Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Glory of the Cross of Christ

Below is the text of the talk I gave at Conklin Avenue Baptist Church last Thursday. I was given the topic: The Glory of the Cross of Christ.

One of the problems in preaching about “glory” is defining it. Glory is common enough word. We use it all the time in the church. We say that we gather every Sunday to “glorify” God and, indeed, we hope that our gatherings bring him glory. In the Anglican tradition and probably in yours as well we donate items like crosses or communion sets or bibles to the church in the name of deceased relatives or friends and inscribe on them words like this: “For the glory of God in memory of______” . Some contemporary Christian music is categorized under a broad category called “glory and praise” music. Presbyterians say, and I think they're right, that the chief end of man is to “To glorify God and enjoy him forever”.

But its not just a religious word. The Pittsburgh Steelers won a “glorious” victory when they won the Super bowl this year. The Binghamton University basketball team won a great deal of “glory” recently , making it to the NCAA tournament for the first time. And that swimmer from the Olympics...I forget his name...gained a great deal of glory, winning eight gold medals last Summer in China.

But what does the word mean? What is glory? In America its almost synonymous with the concept of “fame” or “renown”. When we say that the the Steelers, Bearcats, and that swimmer guy won “glory”, we usually mean something like: “Now they're really famous.”

But is that what the bible means when it speaks of the “glory of God?” Is scripture referring to God's celebrity status, his fame? Is that what we do when we “glorify” God? Is our chief end to make God famous? Do we gather on Sunday morning to put God's name in lights? I remember hearing one of my favorite radio preachers, I think it was Alistairr Begg, recount the time he visited a neighboring church and in response to a reading from the bible, the pastor asked his congregation to “give God a hand” and the people clapped wildly for God as if he were a renown entertainer.

I don't think that quite gets it. Who remembers the Seraphim's song in Isaiah's vision of God seated in the temple in Isaiah 6:3? What do the Seraphim, the six-winged angels who surround the throne of God continually sing?

“Holy Holy Holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory”.

The angels announce that the fullness of God's glory is present in the world. They do not urge his future glorification as if it were something to be accomplished--but they declare it as an established reality. The world, the cosmos, all creation is full of God's glory.

God's glory fills his cosmos whether anyone acknowledges it or not. In that sense it is not like our concept of fame or renown. God is glorified even when no one knows his name. God's glory pervades all that he has made. Our chief end may be to glorify God but God's glory, his being glorified, does not depend on us or our recognition of it.

In first Corinthians 2:8 Paul writes that we as Christians carry and impart a wisdom from God that the rulers of the world cannot understand. Had they understood it, he says, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. The rulers hung the “Lord of Glory” on the cross. But he hung there, despised and rejected, without ceasing to be the Lord of Glory. Those who crucified Christ did not and could not, even in the crucifixion, rob him of his glory. Christ is the Lord of Glory even when the glory is veiled to those who are perishing.

I have this nifty new English Standard Version Study Bible. When you get one of these, you also get access to an online version of the same thing. One great feature of the online version is that you get instant word studies. You just plug a word into your computer and the online study bible immediately pulls up all the passages in which a given word (at least as it is translated in English) is used. I did that with the word glory and 342 references popped up. I spent some time this week culling through them and I've come up with a definition that I think fits with what I've read in the 342 passages but also, and probably more helpfully for you, with what other more experienced bible teachers and theologians have said:

God's glory is the outward revelation or manifestation of the fullness of or any aspect of his nature and/or character.

That outward manifestation can be represented by brilliant splendor as when his glory, his weight, his brightness, comes to rest in the tabernacle in Exodus 40, but it does not have to be. God's glory is made manifest, he is glorified, by whatever points to or illumines or reveals his character and nature.

In Exodus 33:18, Moses pleads with God: “Please show me your glory.” And in verses 19-20 God answers: “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”

Think about God's answer to Moses. Moses asks God to show him his glory, God says, “I will show you my goodness”. I will let you know my Name. When asked to reveal his glory, God reveals his goodness and his Name. Is this a rejection of Moses' request? Not at all. In disclosing his goodness and his Name, God's glory is revealed—his Name and his goodness and his glory are bound up together.

In Exodus chapter 34 God displays his visible majesty to Moses, in Hebrew, his “weight”, his brilliance, hiding Moses in the cleft of a Rock, but in addition to that God speaks:

“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Ex 34:5-7)

The visible cloud of glory is paired with God's verbal self-disclosure of his character. Both the luminosity of the cloud and the divine Word unveil God's nature and character.

What happens in Exodus after God reveals his glory to Moses on the mountain? Afterwards the Levites go about the process of building the tabernacle and crafting the Ark of the Covenant and the incense altar and the altar for burnt offerings and the lampstand and the table and the skins to cover the holy and most holy places in the tabernacle and the beautiful curtain that hung between the two and the ornate vestments for the High Priest and the white priests vestments and when they were finished, they ordained the priests, Aaron and his sons, and sacrificed burnt offerings, and sin offerings and guilt offerings and finally peace offerings and then what happened?
So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (40:33-35)

The luminous cloud of the presence of God came down from the mountain and rested in his tabernacle. Think about the movement here. God's glory rests first on Mount Sinai, not among the people, not in the midst of the people, in fact the people are afraid to go near the Mountain and they cannot stand to hear the voice of God. Then God reveals his law. Then the cloud descends and God's glory filled the tabernacle in the midst of the people.

What is it that makes it possible for Lord to descend, to rest, to dwell in the Tabernacle with the people of cloud? What is it about the tabernacle that makes it the most fitting place in the cosmos for God to dwell? What is it about the tabernacle and later the Temple, that makes his glory manifest?

God says, in Exodus 34 “I am slow to anger, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” but he also says, “I will by no means clear the guilty.” Those two characteristics, just wrath and compassionate mercy, seem to conflict and conflate and contradict but the tabernacle brings them together. The sacrifices and offerings and the blood reveal a God who does not pardon iniquity, who punishes sin to the full extent of the law and yet the presence, the rest, the dwelling of God among the people reveals a God of love and mercy.

God's glory rests in the temple because the temple makes his holiness, his justice, his wrath manifest and, at the same time, his kindness, compassion, love, and grace. Justice and mercy, love and wrath meet and kiss one another as the tabernacle reveals the nature and character of God.

Now let's move forward in time.

Jesus enters the Temple. He is not happy. Money changers have set themselves up in the temple courts by the permission of the priests, to do commerce in the places devoted to worship—the place where God's glory rests and the place where people come to reflect God's glory and beauty back to him through worship. Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives the money-changers out.

But he's challenged by the Temple authorities, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”they ask (John 2:18).

Who remembers what sign Jesus gave? Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) Now just on the off chance the reader of John's gospel misses the point of Jesus' words, John explains for us, “...he was speaking about the temple of his body.” (2:21).

We are all familiar with the phrase, “my body is the temple of the Lord” Paul applies this idea to all believers in 1st Corinthians 6. But let me suggest that here that Jesus is speaking about his body in a different way—and in a way that echoes throughout John's gospel all the way to the cross.

What was the function of the Tabernacle and, in Jesus' day, the Temple? What did the Temple do? You can answer that question when you think about the sequence of sacrifices Israelites were called to offer. The last in the sequence after the sin offering, burnt offering and guilt offering and all the other offerings was the peace offering. After the atoning sacrifices there could be peace, peace between God and his people. Through the blood of bulls and goat and sheep, God was thought to punish the sins of his people: to, in keeping with his Name revealed in Exodus 34: “punish their iniquity” and make it possible “to forgive their sins.”

We know, because the prophets were quite clear about this, that the sacrifices themselves did not actually accomplish the atonement—but they were thought to do so and, the author of Hebrews tells us they were shadows and signs of a greater Sacrifice.

Nevertheless, as we have said, God rested in the Temple, his glory was made manifest, because it was the place that revealed most perfectly for the time his Holy character, a God of perfect justice who does not let sin go unpunished and a God of perfect love who does not allow anything to separate him from the people he loves and calls according to his purpose.

I think you can begin to see the significance of Jesus words to the Temple authorities. This is not the temple, Jesus says, this building is made of human hands and will one day be brought to nothing. The sacrifices here will come to an end and do not accomplish in themselves that task to which they point. They cannot.

My body is the Temple. I am place, the location where God's perfect justice is carried out and his perfect love is revealed. The Samaritans make their sacrifices on the mountain, the Jews in the Temple, but a day is coming when true worshipers will worship at a different Temple in Spirit and in Truth.

The Temple function, the purpose of the tabernacle, to make peace with God was always a function impaired by the fact that no animal sacrifice can atone for human sin.

But referring to the death of Jesus' body in Romans 3:25-26 Paul writes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood”

And John in the 2nd chapter of his first letter writes: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

The word propitiation, translated from the Greek word “hilesterion” means satisfaction or appeasement. Jesus' death was not simply a sign of propitiation. It was propitiatory. Whereas the sacrifices of the beasts in the Temple merely signified propitiation, pointed to God's just wrath, without satisfying it, the apostles teach that on the cross God's justice was satisfied and his holy wrath appeased. The eternal punishment our sins deserve was poured out on his Son Jesus Christ and on the basis of his real propitiation, God in perfect love accomplished, in history, the reconciliation and peace foreshadowed and signified in the tabernacle.

Remember our definition: God's glory is the outward revelation or manifestation of the fullness of or any aspect of his nature and/or character.

When the sacrifices for sin were accomplished in the tabernacle, God's presence rested there and he was glorified because his justice and his love was revealed. But the tabernacle was a passing shadow of the glory that was perfectly revealed the in the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice and oblation for the sins of the whole world—God's perfect holy justice and his perfect holy love made manifest on two poles of rough cut wood.

How strange that seems to us to speak of the glory of the cross because the cross is ugly and bloody and horrific. When I think of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, I think of the glory of his Incarnation or his Transfiguration or his Resurrection and Ascension but I tend to mentally pass over his Cross. But there, Paul says, God revealed “his righteousness so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The cross was for one six hour moment, the epicenter, the locus, of God's glory on earth...and the bruised risen body of Christ remains our Temple...the place and the Person through whom we make peace with God.

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