Jesus in the Lions’ Den? Preaching Christ from Daniel

Have you ever noticed that Daniel tends to be more popular among children than among pastors? There’s a simple reason, Sidney Greidanus believes: “Daniel is one of the most difficult books for preachers.”

Written to help “busy preachers and Bible teachers proclaim the good news of Daniel,” Greidanus’s new volume, Preaching Christ from Daniel: Foundations for Expository Sermons (Eerdmans, 2012), is a welcome companion for anyone seeking to preach textually faithful, Christ-centered, applicational sermons from this enigmatic blend of narrative and apocalypse.

I corresponded with Greidanus, professor emeritus of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about major themes in Daniel, whether the angel in the fiery furnace (and lions’ den) was a pre-incarnate Christ, how to preach Daniel 7-12 without boring people to tears, and more. Once you’ve finished reading, be sure to check out our new page of resources devoted to Preaching Christ in Daniel—complete with commentaries, articles, workshops, and sermons by Tim Keller, Sinclair Ferguson, Peter Gentry, John Piper, and many more.


What are the most common evangelical oversights or misunderstandings related to Daniel?

Historically, a major misunderstanding has been using Daniel’s apocalyptic chapters to predict the end of the world. For example, in the 1840s Williams Miller understood the 2,300 days of Daniel 8 as 2,300 years and concluded Christ would return sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. In the 1970s Hal Lindsey, in his Late Great Planet Earth, used Daniel’s visions to support his arguments for the end of the world. Recently California radio host Harold Camping declared on billboards: “Save the Date. Return of Christ. May 21, 2011.”

But the main evangelical misunderstanding today is that Daniel presents a series of moral tales. Even good evangelical commentaries nudge pastors into making moralizing applications. (“Moralizing” is to draw one or more morals from the preaching text contrary to the author’s original intent.) For example, one prominent evangelical commentator asserts: “Nebuchadnezzar is an example—a warning of how not to be led astray by power and achievement, a model of how to respond to chastisement and humiliation.” Another applies Nebuchadnezzar’s words in Daniel 4:2 thus:

“It is my pleasure” shows that it was a true joy for the king to share what God had done in his life—delivered him from madness. This should be the attitude of any believer. If God has done something wonderful, an individual should be delighted to share that experience with others.

Still another applies Nebuchadnezzar’s lifting his eyes to heaven (Dan. 4:34) to the need for pastors to help their people “look away from themselves, their emotions and moods, their difficulties and mental problems, and ‘fix both eyes’ . . . on the mercy of God alone.” It’s not likely, however, that Daniel would have the exiles identify with and imitate the very person who brought them into captivity and destroyed God’s city and temple.

Daniel and his friends are more likely characters for Israel’s identification, but here, too, we must be careful not to isolate textual fragments for imitation. For example, when the king says of Daniel that he’s “endowed with the spirit of the holy gods” (Dan. 4:8), one evangelical commentator applies this phrase moralistically: “Daniel’s qualification for interpreting dreams was that God dwelt within him, and this is the prerequisite for spiritual understanding today.” Another uses Daniel’s appearance before the king (the same verse 8!) to make the point that we all need a good friend: “The fact that Daniel was there with this man at this time is a reminder to us about our own need for each other at times when things, in a similar way, are hard for us, and difficult to understand.” Moralizing can spin the application in almost any direction. Although these applications aren’t necessarily unbiblical in themselves, they fail to respect the specific genre of the redemptive-historical narrative as well as the goal (purpose/intention) of the inspired biblical author.

What is Daniel’s primary theme and goal?

Despite modern arguments to the contrary, there are good reasons for maintaining Daniel was written in the sixth century B.C. to exiled Israel in Babylon. Therefore, we ought to determine Daniel’s original theme and goal within that historical context.

Throughout his book Daniel emphasizes the sovereignty of God: God is in control and able to save those faithful to him—even from certain death (e.g., Daniel’s friends from the fire and Daniel himself from the lions). On a broader level, God is in control of earthly empires, using their actions to further his own plan, enabling Babylon to capture Judah (Dan. 1:2), judging evil rulers while protecting his suffering people, and in the end bringing his perfect kingdom on earth. Daniel’s primary theme, then, is this: Our sovereign God controls events in this world, judging and protecting individuals as well as world empires, until he establishes his perfect kingdom on earth (cf. Dan. 2:44; 7:13-14, 27).

Since Daniel originally addressed his messages to Israelites suffering exile in Babylon, his chief goal was to comfort and encourage God’s people with the news that, despite appearances to the contrary, God was still in control.

Should we identify the angel in the furnace or the lions’ den with a pre-incarnate Christ?

To identify this particular angel with the pre-incarnate Christ is not wrong. In fact, traditionally this has been a common way of “preaching Christ” from Daniel 3 and 6. But identifying the angel with the pre-incarnate Christ still leaves the sermon in the Old Testament. For the church in the New Testament, preaching Christ meant preaching the incarnate Christ: Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, rule at God’s right hand, presence with us today in the Spirit, and imminent return. Therefore, I define preaching Christ as “preaching sermons which authentically integrate the message of the text with the climax of God’s revelation in the person, work, and/or teaching of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament.”

What major biblical themes are picked up and developed in Daniel? How do such themes relate to the growing messianic expectation throughout the Old Testament?

Some of the major biblical themes picked up in Daniel include the sovereign Lord guiding his faithful people, even in exile (Dan. 1; cf. Joseph in exile in Egypt); delivering his faithful children (Dan. 3, 6); giving earthly kingdoms to whomever he wills (Dan. 4, 5); in the end replacing all human kingdoms with his everlasting kingdom (Dan. 2, 7, 9); ultimately raising his people from the dead, exalting them in his kingdom (Dan. 10:1-12:4); and promising everlasting life to his people who persevere to the end (Dan. 12:5-13).

Several themes especially reinforce the growing messianic expectation in the Old Testament. These include belief that the sovereign Lord will in the end replace all human kingdoms with his everlasting kingdom (Dan. 2, 7, 9) and give his kingdom to a divine son of man (Dan. 7:13-14) and to his people (Dan. 7:27) whom he will raise from the dead, exalting them and giving them everlasting life (Dan. 12:2-3).

How can we preach Daniel 7-12 without our sermons sounding like boring history lessons?

Many commentators state that Daniel 11, with its many historical details, cannot be preached. (John Calvin devoted 100 pages and nine lectures to analyzing chapter 11.) But chapter 11 is part of Daniel’s final vision running from 10:1-12:13. Since each vision of Daniel has a powerful theme, I’d concentrate on that theme rather than getting stuck in the historical details. With Daniel 11, for example, I’d just mention the reason Daniel goes into so much historical detail (God controls even the details of human history) and then proceed to Daniel 12:1-4, which communicates the primary message.

What advice would you give pastors planning to preach through Daniel’s visions considering that their members likely hold to several different understandings of the end times?

Although the different presuppositions of Reformed and dispensational scholars certainly influence their interpretation (see the commentaries), the pulpit isn’t for attacking the beliefs of the hearers. Such attacks are counterproductive anyway, since they raise the hearers’ defenses such that they won’t listen to the message. The pulpit is for preaching God’s message in the text to the best of one’s ability. Don’t major in minors; focus on the main theme in each of Daniel’s visions. Under the faithful preaching of the Word and the influence of the Holy Spirit, I expect (and have experienced) that the members of the congregation will become more likeminded.

  • Nick

    Dr. Voddie Baucham and Stephen Bratton started preaching through Daniel last spring. It was very refreshing to hear this book be preached from beginning to end. Hopefully this post and the book encourage it more.

  • Peter S

    I agree that moralizing can spin the text in any direction we chose. But, who’s to say that one of the original intents of chapter 4 was not to present Nebuchadnezzar as “a warning of how not to be led astray by power and achievement, a model of how to respond to chastisement and humiliation”? In fact, this statement sounds very much in line with what you determined was the primary theme of Daniel: God’s sovereignty. God by his sovereign power can bring even the greatest of kings to his knees. One could in fact see this story as an allusion to pre-exilic Israel, whose kings likewise failed to be humble before God. Either way, couldn’t it have been intended as a cautionary tale to those in exile as well as an encouraging reminder of God’s sovereignty?

    I think we have to be careful when we plead authorial intent, knowing that often times our grasp of authorial intent is fairly imprecise. With a smattering of historical background, it is easy to kid ourselves into thinking that we are objectively interpreting the text. I agree that moralizing is dangerous as a general rule, but I think it is equally as dangerous to approach any text using only the historical/critical method. Interpretations that we call moralistic may in fact be in the range of intent.

    • Cliff

      Amen. I don’t see how it’s moralizing to use Nebuchadnezzar as an example of how not to be led astray by power, etc. Sounds like solid theology to me. Theologizing isn’t the same as moralizing!

    • Peter Krol

      Yes, one could certainly make a case that preachers ought to preach morals from the Scripture (1 Cor 10:1-14 comes to mind). I appreciate how Greidanus defined “moralizing” as drawing “one or more morals from the preaching text contrary to the author’s original intent.” Preaching morals is not the same thing as moralizing (at least, as the term is used in this post).

      At the same time, however, just because “our grasp of authorial intent is fairly imprecise,” it does not follow that we “kid ourselves into thinking that we are objectively interpreting the text.” It is possible to objectively interpret a text, with said interpretation remaining fairly imprecise, is it not? Objectivity and precision/certainty are not one and the same.

      I think Geridanus offers a very helpful approach: understand the author’s intent before making application from the text. Perhaps he does go a bit too far in some of his examples, however, by throwing out the moral-baby with the moralizing-bath water. Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation (and such lessons) would appear to fit right in with the main theme of God’s sovereignty.

      Perhaps you and I are saying the same thing. “Interpretations that we call moralistic may in fact be in the range of intent.”

  • JD

    I had preached on Daniel and the lion’s den several times before I was reformed, and once since. The only difference was, I did it in an expository way and alliterated my points. I was indirectly criticized for being moralistic by essentially preaching a “be like Daniel” sermon. Was Daniel radically depraved and in need of Christ? -sure. Could I have made the sermon more Christ-centered? -maybe. In my defense I expressed God’s purpose for the captivity in Babylon and ultimate return of his people to the land.

    However, unlike most other heroes of the faith, Scripture does not present Daniel explicitly or implicitly with a “fallen-condition-focus”. His weaknesses and shortcomings are nowhere mentioned; just the opposite. Of course there is an over-arching story of God’s instrumental use of Daniel’s relationship with Cyrus who later decreed the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, but ultimately the text is content to boast about the faith and perseverance of this humble but mighty prophet.

    Once we have faithfully exegeted the text and given its historical flow in redemptive history, it is perfectly fine, such as in the case of Daniel and the lion’s den for a pastor to preach to his members, “be like Daniel” and extol the God-towardness of one of his faithful servants.

  • A

    I recently read the crystallization study of Daniel by Witness Lee, and after reading this, it got me thinking of how we could preach Christ from Daniel. It is possible, and I think it serves as an excellent reminder to the more experienced Christian of why Christians must do as Jesus taught them, so God’s kingdom may be furthered as the time comes, and exactly how to do it.

    The prayer Christ tells us to pray in Matthew 6:9-13 is for the furthering of God’s heavenly kingdom to come on earth, which Daniel prophesied about and set his heart and prayers on. In a sense, Daniel is the example of what Christians ought to be like, seeking God’s desires and praying selflessly for them, doing whatever would please Him because of fear and love for Him.

    Wow. From just the thought of if, the book of Daniel is amazing!!

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  • Mike Francis

    My favorite sentence: “But identifying the angel with the pre-incarnate Christ still leaves the sermon in the Old Testament.”

    Thanks for posting this!

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  • John

    I pray that this book might encourage more people to preach from the splendid riches o Daniel, but I was rather concerned to see the author of a book about preaching Daniel proposing that we don’t really need to preach Daniel 11. I’ve had a great time teaching through Daniel 11, there’s so much in there, not just about God’s sovereignty over the nations, but about evil, faith, the centrality of God’s people to God’s purposes etc. I would strongly encourage anyone preaching through Daniel to not pass Daniel 11 by, but dig into it and let your hearers taste and see the majesty of God in it.