Urban ministry in the book of Daniel: A Babylonian1 model

Learn how ministry in an ancient city is a model for mission in today’s city.

The seventh-day Adventist Church has long promoted urban ministry in seeking to fulfill God’s plan to reach all people for Jesus.2 Clfff Jones states, “Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is an urban book that was written in the urban Near East.”3 Biblical support for urban ministry may be found even in the unlikely book of Daniel.

Daniel wrote his book in the heart of the great city of Babylon. Babylon was not only a great city but also a powerful dynasty4 that was prosperous and secure.5 Archaeological finds illustrate how King Nebuchadnezzar had the resources to embellish his kingdom. A German excavation team demonstrated this through its discovery of the Ishtar gate.6 In dealing with urban ministry in the book of Daniel, we need to address the following questions: (1) Who will minister to the King Nebuchadnezzar thought leaders of our day? (2) Who will speak for God to the teeming millions of contemporary Babylon city dwellers? (3) How successful can urban ministry in Babylon really be? (4) Can principles from yesterday’s Babylonian city apply to urban mission in these last days?

What God needed then

 During Nebuchadnezzar’s first trip (605 b.c.)7 to besiege Jerusalem, Babylon’s ruler brought the best people he found back to Babylon. Daniel records, “Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance [וְטוֹבֵ֨י מַרְאֶ֜ה8]and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:3, 4).9 Here Nebuchadnezzar instructed Ashpenaz to select the best for his kingdom. He chose young people from among the royal and noble families. They were to be physically without blemish and good looking, excelling mentally, and able to learn for the benefit of the king and his kingdom. In addition, Nebuchadnezzar took into account social status. Those “chosen were the most likely to be natural leaders, from the royal family and the nobility, and had already demonstrated intellectual prowess.”10

The king regarded such qualifications as important for the success of his kingdom. “These captives were choice young men both physically and mentally and as such, they could be an asset to the king’s palace.”11 In the eyes of the king and possibly those surrounding him, the royal court needed people of superior physical and mental abilities. Physical appearance, social status, and mental qualifications mattered; contemporary thought leaders desire no less.

We should note that the king was concerned about more than just the secular success of his kingdom. He planned to have them reeducated “intellectually and treated royally. Several aims were in view, e.g. religious re-programming (language, literature, and diet all carried religious as well as cultural meanings) and a ‘brain-drain,’ which would simultaneously weaken the prospect of a capable future leadership among the Israelites and potentially strengthen Babylonian society when the process was completed (5b).”12 He developed a curriculum to train and equip his recruits. Daniel and his friends went through a special program for three years before the king evaluated them. So in both secular and religious matters, Nebuchadnezzar regarded education as vital.

 What God needs now

 Daniel and his friends demonstrated what it means to be urban ministers.13 They first modeled integrity. Through their uncompromising determination to stand for God, even to the point of death, they reached through to the heart of the king and that of his kingdom.

Not only did Nebuchadnezzar change Daniel and his friends’ names but he also put them on a royal Babylonian diet. While Scripture does not indicate that they rejected their new Babylonian names,14 they did resist the imposed diet. “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank” (Dan. 1:8). Their reasons for avoiding the diet assigned them were motivated by biblical opposition to (1) unclean food, (2) meat offered to idols,15 and (3) strong drink.16

Those working in urban areas must always be aware of what they can or cannot do, recognizing the things that they have control over and those that they do not. In the process, they need to “interact with the surrounding culture, yet they must also know when it is time to stand against it.”17 Daniel and his friends did not compromise their faith but, rather, stood for what they knew was right. Such a stance is crucial to working in urban areas. Never did Daniel and his friends compromise their faith or truth as they sought to reach the people in their particular urban ministry. Urban ministers can either shine or shrink. The city or urban areas need men and women determined to honor God as they proclaim the name of God by their words and deeds.

Second, they modeled commitment. The narrative of the golden image and Daniel and his friends’ faithfulness to God is a popular one. Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abed-Nego) stood firm while the “the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces” (Dan. 3:2, 7) fell down and worshiped the golden image. They did not let the presence of influential people sway them. God, who looks not on the outward appearance but on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), can work through those who remain true to His name. Daniel would display the same commitment to God in chapter 6.

Thus, both Daniel and his friends suffered persecution because of their faithfulness to God. They would rather die than dishonor him. Lifestyle evangelism characterized the urban ministry of this small group in the huge kingdom of Babylon.

Third, they modeled faithfulness. When Daniel and his friends faced a life-threatening situation because of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, one that nobody could interpret, this small group of young urban workers reached out to the Lord in prayer (Dan. 2:17, 18). They sought Him for the solution to their dilemma. He answered their prayers and blessed them.

Urban workers need to depend on God. They need to consult Him first and foremost. God has demonstrated over and over that He is a prayer-hearing God, ready to guide His children as they labor for His cause.

Finally, Daniel, as an urban worker, exemplified humility. He did not take the credit due to God when he was brought to the king. Instead, he explained to Nebuchadnezzar, “ ‘There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. . . . But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind’ ” (Dan. 2:28–30). When urban workers take the credit belonging to God, pride will replace the humility in their hearts. And pride always leads to a fall. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).

Uncommon submission, unexpected surrender

What was the outcome of the urban ministry of Daniel and his friends? Daniel 4 records Nebuchadnezzar’s final and thorough conversion.18 God did His best to reach the king through the second dream, and He was successful. In the end, the king glorified the God of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. He recognized the Lord as the King of kings. Nebuchadnezzar also came to consider himself as nothing. On the other hand, in Daniel 5, the chiastic and thematic parallel of Daniel 4, indicates that Belshazzar hardened his heart despite the fact that he knew what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar.

In Babylon, these ancient urban ministers or workers not only committed themselves to live the Word of God but also preached it without hesitation. As a result, the conversion of Nebuchadnezzar can be traced back to the godly lives that they exemplified, the messages they preached, and the strong call of God through dreams. In doing urban evangelism, the physical, mental, social, and spiritual qualifications (including but not limited to humility, love, trust, and integrity) of workers are as needed today as during Daniel’s time.


Daniel and his friends demonstrated how to be successful urban ministers in the great city of Babylon. They (1) promoted mental health, (2) exemplified physical health, (3) modeled spiritual health, (4) promoted integrity, and (5) elevated commitment.

God declared to “the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon ”. . . “ ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ ” (Jer. 29:1–7). This ancient method serves as a contemporary model for urban ministry in these last days.

Sidebar: Seven principles of urban ministry in Daniel 1-7

There are seven principles pastors may embrace as we seek to reach people in cities:

1. Excellence. Although God looks on the heart and not on the appearance, in the eyes of the people in the cities, excellence in physical, social, and mental qualifications are just as important for God’s leaders today as in the days of Daniel and the king of Babylon.

2. Spiritual fitness. Spiritual fitness (including humility, love, trust, and integrity) is crucial in reaching cities for Jesus. Urban workers should be men and women of God and of His Word. Chongo Aum acknowledges that “a different approach is required to reach these people for Christ than to reach those in rural areas.19 Craig W. Ellison argues that “urban ministry is usually not comfortable or convenient. It requires the best of God’s people. It demands a sustained, personal walk with Christ, and a willingness to take risks and to live with uncertainty, to confront evil and its destructive influence in the lives of people and to incarnate the good news.20

3. Relevance. Urban ministries must have a message to proclaim. Daniel preached the prophecies of the end time, something still relevant today. People who live in the cities need to know what is ahead and that God is preparing a better world than they have today.

4. Training. People who are called to work in the cities need training that involves strong mentors and success models, combined with faith and courage.

5. Incarnation. Urban workers need to “interact with the surrounding culture, yet they must also know when it is time to stand against it.”21 Chong Aum states, “Spiritual decay is observed not only in the inner-city areas but also in all aspects of urban life. The city is not necessarily synonymous with evil, drugs, and a culture gone mad with sex; but these are found in an urban setting far more than in rural areas.”22

6. Commitment. To ensure the success of urban ministry, urban workers must commit not only their time and talents but their lives as well. Daniel spent his life in Babylon from his youth to his old age.

Togetherness. Small groups of committed urban workers have an advantage compared to individuals working alone. Such small groups have been found to be one of the more effective strategies to evangelize cities.

1  I used the word Babylonian to refer to the place or context of Daniel 1–7, not to its negative scriptural sense. This article defines Babylon as “the city on the river Euphrates (80 km. S. of modern Baghdad, Iraq) which became the political and religious capital of Babylonia and of the empire and civilization based upon it.” See D. J. Wiseman, “Babylon,” New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., ed. D. R. W. Wood (Westgrove, IL:InterVarsity, 1996), 110–112. 

2  The concept of “urban” was rare before the nineteenth century. The Oxford Universal Dictionary, 1933, regarded it as pertaining to or characteristic of, situated or occurring in, a city or town; exercising authority, control, etc., in or over a city or town (1651). Others defined it as “a geographical area characterized by a high population density and a multiplicity of interconnected social systems such as transportation, food, communications, education, energy production and distribution, commerce, law enforcement, and others.” See Edgar J. Elliston and J. Timothy Kauffman, Developing Leaders for Urban Ministries (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2000), 4.

3  R. Clifford Jones, “Toward a Theological Basis for Urban Ministry,” Ministry, May 2004, 12.

4  David S. Vanderhooft, “Babylonia and the Babylonians,” in The World Around the Old Testament: The People and Places of the Ancient Near East, ed. Bill T.Arnold and Brent A. Strawn (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 126. 

5  Vanderhooft, “Babylonia and the Babylonians,” 127.

6  “The Ishtar Gate itself was likewise gilded with glazed tiles forming images of composite dragons (called mushussus) and bulls, numbering at least 575, accordingto the German excavation team. The technicolor effect of these artistic flourishes, the remarkable azure-blue and bright gold glazed bricks, and their immense scale and number were practically unprecedented and must have a tremendous impression on residents and visitors alike.” See Vanderhooft, “Babylonia and the Babylonians,” 130, 131.

7  Gerhard Pfandl, Daniel: The Seer of Babylon (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2004), 14.

8  This combination also appeared in Esther 2:7 (טוֹבַ ֨ ת מַ רְ אֶ), ֜althoughה this time, it is in feminine form, referring to Esther. Joseph is described as ְי פֵ ה־תֹ֖אַר וִ ֥יפֵה מַ רְ אֶֽin ה׃Genesis 39:6. They were urban workers in Persia and Egypt respectively. See Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia.

9 All Scripture quotation are from the English Standard Version.

10  Sinclair B. Ferguson, Daniel, ed. D. A Carson et al., New Bible Commentary: 21st century ed., Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 748.

11  J. Dwight Pentecost, Daniel, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Accordance electronic ed. (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1:1330.

12 Ferguson, Daniel, 748.

13  Sung Ik Kim called Daniel “a cross-cultural missionary in a heathen kingdom throughout his whole life.” See Sung Ik Kim, “Proclamation in Cross-Cultural Context: Missiological Implications of the Book of Daniel” (PhD diss., Andrews University, 2005), 13. However, in this paper, I will refer to Daniel and his friends as “urban ministers or workers.”

14 Pfandl explains, “Daniel and his three friends could not change what others called them.” See Pfandl, Daniel, 16.

15 Pfandl, Daniel, 16, 17. See also Proverbs 20:1 and Isaiah 5:11.

16 Pentecost, Daniel, 1:1330.

17 Pfandl, Daniel, 19.

18  “Nebuchadnezzar Thoroughly Converted” (Daniel 4:37), Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, ed. Francis D. Nichol, 2nd. ed., vol. 4 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), 1170.

19  Chongo Aum, “The Cell Church Model as a Viable Approach for Urban Church Planting” (PhD diss., Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, 1997), 15.

20 Craig Ellison, The Urban Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 15.

21 Pfandl, Daniel, 19.

22 Aum, “Cell Church Model,” 19

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February 2019

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