Biblical Theology Articles

Glory & Suffering in the Fourth Gospel - A Paradox of Discipleship

Edward Donnelly

The apostle John is a writer with a profound and subtle habit of mind. He is fond of irony, of different levels of meaning, of complexity wrapped in simplicity. An especial characteristic of his gospel is the element of paradox, where apparent contradiction resolves itself, upon reflection, into luminous truth. We meet it at the very beginning, where ‘the Word’ who ‘was with God, and… was God… became flesh’ (Jn.1:1,14). That last phrase must have seemed, to Greeks trained in philosophical dualism, the epitome of absurdity. Another startling irony is that of the Creator rejected by the works of his hands, for: ‘He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him’ (1:10,11).

Equally paradoxical is John`s treatment of the theme of the glory of Christ, by which, claims Marcus Dods, ‘the entire Gospel is held together’. The first half of the book, from 1:19 - 12:50, records the manifestation of Christ`s glory to the world in signs, while the second part, from 13:1 - 20:31, shows our Lord expounding his glory to his disciples by means of detailed instruction. While John, unlike the writers of the Synoptic gospels, does not record the Transfiguration, he is nonetheless deeply interested in the idea of Jesus` glory. The verb ‘to glorify’ - doxazo - is found 23 times in his gospel, while the next most frequent New Testament usage is 9 times by Luke. ‘This revelation of glory is a key to the gospel’ , a vital element in the earthly life of our Lord. ‘For those with eyes to see, Jesus during his ministry reveals through his words and actions the glory of God the Father’ .

Glory is a central Old Testament concept, ‘an image of divine transcendence as it makes itself visible’. ‘It does not mean God in his essential nature, but the luminous manifestation of his person, his glorious revelation of himself’, seen, for example, at Sinai and in the Jerusalem temple: ‘The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai… The appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel’ (Exod.24:16,17); ‘And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord’ (1 Kings 8:10,11). On such climactic occasions in the history of redemption the glory of God`s ineffable being was revealed to his people. But a day was coming when his glory would be revealed more clearly: ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come; and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you’ (Isa.60:1-3). This glory, the true glory of God, was revealed in Jesus Christ - but in a strange and unexpected way.

The revelation of Christ`s glory Jesus - who ‘was God - His only Son’ (1:1; 3:16) had, as the second person in the godhead, a glory which was intrinsically and permanently his own. He was glorious before creation, for he prayed ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed’ (17:5). He was glorious in the days of the prophets, for ‘Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him’ (12:41). But, with Jesus` birth and throughout his life on earth, this glory of the Son was made visible to humans. ‘And the Word became flesh’, writes John in a programmatic text, ‘and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace & truth’ (1:14).

It is surely more than verbal coincidence that the consonants of ‘dwelt’ (eskenosen) are the same as those of the post-biblical Hebrew shekinah. This term, cognate with shakan (to dwell) and mishkan (tabernacle), referred to the glorious outshining of the divine nature, God present among his people. It was glimpsed by Moses in the cleft of the rock (Exod.33:22), or when ‘the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’ (Exod.40:34). It was seen in the bright cloud during the wilderness wanderings (Num.14:10,21), and again at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11). Isaiah saw the shekinah in the year that king Uzziah died (Isa.6:1). Now it has appeared again in the person of Jesus. ‘We have seen his glory’, wrote his disciple - no longer in tabernacle or temple, but in the flesh of the son of Mary. ‘The incarnate Word is the true shekinah, the ultimate manifestation of the presence of God among human beings’.

Christ`s glory was revealed clearly in his miracles. We are told, after the changing of water into wine, that ‘This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him’ (2:11). Just before he raised Lazarus from the dead, he challenged doubting Martha with the question, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’ (11:40). She was to see the divine glory, in other words, in the restoration of her brother to life. That such extraordinary events were manifestations of glory is to be expected.

But what is surprising is that John does not limit the revelation of Jesus` glory to his miracles, but sees it in all of his life. ‘We have seen his glory’ - in the acts of power, of course. But the statement includes much more. All that the Master was, did and said was a revelation to the disciples of the glory of God. ‘He regards the whole of Christ`s incarnate life as an embodiment of the doxa of God, though the glory is revealed only to believing disciples and not to the world’.

Our very familiarity with the gospels can blind us to how astonishing is the story which they tell. God comes to earth. How would we have expected him to appear? Certainly not as he did.

‘They saw the lowly man from Nazareth, moving among ordinary people in a backwater of the Roman Empire’. He creates no international stir, makes no attempt to capture the centres of political or cultural influence. He teaches, travels about with a small band of nobodies, lives an admirable life and departs from earth with few on the planet aware that he has come. Many of those who did meet him laughed at him. His first specific claim to be Messiah was made to an immoral foreign woman beside a village well in Samaria. It all seems ludicrously low-key.

Even his miracles, amazing though they were, and undoubted evidences of his deity, are relatively quiet and under-stated. He helps at a country wedding, heals at long-distance in provincial Galilee, cures one individual among the crowd at Bethesda. Marvellous enough to move his disciples to faith and commitment, but is this really what the Almighty was expected to do when he came to earth? Does the Old Testament not lead us to anticipate something apocalyptic, God judging the nations, shaking the heavens and the earth, transforming the created universe? ‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’ asked the prophet (Mal.3:2). But the Lord, when he did come, seemed to create scarcely a ripple.

‘We have seen his glory’. Yet it was a strange sort of glory, and many who saw and heard him perceived no glory at all. ‘What is striking about John`s presentation is that, although his glory was manifested powerfully in his miracles or “signs”, it was above all to be seen in his present weakness, in the self-humiliation of his incarnation’. ‘As He came in lowliness we have an example of the paradox that John uses so forcefully later in the Gospel, that the true glory is to be seen, not in outward splendour, but in the lowliness with which the Son of God lived for men and suffered for them’.

This becomes especially clear from the way in which John links glory with the cross. We may not be as surprised at this as we should be, since our awareness of the splendour of Christ`s accomplishment at Calvary can cast over his cross a cloak of spurious sentiment and so obscure something of its horror. But a horror it was to the first century world, a place of unspeakable agony, and, above all, of shame and curse. To explain the paradox was, indeed, a great part of John`s purpose in writing the gospel. ‘Part of his goal, in writing an evangelistic book for Jews and proselytes, is to make the notion of a crucified Messiah coherent. The intrinsic offense of the cross he cannot remove. What he can do… is to show that the cross… is at one and the same time nothing less than… God`s astonishing plan to bring glory to himself by being glorified in his Messiah’.

So, again and again, Jesus` death by crucifixion is referred to as his glorification. ‘The Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified… His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to Him… The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified… 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 your name. Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again”’ (7:39; 12:16,23, 27,28). ‘I have glorified it’ - in the whole of the Son`s life, no matter how inglorious it might seem. ‘I will glorify it again’ - in all that is about to happen, no matter how shameful it may appear. ‘When he had gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once… Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son, that the Son may glorify you’ (13:31,32; 17:1).

The glory of Christ is to be seen supremely in his offering of himself, the Lamb of God, on a stake at the hill of Calvary. ‘Jesus` glorification and death are nearly synonymous in John’. ‘For in the cross of Christ, as in a splendid theatre, the incomparable goodness of God is set before the whole world’. A strange and terrible glory!

This is confirmed by John`s paradoxical use of another word - hypsoo - ‘I lift up’. The verb usually means ‘to raise high, exalt’ and is so used elsewhere in the New Testament. ‘Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God… God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour… Therefore God has highly exalted (hyperhypsosen) him’ (Acts 2:33; 5:31; Phil.2:9).

But John seems to use hypsoo in a different sense. ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up… When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (3:14; 8:28; 12:32).

Does this ‘lifted up’ refer to Christ`s exaltation to the Father`s right hand? Not primarily, for ‘He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die’ (12:33). And his hearers seem to have understood, contrasting in their response ‘lifting up’ with unending life: ‘So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?”’ (12:34).

Why use such an ambiguous word? Because of the few inches above the ground to which crucified victims were usually raised? No, the ambiguity is deliberate, because Jesus` death was, in a real sense, his exaltation and glory. The very word which the early church used for the Lord`s exaltation is that which he himself used for his crucifixion. John does not separate the humiliation from the following glory. ‘Whereas in the Synoptic Gospels suffering is the path to future glory, to John it is also the arena in which the glorification actually takes place’. ‘Lifting up’ includes and links death & the victory over death. This connection was not new, for God had made it, for example, at the beginning of the classic Old Testament depiction of Calvary: ‘Behold, my servant… shall be high and lifted up and shall be exalted’ (Isa.52:13). ‘The crucifixion is no denial of the exaltation of Jesus. In fact, paradoxically, the crucifixion is the exaltation… The hour of his suffering is thus paradoxically the hour of his greatest glory. The glory may be hidden from the sons of men. But the glory is there nonetheless’.

Here then is the greatest paradox of all - the glory of God revealed in Jesus, and especially in that which seems to be most inglorious. ‘If it be objected that nothing could be less glorious than Christ`s death…, I reply that in that death we see a boundless glory which is concealed from the ungodly. For there we know that by the expiation of sins the world has been reconciled to God, the curse blotted out and Satan vanquished’. We cannot, dare not, try to escape from or dilute this paradox in any way, for it is the heart of the gospel. ‘We preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor.1:23) - unimaginable glory through appalling suffering. In this, as in much else, Paul and John are brothers. ‘It is part of John`s aim to show that Jesus showed forth His glory not in spite of His earthly humiliations, but precisely by means of those humiliations. Supremely is this the case with the cross. To the outward eye this was the uttermost in degradation, the death of a felon. To the eye of faith it was (and is) the supreme glory’.

But what do we do with the paradox? What should our reaction be?

Recognising Christ`s glory

A Christian disciple is someone who sees the glory of God in the person of his Son. Many did not, still do not, see it. ‘God`s glory was manifested in humiliation and suffering, visible only to the eye of faith’. But there are those whose hearts God opens. Just as, at the moment of creation, ‘God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light’, so ‘God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (Gen.1:3; 2 Cor.4:6).

‘We have seen his glory’. Is this true of us? Here is a searching test of true faith. As we read the Scriptures, meditate, pray and worship, are our hearts drawn out to Christ in adoration and thanksgiving? Is he, for us, ‘distinguished among ten thousand… altogether desirable’ (Song 5:10,11)? The apostle Peter assumes this appreciation of the Saviour`s glory as the experience of every believer: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible & filled with glory’ (1 Pet.1:8).

We need to learn to recognise Christ`s glory in what he is presently doing in the world. For his chosen ways of working are still, to us, surprising and we must train ourselves to discern his glory as he is pleased to reveal it. We are not the first to wrestle with this difficulty, for, as we read the gospels, it is obvious that, at times, the disciples were almost impatient with the Lord. They wanted him to do more, to make a greater impression. They believed in him and longed for him to convince those who did not believe by showing them what he could really achieve.

The note of exasperation is almost audible when ‘Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”’ (14:22). We can sympathise with the disciple`s perplexity. Why this limited revelation? Why will his Master not show himself in a mighty, overwhelming display of power, something of which he is eminently capable? Then all must believe. But Jesus resolutely set his face towards the cross. He would not respond to Judas` implied request. He insisted on a revelation of glory which was veiled, quiet, impressive to some, rejected by many.

The same longing still exists, often with admirable motives, for Christ to impress the world with a much more obvious display of his glory. It lies behind much of the charismatic movement. It is why too many contemporary Christians idolise apparent ‘success’. Even the desire for revival among Reformed believers can be due to a longing for visible evidences of God`s redeeming power.

No one doubts that it is proper for us to long and pray earnestly for a mighty working of God in the world. Christ is the reigning King, his humiliation is ended and he sits in great power and glory at the Father`s right hand. But we need to be careful that we do not, however unconsciously, find fault with the way in which the Lord chooses to advance his kingdom. He is succeeding. All is on schedule and according to plan. Scripture assures us that not a single one of Christ`s sheep will be lost, that in his work there will be no failure whatsoever. To every one of his elect will come a revelation of his glory sufficient to bring them to faith.

The truth that ‘there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents’ (Luke 15:10) is so familiar to us that we can fail to realise how utterly staggering it is. How can it be that the conversion of a single human being should evoke such rejoicing in the abode of ultimate and infinite happiness? Because the glory of Jesus is displayed in it. We are too apt to think of such things as ‘ordinary’, run of the mill, just as his earthly life seemed unimpressive to most of his contemporaries. But, for those with eyes to see, the glory was there. God forbid that his glory should shine and we be too blind to discern it!

We should, in fact, thank God for Christ`s present quiet revelation of his glory. We should not only accept its ‘veiledness’, but rejoice in it. A day is coming when the glory will be manifested in the most awesome, irresistible way. No doubts will remain, no unbelieving sneers will be possible, all will be convinced. But by then, it will be too late for faith and the day of salvation will have passed for ever. Noah, during his years of apparently pointless boat-building, may have wished at times for some dramatic inbreaking of God which would silence the mockery of his neighbours. When at last the great Flood came, the unbelieving world was convinced of the truth of his preaching. But by then the Lord had closed the door of the ark. It is right that we should long to be able to persuade people that the flood of judgment is coming. But let us thank God that the rain, which will at the last convince them, has not yet begun to fall!

As we struggle with the unbelief around us, as we face rejection & discouragement, let us remember why. This modest revelation of Christ`s glory is God`s litmus test for faith, his means of separating his elect out of the world to salvation.

Reflecting Christ`s glory

Christ`s glory was not only revealed to his disciples but communicated to them. They received his glory in order that they might reflect it in the world. This is made clear, for example, in his high-priestly prayer: ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them… The glory which you have given me I have given to them…’ (17:10,22). Such is still our unspeakable responsibility and privilege.

As was the case with the Lord Jesus, this glory also is shielded, veiled, associated with suffering and cross-bearing. ‘For John glory, real glory, is to be seen when someone who could occupy a majestic and exalted place accepts instead a place of lowly service’. Christ`s glory in us is the glory of humility, of service, of pouring out our lives for others.

For a key concept in discipleship is that of following Jesus, ‘an allegiance to his person which is regarded as the decisive act’. ‘I am the light of the world’ he said. ‘Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ (8:12; 10:27).

Those who follow Jesus first receive and then reflect his glory. But what does their following entail? Surely it involves going where he went - along a path of suffering, carrying a cross. Are we ready for such a journey? Is this the glory we desire? All too often our idea of glory is a much more comfortable one, of power, victory and joy. But the paradox holds us. Glory, on this earth, is of a certain kind. ‘The Son glorifies the Father by his complete obedience and faithful fulfilment of his task’.

So we must decide. Do we want a Christian life which is soft, pampered and stress-free? Do we long to be popular? Are we looking for health, wealth and uninterrupted happiness? Many contemporary churches and preachers claim to offer this to their adherents. The ‘user-friendly’ approach to Christian living has been adopted by millions of professing believers.

But it is not the way of Christ. ‘The suffering and struggle of Jesus are only alternative names for his glory. In fact, glory hurts. It is when it hurts and is accepted that it becomes glory’. Leon Morris, commenting on Jesus` statement, ‘The glory that you have given me I have given to them’ (17:22), reminds us that ‘just as His true glory was to follow the path of lowly service culminating in the cross, so for them the true glory lay in the path of lowly service wherever it might lead them’. The Lord himself made plain the terrible yet glorious parabola of discipleship, following him to the depths so that, with him, we may be highly exalted: ‘If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him… Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow me afterwards’ (12:26; 13:36). We follow him to heaven, yes - but by cross-bearing, by the way of Calvary. This is the true follower`s inescapable route, for ‘This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God. And after saying this he said to him: “Follow me”’ (21:19).

Amy Carmichael has expressed movingly the essential connection between suffering and true discipleship.

‘Hast thou no scar? No hidden scar on foot, or side or hand? I hear thee sung as mighty in the land: I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star: Hast thou no scar? Hast thou no wound? Yet I was wounded by the archers, spent, Leaned on the tree to die, & rent by ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned: Hast thou no wound? No wound? No scar? Yet, as the master shall the servant be, And pierced are the feet that follow me; but thine are whole. Can he have followed far who has no wound? No scar?’

In London, every November, a Festival of Remembrance is held for all who have served the nation in time of war. The emotional highlight of the evening is the entrance of the Chelsea Pensioners. Slowly they march in, the old, maimed veterans - and as they steadily cross the arena, the whole assembly rises to do them honour. Is it too speculative to imagine a similar parade at the last day? An occasion when special honour will be given to the weak and wounded, the despised and rejected, scarred and damaged by their warfare? Their testimony will be a simple one: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing’ (2 Tim.4:7,8).

‘We must never think of our cross as our penalty; we must think of it as our glory… The harder the task we give a student, or a craftsman, or a surgeon, the more we honour him… So when it is hard to be a Christian, we must regard it as our glory, as our honour given to us by God’. Christ has called us to follow him through the glory of suffering to the glory of heaven. What will it mean, on that day, to be able to say, ‘I bear on my body the marks of Jesus’ (Gal.6:17)? His pierced hands will be reached out to us, and the captain of our salvation will say: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, true disciple and follower’. That will be glory indeed.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Marcus Dods, The Expositor`s Bible (London: Hodder & Stoughton, n.d.), vol.1, p.xiii.
Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), pp. 423-424.
Stephen S. Smalley, ‘John, The Gospel According to’, in Metzger, Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.373.
Ryken, Wilhoit, Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downer`s Grove, Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p.330.
S. Aalen, ‘Glory, honour’, in Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1976), vol.2, p.45.
Which itself means ‘to live or camp in a tent’ [Kittel & Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), vol.VII, p.385] and thus links the incarnation with the glorious presence in the tabernacle.
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), p.128.
A. Richardson, cited Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1973), p.186.
Leon Morris, New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), p.271.
John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), p.205.
Morris, op. cit., 1973, pp.104,105.
Carson, op. cit., p.94.
M. M. Thompson, ‘John, Gospel of’, in Green, McKnight, Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downer`s Grove, Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p.378.
John Calvin, The Gospel according to Saint John (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1972), vol. 2, p.68.
Stott, op. cit., p.205.
Morris, op. cit., 1986, pp.166-167.
Calvin, op. cit., p.135.
Morris, op. cit., 1973, p.226.
George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1994), p.312.
Morris, op. cit., 1986, p.271.
M. J. Wilkins, ‘Discipleship’, Green, McKnight, Marshall, op. cit., p.187.
C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John (London: SPCK, 1978), p.504.
H. Blair, cited ibid., p.226.
Morris, op. cit., 1973, p.734.
Source unknown.
W. Barclay, cited Morris, op. cit., 1973, p.735.

This article first appeared in the November 2002 edition of the Reformed Theological Journal and it is used here with the author’s permission. No part of this article may be copied or transmitted in any form without permission.

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