In, Not of (John 17:6–19)

Read John 17:6–19.

King Nebuchadnezzar had just built himself a giant golden tchotchke. A tall but slender monstrosity, the mysterious image was ninety feet tall but just nine feet wide. Its purpose was to unite the people of the Babylonian Empire around a common object of worship. At the king’s command, a cacophony of music would begin playing, and everyone within earshot would have to stop whatever they were doing and bow down toward the gilded idol.

It was a loyalty test, and since anything less than complete obedience would be seen as rebellion against the absolute authority of Nebuchadnezzar, the chosen punishment for noncompliance was severe. By decree of the king, those who failed to worship would be burned alive in the blazing hot fires of a freakishly large furnace.

Faced with the choice between going full downward-facing dog while enjoying some quality tunes or getting toasted to a crisp, most people would choose the path that kept them far from the furnace. But not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The three friends of Daniel stood their ground by standing when everyone else bowed low.

Before their sentence was carried out, however, Nebuchadnezzar gave the trio a chance to repent of their disloyalty. The exchange provides one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture:

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).

The most powerful words in that response? “But even if he does not” (v. 18). The love for God these friends shared was not contingent on miracles and blessings. They knew that God is still good, whether or not He came to their rescue in the heat of the moment.

The Lord did rescue Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that day, supernaturally protecting them from the heat of the fire. Not a hair was singed, nor a thread of clothing scorched. They didn’t even smell like barbecue. They were kept safe by a fourth man in the fire. And while we can’t be sure if their protector was a rank-and-file angel or the preincarnate Son of God, one thing’s for sure: God was with Daniel’s friends as this world sought to destroy them.

There doesn’t appear to be anything ordinary about this episode: a giant golden monument to pride and idolatry, a vengeful king with the chutzpah to roast his political enemies, and a furnace large enough for four men to stroll around inside. And of course, there’s the most amazing part—the God who stays with His friends in the fire. And yet, in John 17, Jesus’ prayer indicates that the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego might actually serve as a faithful template for the normal Christian life.

Jesus is praying for His disciples, His friends and companions for the past three years. He is praying for their good, that they would stand and not fall, stay strong and not grow faint. He says to His Father, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (v. 15). In other words, He’s not asking God to remove or even turn down the heat in the furnace, only to protect His friends in the midst of it.

As someone prone to spend his days seeking out security and comfort, this prayer of Jesus leaves me feeling precarious. I want to read, “My prayer is that no harm will ever come to them, that the evil one would not even know where they live.” But this is not the reality in which we find ourselves.

The Christian life has never been free from trouble. We are rescued souls who stick around. We make our temporary homes right in the middle of this world’s brokenness, being sliced and scraped and barbed on the regular. We face disappointments and heartaches of every kind. We are opposed, ridiculed, and at times persecuted. Nowhere in Scripture are we promised an escape this side of death or Christ’s return. Instead, our path through this life has been marked by the One who has gone before us. Jesus says to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (v. 18).

Like Jesus before us, our purpose is to reflect the goodness, truth, and beauty of God with our very lives. Every encounter we have is an opportunity to allow the light of heaven to shine through us. And this light is all the brighter when we stand strong in the darkness. Perhaps that’s why God allows His people to walk through hardship and suffering rather than always making a way around it. Perhaps that’s why the furnace isn’t removed from our story.

The fire rages all around us, but we are not left alone. The Fourth Man walks with us, never leaving us nor forsaking us (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5). We are not promised immunity from the heat each and every time, but we are promised that nothing will ever separate us from the love of the Father (Romans 8:38–39). In that promise, we can say with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, “Our God is able to deliver us, but even if He does not, we will continue to trust Him!” The light that emanates from this kind of faith shines brighter than any flame.

What’s this all about?

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