Faith in the Furnace

We return to the story we were looking at from Daniel chapter three. King Nebuchadnezzar made a gigantic statue (of himself, most likely) and then forced everyone in his kingdom to pay homage to it. When they hear the sound of the horn, flute, base-guitar, pipe-organ and drum (not quite, but it fits with the story), every man and his dog is to fall facedown in front of it.

It might sound completely ridiculous until we consider what is happening in our world right now. Take North Korea for example, and Kim Jong-un’s farcical parades, with people in their thousands bowing down to his image. Or consider what is happening in our own backyard, with the forced veneration of the great god secular humanism and it’s empty rhetoric. It’s forced compliance of the populace. Bow down or else. And it is amidst these difficult circumstances God’s people have to make a choice: serve God or serve the system. Bow to King Jesus or a man-made substitute.

We are told in Daniel chapter 3 verse 7 when all the people heard the cacophony of noise they fell down on their faces. Nebuchadnezzar got the result he wanted.


Three were left standing. And it was Nebuchadnezzar’s cronies who spotted them. This is where the story really heats up (excuse the pun). The king’s cronies come slithering before the king and dob them in.

“There are some Jews you have appointed to manage the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men have ignored you, the king; they do not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” (vv. 11–12)

These are serious charges. This is high treason. So Nebuchadnezzar drills them; “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I have set up?” Picture in the background, in full view of all the furnace of blazing fire, belching smoke into the clear, blue sky.

“Now if you’re ready, when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, drum, and every kind of music, fall down and worship the statue I made. But if you don’t worship it, you will immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire—and who is the god who can rescue you from my power?” (verse 15)

It is right at this juncture that we come to the very heart of things. King Nebuchadnezzar is asserting his power over and above all other powers, including Almighty God. Yet these three young men calmly, confidently and courageously take their stand. They reply to the king,

“Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” (vv. 16–18)

This is beautiful, isn’t it? For three 17-year-olds, this is absolutely brilliant. Notice two things:

  1. Their absolute confidence in the power of God. “Our God… is able to deliver us.” We are utterly confident in God’s power. Nothing is too hard for him.
  2. Their complete submission to God’s will. “Even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve our god or ship the statue you have set up”.

Note that they don’t promise more than God promises (unlike many TV preachers of our day). They don’t presume to know God’s will in this matter. They don’t put words in God’s mouth. If God wants to deliver them, he can do it. But he may not. He is free to do as he pleases. “Either way, we want you to know, O King, we’re not going to do it. Read our lips. No. N-O.”

At this point, Nebuchadnezzar completely loses it. We’re told the expressions on his face changed (I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t smiling) and gave orders to heat the furnace seven times hotter than normal. Then he has the elite of his soldiers tie them up. Then he has them throw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in. The furnace is so hot, they are incinerated in the process. Look what happens next:

“Then King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in alarm. He said to his advisers, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?” “Yes, of course, Your Majesty,” they replied to the king. He exclaimed, “Look! I see four men, not tied, walking around in the fire unharmed; and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” (vv. 24–25)

So what’s going on here? Who is this fourth figure? Many are quick to declare this is a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus – the second person of the Trinity. We need to be careful at this point. The text does not actually say that. It could just as easily have been an angel. What is important here is to see when it came to the furnace – when we are in the midst of a fiery trial, God is with his people. The king then rushes to the furnace door and he calls out,

“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, you servants of the Most High God—come out!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out of the fire.” (verse 26)

He calls his officials to come and examine them. “Not a hair of their heads was singed, their robes were unaffected, and there was no smell of fire on them” (verse 27). They are utterly amazed.

God has shown King Nebuchadnezzar who is really in charge. The king had boasted, “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” The God of Israel delivered them out of his hands.


So what is the main lesson of this chapter? Simply this:

The Living God is able to deliver his children who refuse to serve other gods.
He is able to deliver them not just from the fire, but in the midst of the fire itself.

And how does it end? It ends with Nebuchadnezzar exclaiming loudly,

“Praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel and rescued his servants who trusted in him. They violated the king’s command and risked their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” (verse 28)

It’s hard not to read that with a sense of scepticism, isn’t it? We know you Nebuchadnezzar, and those like you, whose lips don’t always line up with their life.

“Therefore I issue a decree that anyone of any people, nation, or language who says anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego will be torn limb from limb and his house made a garbage dump. For there is no other god who is able to deliver like this.” (verse 29)

From fiery furnaces to being drawn and quartered. I fear that nothing has really changed for Nebuchadnezzar at all.

But I hope it has for you, after reading this story. I hope that you see that no matter how good you think you are, you are not good enough to save yourself from the furnace, the furnace of God’s judgement. I hope you see your need for a Saviour, and willingly give your life to him. And I hope that when the day comes when your faith is on trial, it will be the kind of faith that will enable to make you stand.


Why men are leaving the church (and how we might get them back)

We have a problem here in the West. Our men are leaving the church. Of course, huge numbers of men don’t even come to church. But that too is part of the problem. And for the few that do regularly attend, they are often bored and unengaged.

I called the men of our church together for a breakfast a couple of months ago (that’s about the only way to get men to come to something these days: feed them). When asked who the special speaker was going to be I replied, “I am. I’m going to talk about why men’s ministry has been failing and how we can get back on track.” Over 70 blokes turned up and we nearly ran out of food.

After some food and friendly talk, I got up and addressed them with some sobering news:

“In the UK, over the last 20 years, 38% of believing men left the church. For men aged under 30, nearly 50% left in the same period of time. I suspect the numbers here in New Zealand aren’t much different. We’re in a crisis fellas. And if we don’t do something about it, we’re not going to have any more men in the church – here at Grace or anywhere else.”

“OK guys, so tell me why you think this is the case. Shoot. There are no women here and the place is not bugged.”

Some hands immediately shot up. Here were some of the answers:

  • Men often find church a bit of a bore
  • Today’s church isn’t built for men, it’s built for women
  • Worship songs go too long and are all about feelings
  • Men aren’t good at small talk; women often are
  • There’s a lot of talk about being loving, caring and sharing and almost nothing about being strong, courageous or risking – the stuff men are wired for

I glanced down at my piece of paper. They nailed just about every point I had down. These guys aren’t dumb, I thought to myself. They see it.

“OK, I said, “So here’s what we’re going to do about it. This isn’t a silver bullet, and it might need tweaking along the way. But we’ve got to try something. Nothing going to change the way we are going.”

A plan for the future of men’s ministry at Grace. The small group ministries feed into the big events. The 4×4 groups are the heartbeat of the whole thing. Without them it will fall over.

I then gave them a vision for a way ahead for men’s ministry at Grace. Big events (like men’s breakfasts, fishing trips etc) are OK, but they don’t transform lives. Nor do they build close community. And if we are going to succeed, we have to build community. My plan was to have small groups of men – no more than four, meeting regularly together in their own time. The key is to get the bible opened – at least for a portion of the meeting. There’s where the transformational power lies. That’s how men’s lives are changed. Meeting together just to shoot the breeze (what we often call “fellowship”) just doesn’t cut it.

It looks something like this:

 – Plan a weekly meeting before work, after work or at lunchtime (max. 1 hour)
 – Share for a few minutes how your week has gone
 – Read a portion of Scripture together, out loud
 – Talk about what God is showing you
 – Pray for each other and leave

I then had slips of paper distributed to all the guys and had them indicate their preference for the day, time and area they would like to meet as a cluster. About 75% responded. Then, with the help of some others, we arranged all the men into groups. A number of them are now up and running. But the true test of whether it succeeds is time.

I met with my cluster group for the first time after work last Monday in the local Mall. One of the guys, Shane is a new Christian. After some brief introductions and ordering a coffee, we got down to business. I started by having us share our testimonies – the story of how we come to faith in Jesus. Then we opened the book of 1 John and read the first chapter out loud. I gave them a few minutes to look over the passage again and think about what it was saying. “OK,” I said, “so what is God showing you? What is this about?” After some discussion, we concluded the focus was on this word “fellowship.” But in amidst all this, a whole bunch of questions came up (mostly from Shane, who was eating this up) about the Word, the Spirit, the Trinity, the difference between disciples and Apostles – things that matter but we often don’t talk about. It made the discussion come alive and the two other men in the group – Gavin and Vern, were speaking into Shane’s life with God’s truth. I sat back and watched. If I could duplicate this 3 or 4 or 5-fold in our church I thought, we’ll turn this whole town upside-down.

It will be interesting where things might be 6 months or a year down the track. There are no guarantees. All I know is we have to try something.

I went to that cluster meeting a little apprehensive about how things would turn out and left walking on air. In talking about the meaning of true fellowship in the bible, we actually experienced it. I think this is how God intended things from the start.

Especially for us men.

Having the Courage to Stand

Daniel chapter 3 has to be one of the most well-known and most loved chapters in the Bible. It is not only interesting, it is full of satire. The author is having the time of his life poking fun at a king with an ego the size of an elephant and his pathetic little minions, who all bow down to his silly statue like puppets on a string. The only ones willing to stand up to him are three Judean teenagers who look him straight in the eye and say, “Sorry Neb, but we ain’t going to bow.” In the end, they are rewarded for their faith and God delivers them from the flames. “Hurrah for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego,” we say and then tell our kids to be good little boys and girls like them.

But is that really what the author wants us to take away from this? If we were to put the comedy and heroics to one side, we are left with some challenging questions. What if God decided not to deliver Daniel’s three friends from the flames? What if they were all incinerated – what would we tell our kids then? 275 Protestant leaders were burned to death under Queen Mary. What about them? Thousands of faithful Christians are burned, tortured and murdered in various places today. What about them?

Moreover, whenever we place ourselves in stories like this, our tendency is to align ourselves with the three young heroes. We prefer to see ourselves as faithful and courageous like them, and not like the mad king who erects idols of his own making. But when we look at reality – the things we buy, the things we love, the things we live for and are infatuated with, well – we see something quite different. These idols of ours are no laughing matter. They put us on the wrong side of God and make us objects of his fury. When faced with a different kind of furnace – the furnace of God’s wrath, who will save us then?

Let’s take a closer look at the story. Back in chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a statue made of different materials, which represent earthly kingdoms. Daniel interprets the dream and tells him he is the head of gold and other kingdoms will surpass him. Eventually, God’s kingdom – the stone cut without hands, would replace them all. The chapter ends with the king declaring to Daniel, “Your God is indeed God of gods, Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47).

Well, it looks very much like he’s changed his mind on all that because here we find that he has made a gold statue – of himself. His jaw-dropping 90-foot image, with the sun’s rays dancing off its gold surface, dazzled the minds of his subjects. They are all enthralled and don’t need much encouragement to fall flat on their faces in front of it.

It’s state-sanctioned idolatry. It’s forced veneration – of man and the things he has made. And we’ve seen many forms of it throughout history: communism and fascism and all forms of totalitarianism. Control the economy, restrict free speech, prohibit all opposition parties, and force every individual to comply. And they all have their venerated leaders – whether its Rome’s Caesar, Soviet’s Stalin, Germany’s Hitler, China’s Mao, Japan’s Emperor, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

Any religious practice that takes place in these regimes is either outlawed or very tightly controlled. Christians are permitted to worship freely in China for example – but only in the state-sponsored and state-regulated churches. Underground house-churches remain heavily persecuted. It is similar in some parts of the former Soviet Union.

And don’t think we safe from it here in the West. Belief in the God of the Bible is tolerated, as long as you keep your beliefs private. Keep it out of the public square, otherwise we’ll shun and mock you. We don’t want any of that prayer nonsense in our Parliament or Bible in our schools. In fact, we don’t want to hear anything about the bible at all – especially that rubbish about God creating us male and female. Talk to us about spirituality and getting in touch with your inner self. But don’t tell us there’s one way to God or in fact, that there is only one God. We simply won’t have it.

It might not be a 90-foot statue, but it’s forced compliance all the same. In the clash of kingdoms – the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms of men, we are left asking: “who has the courage to stand?”

From my vantage point in this safe little corner of the world in New Zealand, I’m really not sure. All I know is that most of us are lying low and trying not to attract too much publicity. I don’t think we’ve been tested severely enough yet. When we are, I have to ask myself, will I have the courage to stand? Will I be prepared, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, to stand my ground and say, “Sorry NZ, but I will not bow to your state-sanctioned, atheistic secularism.”

Think of the excuses Daniel’s three friends could have made:

“God knows the pressure we’re under. We don’t want to lose our witness. Let’s just pretend to bow”

“Sometimes you’ve got to compromise a bit otherwise people will think we’re too narrow”

“Imagine the good we can do if we keep our jobs. We can help people”

“Hey, everyone else is doing it. It can’t be that bad.”

Sound familiar? The call of Jesus seems pretty clear:

“If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. For what does it benefit someone if he gains the whole world, and yet loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and that of the Father and the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23-26)

There’s not a lot of wiggle room here. Jesus is calling us to thorough, uncompromising loyalty and devotion. So, when it comes to a choice between Jesus and the world, between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of men, and between biblical Christianity and human secularism, what will it be?

As one of my favourite lines of Bob Dylan goes, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.”

“Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua said to the people of Israel (who remained uncommitted and undecided, sitting on the fence). “As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14-15)

In my next post, we’ll look at what happens when three brave teenagers face the flames, for the glory of God. The results, as you will see, are quite encouraging.

This post was based on a sermon called “Faith in the Furnace.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

How long should a sermon be?

It’s a question that comes up in churches often: what is an appropriate length of a sermon? The conversation is usually sparked by someone in the congregation who has made a complaint that a sermon was too long. Complaints like these are a reasonably regular occurrence for the average pastor. Not once in my 25 years of ministry have I heard a complaint that a sermon was too short!

There are a few variables that need to be considered: what the church is used to, the maturity of the preacher, the spiritual maturity of the audience (believers or unbelievers?) and the particular culture. When visiting churches in Russia there appeared to be no time limit. In certain parts of the world where Christians are persecuted, people are starving for truth and you could probably preach all day.

In the context I was trained in (an educated, middle-class church in Southern California), 45-50 minutes was the standard fare. That’s what the church was accustomed to and what was modelled. But that doesn’t necessarily fit all contexts, and it certainly didn’t fit the context of my first church back here in New Zealand. I received immediate push-back from the congregation. But I was young and stubborn (as newly graduated, hot-headed pastors tend to be), and refused to budge. After a number of warnings from the elders I was finally given an ultimatum not to go over 35 minutes. I thought the world had come to an end.

But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to sharpen my messages, reduce content and be clearer and more concise. Introductions and illustrations were crafted more carefully, sentences were shortened, and vocabulary simplified. The result was my preaching got better and my listeners were happier.

Kevin de Young posted some thoughts on this subject a few days ago (in fact it was the impetus to write this blog – you can read the entire article here). Here are a few extracts from what he wrote:

“While guest preaching in a church several years ago I asked the senior pastor how long I should preach. He replied, “Five minutes shorter than you think.” He wasn’t trying to be mean. His advice was tongue-in-cheek. But it was also partly serious. He went on to add that he’d rarely heard a sermon that couldn’t have been better by being five minutes shorter…

We honour good preaching in our circles. And we should. Preaching is the lifeblood of the church. There is no greater calling than to herald the riches of Christ. But good preaching is not the same as long preaching. We love to hear of the Puritan preachers who turned over the hourglass and settled in for a second hour of sermonizing. Many of our heroes from ages past preached long, dense, wonderful messages. What we forget is that those congregations often complained about those sermons too!

More importantly, we overlook the fact that today’s congregations have books and podcasts and small groups and Sunday school classes and book studies and a host of opportunities to be instructed in the Word. The Puritans were preaching to many people who couldn’t read and who received all their Bible teaching from Sunday services (or pastoral catechizing). So a 30-minute sermon is not necessarily a capitulation to short attention spans. We live in a different time with different avenues for good Bible teaching.”

John Piper preaches for 30 minutes and I would consider him one of the best preachers in the world. There has been some great preaching that has come out of the Sydney Anglicans over the past years and seldom do their messages go over 35 minutes. I’m not talking about clever little homilies here with lots of stories to keep people entertained. I’m talking about well-formed, clearly presented expository sermons that unpack the meaning of the text.

As for myself, I have settled for messages between 35 and 40 minutes. I try not to go over 40 and find that my sermons are better when they don’t. That’s just me. Every pastor and preacher will find his own optimum length. And every congregation, over time, will get used to them.

I’ll conclude with the closing remarks of Kevin de Young. I don’t think I can say it better:

“Here’s the bottom line: there’s no need to preach for an hour when 40 minutes will do. The truth is most people will be glad for a shorter sermon. The parents with children in the pew certainly will be. Your wife just might be too. And the nursery workers will rise up and call you blessed.”

Bad Dreams – part II

In my last post, we were in Daniel chapter 2 looking at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. In the dream, he sees an enormous statue made of four different metals: a head of gold, a chest of silver, a belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet and toes of iron mixed with clay. Suddenly a stone, like a flying meteor strikes the statue at the feet, shattering the entire image. The pieces are blown away by the wind, leaving only the stone, which becomes a mountain which fills the entire earth.

The King gives orders and summoned the magicians, mediums, sorcerers, and Chaldeans to tell him the dream. But none of them could. Here is the most powerful king in the world, with all his wise man around him, in a fix. And it is the God of Israel who has put him in this fix, so the king might see that the gods and great men of Babylon ultimately know nothing and can do nothing. Only the Living God is all-wise and all-powerful.

But he needs Daniel to tell him that.

Daniel makes himself known to Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard. Arioch informs the king and the king calls Daniel in. “Are you able to tell me the dream I had and it’s interpretation?” Daniel replies,

“No wise man, medium, magician, or diviner is able to make known to the king the mystery he asked about… As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have more wisdom than anyone living, but in order that the interpretation might be made known to the king, and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind.” (Dan 2:27, 30)

Daniel recalls the king’s dream and then he provides the interpretation. He tells Nebuchadnezzar that he is the head of gold. God has given him sovereignty, power, strength, and glory. Wherever people live—or wild animals, or birds of the sky—he has handed them over to Nebuchadnezzar and made him ruler over them all (verse 37–38).

After Nebuchadnezzar, another kingdom will rise, inferior to his. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others (Daniel 2:39-40).

The statue represents four successive world kingdoms. Only the first one is identified: Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire. We learn from Daniel chapter 8 that the next two are the Medo-Persian and the Greek empires (ruled by Alexander the Great). The fourth kingdom—the mightiest of them all—is never identified. It is simply described as possessing the strength of iron and having the ability to crush its enemies. Historically, the legs of iron must refer to the Roman empire.

And what of the feet and the toes? Some commentators believe that refers to the break-up of the Roman Empire into the countries that now make up Europe and the Mediterranean basin – some strong and some weak. But we must be careful we don’t push things too far. When we push things beyond what we should we end up missing the point the author is wanting to make. And that point is this:

The kingdoms of this world will come to nothing;
God’s kingdom will last forever.

But it doesn’t end there. Look at what Daniel says next:

“In the days of those kings, the God of the heavens will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not be left to another people. It will crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, but will itself endure forever. You saw a stone break off from the mountain without a hand touching it, and it crushed the iron, bronze, fired clay, silver, and gold. The great God has told the king what will happen in the future. The dream is certain, and its interpretation reliable.” (verses 44-45)

The Bible speaks of a day of a stone that would be rejected by the builders but would become the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22). Isaiah prophesied that this stone would become a sanctuary for some but a rock of offence for others – it would cause them to stumble and be broken (Isaiah 8:14-15).

Some five hundred years later, Jesus comes to earth. The kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece are long gone. Rome now rules the world. The angel Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth to Mary: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.” (Luke 1:33) Some thirty years later, Jesus begins his ministry. He proclaims “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” But the kingdom of God does not come fully during Jesus’ lifetime. When Roman soldiers crucify Jesus, it looks like the kingdom of God has failed.

But it has far from failed. God raises Jesus from the dead, overcoming sin and death. When the disciples meet the risen Lord, they ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They didn’t realize that God’s kingdom will come in two stages: first as Saviour, then as King. Jesus sends his disciples on a mission: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The kingdom of God begins to spread to the ends of the earth.

At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he asks the crowd, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone… Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him.” (Matt 21:42–45) In the dream, the stone struck the feet of the statue so that the whole statue toppled and fell on the stone and was broken to pieces. The stone is Jesus. But it is also his kingdom. Through the proclamation of the gospel, the kingdom of God is growing. One day it will fill the whole earth, replacing all human kingdoms.


What was Nebuchadnezzar’s response when he heard Daniel’s interpretation? He fell facedown and declared aloud,

“Your God is indeed God of gods, Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, since you were able to reveal this mystery.” (Daniel 2:47)

The king who ordered Daniel’s execution now bows down to him, for Daniel represents this God of heaven. The king calls Daniel’s God “a revealer of mysteries.” Where Babylon’s wise men had failed, Daniel came through. Where Babylon’s gods were blind and inept, Daniel’s God revealed the mystery. Therefore, the king calls Daniel’s God, “God of gods.”

He is greater than the Babylonian gods.

This post was based on a sermon called “Bad Dreams.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

Don’t call me Naomi

This week I had the privilege of spending three days with a group of pastors and ministry workers on how to be more effective teachers of the Word. Our instructor was Todd Kelly, from LRI (Leadership Resources International). Todd is part of a unique organization that operates all around the globe, encouraging and equipping pastors in what they call a “Movement of the Word” (see here for its out-working in New Zealand).

It is all driven by a simple conviction: the Word of God is what creates, builds and multiplies the church. Many pastors forget this and find themselves wearing themselves out doing all kinds of things which are not bad in of themselves but cause them to neglect the main task to which God has called them to do. The result is their ministries are not effective. People do not experience lasting change.

So how then do people experience lasting change? When they are transformed inwardly by the power of God’s Spirit working through His Word. And how does this occur? When the ones teaching them are inwardly transformed by the Word themselves. God intends His Word not just to impart information, but to bring about personal transformation. It isn’t enough to be simply comforted or challenged by the Word; we need to be changed by the Word, as we are hearing it.

Pastors and Christian workers from Auckland, Cambridge, Palmerston North, Kapiti Coast and Nelson gathering for the first of the Ministry of the Word training sessions at Grace Church.

And that is exactly what Todd modelled for us over the three days he was with us. We immersed ourselves the entire time in one text: the book of Ruth. Todd didn’t lecture us. That is not what this is about. He guided us into a journey of discovery of seeing things that we don’t normally see. They didn’t appear instantaneously – and this was part of the lesson for us. It required patience.

We had to slow down.
We had to linger long in the Word.
We had to deeply ponder the Word.
We had to seek God for the answers.
Only then did the God-intended meaning appear.

Once we saw it, the experience was one so rich and rewarding, it had the effect of changing our hearts. We were being transformed – right then and there.

Let me share a little example from the first day. The book of Ruth opens with Naomi and her husband Elimelech leaving the land of Israel in search of food. They travel to the land of Moab and stay there. While they are living there Naomi’s husband dies and so does her two sons. She is left now with two bereft daughters-in-law. She can’t provide for them and she has no other sons for them. She informs these two young Moabite widows that it’s time for her to return to her homeland and they should stay and find new husbands for themselves. One of them kisses her goodbye but the other – Ruth, clings to her. And we have that wonderful declaration of loyalty:

“Don’t plead with me to abandon you or to return and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me, and do so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16–17)

We all love that part and tend to camp there. But as we were reading and thinking about this chapter we saw something that were a little disturbing. It was Naomi’s view of what happened in her life.

“My life is much too bitter for you to share, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me” (verse 13)

“Don’t call me Naomi . Call me Mara ,” she answered, “for the Almighty has made me very bitter.” (verse 20)

“I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.” (verse 21a)

“Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has opposed me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” (verse 21b)

We started thinking about this. If anyone in our congregation started talking like that we would book them in for counselling. They have a faulty view of God – and their own circumstances. They need their theology straightened out.

That’s our typical, knee-jerk response. That’s because we don’t understand people as God understands them. Nor do we deal patiently and gently with people when they are experiencing trauma and or going through a crisis. That’s why God puts people like Naomi in the Bible. It’s to help us be better shepherds and leaders of others.

We began to put ourselves Naomi’s shoes. She had just lost her husband and her two sons. She is without any security or hope for the future. She has no one to take care of her or provide for her. She is completely on her own. And we expect her to be upbeat? We needed to give this woman (and others like her), a break.

Todd then began to talk pastorally to us. “People who are going through trauma or experiencing great grief say things they don’t always mean. They know what they are saying isn’t completely true, but that’s the way they feel. We need to give them space. We need to give them grace.”

His words pierced my heart. He was right. I thought about how impatient I have been with my wife during some very difficult times in our lives. I thought about some of the times I’ve been insensitive to people in suffering over the years, thinking I was doing them a favour by correcting their theology.

“Don’t call me Naomi (pleasant), call me Mara (bitter).” Naomi was experiencing a crisis in identity. But don’t we all, at times, when we are down and out? “I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She had a homeland to go to. She had a lot of people who are excited to have her back. And she had a wonderful daughter-in-law called Ruth. But this is how she felt. And it’s OK – as long as she doesn’t stay in that place – which she won’t. Because God was about to do something wonderful in her life that was going to blow her socks off.

But if I wrote about that, it would be giving the game away. Go and read the rest of the book of Ruth and you’ll discover it for yourself.

Todd came to Leadership Resources in 2002, after 15 years of pastoral ministry. He brought his appreciation for expository preaching and a conviction of the life-giving power of God’s Word to his task of shaping Leadership Resources’ curriculum. He trains and equips pastors in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and has played a key role in forming crucial partnerships with other missions organizations.  Todd’s heart is, over time, to train and equip pastor-trainers for the Movement of the Word here in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Bad Dreams

Nobody enjoys bad dreams. I experienced some terrifying ones as a child. As I grew older, rather than diminishing they only escalated. This was partly due to a ritual of watching a late-night show called the “Sunday Horrors.” I would sit on the couch with a pillow nearby. Whenever the terror of what I was watching became overwhelming, I would cover my face with the pillow and then peep around the corner to see if the scene had finished. I watched this show week in and week out, not seeming to make the connection with the increased level of bad dreams I was experiencing and what I was watching.

One night King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream, and it wasn’t because he was watching too much bad TV. He woke up in a sweat. Nebuchadnezzar was a very successful general and the most powerful man on earth at that time. But here he is, deeply troubled. What is the meaning of these awful dreams? He saw a huge statue of a man. The man had a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Suddenly a stone, like a meteorite smashes the statue into powder. The wind blows the powder away. No trace of the statue is left.

What is this about? In the Ancient world people believed that the gods often spoke through dreams. Are the gods trying to tell him something? Were they telling him that he was that giant statue? Is there some enemy out there who wants to grind him to dust? What’s going on? So the King gives orders and summoned the magicians, mediums, sorcerers, and Chaldeans to tell him the dream.

Here come the wise men – those who are experts when it comes to dream interpretation. They are falling over each other to be first in line. It was an opportunity that was ripe for the picking. Once he told them the dream, they would spin some interpretation and cash in on his insomnia. They say to him in verse 4:

“May the king live forever. Tell your servants the dream, and we will give the interpretation.”

The king replies:

“My word is final: If you don’t tell me the dream and its interpretation, you will be torn limb from limb, and your houses will be made a garbage dump. But if you make the dream and its interpretation known to me, you’ll receive gifts, a reward, and great honour from me. So make the dream and its interpretation known to me.” (Daniel 2:5–7)

Nebuchadnezzar was no fool. He knows any one of them could fabricate an interpretation once he told them his dream. So, he calls their bluff. They claim to be in touch with the gods – well come on now, prove your stuff. They begin to sweat. This was not going to plan. It’s not just their positions and salaries which are in jeopardy, it’s their heads. They answer him,

“May the king tell the dream to his servants, and we will make known the interpretation.”

The king answers in verses 8-9

“The king replied, “I know for certain you are trying to gain some time, because you see that my word is final. If you don’t tell me the dream, there is one decree for you. You have conspired to tell me something false or fraudulent until the situation changes. So tell me the dream and I will know you can give me its interpretation.”

He’s not going to back down. Now they are getting desperate. The king’s demand is completely unreasonable. They are not diviners and prophets. They have no direct access to the gods. They exclaim in verse 10:

“No king, however great and powerful, has ever asked anything like this of any magician, medium, or Chaldean. What the king is asking is so difficult that no one can make it known to him except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.”

We find here, at this point in the chapter, where the tension is at its highest, the author makes the first of two important points. And the first one is this:

The gods of Babylon know nothing and can do nothing;
the Living God is all-wise and all-powerful.

The Babylonians were the most philosophically and scientifically advanced society of their age and believed the gods had ultimate control of events, so they employed a great army of analysts and consultants and what you might call ‘futurologists’ – those who have might have knowledge of such events. These men were experts not only in examining the skies for unique stars and comets but also the shape of animal livers and strange phenomenon, such as the birth of a two-headed calf or a shark without a fin. We actually have today stone inscriptions that have been found describing such interpretations. They would look back in the annuals of former kings and say, “Well back here the shape of the liver meant such and such so we can predict with reliability that now it now means such and such.” “We can see back here that this king had a dream; your dream is similar so therefore we can see that your dream means that such and such is going to happen.”

We find the same kind of ruse going on today, don’t we? We have our financial experts and analysts, the trend-spotters and political analysts and the management consultants who predict, with equal confidence and certainty, things that are going to happen.  Sometimes they get it right but most times they don’t. When something completely unexpectant happens they say, “we had no way of anticipating that” – which goes to show that ultimately they don’t know anything at all.  They are just as ignorant and powerless as the “wise men” in Daniel’s day.

When Daniel hears about the decree, he is not troubled; nor does he panic. He calmly and quietly approaches Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard and says, “why is the decree of the king so harsh?” Arioch explains the situation and Daniel goes to the king and asks him to give him time. Then he goes to his house and tells his three friends about the matter, urging them to pray and ask for God to intervene.

Daniel has bought himself a day’s stay of execution: 24 hours. Now everything rests on God mercifully and graciously providing the answer to the king’s problem. Daniel and his friends pray and then Daniel goes to bed. It’s now in the Lord’s hands. We are then told in verse 19, “The mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night”

Daniel responds with a prayer of thanksgiving. It is a remarkable prayer and gives us a glimpse into the heart of this young man and his view of God. It begins with:

“May the name of God be praised forever and ever, for wisdom and power belong to him” (verse 20)

Daniel prays that the name of God, that is, God himself, may be praised from age to age and generation to generation because “wisdom and power belong to him” Next, he explains and clarifies God’s wisdom and power.

“He changes the times and seasons; he removes kings and establishes kings” (verse 21)

In short, God is to be praised from age to age because he controls the seasons of nature as well as the history of this world. Next, he elucidates on this divine wisdom,

“He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals the deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him.” (verses 21-22)

God knows what is in the darkness. He knows what is happening now and what is going to happen. And God not only knows but also has the power to do something about it. That gives us great confidence and hope for the future.

There is a famous quote from A.W. Tozer that goes like this: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Great thoughts of God lead to great faith in God.

Big view of God = big faith.
Little view of God = little faith.

This prayer of Daniel tells us something about his view of God.  His following actions tell us something about his faith. It’s the kind of view of God we all need today, not just in the face of trials and suffering, but in everything.

In my next post we are going to learn the meaning of this dream of Nebuchadnezzar and the mysterious statue. It has huge implications not only for Daniel and his three friends, but for everyone today.

This post was based on a sermon called “Bad Dreams.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.