Don’t you just wish you could’ve been there to see Jesus? To hear him tell a parable, witness a miracle, observe the cleansing of the temple? While we’re wishing, how about if you could’ve actually watched Jesus die, and then a few days later, he appeared to you alive again?
I confess I have to fight envy of the disciples. They got all this, and more. I sometimes wonder if I would have been a better Christian if I had lived alongside him like they did. More spiritually-minded? More willing to sacrifice myself for him? More like him in general?
Of course, I can reason my way to an answer by being logical. If seeing Jesus in the flesh was required to attain to a particular level of godliness, then that leaves us post-first-century folk at a pretty big disadvantage. God surely wouldn’t design a system that had such an obvious flaw! And the fact is, he didn’t. The Bible tells us: it is seeing the glory of Jesus, not the works of Jesus, which changes us into his image.
Works vs Glory
I can’t claim credit for this insight. It was John Owen who pointed it out to me, and it was one of those things where, once you see it, you can’t imagine how you ever missed it. He says:
After Moses had seen the works of God, which were great and marvellous, he still found himself unsatisfied. Therefore, he prayed that God would show him his glory (Exodus 33:18). He knew that the ultimate rest, blessing and satisfaction of the soul is not in seeing the works of God, but the glory of God himself.”
The Israelites had seen all the works of God that Moses had, yet they hadn’t changed one little bit. Moses came down from the mountain to find them worshipping a golden calf, for crying out loud (Exodus 32:7-8)! Similarly, Judas Iscariot and the rest of the disciples all saw Jesus perform the exact same miracles, heard the exact same teaching and witnessed his love in action. If seeing the works of God was enough to change a person, you would expect them all to have become great apostles—but instead, Judas betrayed Jesus and killed himself.
It’s obvious when you think about it. It isn’t what a person sees or how much a person sees of the works of God. It’s about whether they see his glory in those works. And the more glory that is seen, the more a person is transformed. Paul spells it out to the Corinthians:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
What Is Glory?
Glory is somewhat akin to beauty, but goes beyond it in degree. Seeing the glory of something is seeing its surpassing value and attractiveness, and being enthralled by it. Yet often people disagree about what holds glory, and what defines an object’s glory. When it comes to Jesus, it isn’t any different—people may fail to see any glory in him at all, or they may believe his glory to be one thing when it is in fact something else.
Paul explains the reason for this in 2 Corinthians 4. He says that the minds of unbelievers are “blinded” so that the gospel is veiled to them and they cannot understand the glory of God in it. Believers, in contrast, have had the veil removed and a “light” shone directly into their hearts:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
We see then that without God’s intervention, no one sees his glory—no matter what sort of marvelous works they have witnessed.
How Christ’s Glory can Be Seen
It is only when the light of faith shines that anything changes. As Owen says:
The light of faith is given principally to enable us to behold the glory of God in Christ … If we do not have this light, which is communicated by the power of God to those who believe (Ephesians 1:18-19), we must be strangers to the whole mystery of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
Now we commonly think of faith as being about clenching our fists, tightly closing our eyes, and trying to banish our doubts. But in the Bible, faith is a gift (Ephesians 2:8). No amount of trying to believe results in true faith. Rather, it is God’s prerogative to grant it to whom he chooses, in order that they may see his glory and be changed.
The fact that it comes from God shouldn’t make us despairing or fatalistic, however. Rather, it should make us cry out to him, knowing that his desire is to grant us this request—that this is itself how his sovereignty works in our lives. As Jesus promises:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8)
Notice that the one who asks does not leave it at that. He seeks that for which he asks—like a beggar placing himself in the pathway of a potential benefactor. For those asking for the faith to see Christ’s glory, that includes reading what God has revealed about himself in the Bible. Owen puts it like this:
The only way to see and understand the real glory that Jesus actually possesses in heaven is by the light of faith fixed on divine revelation. To behold this glory of Christ is not an act of imagination; it does not consist in framing to ourselves the shape of a glorious person in heaven. Rather, it is the steady exercise of faith on the revelation and description made of this glory of Christ in the Scripture. This is the foundation, rule, and measure of all divine meditations on His glory.”
The Real Problem, and the Answer
Perhaps some of us have been yearning after the wrong thing. We think that if we saw God move in the ways he did in Jesus’ time on earth, we’d have a stronger faith. We justify our lack of holiness by reasoning that the first Christians actually got to see Jesus, whereas all we get is to read about him in a book. But all of this fails to discern the real problem: we haven’t seen enough of Christ’s glory. And guess what? There were plenty of people living alongside Jesus in the first century who didn’t either.
Our wish should be a little different then: not so much that we could have seen the works of Jesus that the apostles saw, but that we could see in him the glory that they saw. This is what actually transforms us. Of course, we do need to ponder Jesus’ works—especially his work on the cross—to have that glory revealed. But God uses his written word to reveal his glory just as well as any other means he has used in the past. We mustn’t assume that this is an inferior form of revelation—after all, Jesus himself said “blessed are those who have not seen [with their physical eyes] and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
In reading John Owen on this subject, I’ve realised that God has already granted me the greatest gift he can grant anyone: a vision of Christ’s glory. I’ve never seen Jesus with my physical eyes, but I still see him. In his word, I have glimpses of his beauty, his worth, his transcendence above all this world has to offer, saving grace. And knowing that’s the real prize, I want to see more of his glory. How about you?
 John Owen, The Glory of Christ in Modern English, edited by Jason Roth (emphasis mine).
 J. Owen, The Glory of Christ in Modern English.
 J. Owen, The Glory of Christ in Modern English, (emphasis mine).