In John 17, Jesus promises to share the Father’s glory (that he too possesses) with his disciples. He prays, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22).
What does this mean? And to complicate things, how does this fit with Isaiah 42:8 which reads, “my glory I give to no other”?
The answer requires paying close attention to the argument of John, the order of redemptive history, and reflecting theologically on the meaning of both. I argue that “glory” in John 17 means “Holy Spirit.”
To make this argument, I will outline, augment, and strengthen Gregory of Nyssa’s (335–395) argument for this position in his letter: “On ‘Then Also the Son Himself Will Be Subjected to the One Who Subjected All things to Him.’”
1. Christ Gives the Holy Spirit to His Disciples
When Jesus is glorified, he will share that same glorification with us. John clarifies Jesus’ words about living waters by explaining: “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39).
The order here is important. Believers will receive the Holy Spirit after Jesus is glorified. The connection between Spirit and glory here seems strong. After his resurrection, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22; Gregory, “Be Subjected” §21). After this precursor of the gift, the full gifting of the Spirit occurs during Pentecost (Acts 2).
The language of “give” and “receive” concerning the Holy Spirit in John correlate well with Jesus’ statements in this Gospel. There he prays that God would “glorify me” with glory that he had in the presence of God in eternity past (John 17:5).
He also prays that after he receives the glory that this same glory would be given to the disciples: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them” (John 17:22). The perfect tense here (“have given”) serves to mark these words linguistically as salient and to indicate the completeness or surety of the gift.
2. Christ Claims the Glory Pre-Existed And Only God Preexists
Gregory rightly affirms that nothing existed before the foundation of the world except the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Gregory, “Be Subjected” §21). Yet Christ says that the glory existed before the world’s foundation (John 17:5). Glory cannot exist outside of God, or else it would be a second thing.
God alone preexists and this characteristic shows him to be God. Another eternal thing would equal God in its eternal nature. But that cannot be true since God alone is eternal. He “alone is immortal” (1 Tim 6:16).
If only God pre-existed, then it follows that glory would refer to either Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Since the Son prays to the Father in John 17, the only other referent could be the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is “Glory.”
3. Christ’s Prays for the Spiritual Unity of Believers—Something the Spirit Accomplishes
Lastly, Jesus prays in John 17 for the disciples to be united as Christ is to the Father; but that can only happen by means of the Holy Spirit who spiritually unites us (Gregory, “Be Subjected” §21).
It is worth quoting Jesus again to see the connection between the gift of glory and the unity with the triune God:
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me (John 17:22–23).
During the same evening of the prayer in John 17, the Lord told his disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit as another Helper who would testify about Jesus (John 14–16). According to John, then, the Spirit becomes the means by which Christ remains present with his disciples while he bodily ascends to heaven.
Put simply, Christ remains present Spiritually through the Spirit’s work of uniting believers to Christ. Paul straightforwardly claims, “But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Cor 6:17). Elsewhere in the same letter, Paul writes, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13).
The Spiritual unity of Christ’s body fits well with the idea of Glory being a name for the Spirit.
4. The Luminous Glory in the Old Testament Refers to the Holy Spirit
While Gregory does not make this argument, I do think it strengthens his case to argue that the glory of God in the Old Testament can refer to the Holy Spirit. D. A. Carson explains, “Glory commonly refers to the manifestation of God’s character or person in a revelatory context” (John 569). Since the triune God works inseparably, glorious manifestations of God’s presence involve the three.
Yet Paul associates glory with both the Spirit’s operation and Christ’s face in 2 Corinthians. For example, he writes, “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 Cor 3:18).
He continues by locating “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). When God speaks “let there be light” in our hearts, we gain the knowledge of the glory of God by the Holy Spirit so that we can see the face of Jesus Christ in which God’s glory shines. In short, the triune God works in and through the glorious light of his presence.
And the Spirit uniquely participates in the illumination of God in Christ’s face through which we come to know the Father.
These associations further the case that Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit by the name of Glory.
5. Christ Shares His Glory because the New Covenant Entails That the Spirit Dwells within the Body of Christ
In the Old Covenant, God’s glory appeared in the tabernacle. The glory temporally transferred to Moses when he saw it. In light of this, Moses would cover his face until the glory faded (Exod 34:29–35). Glory then associates with God’s presence and temporarily lay upon servants of God.
Eli’s daughter-in-law claimed, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured” (1 Sam 4:22). The ark lay in the tabernacle and God’s glory, that is, his luminous presence appeared on top of the ark. If the ark goes, so does God’s presence.
So God’s presence in the glory had a temporary and local existence under the Old Covenant. Still, God’s luminous presence made up a key hope in Israel’s faith (Num 6:24–26).
In like manner, the Spirit specially laid upon people for unique tasks (Exod 31:3). It seems that his presence, therefore, was temporary. And the threat of the Spirit’s absence was real (Ps 51:11).
Glory, presence, and Spirit overlap conceptually in the Old Testament. Yet none of these names or notions have perpetual applications.
That changes with the New Covenant. Jesus sums up the key difference by saying that the Spirit remains “with you” but “will be in you” (John 14:17). The Spirit abided with believers but after the ascension and the Spirit’s bestowal, he started to abide in believers (cf. Gal 3:14).
Jesus shows us this through his incarnation. He lived by the Spirit, receiving it as his baptism. He then lived a perfect life and at the cross fulfilled his glorious mission: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1).
The mutual glorification (as a verb: “to glory”) refers to the cross as God’s unique work of glory. Yet it appropriately does so since the Spirit (if we grant that Glory is a name for Spirit) exists as the bond of love between Father and Son.
Because of the cross and ascension, Jesus bestows the Spirit upon us making us one “body” through the incarnate body of Christ. By Spiritual union with Christ, we partake of his divine gifts. We imitate his body in baptism and in life (e.g., Rom 6).
In this sense, God does not share his glory with some second thing. He shares his glory with Christ who naturally has this glory according to divinity but who also attains it according to his humanity. Through faith, we too will be glorified in Christ (e.g., 2 Thess 1:12; Rom 8:30).
The miraculous thing is that God does not share his glory with another; but he shares it with us in Christ in whom the fullness of God dwells (Col 1:19).