Faith at work in Babylon
James R. Cochrane, Abbotsford, Canada [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
These men were lights in a dark world
In a pre-Christian world, Daniel and his companions were like salt holding back the moral corruption all around them. Daniel’s life of moral rectitude powerfully touched men in the court of king Darius to the point that they plotted to kill him. These Jewish exiles were a light from God in an ancient civilization, a light that could not be hidden. Powerful monarchs openly recognized this reality. Sadly, the rulers of that world may have been impressed, but they reverted back, in some cases repeatedly, to their old ways.
This does not mean that Daniel and his friends were not, at least for a time, a positive effect on these kings. But there is little to support the thought that they underwent a life-changing experience or made a whole-hearted commitment to God. Yet, Daniel and his friends’ witness for God was not in vain.
Paul shares a solemn thought concerning our witness for God in the world, writing, ‘Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place . . . For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?’ 2 Cor. 2. 14-16. Just like Paul and Apollos, some of us plant and some of us water what has been planted, but it is always God alone who gives the increase. We also know that not all obey the gospel. We can understand why Paul wonders who is adequate for a ministry like this. At the same time, Paul gives thanks to God knowing that in all circumstances God is leading His servants in triumph as they spread the news of what kind of God He really is regardless of how individuals react to the message.
Evaluating a faithful witness for God
What counts before God is how we live and witness for Him in a hostile environment. There is a danger of becoming bitter when we find ourselves in situations where there is no positive response to our message. A missionary couple who served diligently for many years without seeing fruit asked the question, ‘Have we wasted our lives?’ A young Christian couple poured out their lives for five years in a thankless, unresponsive congregation. The wife asked, ‘Do they even care?’1 We seem to think that conversions, baptisms and new churches are signs of a faithful ministry. Undoubtedly they are blessings from God but are they the only signs of a faithful ministry?
For most couples a family is a blessing they anticipate with joy. Elizabeth, of the family of Aaron, and Zacharias, a priest who served in the temple, were well on in years and had never been able to enjoy the blessing of having a family. Yet, the absence of a child did not produce in the couple a spirit of bitterness, for ‘they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless’, Luke 1. 6.
A faithful witness for God will bring honour to Him one way or another. While we all work for positive results there are many examples of those who respond negatively to God. What excuse will King Agrippa have before God in a day to come? Paul poured out his heart before the king in Caesarea?
What will the philosophers who laughed at Paul in ancient Athens present as their defence before Him? The derisive laughter that echoed in the Areopagus that day probably hurt Paul more than the beatings in Philippi and the threats on his life in Thessalonica and Berea.
It is not easy to witness when listeners make fun of you, when they openly laugh at you or they scoff and sneer at what you are saying.
Sergius Paulus, a case to encourage
There are also examples of a positive response to witness to encourage us to a greater boldness to tell others of the Saviour. On their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas crossed the island of Cyprus to the capital city of Paphos where Sergio Paulus was the Proconsul. When Luke describes Sergio Paulus as ‘an intelligent man’, he is describing him as a thoughtful, understanding man of discernment. Elymas the sorcerer fiercely opposed the gospel announced by Paul and Barnabas. God dealt with him making him temporarily blind, and Luke says that ‘the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord’, Acts 13. 12.
A few wonder if Sergius Paulus was just impressed and, being polite, agreed with Paul, for Luke does not say that he believed and was baptized. We should note that Luke treats this story the same way he deals with similar cases in the Acts. In Iconium,‘a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed’, chapter 14. In Athens ‘some men joined him (Paul) and believed’, chapter 17. In the city of Ephesus, ‘many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds’, chapter 19. Although baptism is not specifically mentioned in these cases there is every reason to believe that baptism followed a sincere profession of faith in Christ. This was the apostolic practice.
Paul shared directly the Christian message with the proconsul Sergius Paulus who was ‘astonished’ or, as PHILLIPS translates, he was, ‘shaken to the core at the Lord’s teaching’. RICHARD N. LONGENECKER affirms that Paul’s direct approach to the Gentiles was ‘the great innovative development of this first missionary journey’.2
In his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ERNEST TRENCHARD states, ‘There is every reason to think that the Proconsul really believed, being interested in the word rather than the sign’.3 Sergius Paulus is the first Gentile convert without any Jewish background in Paul’s ministry and it marks a turning point in his outreach with the gospel. It is interesting to find that the great scholar, SIR WILLIAM RAMSEY, is reputed to have found evidence that members of Sergius Paulus’ family later became prominent in Christian circles in Asia Minor.4
Encouragement to continue to be faithful abounds
The lives of Paul and his associates made an impact on the people they met during their missionary journeys and many of them believed the gospel. The lives of Daniel and his three friends in king Nebuchadnezzar’s court could not be ignored. The way we live, similar to these men of the past, is vitally important in God’s witness to the world today. Just because sometimes we see few positive results does not mean that our witness for God has been without value.
Paul says to the Corinthians, ‘be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord’, 1 Cor. 15. 58.
But a word of caution is in order. What the outcome will be of our witness in the world is something known only to God. Trusting in God, we are to live and witness and pray that people will believe God’s message and turn to the Lord Jesus. Men and women have served God faithfully in difficult areas of the world and eventually have witnessed great blessing. Others have served with equal or greater zeal and died as martyrs without ever seeing much blessing. Yet, whatever happens, Paul is right on target when he states, ‘your labour is not in vain in the Lord’, 1 Cor. 15. 58.
We have no reason to doubt that the witness by life and word in the case of Daniel and his friends was not in vain. I have a sense that Daniel and his three friends without ever hearing Paul’s words, ‘your labour is not in vain in the Lord’, knew this wonderful truth and, with confidence in God, they were sustained in their witness for Him in a pagan society. Daniel and his friends were men wholeheartedly committed to God. They were men of faith living for God in Babylon. They were men who left the outcome of their witness confidently in the hands of God.
To be continued.
- I am indebted to DAVE EGNER, Our Daily Bread, August 17, 2003, for these illustrations.
- RICHARD N. LONGENECKER, The Acts of the Apostles in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, General Editor, FRANK E. GAEBELEIN (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), p. 420.
- E. H. Trenchard in The New Laymen’s Bible Commentary, editors G. C. D. HOWLEY, F. F. BRUCE, H. L. ELLISON (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library, 1979), pp. 1359f.
- Quoted by TRENCHARD (See Note 5) with the source: The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 1915, pp. 150ff.
AUTHOR PROFILE: James Cochrane was commended to the Lord’s work in the Dominican Republic in 1950 and still visits there annually. He is well known throughout N. America for his oral and written ministry and comes to the UK for meetings every other year.