Against the Flow – Is It Really Worth It?
Back on March 18th last year, my wife Sophie was seriously questioning why she had agreed to marry me. A day before, we had driven 6 hours up to Fort William, even though we were only there for a couple of days. She was walking through a forest in the darkness of the early hours. She had been rudely awakened at 5.30am that morning. Not only that but she'd had to leave too early to enjoy the nice, tasty B&b breakfast. and now she was walking with a heavy pack, being regularly reminded by her fiance that she needed to keep the pace up. You can imagine it didn't go down very well.
But I could see the big picture…I knew it was the best weather forecast for winter climbing I had seen in weeks. And I knew that the route we were heading for, up the north face of Ben Nevis was going to be absolutely spectacular – like nothing she had ever seen before. Something she couldn't yet even imagine. And I knew that she would think it was worth it even from the minute we emerged out the forest. Because the sudden view of the sun rising over the snowy, alpine-looking north face is breathtaking. It was one of the best things she had ever seen.
So thankfully I wasn't in the dog house at the end of the day!
And Daniel 7 is similar. In that what it says to us is – when you see the big picture, it'll be completely worth it. In the context of us facing struggles or even persecution for our faith. In the context of things so often seeming so out of control, when we see atrocities in the news, when life involves pain, sadness or confusion –which unfortunately it will do at some point, this chapter gives us answers. It zooms us right out from the small context of Babylon to a kind of overview of history. It's like us going behind the curtain and seeing what's really going on in the world. It's fantastic. I genuinely don't think it's any exaggeration to say that if we understand and internalise this passage, it'll be one of the best things we'll ever read...
Well I don't know whether you've looked at the book of Daniel much before. If you're someone who has grown up in a church, the word probably brings back happy memories of colouring in hungry lions at Sunday School (and having fun with sticky things). Or for those without a church background, you might not have heard of it at all. Or maybe you know that it involves some hungry lions. And Daniel being thrown to them. Well with this being a one-off sermon rather than a Daniel series, I'm not going to be able to give a lot of context. We're just going to focus in on this vision that Daniel has.
But to get a little bit of context for this vision, we can look at verse 1. Take a look. Daniel had the dream in the first year of Belshazzar which is around 540 BC– and the important thing to note is that Daniel had this vision before making his stand against the King and being sent to the lions den. i.e. the book isn't chronological here - chapter 7 happens before the lion's den in chapter 6.
Another important thing to do when we look at any part of the Bible, is to think - what sort of writing is this?. Is it a letter? Is it narrative? Is it a song? If you look at chapters 1 – 6 you'll find that they are narrative, but Daniel chapter 7 is where it goes a bit bizarre. It's a vision of the future. It's full of pretty mind-boggling imagery. And it's quite easy to be intimidated by this sort of passage. But if we go through it section by section, we'll see that God gives interpretation alongside vision. So, apart from the details, it's not such a mystery as people sometimes make out. We can 'de-code' this on our own. And it's really worth the effort, because it's often this type of writing, more than any other, which gives us a glimpse of God's majesty and just leaves us in awe. It's like a little foretaste of heaven – so it's a real treat for a Sunday night!
I've got 3 main points which come out of the passage;
1. God is sovereign over the nations and their rulers today
2. God's unopposed Kingdom is coming
3. Jesus has brought us into his everlasting Kingdom You might want to make a note of those.
So let's get stuck in to some of the imagery. Take a look at verse 2:
"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."
In the Bible, sea is often used as a picture of evil. It's the churning world. Being tossed and turned. And out of this, come 4 beasts. It's a bit like some sort of Salvador Dali-esque zoo. There's something like a lion with eagles wings, then a bear, then a leopard with four heads and four wings on its back, then a terrifying fourth beast with ten horns, and finally the powerful little horn. So what are these beasts? Well like I said, God gives interpretation alongside the vision so there's no need to guess. Verse 17 says:
'These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth."
We're not able to look at it now, but in chapter 2, King Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon where Daniel lives, has a dream with a four-part statue. And Daniel interprets the dream. He explains that one part is Nebuchadnezzar and another is the empire to come after him. So it seems reasonable to think that the beasts here are the same. They are various empires of the time. And the simple reason they are depicted as beasts is because they behave like beasts. And each beast seems to become increasingly brutal.
After the 3rd beast, there is a slight pause, and Daniel says:
"After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. 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."
The 4th beast is not likened to any animal, but it's terrifying and dreadful. With 10 horns. And then finally there's a powerful little horn. Are you still with me? It's pretty crazy imagery. What are these horns? Well think of a rhino. Do they reverse at top speed to smash their enemies with their backside. No – they charge forwards! The horn is the concentration of power. All the concentration and strength of the rhino is focussed on that one point.
So what we see here is that there will be Kings and nations who rise up and take power. And that power will always be abused. We know that from our own experience. People will always be sinners. There will be no new regime or ideology or party that will sort things out. People will always be fighting for power. We see that in the book of Daniel with the changing empires. We've seen it ever since. We know that from our own experience of the world. But what we see here is that for now, God allows people to oppose him and do what they like. In the churning sea, in the chaos of the world, it's clear that God is sovereign over the nations and their rulers. But for now, he allows people to oppose him.
How do we know that it isn't just out of control chaos? Well we see it in the abrupt transition that comes next. From verse 1-8 to verses 9-14. We see that God is still in complete control, and we see that God's unopposed Kingdom is coming. My second point. God's unopposed Kingdom is coming. Look at 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.
10 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."
We cut from the powerful little horn and terrifying 4th beast to a picture of complete, calm, control. God seated on his throne. A throne which looks like blazing fire – a fire which reminds us that God's holiness is absolute, like a all-consuming fire. He's a picture of purity, power, control and calmness, sitting on his throne, despite the fact the little horn is speaking loudly and insisting on being heard. It's an abrupt change from the first 8 verses, and it's like the book is saying – don't worry about the powerful little horn – he pales into insignificance. God is in control. It reminds us of when Jesus calmed the storm. To the disciples things seemed desperate and chaotic. But Jesus says 'be still' and the sea goes completely calm at his words.
Look at verse 11 for what happens next:
"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."
The sentence is carried out and the beast is killed. There's a complete ease with which God dispatches the beasts. It's just stated like a passing sentence.
And it's clear that all wordly powers, the devil and every one of us will bow before him. And there'll be justice. When we see unfairness, discrimination or just plain persecution and evil, we can't help but think – when is this going to stop? Is anything going to be done about this? We should long for justice. And this vision shows us that one day, ultimate justice will be done. Rational, measured, righteous justice.
The next thing we see, is that while God is seated on the throne, another character enters the scene. Look with me at verse 13. And this is a really important passage for the revelation in the Bible of God's plan to us – right back in the Old Testament. Verse 13:
"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."
This is all mind-blowing stuff. I wonder how you would react if you saw this? Well we see how Daniel reacts in verse 15:
"As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me."
He found the vision alarming. It's a terrifying vision! … And we're so often reminded in the Old Testament that God is terrifyingly awesome and powerful. When people see even a glimpse of that it is alarming – just like when Moses was afraid to look at the burning bush. Because when we see God's holiness and power and judgement – we recognise our own position before Him. What we need to remember here is that, not only will those rulers and nations we've read about be judged, but every one of us deserves judgement because of the way we've not put God in his rightful place. And as we catch a even just a glimpse of God's true majesty and splendour, as we do in this passage, we're reminded that we aren't worthy to even gather the crumbs from under his table. It is a terrifying thing. So that's my second point: God's unopposed Kingdom is coming. So onto my third point.
Daniel is alarmed at what he's seen. So what he does next is he approaches one of those stood there to ask them the truth about everything he's seen. You can imagine him trembling as he asks. And the encouraging response he receives is there in verse 17. Here's the response:
'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.'
So that's my third point:
3. Jesus has brought us into his everlasting Kingdom (v13 – 28)
Can you see what an encouraging response it is of hope. We were under the wrath of that awesome, holy God. But not any more. God sent Jesus – and through Him, we have been brought into his everlasting kingdom. It must have been a great encouragement to Daniel as he stood firm against such opposition and changing, corrupt governments. And we are in the privileged position that we understand the vision even better than Daniel. Because Daniel didn't know who this Son of Man was. All Daniel knew was what is there in verse 14 – that this character, unlike those before, does not grab for power, but is given it. And his kingdom does not pass away in a flash, but lasts forever. But we now know that it is Jesus. In Luke's gospel, Jesus, uses this exact term from Daniel, and he says:
the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise."
Jesus had more power than all those rulers and kingdoms we've looked at. He had more power than the beasts and the horns. He wouldn't run when he sees the lion coming, or the bear or the leopard or the 4th beast that we've looked at…
And what does he do with that power? Well, he serves. He washes the disciples feet. And he says to the Father 'not my will but yours be done'. He goes to the cross. He has all the power in the world, and yet he goes to the cross for you and I.
I really hope you've been able to grasp something of the gravity of that from what I've said. Because, as I said, when we look at passages like this, we get a tiny glimpse of just how awesome and awe-inspiring God is. And when we truly recognise our position before him, when we see our own sinfulness more clearly - we really see how unworthy we are. And yet, the more we grasp that, the more we'll be overwhelmed with joy at what Jesus has done for us.
But there's even more. Take a look at verse 27:
"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."
Not only did he justify us i.e. make us right with God. We also learn here that the saints, meaning all believers, will receive Jesus' everlasting kingdom! Not just mercy, but grace. Undeserved riches, at Christ's expense.
And to see more of a glimpse of that kingdom, we can look to the apostle John's vision in Revelation 7. John sees…'A great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.'
Who are they? John tells us a few verses later:
These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God…and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
It's a powerful picture. It tells us that justice will be seen to be done by the millions standing before the throne. Many of them the victims themselves. And God himself will wipe away every tear.
You've probably heard of the enigma code. It was used by the Germans in WW2 and was thought to be uncrackable. But the British cracked it. It was a huge moment, because from then on, they could understand German communications and they knew what was coming . For example, when they heard that a German submarine fleet was coming to secretly attack a convoy, they sent a reconnaissance plane out in the area over the submarines. It meant that it looked like they had accidentally stumbled across them rather than giving away that they had broken the code. And then they sent a huge fleet of battleships and sunk every submarine. Enigma meant that they could take great heart. They knew what was to come… but it didn't mean they weren't still in the fight. And we to can take great heart because we know what is to come. But it doesn't exclude us from the fight – and we've seen in this book that Daniel is a prime example of that.
So let me finish by asking you a couple of testing questions. How does everything you've heard today change your perspective on the events a couple of weeks ago in Brussels? The bomb attack on the airport and a metro station that left 32 people dead. Or how does what you've heard help you 'read' any world affairs and history?
They're big questions. What we see throughout the book of Daniel, is that one of the main themes is the rise and fall of kingdoms, rulers and powers. Some more humane, some absolutely barbaric. So what we've heard directly speaks into those news items. What we need to do is learn to see them with the 'lenses' of this vision. And what this vision says into those situations – is my 3 talks points:
Firstly, God is Sovereign over the Nations and their Rulers Today. I.e. for now, God allows people to oppose him and do what they like – but none-the-less, he is still sovereign over all. So we don't need to worry that things are out of control.
Secondly. God's Unopposed Kingdom is Coming. The great news is, justice will be done. Records have been kept of all the horror and evil that was done in Brussels. Even if they're never caught. And one day, ultimate justice will be handed out. They will be held to account, and every one of those families grieving today will see justice done.
And thirdly, Jesus has brought us into his Everlasting Kingdom. We should be reminded that, actually, when that ultimate judgement comes, every one of us will be held to account. And every one of us will fall short. And we should rejoice because Jesus has brought us into his everlasting Kingdom, through his blood on the cross. He didn't leave the world in chaos. He actually did something about it. He cared about it so much that he went to the cross. Though he was God, he emptied himself and became a servant. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Let me ask you one other similar question. How do you feel about living under an increasingly non-Christian government? Particularly as it starts to impinge on you in laws, work guidelines and policies that might affect you? Again, it's a very 'Daniel' question. You might feel frightened? Maybe frustrated? Wanting to get out? Wanting to change things? Maybe pessimistic about the future? What should our perspective be to these feelings? What does this chapter have to say? Well it's the same three points.
1. God is sovereign over the nations and their rulers today. -> so our first allegiance is to him. Ultimately these rulers will rise and fall and God is sovereign over them. So like Daniel, we're to stay loyal to God above any rulers and powers.
Secondly. God's unopposed Kingdom is coming. So don't lose heart! We know the future. It's the vision of the risen, reigning, returning Jesus that strengthens us. But like enigma, remember that we know the future but we're still in the fight. Be realistic and remember that ultimately, only the 2nd coming will change things absolutely. Only the 2nd coming will finally get us out of structures that we don't want be living under. So persevere.
Well, to conclude, Daniel says at the end of his vision, in verse 28, that he kept the matter in his heart. Do you have the future, the big picture kept in your heart?
Daniel had strength to go against the flow. He stayed loyal to God even when the going got tough. Because he knew what was to come. He knew it was worth it. And He knew that deep in his heart. Right from when he was torn away from everything familiar as a young man, to when he was faced with the lion's den much later in life – he put God first above everything else. Even willing to give his life. And we're called to do the same.
Let's pray, using a couple of verses from a great song.
When I am weary with the cost
I see the triumph of the cross
So in it's shadow I shall run
Till You complete the work begun
One day all things will be made new
I'll see the hope You called me to
And in your kingdom paved with gold
I'll praise your faithfulness of old
I'll praise your faithfulness of old
Father, we praise your faithfulness. Help us to walk in the shadow of the cross. Help us to remember the hope you've called us to. And help us to be faithful to you, even when the going gets tough. Amen