God’s Agenda on Debate Night

The first presidential debate on September 26 attracted a record 84 million viewers. I was one of them.

Another sizable audience is predicted to watch the second presidential debate tonight. I will not be one of them — nor will my wife or my kids.

The lewdness factor of the election reached new heights this weekend, and it has been suggested that tonight’s debate should be rated R and prefaced with a parental advisory warning. Mud will be slung (and there’s never been more mud to sling). Ratings will be high again.

We are troubled by the personalities and we are troubled by their policies — and when you add those two features together, many Christians are simply withdrawing themselves from both major candidates and both major parties.

If it feels odd to withdraw support like this from such a major American institution, you’re not alone. Writer and hip-hop artist Sho Baraka recently opened a powerful op-ed piece by writing, “As a black Christian in an urban environment, I consciously struggle to give my allegiance to either political party. In this way, this election gives many white evangelicals a sense of what it’s like to be a black believer in America today.”

The 2016 election is giving a lot of us a taste of displacedness. Perhaps like never before in this country, for black and white evangelicals alike, there’s a new feeling of un-belonging. But it’s not a shrugging cynicism. Under the political disillusionment, we are all finding ways of voicing concerns for the welfare of our nation. We are displaced, yes, but we are not separatists.

Believers in Babylon

About 2,600 years ago, under the shadow of a pagan superpower, another believer felt this same pinch: Daniel, a godly man living in exile in the Babylonian empire, a nation which traced its origin back to the rebel egotropolis, Babel. Yet in spite of his disagreement with Babylon’s policies, Daniel gave his life to serve the nation.

The book of Daniel is thoroughly political, revealing the power of God’s sovereign undertow beneath the tides of world politics, and all for the sake of his chosen people. Even as his people endured exile in Babylon, God sovereignly governed the world’s political leaders — raising, dropping, and reordering political powers for millennia (Daniel 2:21).

Into this pagan society, Daniel fought to balance his loyal service to Babylon with his ultimate obedience to God. And what he needed was a transhistorical vision of God’s rule over the nations. He got it in the form of a dream from the restless sleep of Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar.

In Daniel 2:36–45, we read about a giant statue of a man that towered perhaps one-hundred feet in the air and glistened brilliantly in the noonday sun.

The dream was given to Nebuchadnezzar. The interpretive key was given to Daniel.

The statue was a stack of nations, said Daniel. The metal man was capped with Babylon (represented in the gold head), placed atop Medo-Persia (the silver torso and arms), placed atop Greece (the bronze belly and thighs), and placed atop Rome at the bottom (the legs of iron and feet of clay). This layered statue represented a succession of the world’s four great superpowers from Daniel’s day into the future, all stacked vertically and cemented together (Hamilton, 330).

Then it toppled.

The statue was targeted by a stone, which flew into the dream like a comet, smashed into the statue’s feet, and, on impact, shattered the entire statue like safety glass. With one blow, the statue exploded into a pile of rubble, pulverized into a heap of human superpower dust, barely hitting the ground before the wind blew it all away into oblivion.

The small meteoric stone, now on the ground, began to grow and expand into a mountain that covered the entire earth — the image of a new and unshakable kingdom now spread out over every continent, displacing all the world’s superpowers in history.

The fall of this giant man-statue is meant to remind us of David’s sling-whirling, Goliath-defeating precedent. In both cases, the world’s powers must fall before the reign of a Davidic king.

Return of the King

This theatrical dream triggers a future history: a new king will establish God’s global reign over creation (the mountain). Later in the book, God gave Daniel a dream of his own, ushering him into a divine throne room of stunning imagery to see “the Ancient of Days” presiding over a glorious coronation anointing, over “one like a son of man” (Daniel 7:9–13).

This king, this “son of man,” entered in to receive his Cosmic Commission: to reign over all the peoples and nations and languages of the earth, to be globally adored in glory, and to be obeyed by all peoples.

The Davidic symbolism of chapter two, and now the introduction of this “son of man” in Daniel 7, combine to reveal the connection to Christ. Jesus would use this “son of man” phrase about eighty times in the Gospels: to reference his own authority, to reference his own need to suffer and die, and most importantly, to communicate his future glorified majesty and authority (NDBT, 236).

Christ found ample opportunities to tie all the major features of his Messianic purposes back to the throne room scene in Daniel 7. His words remind us that God’s agenda reigns on debate night — and every night.

The Politics of Jesus

The throne-room coronation scene in Daniel 7:13–14 is striking for helping us understand Christ’s self-revelation, and for understanding our mission as Christians, in a world of confusion. To make the connections, we need to set the “Cosmic Commission” of Christ in Daniel 7:13–14 alongside the Great Commission of Christ in Matthew 28:18–20.

By theme and by language, these passages are linked together unmistakably, meaning, “the risen Jesus, vindicated over those who tried to destroy him, is now established as the universal sovereign, and his realm embraces not only the whole earth, which was the dominion of the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel’s vision, but heaven as well” (NICNT, 1113).

Carrying that interpretation into the commission language, this means that the Great Commission, on the right, drives toward the fulfillment of the Cosmic Commission, on the left (see Dwells, 95; Temple, 175; Jesus, 142–43).

Tied together, the Great Commission inaugurates “the triumph of Israel’s God by extending his sovereignty over all the nations on earth” and shows us how “the sovereignty of God over the nations will become effectual through nonviolent means. The nations are ‘conquered,’ as it were, through baptism into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and through their instruction to obey the teachings of a master who has insisted that the meaning of Torah is summed up in acts of love and mercy” (Echoes, 184–85).

Yes. For now. Quite apart from the rise and fall of global superpowers, the Son of Man’s international conquering will transpire (at least in part) in time and space, through the nonviolent means we call disciple-making.

These closing words of Matthew deliver the ultimate Jesus-juke of self-consumed political establishments.

Jesus is the sovereign King of the universe. Period. He has all authority now. Period. But his conquering kingdom is being quietly unveiled. His leaven is working its way through the dough.

His Cosmic Commission has ushered in our Great Commission.

The Minority Voice of a Conquering Kingdom

Now, let’s step back from Daniel’s glorious theology for a realistic inventory of the Church in the West. A couple of years ago, Eugene Peterson, 83, was asked about the state of discipleship today. The normally upbeat Peterson responded candidly. “I hate to be pessimistic, but it’s declined,” he said. “At this point the world is making a bigger impact on people than discipleship is.”

Peterson is right. But perhaps it has always seemed this way. Perhaps the world will always seem to be louder than discipleship. And perhaps John Piper is right in saying, “There is little evidence in the Bible, as I see it, that before the coming of our Lord, there will be a powerful ‘Christendom’ and a worldwide dominance of Christian influence” (Pleasures of God, 116).

The Church is increasingly a minority voice in America, yet our commission holds. As nineteenth-century Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle reminds us, “Let us never stand still because we stand alone” (Leaders, 431–32).

Working Backward from the End

The end of all human history will rush in at the hands of one “like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand” (Revelation 14:14–16).

The storyline of the universe is Christ’s to consummate, but it’s our calling to embrace. We are sent on mission so that more and more people will come under the Lordship of Christ. The absolute rule of King Jesus will ultimately be spread across the earth by force, but now it spreads across the earth in a non-violent conquering of the nations — in global mission, church plants, baptisms, sermons, and one-on-one personal disciple-making.

Perhaps it’s too trite to say, but it is time to make the Great Commission great again — not great, as in trying to add steel-reinforced ankles to a reconstructed statue of political superpowers, but great in our sense of true greatness — the greatness of Christ’s sovereign glory, commissioned from a cosmic throne room. Christ offers us the joy of his glorious work — to participate in his mission, to abide in his presence, to continue our little gospel labors in light of the global reign of the Son of Man.

This is God’s agenda on debate night.