Eternal life, in the Farewell Prayer, is knowing God and God’s Messiah, Jesus, whom God sent into the world to give abundant life. The results of this relationship are “glorification” and “sanctification.” Both of those are words that produce allergic responses in my Lutheran-shaped theological brain. They sound like sure paths to works righteousness – the opposite of being saved by grace through faith. This has been part of my lifelong resistance to John, and it has been a mistake.
O’Day and Hylen define “to glorify” as “to make visible the presence of God” (Kindle Location 2931). This makes much more sense to me than some effort to offer God praise and honor and esteem that it would seem that God doesn’t need or desire. Instead, Jesus glorifies the Father by his Incarnation as the Word made flesh. We come back to John 1:18 and the fact that no one has ever seen God. It is the Word made flesh that has made the Father visible and thus has glorified the Father.
Pointing to this mutual glorification is how Jesus begins his Farewell Prayer in John 17:1. Just as Jesus has made the Father visible in his life, so the Father has made God visible in the life of Jesus – particularly through the signs in John’s gospel but also through the Word and words of Jesus’ dialogues and discourse. “‘Glorification’ is John’s way of describing the revelation of God’s love that takes place in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension,” O’Day and Hylen write. “By glorifying God, Jesus makes visible the presence of God; thus, Jesus’ glorification also glorifies God. Jesus’ prayer for his glorification is also a prayer that the events of his hour will complete his revelation of God” (Kindle Location 3425).
To appreciate “glory” in John’s gospel, we need to review the background of the experience in the Hebrew scriptures. The word in Hebrew is kabod, which means “weight” or “substance.” It refers, in metaphorical terms to something that has what we might call “gravitas” (coming from our notion of “gravity”). We can talk about the gravity of a situation. We can note that some things are “weighty” matters. So, we can get closer to the Hebrew sense of the word.
In the Christian scriptures, “glory” often refers to an experience of light – not metaphorical, but rather a visible, and often overwhelming brilliance. When the angels bring their Nativity news to the shepherds and sing the first Christmas carols, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” The light was of such brilliance that the shepherds were terrified. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus was transformed into such brilliant glory that his clothing was brighter “than any fuller could bleach it,” as we read in Mark’s gospel. The disciples are befuddled by the brilliance and can’t process it very well.
The light of the glory of God is, however, the manifestation of God’s glory and not the substance of it. The glory of God is, as was noted above, God’s presence with God’s people. Several commentators refer us to the design and construction of the Tabernacle in Exodus, chapters 25-40. The specifics of the design are laid out in chapters 25-31. The construction is interrupted by the unfaithfulness of the Israelites and the need to renew and recast the covenant in chapters 32-37.
But by the time we get to Exodus 40, the Tabernacle is completed, and the Ark of the Covenant rests at the center of the installation. In Exodus 40:33, we read that “Moses finished the work.” In the Septuagint translation, phrase is “καὶ συνετέλεσεν Μωυσῆς πάντα τὰ ἔργα (“kai sunetelesen Moses panta ta erga”). We should notice right off that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 echoes this sense of “finished work.”
John’s gospel makes a connection between the completion of the Tabernacle and Jesus’ completion of the work of loving the world. The Farewell Discourse begins with the report that Jesus loved “his own” and loved them “to the end” (eis telos). That is, Jesus loved his own right through to the completion, fulfillment, and perfection of his work. In John 19:30, Jesus said “It has been completed.” He then bowed his head and handed over the Spirit. We dare not miss the connections John’s gospel is making here.
Exodus 40:34-38 describes how the presence of the LORD accompanied the Israelites on their wilderness journey by occupying the Tabernacle. “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting,” we read in verse 34, “and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (NRSV). “Glory” is the Hebrew word in question – “kabod” – and it is not exclusively brilliant light. It is, rather, the awesome presence of the LORD. In fact, a cloud covers the tent when the LORD is present, and there is no room for even Moses to enter.
When the cloud was on the tent, the Israelites needed to stay put. But when the cloud was lifted, the LORD went out ahead of them, and they could go forward. “For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in [it] by night,” we read in Exodus 40:38 (NRSV, see footnote). The glory of the LORD was not defined by light as such but rather by the LORD’s presence with the people.
In 1 Kings 8, the glory of the LORD is transferred to the Temple in Jerusalem, built by Solomon. Once again, lavish attention is paid to the details of construction and materials. The ark of the covenant was brought to the Temple and placed in the center – the Holy of Holies. After the ark has been installed and the priests had vacated the inner sanctuary, “a cloud filled up the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” (1 Kings 8:10-11, NRSV).
We have a repetition of the experience of Moses in the Tabernacle. There was no room for the priests “for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD” (verse 11b). Solomon the enters into a long prayer that lifts up the blessings, sins, history, and chosenness of God’s people “just as you promised through Moses, your servant, when you brought our ancestors out of Egypt, O Lord God” (verse 53). The prayer connects the Temple to the Tabernacle and assures the listeners that the “glory” is the same Divine presence.
We might think briefly about Isaiah’s vision of the Lord’s throne room in Isaiah 6. The heavenly attendants call to one another, reminding each of that “whole earth is full” of the Divine glory – that is, the Divine presence. This glory is expressed with earthquakes and smoke. Isaiah is certain he will die because he is not of sufficient worth (weight, in a metaphorical sense) to bear this vison of the Lord. He lips are cleansed so he can speak of what he has seen. His vision, however, is one of judgment rather than presence. The Lord will send the people away in the exile and will not accompany them.
Thus, the Babylonian Exile calls into question God’s presence with the Judeans. The Temple is destroyed, and the ark of the covenant is lost to history. At the beginning of the Exile, the prophet Ezekiel, in chapters 10 and 11, envisions the glory of the Lord as it departs from the Temple. The prophet does not leave his people desolate, however, In chapter 43 – after explicit and detailed instructions on rebuilding the Temple – Ezekiel sees the glory of the Lord returning from the east. As Ezekiel witnessed the return of the Lord’s glory, he was transported to the inner court of the Temple.
This time there would be room for someone in the inner sanctuary when the glory of the Lord filled the structure.
All of this tradition and history stands behind the use of “glory” in John’s gospel. We can remember from John 2 that Jesus comes to replace the Jerusalem temple with his own body on the cross. There was a profound sense among the Jews that even though the Babylonian exile had ended centuries before, the people and the Temple were still in captivity. There had only been a few decades when the Temple was not on occupied land. Jesus comes, in all the gospels but especially in John, to restore the glory of the Lord to the center of the world.
Jesus has glorified God by finishing the work God gave him to do and asks God to glorify him in return (vv. 4–5),” O’Day and Hylen write. “This reciprocal glorification was seen in 17:1 and is already present in the prior narrative of Jesus’ life; God has glorified Jesus (8:54; 12:28), and Jesus has revealed God’s glory (1:14; 2:11; 11:4, 40). Jesus’ return to God reflects the fullness of his glory” (Kindle Location 3435).
Jesus is the Word made flesh, “tabernacling” among us, John’s gospel says. The Son glorifies the Father – that is, makes the Father present in the lives of the disciples and the life of the world. The Son is glorified by the presence of the Father in all times and places – especially on the cross. The Spirit continues to glorify the Son by making the Son present in the community of those who put their trust in the Son – that is, the Church. We who follow Jesus make him present through our love for one another and our unity in the Son.
In the image of the Vine and the Branches, for example, Jesus tells his disciples, “In this way, the Father is glorified – that you are bearing much fruit.” If glorification means making visible God’s presence in the world, then this sentence makes great sense. In the fruits of love produced by the ministry of the disciples, the world can see the presence of God in them and in their works. They make manifest the presence of God as disciples of Jesus – branches of the Valid Vine.
This sentence is not a prescription. It is a description of how the process works. In that fruit-bearing, the disciples show the presence of God and demonstrate their connection to Jesus as disciples. “In this way you show yourselves to be my disciples,” he assures them. With that background, we can think about the “weight” of our witness as disciples. We go there next.