The Hope of Glory...
by David Crawley
Apathy and boredom, if not contempt, do seem to breed in an environment of familiarity. Having been a Christian for a good few years, and working in a Bible College, I find it a challenge to keep coming back to the same Scriptures without becoming blasé.
Something that works for me is to look at texts from new angles, through fresh windows. Usually such inspiration comes from a book I've read, a movie I've seen, or the simple events of daily life. Sometimes it is the perspectives of another field of study which provide the next new window.
To be honest, it's a little scary to do this kind of intuitive pondering in public! That's what I'll be doing in this column. I hope you find value in looking over my shoulder at the Word through windows.
'Glory'. What a strange and musty collection of phrases and images that word has tended to summon up from my subconscious. 'Glory, glory, hallelujah'. 'Glory box'. 'Land of hope and glory'. 'Thine be the glory'. For most of my life, it seems, I haven't had a particularly meaningful niche in my theological framework for a term that occurs a few hundred times throughout the Bible!
Lately an equally musty saint has helped me toward a more hospitable attitude to 'glory'. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200) uses the idea of glory frequently in writing about God's purpose in creating human beings. My standard response to such questions as 'What is the meaning of life?' has usually been along the lines of the Westminster Confession's "to glorify God and enjoy him for ever". The "enjoy him for ever" bit sounded great, but what did it actually mean to "glorify God"? Didn't he have enough glory already? (Spot my inadequacies when it came to the whole concept!)
Irenaeus fills out the picture in this profound declaration:
Whatever the full range of overtones of the theme of glory in Scripture, here is one that certainly resonates with me. A human being, fully alive and extending all the capacities with which he or she has been created, is the expression of God's glory on earth.
The second half of the statement, not so often quoted, affirms that fullness of life is found by keeping God in central focus. When our first child was born I held him and we looked at one another. I felt for a moment a powerful and unexpected surge of recognition, as if I somehow glimpsed an image of myself in his crinkled little face. Yet he was also distinct from me, a person in his own right, with a life full of potential before him.
Through that magical experience and Irenaeus' words I catch a sense of God revelling in the beings he has made in his own image, commissioning them to grow into the fullness of their unique lives and so to reflect his glory for all creation to see. And for a time neonatal humanity in its turn gazes in unselfconscious trust at its Creator, whose very life and breath nurture its existence.
What we see in Genesis 2, Irenaeus explains, is humanity in its infancy. Like all aspects of human character, the image of God is not a static attribute, but a profound calling into which human beings are ready to grow in ever increasing measure.2
The catastrophe of Genesis 3 is that this unfolding story is curtailed when it has barely begun. I have not known the awful grief of losing a child, but whenever the life of a young person is cut short the community shares a tragic awareness of potential that will never be realised, dreams and possibilities that will never be fulfilled. That is the sadness of our planet. Infant humanity - destined to grow up into life in all its fullness and so to light up the earth with God's own likeness and glory turned its face from the Creator and lost its way.
This is the significance of the disobedience of the first human beings. The essence of sin is not the breaking of an impersonal legal code, but the violation of a relationship of trust and dependence. Sin is humanity bent back on itself. As Paul discovered, a blameless but self-sourced life may also be an expression of sin.
Irenaeus' way of construing the biblical story is only one imperfect attempt to explore its bearing on the issues of human existence. I am grateful to him, however, for the gift of a refreshing window on the biblical story. Several New Testament passages in particular now sparkle in the light of this rehabilitated understanding of glory.
The first is a verse foundational to most presentations of the gospel I heard as a young person: "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God".3 The emphasis fell heavily on the first three words, dispelling any lingering thought that we might not be rotten sinners.
I recall a sermon illustration in which members of the congregation were invited to try to draw a straight line freehand. The best efforts were immediately shown to 'fall short' when a ruler was placed alongside. In the same way, it was reinforced, we all fall short of God's perfect law, and this is our plight.
Well, yes, true enough. But is it Paul's point here? What about that word 'glory'? With a new sensitivity to the possibilities inherent in the g-word, I have been prompted to read the text (and the context) again. In the flow of a wider argument, it seems that Paul is referring not only to the fact of sinful human nature, but also to the tragic universal consequences of sin.
All have sinned and (therefore) all have tragically fallen short of the glorious destiny for which God created the human race. This may seem like a small quibble with the popular evangelistic approach, but it is a significant one. One reading hears the story solely in terms of sin as law breaking. The other acknowledges the pervasive reality of sin, but also highlights its seriousness in terms that allude to broken relationship and missed calling.
A shrunken understanding of the human plight sets us up for an impoverished understanding of redemption in Christ (which is actually Paul's main focus in the context).
That leads nicely to another familiar phrase from Paul: "Christ in you, the hope of glory".4 Again it's possible to read this in more than one way. For those accustomed to think of 'glory' as that bright heavenly hope that awaits us beyond death, the "hope of glory" is a future one: I have asked Christ into my life, so I know that 'when the roll is called up yonder' I'll be there. Whatever the legitimacy of such a hope, it hardly matches the majesty of Paul's introductory description, "the riches of the glory of this mystery".
A quick look at the context confirms that it is not private reservations for heaven which Paul is celebrating here. There isn't the space to explore the detail, but Paul's letter to the Colossians captures his overarching vision of redemption in Christ. As the "firstborn of all creation", Christ embodies all the glorious possibilities for creation which the human race has tragically forfeited.
The wonderful open secret which excites Paul is that our destiny is now wrapped up in Christ's, and no longer in the sad outcome of the first Adam's story.
It seems to have been precisely Paul's profound grasp of the scope of redemption in Christ that inspired Irenaeus' doctrine of 'recapitulation' according to which Christ is the new Adam, the head and source of a new humanity and the key to the realisation of our destiny as bearers of the divine image, reflectors of the glory of God.
The book of Hebrews also traces a story of glory lost and found in the great themes of Creation, Incarnation and Redemption. For this writer, Psalm 8 is both a celebration of the potential of humankind - "What are human beings that you are mindful of them? . . . you have crowned them with glory and honour"5 - and a picture of Jesus as the fulfilment of God's purpose in creating human beings.6
In common with Irenaeus, Hebrews affirms that Jesus has entered fully into the human condition - its incredible potential and its agonising lostness - and so recovered the pathway toward God's glory for the human family:
Human beings, fully alive with all their created potential, radiate the glory of God. How do we find that fullness of life? The New Testament and Irenaeus agree: Jesus embodies the way. In him we can finally grow up. My next column will return to this theme in a more practical way.
'Glory' is now for me a meaningful word. Less musty, less ethereal, more human. Science has helped us to understand that the whole universe and every atom in it is a vibrating dance of energy. Irenaeus has helped me to understand that when human beings resonate with the fullness of all that life can be, then we find our place in that dance which is the glory of God.
David Crawley is a lecturer in biblical studies and spiritual formation at the BCNZ National Campus in Henderson. He is actively involved in spiritual direction and retreats in association with Spiritual Growth Ministries (www.sgm-nz.org). David enjoys the challenge of integrating his various roles, along with spending time with his family, listening to jazz and working on a Masters of Counselling through Waikato University.