Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Triumph of the Son of Man (Daniel 7:1-28)

The end of the world is a remarkably popular subject these days. Hollywood movies, always a useful cultural barometer, are a clear witness to this fact. This end-times interest may stem from the existential angst that comes from the threat of a terrorist attack, or a growing awareness of humanity’s ability to make this planet uninhabitable, or from some quite different root cause. Wherever it comes from, however, it is undeniable that there is more interest in the end of the world these days than there has been for a while.

This phenomenon makes this a good time to study the apocalyptic portions of the Bible, for they too are interested in the end of the world. If people want to know how the world will end—whether with a bang or with a whimper—what better place to turn than to the Word of the sovereign God, who controls all history? Well, Daniel 7–12, which contains just such apocalyptic literature, should therefore be intensely relevant for all of us. 

Daniel chapter 7 signals a major transition in the book of Daniel. The first half of the book tells stories about Daniel and his three friends; we learn of their faith and courage before pagan kings from Nebuchadnezzar to Belshazzar to Darius. 

But in this second half of the book, beginning with chapter 7, reports Daniel’s visions of the future. Accordingly, as we move from the relatively straightforward narratives of chapters 1–6 to the often fantastical images of Daniel’s prophetic vision you will feel as if a real change has overcome the text.

So we begin with a brief word about apocalyptic literature in the Bible: those books like Revelation, Ezekiel, portions of Mark, Matthew, Isaiah, Joel, and Zechariah, and of course Daniel 7-12 - the last half of the book of Daniel.

What is apocalyptic? Well, apocalyptic literature gives us in many ways the “final chapter” of salvation. That is to say, apocalyptic literature contains those parts of the Bible where God pulls back the curtain to give his people a glimpse of his plans for human history - a kind of heavenly revelation of what the end of the present age will be like when the final, eschatological age of peace is ushered in by the son of Man, Jesus Christ. It shows us ahead of time the end of the kingdoms of this world and their replacement by the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. This apocalyptic revelation is often very fantastical for us because it is unfolded in complex and mysterious imagery, and  yet we should never forget that its purpose is to comfort and exhort the faithful.

In Daniel’s day, these apocalyptic visions were meant to comfort them. Yes, Jerusalem at that time was destroyed and its temple lay in ruins. Yes, God’s people were in exile, and wicked rulers seemed to be triumphant, but as the visions of Daniel reveal, God remains supreme. 

In our own day, these apocalyptic visions are meant to comfort us. Yes, Western civilization seems morally bankrupt, and due to neglect, the Christian faith seems be degenerating towards ruin. Yes, God’s people are in exile and suffer withering persecution in so many parts of the world. The wicked, greedy, and immoral rulers of our age seem to be triumphant, but as the vision of Daniel reveal, God remains supreme. And just as in Daniel’s day, God is greater than all these circumstances, and His people should be true to Him in whatever situation they find themselves. Are you being true to him this morning, Christian?

Well, our text begins with a vision of monsters:

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel saw a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream and told the sum of the matter. Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things. (Daniel 7:1-8)

Now notice that we have moved backwards in time from the reign of the Medes and Persians where we left Daniel last week, to the time when the Babylonians still ruled the world. The events of this vision occur chronologically between the events of chapters 4 and 5 - between the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation and Belshazzar’s handwriting on the wall. 

In his vision Daniel saw the four winds of heaven stirring up a great sea. As is so often the case in scripture, the sea was the symbol of chaos and rebellion against God and in this case, the sea is composed of people, sinful people, out which nations will rise. 

Now to understand this vision, you need to realize that Daniel is having a parallel vision to the one that Nebuchadnezzar had in Daniel chapter 2. In Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar saw a progression of kingdoms represented by a large statue of a man - an image of exceeding brightness, the head of which was fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and clay. In Nebuchadnezzar’s vision he was being shown the progression of the kingdoms of Babylon, the Medo-Persian empire, Greece, and then the Roman empire. And remember, this statue was destroyed by a rock that was not cut out with human hands, the rock that in the future would be Jesus Christ himself.

Well, here in Daniel 7, Daniel is seeing the same progression of kingdoms. Except, rather than seeing them with human’s eyes - instead of seeing them glittering and comprised of precious metals, Daniel is being shown these kingdoms from the view of God in heaven. And rather than being made of gold, bronze, silver, and iron- they appear quite differently here! These kingdoms are grotesque when viewed with heavenly eyes. These enormous, composite, misshapen animals represent all the restlessness and dangerous turmoil of a nation or empire of sinful men.

Now, who are these kingdoms? Most conservative commentators agree that these kingdoms are 1) Babylon, 2) the empires comprised of the Medes and the Persians, 3) then Greece (particularly under Alexander the Great), 4) and then most fierce of all - the Roman empire. But here’s the important thing: Daniel is given an interpretation in vv. 15-17.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth." (Daniel 7:15-17)

When the angelic interpreter explains to Daniel what the dream means the angel doesn’t clarify the identity of the kingdoms. This suggests that a proper understanding of the vision does not really rest on resolving this question. 

Some conservative scholars argue that it is actually better to take the number of the beasts - 4 -  as representing a symbol of completeness rather than a particular number of world empires. They argue that  the message of Daniel 7 is that life in this present age will always be this way until the end of this age as we live as God’s people under the sinful governments of man. 

And you know, I’m sympathetic to this view. Actually, it is striking that the superpowers of our own age still customarily represent themselves by predatory animals, such as the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon. The beasts of the present world order may change their shape as the centuries pass, but their violence and lust for power continues. Nebuchadnezzar turns into a Darius, who becomes an Alexander the Great, then Antiochus Epiphanes, followed by a Nero and a Domitian. Their fires of persecution continued to be stoked centuries later by the Inquisition. In the last century, we have seen further manifestations of the beast in the persons of Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Il Jung. The frightening beasts of this age were present at the gas chambers of Belsen, and on the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, and they are still tormenting the saints in Sudan and China, in Iraq and Syria, and in other parts of our modern world.

This continual presence of the beasts in our world ought not to surprise us because every human manifestation of evil is simply a reflection of the work of the Great Dragon, Satan himself. In fact, in Revelation 13, we see a beast rising from the sea representing the persecuting power of the antichrist, a beast that combines aspects of each of Daniel’s creatures into one, a lion-bear-leopard with ten horns. Whatever our location in space and time, frightening monsters will array themselves against the Lord and his anointed.

But here is the important thing - these evil empires will be judged! That’s the point of the next part of the text in Daniel 7, beginning in verse 9.

As I looked,
thrones were placed,
    and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
    and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
    its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
    and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.

“I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time." (Daniel 7:9-11)

At the center of Daniel’s vision, thrones were set up for judgment. The Ancient of Days, God himself, sat upon the central throne. It didn’t take long for the judge to get to work, either: the court was immediately convened and the books that recorded the deeds of humanity were opened. Though the beast with the boastful horn continued to mouth defiance at the heavenly court, the agents of the Most High slew it immediately and threw its body into the fire.

Why does God give us this vision from Daniel? Here’s why: Daniel is painting the REAL world—the world that is to come—and he’s doing it because he’s countering the insistent propaganda that bombards our senses in this present age that this world is all there is and we need to spend our best time, best energy, best resources chasing it with all our might. Actually, what glitters so often in our evil age is not gold but horror. And yet we are reminded that the horrors of this age are equally empty of power to do us real harm.

The monsters that we so dread are as toothless as the lions in Daniel’s den, for God is our judge. It is his tribunal before which we must ultimately stand, and it is what is written about us in his book that will determine whether we reign with his saints forever, or spend eternity in the fire with the beast. It is that black and white. Jesus himself said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

And why should Jesus have anything to say on this matter? Well, it is because of his own coronation to the throne of heaven, you see.

I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
    there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
    and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
    and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
    which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
    that shall not be destroyed." (Daniel 7:13-14)

This vision of the Son of Man is far easier for us to understand than it was for poor Daniel, for we have the benefit of the hindsight of the prophecy’s fulfillment. “The son of man” was the perfect title for Jesus to bear. In his earthly ministry, it was the “human” aspect of the son of man that was prominent. This Son of Man has dinner with a prostitute, stops off for lunch with a tax-collector, blessed children while surrounded by Roman legions, healed the sick, and ultimately, hung pierced and bleeding upon a cross. Dying and being buried in a tomb was surely the most ungodlike of acts. And yet his majesty, even though veiled while on earth, was still present. He taught as one with unparalleled authority. He forgave people their sins, and he spoke of possessing a kingdom. Both divine and human aspects are present because Jesus is son of man and Son of Man, very man and Very God.

For the first disciples, the lesson that Jesus was the son of man focused upon the humanity of Jesus. They had to learn that salvation does not come through the advent of a triumphal heavenly figure bearing a sword, blasting his opponents with fire from heaven. Rather, it comes through the advent of a baby in a manger, who grew up to bear a crown of thorns and carry a cross. The Son of Man had come not to be served (as one might have expected from Daniel) but rather to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

For the disciples in Daniel’s day though, suffering intense persecution for their faith, so needed to be reminded of the central lesson of Daniel 7. The return of our Lord will not be the same as his first advent. Christ is not eternally suffering upon the cross, but when the time is ripe, he will return (as the Son of Man!) in glory on the clouds, bearing a sharp sickle to bring final judgment on his enemies (Rev. 14:14–20).

Let’s come to a close now. If you’ll look at the verses 15 through 28. 

As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.’

“Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet, and about the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn that came up and before which three of them fell, the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and that seemed greater than its companions. As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.

“Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast,

there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth,
    which shall be different from all the kingdoms,
and it shall devour the whole earth,
    and trample it down, and break it to pieces.
As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,
    and another shall arise after them;
he shall be different from the former ones,
    and shall put down three kings.
He shall speak words against the Most High,
    and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,
    and shall think to change the times and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
    for a time, times, and half a time.
But the court shall sit in judgment,
    and his dominion shall be taken away,
    to be consumed and destroyed to the end.
And the kingdom and the dominion
    and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
    shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;
his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
    and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’
“Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my color changed, but I kept the matter in my heart.” (Daniel 7:15-28)

Daniel concludes this vision troubled in his heart. We are a bit baffled by this last part of the text because we are exhilarated by the encouragements that Daniel has already given in this particular vision. The King is on the throne. The Lord will bring judgment against the world. But all Daniel can see is that it is very clear from this vision that the Lord's people in His kingdom are going to be persecuted by a beast that will pursue them even unto the end of their lives and that before the kingdom is set up in rule, there will be much suffering endured by the people of God.

You see, God is showing Daniel the nature of the kingdom that He is going to establish. Far beyond simply returning the people of Israel into their own homeland, God has plans for a kingdom that will extend around this world and will bring in men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and nation to worship the living God. But it is going to involve incredible suffering. And it's a measure of Daniel's heart that his heart is broken over people that he would never know. He knows the kind of suffering they are going to experience, and he's moved by it and his heart is troubled and so he needs every bit of the encouragement that God gives him. And we need it, too.

One of the practical implications of this vision, is that first of all, the people of God must never be naive about the strength and the reality and the durability of evil. It is with us in this fallen world. It is a force of wickedness and harm and we must never underestimate what it can do.

Secondly, we must remember that the kingdom of God is a kingdom of suffering in the here and now. We must not only be prepared for it ourselves, but we must be in solidarity with all our brethren who suffer in persecution and in oppression. We must care for them and pray for them and be one with them in the midst of their own travails, and with one another in the midst of our own struggles. These visions, my friend, are key to Israel understanding that when the Messiah came He would not immediately set up a kingdom of political power but He would set up a kingdom which would entail the greatest being the least and the godliest being killed. That is the kind of kingdom that we experience in the here and now. It will come in its power and triumph in the then and there.

Third, this vision also reminds us that our gaze must penetrate beyond history into the throne room of God. All of us bring circumstances in our lives to this room this morning that could overwhelm us. If we sat down and we dwelt upon them it could overwhelm us. We all need to be reminded of what is beyond and under and behind. In the throne room, all is calm. The Lord Jesus sits at the right hand and sometimes that's all you have. But that's all you need. Our hope in this life does not center on the focal points of world power. It centers upon the one who is on the throne, reigning for us in all His descending power and who will one day take us to reign with Him.

Have you noticed how many times the phrase is repeated? “The saints, the people of the saints of the Most High”… in this passage. You see, you’re united with the One who's on the throne. You've received Him by grace. If you have trusted in Him, if you've placed Your faith in Him, you’re united with Him. And if He reigns so shall you also. 

Today, we live in a world of terrifying beasts, but we shall not live in their world forever. There will come a day when all wrongs will be set right, when all tyrants will be dethroned, when all that is broken will be fixed. There will come a day when all hunger will come to an end, when all sickness will be cured, when every sorrowing heart will be comforted. There will come a day when even death, the last weapon of the beast, will have its power broken once and for all. On that day, the Great Beast, Satan himself, will be bound and brought before the throne; he will answer for his crimes and be cast into the lake of fire forever (Rev. 20:10).

If it is true that God is our judge, are we ready to meet with him? Are we ready to have the book of life opened and its contents put on public display, with all of our lust, jealousy, anger, pride, and self-centeredness made visible for all to see? On that day of judgment, our only hope will be that Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, has taken the judgment we deserve for all of those sins and many more. He was bruised for our transgressions and mauled for our iniquities, so that in the coming day we could be exalted with him and reign with him forever. He has faced the Great Beast in all of his fearsomeness in our place. Unlike the experience of God’s saints, the time of his trial on the cross was not cut short in God’s mercy. On the contrary, Jesus felt the full measure of the fiery agonies of hell, distilled into six hours of exquisite agony. The debt for every sin that I ever committed or ever will commit was laid on his shoulders, and he bore it all.

The result of his sacrifice, though, is that whatever now faces me in this life—whether death or life, angels or monsters, dictators or demons—nothing in all creation can separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:38–39). If God is my judge and the Son of Man is my savior, then let the world do its worst. When you feel the hot breath of the enemy on your neck, look onward and upward to the Son of Man and the Ancient of Days, who truly rule this world. They have not forsaken you nor left you. You are theirs, forever.