Glory in the Bible is a many splendored term. It speaks of God’s tangible brilliance; of his timeless praise and honor; of our future hope as those who know and love the Son; and much, much more. Most of all glory explains our purpose in life.
Glory invited a pause for reflection today after I walked the beach of Chennai, India, this morning and enjoyed a striking sunrise that expressed God’s creative glory. Yet on the way back to our hotel compound I walked past a number of sacred cows and some statues of Hindu divinities, reminding me that glory—as a function of attribution in worship—is all too often misplaced and misapplied. The Bible offers lessons galore on the subject.
In one of these—see Exodus 32-34—a golden calf displaced God’s proper place of worship. Just days earlier Israel had seen God’s glory as a staggering sound and fire display on Mount Sinai: they were terrified by the experience! The event was part of their ordination as God’s human representatives among the nations. Soon after, as Moses returned to the mountain for more instructions on what this honor involved, his brother Aaron and the people planned a party and a golden calf (recalling their experience of the gods of Egypt) was fabricated in order to be God’s physical stand-in for the occasion. Yet this was exactly what God had forbidden a few days before in one of his ten commands! In his jealous fury he spoke to Moses about abandoning the people. He, after all, as a holy God, would consume his unholy people with his fiery glory whenever they sinned: God and his people were morally incompatible!
Moses then asked God to show him his glory. What was he asking for? He needed to find some quality, some space, in God’s character that would allow an unholy people to have continuing contact with God even when they sinned:
Moses said, “Please how me your glory.” And [Yahweh] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim my before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” [33:18-19]
It is striking that glory and goodness were so fully affiliated by God in his answer to Moses. In this moment of mercy and grace he underscored for Moses that his glory is birthed out of his goodness; yet that goodness is not shaped by human expectations. He went on to reveal that in his goodness he was prepared to offer forgiveness for sin even though certain consequences for that sin would remain active in the heritage of the sinner.
The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.” [34:6-7]
It was on that basis—of God’s steadfast love as context for his forgiving sin—that Moses immediately asked God to forgive Israel and to continue to live among them in his soon-to-be-built tabernacle.
O Lord, please let the Lord go in in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin and take us for your inheritance. [v.9]
Now let us turn to the New Testament where the importance of God’s goodness and glory is also central. One of the three apostle’s who were invited by Jesus to see him in his proper glory—on the mount where he was transfigured and showed himself off as divine with all the brilliant light of the Old Testament ‘shekinah’—Peter would later speak of the moment: “For when [Jesus] received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” [2 Peter 1:17]
Another of the trio of apostles who saw Jesus in his mountaintop glory was John. His gospel makes a special point of tracing glory, beginning with, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” [1:14]
John’s exposition of glory is one of the major threads of his gospel. He elevates features that I can only introduce here but that invite further reflection by all of us.
First he sets out glory as something we receive from others: a transitive reality. That is, it always takes at least two—a subject and an object—for glory to be present: one to glorify and another to be glorified. In other words, John treats glory as a relational reality rather than as a non-relational capacity that one owns or accumulates.
In John 5, for instance, Jesus presented himself as equal to God by calling God his Father. Many religious leaders were startled by the claim and opposed him accordingly. Jesus offered support for his own standing but he also made it clear that the underlying obstacle to believing his claim was located in one of two competing loves: “For the Father loves the Son . . .” on the one hand (v.20), and later, “But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (v.42), on the other. A living love for God opens the heart to believe.
And what was it that these critics of Jesus loved instead of God? Jesus exposed their hearts by comparing two competing sources of glory: “I do not receive glory from people” (v.41), Jesus said. And, by contrast, “How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (v.44).
Later in his gospel John pressed Christ’s point home by exposing those who knew that the evidence for Christ’s status was compelling yet without responding to him.
[Many] of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue, for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. [12:42-43]
This mutuality of glory has its eternal basis in the Godhead. Jesus, for instance, was the loving glorifier of his Father in John 12:23-28. This episode begins with a group of Greeks who want to see Jesus but he deferred the meeting until after the time that he is glorified by his death on the cross. At the cross, he promised, he would “draw all men to myself” (12:32)—including Greeks.
How so? By dying in a way that would lead to multiplying returns. He used the analogy of a seed being planted in order to bear many more kernels than what it gave up of itself. This selflessness of multiplication was his Father’s plan for salvation. The Son was prepared to die in order to achieve it. Listen to how Jesus processed this terrible yet wonderful strategy with his disciples.
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify you name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” [12:27-28]
We must not miss the point here that the Father was also experiencing the pain of the crucifixion by giving up his beloved Son to ignominious death. It was this selflessness that is his glory—the display of his steadfast love as earlier expressed in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
In his final priestly prayer of John 17 Jesus reiterated that God’s love accounts for this plan. Here it is that God’s addresses with eternal finality (“once and for all”) the problem raised in Exodus: how can a holy God dwell among an unholy people?
He solves it by giving the unholiness of his people to his Son—for which the Son then must die—while giving his collective sons and daughters—the Church—his Son’s holiness. In this vicarious exchange (applied by our participation in Christ’s life through faith) God’s love finally wins out over sin. This whole arrangement is to the glory of God: purposed by the Father and accomplished by the Son!
Listen, then, to the Son’s summary prayer.
“Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had with you before the world existed.” [vs.1-5]
Glory, we thus discover, is more than the honor that goes with selflessness; it is also the environment of God’s communion: his mutual, selfless, shared devotion of Father-to-Son and of Son-to-Father—all of which is sustained by the communicating work of the Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2).
So it is that Jesus is willing to die in order that we—his beloved bride—can join him in heaven—all of which is birthed in love: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (v.24).
Glory, then, explains our purpose in life: to enjoy God’s mutual glory as we are drawn into the love that forms and sustains that glory. Our moral incompatibility ends as we, with the Father, adore the Son (and the Father who gave him to us and for us) above all else.
This is what we were made for!