entitled The Lord Is King. He's king even when the king of the people of God is in captivity. God is working out his purposes. If this is the case, then the most important thing for us would be to seek to be obedient to God. And if we are obedient we know that everything will be turned into something good by this God. So this is the confidence that lies behind a Christian going into the world to be a faithful disciple of Christ in this world.
Raising up unexpected heroes
Then we come to verses 3-5 where the king is trying to use people whom he has got through his conquests to enrich his kingdom. We are told in verse 3,
Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance, and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge and understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king's palace.
Now, these are the king's qualifications. These are not God's qualifications. But this is how there were some of God's people who met these conditions and whom God was able to put into an important position in a time of great need amongst the people of God. The principle we get here is that God can use natural ability and family background for his glory. It doesn't mean that only people with these natural abilities and these family backgrounds are significant in God's sight. We know very well that right through history God has used people considered least likely to be used by God. I can tell you that as a youth worker sometimes when some people come to Christ we are a little happier than when others come. We think, Oh, that guy's going to be a real … it's a great catch for the kingdom. After almost thirty-eight years in youth ministry I can tell you how wrong we have been. The people we least expect are the people whom God uses to do wonderful things for his glory. However, natural gifts that people have could be things that God can use. So we don't need to be jealous of such people. We need to pray for these people that in spite of the prominence that they get, that they will be humble before God and continue to live for God. So that's the group to which Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego belong.
Now, in verse six we are given the heroes of the book of Daniel, "Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah." Very interesting. Here's a time of great crisis amongst the people of Israel, and here are four heroes whom God is going to raise up to bear the standard of the kingdom of God. It's interesting that these are not the fulltime workers of the day. When we think of fulltime workers we think of priests and prophets in the Old Testament. These are the people who are the official representatives of God. But here you find laymen.
You know very often when we think of a great man or woman of God we think of a missionary, pastor, theologian, or an evangelist, and these are usually people who have given themselves fulltime to God's work. But often God uses people who are in ordinary professions to bear his name. This is the case here.
There's a long and distinguished line of heroes in the Bible who were laypeople—Abraham, who was an owner of livestock, considered the father of the faithful; Joseph, who was a government official; Joshua, who was an army chief; Ruth, who was a housewife; David, the man who's called the man after God's own heart was a shepherd and then a soldier and then a king; Nehemiah, the cupbearer for a Persian king; Esther, the queen of another Persian king; Mary, a carpenter's wife; Dorcas, a housewife who cared for the poor. So these are some of the great people that God used in biblical history.
Preachers, of course, are important, because they study and explain the Word. If you look at the book of Daniel in Chapter 9 you find that Daniel found inspiration and direction from a letter that Jeremiah had sent. Jeremiah, of course, was a prophet and Daniel found that God spoke to him through the prophet. So the fulltime people study God's Word and explain it to the laypeople, but the laypeople take this gospel to the world. And through them the world sees what Christianity is. They take the gospel to the classroom, to the neighborhood, to the playing field, to the office, to the marketplace, to the political arena, and they show that the gospel really works.
This is especially important when the gospel is under fire. You know people make many accusations against Christians. Especially in this pluralistic age we are accused of being arrogant, because we are claiming that ours is the only way to salvation. Then people look at us. We work with them. They see that these people don't seem to be arrogant, and they still seem to have these crazy views that these Christians are supposed to have. It opens the door for the nation to have a glimpse of the reality of the gospel.
So these are the heroes of the book.
Encountering unpleasant circumstances
Now we find that these heroes, who are faithful to God, have to do or encounter some unpleasant things along their way to being used by God. The last part of verse four says, that they are to learn, "to teach them the literature and the language of the Chaldeans." Now this was probably language, magic, and all about their gods, and they didn't like this type of knowledge. But they had to learn it. If they were going to be in this society they had to learn things that they didn't necessarily agree with. Even, perhaps, more difficult for them, in verse seven we are told that "the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego." So they were given names.
Now to the Jews your name is what you are. It was not just a tag that identified who they were, but rather it was supposed to represent the character, the soul of the person. Now they are given names of Babylonian deities. You can just imagine how much they would have disliked having to take these names. But when we go into the world we have to do some things that we don't like, that we wouldn't choose to do in order that we may become part of this world and bear witness to Christ. We cannot compromise our principles, but there may be certain inconvenient things that we need to take on in order that we may get in to the structure. Sometimes if you are part of a work crew you may have to go to parties and receptions which you find very boring or that you find quite abhorrent because of the unclean jokes that they are cracking at this time. Sometimes we have to do that.
I love Western music. I've grown up and trained in Western music. But I realized when God called me to work with the urban poor, these people don't understand the music that I'm used to. It was very hard for me to completely change my orientation. The first time I sang a solo in my language I walked into the home of one of our staff workers and they were imitating me and laughing. I had done such a terrible job in my transition from Western to Eastern music. But this is part of the inconvenience that we have to bear if we are to go into the world.
Refusing to compromise
So they took on some unpleasant things, but they refused to compromise their principles. Verse 8: "But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank." Later we find that the three friends also joined him in this resolve. Now many reasons have been given as to why they didn't take this food, but they must have considered it unclean, and it was their way of avoiding assimilation. They knew we can do this, this, this, and this, but here we have to stop. We cannot go beyond this. And to maintain their national identity and to avoid assimilation through compromise they decided they are not going to eat this food. They were involved but they were obedient to God.
As you look at Christians going into the world you see a spectrum that has three main approaches. The first approach is the approach of accommodation. "This is an evil word. We can't help it. We better go and join and do what they do." We say "it's impossible to succeed if we do not do what others do.' So when there's racist conversation we join in that conversation. When there's dishonesty, if we are to tell a lie to sell an item, your boss expects you to do it and you say, "Well, if I'm going to be in this (promotion? position?) I'll have to do this." We join in it. So we accommodate ourselves to the standards of the world. But Daniel and his friends are a great challenge to this approach to going into the world.
The next approach is the approach of isolation. This is a bad world. We're not going to get involved. We'll do a job to get a salary. That's it. We don't know what is happening in the world, and we keep the world at a safe distance from us. But this is God's world. He's the creator of this world, and we have been chosen by him to represent him on earth. If we don't go into the world, we can't really impact the world he sends us into. In John 17:15-18, Jesus says, "They are not of this world but I am sending them into the world." We go in. And so like salt we are to go in if we are to influence the world. Like leaven we have to go in. Even though we may be a small minority we can have an influence upon the structures of society through our commitment to Christ.
Maybe you know the name William Wilberforce. He was responsible for almost singlehandedly fighting in parliament for about two-and-a-half decades, and finally got slavery out of the British Empire. He was not a Christian. But his mother once told him, "Let's go to Spain for a holiday." So he thought, Let me read a book, and he read a book and that is, he wanted to be close to the people, and his constituency was reading a certain Christian book and he thought Why don't I read this book even though I am not a Christian myself. And so he read the book, and that attracted him to Christianity. One thing led to another, and he became a Christian. Well, before that, before he became a Christian he had this question. I find Christianity very attractive, but I also find politics very attractive. So what am I to decide? Am I going to be a Christian or am I going to be a politician. So secretly in the night, like Nicodemus, he went to meet a well-known Anglican priest called John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace. Then Wilberforce told Newton, "This is my dilemma. I want to become a Christian, but I really like politics." Newton told him, "You can be a Christian politician." Later he told him "God has raised you up for this hour." Wilberforce was a Christian politician, an amazing witness, a personal witness for Christ, wanting verbally to share the Good News of Christ. He was a personal witness for Christ. But he went in and refused to give up.
The third approach is obedient involvement, where we go in as faithful Christians. Now that you talk about cricket, let me talk about a cricketer. Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996, one of the greatest days in the history of our country. One of the stars on that side was a Christian, and he had a very crucial part in the victory. We got him to come for one of our youth meetings, and we told the young people "Ask him any questions you want." So one of the students asked this guy, "How did you manage to maintain your Christianity, while traveling and going"? Because generally when our people go they behave badly. He had a very special position called wicket keeper. He used to hold the ball behind the batter, and that's a very important position. He said, "When I keep wickets I do it for God. When I bat I do it for God. When I'm in my hotel room I'm in my hotel room for God." And then he said, "When I'm in the bathroom I'm in the bathroom for God." Everything he did he did for God. Obedient involvement.
Taking a stand for the gospel
However, it's very interesting—in verse eight you see Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food or with the wine that he drank. Now he has made a clear cut decision that he will not do this right at the start of his course. This is very important for us—a firm decision right at the start that marks us out as people who follow certain principles. Then people begin to expect you to behave like this when you form these clear principles right at the start.
I studied in a non-Christian university. In fact, the president of our university was a monk. In my country, I don't know whether you all have this here, but when you enter in a student's university career, sometimes in their whole life, the two most traumatic weeks are the first two weeks of school, because the seniors want to remind the freshman that they are freshmen. So they humiliate us and get us to do terrible things. When I entered the university it was during the Vietnam War. There was a house close to the campus which was called Vietnam, which is where they would take us and humiliate us. Everything that I was asked to do I did. I humbled myself and did it. Then they asked me to do something that I can't do as a Christian. So I told them, "I'm sorry. I can't do that." And I got a slap. They slapped me, and said, "Why? Why can't you do this?" And I said, "My God will not be happy if I do this." And they said, "Oh, look at this angel who has fallen down from heaven." But the news went round. There's a Christian in our batch and in our school. Little by little people began to expect, because I wouldn't laugh at the dirty jokes that they cracked. Then I found sometimes those dirty jokes are so funny that I couldn't help laughing. When I did that my Buddhist friends would say, "Hey, hey, Ajith, you can't laugh at these jokes." You see, I had, by God's grace, been forced to take a stand for the gospel right at the start. After that it helped me to continue to do that, to continue to remain faithful to the stand that I took.
In Daniel's case it was a clear cut resolution. It's not just saying, "Okay, I'm working now. I'm studying. I need to spend time with God every day." No, that's a very general decision. It may be something more clear cut, such as, "I will get up at six a.m. so that I can spend time with God. On Sunday I will get up at seven a.m. so that I can spend time." A clear cut decision. "Not only will I be a Christian in my job, but, rather, if I find conversation that does not agree with Christian principles—and we can look at what the type of conversation is. It may be racist. It may be class conscious conversation. It may be dishonesty. It may be sexually suggestive language—I will not participate in that. And this is how I will do it."
Living for God through conviction and civility
This is what Daniel did. He took a clear-cut resolution, a decision that he will live for God. But it's very interesting that even though he took a very clear cut decision the way he communicated it was politely. So you find in the second part of verse 8, "Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself." He asked to allow him. It was a firm decision, but it was a humble request that he made. You see this throughout the book of Daniel—Daniel was always civil. You know what I mean by civil? Someone who's concerned for the welfare of the others, someone who's pleasant, who's committed doggedly to his principles but gentle in the way he lives out those principles in the world. This is what we see about Daniel. Verse 9 tells us that "God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs." Now God has been acting behind the scenes. But God needed Daniel's behavior to be such that this one could continue to have favor with him. So he must have been faithful to this.
I remember when I first got married. I'm married now for thirty-seven years. My wife and I decided we won't go to sleep until everything is cleared. Even if it means staying or talking till one, two in the morning, we will somehow clear everything and then go to sleep. Sometimes in the first few years that was quite a challenge. My wife and I are very different in our personalities. We would be talking and talking and talking and talking. Well talking is a nice way to put it. Right? During these debates, or as one person calls them, "love fights", with my mouth I would be talking to my wife, with my ears I'd be listening to my wife, but in my heart I'd be talking to God. Please, God. Please, God. Please, God, help. Help. Help. Help. Help. You know? But into this unpleasant situation now the sovereign God has come in, which means that I can't use abusive language, I can't say anything that insults my God or my wife. Also, it means that I don't need to panic because this God is the sovereign God, who when we got married joined in the covenant and committed himself to be committed to our marriage.
So when we have confidence in God we don't have to be hostile in our reactions. We look at our enemies as people who need the Savior and who need to be persuaded about the truth of the gospel. Peter puts it well when he says in 1 Peter 3:15, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope you have." But then he says, "Do this with gentleness and respect."
Some of our workers were being given a very difficult time by the temple nearby. In fact, two of them had been badly assaulted, and then the believers were being threatened. When I visited that center they told me, "Why don't you go and visit the monk who's behind a lot of these attacks." I was a bit reluctant. I was a bit afraid. I didn't know how to face these people, but I went. Here there were about four or five of us and about twenty leaders of the temple and the monk. I had to sit on the floor. The monk was seated on the chair, which is the custom in our country, a mark of respect for this man. So I was being attacked and attacked. I mean, we were being given all sorts of accusations. I was praying, "Lord, I have come to build bridges. I have come to help develop a situation where they will not stop us from preaching the gospel. Help me. Help me. Help me." Then what happened was the temple cat came and sat next to me. Now it so happens that I belong to a family that does not like cats. I think my grandmother had a phobia for cats which we inherited. Yet, here was this temple cat next to me, and for the sake of the gospel I stroked the cat.
We have firm convictions, but those convictions have been given by a God who's sovereign over history. If God is sovereign over history, as we face competition, as we face attacks on our faith, we can remain confident and proclaim the gospel. Paul was so upset when he went to Athens. The word he uses there, paroxunō, is a very strong word. He was very upset by these idols. But when he expressed himself we are told that he reasoned, dialegomai. He dialogued with the people. He reasoned with them. His anger, unlike the prophets who were speaking to people who had the revelation of God, who were within the community of God's people, the pandered against idolatry, Paul argued, he debated, he reasoned against idolatry, because he was talking to people who belonged to a different worldview, and he needed to win them over in order to proclaim this gospel.
Testing the gospel by us
Then we come to verse 10 and we are told, "And the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, 'I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.'" Now here's a person who liked Daniel, but he was afraid that the costly decision Daniel made would result in Daniel having a posture of defeat and because of that he himself would get into trouble. Daniel was experiencing what many obedient servants of Christ experience—misinformed concern.
Christ calls us to a cross, and nobody likes another person to take a cross. A cross is a place of suffering. So people who love us, people who care for us, will be concerned about our decision to take up a cross. So today many parents will oppose the decisions that their children have taken to truly follow God's call to their life, which involved a cross. And who's the parent who likes their children to suffer? So because of this, many missionaries who go into the mission field don't go with the complete support of their parents. Their parents are afraid. But they have to obey Christ.
So what does Daniel do? Let's read verses 11 and 12.
Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. "Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king's food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see."
"Test us." You know, the world doesn't know about Jesus, and sometimes you know you hear people say, "Don't look at us. Look at Jesus." But people are not interested in Jesus. They have to look at us to make a decision as to whether Jesus is worth looking at. So we are the test of the gospel. When someone wants to buy a second hand car, they first take it on a test drive. If people are going to consider Christianity they are going to test us.
Willing to suffer for Christ
So what happens? We are told that he said "okay." After a few days they found that they were doing fine, so that they were allowed to use this very Spartan diet. They were allowed to do that. Then we come to verse 16 "So the steward took away their food and the wine that they were to drink, and gave them vegetables instead."
Well, now these are young people. I have a son who's young. When he was about this age sometimes the first question he asked when he comes home in the evening is "What's there to eat?" And young people like to eat. One day it's bread and cabbage. The next day it's broccoli and bread. And it goes on like this day after day. For how long? Three days? Three weeks? Three months? Three years. For three years they are to be deprived. This is one of the things that happens when we obey God. Sometimes we have to be deprived of things that others consider essential. Sometimes the test of the strength of a culture is the list of essentials that they have. Some people can't live with inconvenience, and so they say, "No, we have to have this." Such people are weak people, and they can't make a radical difference in their society.
This is one of my great fears for the church in the West. I know that history and the Bible says that before any significant church growth there has to be suffering. That's the witness of history and of the Bible—that suffering is a means by which the gospel is demonstrated with such power that people desire what we have, the joy that we have in the midst of suffering. I have a great fear that we are going to shun the cross of suffering and say, "No, we have to have this. Without this we can't be satisfied." The media are constantly bombarding us with the message that says it is your right, your entitlement to have this. And because of that we can end up living as soft people who don't have the cutting edge required to make a difference in the world. So God calls us to be willing to pay the price. If we look at history, most of the great people that God used gave up a lot of things that others considered necessary in order that they might do what God called them to do.
David Livingston is a good example. How much he suffered. His arm was bitten, and he was unable to use one of his arms, by a lion. He traveled almost all the time all alone. He was often sick, delirious, racked with fever. His wife died on the field. It was a difficult life that he lived. When he once went to Britain somebody said, "Dr. Livingston, you have sacrificed a lot for the gospel." Livingston is said to have got quite upset by that statement. He said, "Sacrifice? The only sacrifice is to live outside the will of God." For us, we have Jesus, and he's enough. David Livingston once said, "Without Christ not one step; with him anywhere." When we have Christ we can go on.
The world has lost this understanding of the joy of the Lord. I really believe that one of the greatest contributions that Christianity has to make to the world is to recover joy. It doesn't know what joy is. It knows pleasure. It knows a kind of pleasure, which fulfills certain aspirations but doesn't meet the deep needs of the human soul. We have to show that we can have joy in the midst of deprivation, that we are happy people even though we don't have so much. And these people did that.
Now we come to our last point, verse 17. "As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams." What has happened is that they studied all these other things, all these gods and this magic and all of that, but God is the one who gave them the wisdom. They studied things they don't like, but they learned from God to look at those things through the eyes of a biblical worldview.
So we go into the world. We study all sorts of things. But everything we study we subject to a biblical worldview. We begin to think Christianly about everything. We are not just advertising executives who are Christians. We are Christian advertising executives. We are not just typists or secretaries who are Christians. We are Christian secretaries. Everything we do we do out of a Christian perspective.
Well, you know what happened. They did so well. They did ten times better than the others, and they were given a good promotion in their work. Here then are some principles as we go into the world:
God is sovereign. Therefore we don't need to be afraid.
God can use natural abilities that people have.
Laypeople have a unique role in God's plan for the world.
Involvement includes unpleasant aspects.
We go into the world with a desire to be obedient.
We have to make clear cut decisions as to what that obedience means.
Then God works behind the scenes and opens the doors for us.
But on our part we have to be people who are likeable, people who are civil, polite, respectful of others.
And then people who like us, will sometimes be concerned about the decisions we make.
We are the test of the gospel.
God may call us to give up some things that others consider normal, in order that we truly might have a penetrative impact upon our culture.
And then finally, we have to think biblically about everything.
Ajith Fernando is the Teaching Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka and author of Reclaiming Love (Zondervan).