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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Too Much for Sunday School

I can recall nearly every chapter of Daniel from my childhood. Many kids who grew up in Christian homes can (or could; our current generation may not be so well versed).

This shouldn’t surprise us. Many stories from Daniel make fantastic Sunday School material, and I mean literally fantastic — there are miracles to be found throughout the book: the golden image and the fiery furnace; Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; the king’s humbling at the hand of God; the writing on the wall; the den of lions; the prophetic visions of coming kingdoms depicted as beasts (kingdoms we actually studied in history class, so I knew this was no fairy tale); and so on.

And the stories are not just fascinating; they make significant moral points: stand for what you believe in; don’t be proud; don’t blaspheme; trust in God; the heavens rule.

Of course the book sticks in our memories. Why wouldn’t it?

Missing from the Curriculum

But for some reason chapter 10 doesn’t usually end up in our Sunday School curricula.

Maybe its vision of God is too scary and ambiguous, in need of a little too much explanation. A God who preserves those who obey him from lions and furnaces is appealing: a God whose glory is so terrifying that his own most-prized servants fall on their faces in pain and can barely move or speak is a much harder sell.

On the other hand, not much happens in the chapter. It is a prelude to another revelation, and perhaps the writers of Sunday School curricula tend to skip over lengthy introductions. If the chapter doesn’t advance the narrative, however, it does provide a pretty awe-inspiring preincarnate vision of Christ.

Visions of God?

Are we 100% sure who is being depicted for us here? I think so. Daniel does not spell it out unequivocally and my ESV ducks the question, titling the chapter “Daniel’s Terrifying Vision of a Man” (which is fine; I’m not sure I want translators doing my interpretation for me anyway). But personally I have no doubt we are seeing the Lord pictured here.

Daniel has already encountered the angel Gabriel, referring to him simply as “the man Gabriel”, and has seen visions of the Ancient of Days. Such encounters from a distance alarmed him and made him grow pale, but caused nowhere near the physical and emotional devastation of the “man clothed in linen” Daniel meets in chapter 10.

Daniel and Revelation

Daniel’s description is all too similar to that of John in the earliest chapters of Revelation (and even evokes Mark’s account of the transfiguration). The parallels between the glorified Christ of the New Testament and Daniel’s man clothed in linen are too many to be mere coincidence. Daniel refers to “white linen”; Mark says, his clothes became radiant, intensely white”. Daniel talks about “a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist”; John notes “a golden sash around his chest”. Daniel says his eyes were “like flaming torches”; John says they were “like a flame of fire”. Daniel says his voice was “like the sound of a multitude”; John compares it to “the roar of many waters”. Of his face, Daniel says it was “like the appearance of lightning” while John calls it “like the sun shining in full strength”. Daniel remarks on “arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze”, the very image John uses to describe the feet of the “one like a son of man”.

What minimal differences there are between the descriptions are surely attributable to the witnesses and their personal choices of imagery, not to mention the fact that both were overwhelmed. Any apparent discrepancies are not so much contradictory as complementary.

Disclaimer Time

Of course, if this is the Christ appearing to Daniel prior to his incarnation, some things about his story need explaining, and I’m not one to speculate: I’ll simply point them out. How is it that the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” is able to withstand the pre-incarnate Christ twenty-one days? How is it that he was “left there with the kings of Persia”?

These are mysteries few Sunday School teachers are equipped to explore with their charges. We are usually reluctant to be too ambiguous with kids, to say we don’t know or to leave their questions unanswered.

Alien Concepts

I don’t find such conundrums change my conviction about the identification of the man clothed in linen, but like all things heavenly, I think they open up a window to images and concepts so fascinating and yet simultaneously so intensely alien to our earth-bound minds that many Christians simply yank down the blinds and refuse to go there for any great length of time. They leave us with unanswered questions by the bucketload. They suggest theological complexities we are currently unequipped to decode.

But it’s like that with anything to do with heavenly things in scripture. Talk about the specific details of the New Jerusalem with many believers and they’ll quickly resort to bromides like “Well, of course that’s not a literal description …” or incredulities like “Surely you don’t really believe the streets are really paved with gold!” and “If the gates of the city are made of single pearls, how big would that oyster have to be?”

Things Earthly and Things Heavenly

Such questions irk me. Yes, of course the streets of New Jerusalem are probably not surfaced by angelic road crews dragging ton after ton of literal gold up literal mineshafts. I sincerely doubt there are colossal oysters under the seas of some far off nether-realm secreting literal nacre around really, really large irritants to fill some heavenly purchase order.

At the same time, such descriptions mean something more than “heaven is really pretty”, which is about all the ‘it’s-not-literal’ crowd can come up with. They are repeated. They are precise. There is good reason the physical effects on those who described them to us have been shared with us. We must not take them lightly or dismiss them. If we are not to picture streets of gold and giant pearls, what exactly should we picture?

Personally, I think serious Christians need to spend more time in such passages. There is surely some kind of intelligent, spiritual middle ground to be found between childish literalism and free-floating, contentless mysticism — or worse, dismissing the subject entirely. The things of heaven may well be too much for Sunday School. Should they really be too much for mature adult believers who rightfully anticipate spending eternity with the Lord Jesus?

I hope not.

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