One day when I was in college, Clyde Kilby, my favorite English teacher, said something to this effect: “One of the greatest tragedies of the fall is that we get tired of familiar glories.” That simple statement sank deep into my consciousness. It made me sad, because I saw how superficial and unresponsive I was to so many wonders around me. It filled me with a longing to not be like that. I did not want to arrive in the Alps, be filled with wonder for a couple days, but by the end of the week be watching television in the chalet. I lamented my ability to actually yawn during Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Which means I loathe the thought of speaking of God’s glory in a way that is so familiar or stale or clichéd that it wakens no sense of wonder. Of course, I realize only God can waken true wonder at his glory. Kilby was right. The fall has left us deeply dysfunctional emotionally. We’re excited by trivia and bored by grandeur. We strain out a gnat to admire and swallow a camel of glory unnoticed. Nevertheless, I want to try to use language that helps us see what God’s glory is, if I can. Hence the effort to find other words besides glory—like worth and beauty and value and excellence.
Holiness Gone Public
My understanding of the glory of God has been deeply shaped by its relationship to the holiness of God. I have in mind the way this relationship comes to expression in Isaiah 6:1–3:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
Why did the prophet not say, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his holiness!”? My suggestion is that the glory of God is the holiness of God put on display. When God’s holiness shines into creation, it is called “God’s glory.”
Class By Himself
This pushes the question about the meaning of glory back into the holiness of God. The root meaning of the Old Testament word for “holy” (Hebrew chadōsh) is the idea of being separate—different from and separated from something. When applied to God, that means God’s holiness is his separateness from all that isn’t God. This, then, means he’s in a class by himself. And like all good things that are rare, the more rare it is, the more valuable it is. Therefore, God is supremely valuable.
We can see this meaning of God’s holiness in the following two illustrations. First, when Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it the way God had instructed him, God said, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12; see 27:14). In other words, when Moses distrusted God, he didn’t treat him as being in a magnificent class of power and trustworthiness by himself. He treated him as just another common person to be distrusted as unwilling or unable to do what he said. But God isn’t common. He isn’t like others. He’s holy.
The fall has left us deeply dysfunctional emotionally. We’re excited by trivia and bored by grandeur.
Second, in Isaiah 8:12–13, God says to Isaiah:
Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.
In other words, don’t lump God into the same group as all your other fears and dreads. Treat him as an utterly unique fear and dread. Set him apart from all the ordinary fears and dreads.
So here is how I conceive of the holiness of God. God is so separate, so above, so distinct from all else—all that isn’t God—that he’s self-existent and self-sustaining and self-sufficient. Thus he’s infinitely complete and full and perfect in himself. He’s separate from, and transcendent above, all that isn’t God. So he wasn’t brought into existence by anything outside himself. He is, therefore, self-existent. He depends on nothing for his ongoing existence; he is self-sustaining. And, therefore, he’s utterly self-sufficient. Complete, full, perfect.
The Bible makes plain that this self-existing, self-sustaining, self-sufficient God exists as three divine persons in one divine essence. Thus the Father knows and loves the Son perfectly, completely, infinitely; and the Son knows and loves the Father perfectly, completely, infinitely. And the Holy Spirit is the perfect, complete, infinite expression of the Father’s and the Son’s love of each other. This perfect Trinitarian fellowship is essential to the fullness and perfection of God. There is no lack, no deficiency, no need—only perfect fullness and completeness and self-sufficiency.
So when the Bible puts the glory of God on display as the goal of all God does, this is another way of saying God’s infinite worth and beauty—or his ultimate value and excellence—is the supreme reality in the universe. And that is, in fact, what we find in the Bible.
From beginning to end, God tells us and shows us that his ultimate goal in all he does is to communicate his glory for the world to see and for his people to admire and enjoy and praise.
Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from John Piper’s new book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (Crossway, 2017).