Did you watch this recent video? A couple of campers in Botswana got a rather unpleasant surprise when they woke up to a lion licking the dew off of their tent. Watching the video it’s hard to imagine what it must have taken to sit quietly inside knowing and being able to see the danger that was only millimeters of thin plastic away. But it raises an interesting question. How are God’s people able to remain faithful and fearless in the face of danger?
The Scriptures are full of examples of God’s people facing great dangers and fears for their faith. The book of Daniel records two of the most widely known and memorable accounts of faithfulness in the face of fear.
The book of Daniel is a record of Israelites who were carried off to Babylon when king Nebuchadnezzar overran Israel. The first half of the book focuses on four friends. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
The account of what happened with Sadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is told in Daniel 3 and 4. The long and short of it, is that king Nebuchadnezzar set up a large golden statue that everyone was to bow down and worship, or face death in a fiery furnace. But these three friends refused to compromise their faith and worship anything other than the true God. When they were brought before the King Nebuchadnezzar, he gave them a final chance to worship before the golden idol. He told them,
“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?”
They replied and said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.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. 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.”
– Daniel 3:15-18
What happened next, no one could have expected. The three were thrown into the fire but they were unharmed by it, and there was with them in the fire another figure, one “like a son of the gods.” King Nebuchadnezzar called them to come out of the fire and the three friends came out without a burn or even the smell of smoke on their bodies. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remained faithful in the face of a terribly frightening situation. Daniel has his own harrowing experience in a lions’ den that is recorded in Daniel 6, for refusing to pray to anyone but God. And on that occasion God rescued him, as well.
In both of these cases, God’s people stood in the face of fear and were rescued. But as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faithfully proclaimed, even if God hadn’t rescued them, they would still have refused to renounce their faith in God. When it comes to persecution there isn’t always a happy ending. Sometimes the faithful suffer death for their faith, and their boldness in the face of death stands as an incredible witness to the truth.
Polycarp is one of those men. He met his death in 160 AD. Polycarp was an old man, at least 86 at this time, and probably the last surviving person to have known an apostle, having been a disciple of St. John. This was one reason he was greatly revered as a teacher and church leader. The account below is from a letter of an eye-witness to his death to the churches in the area.
“As Polycarp was being taken into the arena, a voice came to him from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp and play the man!” No one saw who had spoken, but our brothers who were there heard the voice. When the crowd heard that Polycarp had been captured, there was an uproar. The Proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On hearing that he was, he tried to persuade him to apostatize, saying, “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the Atheists!’”
Polycarp looked grimly at the wicked heathen multitude in the stadium, and gesturing towards them, he said, “Down with the Atheists!”
“Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.”
“86 years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
“I have wild animals here,” the Proconsul said. “I will throw you to them if you do not repent.”
“Call them,” Polycarp replied. “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil. I will be glad though to be changed from evil to righteousness.”
“If you despise the animals, I will have you burned.”
“You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”
– From The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Translated by J.B. Lightfoot.
Polycarp faithfully met his end in that fire. The question behind each of these stories, and others like them is, “What would possess someone to risk death in those terrible ways?” “How could they stand strong in the face of incredible fear?”
Jesus once told his disciples, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 10:28-33
Those men and women who have stood firm in their faith in the face of unimaginable fear did so because they knew this truth that Jesus spoke. They knew that their fate was in the hands of God, the maker of heaven and earth. And there is no better place to be.
There is a story told of a man who had just gotten married and was returning home with his wife. They were crossing a lake in a boat, when suddenly a great storm arose. The man was a warrior, but the woman became very much afraid because it seemed almost hopeless that they would safely reach the other shore.
The boat was small and the storm was really huge, and any moment they were going to be drowned. But the man sat silently, calm and quiet, as if nothing was happening.
The woman was trembling and she said, “Are you not afraid ? This may be our last moment of life! It doesn’t seem that we will be able to reach the other shore. Only some miracle can save us; otherwise death is certain. Are you not afraid? Are you mad or something? Are you a stone or something?”
The man laughed and took his sword out of its sheath. The woman was even more puzzled: What he was doing? Then he brought the naked sword close to the woman’s neck, so close that just a small gap was there, it was almost touching her neck.
He said, “Are you afraid ?” She started to laugh and said,” Why should I be afraid? If the sword is in your hands, why I should be afraid? I know you love me.” He put the sword back and said, This is my answer”. I know God Loves me, and the storm is in His hands.
So, when the lions come, in whatever form they take; fear not! Know that God loves you and they are in His hands.