No Heaven Till Heaven, Hell on Earth

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Last week we heard five reasons to give up… Five things that we experience now that make life as a Christian hard and make us want to give up. At the risk of being overly negative let me remind you what they were:
1) The world hates us
2) We're in the minority
3) We're being Marginalised
4) Our God seems to have forgotten us
5) Giving up would solve a lot of our problems

They're tough realities that we face right now as Christians in the UK. And they can be discouraging can't they? Daniel 7 is a very apt passage for us here in the UK.

But the hard reality this week is that our experiences as Christians are pretty mild compared to what Christians experience elsewhere – in places like North Korea, or Sudan, or pretty much anywhere with hard core Islamic rule like Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban or the North of Nigeria or Indonesia or Malaysia.

In some parts of the world right now Christians gathering together for Church on a Sunday might meet armed gunmen bursting through the doors to spray bullets around the congregation, they might be met with bombs exploding outside the door when they leave, or coming through the window while they meet. I'm not being extreme or exaggerating, those very things have happened several times in the North of Nigeria recently. People in North Korea who are found to have a bible in their possession can be arrested and disappear to no one knows where and never be heard of again. Christian villages in Indonesia have been targeted by Muslim militia groups who burn down houses, rape women and kill indiscriminately. The police don't investigate and many suspect that these militia groups have the backing of the government. A friend of a friend, a missionary in India was deliberately burned to death along with his children by Hindu extremists.

Millions of people have been left homeless by deliberate and systematic attempts to eliminate Christians in Sudan. The list goes on, and on and on.

Daniel 8 addresses their world. Daniel 8 speaks of the suffering of God's people simply for being God's people. The suffering of God's people at the hand of rulers who hate and despise God. The suffering of God's people by rulers who want to wipe them out simply because they are God's people. Daniel 8 speaks to them in their suffering and says this is the way it is in the world, it happens. It won't be like this forever, but there is no getting away from it, it will be like this some times, for a time. Daniel 8 says there's no heaven till heaven, and before Heaven there will be times when it is hell on earth.

It's a bit of a downer, if we're honest. But the redeeming feature is this – God has not lost control, evil Kings will not rule forever, and there will be heaven in heaven, and no hell at all. So Daniel 8 is for people in the midst of the horror of hardcore religious fundamentalism, or extreme fascism, or communism or simply blood-thirsty-money-hungry power worship. In that time it brings comfort and hope. But for us it's a horrifying vision of what might be standing between us and heaven, and so it's a warning to steel ourselves for suffering, and it's a challenge to set ourselves to care for and to pray for our brothers and sisters who suffer for the name of Christ.

So how do we see that – in the classic three part prophetic structure: vision, interpretation and response.

The Vision is a Terrifying Dream of Evil on the Rampage and God's People Crushed
The Interpretation is a Terrifying Prophecy of Evil on the Rampage and God's People Crushed

I'm sorry it's not a cheery message this evening, but I pray that we will attend to it now while it's far off, so that we'll be ready if it ever comes close to us here. So we pick it up with the vision:

A Terrifying Dream of Evil on the Rampage and God's people Crushed.

Look down with me at verse 1:

In the third year of King Belshazzar's reign, I, Daniel, had a vision, after the one that had already appeared to me. In my vision I saw myself in the citadel of Susa in the province of Elam; in the vision I was beside the Ulai Canal.

We'll just pause here to get our bearings before we go on into the vision. I don't know how good your geography of 6th BC Ancient Near East is, but I had to look these places up, so I'll assume you might need to do so too. So there it is – and if you can see that you'll note that Susa is not Babylon, but Persia; but remember Belshazzar was a Babylonian King. This dream happened before Babylon fell to the Medes and the Persians, before Dan 5 and the writing on the wall, but already God signals to Daniel that the action is moving on from Babylon to Persia. The dreams of Chapter 2 and chapter 7 were already beginning – the first great Kingdom was coming to an end, the next was about to begin.

It helps to keep this perspective in mind – Babylon was the great horror, the destroyer of Jerusalem, the bringer of God's wrath. But Babylon didn't last long. Take comfort from that, even when worse follows.

So back to the vision, in his vision Daniel is already living in the future, in the time when Babylon is no longer the centre of the action. And verse 3:

I looked up, and there before me was a ram with two horns, standing beside the canal, and the horns were long. One of the horns was longer than the other but grew up later. 4 I watched the ram as he charged towards the west and the north and the south. No animal could stand against him, and none could rescue from his power. He did as he pleased and became great.

 As I was thinking about this, suddenly a goat with a prominent horn between his eyes came from the west, crossing the whole earth without touching the ground. He came towards the two-horned ram I had seen standing beside the canal and charged at him in great rage. I saw him attack the ram furiously, striking the ram and shattering his two horns. The ram was powerless to stand against him; the goat knocked him to the ground and trampled on him, and none could rescue the ram from his power. 8 The goat became very great, but at the height of his power his large horn was broken off, and in its place four prominent horns grew up towards the four winds of heaven.

In keeping with the dream Daniel had in chapter 7 (and Nebuchanezzar's dream in chapter 2) we expect these beasts to represent beastly kingdoms. This is what is to come, a powerful beastly Kingdom with two centres of power (in this vivid picture language of apocalyptic visions horns usually represent power, often kings or kingdoms) takes over the ancient world. It's unstoppable taking power to the West, North and South, and no one can resist it's power, and it becomes great.

But it doesn't last forever, in time it's knocked off it's perch by a new Kingdom represented by a new beast, this one featuring one gigantic horn. This Kingdom is even more fearsome than the first, it moves so quickly it's legs are a blur of motion, they hardly even seem to touch the ground. It takes the Ram head on and completely destroys it, no contest, trampling it underfoot to emphasise it's complete destruction. Then the horn is broken off just when it appeared ustopppable.

So two great empires rise and fall before Daniel's eyes. Both devastatingly strong and fierce and unstoppable, but both come to an end. Both fit the paradigm of beastly rule that we've seen so far in Daniel – they aren't humane, they don't rule in the likeness of God, but like brute beasts they snatch power for themselves and trample on anything and anyone that gets in their way.

But the vision isn't over. At the peak of it's power the great horn of the goat is snapped off and four smaller horns take over. Verse 9:

Out of one of them came another horn, which started small but grew in power to the south and to the east and towards the Beautiful Land. It grew until it reached the host of the heavens, and it threw some of the starry host down to the earth and trampled on them. It set itself up to be as great as the Prince of the host; it took away the daily sacrifice from him, and the place of his sanctuary was brought low. Because of rebellion, the host of the saints and the daily sacrifice were given over to it. It prospered in everything it did, and truth was thrown to the ground.

This is a bit different. Suddenly we're not looking at the broad sweep of international politics, we're focusing in on the Beautiful land – we're watching one King and his venom towards Jerusalem and God's people. This is politics, but it also has a religious dimension, this King is setting himself up as God, he's taking the worship that belongs to God and trying to claim it for himself.

And don't miss the impact of verse 12. This King sets himself up to oppose God and wins - God's own people, even God's sacrifices, are given over to him. This beastly King defies God himself, and he prospers in everything he does so that truth itself is thrown to the ground.

This vision is a waking nightmare. God's rule and authority cast to the ground and trampled, just as easily as was the ram in the vision. Where is God? Can he no longer protect his people? How can he allow his sacrifices to be given over to a man?

Without even hearing the interpretation we know this isn't good. Daniel see's vision terrifying power exercised against God and against God's people.

I'm sure you know what it's like to have a dream that's so real you can't tell if you're awake or asleep. I remember in my last year of school dreaming I was being held round the legs by someone. The dream was so vivid and so real that when I kicked out at this dream person I really did kick – I kicked so hard I woke myself up. Have you ever done that? Well I remember in those first moments of wakefulness being terrified and unable to tell reality from imagination – was it real, or was it just a dream? Something woke me up, and something did seem to holding my legs … what if there really is someone just there at the end of my bed, about to come back and grab me again? It seems silly now, but I was scared enough that I couldn't move, I was scared enough that my heart was pounding, scared enough that I remember the feeling 21 years later.

Do you know that feeling? Heart stopping terror, confusion, fear… how much worse would if what you saw really was real, if you knew that what you were seeing wasn't a dream, but the future, the terrible awful future?

Daniel doesn't wake up and find it was all a dream, instead he gets an explanation from God via the angel God sends to him.

The Interpretation is a Terrifying Prophecy of Evil on the Rampage and God's People Crushed

Look at vs 19

He said: "I am going to tell you what will happen later in the time of wrath, because the vision concerns the appointed time of the end. The two-horned ram that you saw represents the kings of Media and Persia.The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between his eyes is the first king.

Notice this – often in this sort of literature we are very careful not to be too precise in our interpretation, so last week we said the leopard like beast might be Greece, the unique beast might be the Romans etc. That's because things are not explicit in the text and because often apocalyptic visions show us the pattern of the way things are – a pattern that is generally true, so it fits with many kingdoms (which is one reason every generation is been convinced they are living in the last days and the book of revelation applies to them – because they are and it does, it shows the general pattern of the world under beastly who rulers reject God and mistreat his people…). So we're cautious about making firm statements. But here we're given a straight interpretation, the Ram is the empire of the Medes and the Persians, the Goat is Greece… The ram has two horns because it is two kingdoms joined together into one empire… and goat has a prominent horn because Alexander the Great led Greece's rise - conquering the world before he turned 30. The horn was cut off because Alexander died suddenly at 32 - and his empire was parceled out into four kingdoms among his generals (the four little horns). This interpretation helps us to work out principles for interpreting all apocalyptic visions.

But the focus of the dream isn't on the great world empires, but on the little horn that follows…

The four horns that replaced the one that was broken off represent four kingdoms that will emerge from his nation but will not have the same power. "In the latter part of their reign, when rebels have become completely wicked, a stern-faced king, a master of intrigue, will arise. He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause astounding devastation and will succeed in whatever he does. He will destroy the mighty men and the holy people. He will cause deceit to prosper, and he will consider himself superior. When they feel secure, he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power."The vision of the evenings and mornings that has been given you is true, but seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future."

Now remember we've been told what the beasts represent, we're supposed to see this when it comes. And subsequent history records a King who came from one of the kingdoms left behind by Alexander who fits this description perfectly. This King called himself Antiochus Epiphanes – God manifest! – and he ruled over the region that included Israel. He attacked Egypt, but was warned off by the Romans (incidentally this is where we get the 'line in the sand' – he was told to leave off and said he'd think about it and get back to them… the Roman general drew a circle in the sand around him and told him to make his decision before he crossed that line!) And he took out his rage at his humiliation on the Jews in Judea – he deliberately reversed the Law of God – so circumcision became illegal, Jews were forced to sacrifice pigs on the altar and to work on the Sabbath etc... And he was unbelievably brutal in enforcing those laws – infamously he sent inspectors throughout Judea to inspect the newborn baby boys, those who had been circumcised were killed and hung around their mothers necks to be worn as a warning to others. And when I say he took out his rage on the Jews he was said to have slaughtered 40 000 people in Jerusalem and sold 40 000 more into slavery in one day. He was a brutal and horrible King.

And this was explicitly religiously motivated. He set himself up in God's place, even called himself God manifest. It was God's law he reversed. He went into the temple and set up an alter to Zeus right on God's altar and sacrificed pigs there. His blasphemous altar was there for 3 years – or about 2 300 evenings and mornings.

And what did God's people do to deserve all this? Were they unfaithful as they had been in the time of the Kings? Had they forgotten their God or incorporated other gods into their worship?

No, and this is the truly shocking thing – they were faithful. Of course they weren't perfect, but they fought for God's honour, fought like mad men. They engaged in guerrilla warfare. They resisted in every way they could. Despite the risks they kept worshipping God, kept circumcising their children, fought to remove Antiochus and his troops from the temple. They gave their lives for God, and yet Antiochus prevailed. He prospered in all he did and truth was thrown to the ground.

Do you see why Daniel was appalled? Do you see why God's people called out to him in the words of Psalm 42? Do you see why they said we have not abandoned you, but yet we are like sheep to be slaughtered - how long o Lord????

This is unremittingly awful, unrelenting terror, terror upon terror. And it's the innocent who suffer while it is the guilty who proper. How can this be?

And Daniel doesn't tell us, God didn't reveal that to him, God doesn't explain or defend this, just says that's how it will be. No wonder Daniel was exhausted and unable to work for a few days.

I mentioned earlier the dreams where you wake in fright and you're afraid that the dream is real. This is the opposite problem – sometimes in the midst of tough times we dream of release from oppression, we dream of a world where evil has come undone, and when we wake we want to hold onto the dream reality. You've probably been there too, I have.

When I was a student it might surprise you to hear that I grew my hair, I didn't really mean to, but I'm no fan of hair cuts and when I go to uni I just never found someone to cut mine. Half way through second year my hair was half way down my back and my flat mate convinced me to let him shave it off. We went all the way and I went from hair down my back to bald in a few dramatic minutes. Now that's not really something to make you wake in fright, but it's also not something that can be undone in a hurry. And I dreamed for weeks afterwards that I had my hair back, and when I woke I wished it was true…

Not long afterwards when one of my best friends died on his 21st birthday I had a recurring dream, I dreamed I was back at the park at the church picnic where I last saw Jon, and we were throwing a Frisbee, just like old times. How I wished those dreams were real when I woke up to find him still dead. That's what this vision is like for Daniel, the reality that you wish was just a dream.

And I have to say, from where we sit all this seems terrible, but we really have no handle on the depth of the horror involved. We simply can't imagine from our safe, luxurious lives what it would be like to live under that. But we're the odd ones out – plenty of our brothers and sisters throughout history, and even right now in other parts of the world, plenty of our brothers and sisters know just what this is like, because they've lived through it, they are living through it. Antiochus was a specific king in a specific time and place, but he represents a type – and there have been many Kings who've raged against God and tried to destroy faith in him.

So what do we do with all this? What does it tell us, why do we need to know this?

Until Heaven Evil Kings Come and Go, but God Rules

Daniel needed to hear this because in his day and age the great hope for Israel was that they would be returned to the promised land. Returning to Jerusalem seemed to promise an end of all their ills, the exile over, back to the promised land.

But we know that it would all fall short of their expectations, when Cyrus sent the exiles home, only a tiny fraction of them went back; when the temple foundations were laid, those who remembered the old temple wept. There was no return to the Kingship, there were no great days of blessing and power and wealth and world wide influence.

Why did things fall so far short of expectations? Because those promises under the old covenant were not going to find their fulfillment in the physical people of Israel or the physical land of Palestine – those promises were going to have to wait for the arrival of the King of Kings, they couldn't be contained to Palestine, they needed to wait for heaven.

And us? We need to know this because this is reality – Kings like this will take power and will create havoc. We need to know there is no heaven on earth, no heaven till heaven… but there will at times be hell on earth.

And, along side the unremitting terror there is one redeeming feature in this chapter.

Throughout this passage there is hope, a slim hope, but hope all the same. The hope comes in this. God gives this vision. God can reveal the future because God holds the future in his hands. And so we see hints and clues and tiny rays of light even in the midst of this deep, deep blackness.

Remember Babylon had been appalling and boasted it would rule forever. But this vision showed they were passing away. The Medes and the Persians would over throw Babylon, and they too had an end date. When they appeared indestructible Greece would come. And the great ruler of Greece – Alexander the great, he too would be cut off early, no army could stop him, but he wasn't God, his power would be cut off.

And so it is with this stern King, this master of intrigue… his time is limited. He opposes God and sets up the abomination in the temple – but only for 2300 evenings and mornings. That could be about 3 years (1, 150 days consisting of one evening and one morning…), which was the length of time Antiochus sacrificed on his idolatrous altar in the temple; or it could be around 6 years (2,300 days), which was the length of time he terrorised Jerusalem. However we take it his reign is limited, his days are numbered before they ever begin. God is over him, despite all appearances to the contrary. See it in verse 24 – this King becomes powerful, but not by his own power… well then by whose power? And in verse 25 he will be destroyed, but not by human power. By whose hand – by God's hand, by God's power.

So this is our comfort when we face the fiery trial. When we face horror upon horror and all hope is gone and we look around and think there can't be a God, or God must have left us all alone on this earth. This is the comfort – this too is under God, this too is part of God's plan.

But we say – how can this be part of God's plan? Daniel doesn't answer that. But how much better that this be part of God's plan and coming to an end, than that this should be out of God's plan and beyond his control and maybe going on forever! And I can tell you that when this evil King did arrive copies of Daniel circulated like never before. God's people did stand firm in the face of this great evil, God sustained them through the power of his word. They recognised the evil day and knew they could stand firm in it because it too would pass. And if they were tempted to give in, they knew that evil kings come and go, but God sits on the throne – there's no future aligning yourself to kings, they will pass but God holds the future in his hand.

And while we still don't have an answer to how this can be God's plan, how this suffering can be good, we do know more than Daniel – Romans 8 takes this theme of the unjust suffering of God's people for being God's people and doesn't he turn it on it's head? Hew knew what it was to suffer for belonging to God. Paul knew more than most about suffering, and he says with real authority that no matter how hard it was, even when God's people are living like so many sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse, even then nothing can separate us from God's love.

How can he speak of a God of love while suffering like that? He knows the lamb who was slain, the lamb of God who was slaughtered right along side his people, who was slaughtered for his people. And Paul knows what the future holds for God's people, we will be glorified with him, So in the midst of his enormous suffering Paul says 'I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glories to come – these light and momentary sufferings are achieving for us a weight of glory' – there is no comparison, these present sufferings will come to an end. And they will be replaced by future glory that far far outweighs them, glory that will never end.

So I don't know what you're going through, but I hear God's word here saying that whatever sufferings we endure, whatever hardship, whatever difficulty or pain or loss or emptiness or shame or hurt of anykind – even of the worst kind, even suffering that comes precisely because we are good and belong to God, and even if that suffering is extreme and looks like it will never end –even then, even that will be forgotten in heaven in the light of the joy that will belong to us as his people.

I've used the illustration of a dream versus reality a couple of times already. I think we can add one more here as we close. We're living reality now, but what I see in the bible is that heaven is so much more solid, so much more real, that that day when we met Jesus face to face will be like waking from a dream. It seemed real at the time, but now we know what real is. That's why God can wipe away every tear, that's why in that time we hear that there wil be no more death or crying or pain – and also no morning, no more pain from past pains, no bruises that don't heal, no scarring from old disappointments – just joy. And the great thing is that's not just my opinion, nor is it my best guess, that's our future, guaranteed.

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