Did Jesus Pursue His Own Glory?

The God-Centeredness of the God-Man

ABSTRACT: Those who celebrate the God-centeredness of God might expect to find in the Gospels a clear Christ-centeredness of Christ. As Jonathan Edwards argues in two of his greatest works, however, Jesus’s pursuit of glory is complex, multilayered, and dynamic as he moves from the manger to the cross. The Gospel of John in particular shows how Jesus renounces the pursuit of his own glory during his earthly life, seeking instead the Father’s glory as his last and ultimate end. Yet, as he moves closer to the cross, Jesus increasingly looks forward to the glory he will receive from his Father — indeed, the glory he and his Father share. Along the way, we learn from Jesus’s example of holy creatureliness, and we worship him as the one who died, rose, and now sits with his Father in unsurpassed glory.

“That one phrase, the glory of God” — says Jonathan Edwards — includes “all that is ever spoken of in Scripture as an ultimate end of God’s works.”1

This might be Edwards’s most memorable, and often quoted, summary of his Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. In the final section, he argues that God’s supreme end in creation is one (not many), and that this one end is best captured as the glory of God — that is, the “true external expression of God’s internal glory and fullness.”2 God made the world, and rules all of history, to display his own glory.

So, many of us, gladly persuaded by the biblical refrain, speak reverently of “the God-centeredness of God.” As the Scriptures testify at many times and in many ways, and as Edwards catalogs and presents, our Creator righteously has a “supreme regard to himself,”3 rather than any mere humans. With patient instruction and careful reflection, biblically shaped minds often see the sense and rightness of the infinite value of the Creator compared to his creatures — yet the incarnation and human life of Jesus raises some fascinating questions.

What happens when the Creator himself, in the eternal person of his Son, takes on our full humanity, and in this way becomes a creature, with us, in the created world? How does the earthly life of Jesus, the God-man, in his so-called “state of humiliation,” from birth to the cross, relate to God’s God-centeredness? And how does this God-centeredness relate to Christ’s subsequent “state of exaltation,” beginning with the cross and resurrection, and including his ascension and sitting down on heaven’s throne?

Developing Theme

In both Edwards’s dissertation and his most celebrated work, The Freedom of the Will, he addresses (albeit indirectly) this often-overlooked aspect of our doctrine of Christ. In End, chapter 2, section 3 (on “particular texts of Scripture, which show that God’s glory is an ultimate end of the creation”), Edwards briefly notes that “Scripture leads us to suppose that Christ sought God’s glory as his highest and last end,”4 a theme to which he returns in section 6. In Freedom, Edwards draws in a relevant aspect of his christology as “a point clearly and absolutely determining the controversy between Calvinists and Arminians.”5

As we’ll see below, in both instances, Edwards leads us to consider our question diachronically, rather than statically. In other words, despite our tendency to press for a simple timeless answer, Edwards observes a progress and development of the theme across time as the incarnate Christ moves through his “state of humiliation” to his “state of exaltation.”

Today, in his exalted state, with the Son’s redemptive work complete, the glory of the Father and his Son are seen to be the one essential whole that they are, and always have been. But in the earthly life of Christ, the plan of the Father and Son unfolded in history as Jesus moved toward the cross.

Christ’s Goal in Life

First, Jesus, the God-man, lived his human life in utter dedication to his Father and his Father’s glory. Rightly did the angels proclaim, “Glory to God!” at Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:14), as the glory of the Father came to the fore in the life and ministry of the Son. In his state of humiliation, from manger to cross, the man Christ Jesus did not glorify himself, he says (John 8:54; Hebrews 5:5), but his words and deeds, and the effect and intent of his human life, were in full and glad submission to the will, and glory, of his Father. As Jesus summarizes his earthly life and ministry in John 8:49, “I honor my Father.”

The Son loves his Father (John 14:31). And he lived as man, and set his face toward the cross, propelled by his great delight in and love for his Father. Jesus instructed his disciples to so live, and bear fruit, that his Father would be glorified (Matthew 5:16; John 15:8), and he taught them to pray for the hallowing of his Father’s name (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2). The night before he died, Jesus summarized, in prayer, his life’s work as “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). When Jesus sees that, at last, his “hour” has come for the cross, he turns heavenward in prayer, “Father, glorify your name” (John 12:28).

While the God-centeredness of God might lead us to expect a simple Christ-centeredness of Christ in his earthly ministry, this is largely not what we (yet) find in his state of humiliation. In End, Edwards points to John 7:18 (one of several statements from Jesus renouncing the pursuit of his own glory) as characteristic of Christ’s humbled state: “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” The incarnate Christ does not “[seek] his own glory” but the glory of his Father, “him who sent him.” Jesus sought his Father’s glory, says Edwards, “as his highest and last end.”6

In Freedom, Edwards observes that “the words [of Isaiah 42:1–4] imply a promise of [Christ’s] being so upheld by God’s Spirit, that he should be preserved from sin; particularly from pride and vainglory, and from being overcome by any of the temptations he should be under to affect the glory of this world; the pomp of an earthly prince, or the applause and praise of men.”7

So, to be clear, the God-centered God becoming man in the life of Christ does not produce one who is, in essence, a self-centered human. Jesus’s preservation from sin, says Edwards, is “particularly from pride and vainglory.” As demonstrated in rebuffing Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Jesus did not pursue “the glory of this world.”

Rather, Edwards cites Isaiah 49:7 to show that Jesus, in his state of humiliation, is “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation.” However, here in the same verse of prophecy comes the shift from humiliation to exaltation that will come at the cross: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves” before the one who once was deeply despised.

His Near Approach to Death

As Jesus draws near to the cross, we discover a significant development. Edwards turns from John 7 to the “now” of John 12, with Jesus’s crucifixion “in a few days.”8 Christ is “in this near approach” to his death, and where does he turn? Again to his ultimate and supreme end, praying,

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. (John 12:27–28)

The Father’s voice from heaven then confirms it: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Edwards comments, “God had glorified his name in what Christ had done, in the work he sent him upon [in his earthly life so far]; and would glorify it again, and to a greater degree, in what he should further do [in his sacrificial death], and in the success thereof.”9

In his next statement, Jesus refers, however obliquely, to his own lifting up and exaltation. Now, writes Edwards, “in the success of the same work of redemption, he places his own glory, as was observed before.”10 As Jesus had said in John 12:23, with his imminent death in view, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

“God made the world, and rules all of history, to display his own glory.”

In this hour, not only will the Father lift him up, rather than Jesus lifting himself up, but this first lifting up will be a lifting, of all places, to the odium of the cross (Jesus “said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die,” John 12:33). Even as Christ, who is himself God, moves to acknowledge and affirm the coming lifting up, the glorifying of himself, he proceeds with a care befitting his humanity and creatureliness.

Though, at this key juncture, as he draws nearer to the cross, he rehearses his supreme end, to glorify his Father, Jesus also now acknowledges (and reveals that he desires) his own exaltation. As John 13:31–32 fills out Jesus’s multiple motivations in going to the cross, Edwards comments that “the glory of the Father, and his own glory, are what Christ exulted in.”11 Seeing that his hour has come, and that he will soon move beyond his “state of humiliation,” and enter into glory (Luke 24:26) with his great final act of self-humbling (Philippians 2:8), Jesus says, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (John 13:31).

In Jesus’s near approach to the cross, we see both glories, as it were — of Father and of Son — coming to the fore, not in competition, and each accentuating the other. Not only will the incarnate Son continue to glorify his Father, as he has since Bethlehem, but now he will do so in new measure “and to a greater degree” — and the Father too will glorify his Son. “So intertwined are the operations of the Father and the Son,” comments D.A. Carson, “that the entire mission can be looked at another way. . . . One may reverse the order.”12 Son glorifies Father, and Father glorifies his Son.

He Comes Yet Nearer

Edwards then moves to the far side of the Upper Room Discourse, to Jesus’s remarkable prayer in John 17, when Jesus “comes yet nearer to the hour of his last sufferings.”13 As in John 12, Jesus prays again for the glory of his Father, and yet here, remarkably, the prayer is, even more clearly, for his own glory, and that to the glory of his Father:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:1–5)

Verse 1 captures the essence of this “hour” at the cross: the Son will be lifted up in the culminating humiliation that is simultaneously the first lifting up of his exaltation, and this glorification of the Son, at the cross, will be to the glory of the Father. The cross is both the final act and consummation of his humbling and the essential prelude to, even the first act of, his exaltation. Verses 4–5 trace, in sequence, the movement from his humbled earthly life (verse 4) to his coming exalted state (verse 5). Humbled: “I glorified you on earth.” Exalted: “Now, Father, glorify me in your own presence.”

How Did Jesus Endure?

Previously, Jesus had eschewed pursuing his own glory (John 7:18; 8:50), receiving glory from humans (John 5:44), and glorifying himself (John 8:54). In the “near approach” of John 12 and 17, in the quintessential creaturely act of prayer, Jesus reveals the heart that kept him going to the cross — a heart that was not simple, but complex. First, his lifework, and lead prayer, were for his Father’s glory (John 12:28; 17:1). Second, as he draws near to the cross, we see his holy desire for his proper glory and exaltation, not in place of his Father’s but with him, in his presence (John 17:5). And third, his desires for his Father’s glory, and his, come together with his heart of love for his people (John 13:34) and his acting to save them (John 12:46–47). Here Edwards connects John 12 and 17 with Hebrews 12:2:

The expressions of divine grace, in the sanctification and happiness of the redeemed, are especially that glory of his, and his Father, which was the joy that was set before him, for which he endured the cross, and despised the shame: and that this glory especially was the end of the travail of his soul, in obtaining which end he was satisfied.14

“‘The joy set before’ Jesus, through which he endured the cross (and thus loved his people), was his glory and his Father’s.”

In other words, “the joy set before” Jesus, through which he endured the cross (and thus loved his people), was his glory and his Father’s. “The travail of his soul” and subsequent satisfaction refer to Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant, who, “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, . . . shall see his offspring [that is, his redeemed people]. . . . Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:10–11). In both End and Freedom, Edwards points to Jesus’s looking forward to the reward of his exaltation as the key to his enduring in his state of humiliation, all the way to death on a cross. In End, he says, commenting on John 7:18,

When Christ says he did not seek his own glory, we cannot reasonably understand him, that he had no regard to his own glory, even the glory of the human nature; for the glory of that nature was part of the reward promised him and of the joy set before him. But we must understand him, that this was not his ultimate aim; it was not the end that chiefly governed his conduct.15

In Freedom, Edwards highlights that Jesus

had promises of glorious rewards made to him, on condition of his persevering in, and perfecting the work which God had appointed him (Isaiah 53:10–12; Psalms 2 and Psalms 110; Isaiah 49:7–9). . . . Christ had not only promises of glorious success and rewards made to his obedience and sufferings, but the Scriptures plainly represent him as using these promises for motives and inducements to obey and suffer; and particularly that promise of a kingdom which the Father had appointed him, or sitting with the Father on his throne; as in Hebrews 12:1–2.16

Glory Set Before Him

With Christ, we come to the unique and spectacular man who is also God — and the one person of the Godhead who also became man. We both learn from his imitable example of holy creatureliness, and we worship him as the one who inimitably died and was raised for us.

In doing so, we see that as Jesus came closer to the cross, his pursuit of the Father’s glory became increasingly distinct from ours. We, the redeemed in Christ, have a great “state of exaltation” to come, but not as the unique divine Son. Yet even here, in his unfolding pursuit of divine glory in his “near approach” to the cross, he shows us how we too acknowledge and righteously seek our own portion of creaturely glory. In asking for glory in John 12 and 17, Jesus is strikingly human. On his human knees, in human words, with his fully human mouth and soul, he asks of his Father. He prays. Rather than grasping or putting himself forward, he makes his holy request and walks in faith.

“As Jesus draws near to the cross, we see that the glory of the Father and his Son are one essential whole.”

For Christians, as it was for Christ himself in human flesh, our being glorified, exalted, lifted up by God is no sin or danger. The trouble is our self-glorifying, our self-exalting, our grasping. Jesus’s humble acknowledgment of his coming glory in John 12, and his prayer for his Father to decisively exalt him in John 17, are not instances of man seeking to take or seize glory, but rather man “by patience in well-doing seek[ing] for glory and honor and immortality” (Romans 2:7).

Yet Christ as our imitable example is not the final or most important word. We worship one whose glory is distinct and inimitable. As Jesus draws near to the cross, the glory of the Father and his Son is revealed to be one essential whole. We dare not pit one against the other. So, as Edwards says in End, “The glory of the Father and the Son is spoken of as the end of the work of redemption.”17 And as he writes in Freedom, “the glory bestowed on Christ” does not compete with or detract from the glory of his Father, or the Godhead as a whole.18

As Edwards had long preached, so he confirmed in two of his great works of the 1750s: God made the world “to communicate and glorify himself through Jesus Christ, God-man.”19

  1. Jonathan Edwards, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 526. 

  2. Edwards, Concerning the End, 527. 

  3. Edwards, Concerning the End, 422. 

  4. Edwards, Concerning the End, 483. 

  5. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 289. “Some of the greatest Arminians,” writes Edwards, deny that behavior can be both “necessary” (determined) and virtuous. But christology — and in particular, “the moral character and practice of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he exhibited in his human nature here, in his state of humiliation” (281) — demonstrates the contrary. The incarnate Christ’s “holy behavior was necessary” and also “was properly of the nature of virtue, and was worthy of praise” (281). Biblical christology, thought Edwards, devastatingly undermines Arminian assumptions. 

  6. Edwards, Concerning the End, 483. 

  7. Edwards, Freedom, 282; emphasis added. 

  8. Edwards, Concerning the End, 484. 

  9. Edwards, Concerning the End, 485; emphasis added. 

  10. Edwards, Concerning the End, 485. 

  11. Edwards, Concerning the End, 486; emphasis added. 

  12. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 482. 

  13. Edwards, Concerning the End, 484. 

  14. Edwards, Concerning the End, 521. 

  15. Edwards, Concerning the End, 483. 

  16. Edwards, Freedom, 290. 

  17. Edwards, Concerning the End, 486; emphasis added. 

  18. Edwards, Freedom, 293. 

  19. Jonathan Edwards, “Approaching the End of God’s Grand Design,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 25, Sermons and Discourses, 1743–1758, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 116; emphasis added. This particular message was preached in December of 1744.