“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. … For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Romans 8:18-21; 29-30
Glory is where verses 8:18–30 are going, all the way to the climactic last clause of verse 30: Those he justified, them he also glorified. So what does that mean?
The church has usually understood Paul to be affirming that those who come to faith in Jesus, and so are “justified,” are assured of going to heaven. But if our present passage, verses 17–21, shows us what Paul means by “glory” and “being glorified,” then we have to revise that view quite radically. Verse 30 is the conclusion to this passage, and to this point, not to something else. To say it again, Romans 8 is simply not about “going to heaven.” Heaven is never mentioned in this chapter; indeed, “heaven” in the sense of “where Christians will go after death” is missing from this whole letter and indeed Paul’s whole correspondence. The common contemporary Christian usage of the word “glory” to mean “heaven” as normally conceived (as when someone who has died is spoken of as having “gone to glory”) misses Paul’s point. So what is he saying?
What does the Apostle Paul mean by the word glory?
The primary meanings of “glory” in this passage are, simultaneously, the glorious presence of God himself dwelling within us by the spirit, and the wise, healing, reconciling rule of God’s people over the whole creation. These two — God’s presence and human rule — are made for each other. They fit together.
The primary meaning of the many-sided word ‘glory’ (doxa in Greek, looking back regularly to kabod in Hebrew) is “dignity,” “worth,” or “status.” The Hebrew carries the notion of “weight,” as we might speak about the “weighty presence” of a powerful or influential figure or the “weighty words” of an important speech or sermon. This idea of dignity, worth and status goes with both sides of Paul’s meaning.
Glory in Paul’s Roman context
The world into which Paul went as a missionary was the world dominated by Rome, by Caesar. For the previous century, the Roman propaganda machine had been churning out one particular myth. Many ancient pagans saw the great sweep of history in terms of a succession of ages — a golden age, then silver, then bronze, then iron. There were several variations on this theme, but they always pointed to a final return to the golden age, the age (as they thought) of Saturn. And in 41 B.C., three years after Julius Caesar’s assassination, a brilliant young poet, Virgil, penned an eclogue declaring that the golden age had indeed come round again, bringing peace and harmony to the world of nature. Virgil said much the same in the Aeneid, tying this now explicitly to the rule of Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus. The earlier poem was later taken up by Christians as a pagan prophecy of the incarnation of Jesus. (That is why, in some Christian circles, particularly in the Middle Ages, Virgil becomes a kind of honorary semi-saint, as in Dante’s great poem.)
Augustus solidified his imperial rule by engaging in a massive publicity program, not just through his court poets and historians but in symbolic statues. The Ara pacis, the altar of peace, which you can still visit in Rome, declares symbolically that with Augustus as emperor there is now a time of peace, harmony and fruitfulness. The ground is bringing forth all that humans could desire. This scene of peaceful life and plentiful harvests was copied on coins, and carved in marble, right across the empire. Nature herself was seen as a placid matriarch, resting at peace, surrounded by abundant provision. The message was: You’ve never had it so good — and it’s all because Caesar’s heir is on the throne, bringing peace and justice to the world! And of course, the subtext of this, the message to the far-flung inhabitants of the empire, was: so please settle down and get used to Roman rule. Don’t even think about rebellion. Why would you? You are in the best of all possible worlds.
That line of propaganda was continued by later emperors, not least Nero. In the days before mass media, the way the message got out was through coins, statues, inscriptions and particularly poems. Rome, like all empires before and since, went on pushing this line. That was true throughout Paul’s lifetime, and in towns and cities more or less everywhere he went. Indeed, he seems to have made a point of visiting key centers of Roman influence, such as Ephesus and Corinth, intending then to go on to Rome itself and to Spain, the important western outpost of Roman rule. His strategy seems to have been to announce Jesus as the true Kyrios, the world’s true Lord, in places where that word, and the claims that went with it, had been firmly linked to Caesar. So in this letter, sent to Rome itself, Paul is declaring powerfully that, like all pagan claims, the Roman claim is at best a parody of the truth. Everybody knew, of course, that in its own terms it was a lie. Rome’s supposed glory was built on ruthless military conquest, often backed up by crucifixions. Rome’s rule was always as precarious as the next provincial rebellion, or the next riot over food shortages if the grain ships failed to arrive on time. And for Paul, in any case, “nature” was not an independent peaceful matriarch. The wider world, from his biblical and Jewish perspective, was not a self-supporting “nature.” It was “creation,” the good world made by the good creator God, but now groaning in labor pains, longing to give birth to the real new age as opposed to the glossy fake one imagined by the Roman court poets.
Paul, in other words, was thinking with the Bible rather than with imperial propaganda. He believed in the ancient Hebrew promise of new creation. The Old Testament regularly points ahead, even in the midst of Israel’s rebellion and failure, to the promise that the God who made the world would one day remake it. There would come a time of cosmic harmony.
So here, at the climax of the letter precisely to the church in Rome, we see the implicit clash of controlling narratives. Of course, we can’t simply look back at ancient parodies of the truth and feel smug that we are not subject to similar distortions ourselves. We ought to ponder carefully the ways in which the vast and socially powerful narratives of both modernity and postmodernity have offered the world things that look a bit like the Christian gospel but are in fact deadly parodies.
Glory in the whole Bible and human vocation
But this brings us back, above all, to the biblical meaning of “glory.” To go back to the key words: the Hebrew word kabod, and the Greek word doxa, do indeed come to include things such as radiance and brilliant light. That is what many readers imagine Paul is talking about. But this isn’t their basic meaning, and it isn’t what Paul normally means. In the Hebrew scriptures, “glory” regularly comes to refer specifically to rule or power. That is why “glory” is regularly a royal term, symbolized visually in crowns, sometimes with rays of bright light streaming in all directions. The bright light isn’t the glory itself. The light tells you about the glory, the weighty dignity and power. The honor of the person is symbolized by that bright light. So when scripture promises that God’s glory will flood the whole creation, that doesn’t mean that the whole world will become luminous, as though it had a powerful light bulb somewhere deep inside. It means that God’s creative power and wisdom will, as we say, shine out visibly all around.
These pictures go together not least because some Jewish readers understood Psalm 8 in terms of the Messiah, making the coming king to be the ultimate, true human being. This aligns with a regular ancient view of kings as being made in the divine image. Genesis 1, of course, insists that actually all humans are image-bearers; all humans possess royal dignity. But many ancient Jews continued to read Psalm 8 messianically; and that opens the way for Paul to link it, in the passages just referred to, with other messianic texts.
Paul too saw Psalm 8 fulfilled in Jesus, the one to whom all things are put in subjection. For Paul, as we would expect after the famous Adam-and-Messiah passage in Romans 5, this is then about Jesus as the ultimate true human, just as in 1 Corinthians 15. Modern Christians have often assumed that our main task as apologists is to persuade people of Jesus’ divinity; but Paul, without in any way denying or undermining that, insists in these passages that Jesus is the truly human being. And his regular point, in line with the biblical democratization of the davidic promise, is that Jesus, as Messiah, shares this role with all his people. Verse 29: We are to be conformed to the image of the son, “so that he might be the firstborn of a large family.” Psalm 8 picks up Genesis 1 and 2, insisting that the human vocation remains on the agenda, even though it wasn’t clear — until the coming of the gospel — how it would all work out.
Adapted from Into the Heart of Romans: A Deep Dive Into Paul’s Greatest Letter by N.T. Wright. Copyright © 2023 by Zondervan Publishing. Used by permission of Zondervan.