Saturday, August 23, 2008

Love and Glory

Crucified. Laid behind a stone. You lived to die, rejected and alone. Like a rose trampled on the ground, you took the fall and thought of me above all.

Above All - Michael W. Smith

You've got to love seminary. It's the one place where all the negatives of academia and religion intersect with all the beauty of Christianity. The results are sometimes wonderful, sometimes hideous and sometimes ridiculous... but always interesting.

I once had a professor in a class on worship who launched into a diatribe about the song Above All by Michael W. Smith because he insisted that it was not doctrinally sound. How, you may ask, did he come to this conclusion? His primary objection was to the line, "you took the fall, and thought of me above all." He claimed that God may have thought of us, but not above all - God's primary concern is always His own glory.

I know, if you're from a reformed background you've probably been taught that God does everything first and foremost for His own glory. Still, I think we need to take a look at what's being taught and whether it actually makes sense. Don't get me wrong, it sounds very pious to talk about God's focus on His glory, and it certainly elevates our feelings about God's holiness and righteousness. But it also makes God sound more like some narcissistic Greek god than the sovereign, holy Father and Lover that He is.

Yes, there are verses pertaining to the glory of God all throughout scripture - and they certainly tell us something about God. Though not, I think, that God is infatuated with himself and his own pride. Instead, I believe they tell us that all glory goes to God... whether we like it or not, whether we even understand it or not.

And yes, there are even stronger verses in the books of the prophets, like Ezekiel 36:22 which says, "It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name..." But it is important to realize that these passages are written to a wayward people who are continually walking away from God (not unlike ourselves). In retrospect, these verses seem to be reinforcing the same thing that the gospel does: we are not saved because of our own works and selves, but by God's choice in love alone.

So all these verses are very helpful, but they are not saying, "God's primary concern is for His glory alone." If that were the case, Christ would not have come and "for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame." Yes, these things were ultimately for his glory, but if his primary concern was for his glory - he would not have permitted even a moment of shame or suffering for Himself. Moreover, the Son of God would never have taken on a human body and all the humility that goes with it. Shame, suffering and humility in themselves are in no way glorious. Of course, in the end they were the source of immeasurable glory for God. However, if He was - as some insist - first and foremost concerned with His own glory, God - being all-powerful and all-knowing - could have worked this whole thing out in such a way as to never endure even a moment of humility, suffering or shame. In fact, the only logical conclusion is that He would have done exactly that.

So what are we to conclude? In my opinion, God is not concerned in the slightest about His own glory. Glory is just what happens when God is what God is and God does what God does. It does not in anyway detract from God's glory to say that in the cross, He thought of us above all. In fact, it brings perfect glory to His name! If He had been thinking of Himself the whole time, the beauty of the sacrifice becomes tainted with pride and self. But knowing that He was thinking of us - you and me - above His own glory paradoxically draws all glory to himself. He has turned shame, suffering and humility into adoration, joy and praise by renouncing glory itself. Yeah, I know... crazy.

You may disagree with that, or you may just not like the way I stated it, but consider these words of Jesus:

And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed (Joh 17:5 ESV)

God had glory before the "world" and everything we know existed. The glory that Jesus received was simply an attribute that God possesses - and which he already possessed in eternity. God's glory is independent of us, it is simply what He is and what happens whenever He acts. God's glory is no more a concern for him than our humanity and finiteness are for us.

Here are some additional passages indicating glory is part of God's nature:
  • 2Pe 1:17 - For when he 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," (ESV)
  • Jud 1:24 - Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, (ESV)
  • Rev 15:8 and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished. (ESV)

Let me close by offering the most important thought I have. I've got a sneaking suspicion that glory and love are - from God's standpoint - very much the same. God's glory is a result of the expression of His love (within himself and to his creation). And love is the natural response to who He is. I think that therein lies the message in the sacrifice of Jesus, that self-less love is the greatest glory there is.

And I am inclined to believe that Jesus did not come to be an example to us of the love we should have toward each other, but that he was and is the nature of God. As Hebrews 1:3 tells us, he is "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature" (ESV). If you want to know how God feels about His glory, take a good look at Jesus. You may come away seeing things a little differently.

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