Mystery marks this transfiguration scene. Jesus is transfigured.
Jesus is transfigured. Moses and Elijah appear and then strangely disappear. Peter is perplexed. James and John are anonymous. God quotes Godself. The disciples are overcome with awe. Jesus tells them to say nothing about what has happened! Mystery and divine presence are pervasive.
The scene unfolds in three movements. The first, Matthew 17:1-4, highlights Jesus’ transfiguration. In the second, 17:5, God speaks. In the third, 17:6-9, the disciples respond. The setting on a mountain suggests something significant will unfold (compare to Matthew 4:8; 5:1; 14:23; 15:29-38). The presence of three disciples indicates continuity with the previous, important scene of Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 16:21-28).
Jesus’ transfiguration employs two conventional motifs of encounters with and revelations of glorious divine power and presence, namely a shining face and white clothing (Matthew 17:2). Moses descends from Mt Sinai with a shining face (Exodus 34:29). Heavenly beings wear white clothing (Daniel 7:9; Mark 16:5). And the vindicated righteous will “shine like the sun” (Matthew 13:43) and wear white robes (Revelation 7:9).
Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus. Both encountered God on Mt Sinai/Horeb in circumstances of dangerous kings and rejection (Exodus 34, Pharaoh; 1 Kings 19, Ahab). Both were significant figures in revealing God’s will in the law (Moses) and as a prophetic leader (Elijah). Jesus’ association with them emphasizes his similar tasks and identity: to confront Rome’s oppressive rule, reveal God’s will, experience rejection, and be vindicated by God (Matthew 16:21).
Peter boldly takes the initiative (Matthew 17:4). He informs Jesus that it is good for the three disciples to be present — though without explaining why. He then offers to build three booths, again without explanation. The term “booths” evokes places of divine encounter in the Exodus story: the tent of meeting (Exodus 33:7-10) and the tabernacle for the ark of the covenant (Exodus 40:2, 17-22).
God Talks Peter Down
Peter’s offer, though, comes to naught (Matthew 17:5). For the second time in the Gospel, previously in Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:16-17), God speaks directly. God’s presence is signaled by the “bright cloud,” a common symbol of divine presence (Exodus 19:9; Ezekiel 1:4), The verb “overshadowed” recalls the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:35) and the exodus through the sea (Wisdom 19:7).
God speaks from the cloud and repeats the declaration from Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17). God again announces Jesus’ identity as God’s son or agent. The term “son” designates Israel (Hosea 11:1), kings (Psalm 2:7, “my son”), and the wise person (Wisdom 2:10-20) as agents in special relationship with God to do God’s will. Israel is called into covenant relationship to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6). Kings are called to represent God’s rule (Psalm 72). The wise person lives righteously according to God’s leading and opposed by enemies. God declares Jesus to be this agent, this son.
Such a claim imitates and contests. The term “son of God” commonly designated Roman emperors, both the adopted and the natural born. Augustus was the adopted son of the deified Julius Caesar. Other first-century emperors — Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian — were designated sons of gods. The term recognizes their roles as agents of the gods. They embodied exalted status and great power. They imitated the gods and enacted beneficial rule on their behalf. So, to call Jesus God’s son defines him as having similar roles and sets him in contestive and imitative relation to imperial claims.
God again expresses love for Jesus and announces that God has “chosen” him. This is a better translation than “well pleased.” The verb expresses choice in passages such as Psalm 68:16; 1 Maccabees 10:47, 14:41. Its use here highlights Jesus’ God-chosen identity and destiny, as does the divine plea: “listen to him.”
What Has Jesus Said?
What is revealed in this revelation of Jesus’ glory? This divine appeal to listen to Jesus urges attention to what Jesus has just announced about his destiny and about the destiny of disciples in the previous scene (Matthew 16:21-28). God has confirmed the disciples’ confession of Jesus as Son of God (Matthew 14:33; 16:16). God has also confirmed Jesus’ announcement of what he must do as God’s agent. He must go to Jerusalem, the center of power for the Rome-allied Jerusalem elite. He will confront these rulers. They will kill him. On the third day, God will raise him (Matthew 16:21).
Moreover, Jesus has announced he will return in glory as the Son of Man to establish God’s empire (Matthew 16:27). He evokes the figure from Daniel 7 to whom God commits everlasting “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14). This return is imminent, “Some standing here will not taste death before they see … ” (Matthew 16:28)
The divine appeal to listen to Jesus also confirms Jesus’ declaration about the implications of his destiny for disciples. Peter had resisted Jesus’ teaching about his crucifixion (Matthew 16:22-23), but Jesus had gone on to outline that disciples too walk the way of the cross if they are to share in Jesus’ glory (Matthew 16:24-25).
This transfiguration passage functions, then, in part as a plot summary in anticipating these events in Jerusalem. It also sets out a theological scheme that sanctions Jesus’ crucifixion and eschatological return in glory to establish God’s empire in God’s purposes. Moreover, it provides divine sanction for Jesus’ tough teaching for disciples. The pressure is on his followers to be faithful in challenging circumstances.
The three disciples respond by falling to the ground, an appropriate response to divine presence (like the magi, Matthew 2:11). Their “fear” also appropriately highlights the divine presence that pervades the scene (compare 1:20; 9:8; 14:27). Jesus provides reassurance and Moses and Elijah mysteriously disappear (Matthew 17:8).
Jesus orders the disciples’ silence until after the resurrection (Matthew 17:9). The command focuses attention on the disciples’ need first to understand Jesus’ multi-faceted destiny. Then they can proclaim it. Jesus’ resurrection will confirm the reliability of his declaration in 16:21 and of God’s sanctioning presence here. Such confirmation could encourage followers in walking the way of the cross.
What goes up, must come down.
The talk this week in the lectionary readings is about mountaintops — Moses on Mt Sinai, Jesus on a high mountain. A few years ago, I traveled with a group of seminarians to Israel and Palestine on a spiritual pilgrimage. The first day and half of the trip were spent along the Israeli coast admiring Caesar’s building programs. The group of seminarians was tolerating all these sites well, but I could tell that many of them were growing concerned that we had not yet seen any sites connected to Jesus.
Then, on that second afternoon we drove east finally toward the Galilee area and took our bus up a high mountain, Mount Arbel. After a short hike on foot to the very top of this mountain, we all froze suddenly in our tracks. There on the horizon was our first glimpse of the waters of the Sea of Galilee; there was Capernaum and the Mount of Beatitudes. Before us all were the very places where Jesus taught and healed. It was a profound spiritual experience for all of us; we had been preparing and reading for months about the Holy Land and now, in a moment, atop a mountain, it became alive.
Eventually we had to walk away and board our bus, of course, to come down the mountain to find our lodging along the sea. But our group remembered often our experience on Mount Arbel. Our collective silence and the sense of awe that filled each of us on that mountain were truly transformative for the group’s sense of community. It was a defining moment of the trip. But it was only one moment and didn’t last forever.
What goes up, must come down. The mountaintop experience is only one part of the story.
Moses knows something about mountaintop experiences. As the leader of the Israelites he is called up to Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law. Out there in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a great cloud for 6 days in the mountains, Moses saw the appearance of the glory of God. Devouring fire is how Exodus portrays the event.
Moses stays on the mountain for 40 days. It must have been a life-changing experience for this one who was so unsure of himself at his earlier call. The one who had brought his people up out of Egypt with God’s protection and provision, this one now finds himself atop a mountain, communing with God. Learning about God’s guidelines for the people.
But Moses can’t spend his whole life on a mountaintop. The people need him to lead them down below. They are, after all, in the wilderness! Moses must lead the Israelites onward to the Promised Land. No matter how important to Moses and to the Israelites Mt Sinai is, the place where God’s people receive the commandments. Mt Sinai is not the destination, the final stop. It is only one stop on the journey.
What goes up, must come down. The mountaintop experience is only one part of the story.
Jesus also knows a thing or two about mountains. For several weeks now we have heard some of his teachings as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. And today we find Jesus going up another mountain, a high mountain, with three of his disciples.
The Gospel of Matthew does not spend too much time on what exactly happened to Jesus on the top of this mountain. He was “transfigured”. The Greek word there is where we get our biological term, metamorphosis. Jesus metamorphized; he changed form. And if a dazzling white figure is not enough of a spiritual event for Jesus and his disciples, Moses and Elijah appear as well. Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the representative of the prophets.
The whole event is so overwhelming for excited Peter that he opens his mouth, as he so often does, to blurt out the obvious, “It is good that we are here.” And to speak the unnecessary, “I will build a dwelling for each of you three.” Peter seems to want to stick around for a while, get comfortable, settle in, and have a nice talk with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. What an emotional and spiritual experience for those disciples!
Then, the last verse of the Matthew passage, rather calmly states that they went down the mountain. That Jesus and his three disciples eventually picked up their belongings and headed along to their next destination. They do not end up in dwellings with Elijah and Moses hanging around. Peter’s impulse to try to stay on the mountain ends up not being the right one.
Every mountaintop experience has this element of the story, the part where the people come down from the mountain and move forward with their lives. The part where people acknowledge that, while it is good for us to be on the mountain, it is also good for us not to stay, it is good to move on to other terrain, to the valleys and plains of life and perhaps to other mountains.
The spiritual life is one of mountains and hills and valleys and plains.
We may have moments in our lives of spiritual clarity where we sense God in a particularly powerful way. We may have moments when it doesn’t seem like life can get any better. But we should not expect our lives as followers of Jesus to always contain such clarity. For every mountaintop experience, we should also expect to return to normal moments, moments that are still important but do not contain the flashy lights and sounds.
What goes up, must come down. The mountaintop experience is only part of the story.
Transfiguration is a Sunday that suffers considerable theological confusion.
It’s the same confusion we suffer every Sunday, but the story of Jesus’ shining (joined by Moses and Elijah) trains the brilliant light of God on the mix-up like the sun through a magnifying glass, and our preaching and worship assumptions go up in flames. We think the Bible is about us, and to the listener, a good sermon is about me, my faith, my serving, my doubts, my hope.
But the Bible is primarily about God, and sermons should primarily be about God. Psalm 2 isn’t about us at all. Superficially Psalm 2 is a “royal Psalm,” extolling the grandeur of Israel’s sitting king. But that king is only a surrogate for the true king, Yahweh. Before this Divine Monarch, just as before the transfigured Christ, our response is “fear and trembling,” and perhaps “kissing his feet” (Psalm 2:11). The sermon’s takeaway is a long, breathless sigh, and we stammer trying to make sense of how great God really is.
Mind you, if we “get” the greatness of this God, there is a benefit for us. Psalm 2 ends with the very word that begins Psalm 1: ashre, “blessed.” This dual opening to the Psalter suggests that when we praise Yahweh, we are blessed. The blessing, in fact, is the being lost in wonder, love and praise — or as Psalm 73:28 puts it, “For me it is good to be near God.” Praise isn’t productive or useful. We waste time, awed by God.
There is joy in this being awed. Psalm 2:4 envisions God looking down on the plotting, machinations, strategies and pomp of even the world’s most fabulous rulers, maybe Rameses or Hammurabi or Tiglath-Pileser or Nebuchadnezzar — and while everyone on earth shivers in terror, God laughs. God’s laugh has a hint of mocking, but it’s more delight, the calm giggle that is unfazed, non-anxious, sure of victory. And so we have good cause to be calm, non-anxious, and even joyful in the teeth of danger.
Of course, there’s some wry, quixotic humor in this kind of assertion. Robert Alter says that Psalm 2’s cocky talk about God’s overwhelming might, and how his surrogate king will smash the other potentates, is a “geo-theological paradox.” Jerusalem was a modest town on a more modest hill, the fledgling capital of an even more modest nation, just barely noteworthy in the annals of history — at least those penned by the big guys. The titanic victories sung about in the Psalm never happened, at least not on the stage of history. Yahweh rules?
Of course, we can view Psalm 2 from the wide-lens perspective of the entire canon, and understand that Jesus was the victim of the powers “taking counsel together against the Lord and his anointed,” and that it was the mocked and crucified Jesus who “burst the bonds asunder,” the shackles of the grave itself. But even if we say Jesus is the king who reigns, we still have to admit that all the victorious crushing of foes has never happened. To this day, evil roams unchecked, God is mocked all day, every day, and the Church increasingly is a joke on planet earth.
So how do those who praise make sense of the Psalm, and every claim of the Bible? We can parse it eschatologically: things are bad now, but in the end God will right all wrongs and restore God’s kingdom. Clint McCann, in his excellent Psalms commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible, points to Flannery O’Connor’s “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” — in which a mother laments that her son won’t take over the family farm after her husband’s stroke. Instead he reads “irrelevant books.” One day she picked one up — and it fell open to a letter from St. Jerome to Heliodorus, something about battle trumpets, a great General marching to conquer the world. Her son, instead of taking on the farm, was reading about King Jesus coming to conquer the world.
Or we can detect a hidden, subterranean plot unfolding even now — perhaps like Augustine’s dual, dueling cities, the apparent march of history rumbling along, but then God’s mysterious but certain work unfolding just as surely, even if not right out in the open. Or we can more simply but frustratingly say that God just has a different way of ruling. Jesus ruled the nations when he washed feet, when he touched lepers, when he went off to a lonely place to pray, when he stood silent before Pilate.
We cannot be sure how to read the Psalm, and that is perhaps as God would have it. We simply read. We ponder. We are amazed. We wonder. Much like that day of the Transfiguration. There were no tasks, no to-do-lists, no goals, strategies and metrics, no doing right or wrong, no being right or wrong. Jesus was glowing. The temple, where Psalm 2 was recited, sung, trumpeted, shouted perhaps, was like some kind of chamber with atomic rays (as Amos Wilder once put it). Ours is to read, listen, tremble, hope, wait, forgetting to check what time it is, or even that there’s a smart phone in my pocket. We listen for the laugh from God’s throne. Then all we can do is shake our heads, and smile.
The Revised Common Lectionary provides only two chances to preach from 2 Peter.
This passage presents the preacher with intriguing opportunities to reflect on the meaning of the Transfiguration story, particularly with regard to how God continues to communicate in the world.
This text is intended to counteract the claim being made by some that the promise of Jesus’ return was invented by the apostles. Opponents of the author may have been claiming that the apostles made up the story of Jesus’ return to instill fear and thus control behavior. This was a common critique made by Greek and Roman philosophers about the ancient myths regarding the gods. There is a stream of New Testament scholarship which has made a similar claim, suggesting that a historically non-apocalyptic Jesus was followed by a church which composed an apocalyptic message to shore up the authority of its early leaders.
Regardless of whether we find that suggestion persuasive either historically or theologically, this text will raise questions about the apocalyptic claims of Scripture and the church. What do we do with the promise of Jesus’ final coming when the world continues to roll on for so long without any obvious divine disruption? Have we simply been misled, and our hope merely a “cleverly devised myth” (verse 16)? An honest look at the daily events in the world might draw us toward that conclusion.
In response, the author summarizes the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, claiming the role of an eyewitness. The author introduces the Transfiguration as an event with which the readers will be familiar; this is a story that the church has been telling for a very long time, and so it needs no introduction. It does, however, need interpretation. Perhaps what is most significant in the author’s brief summary is the lack of attention given to the visible aspects of the event.
Despite claiming to be an “eyewitness,” nothing is said here about what was seen. There is no attention paid to those visible aspects that are so striking in the Gospel accounts: Jesus’ shining face, his dazzling clothing, Moses and Elijah standing with him, the overshadowing cloud. Instead, the focus is squarely on what was heard. God’s glory was given to Jesus not by Jesus’ appearance being changed (“transfigured”), but rather by what God declares about Jesus.
The words from heaven do not differ significantly from what we hear in Matthew’s Transfiguration story. It is worth noticing, however, that 2 Peter describes the location as being “on the holy mountain” (verse 18). While that could simply mean that the church had begun to think of the place, whichever hill it might have been, as “holy” because of this event, the phrase has deeper scriptural resonances.
“The holy mountain” is a common description of Zion, the holy hill of Jerusalem, as the place which God chose for God’s own presence and for God’s royal rule through the anointed king. It is not accidental, then, that the words from heaven include an allusion to Psalm 2, a coronation psalm for Israel’s king. By focusing on these words and setting aside the visual elements of the familiar story, the author of 2 Peter directs the readers to Jesus’ identity as the one who rules in God’s name.
Here, the Transfiguration is not directly about Jesus’ identity in terms of a divine nature (as might be concluded from the more visual aspects of the story), but about the role given to Jesus by God as the eschatological ruler. Here, the Transfiguration is not a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection, as has often been suggested in study of the Gospels’ Transfiguration stories. Rather, 2 Peter highlights Christ’s role as God’s promised ruler for the world (see also Matthew 16:28, which leads readers into the account of the Transfiguration with similar expectations in mind by referring to “the Son of Humanity coming in his kingdom”). The honor, glory, and love declared about Jesus at the Transfiguration prefigures what he will bring for the world when he comes. It is in that confident hope that the church continues to live.
The “prophetic message” referred to in verse 19 is probably not a reference to a specific passage or even to prophetic material in a strict sense, but rather to all of Scripture. The claim here is that the apostles based their proclamation on Scripture (as faithful preaching still does!), and not only on their own experience. The text’s movement from recalling the Transfiguration to claiming that the Scripture is now “more fully confirmed” could be taken as a basis for seeking certain experiences or historical events which would “prove” the truth of Scripture. That would be a misunderstanding of 2 Peter’s argument.
Instead, Scripture as a whole points us not to proofs and signs, but to Jesus himself as God’s coming King, as God’s promise for the world. The author claims that this way of hearing Scripture coheres with the apostles’ own experience, but its truth does not depend on that experience. We ourselves probably won’t hear voices booming from heaven, but our proclamation too is rooted in the conjunction between Scripture’s witness and what we have experienced: in the Word proclaimed, and in mercy received, and in God’s glory glimpsed in the midst of community and service to our neighbors.
God’s speech is the focus in the first part of this passage. At the end, the author returns to consider again how God has spoken, this time as the Spirit moved the writers of Scripture. From beginning to end, then, this is a text centered on the claim that God addresses us, first in Jesus, and then in Scripture read and proclaimed as pointing to Jesus. Isn’t that what we still hope, and in our more courageous moments even believe? In preaching the gospel, in speaking for justice, in words of comfort and love and shared pain, we too are being carried along by the Spirit, not into our own private, idiosyncratic viewpoints, but into the dawning light of God for the world.