Contextual visions and dreams

If you’ve not had chance to yet, do have a listen to last week’s Faithroots Podcast where I was talking to Jonny Mellor of Church Central and Sputnik. Jonny helpfully gets us thinking about the way that Christians should engage with the arts and culture generally. In the conversation we talk about Daniel as a good example.  Daniel was taken into exile in Babylon as a young man and found himself in the employment of the king becoming one of the most senior advisors to him.  

The tactic of the Babylonians was to immerse exiles in their culture. Daniel’s name is changed to a Babylonian one, he learns the language and he is even expected to eat the food of the land. Fascinatingly he is prepared to immerse himself in culture and language, but he draws a line at food because this would cross the kosher laws. There is probably something worth digging into further about those boundaries at some point. However, I’d like to focus specifically here on one thing that arises out of that.

Have you ever read those weird and wonderful descriptions of creatures that seem to be a conglomeration of different beings with wings, legs and the heads of different beasts that we find in Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation?  Well, it’s not so hard as you think.  If you get a chance, pay a visit to the British Museum or google Assyrian and Babylonian archaeology online. You’ll be able to see some impressive examples of the giant sculptures that would have dominated the city and especially the palace courtyards where Daniel lived and worked.

When you see these images, the Biblical descriptions start to make sense.  Daniel seeks to describe his vision using images that would have been familiar to his readers. Indeed, it is even possible that the culture and imagery was such a significant part of Daniel’s life, what he saw, what he lived and breathed that it was very natural for him to think and talk in terms of those images and no doubt even to dream and visualise in those terms too. In other words, when God gives Daniel a vision, he contextualises the vision so that it will resonate with Daniel.

This also helps us think about what we see in the book of Revelation as well. You will see a lot of the same Babylonian imagery feeding through and there are two reasons for this.  First because John symbolic identifies Babylon with the world in its opposition to Christ and his people. There is perhaps some deliberate intentionality there as John crafts the description of his vision to emphasis the point. Secondly, John will have been immersed in Old Testament scripture including Daniel and Ezekiel. This means that like Daniel, the images would have been familiar to him. Add into the mix that as well as Babylonian cultural references from the Old Testament, John will have been familiar with Greco-Roman culture and the images involved both from the occupation of his home land and also his life later in Ephesus and on Patmos.

This shouldn’t just be of intellectual interest to us. I think there’s some practical application here as well.

First, there is the general reminder here of the importance of contextualisation. We bring the Gospel message to our culture and this means that we must not change the unchanging message but we can adapt communication to our culture.

Secondly, there is a specific point from the visions. If God allows these prophets to see their visions through Babylonian, Greek and Roman cultural eyes then it reminds them that God is not constrained to Jerusalem and Judea. God is very much present in Babylon, Persia, Roman and to the ends of the earth.  God is still able to speak to Daniel when he is in exile at the heart of the empire, just as the Lord can appear and speak to John in exile not only from his homeland but even from his church family in Ephesus.  So too, we can be assured of his presence with us now through the Holy Spirit. We are not alone, God’s Word cannot be chained, His revelation cannot be silenced. Here in our modern Western culture, we can still hear God, still live for him and still speak for him

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