The two fold question I would like to try to answer is this: What is God's goal or aim in the history of mankind from its beginning at creation to its climax in the new heavens and new earth, and what should our response to this goal be?
Why Ask the Question?
This question is so important for me because of what it means to me to be a child of God. It is a very arrogant and ungrateful son who has no keen interest in the goal that lies most heavy on his father's heart. The faithful son longs to know and to understand his father's deepest intentions so that he can bring his thoughts and affections and actions into alignment with it.
Or to put it another way, you don't really know a person until you know what moves him most deeply. It makes no sense to say that we know God when we are not acquainted with his strongest desire and with the goal that guides all his actions. But if we don't know him, then we can't worship him and we can't imitate him. In other words, if we are to be faithful children of our heavenly Father who worship him and imitate him as we ought, then we must answer the questions: What is the supreme goal of God in history?
A Fundamental Assumption
This question is based on a fundamental assumption which I should make plain and try to support from Scripture. I assume when I ask this question that God is ultimately in control of all that happens in the world, that he is the author and director of this great drama we call history, and that he designs and disposes all things for the accomplishment of his ultimate goal. I heard Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College say one time,
I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls himself Alpha and Omega.
This assumption is well grounded in Scripture. According to Isaiah the very fact that God is God means he had a determinate purpose in history from the very beginning and that this purpose cannot be frustrated:
I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish all my purpose.' (Isaiah 46:9-10)
Jeremiah, in his Lamentations over Jerusalem, reflects on God's capacity to wield the nations and concludes that no human commands are ever executed unless the Lord ordains it:
'Who has commanded and it came to pass, unless the Lord has ordained it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil come?” (Lamentations 3:37, 38 cf. Isaiah 45:1-7)
In the New Testament we find that God had a plan and a goal in all that happened to Jesus. The early church gathered together in Jerusalem and prayed this:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:17, 28)
The enemies of God do not frustrate God's decrees; they execute them.
Similarly, when we come to the end of the New Testament and to the end of history in the Revelation of John we find God in complete control of all the kings who wage war. In chapter 17 John speaks of ten horns and a beast and a harlot. These are ten kings, the antichrist and Rome. In verses 16 and 17 we read,
And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the harlot; they will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it in their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and giving over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.
Just like Proverbs 21:1 says, "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will."
We should not get the idea from these texts, however, that God superintends only the affairs of kings and princes and military leaders. No, he is just as much God over individuals as he is over nations. At the end of the story about Joseph being sold into slavery and his rising prominence in Egypt, Joseph says to his brothers, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20). The evil intentions of men never frustrate the decrees of God.
It was probably stories like this and many such experiences in his own life that led the writer of the Proverbs to say, "Many are the plans of a man's heart but the counsel of the Lord, it will stand" (Proverbs 19:21).
Or as he says in another place, "The dice are cast in the lap but every decision is from the Lord" (Proverbs 16:33 cf. 16:9; Jeremiah 10:23; Ephesians 1:11; Matthew 10:29).
To recap: the first question I want to answer is, “What is God's supreme goal in history?” But this involves an assumption which I have tried to show is biblical, namely, that God indeed does have a goal or purpose in history and that he is employing his sovereign power and wisdom to bring it about. Now we may ask, what is this goal?
God's Supreme Goal in History
The Scriptures teach throughout that all the works of God have as their ultimate goal the display of God's glory. I will try to demonstrate this as well as unfold its meaning by focusing attention on the successive high points of redemptive history.
Before we look at the texts I should say a word about the biblical terminology. The term “glory of God” in the Bible refers in general to the beauty of God's manifold perfections. It is an attempt to put into words what God is like in his magnificence and purity. It refers to his fullness of all that is good. The term might focus on his different attributes from time to time like his power and wisdom and mercy and justice because each one is awesome in its magnitude and quality. But in general God's glory is the perfect harmony of all his attributes into one infinitely beautiful being.
Another term which signifies almost the same thing is “the name” of God. For example, when the Scripture speaks of doing something for his name's sake it means virtually the same as doing it for his glory. The “name” of God is a reference to who he is in all his perfection. And that is what his glory refers to also. “Glory” simply specifies more clearly the nature of God's being while the term “name” leaves that nature unspecified. For our purposes the important thing to know is that the goal of doing something for God's glory and the goal of doing it for his name's sake are the same goal.
With that in mind we can now look at some passages of Scripture which reveal God's goal in the high points of redemptive history. In Isaiah 43 God is expressing his great love for his chosen people. He says in verses 6 and 7,
I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
According to this text God's goal in creation is his glory. We should not construe this to mean that before God created he was deficient in glory or in some sense less than God. Paul says in Acts 17:25, "God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything."
God was not seeking glory which he lacked when he created man. Rather he was moved by a disposition to display or manifest himself. Like a full fountain has a tendency to overflow in streams of water so God has a tendency to extend his glory beyond himself. God's goal, therefore, in created man was to display his glory to and through man.
After creating man, God elected one nation, Israel, through whom he would perform his special acts of deliverance all for his glory. God says in Isaiah 49:3, "You are my servant Israel in whom I will be glorified."
And the Old Testament recounts how God repeatedly acted in Israel for his own glory, for his name's sake. For example, Ezekiel tells us what God's goal was when he saved Israel from the Egyptian bondage. According to Ezekiel 20:8–9, God's response to Israel's idolatry in Egypt was,
Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations. . .
So God's aim in delivering Israel from Egypt was to glorify his name. This is what he said in Exodus 14:4, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart and he will pursue them and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord."
The same thing can be shown with regard to God's mercy upon Israel in the wilderness when they rejected God's ordinances and profaned his Sabbaths:
But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned.
Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make a full end of them. But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out. . . .
because they rejected my rules and did not walk in my statutes, and profaned my Sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols. . . . But I withheld my hand and acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out. (Ezekiel 20:13-14, 16, 22)
Similarly the conquest of Canaan and the prosperity of Israel are due to God's providence in which he was acting for his name's sake. David prays in 2 Samuel 7:23,
What other nation on earth is like thy people, Israel, whom God went to redeem to be his people, making himself a name, and doing for them great and terrible things by driving out before his people a nation and its gods.
Skipping over the relevant texts, let's move quickly down to the end of the Old Testament history where we find Israel in exile in Babylon. Here it may look as if God is through with his chosen people. But if so, what about his name, his glory? God again wills to be merciful and suspend his wrath. Isaiah 48:9-11 tells us why:
For my name's sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold I have refined you but not like silver, I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
And lest we think this is something that Isaiah chose to over-emphasize, here is how Ezekiel records the same divine decision:
Therefore, say to the house of Israel, thus says the Lord: “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name. . . It is not for your sake, that I will act says the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 36:22, 23, 32).
From these texts it is clear that the goal of God in history from creation to the restoration of Israel after the exile is to display his great glory and to maintain the honor due to his name.
Now we may turn to the redemptive work that God performed through Christ and ask what God's goal was in this. Paul sounds the clear note for us and we can hear it in Ephesians 1:5-6,
God destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will to the praise of the glory of his grace which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved.
To what end did God choose us and redeem us through Christ? To the end that the glory of his grace might be clearly manifested and praised.
The glorification of his grace is God's great goal in sending his Son to save us. Jesus knew this and so made this passionate goal of his earthly ministry. When the time of his death had come he said,
Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. Then a voice came from heaven, 'I have glorified it and I will glorify it again' (John 12:27 cf. 13:31ff.).
And in his final prayer in John 17 Jesus says, “I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do.” The purpose for which he came into the world, the work that he had to do was to glorify his father.
One final comment on the climax of history in the book of Revelation. John pictures a new Jerusalem in chapter 21. It is highly symbolical and probably refers to the glorified church (21:2). Verse 23 describes the New Jerusalem like this: "And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb."
Paul had said already that the great hope of the believer is the glory of God (Romans 5:2, 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17) and here we see it pictured in a beautiful symbol of God and Christ as the light in which we live our eternity. That this display of glory to the elect was God's great goal in history is confirmed by Jesus' prayer when he says,
Father, I desire that they also whom thou has given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou has given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world.
Our great hope and destiny as Christians is to behold the glory of Christ (1 John 3:2) which Christ has as the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4) and to share in that very glory by reflecting it back to God in love and praise.
Thus God's supreme goal in history, in all that he does from beginning to end, is to display his glory and bring honor and praise to his great name.
The Response of Man to God's Goal in History
In view of what we now know about our Father's goal, what should be our response as faithful children? The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” That is, in view of God's goal what should ours be? It answers, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” That sentence can scarcely be improved upon, for that is just what the Bible teaches. But what it means to glorify God and how one does it is not obvious to everybody.
One grave misunderstanding of what it means to glorify God would be to think that God is more glorious if we respond to him one way and less glorious if we respond to him another. God is not dependent upon man for the perfect display of his glory. This does not mean that a person cannot dishonor God and blaspheme him (Romans 2:23ff.). What it means is that the injury done to God's honor, his name, by unbelievers is only apparent and only temporarily apparent. All dishonor and blasphemy of God, all refusal to acknowledge his glory, to praise it and to make it presently visible will be redressed. Judgment will reclaim for God all the glory denied him in this age.
To illustrate: A wise and powerful general whose supreme goal is to gain the glory of victory may silently allow tactical retreats of his own forces. During these apparent losses his enemies gloat over the general and say, “Where is this glorious military genius we've heard so much about?” Then, suddenly, like a thief in the night, he brings in his flanks and with one surrounding crunch destroys his enemies. And all the world marvels at the general's wisdom and patience. He is more glorified in the end because he allowed temporary apparent defeats. So it is with God, no one will ultimately deny to him his glory. Even disobedience will be turned to God's glory (Romans 3:5-7).
If then we cannot ultimately diminish or add to God's glory, what does the Bible mean by urging us to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31)? Let's look first at Romans 1:20-23:
Ever since the creation of the world God's invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for, although they knew God they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they because fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
According to this text the arch-sin of man is to fail to glorify God. Presumably then the reverse would be man's highest obligation, namely, to glorify or honor God.
Two clues are given in this passage as to what this glorification means. The one clue is the reference to thanking God in verse 21. Paul is picking up a theme from Psalm 50:23 which says, "He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me." In other words, thanking God and glorifying God are not two different things: thanking him is a fundamental way of glorifying him. When your heart is properly full of gratitude to God, you are acknowledging and bearing witness to his glorious fullness as the giver of all good things.
The second clue in this passage to the meaning of glorifying God is the exchange referred to in verse 23: "Men became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for created things." That is, men esteemed the glory of God so lowly that they preferred things God made rather than God. If that is what the “fool” does then the “wise” person will do the opposite: he will esteem the glory of God above all else. This means that the most fundamental way to glorify God is to love his glory more than you love anything else. This love includes delighting in his glory so much that nothing appears more attractive.
So from Romans 1:20-23 we see that glorifying God consists most fundamentally in a response of our mind and heart to God's glory. It is a response in which we love, delight in and appreciate the glory of God. We thus glorify God by being content in him as the Psalmist said,
Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25-26)
This attitude of heart and mind is glorification of God because it reflects back to God in the mirror of praise his own satisfying beauty. After this foundation has been laid — the foundation of a grateful heart that is full of delight in the glory of God — the New Testament teaches that we glorify God by our deeds. How is this so?
That a heart which loves the glory of God will produce actions which witness to God's glory is just as much to be assumed as the fact that a good tree bears good fruit. As far as I can see, it works like this: When God is our portion, when our hearts delight in and are satisfied by the glory of God's grace (Ephesians 1:6), we are released from one roadblock to loving other people, that is, seeking their good. Therefore, the experience of having God's glory satisfy your heart is the means of becoming a person who can sacrificially love others. And that means that love is the clearest outward demonstration of the glory of God that we can perform.
We may verify this by looking at several New Testament passages. Perhaps the most familiar text of all pertaining to our duty to glorify God is 1 Corinthians 10:31-33,
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to the Jews or to the Greeks or the the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many that they may be saved.
How does one eat “to the glory of God”? The context makes it quite clear what Paul had in mind. Basically, it was simply this: if what you eat damages another's faith, or wounds their conscience or puts a stumbling block in their way, don't eat it. Seek the advantage of the other person even if it means self-denial. As he said in verse 24, "Let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbor."
That is what Paul calls love in Romans 13:10. Therefore, to glorify God in your eating and drinking means, eat and drink in love. The reason this glorifies God is because it makes clear to others that your God is glorious enough to satisfy your longing so that you don't have to be selfish.
Another text which shows that love is the way to glorify God is Philippians 1:9-11,
and it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, in order that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness, which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
The thing that glorifies God here is when Christians are filled with the fruits of righteousness. This comes about when love abounds with knowledge and discernment. Therefore, love, informed by true insight, is the means of glorifying God.
Jesus used similar language in John 15 when he spoke of himself as the vine and his disciples as the branches. Just as Paul said that the fruits of righteousness come “through Jesus Christ” so Jesus said, "He who abides in me and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit" (John 15:5).
And as Paul said that God is glorified when we are filled with the fruit of righteousness, so Jesus said in verse 8, "By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit." Then in verse 12 Jesus makes plain what this fruit is which glorifies God: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."
One final reference to the words of Jesus in regard to love and the glorification of God. In Matthew 5:16ff he says, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (cf. 1 Peter 2:12). What are the good works which display the glory of God to others? They are spelled out in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. The climax of these good works would, I think, be Matthew 5:44, "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." To let your light shine before men means finally to love your friends and your enemies, which you can do only because your heart has been secured and satisfied by the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).
The Sum of the Matter
The supreme goal of God in history from beginning to end is the manifestation of his great glory. Accordingly our duty is to bring our thoughts, affections, and actions into line with this goal. It should become our own goal. To join God in this goal is called glorifying God. The way we glorify God is first to delight in his glory more than in anything else and be grateful for it. Then as a natural result of this joy in God we experience freedom from selfishness and are moved to seek the good of others. Thus love becomes the chief means by which we join God in the open display of his glory, and accomplish his goal in history.