Christ did not exalt himself. Both culturally and theologically, these can be surprising words to encounter in Hebrews 5:5. So also with Jesus’s own confession in John 8:50: “I do not seek my own glory.”
Culturally, we live at a time in which self-exaltation, self-promotion, and self-advocacy are increasingly cast in terms of virtue rather than vice. We expect self-exaltation, and even commend it. Assert yourself. Speak up for yourself. Put yourself forward. Yet one of Jesus’s most repeated teachings, increasingly at odds with our age, confronts our modern lifting up of self: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11; also Matthew 23:12; Luke 18:14).
Theologically, we have our questions as well. Many of us have come to learn, rightly, from the Scriptures, that God is the one being in all the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest of virtues. But what does this mean for the man Christ Jesus as we see and hear him in the Gospels? He is both fully God and fully man. Did he seek his own glory — as is good and right and loving for God? If so, what do we make of the plain words in Hebrews and John that he did not?
Who Glorifies Whom?
In Scripture, to glorify, or exalt, or lift up, is sacred action and language. God made us to image him, to reflect and reveal him in the world, that he might be glorified and exalted. Before addressing the question of what it meant for Christ, as man, though God, to not seek his own glory, it may help to rehearse Scripture’s plain and repeated teaching about the pursuit of glory and exaltation.
God exalts God.
That God righteously (and lovingly) exalts himself is not Scripture’s most frequent teaching about the act of exalting, but it is plain and repeated — and theologically foundational.
It is no flaw, but indeed the highest of virtues, that God says, through the psalmist, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10). So too it is no flaw, but indeed virtue, for the psalmist to say to God, as rationale for his praise, “You have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Psalm 138:2). In his name and through his word, God has revealed himself, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness toward his people.
“God exalts God, and his people exalt him, and he exalts them, but his people do not exalt themselves.”
God’s self-exaltation comes not at the expense of his people’s joy, but in the service of their joy. As Isaiah says, “He exalts himself to show mercy to you” (Isaiah 30:18). When God moves to glorify himself — “Now I will lift myself up; now I will be exalted” (Isaiah 33:10) — rightly do his enemies cower, while his people rejoice. So too, in the Gospels, when Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name,” a righteous and loving voice comes from heaven in response: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12:28).
God’s people exalt God.
Then, without surprise, and with the greatest scriptural frequency, God’s people exalt him. This is the very heart and essence of our creation in his image: to glorify him, make him known, exalt him in the world. When humans exalt, or when humans glorify, God is to be the object of the sacred action.
Rescued from Egypt and the Red Sea, Moses and the people sing in celebration, “This is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exodus 15:2). We come to the bottom of our nature and calling as humans when we say with the prophet, “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you” (Isaiah 25:1), and repeat with the psalmist, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3).
Jesus himself captured this profound calling in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” The impression on Peter and the disciples was indelible. Among dozens of other instances of exalting or glorifying God in the New Testament, Peter echoed this basic human calling, now made Christian: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that . . . they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12; also 4:11, 16).
God exalts his people.
Sometimes those who have rehearsed the first two truths most can struggle with the third: God exalts his people. Not only are his chosen people predestined to Christlikeness, called, and justified, but they also are glorified (Romans 8:29–30). The Scriptures make stunning promises — almost too good to be true — about how God will glorify his people: being pleased with us, making us heirs with Christ of everything (Romans 8:16–17), serving us at table (Luke 12:37), appointing us to judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), ascribing value to us and rejoicing over us (Zephaniah 3:17), and (perhaps most shocking of all) granting us to sit with Christ on his throne (Revelation 3:21).
In the Old Testament, God moved to glorify or exalt the leader of his people. First, Moses; then, Joshua: “The Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life” (Joshua 4:14; also 3:7). Then markedly so with David, as king, as he knew full well (2 Samuel 5:12; 22:49; 1 Chronicles 25:5). But not just prophets, leaders, and kings. To all his chosen people, he said, “Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land” (Psalm 37:34).
God’s exalting of his people is likewise explicit in one of Jesus’s most repeated statements, as we’ve seen: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12; also Luke 14:11; 18:14). And it’s applied particularly to Christians in James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6: humble yourselves before God, and he will exalt you.
God’s people do not exalt themselves.
At this point, however, the symmetry breaks down. Scripture here is gloriously asymmetrical, we might say: God exalts God, and his people exalt him, and he exalts them, but his people do not exalt themselves. Just as in the sacred language of exaltation, God is to be the object of human glorifying, so God, not man, is to be the actor when his people are glorified.
“Biblically, the path of human self-exaltation is a trail of tears and tragedy.”
Biblically, the path of human self-exaltation is a trail of tears and tragedy. Pharaoh, who oppresses God’s people as almost the serpent incarnate, is first to be tagged: “You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go” (Exodus 9:17). Centuries later, the ancient head reared when David’s son Adonijah “exalted himself, saying, ‘I will be king’” (1 Kings 1:5), and rebelled not only against his own father, but against God.
Psalm 66:7 identifies “the rebellious” as those who “exalt themselves.” Proverbs 30:32 identifies “exalting yourself” with folly. Self-exaltation may feel attractive, and safe, in the moment, but God’s humbling hand will come in time.
The vision of Daniel 11 shows that the rebellion and folly of human self-exaltation is no small flaw or misstep. It is the spirit of antichrist. “The king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods” (Daniel 11:36). Paul too sees self-exaltation as the calling card of “the man of lawlessness” to come: “[The day of the Lord] will not come unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship” (2 Thessalonians 2:3–4).
Human self-exaltation is the spirit of antichrist. Meanwhile, human self-humbling, according to Paul, is the spirit of Christ: “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Which brings us back to the question, Did Jesus glorify himself or not?
Did Jesus Exalt Himself?
The question about Christ’s self-exaltation is more challenging than what we’ve seen so far. Scripture is plain that divine self-exaltation and human God-exaltation are righteous, as is divine man-exaltation, while human self-exaltation is folly, rebellion, and even the very spirit of antichrist. Yet with Christ, we come to the unique and spectacular man who is also God, and the one person of the Godhead who is also man.
The Gospel of John in particular captures the marvelous complexities of the relationship between the man Christ Jesus, who is God, and his Father in heaven.
First, Jesus glorified God. As man, he gave his human life, from beginning to end, to the human calling, common to us all, to exalt God with our lives and words. “I glorified you on earth,” Jesus says to the Father on the night before he died (John 17:4).
Second, God glorified Jesus. The clear refrain as to who acted to glorify Jesus is God, both Father and Spirit. As Jesus says, “It is my Father who glorifies me” (John 8:54; also 13:32), and of the Spirit, “He will glorify me” (John 16:14). So too the book of Acts says it was “the God of our fathers” who “glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13). “God exalted him at his right hand” (Acts 5:31).
Third, God was glorified in Jesus. The glory of God and the glory of Christ are not competing but complementary glories (John 11:4). When Jesus is glorified, “God is glorified in him” (John 13:31). And Jesus tells his disciples to pray “in my name . . . that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).
Fourth, then, comes the surprisingly human truth about Christ: Jesus did not glorify himself. This is what we saw in Hebrews 5:5 related to his calling as our great high priest: “Christ did not exalt [literally, glorify] himself to be made a high priest.” And this is what we heard from Jesus’s own mouth in John 8:50: “I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge.” He explains more in John 8:54: “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me.”
Fifth, and finally, comes the surprisingly divine prayer of Jesus to his Father on the night before he died: Jesus asked to be glorified, to the glory of the Father.
Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you. . . . Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:1, 5)
This is perhaps the place, on the eve of the cross, where Jesus’s pursuit of the Father’s glory seems most distinct from ours. Yet even here, in asking for glory, he is strikingly human. Here, in human words, with his fully human mouth and soul, he asks of his Father, rather than grasping or self-exalting, and he waits in faith. And his pursuit is Godward. He does not posture to “receive glory from people” (John 5:41; also Matthew 6:2) but seeks “the glory that comes from the only God” (John 5:44). And he aligns his Father’s coming exaltation of him with his human exaltation of his Father: “. . . that the Son may glorify you.”
God Highly Exalted Him
What, then, do we learn from Christ, both theologically and ethically, in our milieu increasingly at home with human self-exaltation and confused by self-humbling?
“Christ, as man, did not exalt himself. How clear, then, is our calling and path as humans and Christians?”
First, oh what wonders await us in the unique and spectacular person who is Jesus Christ — the one man who is God, and the one divine person who became man. As Paul writes, with awe, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Which means we will need to beware of pigeonholing or of simplistic questions about Jesus. Who glorified Christ? Answer: God did — Father, Spirit, and Son. Christ, with regard to his humanity, did not (and does not) glorify himself; he is not guilty of human self-exaltation. And Christ, as God, the eternal second person of the Trinity, did (and does) indeed, without doubt, hesitation, or apology — and with the infinite energy and power of the Godhead — glorify himself. Christ, as man, did not exalt himself, even as he did as God.
As for ethics, and our lives as humans in these last days, we see afresh the folly, and rebellion, and even anti-Christian spirit of human self-exaltation. Even Christ, as man, did not exalt himself. How clear, then, is our calling and path as humans and Christians?
We were made, and we have been redeemed, for self-humbling, in service of God-exaltation. And there is great joy in this Christ-modeled pattern — perhaps we could even say “increasingly great joy” in a day when self-humbling might seem increasingly rare.
For Christians, as it was for Christ himself in human flesh, our being glorified, exalted, lifted up by God is not the problem, but our self-glorifying, our self-exalting, is the problem. God made us to be recipients of glory and honor from him, on his terms, not self-glorifiers and self-exalters on ours. And for those who humble themselves before him, he will indeed, without fail — in his “proper time,” not ours (1 Peter 5:6) — exalt them, even as he did for his own Son Christ (Philippians 2:9).