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.

No Turning Back

At our staff meeting this week Sean, our Youth Pastor recounted what his team did with the teens on Friday night. I was very moved by it and decided to write this post.  The theme for the evening was the Persecuted Church (a subject by the way, we seldom talk about today). He played a short film clip from Open Doors, an international ministry that serves the persecuted church.

It was a story about a young girl called Susan from Uganda. Susan is 14 years old and belonged to a strict Muslim family. One day a visiting speaker came to her school and spoke about someone called Jesus who claimed to be the Son of God and had come to save people from their sin. Right then and there, Susan made the decision to follow Jesus. When she got home, her father found out and was furious. On one occasion he dragged her outside, put a knife to her throat and said, “If you do not stop going to church, I will kill you.” But Susan didn’t stop. So her father took her to a room in their house where there was a mat on the floor. He told Susan, “Sit on that mat and do not move until you are willing to deny Jesus Christ.” He turned around, walked out of the room and locked the door. Susan stayed on that mat for 3 months. Eventually the neighbours found out and informed the Police. The Police came and when they found Susan, she was alive, but only just. When she was asked why she was in that room she answered, “My father said to me the day I move from that mat I deny Jesus, and I could not do that.”

After playing the video Sean spoke to our teens about the cost of being a Christian. “This is not a game,” he said. “We’re not playing around here.” He then had the teens bow their heads and asked who in the room, if they were to be put in Susan’s place, would stay on the mat for Jesus. Instantly, without missing a beat, about 8-10 hands went up. I found that hugely encouraging. Those young people get it.

But what about us? Do we get it? Later, Sean and I talked more about this over coffee. The problem with Christianity in the West, we agreed, is that it’s too easy. There’s no real cost. The only discomfort we suffer is perhaps social shunning – like being ignored or mocked (if even that). Compare that with what is going on in the rest of the world. According to research done by Open Doors, every month somewhere in the world:

• 255 Christians are killed
• 104 are abducted
• 180 Christian women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage
• 66 churches are attacked
• 160 Christians are detained without trial and imprisoned

All told, 900,000 Christians were martyred for their faith in the past decade. That’s more people in 10 years than all of church history. Meanwhile, Christians in the West sit in air-conditioned sanctuaries, sipping coffee while listening to a worship band playing through a $10,000 sound system, wishing they were fishing or at the mall. I hate to sound sarcastic, but I’m afraid that’s often the reality.

The problem is our faith doesn’t cost us anything. We read the statistics like the one’s above and shudder, thinking “I’m glad I don’t live there.” The ironic thing is, Christians in these areas hear about the condition of the church in the West and say, “I’m glad I don’t live there.” They don’t enjoy the pain of being persecuted, but they like the purity persecution brings.

While I was thinking about all this I stumbled across something else quite remarkable. It’s the story behind the song, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”

150 years ago, there was a great revival in Wales, England. As a result of this, many missionaries came from England to northeast India to spread the Gospel. The region was known as Assam and composed of hundreds of tribes. The tribal communities were quite primitive and aggressive. Naturally, they were not welcomed. One Welsh missionary finally succeeded in converting a man, his wife, and two children. This man’s faith proved contagious and many villagers began to accept Christianity. Angry, the village chief summoned all the villagers. He then called the family who had first converted to renounce their faith in public or face execution. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the man sung his reply, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back.”

Enraged at the refusal of the man, the chief ordered his archers to arrow down the two children. As both boys lay twitching on the floor, the chief asked, “Will you deny your faith? You have lost both your children. You will lose your wife too.”

But the man replied, again singing, “Though none go with me, still I will follow. No turning back.”

The chief was beside himself with fury and ordered his wife to be killed. In a moment she joined her two children in death. Now he asked for the last time, “I will give you one more opportunity to deny your faith and live.”

In the face of death the man sung, “The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back. No turning back.”

He was shot dead like the rest of his family. But with their deaths, a miracle took place. The chief who had ordered the killings was moved by the faith of the man. He wondered, “Why should this man, his wife and two children die for a Man who lived in a far-away land on another continent some 2,000 years ago? There must be some supernatural power behind the family, and I too want that supernatural power.”

In a spontaneous confession of faith, he declared, “I too belong to Jesus Christ!” When the crowd heard this from the mouth of their chief, the whole village accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

I encourage you to watch this video from Open Doors. In it Pastor Richard Kannwischer of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, tells this very story. It’s very moving and a sober reminder of the call of Jesus to count the cost of following him.


Operation Assimilation

The year is 605 BC. King Nebuchadnezzar, a proud and ambitious ruler, had defeated the Egyptian army and now sets his sights on the kingdom of Judah. He invades the city of Jerusalem, takes captive many of Jerusalem’s choicest young men and women and then marches them off to Babylon. Among those captives were Daniel and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t finished yet. The next step was to take these young, impressionable youth he had captured and stamp the core values of Babylonian citizenship on their minds and hearts. It’s a brilliant strategy: win over the best of the younger generation, and then let them build your empire for you. Nebuchadnezzar was not the only one to do this. Powerful dictators and conquerors had been doing it for centuries.

There were four strands to his strategy. The first was ISOLATION. We see this in Daniel chapter 1 verses 3-4:

“The king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and from the nobility—young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the Chaldean language and literature.” (Daniel 1:3–4)

Nebuchadnezzar removes these boys (the Hebrew term for “young men” refers to individuals as young as 14 years of age) from their families, their fathers and their elders – the people of influence in their lives. They will no longer hear the Torah, or the name of Yahweh. All they will hear is the names of the gods of Babylon.

The second strand in his strategy is EDUCATION. They were to be taught in all the language and literature of the Babylonians, which is short-hand for all the cultural and ethical value systems of the day. It would have involved training in omens, incantations, prayers to the Babylonian gods, myths, legends, scientific formulae, witchcraft, astrology and religious education classes that would make your hair stand on end.

Nebuchadnezzar’s program didn’t stop in the schoolroom. There was a third part or strand to his strategy: ENTITLEMENT. Look at verse 5:

“The king assigned them daily provisions from the royal food and from the wine that he drank. They were to be trained for three years, and at the end of that time they were to attend the king.” (Daniel 1:5)

So here they were having dabbled in front of them all the delicacies and titbits of the finest of Babylonian cuisine. The life of privilege. Everyone secretly covets it. But entitlement always comes with a price.

And then finally, the king applied the last and most devastating strand of his strategy: IDENTITY CHANGE.

“Among them, from the Judahites, were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The chief eunuch [literally – “set upon them”] names; he gave the name Belteshazzar to Daniel, Shadrach to Hananiah, Meshach to Mishael, and Abednego to Azariah.” (Daniel 1:6–7)

Now in our day and age, names don’t really mean a lot. You can tell that by some of the names given to newborns today. They don’t really mean anything; they’re just trendy. But that wasn’t how it was back in Daniel’s day. Names said something about your identity.

Daniel’s Hebrew name – Dan-i-el means ‘God is my Judge.’ Hananiah means ‘Yahweh is gracious’. Mish-a-el means ‘Who is what God is?’ And Azariah means ‘Yahweh is a helper’. Now you couldn’t have these youths wandering around the Babylonian temples with names like that. So their names were changed to fit the religious culture of Babylon.

  • Daniel became Belteshazzar which means ‘Bel, protect his life!’
  • Hananiah became Shadrach meaning ‘Command of Aku (the Moon God)’.
  • Mishael becomes Meshach meaning ‘Who is like Aku?’
  • Azariah becomes Abednego, which means ‘Servant of Nebo’.

The story doesn’t end here however. A remarkable thing happens in the narrative:

“Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief eunuch not to defile himself.” (Daniel 1:8)

Now why at this point does Daniel and his three friends decide to make a stand? Well, we might say the food wasn’t kosher, that is, it wasn’t prepared according to Jewish dietary laws. But how come they refused the wine also? Perhaps the issue was the meat and wine had been first offered to idols. But that would be the case with the vegetables as well.

There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to their actions. They were willing to cooperate with the changing of their names, so that they walked around the king’s court with names that spelled out allegiance to a foreign god, but they were not willing to compromise with the eating of the king’s meat and the drinking of the king’s wine. They were prepared to take classes on Chaldean astrology and witchcraft and yet they insist on becoming vegetarians.

The answer is, there came a time where these men needed to put a stake in the ground, and at that point, trusting that God was in control and would take care of them, they took their stand.

And God rewarded them for it. Look what follows in the rest of the chapter:

“God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch” (verse 9)

“At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food.” (verse 15)

“God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom. Daniel also understood visions and dreams of every kind.” (verse 17)

It was God who granted Daniel favour in the eyes of the chief eunuch. It was God who look better and healthier than all the others who ate the king’s food. It was God who gave them incredible wisdom and knowledge. It was God who elevated them to positions of influence. It is a good reminder that God honours faithfulness.


We learn in this chapter that in the clash of two kingdoms – the kingdom of God the kingdoms of this world, there is only One True King who rules over all. And he will enable his people – should they remain faithful, to stand. We learn also that what really matters in God’s kingdom is not who we are or where we are, but what we are. It is our character and our faithfulness.

By the rivers of Babylon

While in Europe a few years back, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit a former Nazi concentration camp.  Dachau was the first “test case” of the Nazi camp system.  We walked slowly through, following the footsteps of the poor souls that entered there some 75 years prior.  Our guide described their experience.  Wagon loads of Jews, Poles and political prisoners were offloaded from the train station and then marched through the streets to the camp which was located some 8 km away.  Upon entering the main gate, they were lined up and forced to listen to a long tirade by a Nazi officer that they were worthless scum, that all commands must be obeyed unquestionably, and insubordination of any kind would be met with a bullet to the head.  This was followed by camp registration.  All personal belongings (personal ID, photographs and documents) were handed over and in return you were given a number.  This was your new identity.  You were then shaved, showered and handed prison clothes.  This would be your new life.  Few survived and those that did lived with the scars.

This was the kind of experience (with a lesser level of brutality and cruelty), that Daniel and his three friends would have endured when their homeland was invaded, and they were hauled off to become subjects in a foreign land.

Their captor was king Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.  Nebuchadnezzar was proud, ambitious and in the year 605 BC he was building one of the greatest empires of the age.  In the spring of that year he defeated the Egyptian army at the Battle of Carchemish.  Then he turned on the kingdom of Judah and invaded the city of Jerusalem.  He took captive many of Jerusalem’s choicest young men and women and marched them off to Babylon, to the house of his god (Daniel 1:2) and he put the vessels from the temple of Jerusalem in the treasury of his god.

Babylon was the capital of the empire and the greatest city of that age.  Everything about it spoke of Gentile power and glory.  The city was the largest of its time, covering 850 hectares (over 2000 acres).  Herodotus, a Greek historian in 450 BC, said “Babylon surpasses in splendour any city in the known world.”  Its outer walls were 100 metres high and ran over 80 km in length.  They were wide enough, that if you went on top of them two four-horse chariots could ride side by side.

Daniel and his fellow exiles would have been led through the Gate of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war and then down the famous procession way.  All around them were magnificent buildings, palaces and temples (53 in total).  And towering above them all, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  It was the Paris and New York of the ancient world and would leave any one of us dazzled at the sight.  But there was nothing about it that was dazzling to these captives.  It filled them only with sorrow and despair.  We get a sense of that sorrow from Psalm 137 with the song of the captives:

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1–4)

It is the last line of this song that becomes the central issue of the book of Daniel: how can Daniel and his fellow captives sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?  And it becomes the central issue for us as well.  Because this land that we live in, that was once permeated with Christian thinking, that held to moral values the Western world was once founded on, now appears to be very strange to us.  Our universities are influenced by liberal agendas, our politics dominated by a secular worldview, and our nation is devoid of Christian thought.  This is modern Babylon.  The question Daniel and his captives faced is the same question we face: how are we to sing the songs of the Lord in this strange land?  The book of Daniel gives us the answer.  The first clue is given to us in opening verses.  We read,

“In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it. The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God…” (Daniel 1:1–2)

It is right here, at this juncture, that we find the main lesson of the chapter, which is also the lesson of the entire book: no matter what earthy kingdom is strutting its power, God is in charge and he will enable his people to stand.

Daniel knew there was nothing accidental in the lives of God’s people.  He was there for a purpose.  God was at work behind the scenes.  God was in full control.  And it was precisely that he was convinced that God was in control that enabled him to make the stand that he did and become salt and light in a hostile environment.  As a result, Nebuchadnezzar – as well as countless other men and women in the Babylonian court, heard about the God of Israel and witnessed his saving power.

Babylon was to be the scene of Daniel’s lifelong service to the kingdom of God while living in a foreign land.  He would demonstrate, along with his three friends, what it means to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.

In my next post, we are going to see something of the strategy Nebuchadnezzar used to accomplish complete global dominance.  It’s called operation assimilation.  And we are going to see how Daniel and his three friends, trusting that God was in full control, use courage, wisdom and faith to evade it.

This post was based on a sermon called A Tale of Two Kingdoms. It is the first of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.