An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Daniel (Part One)
We begin our series on the Book of Daniel in a surprising place–the Gospel of Matthew with Jesus giving the Olivet Discourse. The discourse is so named because Jesus and this disciples were sitting on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley at the magnificent Jersualem temple, restored to its original grandeur by king Herod. Jesus uses this occasion to predict the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem, as well as discuss the end of the age. When passing the temple earlier that day, his disciples asked him a question about the end of the age and what would happen to the temple. Jesus told them, “you see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). The temple will be completely destroyed–again. Jesus is predicting something unthinkable for a Jew, since the Jewish people had endured this fate once already. And this time, Jesus implies the destruction will be final. While predicting the destruction of the temple and teaching his disciples about the end of age, Jesus repeatedly appeals to the prophet Daniel. And so it is here we will begin our series on the Book of Daniel–with Jesus, on the Mount of Olives, teaching his disciples about the end, by quoting from or alluding to Daniel’s prophecies. By considering how Jesus read and understood the Book of Daniel and considering our Lord’s role in Daniel’s prophecies, we will be better able to interpret Daniel correctly.
Taking this brief detour will prepare us by providing background for our upcoming series on Daniel, a book which many preachers avoid because Daniel is a very difficult book to interpret. I also chose to start with the Olivet Discourse because our recent sermon series on Ezra-Nehemiah, and our recent Advent sermons in many ways, are either tied to the Book of Daniel, or address some of the same themes (especially the fate of the Jewish people, their temple, and Jerusalem), which we have covered in these recent series. So I thought it helpful to begin our series on Daniel by considering a remarkable passage in the New Testament where all of these things are in view. That passage is the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24 (with parallels in Mark 13 and Luke 21) where Jesus quotes or alludes to prophecies of Daniel, especially as these prophecies impact the future role of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in redemptive history. As we will see next time (as we conclude our time in Matthew 24), Jesus even refers to himself as the mysterious divine figure, the Son of Man, who is the central figure in one of Daniel’s visions (chapter 7). We must understand Daniel as does Jesus.
We begin this morning with a bit of historical recap. The first Jerusalem temple (built by David and Solomon) was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC in the days immediately before the Babylonian exile. As we will see when we take up Daniel’s prophecy, Daniel actually served in Nebuchadnezzar’s royal court and even interpreted one of the king’s dreams. The destruction of the temple and the sacking of Jerusalem in 587 was Israel’s darkest moment, until Jesus predicts an even darker day to yet come for Israel–a day of terrible distress foretold by Daniel. In the days of Ezra-Nehemiah–who write a century or so after Daniel–the Jews eventually returned to the land, and rebuilt their temple in 516 B.C. After four centuries of struggle and oppression by Gentile empires, by the time of Jesus, Israel’s national identity once again centered around this magnificent building.
The Jerusalem temple figures quite prominently in the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, because the conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees escalates to the point of no return once Jesus entered the temple after his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, only to find his messianic mission challenged and then rejected by Israel’s leaders. Though the temple pointed to the work of redemption that Jesus was about to accomplish with his death and resurrection, the Pharisees sought to keep Jesus from preaching in his father’s house. The tragic irony in all of this is that Israel’s spiritual condition had fallen to the same level of unbelief as in the days before the exile. The people’s hearts are once again far from YHWH. The religious leaders trust in their rituals and in human righteousness. They think the temple, the law, religious ceremonies and festivals, and circumcision are ends in themselves. They see no need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ, thinking their own quite sufficient.
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