Is God really compelled by love? That might sound a harebrained question. God is love. He showed his love by sending his Son; his desire was to share his love for the Son. What could be the problem? Yet there are verses that could feel like pebbles in the shoe here. Paul, for example, writes that the Father “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ […] in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:3-12). Is there, then, some deeper and perhaps selfish motivation in God: not love, but a craving for applause?
It all depends on what “the glory of God” means. In the Old Testament, the word for “glory” has to do with “heaviness” or “weight.” In 1 Samuel 4:18, for example, “[…] Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy […]” So the glory of something is its mass, bulk, its worth, what makes it up, what it is all about—what makes it itself. Perhaps Eli’s glory was his stomach. Someone else’s glory might be his or her brain, job or looks, if that is what they most treasure. The glory of a man who lives for money is money, and so: “Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor [glory] of his house increases; for he will take nothing with him when he dies, his splendor [glory] will not descend with him” (Ps 49:16-17). (The lesson being, have instead a Glory that will go through death with you, as the psalmist did: “But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself” [v. 15].)
This all means that “glorifying” God cannot be about inflating, improving or expanding him. That is quite impossible with the God who is already super-abundant and overflowing with life. Instead, when we give God the glory, we simply ascribe to him what is already his, declaring him to be as he truly is. “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to his name,” said David (Ps 29:2).
So what is the glory of this God, the triune God? What is it like? It will, of course, be a radically different sort of glory from that of any other god. This God is simply nothing like any others.
The answer is surprising: Ezekiel 1 speaks of God’s glory in terms of both a person and light/radiance/brightness. Ezekiel writes of how, when standing by the Kebar River, he saw a throne approaching, carried by four great living creatures. On the throne “was a figure like that of a man,” and “he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (Ezekiel 1:26-28). The appearance of the glory looks like both a man and a brilliant light.
You may not expect God’s weight to be described as being like light, but Ezekiel is simply recording something seen throughout the Bible: that God’s glory—his character—is like a pure and dazzling light shining forth. Here are just a few examples:
Then the glory of the LORD rose from above the and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the of the LORD. (Ezekiel 10:4)
I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory. (Ezekiel 43:2)
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. (Is 60:1-2)
In Psalm 19, the heavens are said to “declare the glory of God. […] their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Then the psalmist gets specific: “In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat” (Ps 19:1-6). As the glory of the Lord rises and shines, driving away the thick darkness, so the sun rises and shines to fill the heavens and the earth with a taste of that glory.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks at night an angel appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. (Luke 2:8-9)
At Jesus’ transfiguration, Peter and his companions “saw his glory” (Luke 9:32). And what did it look like? “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2)
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. (Revelation 21:23)
So the glory of God is like radiant light, shining out, enlightening and giving life. And that is what the innermost being and weight of God is like: he is a sun of light, life and warmth, always shining out. As the Father gives out life and being to the Son, as the Father and the Son breathe out the Spirit, so the Spirit breathes out life into the world. The glory of this God is radiant and outgoing. As the sun gives of its own light and heat, so this God glories in giving himself. Thus, wrote Jonathan Edwards: “What God has in view in neither of them, neither in his manifesting his glory to the understanding nor communication to the heart, is not that he may receive, but that he [may] go forth: the main end of his shining forth is not that he may have his rays reflected back to himself, but that the rays may go forth.” (Edwards, “The Miscellanies,” in Works, 13:496.)
In other words, the beautiful glory of the triune God is radiating, self-giving and loving. That is why, when commenting on the glory of Ezekiel 1 and its New Testament counterpart, Revelation 4-5, Edwards said, “Christ in the gospel revelation appears as clothed with love, as being as it were on a throne of mercy and grace, a seat of love encompassed about with pleasant beams of love. Love is the light and glory which are about the throne on which God sits…the light and glory with which God appears surrounded in the gospel is especially the glory of his love and covenant grace” (Edwards, “Ethical Writings,” in Works, 8:145).
The idea that God’s glory might be something different in God, at odds with his love, is a complete misunderstanding. Glory is not about taking, but giving. “Love is the light and glory which are about the throne on which God sits.” John Owen wrote that God “glorifies himself in the communication of all good things.” (John Owen, “Exposition of Hebrews,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, 24 vols. [1850-1855; republished, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965-1991], 23:99, my emphasis). Indeed—and particularly in the communication, the sharing, of himself.
But wait a moment: in the exodus, God glorifies himself through judging Egypt; in Exodus, “the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire” (Ex 24:17). That looks like a very different sort of glory. In fact, it is not. One of the loveliest things about light is that it overcomes and banishes darkness. Once, Jonathan Edwards was preaching on Christ as the sun of righteousness from this passage in the beginning of Malachi 4:
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 4:1-2)
The main lesson Edwards drew from it was that “that same spiritual Sun, whose beams are most comfortable and beneficial to believers, will burn and destroy unbelievers.” (Edwards, “Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742,” in Works, 22:52.) It is the same light, the same glory. But the very glory that is the fragrance of life to some is the smell of death to others. God’s purpose is unfathomably kind: he will at the last so spread his life, being and goodness that he will be all in all; he will at the last fill the universe with the light of his wonderful glory. He is all light—but that is terrible for those who love the darkness.
Want to learn more about the trinitarian shape of the Christian faith? Get Michael Reeves’ book, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (IVP Academic, 2012). Here, Reeves writes about the centrality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for the gospel message, and accessibly spells out some of its practical implications. If you’ve ever wondered what the Trinity has to do with Christian living, or why it matters that God is triune, this book helpfully clarifies the significance of this non-negotiable Christian doctrine.