Welcome back. John 9:3 is a classic text for us at Desiring God when it comes to understanding God’s good design in human disability. In six APJ episodes, we’ve talked about the man born blind and Jesus’s explanation for why he was born blind. It’s just a profound story, a profound revelation of God’s purposes.
But today we’re looking at a different part of that story. You’ll remember that Jesus spit on the ground, mixed his saliva with dirt, made mud, applied the paste to the man’s blind eyes, and then sent him off to wash it all off in a pool. And that’s where his eyesight was restored. Let me read this account in John 9:1–7: “As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” There has to be a reason why, right? “Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” There’s the key text. Why does disability exist? It’s a profound response, with wide-ranging implications. Then we read this. “Having said these things, [Jesus] spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.” Here’s Pastor John.
He healed him with mud. Why? He could have said, “Eyes open,” and they would have opened. He’s done that. He used mud and spit. I have a lot of ideas why. I’ll just give you the one that’s most obvious in the text, least controversial. I think it’s manifest.
Namely, he used mud because he knew it was Saturday, the Sabbath, and it’s against the law to knead dough or clay or mud. One of the 39 interpretations of the Pharisees as to what it means not to work on Saturday was you can’t knead dough. And the word for “dough” is identical (pēlon) to the word “mud” or “clay.” It’s like brickmasons: “Hey, give me some more mud,” and all they mean is a big clump of moldable cement. Or it’s like women working with their bread, because they could call it mud. They usually don’t, but it’s the same word.
He knew exactly what he was doing. “I’m going to break the law; I’m going to do it in a way that breaks the law” — the law as the Pharisees understood it. Why would he want to do that? Because he’s the Lord of the Sabbath, and he wants to show that he is — or to show what the point of the Sabbath is: rest. Why? Why do you need rest? Healing. If you don’t rest, you die. Rest is weekly therapy for dying bodies. Get well; stop working. So I’m just really illustrating with this, What else would you do on the Sabbath but make eyes see? Especially if you’re God and you want to show that you’re the Creator and Sustainer and Healer.
But I don’t think any of those is the main reason why he did it. I think the main reason was to trigger the controversy.
Miracles Through Human Means
Yes. And it sure did that. But there’s a second reason why Pastor John thinks Jesus used the means of spit and dust and mud and a pool — a second reason Pastor John didn’t deliver from the pulpit, likely due to time limits. But it’s included in his written manuscript online, the sermon notes he had with him in the pulpit. So I’ll read this second one myself. Here’s what he wrote in his manuscript.
“God usually uses means in doing his wonderful works in this world.”
The second reason for the mud is to show that God usually uses means in doing his wonderful works in this world. Jesus could have simply spoken, and the man’s eyes would have been opened. But most of the wonders of God in the Old Testament were brought about by the use of human means. “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). God is decisive in the victory, but he uses means. He doesn’t need the horse, but he uses the horse.
Ponder this in the bigger picture of life for a moment. What this means is that God does not despise the physical world he has made. He uses the means of food to sustain life. He uses the means of sex to beget children. And he uses a thousand remedies to bring about healing — from sleep to penicillin, from vitamins to radiation, from sunshine on the skin to cough syrup for the throat.
“If our hearts are alive and humble and worshipful, we will not stop until we see God at the bottom of everything.”
And lest you think this removes the mystery of God’s wonderful work, consider boring down through layer after layer after layer of physical causes for why antibiotics work against strep. Forty or fifty layers down into the molecular, subatomic activities of the smallest particles, or non-particles, there comes a point where there is no explanation inside this closed material system. The final explanation is always God. And if our hearts are alive and humble and worshipful, we will not stop until we see God at the bottom of everything.
Glory of His Work
It is no small thing to believe that God uses means to accomplish his purposes. And his purposes are that the glory of his work would be displayed. And therefore, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). And so does all the rest of creation, if we have eyes to see.
Jesus used mud. We may use mud — or medicine. The difference is how close to the surface the miracle is. Let your life be full of wonder at the works of God — and full of worship.
You Might also like
How Can I Serve My Disabled Friends?By John Piper — 2 years ago
Today’s question comes to us from Austin, and it’s a trio of questions really. He writes, “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for the podcast. My question is whether or not we should be praying for healing for our friends with physical and cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, or cerebral palsy. We see Jesus heal people with physical disabilities in the Gospels. So should we pray for similar healing? If not, how should we encourage our friends with disabilities with the truth that they are made in the image of God? And will individuals in heaven still have their disabilities? Thank you for your insights and your help.”
There are three questions here, aren’t there?
Should we pray for healing for our friends with physical and cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy?
How should we encourage our friends with disabilities with the truth that they are made in the image of God?
Will individuals in heaven still have their disabilities?
Now I’m going to save that first question about prayer for last. I think how we pray is affected by how we answer these second two questions. So let’s start with number two.
Conformed to a Greater Image
How should we encourage our friends with disabilities with the truth that they are made in the image of God? Now my response may be surprising. My response to this question is that I don’t devote much effort to this because I think Christians have a far, far greater gift to give to the disabled than to help them know they are made in the image of God.
If I were to try to encourage people that they are made in the image of God, I would say it involves two things: (1) speaking the truth of God’s word to the effect that all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26; 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9), and (2) by treating people — disabled people — as persons, not projects. That would be my answer to the question.
But let me encourage Austin, and everybody else, that focusing on helping people feel good about being created in the image of God is not a very high goal, and in the end, not a hopeful goal. Think of it. There are two reasons for why I say this.
One is that every human is made in the image of God, which means that God’s enemies are created in his image, unrepentant rebels are created in God’s image, people who are under God’s wrath are created in God’s image, people that God sends to hell for unbelief and disobedience were made in his image. Being in the image of God is not a hopeful condition. To focus on helping people feel created in God’s image is not a saving effort.
A second reason why helping people know they are created in God’s image is not a high or hopeful goal is that Christians have a spectacularly higher, more hopeful message. When we offer Christ, we invite people to be, not the created image of God, but the recreated child of God — a new creation in Christ. We don’t offer the experience of a doomed and defaced image. We offer Spirit-given conformity to the image of God’s Son, wrought by the Spirit.
We offer the forgiveness of sins, the removal of divine wrath against his image-bearers, the escape from all condemnation, the triumph over our sinful nature, the defeat of death, the hope of eternal life with God — not merely as his image-bearer, but as his loved, adopted child. That’s what we offer to disabled people, and with it, a dignity far beyond being created in God’s image.
If the cognitive impairment — this is important; this not just an afterthought. If the cognitive impairment is so severe that we can’t tell if our message of hope is getting through, we remain faithful to their care, and we entrust their souls to the mercy of God the way we do our children who die in infancy.
Foretaste of Heaven
Now, the third question. (We did the second question first and now the third question second.) Austin asks, “Will individuals in heaven still have their disabilities?” The answer is no. You might wonder, “Why did he ask that? Isn’t that obvious?” I think there’s more behind this question, and I’ll get to that in just a minute. My answer is no, they won’t.
“The ministry of Jesus is a beautiful trailer, a foretaste of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like.”
My reason for saying so is twofold. One part of the reason is that Jesus’s ministry was a foretaste of the kingdom. He said, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). The same thing is true when he healed people’s disabilities, like being blind from birth or being unable to stand up for eighteen years. So the ministry of Jesus is a beautiful trailer, a foretaste of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like. He will do away with all sickness and disease and disability.
Now the second part of the reason I think disabilities will be done away with is because Revelation 21:4 says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” The things that brought painful crying in this world — whether in parents or in the disabled child or a community, whatever brought painful crying into this world will be removed.
Now it may be that Austin asked whether people would have their disabilities in heaven because he sees that in some cases, the so-called “disability” — for example, with a Down syndrome person — is so interwoven with the limits and beauties of the personality that it is scarcely imaginable that such people would be the same person if the disability were removed. That might be what’s behind his question, which is a very, very good question.
Now my answer to this is that God is God. That’s the short answer. God is God. In his infinite capacities of preserving true personhood and making new personhood, he will preserve everything good that he created, and he will remove everything that the fall distorted, and we will know each other with the precious old preserved but radically renewed. Somehow he’ll do it.
Always Ready to Give
Which brings us now to the last question (which was really the first question): “Should we pray for healing for our friends with physical cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy?”
My guess is that when a couple hears a doctor say that the baby in the womb has a genetic disorder that will result in a disability, they do pray, and they should pray, that God would intervene and heal that genetic problem, so the baby is born without that disorder.
But in many cases, and I suppose we’d all agree that in most cases, disabilities are sooner or later perceived by the parents, by the community, by the church, by the child, to be God’s sovereign will for the family. They come to the conclusion, and it’s not a sinful conclusion, “This is God’s appointment for us and for our child.” It would not be sin, I don’t think, to pray at any given point along the way for a dramatic transformation. But neither is it a sin to hear the voice of God saying, “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10), and “I will do more good through this painful providence than you can even imagine.”
“God is in the business of providing shelter in the storm — the storm that he himself has sent.”
But then the question becomes not whether we should pray for the disabled, but rather how we should pray for them and their families. Because the fact that God says no to the genetic reordering in the womb does not mean he says no to a thousand other prayers for this child, for this family. In the mystery of God’s providences — call them severe mercies — there is a lavish willingness on the part of God to help in ways that, at the beginning, the families can’t even imagine that they will need. So, the answer is yes, yes: pray, pray, pray for the disabled and their families. God is in the business of lifting burdens through his people and through the prayers of his people. He is in the business of providing shelter in the storm — the storm that he himself has sent.
When you stop to think about it, most of us live under the cloud of some great unanswered prayer — that is, a prayer for some conversion, a prayer for a rescued relationship, some healing, some calamity that didn’t get removed. And God said, “No, my grace is sufficient for you,” like he did to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9. We know that under that cloud of no, no, there are hundreds of yeses that God is ready to give to those who trust him and ask him for help.
So I say that just to point out that we’re all in this together with the disabled. And the answer is yes, let’s pray for each other. Pray for each other.
Prayer Vocalizes Our Abiding in ChristBy John Piper — 1 year ago
Today I want to try to help us experience prayer as the vocalization of abiding in Christ. When I speak of prayer vocalizing the experience of abiding in Christ, I have in mind three ways prayer vocalizes abiding.
First, there is the vocalization of our need and our desire to be attached to Christ, like a branch to a vine. I have in mind that first cry when God saved us by putting a taste for his life-giving, love-giving, joy-giving sap on the tongue of our souls so that we cried out, “Yes, Lord, yes. I want this! Make me yours. Fasten me to yourself, branch to vine, forever.”
And I also have in mind the recurring cry, when we feel like our branch is withering, that says, “Hold on to me. Keep me in the vine. Don’t let me go. Be my life. If there’s a disease in me, disenchanting me with the all-satisfying sap of yourself, then heal me, prune me, and cause your life to surge in me again.”
That’s the first way that prayer vocalizes abiding in Christ: it is both the first cry to become attached to the vine and the recurring cry to remain attached to the vine.
Second, there is the daily vocalization of our thankful, happy, desperate dependence — moment by moment — on his ever-flowing sap of life. This isn’t the desperate cry of, “Keep me!” This is the happy, thankful, expression of confident trust.
When I dropped my wife Noël off at the airport yesterday at seven o’clock in the morning, as she was on her way to her mother’s one-hundredth birthday, I pulled up by the Delta drop-off, took her hand, and prayed, “Father, Noël and I are so thankful to be your adopted children, with every amazing thing that this implies. We receive right now the promise that we can cast all our anxieties on you, because you care for us (1 Peter 5:7). We rest, we revel, in your care. We love being branches in the vine. Meet every need as Noël travels and as I go home to prepare tomorrow’s message. In Jesus’s name. Amen.”
That’s the second way that prayer vocalizes abiding in Christ: expressing thankful, happy, desperate, confident dependence — moment by moment — on Christ’s life-giving, love-giving, joy-giving sap.
Third, there is the vocalization of our longing that Christ’s life and love and joy would flow through us into living fruit — the longing that this fruit would course with the same life and love and joy that we have by abiding in Christ.
“God saved us by putting a taste for his life-giving, love-giving, joy-giving sap on the tongue of our souls.”
So when I got home from the airport, I got down on my knees in my study and said, “Father, would you help me now prepare a message for chapel tomorrow that would bear much fruit? Would you grant that all the life and love and joy of Christ that I have known throughout these decades of abiding would become life and love and joy in the lives of those who listen?”
Six Ways We Abide in Christ
My aim is to help us experience prayer as the vocalization of abiding in Christ, as (1) the cry to abide in the vine, (2) the day-by-day expression of joyful, confident dependence on the vine, and (3) the longing that we would bear fruit because of our attachment to the vine.
To do that, it seems we should spend a good bit of our time pushing into the reality of what abiding in Christ is. I am going to point to six ways we abide in Christ.
1. Receiving Life from Christ
Let’s start with the picture in John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The picture is of the disciple of Jesus as a branch and Jesus as the vine.
So, the least we can say is that abiding in Christ is the experience of getting our life from Christ. The sap of life flows into the branch if the branch is abiding, remaining in the vine. If there is no attachment to the vine, then there is no life in the branch.
2. Remaining in His Love
A second way to describe the experience of abiding is to say that we remain in the love of Christ. John 15:9: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” So the life-giving attachment to the vine can be described as a love-giving attachment to the vine. The vine loves the branches. Love is flowing to the branches. The life that flows to the branches is the life of love.
So now the command “Abide in me” (John 15:4) and the implicit command “Abide in my life, which flows to you” become a little more concrete: “Abide in my love” (John 15:9). Essentially God is saying, “Keep on receiving and welcoming and enjoying and trusting and treasuring my love.” That is the experience of abiding in the vine.
3. Abiding in His Word
We can describe the experience of abiding yet another way. Abiding in Christ means abiding in his word, and his words abiding in us. John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you . . .” The phrase “my words abide in you” stands in the place where Jesus himself stood in John 15:4: “Abide in me, and I in you.” We see that “I, Jesus, abiding in you” becomes “my words abiding in you.”
“The experience of abiding in Christ is not only abiding in his life and love, but also in his word.”
And it is not just his words abiding in us, but us abiding in his words — just like we abide in him. According to John 8:31, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” So the experience of abiding in Christ is not only abiding in his life, and abiding in his love, but also abiding in his word. John says it again in 1 John 2:24: “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.”
I take this to mean that the life and the love that flow from the vine into the branches are communicated to us and experienced by us through the word of Christ. The life of Jesus and the love of Jesus accomplish nothing in our lives apart from the word of Jesus.
There are no incognito Christians. Wordless experiences — that is, experiences without any conscious connection with Christ — are worthless experiences. Christ gets no glory from human experiences that we do not know to be from Christ.
We know experiences to be from Christ because of the word of Christ. For he says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). And so we respond, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Therefore, we abide in Christ — we abide in his life and in his love — by receiving and welcoming and understanding and believing the reality mediated by the words of Christ.
4. Drinking from Christ
A fourth way to describe abiding in Christ is to see the connection between the branch drinking the life-giving sap of the vine and the soul-drinking Christ as the water of life or the soul-feeding on him as the bread of heaven. John 6:35: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.’” Coming to Christ so as not to hunger anymore and believing in Christ so as not to thirst anymore is the experience of abiding in Christ. Abiding is believing, understood as eating and drinking Christ.
“Prayer expresses thankful, happy, desperate, confident dependence on Christ’s life-giving, love-giving sap.”
Here it is again in John 7:37–38: “Jesus cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Notice that thirsting for Christ, coming to Christ, and drinking of Christ are replaced with believing in Christ. So the experience of believing in Christ is thirsting for Christ and coming to Christ and drinking from Christ — that is, abiding in Christ like a branch abiding in the vine and drinking the all-satisfying life and love that are in it.
Therefore, we can describe the experience of abiding in Christ as believing on Christ, provided we give the term believing its full-blooded meaning from the Gospel of John — namely, believing is thirsting, coming, drinking, and saying: “This is the end of my quest. Here is life and love and joy.”
5. Savoring the Son’s Joy
That word joy leads to a fifth way of describing the experience of abiding in Christ. In John 15:11, after drawing out the implications of the vine and the branches, Jesus adds this: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Be sure to understand this in connection with the picture of the vine and the branches. He does not simply say that because we are abiding in the vine, our joy will be full. What he says is that because we are abiding in the vine, his joy will be in us, and therefore our joy will be full. In other words, what the branch receives from the vine is the very joy of the vine: “My joy [will] be in you” (John 15:11).
Let me give you a taste of what this experience is from Galatians 4:6. Paul says, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Push into the reality of this. Think of it in terms of the vine and the branch. We are redeemed and made the legal sons of God by the death of Christ. And then he says that because we are his sons legally, God sends the Spirit of the Son — the Spirit of the vine or the sap — into our branch-hearts, shouting (krazō), “Abba! Father!” And how does the Son of God feel about his Father? He loves him: “I love the Father” (John 14:31).
That is, he takes infinite pleasure in the Father. He enjoys the Father. And he flows into our hearts, our branch, bringing that, being that, exulting in that. He does this, to use the words of John 15:11, “that my joy may be in you.” He flows into us, “That my joy in my Father made be your joy in your Father.”
So the experience of abiding in Christ is the experience of enjoying God by the Spirit of the Son of God enjoying his Father in us. If you find welling up within you the cry — spoken or unspoken, but real — that says, “Father! I need you. Thank you for redeeming me. Thank you for adopting me. Oh, how precious you are to me! I love you!” then guess what? You are experiencing the Spirit of the Son of God loving his Father in you. You are experiencing John 15:11, the joy of Christ himself becoming your joy, and your joy becoming full. You are experiencing what it means to abide in Christ.
6. Feasting on Calvary
Consider one last way to describe the experience of abiding in Christ. In John 6:56 Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” The crucified flesh and the shed blood of Jesus are the wellspring of all the life and love and joy and words that we receive from the vine. To eat and drink at the cross is to get everything from the sacrifice of Christ.
In summary, I would arrange the first five ways of describing the experience of abiding in Christ like this:
First is the experience of the soul’s thirst and hunger drinking from Christ with satisfaction.
Second, as the branch drinks from the vine, it receives the life of the vine. No attachment to the vine, no life in the branch.
Third, as we drink from the life of the vine, we find it to be the life of love — Christ’s invincible love for us. And we rest in it and feed on it.
Fourth, as we drink from the life and love of the vine, we experience the joy of Jesus as our joy —the Spirit of the Son singing out his joyful love for the Father in our hearts.
Fifth, we find all of this mediated to us through the words of Christ so that his words become our life.
And finally, we discover that every benefit of abiding in the vine was secured for us by the crucified flesh and shed blood of Christ. And that sacrifice becomes for us the all-supplying bread and drink of heaven.
How Prayer Speaks
Now let’s revisit where we started, with prayer as the vocalization of this experience of abiding in Christ. There are (1) the prayers that vocalize the desire to abide in Christ, (2) the prayers that vocalize the daily reality of abiding in Christ, and (3) the prayers that vocalize the desire for fruit through abiding in Christ.
With Desperate Desire
First, there are prayers that vocalize the desire to abide in Christ. When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink, she couldn’t believe that he, a Jew, would ask her. Then he says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
“You would have asked him” — this is where it all starts. There’s a sliver, a glimpse, of the life-giving vine right there in front of you, a glimmer of hope, and then comes an invitation: “Ask me. Just ask me.”
And many of us have responded: “Let me drink the living water. Attach me, Jesus, to yourself. Make me a living branch. Forever.” But if you haven’t tasted, haven’t asked to be grafted into the vine — this would be a good time. Vocalize to God your need and your desire to abide in Christ.
With Happy Trust
Then there are the prayers that vocalize the daily reality of abiding in Christ. These tell Christ — and tell the Father — that you trust him. Tell them that their love for you is your life and your joy. Tell Christ, in the presence of your spouse or children or friends, that his words are words of life to you.
Tell Christ that abiding in his love makes you glad. Say to him, on behalf of your family or your small group, and in their presence, “Jesus, your sacrifice, your words, your life, your love, your joy is everything to me. I taste them. They are my food and my drink. They satisfy my soul.” Tell him.
Do what the saints have done for millennia. Speak to the Lord of your trust. And tell him of the pleasures of abiding in Christ.
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you;my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. (Psalm 63:1–4)
They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light. (Psalm 36:8–9)
With Fruitful Zeal
Finally, there are the prayers that vocalize the desire for fruit through abiding in Christ. This is the goal of life and love and joy flowing from the vine — a kind of life and a kind of love and a kind of joy that has in it a happy pressure to expand, to increase, by becoming the life and love and joy in others. That’s what it is to bear fruit.
Jesus says in John 4:14, “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Yes, and more than a spring: “Whoever believes in me [abides in me, drinks from me] . . . ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). Or, as Jesus says in John 15:5, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”
This is the sap of the vine, the living water, the very life and love and joy of the Son of God, coursing through your branch-life and then miraculously increasing — your joy increasing — in the life and love and joy of another.
And Jesus says, “Don’t be passive about this. Make this the great passion of your prayer.” He says in John 15:7–8, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish [for every kind of God-glorifying fruit], and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit.” Jesus is saying, “Ask me! Ask me for God-glorifying fruit!”
When Christ’s words abide in you, when his truth, life, love, and joy abide in you, you will be given a spiritual taste for God’s fruitful will, and you will pray with Spirit-given passion, “O God, make my life fruitful. Let me not wither in the hot blasts of worldliness. Do whatever painful pruning you must do. Grant me so to drink that I become a spring — yes, a river! — and a fruitful branch. Oh, let me never be content until my joy in you bears fruit in the joy of others in you. By this, Father, are you glorified — that I bear much fruit. Do it. Amen.”
Did Jesus Exalt Himself?By David Mathis — 2 years ago
Christ did not exalt himself. Both culturally and theologically, these can be surprising words to encounter in Hebrews 5:5. So also with Jesus’s own confession in John 8:50: “I do not seek my own glory.”
Culturally, we live at a time in which self-exaltation, self-promotion, and self-advocacy are increasingly cast in terms of virtue rather than vice. We expect self-exaltation, and even commend it. Assert yourself. Speak up for yourself. Put yourself forward. Yet one of Jesus’s most repeated teachings, increasingly at odds with our age, confronts our modern lifting up of self: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11; also Matthew 23:12; Luke 18:14).
Theologically, we have our questions as well. Many of us have come to learn, rightly, from the Scriptures, that God is the one being in all the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest of virtues. But what does this mean for the man Christ Jesus as we see and hear him in the Gospels? He is both fully God and fully man. Did he seek his own glory — as is good and right and loving for God? If so, what do we make of the plain words in Hebrews and John that he did not?
Who Glorifies Whom?
In Scripture, to glorify, or exalt, or lift up, is sacred action and language. God made us to image him, to reflect and reveal him in the world, that he might be glorified and exalted. Before addressing the question of what it meant for Christ, as man, though God, to not seek his own glory, it may help to rehearse Scripture’s plain and repeated teaching about the pursuit of glory and exaltation.
God exalts God.
That God righteously (and lovingly) exalts himself is not Scripture’s most frequent teaching about the act of exalting, but it is plain and repeated — and theologically foundational.
It is no flaw, but indeed the highest of virtues, that God says, through the psalmist, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10). So too it is no flaw, but indeed virtue, for the psalmist to say to God, as rationale for his praise, “You have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Psalm 138:2). In his name and through his word, God has revealed himself, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness toward his people.
“God exalts God, and his people exalt him, and he exalts them, but his people do not exalt themselves.”
God’s self-exaltation comes not at the expense of his people’s joy, but in the service of their joy. As Isaiah says, “He exalts himself to show mercy to you” (Isaiah 30:18). When God moves to glorify himself — “Now I will lift myself up; now I will be exalted” (Isaiah 33:10) — rightly do his enemies cower, while his people rejoice. So too, in the Gospels, when Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name,” a righteous and loving voice comes from heaven in response: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12:28).
God’s people exalt God.
Then, without surprise, and with the greatest scriptural frequency, God’s people exalt him. This is the very heart and essence of our creation in his image: to glorify him, make him known, exalt him in the world. When humans exalt, or when humans glorify, God is to be the object of the sacred action.
Rescued from Egypt and the Red Sea, Moses and the people sing in celebration, “This is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exodus 15:2). We come to the bottom of our nature and calling as humans when we say with the prophet, “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you” (Isaiah 25:1), and repeat with the psalmist, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3).
Jesus himself captured this profound calling in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” The impression on Peter and the disciples was indelible. Among dozens of other instances of exalting or glorifying God in the New Testament, Peter echoed this basic human calling, now made Christian: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that . . . they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12; also 4:11, 16).
God exalts his people.
Sometimes those who have rehearsed the first two truths most can struggle with the third: God exalts his people. Not only are his chosen people predestined to Christlikeness, called, and justified, but they also are glorified (Romans 8:29–30). The Scriptures make stunning promises — almost too good to be true — about how God will glorify his people: being pleased with us, making us heirs with Christ of everything (Romans 8:16–17), serving us at table (Luke 12:37), appointing us to judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), ascribing value to us and rejoicing over us (Zephaniah 3:17), and (perhaps most shocking of all) granting us to sit with Christ on his throne (Revelation 3:21).
In the Old Testament, God moved to glorify or exalt the leader of his people. First, Moses; then, Joshua: “The Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life” (Joshua 4:14; also 3:7). Then markedly so with David, as king, as he knew full well (2 Samuel 5:12; 22:49; 1 Chronicles 25:5). But not just prophets, leaders, and kings. To all his chosen people, he said, “Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land” (Psalm 37:34).
God’s exalting of his people is likewise explicit in one of Jesus’s most repeated statements, as we’ve seen: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12; also Luke 14:11; 18:14). And it’s applied particularly to Christians in James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6: humble yourselves before God, and he will exalt you.
God’s people do not exalt themselves.
At this point, however, the symmetry breaks down. Scripture here is gloriously asymmetrical, we might say: God exalts God, and his people exalt him, and he exalts them, but his people do not exalt themselves. Just as in the sacred language of exaltation, God is to be the object of human glorifying, so God, not man, is to be the actor when his people are glorified.
“Biblically, the path of human self-exaltation is a trail of tears and tragedy.”
Biblically, the path of human self-exaltation is a trail of tears and tragedy. Pharaoh, who oppresses God’s people as almost the serpent incarnate, is first to be tagged: “You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go” (Exodus 9:17). Centuries later, the ancient head reared when David’s son Adonijah “exalted himself, saying, ‘I will be king’” (1 Kings 1:5), and rebelled not only against his own father, but against God.
Psalm 66:7 identifies “the rebellious” as those who “exalt themselves.” Proverbs 30:32 identifies “exalting yourself” with folly. Self-exaltation may feel attractive, and safe, in the moment, but God’s humbling hand will come in time.
The vision of Daniel 11 shows that the rebellion and folly of human self-exaltation is no small flaw or misstep. It is the spirit of antichrist. “The king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods” (Daniel 11:36). Paul too sees self-exaltation as the calling card of “the man of lawlessness” to come: “[The day of the Lord] will not come unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship” (2 Thessalonians 2:3–4).
Human self-exaltation is the spirit of antichrist. Meanwhile, human self-humbling, according to Paul, is the spirit of Christ: “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Which brings us back to the question, Did Jesus glorify himself or not?
Did Jesus Exalt Himself?
The question about Christ’s self-exaltation is more challenging than what we’ve seen so far. Scripture is plain that divine self-exaltation and human God-exaltation are righteous, as is divine man-exaltation, while human self-exaltation is folly, rebellion, and even the very spirit of antichrist. Yet with Christ, we come to the unique and spectacular man who is also God, and the one person of the Godhead who is also man.
The Gospel of John in particular captures the marvelous complexities of the relationship between the man Christ Jesus, who is God, and his Father in heaven.
First, Jesus glorified God. As man, he gave his human life, from beginning to end, to the human calling, common to us all, to exalt God with our lives and words. “I glorified you on earth,” Jesus says to the Father on the night before he died (John 17:4).
Second, God glorified Jesus. The clear refrain as to who acted to glorify Jesus is God, both Father and Spirit. As Jesus says, “It is my Father who glorifies me” (John 8:54; also 13:32), and of the Spirit, “He will glorify me” (John 16:14). So too the book of Acts says it was “the God of our fathers” who “glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13). “God exalted him at his right hand” (Acts 5:31).
Third, God was glorified in Jesus. The glory of God and the glory of Christ are not competing but complementary glories (John 11:4). When Jesus is glorified, “God is glorified in him” (John 13:31). And Jesus tells his disciples to pray “in my name . . . that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).
Fourth, then, comes the surprisingly human truth about Christ: Jesus did not glorify himself. This is what we saw in Hebrews 5:5 related to his calling as our great high priest: “Christ did not exalt [literally, glorify] himself to be made a high priest.” And this is what we heard from Jesus’s own mouth in John 8:50: “I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge.” He explains more in John 8:54: “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me.”
Fifth, and finally, comes the surprisingly divine prayer of Jesus to his Father on the night before he died: Jesus asked to be glorified, to the glory of the Father.
Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you. . . . Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:1, 5)
This is perhaps the place, on the eve of the cross, where Jesus’s pursuit of the Father’s glory seems most distinct from ours. Yet even here, in asking for glory, he is strikingly human. Here, in human words, with his fully human mouth and soul, he asks of his Father, rather than grasping or self-exalting, and he waits in faith. And his pursuit is Godward. He does not posture to “receive glory from people” (John 5:41; also Matthew 6:2) but seeks “the glory that comes from the only God” (John 5:44). And he aligns his Father’s coming exaltation of him with his human exaltation of his Father: “. . . that the Son may glorify you.”
God Highly Exalted Him
What, then, do we learn from Christ, both theologically and ethically, in our milieu increasingly at home with human self-exaltation and confused by self-humbling?
“Christ, as man, did not exalt himself. How clear, then, is our calling and path as humans and Christians?”
First, oh what wonders await us in the unique and spectacular person who is Jesus Christ — the one man who is God, and the one divine person who became man. As Paul writes, with awe, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Which means we will need to beware of pigeonholing or of simplistic questions about Jesus. Who glorified Christ? Answer: God did — Father, Spirit, and Son. Christ, with regard to his humanity, did not (and does not) glorify himself; he is not guilty of human self-exaltation. And Christ, as God, the eternal second person of the Trinity, did (and does) indeed, without doubt, hesitation, or apology — and with the infinite energy and power of the Godhead — glorify himself. Christ, as man, did not exalt himself, even as he did as God.
As for ethics, and our lives as humans in these last days, we see afresh the folly, and rebellion, and even anti-Christian spirit of human self-exaltation. Even Christ, as man, did not exalt himself. How clear, then, is our calling and path as humans and Christians?
We were made, and we have been redeemed, for self-humbling, in service of God-exaltation. And there is great joy in this Christ-modeled pattern — perhaps we could even say “increasingly great joy” in a day when self-humbling might seem increasingly rare.
For Christians, as it was for Christ himself in human flesh, our being glorified, exalted, lifted up by God is not the problem, but our self-glorifying, our self-exalting, is the problem. God made us to be recipients of glory and honor from him, on his terms, not self-glorifiers and self-exalters on ours. And for those who humble themselves before him, he will indeed, without fail — in his “proper time,” not ours (1 Peter 5:6) — exalt them, even as he did for his own Son Christ (Philippians 2:9).