Sunday, June 8, 2008

Glory

Note: to fully understand this, it is essential, not merely optional, to read the Scriptues linked throughout the post below.

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A friend set me an impossible task in a message he sent me this morning. He asked me to define the glory of God. (I'm honored that he would think me worth asking, but, bluntly, I'm not up to the task. Nonetheless, I shall give it a go, and in so doing hopefully demonstrate, through my own inability to convey the truth of the concept, its fantastical greatness.)

The phrase, "glory of God," tossed about as commonly as it is in our Christian circles, certainly bears more reflection than we often give it. Given the number of times variations on the phrase occur throughout Scripture, we ought to be giving it considerable attention simply on its own merit, and when one expands to consider variations on the phrase - "God of glory," "the Glory of Israel," and so on (try just searching for glory and glorious if you really want to see how important the term is in scripture) - the sheer quantity of references is astounding. This demands closer attention.

One of those phrases - God of glory - is particularly interesting, though it occurs only twice in the body of Scripture (at least so far as I can find): in Psalm 29:3, and in Acts 7:2. These two passages seem to speak rather uniquely to the notion of God's glory, and in manner rather different one from another. From these two passages, as well as what I have gained from my study over nearly a year, I hope to paint something of a picture of what Scripture means by the glory of God.

The 29th Psalm is one of praise and adulation. It opens with an exhortation to the heavenly host to worship God. The particular exhortation in this case is to ascribe to Him all that He is due: glory and strength, the glory due His name. The word glory appears once in each of the three verses, which is significant given that there are only eleven verses in the Psalm. I want to particularly draw your attention to verse 3, the first appearance in Scripture of the phrase "God of glory."

In a Psalm reflecting on the attributes of God - in particular, elucidating His supreme power and worthiness of praise - it is suggestive that David chose to use the phrase "of glory" to describe the God who is "over the waters" (v. 3). The contrast to other gods is, in my opinion, strongly implied in the passage. Every thing that other gods of other tribes would have been doing - natural events like earthquakes, fertility, and so on - is explicitly declared to be under the control of David's - and our - God. But unlike all the other gods, He is not merely the god of the water or the god of fertility or the god of the earth: He is God of glory.

In Acts 7, we have the conclusion of the story of the first known martyr of the Christian believers: Stephen. In verse 2 he begins his monologue declaring the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, lumping them in with the consistent pattern of unbelief that had characterized the Jews over their long history, and thus quietly proclaiming that in rejecting Christ, they were rejecting God. That he opens this speech with reference to the God of glory as the one who revealed Himself to Abraham indicates that it is this attribute Stephen has in mind and wants the Pharisees to have in mind as he recounts their history. That He is the God of glory is central to an understanding of this passage.

These passages in particular, and many others related to them, raise two significant questions. First, what is the glory of God, and second, what does it mean to be the God of glory?

Let us begin by addressing the former question and then from that see if we can understand somewhat the latter question. Glory is a difficult word to define, because it is a word we still have in our language but which concept has slowly faded from our minds. It has become a small, a light thing, when it is used at all.

The American Heritage dictionary's relevant definitions are:
1. Great honor, praise, or distinction accorded by common consent; renown.
3. A highly praiseworthy asset: Your wit is your crowning glory.
4. Adoration, praise, and thanksgiving offered in worship.
5. Majestic beauty and splendor, resplendence: The sun set in a blaze of glory.
6. The splendor and bliss of heaven; perfect happiness.

All of these, with some modification, are part and parcel of the glory which we ascribe to God. On the first count, the honor, praise, or distinction is deserved regardless of whether it is accorded (and to not accord it is thus a wrong done); and the deserving is by dint of the very nature of who God is, not by any assent to His worth by others: He is, by His very nature, utterly deserving of honor, praise, and distinction. The sixth is of course relevant because glory in this sense is then our partaking of perfect fellowship with God.

Of all of these, the third and fifth definitions are most significant for our discussion. The fifth definition gives us both an image of the glory of God revealed in nature - consider the comparisons given in Psalm 19, for example - and a notion of what glory is: majesty, resplendence, and beauty! So in this sense, we may say that God's glory can be defined as His utter and consummate majesty and beauty: greater by an infinite amount than anything of majesty or beauty in this world. And we may also say, in the sense of the third definition, that all His attributes are His glory, for none among them is chief, but all are part and parcel together. His majesty and beauty derive from the sum total of everything about Him: from His perfect love to HIs righteous judgment in wrath, which are but two parts of the same thing: His glory.

And this drives us further, to a deeper and hopefully truer definition. If we look at the word "glory" in the sense in which it is used in Hebrew, it carries two further meanings with it that are somewhat lost in English. The first is the great sense of weight associated with the glory of God: it is a great and terrible and heavy thing: and not only metaphorically. In one of my favorite passages about His glory, at the dedication of the first temple, God's glory falls on the temple, and the priests cannot even enter the temple, because it was full of the glory of God. There are a couple of interesting points to note from this: the first is the sheer present-ness (if you'll allow me the word) of the glory of God. It was Immanent in a way that we typically do not associate with God at all, much less a supposedly abstract concept like His glory. And furthermore, the implication of the passage is that this was the very presence of God, in which case to say that His glory fell is to say that He, in some way beyond us, made Himself present in that location in a way He was not ordinarily physically present.

An extremely important aside here is to note a few things about this presence and immanence. When it left the temple, it broke the prophet's heart - and when it was prophesied to return, it gave him great joy. (The whole book of Ezekiel is essentially focused on God's glory and the temple in the context of man's sinfulness.) The presence of the glory of God is not a small thing. So it is that when the very radiance of the glory of God appears in the person of Christ, this is a most incredible and remarkable event! It is beyond compare! He, the very image of the invisible God (stop and think about that!), appeared to make His glory known to us, and to invite us to once again be perfect reflections of that glory. Ah! I do not have the words to communicate the depth, the urgency, the profundity and meaning in this: that we are given the opportunity to be the ambassadors of Christ in this world, and thus of the glory of God in this world! This is beyond anything in all the world for incredibility.

Returning from that aside to continue our defining, we examine a second point raised by the Hebrew meaning, and related to our expansion of the third definition above. Glory in the Scriptures also means the fullness or totality of something, a complete and total whole. The glory of God, then, is the totality of all He is, a grand whole that is greater than the infinity of each of its parts or even their infinite sum. His glory is the true reality, the grand totality of who He is: His every attribute in perfect harmony and fullness! It is this that is radiant, beautiful, and majestic: and those very attributes are themselves only a part of His glory, parts that make up that transcendent whole.

It is difficult to convey glory in mere words. Think of the most radiant sunset you have ever seen, and all that made it beautiful: impossible to describe, yet knowable nonetheless. Ponder on the most beautiful music you've ever heard, and try for a moment to grasp what made it so compelling: impossible to verbalize, but capable of being experienced. So it is with the glory of God: only infinitely more so, for His nature and character are infinite, and His glory is infinitely infinite. You see? My words fail. Yet I know, in some small part, the glory of God our Father: because I know Him, more deeply and truly every day.

This brings us to our final question: What does it mean that our God is the God of glory? I think that we first must be cautioned that we can never fully describe God Almighty: if even the concept of His glory is beyond our ability to verbalize, how much more so He himself, the God of glory? Then, second, we may grapple with this notion. When other gods are gods of fertility, of water, of sun and moon and stars, even of higher things like righteous anger or love, and ours is the God of glory, this speaks to the reality of who He is. He is not a God created by human hands, nor a construction of feeble human minds. We might be able to conceive of a God whose primary attribute is love - but a God whose love is but a part of a more perfect whole, whose love is a part of glory? This is a God beyond any of us to conceive of, a God whose very nature is beyond understand, but whose glory is reflected just as much in His revealing Himself to us and calling us to comprehend as it is in being so utterly beyond our comprehension.

And because He is the God of glory, with all that this entails, there can be no higher calling in this life, no greater pleasure or joy in this life, than to surrender utterly and completely to His glory as our chief and supreme end, to which all other goals must be subservient or put completely aside. His glory is the only thing worth living for, the only real purpose in this world: for all this is for Him and by Him, and all this is to the glory of Christ. How great an honor we are given to be His image-bearers, to carry in us a small part of the glory of God reflected so that the world may know Him! And how great the promise of Heaven, where we shall each of us perfectly reflect the aspect of His glory we were designed for, and all of us together shall be a shining mirror of the great and terrible glory that He is.

May the glory of the God of glory consume us all!

- Chris

1 comment:

rotsaP loeJ said...

I found this post intriguing, but what I want to know is, do you intend that God's glory is somehow more fundamental to his character than, say, justice or love? It seems difficult ad absurditam to impose such a hierarchy upon ineffable divinity; at the same time, you say things like 'We might be able to conceive of a God whose primary attribute is love...' as though that were nothing particularly complicated; only when his love serves his glory do you seem to find him truly magnificent.

While I certainly grant that we must dwell upon all of God's marvels, and that among these glory is not least of these, I question your apparent conclusion. For one thing, it seems to me extremely doubtful whether any of us actually could conceive of a being made fundamentally of love, except perhaps by downgrading it to our level by talking about the emotion we experience and tagging on 'but this is only a type and shadow of the love of God, which conquers height and depth and every other created thing; and of which our minds can only apprehend the merest whisp.' Which is completely biblical, and moreover could more or less apply to any other facet of the Godhead. I don't see why you find his glory so special as to deserve fundamental status, as if all his other characteristics were mere hangers-on.

On the other hand, it seems probable that this is not at all what you intend, and that instead you mean simply to expand and exalt the definition of glory as the sum total of all these other attributes, as though it were a species of umbrella term. But this seems to me to strip it of value as a term in itself: if glory is no more than the perfection of everything else, then we might as well say 'the godliness of God' and leave it at that. As Aquinas (and I think Ambrose before him) pointed out, universal perfection is inseperable from the notion of God itself, so to give it a name and treat it as a discrete part seems somewhat redundant.

My other tension concerns your exegesis. On my reading of Acts seven, the concept of God's glory, while certainly important (indeed, which words of Scripture are irrelevant?) does not seem to add anything substantial to the meaning of the text. Had Stephen used instead another of the traditional addresses for the Almighty, such as 'The Lord of Hosts' or 'The God of Jacob', I doubt that there would be any discernible interpretive difference. On what grounds, therefore, do you assert the centrality of glory? Had he indeed said 'The Lord of Hosts', would it instead mean his narrative was hinged about the centrality of warfare? I am not a professional exegete, but I have read some criticism, and the dominant thematic word in that verse appears to me to be 'fathers'; tying in as it does with the ringing denunciation in v. 51, and the inexorably historical thrust of the entire chapter.

Of course God's glory is an amazing thing. Men look on it and die, as Moses learned. I only take issue with what appears to be an overemphasis, but then again perhaps I am mistaken. Have I missed your meaning?