At the transfiguration Jesus’ fearful disciples watch as he is transformed and shines with heavenly glory.
But what relationship can there be between Jesus’ transfigured glory revealed on this mountain and the suffering he will endure on Golgotha? And what does it mean for the disciples to follow such a leader?
The transfiguration marks the midpoint in a series of scenes that define who Jesus is. At both his baptism and transfiguration the heavenly voice announces that he is God’s son. At his temptation, in Gethsemane, and at his crucifixion, Jesus wrestles with the humiliation, suffering, and abandonment that he, as Son of God, must endure. Finally the resurrected Jesus claims his identity, sending his disciples out to teach and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the scenes leading up to the transfiguration, the disciples worship the Jesus who walks on water as the Son of God (Matthew 14:33), but they cannot yet imagine what it means for Jesus to claim this title. Although Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, he utterly rejects Jesus’ announcement that he will suffer and die. Jesus affirms Peter’s insight but rejects his protest, calling him Satan for tempting the Son of God to define himself by glory but not by suffering. Furthermore, he calls Peter and anyone else who wants to be his disciple to follow him on the road that leads to the cross.
Six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up onto a high mountain. There he is transformed before them. His face shines like the sun, and his clothes become white as light (descriptions unique to Matthew). Moses and Elijah appear and talk to Jesus. As in Mark and Luke, Peter says, “It is good for us to be here,” and suggests building tents for each of the three, but Matthew treats Peter differently here than the other Gospels do: Peter calls Jesus “Lord,” the title that in Matthew indicates faith; he defers to Jesus’ will (“if you wish”); he offers to undertake the construction of tents there alone (“I will build here,” vs. “let us build” in Mark and Luke); and there is no indication at this point that he is afraid or does not know what he is saying (cf. Mark 9:6, Luke 9:33).
Jesus does not respond to the offer, but while Peter is still speaking, a brilliant cloud overshadows them. A voice from the cloud in Matthew 17 echoes the words of the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (NRSV translates Matthew 17:5 and Matthew 3:17 slightly differently, but the wording is identical in Greek). Then the voice adds a command: “listen to him!” At the sound of God’s voice, the disciples collapse in terror.
The whole scene resonates with allusions to the Old Testament. It recalls Elijah’s encounter with God on the holy mountain. It brings to mind the revelation at Mt. Sinai and the cloud of God’s glory overshadowing both the mountain and the tent where Moses met with God. And it evokes Malachi 4, in which God commands the people to remember Moses’ words and says that Elijah will be sent on a mission of restoration before the day of the LORD.
It is no wonder that the disciples are terrified by this theophany. As Malachi says, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:2). Then Jesus approaches his frightened followers, touches them, and tells them not to be afraid. Though they cannot bear to hear God speak from the cloud, they can listen to Jesus. The word of God comes to them now, not as a thunderous voice from heaven or letters written on tablets of stone, but in the words and actions of Jesus. The Son of God speaks to them as one human speaks to another, and they rise and follow him.
On the way down the mountain Jesus tells them once again that the Son of Man must suffer, and he orders them to tell no one about the vision until after he has been raised from the dead. They discuss Elijah’s role in restoring all things, and then Jesus, whose face has shone like the sun, descends into the needy human crowd and immediately heals a demon-possessed child. As Malachi says, “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2).
The story of the transfiguration directs us away from trying to understand Jesus only as he is revealed in glory. It points us down the mountain and invites us to walk with Jesus into the suffering, hungry crowds. The divine voice commands us to listen to Jesus. But listening is more than hearing. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, building on the rock means not only hearing his words, but acting on them (Matthew 7:24). Hearing without obeying leads to catastrophe.
At Gethsemane, when Jesus himself faces the temptation to disobey his Father and abandon the road to the cross, the same three disciples who saw him transfigured wait with him while he grieves and prays. He passes the test, but they do not. He walks steadfastly on to suffering and death, and they desert him and flee. On the cross Jesus shows the world the obedient Son of God in all his suffering humanity, pouring out his blood for the forgiveness of sins. After the resurrection the Son of God appears to the disciples with all his divine authority, calling them to baptize and to teach people to obey his commands. Then he sends them down the mountain and into the world he loves, promising them that he will be with them always. We too are sent; we too must listen and obey. And the promise of his presence is ours as well.
A central theme in the biblical traditions regards the notion of the divine presence.
Biblical writers imagined various ways in which God is present with God’s people. For instance, the Priestly writer spoke of the glory of God being present in terms of a descending cloud and a devouring fire. Elsewhere, God is said to be present in the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 4), in the tent of meeting (Exodus 33), and later in the temple built in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8; Psalm 132. See also the chapter on “The Presence in the Temple” in Samuel Terrien’s book The Elusive Presence that outlines this development).
As Terrien has shown though, this presence of God is elusive. He argues that in the Bible there “exists the dynamic tension between divine self-disclosure and divine self-concealment. The proximity of God creates a memory and an anticipation of certitude, but it always defies human appropriation. The presence remains elusive” (p. 43).
Something of this “elusive presence” is also evident in the Old Testament reading for this Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday. In Exodus 24:12-18 one finds two distinctive perspectives regarding God’s presence that are held in tension: God being near and God’s sovereignty. So this reading is found in the immediate context of the covenant meal that is held in Exodus 24:9-11 in which Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 leaders of the people ate and drink together with God — the communal meal serving the function of celebrating the sealing of the covenant in Exodus 24:3-8. This text is as a powerful witness to God’s commitment to be intimately involved with God’s people.
However, the lectionary text for today is also part of the larger context of Exodus 19-24, in which God is revealed in a display of awesome terror in Exodus 19:6-9 where “thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain and a blast of a trumpet” represent the presence of God causing the people of Israel to tremble.
As we read in Exodus 19:18: “Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.” In Exodus 24:12-18, the multiple references to a cloud and a devouring fire continue the theme of God’s elusive presence.
It is thus important to hold on to both perspectives of God’s sovereignty as well as God’s intimate presence when reading Exodus 24. So the memory of God being intimately present in a type of Eucharistic meal is fresh in the mind. As Brevard Childs proposes: “A new avenue of communication has been opened to his people which is in stark contrast to the burning terror of the theophany in chapter 19” (Childs, The Book of Exodus, p. 507).
It is further significant that only Moses is commanded to proceed up the mountain to be in God’s immediate presence, leaving Aaron and Hur to look after the people. Moses stays in the cloud for 40 days and 40 nights — a very long time. In yet another encounter with the Divine in Exodus 34:29-30, we read how Moses’ “face shone because he had been talking to God.”
We thus see how the encounter with God has a transformative effect on those who find themselves in the presence of God. Moses’ transformative encounter with God underlies the Transfiguration of Jesus according to which it is said in Matthew 17:2 that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” In this New Testament text, Jesus is thus echoing and embodying Moses’ encounter with the divine presence as narrated in Exodus 24.
In the cloud, Moses is said to receive the tablets of stone as well as further instruction that offers an important link between God’s awesome presence that gives rise to worship and covenantal demand. This link between law and worship that is at the heart of the covenantal relationship bestows some important perspectives on both the law, which is to be understood in terms of God’s enduring presence, and on God’s presence which is realized everywhere the law is followed.
Finally, the conversation regarding the divine presence is particularly poignant in those situations in which people have had serious reservations about the presence of God. For instance, during the Holocaust, which without doubt is one of worst periods in human history, many scholars have talked about the absence of God — as indicated by the brackets around God in the title of Zachary Braiterman’s 1998 book, (God) after Auschwitz.
In her 2003 book, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, Melissa Raphael contemplates God’s presence even in the most abhorrent conditions that marked the death camps like Auschwitz. Raphael describes in gruesome detail based upon the women’s memoirs she read for the study about “the gross indignities of bodily degradation;” the diarrhea due to typhus and other ailments; the lack of opportunities and facilities to wash oneself. A theology of presence that places God in the midst of such vile conditions thus offers a serious overturning of the traditional understanding of God turning away from defilement, positing that God is present in midst of “her soiled creation.” As Raphael argues:
God knew Israel’s “unseemliness” but still moved about the camp and did not turn away. Indeed she was like a mother who will not be repelled by her child’s “unseemliness,” but in washing her must come all the closer because of it. (p. 81)
In light of the link between covenantal demand and God’s presence highlighted in terms of Exodus 24, Raphael seeks God’s presence in the stories of ordinary women who through the exceedingly ordinary acts of washing or caring for their own bodies or the bodies of others reflected something of the presence of God. These “simple acts of humanity” had the purpose of restoring the personhood that was seriously imperiled by the dehumanizing acts of the Nazis in the death camps. As she writes: “God is present wherever personhood is honoured” (p. 88).
Psalm 2 makes a striking claim: in the face of terrifying threats, God creates and preserves order through God’s anointed one, a righteous messiah.
The psalm conveys this central theme through a complex polyphonic structure. In fact, the text of Psalm 2 contains no less than three discrete voices: the voice of God, the voice of the rulers of the earth, and the voice of God’s anointed king, who in turn quotes God and speaks directly to all the other rulers of the earth. To understand the discursive nature of the psalm, one must attend carefully to its constituent parts.
The first section (verses 1-3) describes a world in which God has established order through a divinely sponsored king. However, the entire world is currently in an uproar, with the kings of the earth plotting rebellion against God’s rule. By employing the terms “nations” (goyim) and “people” (ummim) in verse 1, the psalm suggests, in fact, that everyone seeks to overthrow God’s order.
The world is rebelling not simply against God, but against God’s anointed one (verse 2b), God’s meshiach — a Hebrew word that comes to us in anglicized form as messiah; its Greek translation christos is preserved in English as Christ. To be anointed, to have costly oil poured over one’s head, signified a change in status. An anointed one was aligned with God in a powerful way in order to perform a special prophetic, priestly, or kingly function. Given that God’s power resided uniquely with the anointed one, it should be no surprise that the fury of the nations is directed at the king as well.
One might expect this sort of universal upheaval to worry God and God’s anointed. Such is not the case, however. The second section of the psalm (verses 4–6) portrays God’s response, and the third section gives the king’s response (verse 7–12) to the chaotic world.
From God’s throne high above in heaven, God laughs then utters a statement of his own. There is one man in one place (“my king on Zion” verse 6) who represents God and confronts the strife of the entire world.
Then this king speaks (verses 7). His words are exactly what one would expect from an ancient Near Eastern monarch. He begins by establishing his authorization to rule by quoting God directly in verses 7–9. The king is the divine son, with all the attending rights and privileges.
Modern Christians typically have a restricted view of what it means to be God’s son, with the term applying solely to Jesus Christ. However, in the ancient world, it was quite common for a king to claim to be the son of God or the son of a particular god. Since a king’s power over his people was absolute, a king sought the highest possible endorsement for his rule. Divine sonship provided just that.
So, for the king in Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) to claim to be Yahweh’s son was completely conventional within its time. In fact, it is likely that every king in Jerusalem made the same claim. Because God says “today I have begotten you,” (verse 7) many interpreters suppose that this psalm originated as a ritual of royal installation, perhaps even a yearly ritual of re-installation for the king in Jerusalem.
It is also completely conventional for an ancient Near Eastern king to describe his military prowess in expansive, even wildly hyperbolic terms. Thus the description of breaking and dashing the enemy to pieces in verse 9 is actually somewhat muted given that the violence in this text is, in fact, potential violence. The king can accomplish this utter domination of the surrounding nations (goyim) if he were to ask God for the victory.
At this point, the psalm manifests some internal tensions about the actual state of the world. Verses 1-3 suggest that the world is already completely under the control of God and God’s anointed. Verses 8-9 imply rather that the world is potentially under the king’s control, though that domination is not currently realized.
In fact, there was never a time in the history of Jerusalem when its king governed a wide ranging empire. The biblical accounts of the reigns of David and Solomon are the closest to affirming the idealized picture of vast geopolitical might. But even in that time, Jerusalem’s reach did not stretch very far into the larger Near East.
Jerusalem certainly never enjoyed anything remotely close to the power of the great empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia. In fact, for most of its history, the kings in Jerusalem were only small players on the larger world scene, usually paying tribute to more powerful rulers. It was the kings in Jerusalem who were more often “kissing the feet” (verse 12) of foreign kings, a sign of submission before a powerful suzerain. The psalm concludes, however, by imagining the real historical situation completely in reverse, with the powerful kings of the earth doing obeisance before Yahweh.
Psalm 2 provides critical background for understanding both what it means and what it meant to recognize Jesus as messiah (i.e., the Christ) and Lord. In Matthew 17:1-9, the gospel reading for this Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the disciples catch a glimpse of the glory and power of the Jesus. Jesus’ special status as king and divine son are suddenly revealed, but only for a moment and only to select few. Given the expectations that attended the office of kingship, Jesus’ true identity as messiah would surely be misinterpreted.
Indeed, throughout the New Testament, the kingship of the Christ defies expectation. Jesus’ power outstrips that of any king, ancient or modern. However it comes not through military might but through emptying himself of power — through suffering, humiliation, despair, even the death of criminal.
When we read Psalm 2 on this particular Sunday, we hear its theme first articulated in its ancient Judean context and then reinterpreted in the New Testament context, in light of the reign of Christ.
In our own time, the message resonates as well. We feel the psalm’s fundamental tension as to whether the world is actually under God’s ultimate control (verses 1-3) or whether God’s order has yet to be realized fully (verses 10-11). Yet we also hear God’s clear response to the chaos and strife that fill the earth. God’s word to the word comes through one man, the anointed king, God’s son: “Blessed are all of those who take refuge in him” (verse 11).
Though the words belong to an ancient letter, they seem so contemporary and modern.
In part that is because of the issue that drives them — it’s about authority, credibility, and trust. “We were not following cleverly reasoned myths…” (2 Peter 1:16).
The words provide clues to a situation of conflict in which both the message and the witness are subject to challenge. We may expect such differences to drive concerns in the public sector and in political debate, but we may not be so ready to expect or acknowledge their presence in faith communities or in the congregations we know and love.
Still it is no kept secret that our religious communities seem to have become more and more used to create conflict and divisions and the fears and discomforts which accompany them. It may be small comfort, but it may be a helpful contribution toward a more hopeful outlook to be reminded that such divisions and conflict were also present in the early church — such as the Christian community to which the second letter of Peter was addressed. When authority is in question, the confidence and hope of a community are in question — then and now. To what resources can one turn? The writer of 2 Peter offers some clues.
Worthy of note is that claims to credibility and authority are not founded first of all by reference to the name of Jesus, though such a claim would not have been unimportant. Attention is directed rather to the name that stands over this whole epistle, the name of a respected and revered apostolic leader, namely Peter.
Though this letter purports to have been written by Peter, that can hardly be the case. As 2 Peter 3:15-16 makes clear, by the time this letter is written, the letters of Paul have already been collected and are circulating in the Christian community as of equal standing with the “other scriptures.”
So, following a practice familiar in other ancient religious writings, an authoritative appeal is made to the name of one who was “there” at the beginning. This Peter had heard the words of Jesus and, where this day of Transfiguration is concerned, was there on the mountain when Jesus was revealed as Messiah and confirmed by the direct address of God. Whoever the writer, the words exhibit confidence that appeal to a revered and trusted leader from the earliest days of Jesus and his disciple community will be of sufficient weight and importance to sway a community at risk.
At the same time the author recognizes that no name, not even that of Peter, will ultimately be enough. Trust ultimately is fostered by and relies upon the word and promise of God. That promise resides in the “power and presence” of the Lord Jesus Christ that witness to the Transfiguration maintains continues to dwell with the faith community (verse 16).
Though most translations construe the word parousia here as “coming” and hence to suggest a reference to the second coming or return of Jesus, the normal root sense of this word is “presence.” Given the context and the clear allusions to the event of the Transfiguration, the word here must rather refer to the authority and power that resides in the affirmation of the “presence” of the Lord Jesus Christ with his disciple community.
In the Transfiguration we celebrate, then and now, the confidence that the authority of God’s word and our hope for the future rest finally not in any intermediary authority, but in the promise of Jesus’ abiding presence with his faithful followers.
That presence of Jesus with each faithful community is continually confirmed by the presence and effectiveness of the “prophetic word.” When Paul includes the gift of “prophecy” among the diverse gifts of the Spirit, he is certainly not referring to the writings or witness of the prophets, but rather to the gift that resides in the ability to “interpret” with clarity and power the authoritative scriptures for a contemporary community (1 Corinthians 12.10).
It is that same gift of faithful interpretation of the scriptures to which the author now points. Now that neither Jesus nor the original apostles are present, either for that early Christian community or for us, it remains all the more important to have confidence that we can trust those who interpret and mediate the scriptures to us for this present day. That was true for the early church, and so it is true for us.
As the matter stands and as the writer’s argument acknowledges, interpretation always places us at risk. Can we trust the one who interprets? Will we get it right? Will we agree? The divisions and conflicts in our churches are not conducive to great confidence or assurance on this score. But the writer offers some direction in the concluding verses of today’s reading (1:20-21).
First, it is important to note that the comments here are not about the “writing” or “writers” of scripture, as frequently they are so taken. The term epilysis at the end of verse 20 is a technical term that refers not to the writing but rather to the task of “unlocking,” “deciphering,” or “explaining “ of a written text, as the translation of “interpretation” has accurately captured. Hence this means that once again (as in verse 19) the reference to “prophecy of scripture” is not to the “writing” but rather to the gift of clearly and accurately “unlocking” and witnessing to the message of scripture.
Experience has taught us to be appropriately on guard, to expect that there will always be problems of understanding which some may “twist” or “pervert” to their own ends. There will be disagreements about interpretation as there apparently are in the community to which this letter is addressed (see 2 Peter 3:16). There needs to be some further course of appeal.
That course of appeal lies ultimately for them and for us in the presence, testimony, and power of the Spirit. As for the Johannine community, who heard the promise of the Spirit as the confirmation of the abiding presence of the resurrected Jesus (see John 14-16), so here this community is reminded that the power for hope and confidence in a living witness resides in recognizing that interpretation is not just a matter of individual whim or competency.
We are invited to trust, and indeed that is the promise, that the power and the authority ultimately rests in God. The Spirit continues to move among us. In the Spirit’s presence, the glorified Jesus on the mountain is made present among us, the gift of prophecy for faithful interpreting of the scriptures is continually given, and the appeal of faithful witness is granted a hearing within faithful Christian communities who bear fruit in hopeful endurance and godly affection and love.
The preacher who attends to this lesson may wish to reflect on this risky business of interpretation in which we are constantly engaged as the people of God. There is reason to be confident in the power of God’s word to make present the resurrected and living Lord Jesus.
At the same time, the author’s assertion that “no prophecy of scriptures is a matter of one’s own interpretation” is not an occasion for despair, but an invitation once again to be reminded of the Spirit’s power and presence at work in the faithful witness of the believing community. Martin Luther captures a similar sentiment in his Small Catechism remarks on the Spirit: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel…”