Grace and glory
John was arguably the person closest to Jesus during his three years of incarnate ministry. He described himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved; it was he who sat closest to Jesus, in deep friendship, at the Last Supper.
And it was John who said of Jesus, ‘We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’. Just as the rainbow shines brightest against the darkest of clouds, so the grace of Christ shines most brightly when we see the magnificence of his glory.
If God is my Father, or shepherd, or bridegroom, then — I say this reverently — grace and loving-kindness might be expected from him. But if Christ is the supreme king of kings, who reigns over all that exists, then who am I to expect any grace from him?
And yet it is often when his glory is most radiantly revealed that his grace is shown most clearly and beautifully. Take, for example, Ezekiel’s vision by the River Chebar. He describes the four living creatures. But this stunning vision pales by comparison with the One they are worshipping.
‘Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man.
‘Then I noticed from the appearance of his loins and upward something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of his loins and downward I saw something like fire; and there was a radiance around him.
‘As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’.
The only possible response Ezekiel could make was to fall to the ground: ‘And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking’. This was the inevitable reaction of frail flesh in the presence of eternal, infinite majesty.
He was overwhelmed by the vision and presence of almighty God and could only fall down in wonder. The voice, which spoke to him, gave him an impossible instruction: ‘Son of man, stand to your feet so that I can speak with you!’
It was beyond Ezekiel’s ability to raise himself up and stand eye-to-eye with the eternal God. Yet God knows this, and so his Spirit stoops to the ground where Ezekiel lies, to raise him to his feet.
The picture is even more graphic in Revelation 1, when John encounters his dear friend, now risen, ascended and glorified. This is the Jesus on whose bosom John rested his head in his final hours and who was one of the three that witnessed his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
Had he encountered Jesus as he was in the days of his flesh, surely John would have embraced him and resumed the old, affectionate familiarity. But this vision is so different.
Yes, in Christ’s incarnation John had already glimpsed that glory, full of grace and truth, but now he was encountering the full force of it.
‘Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across his chest with a golden sash.
‘His head and his hair were white like white wool, like snow; and his eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters.
‘In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and his face was like the sun shining in its strength’.
And John’s reaction to his dear friend was exactly the same as Ezekiel’s. He was overwhelmed by the presence of his glory. ‘When I saw him, I fell at his feet like a dead man’.
Nothing astonishing about that, given his description of Christ’s appearance. But what is really astonishing is the next verse: ‘And he placed his right hand on me and said…’
The Lord Jesus, resplendent in the radiance that outshines the noonday sun of the Middle East, has appeared in surpassing majesty. John, overwhelmed by his presence, falls down into the dust and lies there like a dead man. And this risen Lord places his right hand on him.
How does he do that? The only way possible is that he stoops down to the dust where John lies, and, with utmost tenderness, lays a hand of love on him, in an act of staggering condescension and humility.
And isn’t this what we also experience in our daily lives? It’s so easy to take the grace of God for granted. He’s our Father, shepherd, guide, even helper — this is what we expect of him. But catch one true glimpse of his real glory, however dimly, and suddenly his grace is breathtaking.
That he should stoop right down here into the messiness of our lives. That he who reigns in splendour above should sit in the dirt beside me and with the hand of gentlest tenderness lift me out of the dust — that’s when I am lost for words at the height and depth and breadth and length of such undeserved love.
How wonderful Christ is! How inadequate our words to praise him!