Continued from part 4, a tale of two seeds
In Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great statue, representing four kingdoms. The first kingdom is definitely Babylon, and the second definitely includes Persia; but scholars quibble over the divisions from there on out.
I believe we can say with confidence that, despite what many scholars prefer, the second kingdom is Media-Persia, the third Greece, and the fourth Rome. The reason for having such confidence is this: Reading verse 44, we learn that in the day of the kings of this fourth kingdom, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, and the kingdom will not be left for another nation, and it will bring an end to all these kingdoms, but it will stand forever.”
As I will now set out to show, this describes the work of Jesus in history, at the height of the Roman empire.
The same four kingdoms appear—or perhaps more correctly the powers behind them appear—in the beginning of Daniel 7. This time they are represented as four beasts. Daniel is considering the horns of the fourth beast, which represent kings (Daniel 7:24), when the scene changes to the divine courtroom:
I continued watching until thrones were placed and an Ancient of Days sat; his clothing was like white snow and the hair of his head was like pure wool and his throne was a flame of fire and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued forth and flowed from his presence; thousands upon thousands served him and ten thousand upon ten thousand stood before him. The judge sat, and the books were opened.
I continued watching then because of the noise of the boastful words of the horn who was speaking; I continued watching until the beast was slain and its body was destroyed, and it was given over to burning with fire. And as for the remainder of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but a prolongation of their life was given to them for a season and a time.
I continued watching in the visions of the night, and look, with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man was coming, and he came to the Ancient of Days, and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all the peoples, the nations, and languages would serve him; his dominion is a dominion without end that will not cease, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.Daniel 7:9–14
Here we see the heavenly event which ushers in the kingdom promised in Daniel 2:44 during the time of the fourth kingdom. But before we link this to the New Testament, there is one other very remarkable detail that comes shortly afterward—a critical clue to how the kingdom of God unfolds in the church age:
These great beasts which are four in number are four kings who will arise from the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom, and they will take possession of the kingdom forever—forever and ever.Daniel 7:18
We have seen that “holy ones” is a common term used to describe divine beings, the sons of God—especially when linked to terms like “the Most High.” But clearly these holy ones are not divine beings: the whole point of Daniel 7:18; 22; 27 is that the holy ones are given rulership or possession of the kingdom of God, which they do not yet have; and this stands in obvious contrast to the rulership or possession of the nations, which the sons of God currently do have. What we see in Daniel 7 is a changeover from the old dominion we’ve discussed, to a new one. The rulership of the nations is stripped from the gods, taken over by the Son of Man, and subsumed into an eternal kingdom that will never end. This leaves only one likely group these holy ones could be: God’s human people. And indeed, this is reflected in translations like the ESV, which renders “holy ones” as saints. The holy ones in Daniel 7 cannot be the sons of God; rather, they must be the saints of God—who by implication are taking dominion taken away from the sons of God.
Keep this clue in mind as we move forward. For now, the big question is:
When does the Son of Man come on the clouds of heaven to take possession of the eternal kingdom, as depicted in Daniel 7?
When does Jesus receive dominion and glory and kingship, that all the peoples and nations and languages should serve him? When does he become the ruler of this eternal kingdom that will never be destroyed and never come to an end?
Well, this question has become clouded—pun very much intended—by the rise of eschatological systems which interpret all the New Testament language about the Son of Man coming on the clouds as references to the parousia—that future time when Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead. But this won’t do, because Daniel explicitly places the advent of the eternal kingdom at the time of the fourth kingdom. Whether this fourth kingdom is Greece or Rome, it is either way an event far back in history. There is simply no millennia-long gap in Daniel’s timeline.
Jesus himself explicitly clarifies the timeline in Mark 14:62, when he tells the high priest: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (cf. Psalm 110:1 in addition to Daniel 7:13–14). Similarly, in Matthew 16:28 he tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” By the same token, in the Olivet Discourse, he foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, and the tribulation that will follow, and then concludes:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.Matthew 24:29–34; par. Mark 13:24–30; Luke 21:25–32
Matthew, Mark and Luke all explicitly say that the generation of Jesus’ day would not pass away until all these things took place. And indeed, how could they—for if this were all still to happen, even today, Jesus would still be waiting to usher in the kingdom of God. But Ephesians 1:20–22 says that God has already “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet.” 1 Corinthians 15:27 and 1 Peter 3:22 also explicitly identify this as a done deal; a finished event.
But what of the cosmic signs—the sun and the moon and the stars being darkened? Surely that is future language depicting the end of the world? I dare say most Christians interpret it that way; but look at how Peter recapitulates this language in Acts 2:19–21:
And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.Acts 2:19–21
Is this speaking of Jesus returning to earth amid a literally darkened sun, blood moons, volcanoes and red tides? To answer straightforwardly, notice that Peter links these things all together: the signs, the day of the Lord, and the universal gospel call. Everyone calling on the name of the Lord is conterminous with these other events. Now, everyone calling on the name of the Lord is what was happening at Pentecost; it is illustrated in people from every nation calling on the name of the Lord. That is ongoing from then until now. But in that case, the day of the Lord has come—and the apocalyptic signs either didn’t actually happen as predicted…or the Bible is not supposed to be read like a modern newspaper.
Now consider Isaiah 13—an oracle against Babylon. In the midst of the language about how Yahweh is going to summon armies against Babylon and crush it decisively, we read this:
Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
I will punish the world for its evil,
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.
I will make people more rare than fine gold,
and mankind than the gold of Ophir.
Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,
and the earth will be shaken out of its place,
at the wrath of the LORD of hosts
in the day of his fierce anger.Isaiah 13:9–11
Clearly there are eschatological overtones here, but the immediate prophecy is about Babylon—the historical empire. It was fulfilled when that historical empire fell to Persia in 539 BC. Did the sun and the moon and the stars go dark back then—or did Isaiah mean for us to understand his poetic language…poetically? By the same token, take Ezekiel’s lamentation over the king of Egypt, which is even more extreme: in Ezekiel 32:5–8, not only are the same signs in the heavens prophesied, but also Pharaoh’s flesh being strewn on the mountains and his blood through the ravines.
Should we imagine these things literally happened? Of course not; the language is hyperbolic metaphor. In the case of the luminaries, these represent political powers; the descriptions of cosmic upheaval are images of political upheaval—both in the human and the spiritual realms, due to the connection between spiritual conflicts and terrestrial warfare (e.g. 2 Kings 6:17), and the connection of the luminaries with gods (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:19; Psalm 148:3; but cf. also Genesis 37:9).
Put succinctly, the images of cosmic upheaval are exactly the metaphors the Bible would use to describe a shakeup in the heavenly realms. This is exactly the kind of language we should expect of one ruler triumphing or conquering—especially when that ruler is God.
Now notice that in Daniel, when Jesus comes on the clouds, he is not coming to earth. He is coming to the throne of God in heaven. That is where all rule is handed over to him. This is something that happened in the first century AD; the passages I’ve cited are unequivocal about that. Indeed, we can even have some confidence about the exact time, since surely Luke’s account of the Ascension is intended to evoke the language of Daniel 7:
And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”Acts 1:9–11
Luke rather labors the point that Jesus went into heaven—on a cloud, no less. Given that his work of redemption was complete at this point, and he had given all the instructions to the disciples that he needed to, this is surely the moment at which he went to the right hand of God—which Daniel 7:13–14 and Psalm 110:1 are speaking of. Indeed, Peter directly references Psalm 110:1 shortly afterward at Pentecost, claiming that it has been fulfilled as he explains to the Jews what has happened (Acts 2:34–35). This theme is self-consciously completed in Acts 7, as Stephen is being executed:
And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”Acts 7:56
The imminence of this event—the impending transfer of power from the gods to Jesus—is why, in Mark 1:15, Jesus comes preaching that “the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand.” What time is fulfilled? Well, probably the 1,290 days—3½ years—of Daniel 12:11, taking this figure as symbolic rather than literal, given that it varies in other places (Daniel 8:14; 12:12). Either way, the point is that the kingdom of God is imminent. It is in the process of arriving with Jesus.
So however you interpret the 3½ years, the fourth kingdom of Daniel is certainly Rome, and not Greece: It was Rome that executed Jesus, and it was Rome that held power when Jesus took over rulership of the nations. His kingdom has now come.
Now there is, of course, a future time when that kingdom will be consummated—fully established on earth at the second coming of Jesus. We know, for instance, that sinners will not inherit that kingdom—a future event (e.g. Ephesians 5:5). But the very same kingdom has already, unquestionably been inaugurated. Luke 17:20–21:
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
Although the kingdom of God will ultimately come in ways that are very observable—no one is going to miss Jesus’ return—Jesus is responding to the Pharisees’ mistaken notion that it would come in this life by military conquest. No, he says, but rather the kingdom is indeed already in this life, in the midst of you. It is exemplified in the very presence of Jesus, and of his disciples.
Which brings us to how God is retaking Adam’s kingdom from Satan…