Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Bold Confidence of Faith

Who through faith … quenched the violence of fire. (Hebrews 11:33-34)
Hebrews 11 has often been called the “Hall of Fame” of faith. It begins with this definition: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (v. 1). It describes a solid confidence that is rooted, not in what is seen but in what is unseen.

The ones who by faith quenched the violence of fire are, of course, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, the three young Hebrews who refused to bow down to the image of Nebuchadnezzar. Consider the deep confidence of their faith as Nebuchadnezzar confronts them:
Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall 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)
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego boldly answer:
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18)
Notice the elements of their answer:
  1. “We have no need to answer you in this matter.” It was immediate and direct. They needed no time to reconsider. They had taken their stand and they were sticking with it. “We’ve already done what we’re going to do. Now you go ahead and do what you are going to do.”
  2. “If that is the case.” This is a conditional statement. Not about their action but about the action of the king. They had already made their decision. Now they were laying out, in logical fashion, the king’s choices and what would happen with them.
  3. “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace.” They had no doubt that God was quite capable of protecting them from the fire.
  4. “And He will deliver us from your hand, O king.” Here is where the confidence of their faith is fully seen. It is one thing to speak theoretically about what God is able to do, quite another to declare what He will do.
  5. “But if not.” This is another conditional statement. It is important to understand that this if not statement corresponds to the earlier if statement.
  6. “Let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” Whatever Nebuchadnezzar decided would make no difference at all to these young men. Either way, they were not going to bow down and serve his gods.
Here is where a lot of preachers and Bible interpreters get it wrong. They think the answer of the young Hebrews runs like this: “If you throw us into the fiery furnace, our God is able to deliver us, and he will deliver us. But if He does not, we still won’t serve your gods or bow down.” It sounds like a very valiant faith, trusting in God even if He does not come through and deliver them.

The problem, however, is that the text does not say, “But if He does not.” Some translations will render it that way (the NASB and the NIV, for instance) but in the Hebrew text, it is simply, “But if not.” That is why it is important to notice points 2 and 5 above. They are both conditional statements. One says if, the other says if not. They correspond to each other. The if statement means, “If you cast us into the fiery furnace ...” The corresponding if not statement means, then, “If you do not cast us into the fiery furnace …” In other words, the if not statement is not about whether or not God would deliver them but about whether or not Nebuchadnezzar would toss them into the furnace.

Besides the corresponding nature of the if and if not statements, there is another simple reason why the if not statement refers to the king’s actions, not God’s. It would be completely unnecessary for them to point out that, if God did not deliver them from the fiery furnace, they would not serve Nebuchadnezzar’s gods. It would be exceedingly obvious. If God did not deliver them, they would be instantly killed by the flames — and dead men don’t bow to anything, not even to the king and his gods.

But hear the boldness of their answer and the confidence of their faith. In context, it runs like this: “O Nebuchadnezzar, if you cast us into the fiery furnace, our God is able to deliver is — and He will deliver us! But if you do not cast us into the fiery furnace, know this: We still will not serve your gods or bow down to your image.”

As we know from Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar did throw them into the furnace — and God did indeed deliver them, just as they had declared. Their response was not based on that which was seen, Nebuchadnezzar’s threats or the reality of the fire, but on that which was unseen, the faithfulness of God. They trusted not just in the ability of God, but just as important, in the faithfulness of God to deliver His people. They may have been uncertain about what the king was going to do, but they had no doubt what God was going to do.

Bold and confident faith in the faithfulness of God is able to work miracles. It goes beyond saying, “God can deliver me,” to declaring, “God will deliver me!”