Recovering the Message of Scripture
In this special section of our “Rightly Dividing the Word” issue, nine pastor-theologians help shed light on some popular texts of Scripture that tend to lose their true redemptive-historical significance in a culture of interpretive narcissism.
There are few Old Testament accounts that better highlight the pastoral necessity for properly distinguishing the law from the gospel than that of Daniel in the lions’ den. It is a beautiful and powerful story of God’s faithfulness to his servant and, by extension, to his chosen people during foreign occupation and oppression. This account of God’s specific fidelity to Daniel, however, is often flattened out into a series of general principles for living. In sermons that are more suited for a Rotary Club meeting than the pulpit, treatments of the lions’ den almost invariably encourage you to “dare to be a Daniel” and face down the lions in your life.
This type of moralizing, this tropological reading of the Old Testament–one that Luther and the other Reformers explicitly critiqued–replaces the Christian message of hope and redemption with a perhaps well-intended but nevertheless misguided attempt to motivate and inspire people with morality tales rather than allowing the law and gospel to kill and make alive. The story of Daniel provides a wonderful way to make this distinction between the law and gospel in the Old Testament and clearly points to Christ and his redeeming work. Unfortunately for me, in order to understand this, it took me many years of failing to “dare.”
Between college and seminary I worked for a student ministry called Fellowship of Christians in Universities and Schools (FOCUS), and my job consisted primarily of working with high school guys, helping to connect their lives with the truths of the Christian message. As I saw it at the time, Jesus offered the way to have your best, most purposeful life now, and it was my job to motivate, encourage and lead these students on the paths of righteousness. Often centering my teaching on “Great Men of the Bible,” the strategy was always to examine the lives of these people, point out their failings and then show how, with enough faith and effort, God could and would redeem them. I loved the humanizing aspects of these heroes; the accounts when Abraham introduces his wife Sarah as his sister, or Jacob and his wrestling match with God, were always favorites. Give me Moses and his reluctance, Paul and his murderous zeal, Peter’s denials, Thomas’s doubts, and, of course, let’s never forget David–thank God for David–but I never touched the book of Daniel.
Perhaps it was because I was too aware of my own irregular prayer life to find much comfort in studying Daniel and his insufferably devout (three times daily) routine (cf. Dan. 6:10). Or maybe I was intimidated by his intelligence (Dan.1:4), his self-control (1:8), or his forward-thinking eco-friendly sustainable vegetarianism (1:12). Whatever the case, I was always more comfortable studying almost anyone else. Daniel was too perfect, too faithful, too much for me to teach about with any sense of integrity–not only was his example too much to handle, but also the rewards of his faithfulness were too painful. I was acutely aware of “lions in my own life”–as well as times when I cowardly failed to stand up to my Nebuchadnezzar–and Daniel stood as a constant rebuke. What I was missing was a clear picture of the gospel, a way of incorporating the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection into my appreciation of the Old Testament. What I needed was what C. F. W. Walther would have called “the proper distinction between law and gospel.”
Rightly distinguishing the law from the gospel, more than understanding terminology, is about always keeping the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus front and center. As the apostle Paul endeavored to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), so the distinction between law and gospel assures that the cross will always be the lens through which the entirety of Scripture is read. By maintaining this distinction, we see that the law, in this respect, is what we could not fulfill–the judgment of our unbelief and what necessitated Jesus’ substitutionary death. Like a diagnostic tool, the cross reveals the extreme depths of our need for both forgiveness and redemption; it puts the question of sin in the starkest, most dramatic relief. The gospel, on the other hand, is the message of Jesus–our Advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1)–being “crucified for our transgressions and raised for our Justification” (Rom. 4:25); it is the proclamation of the good news that God has reconciled us to himself in Christ and “by his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
This brings us back to Daniel. When this account is read outside the lens of the cross, we are tempted to view Daniel as more of a fictional role model than a real human who was given the faith to trust and rest in the promised fidelity of God. True, Daniel was delivered up out of the lions’ den by God’s faithfulness, but when we view this as a pattern to be emulated rather than a promise that we’ve seen fulfilled in Christ, then we are tempted to read Daniel without any reference to the cross at all! When we see that faith in the hoped-for redemption that fueled Daniel’s fidelity has been accomplished in Christ, then we can fully appreciate the message of Daniel, not as a way that God works through general principles, but as a testimony to how he worked then and a promise of his continued involvement now. In this respect, the idea behind “Dare to be a Daniel” is not altogether off the mark, but daring to be a Daniel is nothing more than, in the words of 1 Peter, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Our hope lies not in our faithfulness to God but in his faithfulness to us in Christ; he is the one who did not come to instruct or to guide but to “lay down his life as a ransom for many.”