Daniel gives the interpretation that the statue represents a series of kingdoms yet to come, beginning with the head of gold representing Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, followed by lesser kingdoms and ending with the kingdom represented by the iron legs which will break in pieces and subdue all things. The feet of iron and clay will be partly strong and partly weak. The stone that smashes the feet and breaks the whole statue is the final kingdom set up by the God of heaven and it shall stand forever.
The labeled image above is a typical representation of this statue as presented in many churches and Bible studies, except that the chest and arms of silver are usually represented as Medo-Persia, showing the rule of the two kingdoms of the Medes and the Persians in the two arms. Next, Greece conquers through Alexander the Great, ushering in the Hellenistic period during which the conquered nations all learned to speak common Greek, which is the language of the New Testament; and the legs of iron are of course the Roman Empire, during which time Jesus Christ came into the world. The feet and toes as Western Europe divided into ten nations within a revived Roman Empire is considered to be prophetic of the world situation during the last of the last days.
This basic view of the prophetic meaning of the statue is the Futurist view, from the very popular Dispensationalist camp. A revived Roman Empire is regarded as the culmination of the series of earthly kingdoms, prophesied to dominate the world in the last days yet to come.
I held this view as I think the vast majority of Christians still do, until I recently encountered the historical interpretation of the last days, in which this revived Roman Empire has been recurrent throughout history, through the political aspect of the Roman Church. First in the form of the Holy Roman Empire, followed by attempts to revive it in the Second Reich and then the failed Third Reich, all at least covertly headed by the papacy of the Roman Church. Many consider the European Union to be the next attempt to revive it in power, and that may well turn out to be the case, although the Futurist system doesn't put the papacy at the head of this revived empire or see the papacy as the Antichrist. Even where these attempted revivals of the Roman Empire are recognized as pertaining to the last days, they are generally not connected with the Roman Church.
But neither does today's Reformed eschatology connect it with the Roman Church. Before I had the benefit of Reformed teaching, most of what I learned came from the Dispensationalist camp which views the Antichrist exclusively as a figure yet to come, who is to be revealed in the last seven years before the Second Coming of Christ. This is apparently due to the Dispensationalist or Futurist understanding of the Seventy Weeks of Daniel outlined in Daniel 9:24 - 27, meaning "weeks of years" or 70 x 7 or 490 years, 69 "weeks" of which are understood to have been fulfilled at the first coming of Christ, counting the time right down to His riding into Jerusalem on the donkey. That leaves one week or seven years to be fulfilled in the future, during which the final Antichrist is to reign for at least part of that period. This has led to all kinds of speculation about the possible identity of this figure among those who believe we are in the last of the last days, and various contemporary political personalities have taken their turn in the role. Hal Lindsey's blockbuster book of 1970, The Late Great Planet Earth, popularized this view of the last days, and the more recent book series, Left Behind, which envisions what would happen if the Church were raptured out of the world, has kept it in the public eye. This line of thinking has had the effect of keeping our focus exclusively on a future Antichrist who is rarely if ever considered in relation to the Roman Church.
What the Reformers had to say about the papacy as Antichrist has been utterly lost in this theological system, and it may be due at least partly to its influence that the Roman Church is now widely accepted among nominal Protestants as just another Christian denomination, its very opposition to the gospel itself now lost or at least blurred in the minds of a majority of Christians.
However, today's Reformed theoloogians don't do a much better job with the last days or the Antichrist. I don't completely reject the Dispensationalist system -- the counting of the weeks of years is convincing to me for instance, so I can accept the view that there is yet a seven-year period in the future that will complete the work of redemption as envisioned by Daniel. I can consider this a possibility AND that the papacy is the Antichrist, a final expression yet to come. The Reformed position on the seventy weeks, on the other hand, makes the numbers as good as irrelevant, mere symbols and far from convincing ones. And along with the Futurists I too anticipate the revealing of the final Antichrist, although I look first to the papacy for this, keeping open the possibility that the Antichrist himself could be a Hitler type figure supported by the papacy, while the Dispensationalists pretty much disregard the papacy as a candidate for the Antichrist. If today's Reformed also followed the Reformers in their historical eschatology, which views the papacy as the Antichrist throughout history, I'd place myself more fully inside their camp. It's really the historical eschatology that has captivated me most recently, the eschatology of the Reformers themselves. (I think today's Reformed also fail to appreciate the role of Israel in the last days, though the Reformers themselves didn't make this mistake, as I noted on another of my blogs a while back.)
All that is to explain how Christians have been lulled to sleep by false theories about the Antichrist and the nature of our pagan opponents as represented in Nebuchadnezzar's statue. This is how it comes about that when you begin to contemplate the role of the papacy through history in its tireless efforts to undermine the true gospel, a viewpoint we could have learned from the Reformers themselves if they'd been taken seriously as they should have been, that's when you may experience what I mean by waking up among wolves. The veil of the irrelevant ditherings about the identity of the Antichrist to come in the near future falls away and we see that he has been there all along, waiting for his chance.
But even recognizing the papacy as the Antichrist isn't the whole story.
Why Does The Roman Empire Have Two Legs?
If the Dispensationalist / Futurist interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's statue offers an explanation for there being two legs to the Roman Empire they don't make much of it. Since they limit that symbol to the original Roman Empire which collapsed in the fifth century the most natural interpretation would be the division into the Eastern and Western branches, Byzantium or Eastern Orthodoxy in the East, and Rome in the West.
But here is where the Reformers' Historical Eschatology, seeing the Roman Antichrist ongoing in history, brings out a connection that both Dispensationalism and Reformed theology miss, though the Reformers themselves wrote about this, principally Luther.
According to Luther on Islam and the Papacy by Dr. F. N. Lee:
After Luther learned to trust in Christ alone for his salvation in 1517f, he increasingly saw both Islam and the Papacy as the two huge apostasies which the Holy Scriptures predicted would long obscure True Christianity -- until both would ultimately be quashed and vanquished.In 1453, Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium or the Eastern Empire, was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, conquered, in other words, by Islam. F.N. Lee continues:
In the Biblical Book of Daniel, Luther saw both Islam and the Papacy predicted.
Luther on Islam and the Papacy as the two legs of the image in Daniel chapter two
Christ, the Stone in Daniel chapter two, at His Resurrection shattered the Pagan Roman Empire -- in principle. Ephesians 1:20f & 4:8-10, and Colossians 2:12-15. Then, from A.D. 600 onward, that shattered Roman Empire divided into two legs -- as predicted in Daniel’s explanation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. The left leg became the Western Roman Empire, under the Papacy in Rome. The right leg, the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital Constantinople, later succumbed to Islam -- under the Turk Mohammed II.and his awesome armies in 1453.Islam! Well, haven't we been wondering and speculating where Islam fits into the end times? The Reformers, who lived in the days of the Turkish conquests, had it figured out long ago, but instead of benefiting from their insight, in my opinion we've been traipsing down rabbit trails.
As Lee presents Luther's thinking on this subject, the Pope is THE Antichrist because he has set himself up inside the Church and taken the place of Christ Himself, but the "Turk" or Muslim is also a spirit of Antichrist in his outright denial of the Deity of Christ. It is also interesting that both arose in the seventh century, the papacy being officially established first in 606, and Islam originally given to Mohammed in the year 610.
Luther gives God's judgment on the Church as the explanation for the rise of the two apostasies.
Today these two legs of the antichrist empire are huge, a billion Catholics and well over a billion Muslims.
Interestingly, Luther judges the papacy as the worse of the two, since the "Turk" is up front about his opposition to Christ, while the Pope pretends to be His friend. F. N. Lee again:
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther continues: “The Pope, with his followers, commits a greater sin than the Turk and all the Heathen.... The Turk.forces no one to deny Christ and to adhere to his [own Islamic] faith.... Though he rages most intensely by murdering Christians in the body -- he, after all, does nothing by this but fill heaven with saints....For reference: Chris Pinto's recent radio show on the same subject, Luther, Calvin and Islam . He quotes Luther from E.M.Plass, What Luther Says.
“The Pope does not want to be either enemy or Turk... He [the Pope] fills hell with nothing but‘Christians’.... This is committing real spiritual murder, and is every bit as bad as the teaching and blasphemy of Mohammed and the Turks. But whenever men do not allow him [the Pope] to practice this infernal diabolical seduction -- he adopts the way of the Turk, and commits bodily murder too....
And here's my other Waking Up Among Wolves blog post.