Gospel Glory

Faith Matters

Viktor Klemperer was professor of literature at the University of Dresden during the years that led into World War II, and he had the job he wanted. All his life he had loved to read and write, and all his life he had dreamed of writing the world’s best book on 18th-century French literature. If he succeeded, he’d be famous on campuses across the world. He could hold his head up in the faculty lounge. At conferences he could autograph his book, and he could do it graciously and illegibly. He’d be a master in his field! Anybody who wanted to talk about 18th-century French literature would have to talk about Viktor Klemperer!

But then the Nazis came to power and started removing one part of Klemperer’s life after another. They took away his telephone and then his car. They canceled some of his courses at the university and then they canceled all of them. The Nazis removed his typewriter and then they took away his house and gave it to a local grocer. (The grocer was actually opposed to Hitler, but he was still pleased to have Klemperer’s house.) The Nazis moved Klemperer into a so-called Jews’ House, normally the last stop on the way to the camps, and they also killed Klemperer’s cat because, of course, Jews could not own pets.

As the Nazis robbed him, Klemperer wrote it all down in his diary. He wrote about his deprivations and the indignities that came with them. He described suffering and what it did to people—how it made some of them large-hearted and compassionate, how it made others tight and self-protective. In 1941, after a terrifying run-in with the police, Klemperer opened his diary and wrote these words: “I want to bear witness, precise witness, until the very end.” He knew that in his confinement he couldn’t write a big history of Nazi cruelty. But he could tell his diary about the ordinary ways the Nazis stripped people of their dignity, right down to the last rag of it.

Viktor Klemperer had hoped to write the world’s best account of 18th-century French literature. But the Nazis took his life away.

Except that, at the end of the day, they didn’t. They couldn’t. Viktor Klemperer’s diaries survived and are now celebrated all over the world. My friend Eleanor Stump pointed this out to me one day. Klemperer thought his glory would be a book about French literature, but the Lord meant his glory to be his daily diary. Viktor Klemperer couldn’t stop the Nazis from robbing him, but there was one thing he could do. He could “bear witness, precise witness,” and he could “bear it to the end.” He was a witness to the truth, and he never knew that this would be his glory.

Where We’re Not Looking

How hard it is to see real glory when we think glory is all about making a splash. We miss the real thing because we get our standards from people who’ve got glory mixed up with publicity—people like pro athletes and entertainers, hard-charging winners in business who then star in their own TV show. Some folks think there’s glory in being lethal, so their idea of great entertainment is a vengeful movie and a tub of popcorn. In ordinary life glory is reputation, and it’s built on competition and publicity and peer review by people just as fouled up as we are.

So once more the Bible must be our teacher because it finds glory somewhere else—usually in places we’re not looking for it. The gospel of John is especially intriguing in this respect.

In John 2 Jesus goes to a wedding at which his mother reports a wine shortage, so Jesus goes to work. He makes some wine, maybe as much as 150 gallons (must have been a large wedding). And, of course, when it comes to making wine Jesus has an advantage over other vintners because he’s the one through whom everything was made in the beginning. Jesus knows his business, so he makes very good wine, special reserve wine that bursts with fruit. The gospel says it was a sign of his glory. We want to know what this mysterious glory is and why we should see it in wine making.

In John 12 death is in the air. The Son of Man will die and fall into the earth in an event so devastating that it will seem to turn creation back into chaos, but Jesus says this is the hour in which the Son of Man will be glorified. And we grope for his meaning. How can this be? Getting glorified on a cross? Is that like getting enthroned on an electric chair? Is it like being honored by a firing squad?

Glory in the cross of Jesus Christ sounds almost grotesque. After all, as Jürgen Moltmann once wrote, Jesus was crucified “not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in a place named for a skull.” Jesus, the friend of sinners, was crucified between his kind of people in a Godforsaken place where all the lights go out from noon to three. Yet the gospel wants us to find glory in this disaster, and we want to know what this mysterious glory is and why we should see it in Jesus’ terrible suffering.

John 13 tells us that one night when Jesus’ hour had come, he took off his robe, tied a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and bent over the feet of his disciples. Jesus did for them what they would never have dreamed of doing for each other, and he did it for Judas too. He also handed Judas bread—feeding the traitor, feeding the traitor with bread, the staff of life! According to the gospel, when Judas took these gifts from Jesus and walked out into the darkness with them Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.” And once more we want to know what this mysterious glory is all about and why we should find it in the washing and the feeding.

Grace Upon Grace

Glory is everywhere in the gospel, and it’s got nothing to do with competition or making a splash. The glory is in wine and blood. It’s in bread and bath water. It’s where we’re not looking, but it’s certainly where Jesus is, and of course God the Father is mixed up in the glory too because the Son does just what his Father does. He says just what his Father says. The Son is his Father all over again.

If that isn’t mystery and glory enough, think of what our Lord says in John 17. Jesus’ hour has come. He’s only one chapter from the place where Judas and the soldiers will meet him with their torches and weapons. So what does Jesus do? He prays for his disciples. He thinks of them and prays for them. He thinks even of the next generation of disciples who will be gathered through evangelism, and he prays for them too. Protect them, he prays. Sanctify them. Unite them. Fill them with joy. Let me be in them and you in me and they in us. Let your love, which has been my own life’s blood from before the foundation of the world, be in them and I in them—and in all the generations of children who will believe the truth.

The gospel says that after Jesus spoke those words he went out to the garden to meet Judas and the soldiers.

Holy Father, protect them. Unite them. Love them. Fill them with joy. Let me be in them. The prayer is thrilling in its courage and beauty. And at its center lies an exchange of glory:

[Jesus] looked up to heaven and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you.”

“The glory that you have given me I have given them so that they may be one as we are one” (17:1, 22).

Jesus pours himself out for his disciples while his own life hangs by a thread, and in this we behold his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth. Here is the fullness of grace, grace upon grace, grace that is always out to bless, to adorn, to unite, to cause others to flourish, grace that is always thinking of others, doing whatever it takes, paying whatever it costs so that they may live and do so abundantly.

His Father All Over Again

Where did Jesus get all this self-spending glory? He got some of it from his mother, didn’t he, the fierce and blessed virgin Mary! Jesus was his mother’s Son. He got some of it from the Holy Spirit, who conceived him and descended upon him and remained with him. And, of course, from all eternity Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, the Word of God, the light of God—from all eternity Jesus Christ got his glorious self-giving habits from being in the bosom of his Father, the One whose greatness consists so much in his goodness.

So Jesus does just what he sees his Father doing. Jesus makes lots of wine at Cana because he comes from a wine-making family. Every fall God turns water into wine in France and Chile and the Napa Valley. Gregory the Great said that at Cana Jesus did a small, sped-up version of what God does all the time in the great vineyards of the world. Jesus makes wine for people because they’re at a wedding, and he wants them to flourish there. He wants to make their joy full.

Glory in the wine of Jesus, and glory in the washbasin of Jesus. Hasn’t God always humbled himself to serve us, even when our sin has led us into terrible trouble? “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion. . . . Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:1-2). Jesus, on his knees before his disciples, is doing what he sees his Father doing, and of course the gospel finds glory here because it’s so much like God to clean people up.

And bread for a traitor? Doesn’t God provide that all the time—sending rain on the fields of the just and the unjust so that their crops will grow and they will grow too as they feed on God’s gifts? Jesus hands Judas a piece of bread because he does what he sees his Father doing, and the gospel finds glory here because it’s so much like God to feed enemies even while opposing their evil.

The gospel finds glory where we’re not looking—in wine, water, and bread, even in the blood of Jesus our Savior. In the mystery of the cross, the humiliating death of Jesus Christ was actually a triumph of self-giving love, “the atoning sacrifice for . . . the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). That’s why it brings glory to God. The point is that God’s splendor becomes clearer whenever God or the Son of God powerfully spends himself in order to cause others to flourish. This is what makes God eminent in the world. This is the power and the glory.

And it’s this glory that Jesus wants to pass on to his disciples. How astonishing it is that when we help others to thrive, when we encourage them, strengthen them, liberate them, keep our promises to them—how astonishing that when we do these things we are like God!

We thought we’d get glory by writing a terrific book or getting a strong peer review from people just as foolish as we are. But the Spirit of Truth tells us that real glory is in the wine and the blood and the water and the bread—all signs of mighty self-expenditure by God for people who don’t deserve it at all.

About the Author

Cornelius (Neal) Plantinga was formerly President of Calvin Theological Seminary. He is now Senior Research Fellow in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

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