The highest of all missionary motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission... nor love for sinners... but rather zeal—burning and passionate zeal—for the glory of Jesus Christ.
So said John Stott in The Message of Romans. These three motivations for mission are easily recognised. We can imagine the first two motives embodied as missionaries, one stoically obedient to the command of God, the other passionately expending themselves for love of the lost. Both are conducting a good and godly ministry, yet still there may be tension between them—one emphasises concern for God, the other concern for the nations.
A third missionary steps forward. This one is chiefly characterised, not by a grasp of the Great Commission, nor an open hand towards the world. Here is someone who is already gripped. There is an impetus from above which does not merely command them, it captures them, sweeping them up in a zealous love for the world. For this missionary, let’s call them Paul, there is no trade off between obedience to God and love for the world. The love of Christ has compelled them and now they participate in his ministry to the world (see 2 Corinthians 5:14–21). This is the glory which not only motivates mission, it creates mission because it characterises the very heart of God. When seen in this light we realise that there is, for us, a glorious mission because there is, in God, a missionary glory.
Perhaps the idea of a missionary glory sounds peculiar. We are accustomed to think of glory in terms of self-regard. Human glory is self-centred, so we naturally think of divine glory as a souped-up version of our own narcissism. Yet when we turn to a biblical portrait of glory (in this article we’ll concentrate on Isaiah), we see that God’s glory is not simply a different quantity, it is a different quality to ours. The difference between God’s glory and ours is not in the amount of self-regard God has! The difference is not that he’s allowed to be selfish whereas we are not. The difference is that his glory is self-giving while ours, sadly, is not.
To see this we need to understand the basic Hebrew concept of glory. The word kabod means weight or heaviness. It is the substance of God, the very stuff of his Godhood. So then, in what does God’s 'Godness' consist? As evangelicals let us seek to answer that question with the Scriptures in our hands and with Christ at the centre. Here are three windows Isaiah gives onto the life of God.
From Israel’s perspective, we hear of God's Spirit-filled King:
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him –
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord –
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2–3)
From the Son's perspective we hear this:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me. (Isaiah 61:1)
From the Father's perspective we hear him declare:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him. (Isaiah 42:1)
The life of God is not a static self-regard but a dynamic, delighted flow from the Most High to his beloved Servant in the joy of the Spirit. God’s 'Godness' is other-centred. So it is no wonder that we see this glory overflowing. In Isaiah 11 we see the Spirit-filled King give justice to the poor and needy and set the world to rights. In Isaiah 61, he proclaims good news to the poor, the broken-hearted, the imprisoned and the mourning, restoring the ancient ruins. In Isaiah 42 he tenderly cares for the weak while establishing justice to the ends of the earth. God’s glory is a missionary glory—one that begins in eternity but which 'fills the whole earth' (Isaiah 6:3).
In this context God declares that his glory is exclusively focused on his servant:
‘I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
‘I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another.’ (Isaiah 42:6–8)
Having glorified his Son for seven verses, the Father declares that he will not glorify another. The glory of God is shared with this Son by this Spirit and in no other way. This is why John 17:2 is not a contradiction of Isaiah, it is virtually a quotation of it: 'Father, glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you.' In God, glory is a shared reality but only in a strictly Christ-centred way. God's glory is a missionary glory because the Father glorifies his Son in the zeal of the Spirit. But this glory is not a self-contained self-regard. In the words of Richard Sibbes, it is a 'spreading goodness.' For this reason Jesus can pray regarding his people: 'I have given them the glory that you gave me' (John 17:22). Once again, Jesus is not contradicting Isaiah, he is proclaiming Isaiah’s fulfilment. The Spirit-filled Servant has come and God’s glory is found, uniquely, in him. Yet in him there is enough glory for the whole world.
According to Isaiah, the Spirit’s flow is from the Father to the Son, then from the Son to us and out to the nations, making even the deserts bloom (32:15; 35:1). The way of the flesh is different. Throughout Isaiah we meet 'old Israel' who lifts herself up by her own efforts— most wickedly, by her own religious efforts (1:10–31; 2:6–22; 10:33–34; 24:1–23; 29:13–16; 58:1–14). But God’s glorious salvation judges all those who lift themselves up and, beyond such a judgement, he raises those who are bowed down (12:1–3; 25:4–9; 35:1–10; 40:1–11; 59:15–21). Having raised the lowly, God includes them in his own radiant purposes:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:1–3)
The link here between glory and light is instructive. It is a spreading goodness, a conquering brightness, a compelling attraction. Just as the LORD’s glory enlightens us, so we become light. Just as the Sun of righteousness rises upon us, we become dawn and the whole earth is drawn to our splendour (v8). God’s missionary glory transforms us and presses us into service in his glorious mission.
For this reason the godly 'direction of travel' is not up-and-in. That is the way of the flesh. The way of the Spirit is down-and-out— it is a receiving of God’s light and a shining forth into dark places. There is therefore no 'balance' to strike between love for the lost and obedience to God. There is ultimately no trade-off between mission and worship, between mission and holiness or between mission and glorifying God. Through God’s missionary glory we are included in God’s glorious mission.
Some imagine that they 'glorify God' by standing apart from sinners and declaring 'I am holier than thou' (Isaiah 65:5). Yet such an outlook stands condemned and has done since Isaiah’s day. Such people are not merely failed missionaries, they are failed worshippers. God says 'they are smoke in my nostrils,' because his glory is not to stand aloof. His own glory is revealed three verses earlier: 'All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people' (Isaiah 65:2). God’s glory is cruciform, it is self-giving, it is missional and by God’s grace we participate. Now in the Son and by the Spirit, we too hold out our hands, we too become cruciform, self-giving and missional, we too shine the light of Christ to the ends of the earth. Glory!
If God’s glory is self-giving that may prompt a question: What does it mean for God to act for his own glory and not for our sakes (e.g. Ezekiel 36:22–32)?
A friend of mine tells a neat story which illustrates the difference. He was walking along a corridor towards a set of double doors. Behind him he heard high-heels so he held open the door for the woman following. On her way through she narrowed her gaze and said, 'I hope you're not opening the door because I'm a lady.' He replied 'No, I'm opening the door because I'm a gentleman.' It's the sort of riposte you almost never think of in time, but it illustrates our point here perfectly. My friend acted selflessly not because of what the woman was like but because of what he was like. So it is with God. He is not a hopeless romantic who cannot help himself. He’s not a sucker for a damsel in distress. He's a gentleman. He acts in selfless grace not because of what people are like but because of what he is like. This is what it means for God to act not for our sake but for the sake of his glory. The initiative is his. He determines to be the ultimate and original self-giver. This is his glory. His hand is not forced, his heart-strings are not pulled, rather his heart is already set zealously for Christ, the Servant. Therefore he will save because it fundamentally expresses his true identity. It is his glory to be missionary.
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Glen Scrivener is the Director and Evangelist at Speak Life. He's teaches at Union School of Theology and has written a number of books including 321:The Story of God, the World and You and Reading Between the Lines.