The book of Daniel in the Old Testament is best known to most Bible readers as the story of a man who ate vegetables, interpreted dreams, survived a lions’ den, and whose friends withstood a blast furnace. But how does the gospel of Jesus fit into it?
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Bryan Chapell (@GracePresPeoria) about his book, The Gospel According to Daniel: A Christ-Centered Approach (Baker Books, 2014).
Since Daniel is a book written in the context of the exile of Israel in the Old Testament, how is the gospel revealed there?
Dr. Chapell: When most people hear the word, “gospel,” they think exclusively about the “good news” that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose the Victor over them. But God did not wait to introduce us to aspects of his grace until Matthew 26. The entire Bible is the unfolding revelation of God’s grace (i.e. his provision for those who cannot provide for themselves). If his people had no preparation for the grace that culminates in Christ, then they (and we) would have been unable to grasp the implications of his provision.
The gospel according to Daniel comes in glowing revelations of the power of God to redeem his people, overcome their enemies, and plan their future. However, we will not see these gracious truths clearly if we fall into two common but errant approaches to the book: (1) Making Daniel the object of our worship; or, (2) Making Daniel solely the subject of our end time debates.
How do some people make Daniel the object of their worship, since he obviously was concerned to worship God faithfully himself?
Dr. Chapell: We’re tempted to make Daniel the object of our worship by primarily focusing on his courage. By making his faithfulness the primary focus, we neglect Daniel’s own message: God is the hero.
God preserves young men from impurity and an old man from lions; he answers prayer and interprets dreams; he exalts the humble and humbles the proud; he vindicates the faithful and vanquishes the profane; and he rescues covenant-forsaking people by returning them to the land of the covenant. Daniel acts on the grace God repeatedly provides, but God is always the One who first provides the opportunity, resources, and rescue needed for Daniel’s faithfulness. If we reverse the order, and make God’s grace dependent on Daniel’s goodness, then we forsake the gospel message Daniel is telling and produce the hero-worship of adventure tales, rather than the divine worship Daniel wanted.
How do we get distracted from this gospel focus in prophetic debates? Are you saying the prophecies of Daniel aren’t important?
Dr. Chapell: I am definitely not saying that the prophecies are unimportant. This book contains some of the most amazing and detailed prophecies in all of Scripture. Centuries in advance, Daniel predicts events as momentous as the succession of vast empires and he relates details as precise as the symptoms of a disease that will slay a future king. Daniel also speaks about the future of the people of God in visions that are hard to understand and that relate to some events still future to us.
These are important prophecies, but we can become so stressed and combative about the interpretation of particular aspects that we neglect the central message: God will rescue his people from their sin and misery by the work of a Messiah. The righteous will be vindicated, evil will be destroyed, and the covenant blessings will prevail because Jesus will reign. All this occurs not because humans control their fate or deserve God’s redemption, but because the God of grace uses his sovereign power to maintain his covenant mercy forever. This, too, is the gospel according to Daniel that should give us courage against our foes, hope in our distress and perseverance in our trials.
Daniel’s visions are complex, and you’re upfront about the fact that we’re not sure about the meaning of every detail. But what do we know for sure, and how is it intended to ignite our for zeal God’s purposes?
Dr. Chapell: Daniel describes in incredible detail events that are still centuries beyond his context. Much of what he prophesies becomes identifiable even in secular histories of those eras, when they finally arrive. But some of what Daniel describes is less certain and has led to heated debates among Christians. The nature of those debates became most telling for me as I was dealing with key verses toward the end of Daniel 9.
In verses 24-26, Daniel prophesies that Jerusalem and the temple will be restored, followed by a time of trouble, culminating in the appearance of the Messiah, who himself would be cut off before Jerusalem and its sanctuary would be destroyed. These details seem to align beautifully with Cyrus’ release of the captives, Jerusalem’s rebuilding, Christ’s coming, subsequent crucifixion, and the following destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
But, then, comes verse 27. This verse is extremely difficult to translate, and the best Hebrew scholars indicate that their translations are uncertain. Yet, many of the modern debates on the specific nature of the end times center on this verse – particularly as it is translated in various English versions of the Bible. As a consequence, most of what has been written on the latter portions of Daniel 9 deals very little with the clear revelation of God’s incredibly faithful and gracious activity through Christ and, instead, focus on getting the right sequence for end time events based on the highly symbolic words of this one verse. To me, that is a tragedy.
We judge and critique one another, jostling for the primacy of our conjectures and, as a consequence, the beautiful and unquestionable affirmations of God’s faithfulness through Christ get lost in the fray. My aim in this book is not to unravel every mystery – I am not a good enough scholar for that – but to apply some pastoral priorities to the things that are clear. In this way, I hope that God’s people will rejoice in the undeniable triumph of the gospel across the centuries so that they will have fresh basis for trusting their Savior every day.
Bio: Bryan Chapell (PhD, Southern Illinois University) is senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, as well as president emeritus and distinguished professor of preaching at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a widely traveled speaker and the author of numerous books, including the bestseller Christ-Centered Preaching, Christ-Centered Worship, and Holiness by Grace.