We’re going through a pandemic right now, and it has given us the opportunity to ask ourselves some interesting and challenging questions. Take, for example, the issue of closing churches. Here in Ohio, churches are exempt from the order to limit public gatherings to 10 people or less. This is a right and proper application of the separation between church and state. Most churches here moved online, however, following the recommendation of medical and legal counsel. This was also right and proper, for the Bible tells us to respect governing authority (Rom. 13:1-2; Tit. 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-17) and quarantine the sick (Lev. 13:46; Num. 5:1-3). Just in the last couple weeks, some churches are starting to reopen with social distancing and other precautions in place.
Things didn’t go so well everywhere. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to permanently close churches and synagogues if they continued to hold any services. In Mississippi, attendees of a drive-in church services were ticketed $500 for sitting in their cars listening to the pastor on the radio (the DOJ has stepped in on behalf of the church). Some consider churches “essential services,” some do not. Some try to use the crisis to discriminate against religious institutes, others work alongside and defend them.
Jesus warned there will be those who persecute His church. There will be people who try to stop us from meeting, preaching and worshiping rightly. It has already happened throughout history in various places around the world. To be clear, I am not saying encouraging churches to temporarily suspend in-person services during a pandemic is persecution. But this does give us a reminder that we need to be watchful and exercise discernment. This is a good time to ask ourselves questions like, How would we respond if churches were asked to close for a different reason? Or ordered to stay closed, as threatened in New York? What if we were told we could no longer own Bibles, as has happened in other countries?
I don’t bring up these sorts of questions to panic us, but to prepare us. We are told to watch and be ready, and it’s hard to do that if you’re not thinking of things that might happen in the future. We are living in the end times (as humanity has been since the first century per 1 John 2:18). This is a time for discernment and preparedness, and the current crisis can serve as a wake-up call for any of us who may have been growing complacent in the safety and freedom we’ve enjoyed for so long.
Obedience or Peer-Pressure
We all know the story of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the fiery furnace. They were young Jewish men originally named Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah whom King Nebuchadnezzar took with him to Babylon after he conquered Judah (Dan. 1:1-7). After several years, Nebuchadnezzar found them more knowledgeable and trustworthy than his own people and he set them “over the affairs of the province of Babylon” (Dan. 1:17-20; 3:12). When the king erected a pole of gold and ordered all to worship it, some saw this as a perfect time to take down those pesky Jews (Dan. 3:1-12).
When the king heard that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not obey his order to worship the golden pole, he reacted “in rage and fury.” This wasn’t just a question of faith. There was strong social, religious, and political pressure on these three young men to do as everyone else did, to worship as they’ve been told, to do the patriotic thing, and obey the king’s law. It would have been so easy to blend in and cave to all this pressure. The king even gave them a second chance to publicly prove they didn’t really mean to disobey him (Dan. 3:13-15).
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it happens, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” (Dan. 3:16-18, all quotes from WEB translation)
God saved these young men in a spectacular miracle. But they would have reacted exactly the same way even if the story ended with them as martyrs. The same goes for Daniel later in the story, when he continues praying even though he knows it means he’ll be thrown to the lions (chapter 6). What was it that gave these men what they needed to stand up for what’s right?
Purpose In Your Heart
This blog post is inspired by a sermon I heard a couple weeks ago (click here to watch it). In this message, Rabbi Hallbrook pointed out that the book of Daniel begins with another story of these four young men making a stand. After they were first brought to Babylon, the captives were fed from the king’s own store of food. Presumably, this included foods not acceptable for consumption under God’s law.
But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the king’s dainties, nor with the wine which he drank. Therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself. (Dan. 1:8)
You can read the rest of this story in Daniel 1:9-17. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah switched their diet to vegetables and water and they thrived. The key I want to focus on, though, is “Daniel purposed in his heart.” The Hebrew word for “purposed” is sum (H7760), and it means to set, appoint, direct, ordain, determine, make, or establish. There was careful planning and determined purpose in Daniel’s heart (Hebrew leb, H3820, inner man).
Daniel’s actions were based on knowledge and personal conviction. Like him, we need to know what we believe and resolve to follow God’s laws even when in the moment they seem inconvenient or exceedingly difficult. To quote one of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre, “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour … They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane.”
Be Ready and Watchful
Shortly after Jesus’s resurrection, the apostles faced a similar dilemma to that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. This time, it was the religious leaders who ordered them to stop doing something (preaching in Jesus’s name) rather than a secular/political leader ordering them to do something (bow down to an idol). Their response, however, is basically the same.
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:29)
You don’t have to have a script ready for every possible situation (Luke 21:14-15). But you do need to determine in your heart how you will respond if asked to choose between obeying human beings or obeying God. We must resolve to obey God rather than man (whether it’s an outside force or our own contrary impulses) no matter how strong the pressure may be.
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts. Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, with humility and fear, having a good conscience. Thus, while you are spoken against as evildoers, they may be disappointed who curse your good way of life in Christ. (1 Pet. 3:15-16)
There’s no need to be militant, foolish, or rebellious but we must be ready to stand. Be watchful, both of the world’s state and of yourself (Matt. 24:42-51). Pray for discernment, that you know when and how to stand up for what is right. We serve an awesome, powerful God. He has proved again and again that He is capable of bringing His servants through trials. If we trust Him, continue studying His word, and hold fast to His ways He will be faithful to give us discernment and to provide the strength we need to live in the way He wants us to.
Featured image credit: Anggie via Lightstock