By Ryan Brandt, PhD
College of Theology
April 12, 2018
“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)
“This vision is beatific. It beatifies. It transforms the soul into the divine image; transfusing into it the divine life, so that it is filled with the fullness of God” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3:860)
The beatific vision refers to the final end of Christians in which they see God. It has often been understood as referring to the moment after death when a believer’s soul gazes upon God in the intermediate state. It can also be understood to refer to the glorious moment in which, for the first time and forever, believers gaze upon God in their glorified, bodily state in the New Heavens and Earth. The beatific vision has important constructive use in the present life too. In this blog, I want to share how the beatific vision is relevant to sanctification and then offer an analogy for how this vision changes us.
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul refers to this vision in the present tense and as transformative. It is in the present tense, since Paul understands this vision to take place in the life of a believer in light of the new covenantal framework wherein “the veil is removed” (v. 16). Hence, in the new covenant, we can gaze upon God directly, “with unveiled face” (v. 18). This vision is also transformative: we all, “beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (v. 18). This active, transformational vision is fulfilled in the final, beatific vision upon our death and bodily resurrection: “when [Christ] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Seeing Christ is thus somehow the foundation of being changed like him.
So, how does gazing upon Jesus (through faith now and in full later) transform us? What does “seeing” Jesus have to do with being made like him? Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) gives a particularly apt analogy: gazing upon the splendor of the stars and being changed (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration, 28.29). I personally like this analogy, since astronomy is one of my favorite hobbies.
I love the hobby because it changes you. How? Beauty draws you in and compels you to want to be like it. Regarding astronomy, this could be explained from several angles. For example, good astronomical viewing sometimes requires you to travel to rural places outside the city. The viewing site is extremely dark. Without the moon, you see only the stars and a faint glow of Phoenix. It is also quiet. It is a kind of quiet that you really can’t experience otherwise. You are alone with the stars above. It is anesthetizing and transcendent. Through binoculars it appears that the stars fill every square millimeter. The vision is overwhelming. The higher powered images through the telescope, reflecting greater detail and beauty and wonder, only add to the symphonic experience. There is little to do but take in the experience and recognize who you are in light of the stars and, even more, the surpassing greatness of God himself.
Not surprisingly, reflecting upon the stars was an impetus for David’s infamous realization of humility (Ps 8:3-4). I relate. The power of the astronomy is gazing upon the workmanship of Christ. As such, it reflects him. “Is not God high in the heavens? See the highest stars, how lofty they are!” (Job 22:12). Indeed, as I look up at night, I recall that God “determines the number of the stars”, “gives to all of them their names” (Psalm 147:4), and fixes the “order of the moon and the stars” (Jer 31:35).
The beautiful vision sticks with you. Indeed, we were wired to gaze upon Jesus Christ—the God-man—and be transformed. So, I think, the power of sublime and glorious views here in creation is anticipatory of the final, “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12) gaze with God that we await in our glorified state. This is why Gregory of Nazianzus terminates his oration, not with a discussion of the beauty of the stars (as beautiful as they might be), but rather with a discussion of the Sun, whose radiance conceals “all the rest of the stars by his brightness” and “fills both every eye with light, and every embodied creature with heat; warming, yet not burning, by the gentleness of its temper, and the order of its movement, present to all and equally embracing all” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration, 28.29).
As you may have guessed it, the Sun here for Gregory represents the Son of God himself, the Son who outshines his created world. When we gaze upon beauty we are reminded that we are meant to gaze upon Beauty itself as revealed in the face of the Son through the power of the Spirit. To him be the glory.