Resisting End Time Pressure to Conform – Part 1

Dr. Rolf Sons

How does the Christian faith remain identifiable in a world that doesn’t consider itself Christian? How can it be recognizable and strong in a time that is increasingly turning away from Christian subject matter and values? How does our faith retain its shape, so that it doesn’t become assimilated or perish in the mainstream of society?

The questions posed are not new. Rather, they are as old as belief in the God of the Bible itself. At every time, faith in the one God of the Bible conflicts with other influences, attitudes, and behaviors foreign to biblical belief.

If we look in the Holy Scriptures, we see how the conflict between conformity and resistance is a constant theme of biblical faith. We encounter how Aaron, Moses’ brother, gives in to pressure from the people of Israel to blend in, and replaces the God of Sinai with an image of a golden calf. But we also see how Daniel and his friends withstand the pressure to conform at the Babylonian court, and do not abandon their Jewish identity. Through the prophet Jeremiah, it can be seen how his proclamation contradicts the words of the Zeitgeist prophets, and he has to pay for it with verbal abuse and suffering. A look at the Gospels shows us the incorruptibility and resilience of the Lord Jesus. Finally, Paul openly calls on the church in Rome to “be not conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2).

We will take a closer look at the prophet Daniel and his three friends. According to Gerhard Maier, the book of Daniel can teach us the meaning of trusting in God, obedience to God’s command, and faithfulness to the point of martyrdom. This book, which is mysterious in many ways, has a particular relevance today in two respects. First, it shows us how we Christians can live in the diaspora. Believers who are in the social minority and are exposed to the pressure of a non-Christian or anti-Christian public and society can learn from the Book of Daniel. Many Christians in Muslim countries live in a minority situation. But here in the West, we too are increasingly feeling the pressure to conform to the social mainstream.

The other thing we see in Daniel is the end times perspective. The Book of Daniel testifies to a strong hope in the coming Kingdom of God. This hope is accompanied by great upheavals. As Christians, we live in a comparable situation today. World empires come and go; our earth is shaken multiple times. But in the midst of all this we await God’s new world.

In five points, I will attempt to describe an end times lifestyle that defies the pressure to conform:

1. Remain firm in your heart. The Book of Daniel leads us into the tremendous upheavals of the Middle East in the 6th century BC. In the year 605, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptian superpower in the Battle of Carchemish, thereby rising to dominant rule of the region. En route back to Babylon, he first moves against Jerusalem, looting the temple and enacting deportation measures. Daniel and his three friends are deported to Babylon and subjected to a massive reeducation program at the court of the despotic king. Nebuchadnezzar is like the all-time tyrant. He is looking for young people who have no afflictions, who are beautiful, talented, and clever. He wants to bring them “into line,” so they will not only learn the writing and language of the Babylonians, but also will acclimate to Babylonian cuisine. Additionally, their names are changed. Daniel (“God is my judge”) soon becomes Belteshazzar (“Bel,” the pagan god, “will protect”). The conversion to the pagan diet is a serious test of faith for Daniel. The Babylonians eat animals that are considered unclean under Jewish law. They drink wine which has been dedicated to the gods and has been sacrificed in part. The question of food is not “adiaphorous” (a morally neutral matter). Rather, it relates to obedience to God’s commandment.

Daniel has learned and practiced Jewish dietary laws in his Jewish family of origin. Now he is under pressure to drop them. Daniel is facing a decision-making situation of great importance as a young person. Will he remain faithful to his religious beliefs, or conform to external circumstances and yield to pressure? We can also ask ourselves this question: Where are we as Christians being encouraged to adapt to the cultural context? Where do we have to differentiate ourselves and obey God rather than man?

Daniel has assimilated in several respects. He has to use pagan language, writing, and science. He is active daily in the court of the king, and maintains contact with people to whom his faith meant nothing. He experiences the pagan holidays, and is even addressed by a new name. Daniel lives in a completely pagan world. At the same time, Daniel makes a basic decision. He doesn’t want to defile himself. For all external solidarity with the pagan empire, he remains true to God in his heart. As it says, “But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank” (Daniel 1:8a).

Daniel has a firm resolve in his heart: he wants to stand by the traditions he has been given in his Jewish education. No one from the outside forces him to make that decision. Rather, he takes responsibility for himself at this point. He wants to remain faithful to his God, his faith, and his religious education.

Three lessons can be learned from this story. For one thing, we need a decidedly Christian, childlike nature. Children depend on roots they can remember. They need traditions, habits, and rituals that can help them later in life. In the age of so-called postmodernism—whose hallmark is, among other things, the complete abandonment of tradition—we face great challenges. How can we cultivate helpful traditions for ourselves and pass them on to the next generation?

What is more striking in this context is the fact that Daniel comes to his own decision. Tradition is easily taken over. Beliefs demand to be answered for. It is not enough to take on faith only externally. Rather, an “intrinsic motivation” is needed.

Finally, faith in a secular or even religiously pluralistic world necessitates decisions. Making decisions, however, means that a Christian does not just give in and drift with the current, but confesses and accepts responsibility.

Such a commitment requires courage. From the New Testament, we know that Jesus Christ acknowledges and blesses such a commitment (Matt 10:32). God also commits to Daniel. He not only earns the favor of the royal eunuch, but also is bestowed with health, well-being, and divine wisdom.

2. Obey God rather than man. In the second year of his reign (ca. 602), Nebuchadnezzar is deeply disturbed by a nighttime dream. The content of the dream is hidden from him. He therefore commands the wise men of his kingdom to communicate to him both the content and the interpretation of the dream. They are overwhelmed and must admit, “…It is a rare thing that the king requireth, and there is none other that can show it before the king, except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Dan 2:11). The representatives of pagan mysticism had reached the limits of their art, and confess that it needs the help of other gods, such as are unknown in Babylon. Finally, Daniel takes the initiative. Seeing himself and the pagan magicians in mortal danger, he turns to the king and asks for a reprieve to interpret the dream. Daniel calls on his friends. Together, they pray to God, who knows “deep and secret things” (2:22), so that He announces the dream to them. In a “night vision,” Daniel finally gains a formidable vision of the realms of this world and their decay.

Daniel’s dream interpretation has caused tremendous terror in Nebuchadnezzar. It is therefore understandable that Nebuchadnezzar is trying everything in his power to consolidate and unify his own empire. How could this be done better than through a major state act, in which he commits all subjects to the worship of a single god? Nebuchadnezzar makes a gold-plated statue, whose height is about 30 meters (100 feet) and whose width is about 3 meters (10 feet). Considering the slender dimensions, it may have been an obelisk. For the inauguration of this symbol of state and religious unity, he invites all provincial rulers and governors, as well as the representatives of the judiciary and the administration. The unity of the Great Empire is a priority task. The representatives of the individual regions of the empire are therefore obligated to worship the statue.

Now Daniel’s three friends are invited to the state celebration, in their function as district governors. As Jews, they are committed to the first commandment. Therefore, they refuse to worship the idol. Nebuchadnezzar hears this: “There are certain Jews [. . .] these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan 3:12).

What’s going on here is basically ridiculous. What are three men among thousands, maybe even millions of people worshiping the state god? Nebuchadnezzar’s empire represents the anti-Christian state. He perpetrates totality. He demands complete submission. Those who do not submit must give way, be marginalized, defamed, persecuted, or even killed. Here we come face to face with the essential characteristics of a dictatorship. History is full of them.

Today, we live in a democracy. It is governed with freedom of expression, tolerance, and liberty. Freedom always means freedom of dissenters. Nevertheless, even in our liberal society we are reaching our limits. There is something like an opinion mainstream that is hard to resist. Anyone who defies this mainstream and does not like everything that the masses or the social opinion-makers find good, soon experiences exclusion and defamation. Unfortunately, this is also evident in many churches and congregations. There is something like a political correctness of what one should say, write, and think, and what one should not. Examples of this can be found in the ecclesiastic and academic world. It is wrong, for example, if a mainstream denomination’s annual conference doesn’t allow a pro-Israel ministry to be represented. Likewise, it is wrong when a group which advocates treatment for those experiencing same-sex attraction, is allowed no space at one of these conferences.

We are currently facing a troubled situation regarding how to deal with Muslims. Who dares to say that the differences between Islam and Christianity are unbridgeable? Who dares to say that Christianity and Islam can never fraternize? Who dares to contradict the trend toward unification?

How can you resist conformity? Daniel’s three friends obey God rather than man in this situation. Where freedom of the gospel and of faith is at stake and threatened, this maxim applies. Christians are loyal to their country as long as they are free to express their faith. When this is denied, they have a higher loyalty to obey.

Midnight Call - 09/2018

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