We begin a new series of messages this morning that will take us, Lord willing, through Easter Sunday morning, April 19. So I would like to begin by explaining how I have been moved to develop this series.
Seeing Is Becoming
When it comes to understanding what should happen in the act of preaching I am guided by several biblical texts, especially 2 Corinthians 3:18:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
“We become more like the Lord when we fix our gaze on his glory.”
I believe this text teaches us that one of the ways we are changed progressively into the likeness of Christ is by looking at his glory. “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness.” The way to become more and more like the Lord is to fix your gaze on his glory and hold him in view.
We hum the music we listen to. We speak with the accent of our vicinity. We pick up the courtesies of our parents. And we naturally tend to imitate the people we admire most. So it is with God. If we fix our attention on him and hold his glory in our view, we will be changed from one degree of glory to another into his likeness. If teenagers tend to fix their hair like the stars they admire, so Christians will tend to fix their character like the God they admire. In this spiritual transaction seeing is not only believing; seeing is becoming.
Preaching as the Portrayal of the Glory of God
The lesson I learn from this for preaching is that to a great extent preaching must be the portrayal of the glory of God, because the goal of preaching is to change people into the likeness of God. I think this fits with Paul’s view of preaching because just four verses later, in 2 Corinthians 4:4, he describes the content of his preaching as “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God.” And two verses later in verse 6 he describes it just a little differently as “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
So, according to Paul, preaching is a means of conveying light to the darkened heart of men and women. In verse 4 the light is called the “light of the gospel,” and in verse 6 the light is called the “light of knowledge.” In verse 4 the gospel is the gospel of the glory of Christ, and in verse 6 the knowledge is the knowledge of the glory of God. So in both verses the light conveyed into the heart is the light of glory — the glory of Christ and the glory of God.
But these are not really two different glories. In verse 4 Paul says it is the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. And in verse 6 he says that the glory of God is in the face of Christ. So the light conveyed by preaching is a light of glory, and you can speak of this glory as the glory of Christ who is God’s image, or the glory of God perfectly reflected in Christ.
Preaching is the portrayal or display or exhibition of divine glory to the hearts of men and women (that’s 2 Corinthians 4:4–6), so that by the beholding of this glory they might be changed into the likeness of the Lord from one degree of glory to another (that’s 2 Corinthians 3:18).
Known to Be True from Experience
This is no artificial or merely intellectual construction. It is precisely what I know to be true from my own experience (as do many of you!): seeing God for who he really is has proven again and again to be the most powerful and compelling force in motivating my quest for holiness and joy in him.
You and I know from experience that the root conflict in the human soul is between two glories — the glory of the world and all the brief pleasures it can offer, versus the glory of God and all the eternal pleasures it can offer. These two glories compete for the allegiance, admiration, and delight of our hearts. And the role of preaching is to display and depict and portray and exhibit the glory of God in such a way that its superior excellence and worth shine in your heart so that you are changed from one degree of glory to another.
The Challenge Facing the Preacher
That means that as a preacher I am constantly confronted with the question: How can I best portray the glory of God so that the greatest number of people will see it and be changed by it? As I asked myself that question on the retreat two weeks ago, a new answer came to my mind.
I was reading again part of Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man. He made this penetrating comment: “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.” That struck me as very true. And the thought came that if it is true for man, as Scougal intended to say, surely it is true for God also: “The worth and excellency of God’s soul is to be measured by the object of his love.”
So I searched the Scriptures for several days seeking all those places that tell us what it is that God loves and enjoys and delights in and takes pleasure in and rejoices in. The result is a plan to preach thirteen messages entitled the pleasures of God.
So it is my prayer, and I hope that you will make it your prayer, that in seeing the objects of God’s pleasure we will see the excellency and worth of his soul; and in seeing the excellency and worth of his soul we will see his glory; and in seeing his glory we will be changed from one degree of glory to another into his likeness; and in being changed into his likeness we will confront this city, and the unreached peoples of the world, with a living witness to a great and irresistibly attractive Savior. May the Lord be pleased to send us a great revival of love and holiness and power as we look to him and pray earnestly over the next thirteen weeks.
Five Affirmations of the Pleasures of God
In portraying the worth of God’s soul in the object of his love we must begin at the beginning. The first and most fundamental thing we can say about the pleasures of God is that he takes pleasure in his Son. I will try to unfold this truth in five affirmations.
1. God has pleasure in his Son.
In Matthew 17 Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain. When they are all alone something utterly astonishing happens. All of a sudden God gives Jesus an appearance of glory. Verse 2: “His face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” Then in verse 5 a bright cloud overshadows them and God speaks from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
First, God gives the disciples a brief glimpse of the true heavenly glory of Jesus. This is what Peter says in 2 Peter 1:17: “[Christ] received honor and glory from God the Father.” Then God reveals his heart for the Son and says two things: “I love my son” (“This is my beloved Son”), and “I take pleasure in my Son” (“with whom I am well pleased”).
He says this on one other occasion: at Jesus’s baptism, as the Holy Spirit comes down and anoints Jesus for his ministry, signifying the Father’s love and support — “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
And in the gospel of John, Jesus speaks several times about the Father’s love for him: for example, John 3:35, “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand.” John 5:20: “The Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing.” (See also Matthew 12:18 where Matthew quotes Isaiah 42:1 in reference to Jesus: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.” The Hebrew word behind “well pleased” is ratsah, and means “delights in.”)
“When God looks at his Son, he enjoys, admires, cherishes, prizes, and relishes what he sees.”
So our first statement is that God the Father loves the Son, not with any self-denying, sacrificial mercy, but with the love of delight and pleasure. He is well-pleased with his Son. His soul delights in the Son! When he looks at his Son, he enjoys and admires and cherishes and prizes and relishes what he sees.
2. The Son of God has the fullness of deity.
This truth will keep us from making a mistake about the first one. You might agree with the affirmation that God has pleasure in the Son, but make the mistake that the Son is merely an extraordinarily holy man that the Father adopted to be his Son because he delighted in him so much. But Colossians 2:9 gives us a very different angle on things. “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” The Son of God is not merely a chosen man. He has the fullness of deity in him.
Then Colossians 1:19 relates this to God’s pleasure: “In him all the fullness [of deity] was pleased to dwell.” Or you could say (with the NIV), “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” In other words, it was God’s pleasure to do this. God did not look out over the world to find a man who would qualify for his delight and then adopt him as his Son. Rather God himself took the initiative to bestow his own fullness on a man in the act of incarnation. Or we could say he took the initiative to clothe the fullness of his own deity with human nature. And Colossians 1:19 says he was pleased to do this! It was his pleasure and delight.
We might be inclined to say that God didn’t find a Son who was pleasing to him, but he made a Son who was pleasing. But that, too, would be very misleading, because this fullness of deity, which now dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9) in Jesus, already existed in personal form before he took on human nature in Jesus. This pushes us back further into the Godhead and on to affirmation three.
3. The Son in whom God delights is the eternal image and reflection of God and is thus God himself.
Here in Colossians 1:15 Paul says,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation [that is, the one who has the exalted status of divine Sonship over all creation, as the next phrase shows]; for in him all things were created in heaven and on earth.
The Son is the image of the Father. What does this mean? Before we say, let’s consider some other similar designations. In Hebrews 1:3 it says of the Son,
He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.
In Philippians 2:6 Paul says,
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
So the Son in whom God delights is his own image; reflects his own glory; bears the very stamp of his nature; is in his very form; and is equal with God. Therefore we should not be surprised when the apostle John, in John 1:1, says,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
So it would be totally misleading to say that the Son in whom God delights was made or created at the incarnation or at any time. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” As long as there has been God, there has been the Word of God, the Son of God, who took on a human nature in Jesus Christ.
Now we can get a better idea of what the Bible means when it calls him the image or reflection or stamp or form of God who is equal with God.
From eternity past, the one reality that has always existed is God. This is a great mystery because it is so hard for us to think of God having absolutely no beginning and just being there forever and ever and ever without anything or anyone making him be there — just absolute reality that every one of us has to reckon with whether we like it or not.
The Bible teaches that this eternal God has always had
- a perfect image of himself,
- a perfect reflection of his essence,
- a perfect stamp or imprint of his nature,
- a perfect form or expression of his glory.
We are on the brink of the ineffable here, but perhaps we may dare to say this much: as long as God has been God, he has been conscious of himself, and the image that he has of himself is so perfect and so complete and full as to be the living, personal reproduction (or begetting) of himself. And this living, personal image or reflection or form of God is God, namely, God the Son. And therefore God the Son is co-eternal with God the Father and equal in essence and glory.
4. The pleasure of God in his Son is pleasure in himself.
Since the Son is the image of God and the reflection of God and the stamp of God and the form of God, equal with God, and indeed is God, therefore God’s delight in the Son is delight in himself. Therefore the original, the primal, the deepest, the foundational joy of God is the joy he has in his own perfections as he sees them reflected in his Son. He loves the Son and delights in the Son and takes pleasure in the Son because the Son is God himself.
At first, this sounds like vanity and has the feel of conceitedness and smugness and selfishness about it, because that is what it would mean if any of us found our first and deepest joy by looking at ourselves in the mirror. We would be vain and conceited and smug and selfish.
But why? Because we were created for something infinitely better and nobler and greater and deeper than self-contemplation. What? The contemplation and enjoyment of God! Anything less than this would be idolatry. God is the most glorious of all beings. Not to love him and delight in him is a great insult to his worth.
But the same is true for God. How shall God not insult what is infinitely beautiful and glorious? How shall God not commit idolatry? There is only one possible answer: God must love and delight in his own beauty and perfection above all things. For us to do this in front of the mirror is the essence of vanity; for God to do it in front of his Son is the essence of righteousness.
Isn’t the essence of righteousness to be moved by perfect delight in what is perfectly glorious? And isn’t the opposite of righteousness when we set our highest affections on the things of little or no worth?
And so the righteousness of God is the infinite zeal and joy and pleasure that he has in his own worth and glory. And if he were to ever act contrary to this eternal passion for his own perfections, he would be unrighteous; he would be an idolater.
“The foundation of our salvation is the infinite regard that the Father has for the Son.”
Herein lies the greatest obstacle to our salvation: for how shall such a righteous God ever set his affection on sinners like us? But herein lies also the very foundation of our salvation, for it is precisely the infinite regard that the Father has for the Son which makes it possible for me, a wicked sinner, to be loved and accepted in the Son, because in his death he restored all the insult and injury that I had done to the Father’s glory through my sin.
We will see this again and again in the weeks to come — how the Father’s infinite pleasure in his own perfections is the fountain of our redemption and hope and everlasting joy. Today is just the beginning.
I close with the fifth affirmation and final application. If Scougal is right — that the worth and excellency of a soul is measured by the object (and I would add, intensity) of its love — then . . .
5. God is the most excellent and worthy of all beings.
Why? Because he has loved his Son, the image of his own glory, with infinite and perfect energy from all eternity. How glorious and happy have been the Father and the Son and the Spirit of love flowing between them from all eternity!
Let us stand in awe of this great God! And let us turn from all the trivial resentments and fleeting pleasures and petty pursuits of life, and join in with the gladness that God has in the image of his own perfections, namely, his Son. Let us pray:
Infinite, eternal, and righteous God, we confess that we have often belittled you and exalted ourselves to the center of your affections where you alone belong in the person of your Son. We repent and turn from our presumption and gladly stand in awe of your eternal, self-sufficient happiness in the fellowship of the Trinity. And our prayer, in the words of your Son (John 17:26), is that the love with which you have loved him may be in us and he in us, that we might be taken up into that fellowship of joy and that ocean of love forever and ever. Amen.