Eschatology: Entering a new culture

Reading biblical eschatology, especially in books like Revelation and Daniel, is like being a stranger in a foreign country. The Bible student is suddenly immersed in a confusing culture of strange language and unfamiliar customs and alien sights and sounds. All that they have learned and experienced in their native country is of little value as they try to make sense of the new environment.

What is the student of eschatology to do? The student must study end-times literature (“eschatology” = study of last things) with the humility of a traveler going to a foreign land, having the attitude of an observant learner. Here is what this looks like:

“Oh, wait! I have heard that phrase before. That seems to be an important phrase. I wonder what that means.”

“Now, wait a minute. When my host said this word, that happened. So, that word must mean this.” And so on, through countless iterations, the learning continues.

As time goes on, the traveler develops theories about the language and the culture, and then begins testing those theories to see if they are true. “Let me see. I think this means that. Does this mean that? Oops! Awkward moment! No, maybe this doesn’t mean that.” Gradually, step by step the culture begins to make sense. Words that were once strange become familiar and useful. Sights and sounds that were once alien and confusing become normal.

Time and humble observation are the keys. Couple humble observation with a system for capturing and connecting your observations and, over time, you will understand the culture. If you are humble and patient and diligent, you may eventually be mistaken for a native.

But notice that with eschatology, as with a foreign culture, you are required to adopt it. You do not impose your views on it, but you patiently and humbly conform to this unusual, unfamiliar, God-breathed Scripture, as you adopt it as your own. In other words, you do not conform the inspired Word to your ideas, but rather you allow the Word to teach you its ideas. In our analogy, the Word is the native, and we are the foreigners.

To give a personal example, I moved to Russia in January of 1997 to begin what turned out to be three years of “missionary” work with the Navigators, a US-based parachurch organization. I lived in a small town called Pushkin outside of St. Petersburg. I immediately entered a foreign culture where I could not talk (I did not speak Russian at the time) and where I had difficulty walking, since the streets were covered with ice and snow. If I had entered that environment resolved to teach the people of Pushkin how to speak English and to convey to them the pleasures of peanut butter, I think that I would have been frustrated. A better approach was to resolve to learn Russian and to try to walk on ice and to eat what they eat and to adopt their culture as my own. By God’s grace, that is what happened.

You can see the analogy with eschatology. Perhaps one of the reasons why Americans have difficulty with understanding eschatology is that most Americans have never had to adopt a foreign culture. That means most Americans have never been through the process of humble observation needed to change their perspective and to see things through a different lens. But eschatology is not like gospel or like narrative history or like Psalm or Proverbs. When studying eschatology, you must adopt the culture of eschatology or you will remain a foreigner and the culture of eschatology will be forever confusing.

SDG                 rmb                 2/17/2021

To Bow Down or Not to Bow Down in Babylon

We live in a world that is desperately short of heroes, and what we need today are heroes. We need those people who have noble convictions which they will never compromise regardless of the cost. Oh, where are those like the hero in Psalm 15: “He swears to his own hurt, and he does not change.”

One of the best places to find heroes is in the pages of the Bible where people like you and me display extraordinary courage and valor as they trust the Lord and are obedient to Him. Lately I have been spending time in the book of “Daniel,” and here I have found men who are willing to obey the LORD even in the face of dreadful consequences. Yes, here in “Daniel” I have found heroes.

In Daniel chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzar decides to build a giant golden idol in Babylon and to command all his officials from all over his realm to bow down to his golden image. As a motivator for their obedience, the king promises that anyone who does not bow down to his image will be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. So, as expected, when the signal is given, everyone obediently bows down to the golden image – everyone, that is, except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In a field full of prostrated people, these three Hebrew men remain conspicuously standing. Apparently defying the king’s command and despising the flames of the king’s fiery furnace, our heroes stand firm. They REFUSE TO BOW DOWN to a false god and idol WHEN THEY ARE COMMANDED TO BOW DOWN, even though their disobedience comes with a death threat. Unless God intervenes, these men will surely die. But God “sent His angel and delivered His servants (Daniel 3:28)” so that our heroes are vindicated.

In Daniel chapter 6, King Darius is tricked into establishing an injunction in Babylon that says “that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions (Daniel 6:7).” It is obvious that this ridiculous injunction was conceived to trap Daniel, since it was well known that he prayed to his God three times a day, every day. The conspirators’ plan was that the injunction would either result in Daniel’s ceasing to pray or it would result in his death in the lion’s den. What does Daniel do? Apparently defying the king’s injunction and despising the teeth of the lion’s den, our hero continues to bow down. Daniel REFUSES TO NOT BOW DOWN because of a man’s injunction WHEN HE IS COMMANDED TO NOT BOW DOWN, even though his disobedience comes with a death threat. Unless God intervenes, Daniel will surely die. But God “sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths (Daniel 6:22)” so that our hero is vindicated.

APPLICATION

In both these cases, our heroes are commanded to obey a man’s command that is contrary to God’s commands. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, because to worship the idol would be to disobey the LORD. And so, they refused to bow down, even though a fiery furnace awaited. Daniel refused to stop bowing down to worship his God, because to stop worship would be to disobey the LORD. And so, he continued to bow down, even though a den of lions awaited.

Also, their decision to obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19; 5:29) was both automatic and absolute. Automatic in that the decision was made without deliberation. The decision had been made long ago and this event was merely an occasion to put the resolution into effect. Absolute, in that it was unconditional and was not subject to change. No threat or coercion could sway the decision.

How does this apply to us? As our gospel message and mission continue to become more and more hostile to our culture, we will experience opportunities to compromise to the commands and demands of our society. Therefore, the disciple of Jesus needs to decide NOW to obey the Lord and to do what the Lord commands automatically and absolutely. Our enemy is a crafty and deceitful liar (John 8:44) and he will provide temptations to compromise suddenly and without warning. We must have our lines already drawn in the sand and we must already be prepared to stand firm (Ephesians 6:11ff). We must have already decided what it looks like to not bow down to what the world worships and never stop bowing down in our worship to the Lord.

SDG                 rmb                 7/20/2020

Judgment and Grace in Babylon

The book of “Daniel” in the Bible divides neatly into two parts. The first six chapters give us narrative accounts of the adventures of Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as they interact with the kings in Babylon. Then the last six chapters give us prophetic visions of the future, a future that covers the time of Daniel till the end of time. In the narrative section, two of the kings we encounter are King Nebuchadnezzar and King Belshazzar. It is these two kings that I want to consider, particularly exploring their relationship with the Most High God of the Hebrews (whom we know elsewhere as Yahweh, the LORD).

BACKGROUND

The best way, of course, to gain a grasp of the background of these two men and to understand the context of their stories in the Bible is to read the accounts of their lives in the respective sections of Scripture. So then, be sure that you have read “Daniel” chapters 1-4 about Nebuchadnezzar and “Daniel” chapter 5 about Belshazzar in preparation for this article.

Several things are obvious from the pages of Scripture. The most significant feature of both these men is that they are pagans. The word is not to be understood as judgmental, but as factual, because the word “pagan” just means “a worshiper of any god or gods other than the God of the Bible.” These men lived far away from Israel and Jerusalem and were completely ignorant of the God of the Hebrews. So, they did not know or acknowledge “the Most High God” or “the God of heaven.” This ignorance of the LORD and of His Law means that the Babylonian culture had no moral standards, and so Babylon was marked by the immorality and the idolatry that inevitably follow such a worldview.

Since this article is exploring their individual relationships with the Most High God, it is necessary to describe how the Most High God, the LORD, viewed these pagan kings. As is true for all those who violate His holy Law and who live immoral and defiant lives, so it was true for Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, that their transgressions and their sins brought them under the judgment and wrath of God (Romans 1:18). As we have already mentioned, when they are first introduced to us in the book of “Daniel,” it is obvious that they both kings know nothing about this “Most High God.” Nevertheless, from the LORD’s perspective, they have each violated His holiness and broken His holy laws and are thus both subject to His wrath and judgment. This means that, according to the clear teaching of the Bible, unless something changes in their lives, both these men deserve eternal punishment and will spend eternity in what the Bible calls “hell.”

JUDGMENT FOR BELSHAZZAR

We will first look at King Belshazzar. It becomes clear from Daniel 5 that Belshazzar is not only completely ignorant of the God of the Hebrews, the Most High God, but he is also defiant in his attitude toward this God, in essence treating Him as just another petty pagan deity of a defeated people. In the midst of his drunken party (Daniel 5:1-4), he calls for the vessels from the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, to be brought out so that he and all his pagan partiers may drink wine from them and use those vessels to praise the pagan gods of Babylon, “but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored (5:23).” This is clearly dangerous business, and, in the end, this final act of rebellion seals the doom of Belshazzar and his Chaldean kingdom, as the LORD brings judgment. Thus, Belshazzar dies and perishes (5:30).

Before we move on to an examination of Nebuchadnezzar, it would be good to digest what happened to Belshazzar. Tragically, he perished; that is, he remained under the judgment of God until the day of his death, and therefore, he will be punished forever in what the Bible calls “hell.” I mentioned above that something needed to change in Belshazzar’s life, or he would be judged and condemned. Well, nothing changed. Belshazzar continued in his rebellion against the Most High God and did not repent or worship the God of heaven. He, therefore, received his deserved judgment.

GRACE FOR NEBUCHADNEZZAR

There is a grand mystery in how the Lord, the Most High God, deals with the children of Adam. The Bible makes clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” The Bible also makes clear that “the wages of sin is (eternal) death (Romans 6:23),” thus making plain that every single one of us deserves God’s terrifying judgment. But the Bible also makes plain that not all receive God’s judgment. God will certainly punish all sin, but not all people will be punished: this is the mystery. Indeed, Job asks the question, “But how can a man be in the right before God? (Job 9:2)” In Job’s way of thinking, if a person sinned, there must be punishment. Sin meant a person was no longer “in the right before God.” So, how could they be reconciled? This is the mystery.

The solution to this mystery has now been revealed in the Scripture, and it is summed up in one word: grace. Grace has been described as God’s “unmerited favor,” favor that He freely chooses to bestow on certain undeserving sinners, with the result that those so chosen are delivered from His wrath and judgment and are instead forgiven of their sins and are adopted by God as His very own children and are guaranteed an eternity in heaven with Him. God’s grace and mercy and love were supremely demonstrated in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cruel cross.

I bring up the subject of grace now because here in Daniel chapters 1-4 we see a demonstration of God’s grace through the spiritual journey of King Nebuchadnezzar. We have already seen how Belshazzar received his deserved judgment. But by contrast, as we read of King Nebuchadnezzar, we see that he receives amazing patience and grace from the God of heaven. Make no mistake about it: Nebuchadnezzar starts out fully as ignorant of the Most High God as any other Chaldean would be. The king has serious anger issues, demonstrated in his flying into a tirade because his magicians cannot tell him his dream (Ch. 2) and then in getting furious when the Hebrew men will not bow down to his golden image (Ch. 3). Finally, in chapter 4 we see Nebuchadnezzar’s immense pride as he congratulates himself for all that he has accomplished in Babylon. Ignorance and malevolence and arrogance make a pretty nasty brew, but such is the Chaldean king.

But in the midst of all these theatrics, we must not miss what God is doing by His providence. Instead of bringing judgment upon Nebuchadnezzar for his many and great sins, He graciously uses a series of providences to draw the king to Himself, so that, in the end, he not only knows about the LORD, but he also praises Him as his God. Notice the progression:

  • In Chapter 1, since Nebuchadnezzar is so far from Jerusalem and is so distant from the knowledge of the LORD and of His Word, the LORD providentially arranges to have four “ambassadors” (Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael) sent from Jerusalem to Babylon to begin to live in the very court of the king himself. Now, through the means of a conquest and an exile, there are four messengers of the LORD in close proximity to the pagan king.
  • In Chapter 2, the LORD gives Nebuchadnezzar a dream about a multi-metallic statue. The dream cannot be told by the Chaldean magicians and so, providentially, Daniel comes into the presence of the king to tell the dream and its interpretation. In the course of telling the dream, Daniel introduces Nebuchadnezzar to the “God of heaven.” In Daniel 2:46-47, Nebuchadnezzar declares to Daniel, Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries.” At this point, then, Nebuchadnezzar knows about the “God of heaven” and is impressed with His power, although certainly the king is not a worshiper yet.
  • Chapter 3 is the well-known story of the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. When confronted with certain death as the price of their obedience, the Hebrew men politely defy the king and tell him that their God can deliver them from his furnace. Nebuchadnezzar is astounded by what the “God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” does in “sending His angel and delivering His servants who trusted in Him (Daniel 3:28).” Now Nebuchadnezzar not only knows about the existence of the Most High God, the God of the Hebrews, but he also knows that this God is able to save from the fire. This God is more powerful than a blazing fiery furnace and this God will act to deliver His servants from the flames. This God is a saving God. Do you see how the LORD is slowly, graciously drawing Nebuchadnezzar to Himself?
  • Chapter 4 is the culmination of the grace of the LORD toward Nebuchadnezzar, as we see him both at the beginning of the chapter and at the end giving praise to the Most High God, the King of heaven (4:2, 34, 37, etc.). In fact, Chapter 4 could well be considered Nebuchadnezzar’s personal testimony, for in this chapter the king talks about “the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me (4:2).” He describes how, through the means of another dream interpreted by Daniel, he went from being  a proud king to a man humbled to the level of a beast, to then being restored to his kingdom, but with a new perspective on the King of heaven, whom he praises, extols, and honors. Through God’s providence and grace, the Most High God has become HIS GOD.

As the Bible so often does, here in Daniel chapters 1-5 the Scripture illustrates for us theological principles through these narrative stories. Here we see the grace of God that patiently leads King Nebuchadnezzar to become a worshiper of the Most High God. And we also see the justice of God demonstrated in King Belshazzar that subjects to judgment those who do not repent and who do not bow the knee to worship the LORD.

REFLECTIONS

The story of the justice of God and the grace of God continues to this day and will continue until the Lord Jesus returns. This is a story that touches every single human being, for it should be clear that, as both these kings deserved God’s judgment because of their sin, so every one of us deserves God’s judgment because of our sin. But the grace of God has provided a substitute for those chosen by God who will take our punishment in our place. Jesus Christ is our substitute and the greatest picture of God’s grace.

For those who are already followers of Jesus, another point of reflection is to try to grasp the grace of God that has been given to you, for it is crystal clear that your salvation was entirely undeserved. The only thing that we are able to merit is condemnation and judgment. Yet God, for reasons known only to Him, has decided to lavish His grace on you and to reckon you as righteous because of the work of Christ. He would have remained perfectly righteous and just to have cast you headlong into an eternal hell, but He chose instead to give you His grace, His unmerited favor. His grace included His patience and His providence as He carefully crafted the steps of your journey to faith in Him. Like His grace toward Nebuchadnezzar, He guided you every step of the way so that you would arrive at repentance and faith and would become His adopted child.

SDG                 rmb                 7/17/2020

Daniel 2: Christ is Foreshadowed in Babylon

I have been meditating on Daniel 2 in recent days. In reading the text, it appears on the surface that this chapter is a story of a crazy king who has a strange dream and, because he doesn’t understand the dream, the king issues an outrageous decree that only Daniel, with divine help, can fulfill. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is well-known, and because it is so unusual and its interpretation is so significant, it seems that the dream is the appropriate focus of the chapter.

But as I considered the context and the circumstances of the chapter in a different light, and as I remembered that the Old Testament often foreshadows the coming of Jesus Christ and gives us illustrations of the salvation that He would bring, I began to see another picture hidden in this chapter, a picture of Jesus rescuing His people from the wrath of God by fulfilling the demands of God’s holy law on their behalf.

You may ask the question, “Where do you see that in this chapter?” Well, begin by understanding that what happens to Daniel in this chapter foreshadows something of Christ. In theological terms, this concept is called a “type.” Thus Daniel is a type of Christ. So I am suggesting that there is a parallel between the events of Daniel 2 and something that Christ accomplishes in His earthly ministry and that the events of this narrative in Daniel 2 are intentionally presented to point us to Christ. If you are following me so far, I invite you to consider the following parallels.

  • As Nebuchadnezzar, the sovereign ruler of Babylon, issues his decree of “Tell me my dream or perish,” so the LORD God, the sovereign ruler of the universe, has issued His decree to mankind: “Obey My law or perish.”
  • As there was no wise man found in Babylon who could fulfill the demands of Nebuchadnezzar’s decree, so there is no one among the children of Adam who can fulfill the LORD God’s decree.
  • And since all the wise men have failed to fulfill Nebuchadnezzar’s decree, all the wise men must perish as a consequence. Just so, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and all people have failed to fulfill the LORD God’s righteous decree, we are all subject to God’s judgment and His righteous condemnation as a consequence. (The soul who sins will die. Ezekiel 18:4, 20)
  • So you see that both the wise men of Babylon and all of sinful humanity need a Savior, someone who can rise up from among them and satisfy the king’s decree on their behalf so that they do not perish. In both scenarios there is a need for a Savior who can rescue those who are perishing.
  • And as Daniel rises up from among the wise man of Babylon to save them from the king’s fury, just so Jesus Christ was sent from heaven to become Man and to perfectly fulfill the Law of God on our behalf to save His people from the righteous wrath of God.

And so these unusual events which occurred so long ago in Babylon are presented to point us to Christ. Daniel gives us a picture of Christ and foreshadows for us what Jesus Christ will accomplish. Jesus Christ is the Savior that we need to deliver us from God’s holy wrath, for He is the only One who can perfectly fulfill the law’s demands so that, for all who trust in Him, Christ is our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21).         SDG       rmb         1/28/2017