Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in August 2014.
In his 2014 book, “The Gospel According to Daniel: A Christ-Centered Approach,” Dr. Bryan Chapell explains that “Christ’s grace does not wait until the last chapters of Matthew to make its appearance.” It is, Chapell says, “the dawning light increasing throughout Scripture toward the day of the Savior.”
Throughout Daniel we see God’s faithfulness. We see that even as He disciplines His people for idolatry and rebellion, He loves them enough to warn them and discipline them and preserve them.
We see, too, that though Daniel was an exemplar of courage, God is the hero of Daniel’s story. It is God, Chapell points out, who provides protection, who gives favor, who gives health, and who faithfully provides what Daniel needs to be righteous.
And then there are the prophecies. When we set our hearts on what is certain, we hear the good news Daniel brings: “God will rescue His people by the work of the Messiah, the righteous will be vindicated, evil will be destroyed, and the covenant blessings will prevail because Jesus will reign.”
ByFaith asked Chapell to tell us more about his latest book.
The title of your new book is “The Gospel According to Daniel.” Since the book of Daniel is written in the context of Israel’s exile in the Old Testament, how is the Gospel revealed there?
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. We will not see these Gospel 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.
We are tempted to make Daniel the object of our worship in the first half of the book, which is largely a biography of his life. Daniel’s courage and faithfulness in a land of cruelty and captivity can easily tempt us to make him the primary hero of the text. In doing so 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 of the Gospel according to Daniel.
The second half of the book that contains most of the prophetic content can make us susceptible to a second error: making Daniel primarily the subject of our debates about eschatology (the end times). 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 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.
In Daniel’s time the people are in exile as a consequence of their idolatry and rebellion. Doesn’t that tell us more about God’s wrath than Gospel mercy?
The opening words of Daniel remind us that God is faithful to His word and to His people even through times of discipline. In Leviticus 26:33, 39 the Lord warned His people that faithlessness would result in exile. Now, after a lengthy history of disobedience, Nebuchadnezzar (in the early chapters) and other pagan kings (in later chapters) are the instruments of God’s discipline. The discipline includes the details that the “vessels of the house of God” and members of the “royal family” (Daniel 1:2–3) were taken from Jerusalem in accord with previous prophecies from Isaiah (2 Kings 20:12–19; Isaiah 39) that came in response to King Hezekiah’s arrogant display of Israel’s treasures to Babylonian representatives.
The discipline shows God’s faithfulness to His people in three ways. First, the discipline turns Israel from spiritually destructive disobedience to renewed blessing according to God’s long-term plan. Second, the warning of discipline indicates a divine heart that takes no delight in His people’s suffering. If God did not care, He would not warn. Third, the discipline itself demonstrates God’s persevering love — because He is faithful to His covenant with His people, God does not destroy them but maintains a remnant (that includes the royal line of David) in exile through which the Messiah will eventually come.
Are we wrong simply to present Daniel as a hero of the faith, and to encourage young and old to “dare to be a Daniel”?
Daniel acts faithfully, but God provides the protection and provision necessary for such righteousness. “God gave” the youth favor from the chief of the eunuchs (Daniel 1:9–10). God also gives better health to the four young men who did not eat the better food. God is working prior to, through, and beyond Daniel’s own resolve to act righteously. Such care reminds us to act righteously and let God take care of the rest that is needed for His purposes to be fulfilled.
We are meant to understand that God not only supernaturally preserves Daniel and his friends but is also working powerfully to provide His people hope in that age and in the ages to come. The final words of Chapter 1 mention King Cyrus, the future ruler who will allow Daniel’s people to return to Israel (v. 21; cf. 2 Chronicles 36:22–33; Ezra 1:1–3). God’s faithfulness through the ages and His promises for the ages to come are meant to give Daniel’s original readers and us abundant cause to maintain hope in God’s faithfulness as our own basis for living faithfully in present difficulties.
You talk about how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — as they faced the fiery furnace — “didn’t operate on the popular notion that faith is exceptional confidence in particular outcomes.” You tell readers that by their words and actions these three men tell us of a more biblical faith. Could you describe their faith?
The three young men acknowledge in Chapter 3 that God is able to deliver them (v. 17), regardless of what the king threatens. They also add an important “But if not …” regarding God’s willingness to save them from all earthly threats in their immediate context (v. 18). That qualification indicates a faith that is willing to bow before God’s sovereign wisdom and will. Whether God delivers them from the king’s present threats or into eternal bliss in heaven, the young men will not serve the false idols of Nebuchadnezzar. They do not demand that God deliver them in the way that they think is best, but trust that He will deliver as He knows is best. Their testimony reminds us that God’s deliverance may come in this life or in the life to come, but we have faith that His grace is always operating to provide what is best for our eternal good.
Daniel worked for Nebuchadnezzar, an evil and erratic king. Are there lessons there for us — about how to live faithfully in our circumstances?
In his state of abject humiliation, the incredibly evil and pagan King Nebuchadnezzar lifts his eyes to heaven and is restored by God. As long as he looks down on others, God is distant, but when Nebuchadnezzar looks up in desperation, God provides His grace. The words remind us not only that “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6), but also that there are none so evil or destitute that the grace of God cannot reach (Daniel 4:37).
Further we should recognize this grace does not come automatically or quickly even when through the ministry of a great prophet such as Daniel. God uses 40 years of testimony from Daniel before this pagan king finally claims the true God as his own. Accordingly, we should not give up on God’s grace regardless of the degree or time of spiritual failure in others — or in ourselves.
In Chapter 9 you discuss why Daniel not only confesses his sin but also the sins of his people. Daniel’s example, you explain, illustrates why it’s important for Christian leaders to take responsibility for the sins of their people. Would you talk about that?
To answer we must consider both beautiful and challenging implications of living in covenant-union with the people of God — and we should not think these are only Old Testament concerns, if we really are united to Christ and to each other by a work of the Spirit.
Why does Daniel confess personal sin, as well as the sin of those to whom he is ministering? There are at least two reasons. The first relates to the holiness of God. When Daniel confesses the sinfulness of his people, he simultaneously declares the opposite nature of God (cf. vs. 4, 9 and especially vs. 7: “Lord, you are righteous, but this day, we are covered with shame. …”). Such apprehension of the true holiness of God always results in the acknowledgment of personal unholiness (cf. v. 20; Isaiah 6:3-5 and Romans 3:23).
The second reason Daniel joins in the confession of those to whom he is ministering is the calling of God. Daniel confesses the reality of his sin and the people’s sin because he has been called to carry their burden as his own even though he did not cause the burden. This is evident in a change of terms in back-to-back verses of his prayer. First, Daniel speaks to God referring to people of Israel as “your city and your people that bear your name” (vs. 19). One might conclude that Daniel is simply separating the people from himself — i.e., “they’re your problem, God.” But then the prophet says in the next verse that he is confessing the sin of “my people” (vs. 20).
Daniel pre-echoes the words of Paul to the Corinthians, when the apostle said to those obstreperous people, “You are our letter” (2 Corinthians 3:2). Paul recognized that his own ministry — for good or for ill — was etched in the lives of the people to whom he ministered. They were his responsibility, and thus he carried responsibility for their sin as well as their triumphs. This is Luther’s theology of the cross, as he wrote that those who follow Christ must be prepared to suffer for the sins of others. Leaders of God’s people are called to carry His people’s burdens. They are to recognize their own shortcomings are to some extent stamped in their people’s sins. The calling of leaders requires us to carry burdens that we did not create (Cf. Galatians 6:2).
I am not saying that we bear personal culpability for all the sins in our family or community. Looking forward, Jeremiah spoke of the new covenant, saying, “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes — his own teeth will be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29-30). We go to Christ to ask forgiveness for our own sin. I do not have to know and confess all the sins of my predecessors to be free of their guilt. But do these words eliminate any consideration of the corporate aspects of evil?
Let us be clear about this. Grace certainly frees individual believers from the guilt of national, familial, and personal sin. The sins of our history and context do not keep us from individually enjoying the benefits of grace. And yet the benefits of grace should not keep individuals from confessing corporate responsibility for the sins of our families and culture. If I am so swept into a culture of materialism that I do not see or fight against the impoverishment of the disadvantaged, then I need to confess my personal sin. In addition, if I see and object to the sin but still live in, and benefit from, the society driven by such aims, then my confession of our corporate sin is appropriate. If I find racism abhorrent but still have advantages from the slave-owning heritage of my family or the oppression-ignoring history of my church, then I should confess the sin of my family and ecclesiastical affiliations. If I personally find the sins of abortion, sex trafficking, and chemical addictions abhorrent but find my life entwined in a culture that promotes such evil, then I have a responsibility to confess our sin with the prayer that God would bring His mercy and power to bear upon all of these evils. Grace is great enough to cover all our sin — individual and corporate — but does not free us from responsibilities to confess both.
Daniel confesses the reality of his sin and the people’s sin because he has been called to carry their burden as his own even though he did not cause the burden.”
Daniel’s visions are complex, and you’re up-front about the fact that we’re not sure about the meaning of every detail. But what do we know for sure, and what are we to do with that knowledge?
Early in my ministry, I wrote a book on Daniel dealing with the opening chapters describing his life. I didn’t feel that I had the depth of knowledge and understanding needed to deal with the second half of the book — the prophecies. Now 25 years later, I think I am still able only to skim the surface, but I forged ahead. In doing so, I discovered that Daniel writes amazing revelations of God’s faithfulness across future years with an accuracy that is meant to have impact on every subsequent generation.
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, focuses 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.
Bryan Chapell is senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Ill., and president emeritus at Covenant Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books available through Baker Books, including the bestselling “Christ-Centered Preaching” and “Christ-Centered Worship.”
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine.
Photography by Jay Fram