Readings: 2 Chronicles ch.23; Daniel ch.4; Acts ch.2
These emblems around which we have gathered once again this morning speak to us of the steadfastness of our Lord right to the end. You will remember that the apostle John, introducing the account of the last supper, wrote: "... having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end." He unflinchingly followed the path marked out for him by his Father. Throughout his ministry he continued without respite the exhausting task of bearing witness to the purpose of God. He gave all that he had, all his time, all his energy, all his thoughts to the work which God had given him to do, and when he was faced with the supreme test, when he was called upon to suffer the bitterest agony and degradation at the hands of wicked men, he still went forward and fulfilled that mission which he had come to perform.
It was because of that, because he saw the work through, that he was raised again from the dead and ascended into heaven, and now sits at the right hand of his Father, glorified in power and immortality; and it is because of this that we are here this morning, related to his work of redemption and having hope of sharing his glory and power in the age to come. The fulfilment of that hope depends upon our following his example in this respect, upon our maintaining the same steadfastness right until the end of our probation.
In our readings for today we can find much to exhort and to instruct us in our endeavours to do just this. We find examples of those who did succeed and of those who failed, and by considering the reasons for their success or their failure we should find much help in maintaining our steadfastness in these last days. Now, as we have been reading those records in the books of Chronicles, we have probably noticed how often in the case of the kings of Judah they started off well but fell away towards the end of their lives. The kings of Israel, of course, were almost without exception evil, but of many of the kings of Judah it is written: "He did that which was right in the sight of the Lord," and then follows a qualification, "but not with a perfect heart," or "except in the matter of so-and-so" and there follow details of how he subsequently departed from the ways of God.
For example, in chapter 16, which we were reading a few days ago, we read of Asa, an exemplary king for most of his long reign of forty-one years; and yet we are told that in the 39th year of his reign, only two years before the end of that long reign, "he sought not to the Lord." Again, of Joash, of whom we commenced reading today, we are told that "he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest," but we know that after Jehoiada's death he turned to idolatry and even slew Jehoiada's son. Again, Amaziah, "he reigned twenty and nine years ... and did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, but not with a perfect heart," because towards the end of his reign he "turned away from following the Lord." Likewise his son Uzziah received the same commendation in regard to the earlier part of his reign and yet we read that "when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the Lord his God, and went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense."
So here were four men € and there were others € who commenced well, men who lived most of their lives doing that which was right in the sight of the Lord, but who did not hold fast right to the end. So we ask the question, Why did these men, having lived a good life for most of their time, fall away at the end? We can see the reason, we think, if we carefully examine the life of any one of them. Take, for example, Joash, of whom we have commenced reading today. Saved from assassination when a baby, he was brought up by his aunt and her husband, Jehoiada the priest. At the tender age of seven years he was placed upon the throne, again as a result of careful preparations made by Jehoiada, and during most of his reign of forty years he received the wise counsel and godly guidance of this faithful man, who lived to the ripe old age of 130 years. But as soon as Jehoiada was dead, we are told, "the princes of Judah came, and made obeisance to the king." The king hearkened to them, and the result was that he turned from the Lord and served groves and idols.
The fact of the matter is that there was no depth to his character, there was no inner conviction. He was quite all right while there was a strong man to lead him and guide him, but left to himself he showed just how weak he really was, how easily he could be led astray by evil men. Perhaps the truth is that, like Uzziah, his heart was lifted up. His new found independence lifted him up with pride to his own destruction.
How different was the case with that faithful group of exiles of whom we are now reading in the book of Daniel. Daniel and his three friends were taken from their homes at a tender age. They grew up into manhood, not in the house of a loving aunt and uncle, but as captives in a foreign land. Right from the start they had made it clear that they had principles to which they would stick, whatever it might cost them. Now, at the time of which we are reading in the book of Daniel, they had been elevated to positions of honour and influence. From being captive slaves they had been set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, among the rulers of this mighty empire which held sway over the whole of the civilised world.
There are probably few greater tests of faith for a servant of God than to be raised to a position of honour and eminence.lt provides temptations unknown to those of lower estate. There is, for example, the natural desire to do the right thing in the eyes of one's contemporaries, to please the one who has bestowed the honour, to earn the praise and respect of those over whom one holds sway. These things alone are sufficient to cause a man placed, as were Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, in the midst of a heathen kingdom, to deviate from the path of righteousness and true holiness. But in their case there was even more than that. They were fully aware of the consequences of offending, even in the very slightest manner, the mighty monarch they served, let alone defying his express commandments.
Let us consider for a moment that incident of which we were reading yesterday, the setting up of that great golden image and that decree which went forth that all people should bow down and worship it, and the fiery ordeal to which Daniel's three friends were subjected for refusing to do so. It is highly probable that the setting up of this image and the issuing of this decree were instigated by those who were jealous of the rapid advancement of Daniel and his friends, in the same way that, later on, Darius was persuaded to sign that edict which resulted in Daniel being cast into the den of lions. Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that these three men knew that once that edict had been issued it was irrevocable and that there could be no escaping from the punishment which had been decreed for disobedience.
So let us just try to enter into the thoughts of those three men as they listened to the herald proclaiming the decree. I suppose it is very difficult to imagine a comparable situation in these days, but let us make the effort to imagine what our thoughts would be if we knew that by refusing to obey some new law issued by the powers-that-be, we would be, shall we say, shot at dawn tomorrow € and even that would be a less horrible prospect than being thrown into a blazing furnace, the prospect which faced these men. In such a situation what would you do? Would you search for some justification for complying with the decree? Would you plead for exemption from such a law? Or would you have the strength, the courage, the fortitude to refuse to comply? Surely, to do that would require a very real faith. It would require an utter and firm conviction of the power of God and of the lightness of the stand we were taking. Remember, these men were twice tested. Having at first refused to comply with the decree, they were then brought before the king himself and given another opportunity of complying with his command. What was their reply when confronted by the king himself? "If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up."
Yes, that was it. What of the consequences? God, in whom they trusted, had created the fire. Why, the breath of the king himself was in God's hand, and if it should please the Almighty that they should perish, then they knew that their obedience would insure for them a better resurrection. It was surely upon those lines that the thoughts of these three men ran as they stood before the king and openly defied his command.
Well, we know the sequel, and because we know the sequel we may not always fully appreciate how great their faith must have been to enable them to remain steadfast in the face of this test. Yes, here we have men who were able, like our Lord himself, to look to the end. They were able to look beyond the immediate crisis, beyond the bitter suffering with which they were confronted € beyond these things to the time when they would stand upon the earth no longer the victims of the spite and jealousy of evil men, but endowed with the power and the strength of the Almighty.
It was this same strong inner conviction, this same faith and hope, which sustained the apostles, of whose experiences we have now com-menced reading in the Acts of the Apostles. Having received that assurance from the two angels as they witnessed our Lord ascending into heaven, that assurance that "this same Jesus" would return, they then set about that gigantic task of convincing men and women of the truth of the hope of the gospel. In doing so they knew, as those other men knew, that they faced bitter hostility from those in authority. They knew that naturally speaking they were completely at the mercy of their enemies. They knew that they might be called upon at any time to pay the supreme penalty, as indeed many of them actually did.
In those circumstances, how did they set about this task which had been laid upon them? Did they say, 'Well, we will carry out this work of preaching the gospel, but we will do it quietly and privately so as not to give offence to the priests and the rulers; surely it is far better to act like that and be able to carry on with the work, than to throw away our lives and thus cause the work to cease'. Was that their line of reasoning? We know it was not. "We ought to obey God rather than men", was their retort when forbidden to continue their preaching. They had been commanded by their Lord to go out into the world and preach the gospel. They had been commanded to bear public witness to his Messiahship, and to have done less would have been to deny the one whom they served. To have kept silent or to have concealed their work would have been an acknowledgement, in effect, that God's will is subject to the will of men. But these men had faith in the power of God to accomplish His work despite the hostility of their enemies. Whether they imprisoned them or killed them would make no difference. God's purpose would be accomplished, and their own salvation, because of their steadfastness, would be assured.
Yes, how powerful was their assurance as they set about this work! We remember how they declared to their accusers: "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Spirit, which God hath given to them that obey him."
The grounds of our assurance are exactly the same as those of the apostles. We meet here this morning around these emblems to bear witness to the fact that God has raised up Jesus, that God has exalted him with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour. But let us ask ourselves, does this assurance imbue us with the same zeal, with the same enthusiasm, with the same unflinching loyalty to our Master, as that which moved the apostles nearly two thousand years ago? Are we imbued with the same conviction of God's power and of God's promises that enabled Daniel and his three friends to defy the king's decree? These men were prepared to go on right to the end, whatever the end might be, and because of that they were able to face death and imprisonment with equanimity. Why was it? It was because they served God with their whole heart, and they were thus able to look forward with confidence to the enjoyment of a full reward.
What exhortation and encouragement this provides for us! For us, of course, the chances of having to face death or imprisonment for the Truth's sake are remote, yet the need for whole-hearted service to God, for strong and unswerving faith in His promises and power, is as great today as ever it was. We in these days stand on the very threshold of the greatest crisis in the world's history. The political rumblings in the world around get louder and louder, leading up to the last great conflict between the nations of the world. Yet the approach of this crisis has been marked in some quarters by a waning of zeal, a growth of world-liness, a slackening of diligence by those bearing the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us try to remember that lesson which comes out from the exam-ples we have looked at, particularly from the book of Chronicles, that it is not sufficient to do that which is right in the sight of the Lord, unless we continue to do so right to the end. Many, such as Joash and the other kings of Judah to whom we have referred, failed for this very reason.
Rather let us look to the example of Daniel and his three friends, of Peter and the apostles, and, of course, of our Lord himself, all of whom kept their eyes firmly fixed upon the hope set before them; and it was because of this that they were able to withstand the trials and the temptations which beset them and to maintain their integrity before God.
The time before us now may well be very short indeed. Trials may lie ahead of us even yet; and even if they do not, there is the constant temptation which comes from the evil world in which we live. May each one of us, by thinking about these examples which we have looked at this morning, remain steadfast right to the end, looking forward to that glory and immortality which our Lord now enjoys, and which will be ours if we remain faithful and confident in the power of God to keep us from all evil.: € A. Hone