Some wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking to find one who had been born King of the Jews. This was a gutsy question, considering they’ve come into the capital city of Herod the Great, who has been King over the Jews for more than thirty years. But the magi know that Herod, who had been put on the throne by the Romans, is an Edomite of Arab descent and, as such, is an illegitimate king. So they come and ask this powerful king, where is the one born the true king of the Jews, for we have come to worship him? Not surprisingly, King Herod, by nature already paranoid and suspicious, was deeply disturbed and angry.
But who were these men? From the east. There is only one clear and obvious place this could be. If you leave Jerusalem and head east, you cross Arabia and come to Babylon, to the land of the Persians.
They are wise men, magi, or mages, astrologer-philosophers and advisors to the royal court. Persia was the home of Zoroastrianism, a somewhat monotheistic religion anchored in astrology and mysticism. As men of great intellect and insight, the magi sought to discover the destiny of their kings in the movement of heavenly bodies. Now a divinely appointed star in the heavens had brought them to Jerusalem to worship the king of the Jews.
But how did they know about this infant king? Why would they care, much less undertake the arduous trek along the trade highway to come worship a foreign king in a foreign land? How did they know and why did they care?
To find the answer, let’s load up on the iPad of our mind a video clip of history and journey back over 500 years. Here we find a Jewish man who has risen to a position of great influence and prestige. Darius the Mede, King of Babylon, has just promoted Daniel to be a ruler over the whole kingdom. Daniel was second only to the king himself.
Over the preceding years in the Babylonian court, Daniel had gained a great reputation as a wise man, a mage, in his own right. He was not a disciple of Zoroaster, but instead devoted to Yahweh. He was not a reader of the stars, but an interpreter of dreams. And so Daniel did time and time again what none of the king’s other wise men could ever do. The One who made the stars was the One who gave him the insights into the dreams of kings. And it was this One to whom Daniel knelt in prayer every day. His insight came not through his intellect, which was great, but through his great love and devotion to God.
Other men grow jealous of Daniel’s success. Plotting and intrigue were afoot in the court and one day Daniel found himself facing a difficult choice: stop praying to Yahweh and bend a knee only to the king or face certain death. When Daniel heard the news, he went to his house and, exactly as he he had done every other day, got down on his knees before God. Before nightfall, he was in the lions’ den.
The next morning, King Darius, a friend of Daniel, is relieved to find Daniel alive and unharmed. And so he issues another decree that “everyone throughout my kingdom should tremble with fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God and he will endure forever!”
But this wasn’t Daniel’s first experience with such stark choices and dramatic consequences. Let’s slide our video back just a bit more to Daniel’s youth. Here we see four young Hebrew men, handsome, highly intelligent, skillful, and bursting with potential. The Babylonian custom in conquering other nations was to bring the brightest and best young people back and raise them as scholars and leaders for Babylonian society. It’s how you cultivate the cream of the crop from across your empire. Daniel, along with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are chosen for such privileged preparation. They are to be given the best accommodations, the best education, the best food and clothing, the full riches and pleasures of the king’s court.
Daniel, however, resolves that they will remain pure and not defile themselves with privileges and pleasures of the king. As a result, God gives the young men great learning and skill in literature, wisdom, and knowledge. When the time comes for them to be tested before Nebuchadnezzar, he finds them ten times better than all his other wise men. They are given positions of leadership and influence, Daniel in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, and the other three throughout Babylon.
Like with Darius, though, political and spiritual opposition arises. A decree is passed, the people are assembled and ordered to worship before a ninety-foot tall golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel is apparently elsewhere at the time, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down to the statue. They are hauled before the king and threatened with instant execution if they will not bow. But again they refuse, so they are thrown into the blazing hot furnace. There, as you may know, God miraculously protects and delivers them. Nebuchadnezzar, seeing this powerful divine intervention, brings them out of the fire and promotes them to an even higher place of authority in the province. He then issues another decree declaring the supremacy of the God of the Jews and proclaiming praises of the Most High God! Just as Darius will later, Nebuchadnezzar also now bows before Yahweh.
In these two snapshots, four young adult men, perhaps not much older than many of you here, stood strong and tall in the face of a culture that demanded they give in to the appetites of the flesh and bow down in worship to a false god, even while everybody around them was rushing and clamoring to do just that. Can you imagine how hard this was? How easy it would have been to just give in, to go along, to rush forward with the tide of culture and social pressure. Imagine the temptations in their hearts and minds: We are special, were are elite, we are the gifted. We deserve the opportunities, we ought to have the privileges and riches being offered to us.
What conversations might they have had? Do you think they realized what was at stake? Hey, guys, if we don’t bow down here, we will lose this opportunity for a great future, we will lose our place of influence, we will lose our positions or power. We could lose our scholarships. We could lose our place on the team. We could lose our friends. We could be mocked or killed! All we have to do is say yes to culture. It’s easier to conform, to just go along with the crowd. Especially when you are at the top. But Daniel, Shedrach, Meshach, and Adednego stood firm, they stood tall, they stood alone.
How did they do it? It was not the superiority of their intellect, not their skills in debate or their persuasive rhetoric. It was not their creativity or passion. It was not their GPA or SAT scores. They could stand tall because of their love and devotion to God. They could stand tall because their intellectual gifts had been surrendered to the God who had given them.
And because these Jewish young men living in the midst of a hostile culture stood tall, the kings of Babylon and Persia bowed before the God of the universe. Five centuries later, wise men from this same land, bearing in their history and cultural heritage this story of Daniel, would see a star, rightly interpret its meaning, and come seeking to bow down in worship before the baby they recognized to be the true king of the earth.
When culture demands you bend your knee to idols — and it is — or that you proclaim as true that which is false — and it is — or that you celebrate and cheer while society rushes headlong into destruction, how will you stand? It will be only because of your love and devotion to God; only if you have an intimate walk with Jesus, only because your your absolute reliance and trust in him, that you will be able to stand.
We are facing a watershed moment in our nation’s existence. Some of you may sense that just as your parents and I do. If our culture is to be saved, it will be only God who delivers. But if it happens, how will it come to pass?
It will come because young men and women like you, handsome and beautiful each in your own way, talented, gifted in intellect and intelligence, bursting with creativity, passion and skill choose to live first and foremost out of love and devotion to God.
Pursue intelligence, persuasive speech, wisdom, and knowledge! By all means, pursue these. Develop these gifts! But anchor that in a deep and abiding love of God. Do not pursue the one without the other. The Apostle Paul was himself a brilliant scholar and thinker, trained by some of the best Greek minds of his day. Remember his words from 1 Corinthians 13: if we have the wisdom, intellect, or great powers of persuasion but are without love, we are merely harsh, clashing, clanging metal noise, we are nothing, we are useless.
Your intellect can make you great, but it will not make you good.
You may win debates and have the right ideas, but that does not mean you are righteous.
Your resume and academic accomplishments can give you a great career, but they will not guarantee you godly character.
Instead, “fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Follow the example of Paul and “count everything as loss for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus as your Lord.” Love God not only with your mind, but with all your soul and heart.
If you possess great talent, gifts, and intellect, but are not living out of a deep love of God, like Nebuchadnezzar, you will in time come to expect and demand that others bow down before you.
But if you will surrender your talent, gifts, and intellect to God and pursue a love of him above all else, you will be ready and able to stand strong in the onslaught of a hostile culture. When you and other young men and women like you will stand strong in your love of God, through you, just as with Daniel and his friends, cultures, nations, and kings will someday bow before the King of all Kings.