The first time my daughter opened her eyes was inside an ambulance racing through downtown Chicago. As I held her tight, her blue eyes looked straight into mine, and I knew she was going to be fine. We already had a special bond because I had just delivered her in the front seat of our Honda Civic. It was one of the most glorious moments of my life.
And yet, suffering personified—that is, my wife—was lying next to us on a stretcher. She embodied the pain through which such glory had come. I had witnessed firsthand glory through suffering. Every time I recall the moment, I realize that glory through suffering isn't unique to my daughter's birth. According to the gospel, it's the story of the world.
Suffering is inevitable and unavoidable. Surrounded by cancer, mental illness, infertility, depression, loss, and ultimately death, we ask how God's glory could shine through such tragic circumstances. For most of us, glory and suffering seem incompatible, just like something cannot be simultaneously hot and cold, wet and dry. But Christ's journey from the cradle to the grave reveals a pattern that is stitched throughout the fabric of Scripture. For Christ, Christians, and all creation, the way of glory is the way of the Cross.
The Story of Glory
When we look at Scripture, we might conclude that suffering and glory compose a two-step movement: Glory comes after suffering. Certainly at many points, Scripture presents suffering and glory as a linear progression (Acts 2:33–36; Phil. 2:6–9; 1 Pet. 1:10–11; Heb. 2:9–10). But it also reveals a more organic and overlapping relation between the two: glory through suffering (John 12:23–33; Rev. 5:5–6).
We see this theme at the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden. God created humanity to fill and subdue the earth for his glory. But things went wrong. Adam and Eve rejected God as king and subjected themselves, and the world, to sin and death. God, however, didn't abandon his plan to establish his kingdom on earth, though the presence of sin required a new route. Genesis 3:15 provides the key: While the serpent will be crushed by the seed of the woman—the "seed" being Jesus—the seed of the woman will be bruised in the process. The promise of victory includes the price of suffering. From here on, a pattern emerges: Victory comes through suffering, exaltation through humiliation, and, ultimately, the kingdom through the Cross.
Throughout the Old Testament, God accomplishes his sovereign purposes through weak people and broken circumstances. He builds a nation from an infertile elderly couple (Abraham and Sarah), names the nation after a backstabbing trickster (Jacob), and grows the nation through a slave-child abandoned by his brothers (Joseph). God uses little David as the humble and even foolish means of defeating a giant, and then makes David a king whose reign is marked by adversity and suffering. And Isaiah 52 and 53 tell of a servant whose sacrificial atonement is framed by glory and exaltation.
All of this points to Jesus, who came to establish God's glorious kingdom through suffering, sacrifice, and service. As Jesus approached his death, he said, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). At first, it seems that Jesus is talking about his coming entrance into heaven. But the following verse explains that Jesus is referring to his crucifixion: "He said this to show what kind of death he was going to die." John's gospel builds toward the climactic hour when Jesus' being "lifted up" on the cross is the moment he is enthroned in glory (John 12:23–32; 3:14; 8:28). The Cross becomes the throne from which Christ rules the world.
The Cross also becomes the fulcrum upon which the logic of the world is turned upside down. Shame is transformed into glory, foolishness into wisdom, and humiliation into exaltation. The glory of the Cross shines throughout the rest of the New Testament. Paul says, "[T]he message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18). And according to the Book of Hebrews, God is restoring his original design for creation through the death of his Son, who was "crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death" (2:9). From the bruised heel of Genesis 3:15 to the reigning lamb of Revelation 22, the Bible tells the story of a crucified Messiah who is glorified through suffering.
The Meaning of Glory
When we look at Jesus, we see that God has accomplished the most powerful act of salvation. He has revealed his glory through the most humble means of a cross. But a question remains: What is glory? And how can it possibly emerge from such a horrific and shameful death?
According to J. I. Packer, glory is "excellence and praiseworthiness set forth in display." The original iPhone, for example, was impressive in its design before anyone ever saw it. But when Steve Jobs unveiled it to the world, it was a moment of glory. Likewise, the glory of God is God's going public with his infinite beauty. As Jonathan Edwards taught, glory is not merely another one of God's attributes or characteristics (along with his holiness, love, power, and so forth). Rather, it is the "admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies." Glory is the dazzling, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring showcase of God's character to a world darkened by sin. It is the explosive radiance produced by his holiness, love, mercy, justice, wisdom, and power—all of which come together in the most fitting way in the death of Christ.
At the Cross, we see God's justice through the judgment of sin, God's love through the forgiveness of sinners, God's power through his defeat of Satan, and God's wisdom in his upholding of holiness yet making a way for sinners. Christ's death is the ultimate, "Thus sayeth the Lord." It reveals the glorious harmony of God's multifaceted character. The Cross is the crossroads of everything we know about God.
To say that God's glory shines through the Cross is to make a deeply Trinitarian statement. John's gospel makes it clear that the Son glorifies the Father (7:18), that the Father glorifies the Son (8:54), and that this loving Trinitarian exchange of glory has taken place for all eternity (17:5, 24). And yet, stunningly, the Cross is where this Trinitarian exchange of glory is put on full display. The glory revealed through self-giving love at the Cross is a window into the eternal life of the triune God. Through the Cross we see the wisdom of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit—the harmony of which results in the radiant display of God's glorious self-giving love.
So is the Cross for God's glory, or for our salvation? Yes! There is no competition between God's glory and our well-being. As John Piper famously said, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." Scripture repeatedly states that God's glory is good news to a world darkened by sin (2 Cor. 4:4). Just as the radiance of the sun produces life and flourishing throughout the earth, so the radiance of God's glory is both the source of our salvation and the means for our growth.
Our Part in the Story
Many of us instinctively feel that if we are faithful to Jesus, then life will go well for us. We will find comfort, success, and maybe even wealth. But that's the logic of the American dream, not the gospel. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "A king who dies on the Cross must be the king of a rather strange kingdom." A strange kingdom indeed. And the king who was glorified on the Cross advances his kingdom by calling his followers to take up their own crosses.
Followers of Jesus are bound for glory. But what is true for Christ is true for those who are "in Christ": Glory comes through suffering. Paul says that, as coheirs with Christ, "we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom. 8:17, ESV).
Our world operates according to the logic that weakness and power are opposites. But the Cross turns this concept on its head. Christ said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). It's not that God's power is made perfect despite our weakness or after we have suffered. No, his power is made perfect in our weakness.
God certainly can and does display his power through healing and intervention. But it is through weakness that we learn to cling to God's strength. And the "weakness" that Paul speaks of does not refer to sinfulness but to the adversities of ordinary life. In the difficulty of transition, God is our constant. In the frailness of old age, God is our strength. In the darkness of depression, God is our hope. God is not waiting for us on the other side of suffering; he meets us in our suffering.
This doesn't make suffering easy, but it does make it meaningful. God is with us in our suffering, he transforms us through our suffering, and one day he will put an end to our suffering. That is why Paul said, "I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13, ESV). He didn't say this from an exercise room or on a basketball court. He said it from a prison. A bodybuilder may be able to lift a car, but one who is strong in Christ is even stronger, for she can rejoice in suffering. Why? Because our weakness is a showcase for the glory of God's strength.
A Glorious New Creation
But that's not all. Even creation is bound for glory. The Bible declares that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God's glory (Hab. 2:14), and it will itself radiate in glory. But as for Christ and Christians, so it is for creation: Glory comes through suffering.
According to Romans 8, our world is destined for glory, but it is presently in a state of decay, longing, and groaning for renewal. Yet Paul gives a vision of cosmic renewal: "[T]he creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (8:21, ESV).
Many Christians have wrongfully set cosmic renewal and personal salvation at odds. Some believe that the gospel is merely concerned with individual salvation, not issues like creation care and social justice. Others argue that at the heart of the gospel are issues like caring for the poor, world peace, and renewing the earth. But Paul shows that cosmic renewal and personal renewal are inseparable. Creation longs for the "freedom of glory" that Christians already possess in Christ. God's salvation is aimed at both the church and the cosmos, but in proper order. The church is the focus of salvation and the cosmos is the scope of salvation.
Theologian Robert Letham explains that the "church is to be the spearhead of a renovated and restored cosmos." This means that the renewal of all things rides on the coattails of the reconciliation of sinners. The renewal of creation has begun in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, it advances through the spiritual renewal of God's people, and it will be completed in the physical restoration of the earth.
All this is possible because of the glory of Christ's crucifixion. Majesty and meekness, sovereignty and servitude, humiliation and exaltation—such is the paradox of the crucified Messiah. Our lives are filled with pain and pleasure, glory and garbage, dreams and despair. That's the tension of a world marred by sin yet sustained by grace. The only hope for our world is Christ, the one who experienced the full brunt of sin and death yet overcame them on our behalf. Because he experienced glory in suffering and exaltation through humiliation, so can we.
My daughter—the one "born and raised on the streets of Chicago"—just turned 2. Her middle name is Hope, which my wife and I chose to remember that our hope is in God alone. We can take comfort that God has entered into our suffering, embrace his power in the midst of our suffering, and cling to him with hope that one day he will put an end to our suffering. We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another—by way of the Cross.
Jeremy Treat (PhD, Wheaton College) is a pastor at Reality LA in Hollywood, and an adjunct professor at Biola University in La Mirada, California. He is the author of a forthcoming book, The Crucified King: Kingdom and Atonement in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Zondervan).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.