ABSTRACT: No biblical theme is grander than the glory of God. The entire biblical storyline, in fact, is the drama of God’s glory: In the beginning, God crowned his image-bearers with glory and honor. In the fall, we exchanged God’s glory for idols. In the cross, Jesus unites his people to himself, the Lord of glory. In the age to come, God’s people will walk in the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Is there a grander and yet more overlooked biblical theme than the glory of God? God’s glory appears in every major part of the Bible and affects every major doctrine. It is also notoriously hard to define. In general, God’s glory is the magnificence, loveliness, beauty, and grandeur of his perfections. Sometimes, the glory of God designates God himself (Psalm 24:7–10). More often, glory communicates God’s special presence, as in the pillars of cloud and of fire (Exodus 13:21–22) or the glory that filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34–38).
Scripture tells of God’s glory in at least six senses. First, only he has inherent (intrinsic) glory (Isaiah 42:8). Second, God discloses his glory in creation (Psalm 19:1), providence (Psalm 104:31), making humans in his image (Psalm 8:4–5), and deliverance (Exodus 14:13–18; Acts 3:13–15). Third, believers glorify God (Psalm 115:1; Revelation 19:1). Fourth, God receives their glory (Psalm 29:1–2; Revelation 4:9–11). Fifth, God shares his glory with his people in redemption (2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:14). Sixth, all this redounds to God’s glory (Romans 11:36).
The biblical story is, in large part, the drama of God’s glory: “The triune God who is glorious displays his glory, largely through his creation, image-bearers, providence, and redemptive acts. God’s people respond by glorifying him. God receives glory and, through uniting his people to Christ, shares his glory with them — all to his glory.”1
We will trace this drama of God’s glory through the Bible’s story line.
Creation and God’s Glory
In creation, God reveals his glory in the things he has made, especially in humanity, his image-bearers. But even before creation, the eternal Trinity exists, glorious in perfections, needing nothing. A key distinction in the doctrine of the glory of God is between his intrinsic and extrinsic glory. God’s intrinsic glory is the inherent glory that belongs to him alone as God, independent of his works. God’s extrinsic glory is his intrinsic glory partially unveiled in his works of creation, providence, redemption, and consummation.
Whether by using the term itself or not, Scripture revels in God’s intrinsic glory:
Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)
I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. (Isaiah 42:8)
God discloses a portion of his intrinsic glory extrinsically in creation. God is central in Genesis 1–2, for he is the Creator, not a creature. The creation is neither God nor a part of God. God is absolute and has independent existence, whereas creation derives its existence from him and continually depends on him as its sustainer (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). Humans have seen God’s “eternal power and divine nature . . . ever since the creation of the world” in the things he has made (Romans 1:20). The transcendent Creator shows his sovereignty in creation, for as divine King he effects his will by his mere word (Genesis 1:3). God also reveals his goodness in creation, as the steady refrain testifies: “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Creation’s inherent goodness precludes a fundamental dualism between spirit and matter, in which spirit would be good and matter bad. Instead, material creation reflects God’s goodness, wisdom, and glory, evident in his provision of light, land, vegetation, and animals. In creation, God reveals his glory in the things he has made.
“We are recipients of glory, are being transformed into glory, and will be sharers of glory. Our salvation is from sin to glory.”
When God forms man from the dust of the ground, the man is more than dust, for God personally breathes into him the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). Most importantly, God, the divine person, especially reveals his glory in his creation of humans as persons made in his image (Genesis 1:26–28). In doing so, God invests his image-bearers with glory, honor, and dominion. David is amazed at how God made man: “You have . . . crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands” (Psalm 8:5–6).
When Paul speaks of humans as divine image-bearers, he implies the idea of God’s glory, as Sinclair Ferguson explains: “In Scripture, image and glory are interrelated ideas. As the image of God, man was created to reflect, express, and participate in the glory of God, in miniature, creaturely form.”2 While all creation testifies to God’s glory, humans are unique as they bear God’s image and glory to the world, serving as his representatives and stewards over the land, plants, and animals.
In Genesis 1–2, God blesses Adam and Eve with an unhindered relationship with him, intimate enjoyment of each other, and delegated authority over creation. God gives only one prohibition: not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The Fall and God’s Glory
Sadly, Adam and Eve disobey God’s command (Genesis 3) and tarnish God’s glory-image. As a result of their sin, they and their descendants fall short of God’s glory and even exchange it for idols. A “crafty” tempter questions God and deflects the woman’s attention from the covenantal relationship with him (Genesis 3:1–5). The woman’s inflated expectations in eating (the fruit is edible, attractive, and gives insight) are dashed (Genesis 3:6), for the first pair’s eyes are opened, they know they are naked, and they hide (Genesis 3:7–8). The contrast is arresting: the forbidden fruit does not deliver what the tempter had promised but brings dark realities of which their good and truthful Lord had warned them.
Their rebellion brings God’s justice, as Allen Ross observes: “They sinned by eating, and so would suffer to eat; she led her husband to sin, and so would be mastered by him; they brought pain into the world by their disobedience, and so would have painful toil in their respective lives.”3 The couple feels shame (Genesis 3:7) and estrangement from and fear toward God, and they try to hide from him (Genesis 3:8–10). They are alienated from each other, as the woman blames the serpent and the man blames the woman and even God (Genesis 3:10–13)! Pain and sorrow follow. The woman will experience greater pain in childbirth; the man will toil trying to grow food in a land with pests and weeds. And worse, God banishes the couple from his glorious presence in Eden (Genesis 3:22–24).
They ignore God’s warning (Genesis 2:17) and, after eating the forbidden fruit, die. Though they do not die yet physically, they do so spiritually, and their bodies begin to experience the decay leading to physical death (Genesis 3:19). Most disturbing, although sin originated in the garden, it does not stay there. It brings forth spiritual death, more sin, and condemnation for all, whom Scripture describe as “in Adam” (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Ephesians 2:1–3).
“God’s glory is the magnificence, loveliness, beauty, and grandeur of his perfections.”
Sin devastates God’s image-bearers, whom he made to reflect his glory. The Bible describes sin as a “falling short.” Thus, sin is a failure to keep God’s law (1 John 3:4), an absence of his righteousness (Romans 1:18), a lack of reverence for God (Jude 15), and, most notably, a falling “short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Thus, sin is the quality of human actions that causes them to fail to glorify the Lord, and that brings disrepute on his name.4
The storyline of Genesis 4–11 reinforces this conclusion, for Cain kills Abel (Genesis 4:8), and sin proves to be massive and continual (Genesis 6:5–11), prompting God to bring the flood (Genesis 6–9). The Tower of Babel episode portrays God as judging proud, self-seeking humans who attempt to advance their name rather than, as God’s image-bearers, advancing his name and glory (Genesis 11:1–9). This illustrates another terrible effect of sin on God’s glory — idolatry. Paul’s words pertain to all humans since the fall, although not all worship physical images: they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” for an image (Romans 1:23; cf. 1 John 5:21). Sin is a failure of us to image our Creator to the world. Sin is trading the glory of the incorruptible God for something less (Psalm 106:20; Jeremiah 2:11–13). Richard Gaffin captures the sad condition of image-bearers since the fall:
Sin enters in the creation through Adam (Romans 5:12–19). Consequently, “although they knew God,” human beings “neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks” (Romans 1:21 NIV); that is, they have withheld worship and adoration, their due response to the divine glory reflected in the creation around them and in themselves as God’s image bearers. Instead, with futile minds and foolish, darkened hearts (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18–25), they have idolatrously exchanged God’s glory for creaturely images, human and otherwise (Romans 1:21–23). Having so drastically defaced the divine image, they have, without exception, forfeited the privilege of reflecting his glory (Romans 3:23). This doxa-less condition, resulting in unrelieved futility, corruption, and death, permeates the entire created order (Romans 8:20–22).5
Redemption and God’s Glory
Thankfully, God does not eradicate humanity for cosmic treason but graciously works to redeem it and the cosmos. In redemption, God begins to restore his glory in his image-bearers. He intends to restore humans as full image-bearers who will reflect his glory.
The Patriarchs to the Exile
God calls Abraham from idolatry and enters into covenant with him, promising to be God to him and his descendants (Genesis 12:1–3; 17:7). God promises to give Abraham a land, to make him into a great nation, and through him to bless all peoples (Genesis 12:3). From Abraham come Isaac and Jacob, whose name God changes to Israel and from whom God brings twelve tribes and a nation.
God identifies his glory with his people Israel (Isaiah 40:5; 43:6–7; 60:1). He promises to bless them so that they will bless the nations, who will glorify him. When Egypt enslaves the covenant people, God redeems them through Moses, showing his glory in plagues and exodus so all will know he is incomparable (Exodus 9:16). He also displays his glory through theophanies, the giving of the law, and chiefly through the tabernacle and the temple. God’s presence guides his people, as they occupy the Promised Land under Joshua. God gives Israel kings. Under David the kingdom grows, and God renews his covenant with his people. He promises to make David’s descendants into a dynasty and to establish the throne of one of them forever (2 Samuel 7:16). Solomon builds a temple to manifest God’s presence. Solomon does much right, but his disobedience leads to the kingdom splitting into northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms.
God sends prophets to turn his sinful people away from worthless idols and back to himself, the uniquely glorious God. These prophets call the people to covenant faithfulness and warn of the judgment that will come if they fail to repent. However, the people nevertheless repeatedly rebel. In response, God sends the northern kingdom into captivity to Assyria in 722 BC and the southern kingdom into captivity to Babylon in 586 BC. Through the prophets, God also promises to send a deliverer (Isaiah 9:6–7; 52:13–53:12). The prophets yearn for Israel to become what God intended — glorious (Isaiah 60–66) — when the Messiah arrives. God promises to restore his people to their land from Babylonian captivity after seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11–12), and he does so under Ezra and Nehemiah. The people rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and build a second temple. Yet the Old Testament ends with God’s people continuing to turn away from him (Malachi).
Jesus and the Church
Four hundred years later, God sends his Son as the promised Messiah, Suffering Servant, King of Israel, and Savior of the world. As the Messiah, Jesus is glorious, but not as expected. The Jews hope for a political leader to restore Israel to its former glory. But Jesus’s redemption and his glory are deeper than anticipated, for he is the Lord of glory, the radiance of God’s glory, even Yahweh himself (James 2:1; Hebrews 1:3; Daniel 7:13–14). Jesus the Messiah is the eternal Son, intrinsically glorious, who humbles himself to become a man (John 1:1–18; Philippians 2:5–11). Both lowly shepherds and glorious angelic hosts mark his birth (Luke 2:1–20). His signs witness to his glorious identity and the presence of God’s kingdom (John 2:11; 11:38–44). In the transfiguration, Jesus’s glory also shines (Mark 9:2–13; 2 Peter 1:16–21).
Jesus chooses twelve disciples to lead his messianic community. He brings God’s kingdom by casting out demons, doing miracles, and preaching good news. Jewish leaders oppose him for opposing their traditions. The Sanhedrin condemns Jesus in an illegal trial, and Pontius Pilate, against his will and pressured by Jewish leaders, crucifies him. Humanly speaking, Jesus dies as a victim in a despicably evil act. Yet his death fulfills God’s eternal plan, and Jesus succeeds in his mission to seek and save the lost. His glory is linked with his suffering and death (John 17:1–5). The cross is also Jesus’s path to more glory (1 Peter 1:10–11). And the cross also displays God’s glory by showing his righteousness and love (Romans 3:25–26). Jesus not only bears the world’s sin in death but also is raised from the dead. His resurrection confirms his identity, defeats sin and death, gives new life to believers, and promises their future resurrection. He is raised by the glory of the Father unto glory, exalted to the highest status (Romans 6:4; Philippians 2:9–11; Hebrews 2:9). He ascends gloriously and reigns gloriously (1 Timothy 3:16; Acts 7:55–56).
Jesus tells his disciples to take the gospel to all nations, fulfilling God’s promise to bless all peoples through Abraham. They are to disciple others, who will do the same. On Pentecost, Jesus sends his Spirit, who forms the church as the New Testament people of God. The early church is committed to evangelism (Acts 2:38–41), fellowship (Acts 2:42–47), ministry (Acts 2:42–46), and worship (Acts 2:46–47). The church faces persecution, but some Jews and many Gentiles trust Christ, and churches are planted. They teach sound doctrine, correct error, and call believers to live for God. The apostles teach that the Father plans salvation, the Son accomplishes it, and the Spirit applies it. God calls, regenerates, declares righteous, and adopts into his family all who trust Christ. God is making his people increasingly holy and glorious in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17–18).
The glorious triune God manifests his glory and, through union with Christ, shares it with his people. Paul praises God’s mighty power that produces “glory in the church and in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:20–21). Paul depicts the church in glorious language: it is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” and “a dwelling place for God” (Ephesians 1:23; 2:22). Even more than creation, the church is the theater of and witness to God’s glory (Ephesians 3:10–11). As God’s people love and seek him, he gives them joy, which in turn brings him glory (as Mary exemplified, Luke 1:46–47). God is glorified in us as the church as we love and delight in him.6
The church is now being sanctified, and one day Christ will present it “to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). Indeed, the church is a new humanity, a display people, testifying that God’s mission of cosmic reconciliation is well underway and heading toward the grand finale of history (Ephesians 1:10–11; 2:14–16; 3:10–11). In the meantime, the church glorifies God through its worship and its character, which has been transformed by the Spirit to communicate God’s communicable attributes. As the church is marked by love, holiness, goodness, justice, and faithfulness, God is reflected and thus glorified.7
The Consummation and God’s Glory
The biblical drama of God’s glory culminates in the consummation, which is also characterized by glory. Jesus will finish what he has started, and his return will be glorious (Matthew 16:27; Luke 21:27; Titus 2:13), as will his victory, judgment, and punishment of the wicked (2 Thessalonians 1:6–11; Revelation 20:11–15). Most of all, Jesus’s revelation of himself in the new creation will be glorious in the church and cosmos (Romans 8:21; Ephesians 5:27; Revelation 21–22).
“God receives glory and, through uniting his people to Christ, shares his glory with them — all to his glory.”
Having been justified by faith, then, “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). Because we have been united to Christ, whom the Father raised from the dead by his glory (Romans 6:4), we too have new life. Though we may suffer now, God guides history to his intended goals, including glorifying us with Christ (Romans 8:17). This entails “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18), “the freedom of the glory” of God’s children (Romans 8:21), our ultimate conformity to Christ’s image (Romans 8:29), and our glorification (Romans 8:30).
Moreover, God will bring “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). God prepared such glory for us “beforehand” (Romans 9:23), and, because of our union with Christ and his resurrection, our bodies will likewise be raised in glory (1 Corinthians 15:42–58).
Paul shows that our union with Christ is “to the praise of his glorious grace” and “glory” (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14) and results in personal and cosmic redemption (Ephesians 1:3–14), even our “glorious inheritance” from “the Father of glory” (Ephesians 1:17–18). The landmark consummation passage is Revelation 20–22. Just as Genesis 1–2 show that the biblical story begins with God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, Revelation 21–22 show that it ends with God’s creation of a new heaven and a new earth. The story begins with the goodness of creation and ends with the goodness of the new creation. The story begins with God dwelling with his people in a garden-temple and ends with God dwelling with his people in heaven, a new earth-city-garden-temple.
The glory of God is manifested in the new creation (Isaiah 66:22–23; Romans 8:18–27; Revelation 21–22). And since God’s extrinsic glory is communicated to his people in salvation history, it relates to the already–not yet tension. God’s glory is now being displayed, and yet its ultimate display is still future (1 John 3:2). Gregory Beale’s insights into the central theological theme of Revelation are helpful: “The sovereignty of God and Christ in redeeming and judging brings them glory, which is intended to motivate saints to worship God and reflect his glorious attributes through obedience to his word.”8 Further, “nothing from the old world will be able to hinder God’s glorious presence from completely filling the new cosmos” or “hinder the saints from unceasing access to that divine presence.”9
Once and for all, God’s victory is consummated. God’s judgment is final, sin is vanquished, justice prevails, holiness predominates, and God’s glory is unobstructed. God’s eternal plan of cosmic reconciliation in Christ is actualized, and God is “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). As a part of his victory, God casts the devil and his demons into the lake of fire, where they are not annihilated but rather “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Then God judges everyone: the powerbrokers, those deemed nobodies, and everyone in between. “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). God consigns to hell all who are not of the people of Jesus (cf. Daniel 12:1; Revelation 13:8; 21:8, 27).
“The entire biblical plot — creation, fall, redemption, and consummation — is the drama of God’s glory.”
Magnificently, the new heaven and new earth arrive, and God dwells with his covenant people (Revelation 21:3, 7), comforts them (Revelation 21:4), and renews all things (Revelation 21:5). John depicts heaven as a glorious temple, multinational and holy (Revelation 21:9–27). God’s people rightly bear his image: serving and worshiping him, reigning with him, knowing him directly (Revelation 22:1–5). God receives the worship he is due and blesses humans beyond measure, finally living to the fullest the realities of being created in his image and showing his glory. And throughout it all, God is glorified.
Drama of God’s Glory
As humans, we refused to acknowledge God’s glory and instead sought our own, forfeiting the glory he intended for us as his image-bearers. By his grace, however, through union with Christ, God restores us image-bearers to participate in and reflect his glory. We are recipients of glory, are being transformed in glory, and will be sharers of glory. Our salvation is from sin to glory. We have received great grace: we who exchanged the glory of God for idols and rebelled against his glory have been, are being, and will be transformed by the very glory we despised and rejected! Even more, through union with Christ, together we are the church, the new humanity, the firstfruits of the new creation, bearing God’s image, displaying how life ought to be, and making known the wisdom of God.
All of this redounds to his glory, as God in his manifold perfections is exhibited, known, rejoiced in, and prized. In this sense, the entire biblical plot — creation, fall, redemption, and consummation — is the drama of God’s glory. Jonathan Edwards captured it well: “the whole is of God, and in God, and to God; and he is the beginning, middle, and end.”10
Credit: Christopher W. Morgan