When The State Becomes God

Selected highlights from this sermon.

What should Christians do when the state becomes hostile, restricting the freedom of religion? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego encountered this firsthand when the king of Babylon mandated that everyone worship the same idol. Many gave in, but they did not. Why?

They entrusted themselves to God’s sovereign hands. Their immediate well-being was less important to them than honoring the one true God. Though God saved them from the fiery furnace, He didn’t have to. They did what was right, and let God determine the outcome.  

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The topic of my message today is When the State Becomes God. Under ideal conditions the responsibility of the state is to protect its citizens, to have laws that will enable a state to be able to flourish and have what is sometimes referred to as limited government. The relationship between Church and state, or religion and state has had a long and checkered history. Sometimes that has happened where there has been freedom. Sometimes – most often – there is not freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

In the Old Testament there was no freedom of religion. If you didn’t follow the prescribed teaching of Judaism you were a heretic and you were to be put to death. That was
true not only in Israel but also in the nations that surrounded Israel – the same kind of stateism.

When Jesus came, He really did change all of that. When Jesus held that coin and said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” what He was saying is, “There is a responsibility that you have to the state, but there is also a responsibility to God,” and the conflict between the two has dogged the pages of Church history.

Now oftentimes what happens in a state is the state’s default position is to take more authority and to diminish human freedom. I think a great example of that would be during Hitler’s Nazism. You know what happens is when a state or a country is in chaos, that’s a great opportunity for a dictator because there was chaos in Germany, high inflation and high unemployment. People wanted a strong leader to end the madness, and so you have chaos, and then you have a crisis. Hitler precipitated a crisis. I know that this is debated, but I personally believe that it was he who instigated Marinus van der Lubbe to enter into the heating system of the Reichstag building and light it on fire. Hitler blamed it on the Communists and as a result he ended all civil liberties – freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and in effect, also freedom of religion. First of all you have chaos and then you have a crisis, and then you have control.

If you are here today and you are a Muslim, I want to assure you that we welcome you and we want to be your friends, but I do need to say that among the countries of the world where there is the least freedom of religion today, it is in Islamic countries. For example, the laws of Saudi Arabia explicitly state that the penalty for someone who converts from Islam to another religion should be death. We think today of a mother who converted from Islam to Christianity who is sitting in prison, nursing a child until, we are told, the child will be two years old, and then she will be whipped and she will be put to death.

Now even if that is overturned because of international pressure, the simple fact is that throughout all those Middle Eastern countries there are people today who are being persecuted simply because they are Christians. It’s a long story.

All of this leads me to the message that I’m going to give today – a very important message. And I know that you will listen very carefully as you hear not only my words but my heart as I talk about a true story in the Old Testament found in the book of Daniel, chapter 3. And I need to give you the context. I hope that you have been here as I preached the last messages. The title of this series is The Church in Babylon and the best example of what we today have to live among and with in America is to be found in those Jews who entered Babylon, a very pagan country, as a minority, and they had to get used to living as a minority in a majority pagan culture. And I talked about what God said. God said, “Go to the city of Babylon. Build houses. You can plant vineyards. Plan to stay there. Seek the welfare of the city. Witness to your neighbors and to your friends, and pay your taxes.” If we related to today we’d be sure to say to run for city government and become involved in your school system. Witness to the community. Have a vacation Bible school for the children of the area. Bring them in and let us together witness to our faith in the midst of this culture.

Now if you were with us last time you heard a very critical message about conflicts of conscience, and we were surprised at how far Daniel and his three friends were willing to go in the culture. I mean they were renamed by pagan names. They had positions in the government because Nebuchadnezzar saw their brilliance and their wisdom, and on and on it goes, but he did draw a line. And today we have another line, a very important line, found in the third chapter of the book of Daniel. I hope that you have your Bible and that you can turn to it with us.

Context: In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar has a dream that Daniel interprets, and the dream is of a man, and the head is gold, and Daniel said, “You, oh King, are the head of gold,” and the rest of the dream predicts the nations that are going to come. It’s one of the great predicted dreams of history, and very accurate. But Nebuchadnezzar promotes Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to high positions in his land. But then he has an ego problem and he sets up an image. And this image is 90 feet high, sitting on a base that is 9 feet long. Now this happens to be in a plain that is close to Babylon – the Plain of Dura, which has been found. And archeologists actually believe that they have found the base – the pedestal upon which this great, massive tall image rested.

We’re not sure exactly, but I think that it was the image of a man, and so Nebuchadnezzar builds this, and then he brings all of the people of Babylon to the plain. We can visualize there hundreds of thousands over a period of time, and he says, “As soon as the music begins (and he lists six different instruments that are to be used, and the people are to be enchanted by the music), I want everybody to bow down and I want them to worship the image.”

Do you notice how Nebuchadnezzar uses the law specifically? He becomes the lawgiver, and the law of Babylon is that now everybody worships the same God and bows before the same image.

Well that gives context to where I’m going to pick it up there in chapter 3, in verse 16. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.’” In context, what happened was they were written up as not bowing, and this information was given to Nebuchadnezzar. The man who wrote them up said, “You know these Jews that you have are not bowing,” and so Nebuchadnezzar said, “Well, maybe you got it wrong. We’re going to do this again and I’ll give you another chance to bow before the image.”

So they are responding. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it 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.” I don’t know, but do you underline in your Bibles? You can if you do it nicely with a red pencil like I do it so that it doesn’t bleed through to the other side. I like to always read my Bible with a red pencil. This one should be underlined twice. This is one of the greatest expressions of faith that is found in the Scriptures. “O Nebuchadnezzar, God is able to deliver us out of the fiery furnace, but if not let it be known to you, O king, we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

“Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. (That’s an expression for as hot as you could possibly make it.) And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king's order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’ They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ He answered and said, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.’”

What I want us to do today is to ask ourselves the question and answer it. How did these men have the courage to stand there and be willing to say, “Throw us into the fire, but we’ll not deny God whether we are delivered or not?”

First of all, they were willing, of course. They trusted God’s unknown providence. Remember this. When they were there they had no idea that they were going to be delivered. As far as they knew they were going to be incinerated. They were going to be made ashes, but they said, “It doesn’t matter. We will be true to God.”

I call this the unpredictability of God’s purposes. You and I have no idea what God is going to do because He works in such unexpected ways. In Acts 12 Peter, James and John are in prison and Herod comes and beheads James. And Peter expects the same thing happen to him the next day, and he’s sleeping because when he arrives in heaven he wants to be rested. And lo and behold suddenly the doors of the prison open and he’s delivered. Well, one is dead and the other is alive.

We think of Hebrews 11 as this great chapter of faith, and it is, but if you look at it carefully, in the middle of verse 35 (and you can look this up sometime) there’s a break. It talks about all of the victories that have been won, and then it says, “But others were persecuted. They wandered about in sheepskins and in goatskins. They were sawn in two. They were burned.” Wow!

So the purpose of Hebrews 11 is not to tell us if you have faith you are going to be able to perform some great miracle. That’s not what the purpose is. The purpose is to say this: Whether you see a miracle or not, if you go on believing God, you too can be a hero of faith.

You know, my earthly father is in heaven, but I know this. If he were alive and if he saw that I had cancer or an accident or something, and he had the power, he would prevent all of those things from happening. There’s no question about it. There’s no discussion. My Heavenly Father is much less predictable. He sometimes leads us through the fire, through the trial. Sometimes we die younger than we intended, and it’s the unpredictability of God’s purposes. Why? Perhaps we’ll be able to answer that in just a few moments. But what these three men said was this. “We will leave our future in God’s hands. What happens to us is God’s responsibility. Our responsibility is to trust Him and to believe Him regardless of the outcome because we don’t believe God because of what He does. We believe God because of who He is, and we’re willing to trust Him to the end.” You say, “Well, where did they get the faith?” Well, they trusted God’s promises – the known promises of God.

You know I can imagine them back in the synagogue when they were in Jerusalem before they came to Babylon. Perhaps they were there and the Psalms were being read, and in those days, you know, they memorized a lot of Scripture. Maybe one day they were listening to Psalm 73 where Asaph says, “Who have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail,but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Maybe they remembered that passage.

Here’s a passage that they also might have remembered from the book of Isaiah. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

God says, “I’m going to be with you.” Now you say, “Well, that’s the promise over promises.” God says, “You go through the fire, you won’t be consumed. The floods will not overwhelm you.” It’s interesting that the two ways that Christians died during medieval times was the fire and the water. They were drowned and they were burned. But keep in mind that this was a promise to the nation Israel, that even though along the way individuals were going to be burned and there were going to be tragedies, in the end Israel is going to survive.

But here’s my point. Christians do not judge God by their immediate circumstances. It’s not as if we come to a circumstance and we say, “Now is God good and does He love us or not?” The Bible clearly teaches that He loves us regardless of the circumstances, and we believe that. Even though I have no other evidence in history that God performed the kind of miracle that he did here, the fact is that throughout Church history there have been martyrs who have died, and they’ve died with a sense of faith and anticipation. Why? It’s because Christians believe in two worlds. There’s the world of the senses, and there’s the world to come.

You know when the Christians were thrown to the lions in the early centuries, there was no angel that came and closed the mouths of the lions as Daniel experienced. And when they were going through these hard times and there they were in an arena, the emperor was there to watch the lions just absolutely lacerate and tear these Christians apart. But one of the emperors said, “What do they see? What are they looking at?” because the Christians would look and they weren’t just looking into the sky. It was as if they were seeing something. Well, I don’t know what they saw, but remember what Stephen saw when he looked up. He saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and it was as if Jesus was saying, “Stephen, be faithful because the moment you die I am here to welcome you.” Christians believe in another world. We believe the promises of God, and we trust the promises of God.

Also, and I’ve said it before but I want to get more specific now. These three young men who became the “asbestos kids” because they were thrown in the fire and they weren’t burned, trusted in God’s unknown purposes, his hidden purposes. Now let’s do a little bit of theology together.

Can God do everything? No, he can’t. The Bible says expressly that God cannot lie. So that’s one thing that God cannot do. I also believe that God cannot live with a contradiction. God cannot make two plus two equal five, unless, of course, you define the two and so forth, and give different definitions to the word. He’s not capable of logical contradiction. But you know there is a limitation also that God imposes upon Himself when it comes to His power. Why doesn’t He deliver everyone? Well, I’ll tell you why He doesn’t deliver everyone. It’s because of His ultimate purpose that is hidden from us, but fully known to Him.

A great case study in this is Jesus Himself. You know, here’s Jesus and was God able to deliver Jesus? Oh my, was God able to deliver Jesus? Of course! Jesus said there in the garden, “Could I not call twelve legions of angels and they’d come and deliver me?” Clearly Jesus could be delivered even without the angels. But I can imagine that all of them were just looking down and they were hovering over Jesus and saying, “Give us the signal so that we can deliver Him,” but they were prevented from it.

I think of the words of Jesus to Pilate. I have often pondered what Jesus said to Pilate when he said to Him, “Don’t you know that I have power to crucify You?” Jesus said, “There would be no power at all that has been given to you except that which was given to you from above. Pilate, the very breath that you breathe and the words that you speak out of your mouth – all of that is totally dependent upon God’s grace and mercy. You have no power at all against Me except what God gives you.”

You see, my friend, God’s purposes determine the fact that He does not always exercise His power. It’s often held in abeyance. Could God deliver them? Well, you heard these three men say, “Our God is able to deliver us. (Absolutely God could deliver them.) But if He doesn’t, we’ll still be faithful unto death.”

Do you know what God’s purpose was here? Well part of the purpose was for Nebuchadnezzar. Did you know that Nebuchadnezzar is going to be in heaven? Isn’t that something? I’m going to say, “Hey, Nebuchadnezzar, just know that you gave me lots of sermon material, and I used you as a bad example, but I’m sure glad that you made it,” because in subsequent chapters, though he doesn’t become a believer, here (though he makes a decree that everybody’s supposed to be honoring the God of the three guys) God humbles him, and he makes a proclamation about the God of Israel that just takes your breath away. I believe that that indicates that he became a true believer in Israel’s God.

So that was part of it. The other part that some people think is that God used this one experience as an illustration of how He walks with His people, and is able to walk with His people through the fire of affliction, such as the Jews will experience during the Tribulation when God walks with them.

The fourth man, of course, is Jesus. There’s no question about that. He’s the Angel of the Lord. And so as this story unfolds God is showing that at any time He wants to deliver His people through the fire, He most assuredly has the resources to do so. But we don’t know His hidden purposes.

Can I make a suggestion to you as a pastor, from my heart to yours? Let’s agree that we are going to stop trying to read God’s purposes through an envelope. You know you’ve had that experience. You hold up the envelope to the light and you think to yourself, “Oh yeah, I notice a few words, but the problem is that the light has to come through this way, and the letter is rather thick,” but then you see along here, “Oh yeah, you do catch a phrase,” but the problem is you have no context, and you don’t know what’s on this side because it’s all messed up because of the creases of the envelope. But you stand there trying to read it.

Long ago I stopped predicting what I think God is going to do because he has surprised me too many times. And what we need to do is to say, “Our future is in His hands, even when we are wheeled into a hospital for surgery.” We do not know the outcome, but one thing we do know. God is able to deliver. God is able to heal, but if He doesn’t let it be known unto us and to all those who are watching that we will not swerve in our faith in the living and the true God. Always remember, you don’t just suffer for yourself. You suffer for all the people who are watching you.

Now how do we nail this down for ourselves living in America, as we do, at this point in America’s history? I want to give you three nails to put in the wall, so to speak – three lessons that I don’t want you to forget.

The first lesson is this. Persecution should be expected.
You see, whenever a state drifts toward paganism, the curtailment of religious freedom usually goes with it as the state assumes more and more laws, and we should expect that. And we should not be overwhelmed by it.

What lies in America’s future? Well, I don’t know, but this is something to think about, and by the way, if you are here today and you struggle with same-sex attraction, once again you are welcome here. The welcome mat at Moody Church is for everyone, because God’s grace is for all of us as sinners, and that’s where we all stand. But notice this article in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

“Racism, sexism and homophobia do not fit into any current diagnostic category.” The authors propose that those who engage in such behavior display a form of psychopathology deserving of its own category. So this article seeks to find the common denominator to intolerance. The authors explore the possibility of an intolerant personality disorder, its symptoms and possible cures. Intolerant personality disorder! Is it possible that the day may come in the future (and I hope it’s in the very distant future) where intolerant personality disorder becomes an identifiable mental illness - a pathology - so that if you belong to that and you are saying things and expressing your convictions that the Child Protective Services might be in your home, checking on the children, perhaps taking them from you because you have a pathology called the intolerance personality disorder. You say, “Oh, that’s really far-fetched.” Yeah, I know it is but you know things like that are happening in Europe already.

But do you know what we need to do? We need to just take a deep breath. Everybody, if you are listening, take a deep breath now, would you please? I have to do it up here because I’m talking, and some you have to do it there because you are sitting. Let us remember this. Why is this strange?

Peter said these marvelous words, which at one time I knew exactly by memory, but I need to read them now. He is writing to people under the Roman Empire and he says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you as though something strange were happening to you, but rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, as the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”

We could say, “The fourth man walks with you during those insults, during the persecution, during the false accusations.” God is always with His people and He will never leave us nor forsake us. So we must welcome it. Fear and anger are not options to the Christian, and we must be able to be like the early Church who considered it a privilege to be identified with Jesus in a culture back then that was anti-Christian, and anti-worship of the Roman Empire. So first of all, accept it.

Second, and this becomes a little disheartening, most people will bow before the power of the state and its laws. I’ve been meditating on this, this past week and asking myself a question. Three people refuse to bow. We have no idea why Daniel was not there. It’s possible he was on a tour somewhere for the king, and we know, of course, that Daniel would never have bowed, because in chapter 6 he has his own opportunity when he prays to Jerusalem three times a day, and they tell him to stop doing that, and he won’t, and he gets thrown into the lion’s den. So we know that Daniel would certainly not have bowed, even as these three guys didn’t bow.

But apart from that, I’m asking myself a question. Weren’t there 10,000 Jews minimally? Scholars believe that there were many more than that, that went to Babylon. Where in the world were they? Well, maybe they were out on the other side of the plain and nobody saw them. I don’t know. I think that maybe all the rest decided to bow because they said to themselves, “Look, this doesn’t mean that we can’t also worship Jehovah. Furthermore (and this touches my heart), we have children and you know what we’ll do? We’ll bow the knee but we won’t bow our hearts, so God knows that we really don’t mean it. And furthermore, we have to be in Babylon so that we are good witnesses to Jehovah. It’s pretty hard to be a good witness when you are dead.” And so they don’t identify, and I think that most of them (if not all of them) bowed.

You know, there are Christians today who I’m not so sure how well they would do if we had persecution. There are Christian business people and so forth that meet in a public cafeteria who will not bow their heads even in prayer because they don’t want to be identified with Jesus and be thought of as weird. Jesus said, “Rejoice when your name is cast out as being evil.” They don’t like that so you know there are Christians who bow their head and you know they are actually rubbing their eyebrows, or they are adjusting their napkin on their knee.

Think of Daniel. He bows and prays three times a day with an open window and they say, “You do that and you get the lions’ den.” Daniel said, “I’m not going to surrender my commitment to God. I will do whatever.”

You know, Jesus said this. He said, “He who is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him shall also the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in his glory.” I’ve never preached on that text. You know, if I’m around here long enough I might actually preach a sermon on that sometime. Imagine that! How will we do when the true persecution comes? That’s the question. Do you know why the others bowed? It’s because they feared the furnace more than they feared God. So they went along with the state-ism of the day, and they bowed.

I hate to say it but few will actually stand, and what’s interesting historically is that the ones who do stand we remember. We don’t remember a lot of names in Germany, but we think of Bonhoffer and Martin Niemoller and a lot of others. And there were others too. There were about 700 pastors and priests who went to concentration camps because of their opposition to Hitler. But we remember the heroes and we study them. The others pass namelessly into history.

Young people and others, God is looking for those who are saying, “We are going to stand. We are going to identify with Jesus. We are going to take the heat because after all He is our Savior. He is our Lord, and God forbid that we should ever be ashamed of Him.”

Now there’s a final lesson, and that is this. The fire that purifies us is the fire that actually frees us. It sets us free. When we read the text a moment ago, perhaps too quickly, did you notice how Nebuchadnezzar just seemed to be obsessed with this idea that they had to be bound and thrown into the fire? He says, for example, in verse 20, “Bind Shadrach, Meshach and Abednegno.” And these men were bound in their cloaks. I assume that they had ropes that were tied around them and their tunics, and so forth. They were bound with their clothes. And then King Nebuchadnezzar is astonished (verse 24). He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men into the fire?” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbounded in the fire.” There was something that the fire burned off, and what the fire burned off were the ropes that held them bound and they were freed in the fire.

My dear friend, no matter what fiery trial you are passing through, and it may be persecution (That may be around the corner.), or some other fiery trial, God is with you. Peter said, “Don’t think it strange if you are in a fiery trial.” You can fill in the blank as to what that fiery trial is but Peter said, “Rejoice, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” The fourth man shows up and walks with you through the fire and you can even be set free because finally you’ve trusted Him no matter the outcome. (applause)

I ask today that this church will be a church that lovingly and winsomely, without a sense of judgment and self-righteousness (God forbid that we should be like that.), but with humility and brokenness, gives a loving witness where we are, and is willing to take the heat for the One who redeemed us. And we are confident that He walks with us through the fire and actually sets us free.

Chrysostom was a preacher in Istanbul (in Ancient Constantinople) and he was run out of town and got into trouble with the authorities because they didn’t like his preaching. It’s a story that has been told a hundred times. His people took up sticks and stones and they were going to fight the authorities, but of course they couldn’t. You know you and I can’t fight our culture when we have these strong cultural streams. That is to say, that we cannot fight them with our own weapons. We have to throw ourselves on God.

But anyway, the people gathered in the church for his last sermon, and after that he went into exile and died. Let me give you a paragraph of what he said.

“Numerous are the waves and the great tossing of the sea, but we have no fear of going down for we stand upon the rock. Let the ocean rage, as it will. It is powerless to break the rock. Let the waves roll. They cannot sink the bark of Jesus. Tell me. What should we fear? Death? For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. Exile? The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness of it. Confiscation of property? (That’s what was happening in those days.) We brought nothing into this world and it is clear that we can take nothing away with us. I despise what the world fears and hold its good things in derision. I do not fear poverty, nor do I desire riches. I am not afraid of death. I do not pray to live unless it be for your good. This is why I speak of what is now taking place, and exhort you to be of good cheer that when the water comes, the waves do not break the rock but are dissolved into foam.”

God wins! Whether or not He delivers us, this much is sure. We’ll go on believing Him even without a miracle because we’ve come to know the living and the true God.

Pastor Wiersbe, my predecessor here, said that it’s one thing to be put into the furnace of fire. It’s quite another to be put into the lake of fire. And my friend, today, I urge you to believe on Jesus because He died and gave His life. He gave Himself for us. And He even said, “This is My body which is broken. This is My blood. Eat and drink in remembrance of Me,” because in that act is redemption, and the free gift of eternal life to all those who are listening at this moment, and in whose hearts God is working. Would you reach out and receive that free gift?

Father, take these words, we pray, to encourage us, and to give us the strength that we need. And we ask, oh Lord, that these three men would be our role models in a world that has lost its way. We love You. We pray that we might represent You well. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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