There is a lot of bad news throughout the world with people seeking power through violence. Daniel had some bad news for God’s people in exile about successive beastly and violent empires:
In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: 2 I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, 3 and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. 5 Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” 6 After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. 8 I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly. (Daniel 7:1-8 NRSV)
Most Biblical scholars see these four beast as representing the four empires that were in control from the time of Daniel. The lion is Babylon, the bear is Persia, the leopard is the Greek conquest of Alexander the Great, the terrifying fourth beast is Rome. So far this is all bad news for God’s people. But in Daniel’s vision there is good news:
9 As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
11 I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
13 As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:9-14 NRSV emphasis mine)
The good news is the judgement of evil, and the appointment of a new ruler. The contrast of this new ruler to the old regimes could not be clearer, for where the beasts come up from the sea, the appointed ruler comes from heaven. Also, where the empires are described as beasts, and so inhuman, he is described as being “like a son of man,” so quite humane. With Daniel’s prophecy in mind let us move forward in time and see how things work out. Let us go to Jesus’ calling of Nathanael:
49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:49-51 NRSV emphasis mine)
Here we are at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and already Nathanael is speaking about the identity of Jesus: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Perhaps most were thinking that Jesus should rather be identified as “carpenter, the son of Mary, and perhaps Joseph.” So Nathanael’s confession of Jesus’ identity is very lofty indeed. But Jesus points the disciples toward an even sharper confession of identity: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” The angels of God ascending and descending is a reminder of Jacob’s ladder and as such causes us to think of Jesus as the person where we meet God. Previous to Jesus that distinction was given to a place, the Temple. But we should also take note that Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man.” Some will say that this an expression simply means “human being,” and so ,though Jesus uses it to refer to himself very often, perhaps he means nothing special by it. But notice how Jesus uses it once he is arrested:
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” 61 But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
62 Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven. ’”
63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:60-64 NRSV emphasis mine)
At his conviction Jesus confirms what he has been meaning by “Son of Man” all along. He is the ruler God appoints in Daniel 7. He is the one who will end tyranny and oppression. He is the one who will bring justice. He is the good news.
So what do we learn from this?
First, we must think about the identity of Jesus. Many people in our society see Jesus as being a great moral teacher and nothing more. Some suggest that Jesus never pushed himself as being more than a moral teacher, that his divinity is a fabrication of his followers. But had Jesus been a great moral teacher and nothing more would he have been crucified? Notice the tipping point that caused the High Priest to declare that Jesus must die; It was Jesus calling himself the “Son of Man” who would be “coming with the clouds of heaven.” It was his blatant reference to himself as the coming ruler Daniel 7 points to. Do you go far enough in your understanding of who Jesus is? Have you really considered the Biblical teaching that Jesus is “Son of Man,” “Son of God,” and “God the Son?” Have you considered the evidence that the Biblical teaching is rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself and is not a later fabrication? Have you considered how He fulfills the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament?
Second, Jesus is the solution to the problem of inhuman empires today. How many empires and nations across our world could we describe as “beastly?” If rulers everywhere were to follow the example and teaching of Jesus in the way of the cross, the way of love, this would be a vastly different world, a more humane one.
Third, people and nations may ignore Jesus and his teachings now, but they will not be able to in the future. Atrocities are happening around the world and we wonder “where is justice?” The book of Revelation also reflects the fulfillment of Daniel 7:
7 Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. (Revelation 1:7 NRSV)
Justice is on the way. So also is a ton of love.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20 NRSV)