This article is an adaptation from a lesson given on Daniel chapter 1 by Daniel Vincent found here.
Thanks to Andrew Warrick for his review and edits.
As for these four young men, God gave them knowledge and skill in all literature and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.Daniel 1:17 NKJV
Living in the world is not sinful
How does this section in Daniel apply to us as Christians as we are engaged with the world? Living in the world is not only permitted but is expressly God’s will.
“Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” Colossians 2:20-23 NKJV
Paul gives us a picture of what the life of a Christian is really like. This life is to be lived as a natural consequence from having true faith in the Gospel. As we live in light of the Gospel, our lives will look a certain way. Resting in anything other than Him is contrary to the gospel. “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Colossians 2:11-14 NKJV This is where our rest is to be found. Not in what we do, but in the work that Christ did. And so to fall into the trappings of verses 20 – 23 is contrary to resting in Jesus. The ESV renders “false humility” as “asceticism.” I think both translations carry the idea that there is this self-denial going on here that is not righteous, which could be evidenced in a life of a monk living in solitude from the world and exhibiting false humility by sleeping on cold floors, starving himself, etc. It looks good on the outside, but on the inside is foreign to what the gospel teaches. This individual will grow no holier leaving this world than when he is in it. In fact, Paul says that to live in such a way of self-denial does nothing to stop the indulgence of the flesh. It is an act in futility. It is the gospel or your own self-righteousness. You cannot have it both ways. The gospel is what frees us, not our own self-denial from the world.
“I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.” I Corinthians 5:9-11 NKJV
Living as a Christian does not mean that we completely avoid unbelievers. Paul is clarifying what he wrote to the church earlier. They were to associate with the pagan world around them. There was not to be such a rejection of the world that included staying away from unbelievers. We have to associate with them in order to function in society. There is a difference though in associating with pagans and becoming companions with them. There will be a sense at the very least where we will have pagan “friends” in as much as there will be common ground with others and frequent interactions (especially at the workplace), friendly conversation, etc. We shouldn’t avoid this kind of behavior and be rude or unkind. We are to still love our neighbor, and enjoying something in common that is a gift from God with a pagan is by no means sinful. Christians are also to provide for their families which entails us working with pagans on a frequent basis (for most of us, anyway). However, the line is crossed once they become our companions, our close friends who we hang with all the time. We must guard against this.
Gaining knowledge of pagan things is not sinful
Our passage here in chapter 1:17 of Daniel says that God gave Daniel and his friends knowledge in ALL literature and wisdom. This was not Hebrew literature but the pagan literature of the Babylonians. Mere knowledge of evil is not in itself sinful. And He said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” Mark 7 NKJV There is a parallel passage to this over in Matthew 15:1-20. Jesus here is discussing what really defiles someone. The Pharisees were all offended because the disciples were not washing their hands before eating. The Pharisees were always concerned with the outside, but inside were full of dead men’s bones. They had no concern with what really defiled a man. It is what comes from within, not what comes from outside of someone, that is the issue. Me, myself, and I are the problem. Jesus applies this to food, but given He contrasts food with the heart, the only necessary consequence we can come to is that this also applies to everything outside of us, even those wicked teachings and concepts that the world throws at us. This is how Daniel and his friends could learn all these pagan things and yet not be defiled by it. They saw these things in their proper place under the headship of their Lord submitting to Him.
Navigating the world as a Christian is by no means easy. Yet, we have Scripture to guide us with principles we can use to apply to all situations we will come across while living in the pagan world. Our Lord has overcome the world and has not left us to ourselves as to how it will be defeated. As we follow His example, we will live as pilgrims on our way to the celestial city.