Seeing God's glory

Last Sunday I preached on Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, which talks about it. You can listen to me talking about both of them here.

Why is Moses’ face shining when he comes down the mountain in Exodus 34:29-35? We’re given the answer: “because he had been speaking with God” (v29). The account we have of his time up there includes him asking to see God’s glory (33:18), which God graciously agrees to do; that experience of God leads to his face shining because glory and light seem to be related (see also Ezekiel 1:26-28). Glory is God’s self-disclosure to us: we see and hear what He’s like.

This occasional appearances of the glory anticipate and are superseded by the appearance of the Son of God on earth: Jesus (John 1:14, Hebrews 1:1-3). There are moments of shining glory during His time on earth (Luke 2:8-9, Matthew 17:2-3) but more often, the revealing of His glory is different to this. He is veiled as a baby, a carpenter’s son, a resident of the back end of beyond, not a member of any kind of elite – but then His glory shines forth in His teaching, His power over nature, His welcome of the rejected and His healing of thousands. This all brings glory to God (John 17:4) and leads to the amazing conclusion described in John 12:23-24 “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The glory of God, the ultimate explanation by God of who He is, is the death of Jesus Christ His Son, by which life can be given to others. We sing a song, “This is Jesus in His glory: King of heaven dying for me.” Greater than the light which Moses saw, or the vision that dazzled Ezekiel, or a host of angels stunning shepherds – the cross is the greatest display of the glory of God because it tells us more about God than anything else.

2 Corinthians 3:7-18 reflects (as it were) on this story of glory: how it is only by God’s power that we see His glory, which is far superior to what even Moses experienced. It gives us a way of thinking about our current experience of God: does verse 18 describe you, or are you more like Moses – sometimes shining, then fading, or one of the Israelites who were frustrated or cynical spectators. If it’s anything less than verse 18 – “beholding the glory of the Lord… being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” – then we can’t settle for it. Not because we’re chasing experience but because Jesus deserves to be seen and known and loved and praised as supremely, exclusively glorious.

If we’re not amazed by Jesus’ glory, why not?
  1. We’re only glimpsing it. It gets some of our attention but not all. Other things vie for our gaze, legitimate and less so. John Donne confessed: “I neglect God for the buzzing of a fly, for the creaking of a door, for the rattle of a coach in the street.”
  2. We close our eyes. Disappointment and frustration wear us down, hurt makes us flinch, bitterness pulls at our eyelids. You can keep coming to church events, maybe even look the part, but your heart and your eyes are closed. You’ve decided that God is not glorious.
What shall we do in order to behold more of His glory? C.S. Lewis, in Meditation in a Toolshed says something I've found helpful to think about:
“I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”
Often when we think about seeing God and His glory, what we actually think about is seeing beams of light – radiances from God. A miracle, an encouragement, provision, guidance, creation – all these and other good things come from God and are displays of His glory but we don’t go further than seeing the things themselves: we don’t adjust our perspective to “look along” the beam and see the one who is shining. We do this by considering what the blessing says and shows us about God. This way of thinking even enables us to praise and know Him through times of hardship because we can look past those things to the One who gives us hope. The Holy Spirit has been given to help us with this: He loves to show us God’s glory, which is why Paul mentions Him (2 Corinthians 3:17,18).