Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Living As Exiles - Lessons from the Book of Daniel

I believe there are aliens on our planet. They look like normal human beings, but in fact they are under the control of a leader who is not on planet earth. And His goal is world domination. And His alien underlings are on a mission to bring everyone in the world under His control! They are everywhere – there are some in America, even here in Middle Tennessee. In fact, there are many right here in this room! I am one of them!

Well of course I am not referring to little green men – but to Christians. Scripture uses the language of “strangers and aliens” to describe our status as Christians who live in a world that is not truly our home. Passages like 1 Peter 2:11, which in the NASB says:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.

Other versions say: “sojourners and exiles” (ESV).

Since the New Testament often uses descriptions of Israel in the OT to describe the church, it only makes sense that the NT writers would also employ the language of the exile to describe the status of Christians living in a world whose values and morals are foreign to them. As the old spiritual says, "This World Is Not My Home I'm Just as Passing Through." We are natives of this world, but we have been transformed by Christ, raised and seated with Him in heavenly places.

Col. 3:1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Or to put it as Paul does in Philippians 3:20, our citizenship is no longer here, but in heaven.

The passage that I especially want to focus on as we think about being exiles or aliens is 1 Peter 2:11-17:

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

In this passage Peter gives three basic commands to his readers, the “sojourners and exiles” living in the world but not of the world.

First, he tells them “abstain from the passions of the flesh.” One of the most difficult things Christians in the first century faced was the vastly different outlook their culture had on human sexuality versus the standards of godliness and holiness. Perversion was not only pervasive, in some of the pagan religions perversion was a religious duty. First century Greco-Roman culture was even more saturated with the lurid and obscene than our own time, if that’s imaginable. So it was crucial to remind the early Christians, as Peter does, that one of the primary ways our alien status must demonstrate itself is in the area of moral purity.

Second, he tells them to “keep your conduct among the Gentiles [in other words, pagans] honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” The early Christians were indeed spoken against, slandered as atheists because they denounced the officially sanctioned gods of the state; haters of mankind for shunning social gatherings like the gladiatorial contests at the Coliseum, as incestuous cannibals for gathering in private with their “brothers and sisters” to eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus.

In that climate, it was imperative that the early Christians live in such an exemplary way that there could be no shred of truth to any allegations of dishonorable behavior. But the goal of this concern for Peter is not their own personal exoneration – it was so that when they were vindicated, their accusers would become confessors, and glorify God on the day of visitation.

There is a third command in this passage. First, abstain from fleshly lust. Second, keep your conduct honorable. And third, “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him.” It would be very tempting to think as a Christian in the first century that since Jesus and not Caesar was the real Lord and King, that you could just ignore what Caesar said. Among the Jews, some took this a step further and openly and violently rebelled against Rome. But that is contrary to what Jesus taught His followers, whom He commanded to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21).

Indeed, not only should Christians obey the law and pay taxes, but also as Peter says at the end of verse 17, “honor the emperor.” “Honor” is a deeper, higher response than grudging obedience. And this kind of respectful citizenship is part of what Peter calls the “will of God” in verse 15, and living as “servants of God” according to verse 16.

So as aliens, Peter says we are to live in purity; behave honorably; serve respectfully. What I would like to do now is look at a book written during Israel’s own period of exile, and see how Israelites living in a foreign land conducted themselves in the very way Peter exhorts all of us to live. And the classic illustration of how to live as exiles is the Book of Daniel.

Let’s begin our look at the story of Daniel with a little historical background. The last years of the kingdom of Judah were marked by political vacillation, as the leaders of the nation had to decide how to deal with the growing threat of Babylon. Some leaders chose a pro-Babylonians policy, while others tried to stand up to Babylon (spurred on by promises from Egypt of assistance, which never came). The last of the righteous king of Judah, Josiah, refused alliance with Egypt, and actually went to war with Pharaoh Neco, losing his life in the process. The Egyptians retaliated by removing Josiah’s son – Jehoahaz - from the throne, replacing him with a king of their choosing, his brother, Eliakim, whom he renamed Jehoiakim. Needless to say, this did not sit well with Egypt’s rival to the north, Babylon, and in 605 BC its new king, Nebuchadnezzar, marched in Jerusalem. As 2 Kings 24:1 records: "In his days, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his servant three years."

This is where the story of Daniel begins. Daniel 1 says:

1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

Nebuchadnezzar gave orders to take some of the royal family and nobility, which served a dual purpose. On the one hand these young men essentially became hostages, giving the Babylonians leverage in case Judah rebelled again. And on the other hand, these boys would be useful tools for diplomacy.

The fact that Ashpenaz, “chief eunuch” (1:3), was given charge may imply the boys were to become eunuchs, as Isaiah prophesied (“And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon,” Isa. 39:7). They were to be the cream of the crop in every way according to verse 4, and to prepare them for the future role as government officials, they were immersed in Babylonian culture (1:4-7), including a new language, a new diet, and new names.

Since naming something or someone is an act of authority, it was common practice in the ancient world to re-name a foreigner under your sovereignty (Joseph became Zaphenath-panea, Gen. 41:45; Haddasah became Esther 2:7).

Just as many Hebrew names contain the name of God (El for Elohim, or iah for Yahweh), the new names given by the Babylonians reflect their many gods:
-Daniel (God is my Judge) – Belteshazzar (Lady of Bel protect the king)
-Hananiah (Yahweh is gracious) – Shadrach (fearful of God or command of Aku)
-Mishael (Who is what God is?) – Meshach (I am of little account or who is like Aku?)
-Azariah (Yahweh is a helper) – Abednego (servant of Nebo)

Imagine being a thousand miles away from home, immersed in a completely foreign culture. As exiles in a climate so hostile to their convictions, how could Daniel and his three friends maintain their commitment to God? What we will see in Daniel are the very same principles we saw in 1 Peter. Though Daniel and his friends lived centuries before Peter wrote his letter, the same fundamental principles apply in their day, in his day, and in our day.

Abstain From Fleshly Lusts
First, consider Peter’s admonition to abstain from fleshly lusts, to live in purity. The issue of purity comes front and center immediately in the Book of Daniel.

1:8 But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.

Daniel did not want to eat the royal diet because he believed it would defile him. Why did he fear this? Part of the reason may be the kosher laws in Leviticus 11. Since the Law gave a strict guideline for what could be eaten, Daniel may have felt the safest course in a strange country may have been to avoid everything but vegetables and water. This doesn’t seem to fully explain why Daniel did not want to drink the wine, which was allowed under the Law, but it may have been a big factor in his concern.

Another issue to keep in mind is the connection in the ancient world between food and idolatry. Even in the NT period Paul had to warn the Corinthians about eating in pagan temples. Perhaps Daniel thought that the meat and wine would have been part of pagan sacrifices, and he did not want to be defiled with eating something used in idolatrous worship.

And it may have just been that Daniel wanted to reserve one part of his life from Babylonian influence so that he would not become completely defiled as a pagan. He spoke their language, learned in their schools, bore their name. At least he could draw the line at what he ate.

Whatever the specific issues were in Daniel’s mind, he was convicted about the need for purity, and God blessed him as a result.

9 And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, 10 and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, "I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king." 11 Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 "Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see." 14 So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food. 16 So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.

Daniel knew there was a war for his soul, that he needed to take drastic measures to make sure he did not defile himself. Do we have the same vigilance in our determination to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul? What measures have you taken to protect yourself from impurity?

It is very tough to be a Christian, to be an exile. Those of you going back to school, if you go to a school like I did, will find very few friends who will share your convictions about holiness. How seriously are you going to take the war you are in? What steps will you take like Daniel to protect your virtue? Because if you don’t realize your are in a fight, you have no chance to win.

Conduct Yourself Honorably

There are two stories in Daniel that are great illustrations of what Peter talked about in 2:12 – turning slander into praise through honorable conduct. Both are stories involving idolatry.

In Daniel 3 Nebuchadnezzar set up an image (perhaps inspired by his dream in Dan. 2) which he demanded be worshipped, at pain of death.

4 And the herald proclaimed aloud, "You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, 5 that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace." 7 Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

As devout believers, Daniel’s friends could not obey this command, which quickly came to the attention of some of the Babylonians:

8 Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews. 9 They declared to King Nebuchadnezzar, "O king, live forever! 10 You, O king, have made a decree, that every man who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image. 11 And whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace. 12 There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up."

This enraged Nebuchadnezzar, who ordered them brought in to face his interrogation.

14 Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, "Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?" 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, 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. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up."

What conviction! We don’t need to make a lengthy explanation – we will not bow down, and though our God can save us, even if He doesn’t, we will not compromise!

You can imagine Nebuchadnezzar is not used to being told no, and he explodes in a furious rage.

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. 20 And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21 Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. 22 Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace.

And you know the rest of the story. The boys are unharmed - to the extent that their clothes don’t even smell like smoke! And not only that, but God sent an angel to be with them, a true "day of visitation," which Nebuchadnezzar was astonished to see. And just as Peter said, by behaving honorably in the face of accusations, these young men led a pagan king to glorify God:

28 Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, "Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way."

The other story that illustrates this truth comes much later in the time of Daniel, at the end of the 70 year captivity. The Persians conquered Babylon in Daniel 5, and in Daniel 6 the new Persian leader retained Daniel in his administration. I have no idea how old Daniel was at the start of the book, but by Daniel 6 he was 70 years older – maybe he was close to his 90s.

The Persians were pagans just like the Babylonians, and in Dan. 6 they issued a decree demanding prayers be made to the Persian king. But this decree was prompted by jealousy:

4 Then the presidents and the satraps sought to find a ground for complaint against Daniel with regard to the kingdom, but they could find no ground for complaint or any fault, because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him. 5Then these men said, "We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God."

Can you think of a better description of honorable conduct than this?

And once more, Daniel refuses to bend his beliefs to conform to his surroundings:

10 When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. 11 Then these men came by agreement and found Daniel making petition and plea before his God. 12 Then they came near and said before the king, concerning the injunction, "O king! Did you not sign an injunction, that anyone who makes petition to any god or man within thirty days except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions?" The king answered and said, "The thing stands fast, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be revoked." 13 Then they answered and said before the king, "Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or the injunction you have signed, but makes his petition three times a day."

And once more, a pagan king imposes a severe penalty for disobedience, ordering Daniel into the lion’s den. But early the next morning when he came to see what happened, Daniel greeted him:

22 My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm."

Daniel’s actions were blameless, in the words of Peter, his behavior was honorable. And the result once more was praise in the “day of visitation”:

25 Then King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth: "Peace be multiplied to you. 26 I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel,
for he is the living God,
enduring forever;
his kingdom shall never be destroyed,
and his dominion shall be to the end.
27 He delivers and rescues;
he works signs and wonders
in heaven and on earth,
he who has saved Daniel
from the power of the lions."

Notice – it wasn’t just that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego or Daniel were vindicated, though they were. In fact Daniel’s accusers get the treatment they sought for him. But the real issue is that God was glorified – by pagan kings no less!

We are in a foreign land, and if your friends know you are a Christian, you better believe they are looking for opportunities to attack your conduct. Why? Maybe the same kind of jealousy that prompted the Chaldeans and Persians to snitch on Daniel and his friends. What a wound it is to the name of Christ when will give them ammo! It is tough to live under that kind of scrutiny, but the payoff is enormous! Leading unbelievers to glorify God!

So our goal should be that if we are attacked, it will be for the same reasons as Daniel: we shall no complaint against Shane unless we find it in connection with his God. And then by our faithfulness, lead our friends to glorify our Father!

Be Subject

It may very well be that the toughest thing Peter told his strangers and exiles to do was to be subject to every human institution. Tough because their leaders were often corrupt and demented (that’s what years of inbreeding does to people!). And these instructions are even tougher for us, because we live in a nation born in rebellion to monarchy.

But imagine how tough it was for Daniel and his friends. The Babylonians were their enemy. Took them hostage – fancy way of saying they kidnapped them. During the time they were in captivity, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem twice more, undoubtedly killing some of their loved ones, sacking their capital city, and destroying their temple.

How would you have felt about the Babylonians? Would you have protested? Formed a resistance movement? Tried to assassinate the king?

Daniel and his friends did just the opposite. They served the king with loyalty and brilliance.

1:18 At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. 19 And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king. 20 And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom. 21 And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus.

And after Daniel interpreted his famous dream in Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel, who in turn promoted his friends:

2:46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. 47 The king answered and said to Daniel, "Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery." 48 Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. 49 Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained at the king’s court.

When the regime changed hands, the Persians also recognized Daniel’s stellar leadership:

6:3 Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other presidents and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom.

Why do you think Daniel and his friends gave such devoted service? What did Peter say: 13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake …16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.

They did it for the Lord’s sake, as servants of the living God.

2:20Daniel answered and said:

"Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
21 He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
22 he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him.
23To you, O God of my fathers,
I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and might,
and have now made known to me what we asked of you,
for you have made known to us the king’s matter."

We have a unique situation in our country in that theoretically we are the government. We are a democracy, a special kind, a representative democracy – a republic. We delegate to those we elect, and we owe them the kind of respect Peter says every human institution deserves. Not just when we like the leaders, or agree with them.

Isn’t embarrassing to see the news reports about chaos and violence at these townhall meetings? The complete lack of civility and respect for people of different opinions? Isn’t hard to reconcile that kind of conduct with 1 Peter 2, or Paul’s request for prayers I 1 Tim. 2-

1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

So much of the dialogue in our political process today is dominated by who can be the loudest, the most hysterical, who can distort the other person’s position to the most grotesque extreme.

This is unbecoming of Christians. And this is why I say this could be the most difficult thing the Bible teaches about being exiles. Because I have opinions, strong ones, about politics, and about our leaders. And I often disagree with them. But I don’t respect them for their sake – I respect them for the Lord’s sake – just like Daniel.

As far as we know, Daniel never returned to Jerusalem. He lived out his life as an exile in a foreign land. But even if he had made his way back to Jerusalem, he would not have been home. Because his home, and ours, is with God.

The only thing that remains of the kingdoms Daniel served is artifacts in museums. Babylon and Persia are no more. And some day, all that will be left of the republic now known as the United States of America will be displays in a museum. That is just the nature of human history. But since we are not ultimately citizens of America, but rather our citizenship is in heaven, we have nothing to be afraid of. We are exiles, members of a kingdom that cannot be shaken, serving a King who will never be deposed by an enemy, but who will some day defeat every enemy and subdue every rebel.

Heb. 13:14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.


  1. It is interesting to notice that Daniel and his companions weren't too standoffish to accept the Babylonian names, which included the names of Babylonian idols, and also their Babylonian education. However, they drew the line, of course, when it came to contaminating themselves and bowing down before images. In the same way an advanced secular education need not be rejected today, nor names that might reflect pagan origins. But at all costs, we must avoid the contamination of this world and worship of its idols.

  2. Good article Shane!

    I just wish more Christians could get beyond the Americanized version of following Christ, which is national idolatry. Far too many would defend the 2nd amendment before they would contend for the true faith. Wake up Christians! You are not your own, you were bought with blood; not a soldier's but with Christ's own blood. The USA does not own you and you owe allegiance to no man!