Lectionary Commentaries for February 10, 2013
Transfiguration of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 9:28-36 [37-43]

Scott Shauf

The transfiguration of Jesus follows immediately on the scene where Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah (Luke 9:20). 

That scene ends with Jesus’ teaching on the coming glory of God’s kingdom to be experienced by the disciples (9:26-27). The transfiguration scene provides a dramatic confirmation of Peter’s confession and a foretaste of the glory to be experienced when God’s kingdom is fully present.

Jesus’ Identity and Glory

The emphasis throughout the episode is on the dazzling attestation of Jesus’ identity. We are first given the description of his transformed appearance (verse 29). The change in the appearance of his face is reminiscent of Moses’ face becoming radiant upon experiencing the presence of God in Exodus 34:29-35. But the description of the change in Jesus’ clothes distinguishes him from Moses significantly: Jesus’ clothes become “dazzling white,” words Luke uses to describe the appearance of angelic figures in Luke 24:4 and Acts 1:10. Jesus’ transformed appearance is thus not merely because he is experiencing God’s glory (like Moses) but rather because he is the very source of divine glory. The point is made explicit when the three disciples are said to see Jesus’ glory in verse 32.

Jesus, Moses, and Elijah

The appearance of Moses and Elijah in verse 30 adds to the attestation of Jesus’ identity. The two are commonly interpreted as embodying “the Law and the Prophets,” which is no doubt a significant point. The risen Jesus himself will later assert that Moses and the prophets point toward him (Luke 24:25-27, 44-46). Luke tells us in our scene that Moses and Elijah “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (verse 31), surely meant to anticipate Jesus’ teaching that he is the ultimate fulfillment of scripture.

Yet this is not the only significance of Moses and Elijah. That Jesus was the “prophet like Moses” predicted by Moses himself is emphasized throughout Luke and Acts (seen most clearly in Acts 3:22-23, interpreting Deuteronomy 18:15). And Elijah’s appearance was associated with the coming of the day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5). Their appearance thus points to Jesus fulfilling specific prophecies associated with them as well as the more general notion of Jesus as the fulfillment of all of scripture.

The Voice and Presence of God

The most dramatic attestation of Jesus’ identity comes with the voice of God in verse 35. The basic message echoes the divine words spoken at Jesus’ baptism (3:22), but there are notable differences:

  • The message at Jesus’ baptism was spoken directly to Jesus (“You are my son”), but here the message is for the disciples’ ears (“This is my son”).
  • At the baptism the adjective describing Jesus’ sonship was “beloved” — again, a message directed at Jesus — but here it is “chosen,” further describing Jesus’ relationship to God from the disciples’ perspective.
  • The message of Jesus’ sonship here is given an imperative implication: “Listen to him!” Jesus’ sonship is not a matter of abstract theology but requires the obedient response of the disciples to Jesus’ message. Jesus’ most recent teaching emphasized the costly demands made on those who would follow him, i.e. denying themselves and taking up their cross (verse 23), and that is surely the primary message meant to be listened to and obeyed here.
  • Whereas the voice at the baptism came “from heaven,” here it comes from the very cloud in which the disciples are already enveloped. This suggests a rather intense experience of God’s close presence! It also is again reminiscent of Moses’ own experience of God’s presence at Sinai (see Exodus 24:15-18), the most formative revelation of God in the history of Israel.

The Experience of God in Prayer

One of the significant details of the story that is unique to Luke’s account of the transfiguration is that it occurs in the context of prayer. Neither Matthew nor Mark mentions that Jesus had gone up on the mountain specifically to pray (verse 28), and neither mentions that Jesus was praying when the transfiguration occurs (verse 29). It is clearly a point that Luke wants us to note.

Prayer is, in fact, a significant theme throughout Luke’s writings. Luke is the only Gospel author to tell us of Jesus praying on other momentous occasions, too:

  • Following his baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus while he his praying (3:21-22);
  • Jesus’ selection of the twelve apostles occurs after spending an entire night in prayer (6:12-16);
  • Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah occurs in the context of Jesus’ praying (9:18-20).

Other key places where Luke shows Jesus praying include in the garden before his arrest (22:39-46) and on the cross (23:34, 46).

A point that we may especially observe in the transfiguration account, but which is also present in some of these other places, is that prayer for Jesus involved, at times, a dramatic encounter of God’s presence. Prayer was not merely speaking words to God but was a truly spiritual experience of God. Lest we think that such a possibility of divine encounter is limited to Jesus, we see the same thing with a variety of characters in Acts, Luke’s second volume. To give just a few of many examples:

  • The gathered early church experienced a dramatic divine response to their communal prayer (4:23-31).
  • The centurion Cornelius’s prayers result in an angel being sent to him and in him being chosen by God as the first Gentile Christian (10:1-8).
  • Paul and Silas are freed from prison by God while praying (16:25-34).
  • Paul experiences an encounter with the risen Christ while praying (22:17-21).

Thus while we should no doubt not expect to have experiences like that of Jesus in the transfiguration on a regular basis in prayer, the transfiguration along with these other scenes should challenge us to seek something higher in prayer than speaking mere words in the hope that God might possibly somehow listen to us. Prayer should be seeking the powerful presence of God in our lives. We must also remember, with the disciples in this scene, that dramatic experiences of Christ’s glory come with the call to listen and follow in costly obedience.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 34:29-35

Esther M. Menn

Moses’ countenance glows throughout this scene of covenant renewal, following the sin of the golden calf in Exodus 32. 

The Israelites stand in awe of God’s glory reflected in Moses’ incandescent face as he descends from Sinai bearing a new set of tablets inscribed with the “ten words” or commandments of the covenant (Exodus 34:10-28, here a ritual ten commandments, in contrast to the better-known versions in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21).

Moses’ shining face embodies God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to Israel, despite the Israelites’ confused and rebellious worship of the image of a calf they proclaim as “the gods who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:5). A traditional declaration earlier in Exodus 34 emphasizes that covenant renewal is in keeping with God’s essential character:

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).1

The light of divine presence transforms Moses’ appearance on an ongoing basis, whenever he emerges from the tent of meeting after speaking with God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:7-11; cf., Numbers 12:8; Deuteronomy 34:10). Moses’ dazzling face confirms that his plea for God’s presence among the Israelites as they leave Sinai (Exodus 34:9) has been answered, even before the tabernacle is built and filled with glory (Exodus 40:34-38).

On Transfiguration Sunday, we may proclaim with confidence the gracious character of God, who offers a second chance by renewing the covenant and remaining present among the community, as seen first in the face of Moses and then in the face of Christ.

Within the larger narrative context in which the prophet’s absence while mediating the covenant raises doubts concerning his leadership, Moses’ radiant visage affirms his authority as God’s representative. Transformed unconsciously through his mountaintop encounter with God for forty days and nights, Moses brings and even embodies divine revelation concerning the way of life within a covenant relationship with God.

Moses himself is denied a vision of God’s face when he requests to see the divine glory but is granted only a backwards glimpse from a protective cleft (Exodus 33:18-23). By contrast, the Israelites are granted an unexpected and overwhelming vision of Moses’ shining face as it reflects the divine glory.

The curious verb “shone” describing Moses’ skin (Exodus 34:29) is not found elsewhere in the Bible. Since it resembles the Hebrew word for an animal’s “horn,” Jerome in the Vulgate posits that Moses sprouted horns, an interpretive tradition followed by artists such as Michelangelo and Chagall. This image creates an uneasy parallel with the calf fashioned by Aaron in his brother’s absence.

Since elsewhere in the Bible light shines from God’s face as a source of blessing and peace,2 the light shining from Moses’ face creates a more compelling parallel between the deity and his human spokesperson. A close correspondence between the two emerges elsewhere as well, as both God and Moses are portrayed as bringing up Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 20:2; 32:1, 7) and writing upon the stone tablets (Exodus 31:18; 34:1, 27-28).

Today, we might reflect upon how God’s light shines through the actions and lives of leaders and ordinary people of faith, to make God’s transforming presence known in the congregation and wider community.

Given the importance of Moses’ shining visage, the purpose of the “veil” is unclear. The Hebrew word only appears only here, and denotes some sort of mask, hood, or other type of face covering. Since the Israelites responded to Moses’ appearance with fear and reluctance to approach (Exodus 34:29), the veil may have assured and protected them. Even the reflected radiance of God’s presence might be unbearable on a sustained basis, especially to a people suffering from the trauma of sin and its consequences.

Alternatively, the veil may limit Moses’ authority to a mediating role, so that when not speaking to God or to the people on God’s behalf, he conceals his extraordinary appearance as a form of self-effacement. Elsewhere, the Bible notes that Moses was a very humble man (Numbers 12:3).

The periodic veiling of Moses’ face also hints at the Israelites’ fluctuating experience of divine availability and absence. Just as Moses’ face is alternately exposed or cloaked, God’s presence may be at times perceptible or mysteriously hidden. Whatever the case, Paul’s assertion in his metaphorical appropriation that Moses manipulated the veil to deceive the Israelites (2 Cor 3:13) should not be accepted uncritically.

We might develop the imagery of the “veil” to address moments when God’s purpose is unclear, even though we are assured of God’s continued presence in our lives and world.

Fiery imagery for God’s active presence illumines the book of Exodus, as in the burning bush (Exodus 3:3), the LORD’s descent on Mt. Sinai in fire (19:18), and the pillar of cloud and fire accompanying Israel in the wilderness (13:24) and settling on the tabernacle (34:34-38).

The brightness of Moses’ face in Exodus 34:29-35 provides another instance of this passionate imagery and points to the brilliance of God’s own face as the source of blessing and peace, beautifully expressed in the Priestly Blessing: “May the LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).

Consider closing the sermon with the Priestly Blessing to invoke the grace, peace, and blessing of God’s shining face upon the congregation.

1cf., Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Jeremiah 32:18; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3.

2Psalm 4:6; 67:1; 80:3; 119:135; Numbers 6:24-26


Commentary on Psalm 99

Bobby Morris

To call God “holy” is to acknowledge that God is radically different from anything in the universe that exists or that we could imagine.

Psalm 99 uses this profoundly powerful concept as a lens through which the awesomeness of God may be contemplated and praised.

Scholars disagree on how exactly to categorize this psalm. The exaltation of God as king prompts some to lean toward a designation of Enthronement Hymn.1 Hans-Joachim Kraus points out, however, that the psalm is less about the enthroning of God as king and more about praise for the holy one who already is king.2 Therefore, Hymn of Praise for God as King may be more accurate nomenclature.

In any case, Psalm 99 may be divided into three sections, each of which ends in a refrain of praise. This division is helpful in that each section provides a different way of perceiving the holiness of God.3

The first section (verses 1-3) opens with the declaration “The Lord is King.” The reference to God being enthroned upon cherubim (verse 1) is reminiscent of the ark of the covenant and its cherubim-adorned lid, upon which God was invisibly enthroned during the post-Sinai phases of the exodus and early years in the promised land. Allusions to God during this time in Israel’s history also bring to mind God as the Lord of Hosts, who fights for his people and leads them into battle against their enemies.

The image of the Lord of Hosts may be the prompt for the psalmist to declare “Let the peoples tremble” (verse 1). If not, certainly the sheer power of God as king over all that exists would alone be enough to evoke trembling. Even the earth quakes, an allusion that also takes us back to Sinai where the mountain smoked and shook at the sheer presence of God. No wonder the skin of Moses’ face was changed (Exodus 34:30)! The earth-shaking dominion of the holy one extends to not just one area or people, but to all of them (verse 2). As a result, the psalmist can do no more and no less than call for the “praise” of God’s “great and awesome name” (verse 3).

Shifting from God’s supreme sovereignty, section two (verses 4-5) illuminates God’s holiness through the attributes of justice and righteousness. The same all-powerful king of verse 1 is also a “lover of justice” (verse 4). However, this God goes the full distance to not only admire these principles, but to also install them as the guidelines of ancient Israelite life (“you have established equity”). Even further, God has the power and willingness to ensure these holy principles are actively implemented (“you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob”). Surely the only reaction to this divine love for, founding, and enforcing of justice and righteousness can be exaltation and worship, for “Holy is he” (verse 5).

Section three (verses 6-9) may provide the starkest illustration of God’s holiness in the psalm. Sovereign power alone does not make a deity truly unique, nor even does an affinity for justice and righteousness make one radically different from all others. However, in these closing verses, we find a God who is both sovereign king and lover of justice who also chooses to work through human beings and establish an intimate and lasting relationship with them. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel were among those who “cried to the Lord and he answered them” (verse 7).

God enters into forgiving relationships based on steadfast love with these individuals and others like them. Yet, God’s forgiving love is simultaneously tempered by divine judgment. While being “a forgiving God to them,” this holy deity is at the same time “an avenger of their wrongdoings” (verse 8). Neither of these attributes of God’s holiness nullifies the other. Instead, they stand inseparably together as the very heart of what makes the God of Israel profoundly different from all others, “for the Lord our God is Holy” (verse 9).

The psalmist’s presentation of the holiness of God is helpful not only for our understanding of just who God is, but also for our discernment of what it means to belong to a God who is holy. The priests of Leviticus repeatedly implore worshippers of God to be holy because the Lord their God is holy (e.g. 11:44, 19:2). Psalm 99 shows us that holiness on our part has little, if anything, to do with personal piety or religiosity. Instead, be different because the Lord your God is different.

Just as God chooses not to operate according to the norms of other deities, so also we who belong to God are called to march to the beat of a different drum. Following paths that that are not those of least resistance and operating according to principles that do not always put our personal wants and pleasures first may be the most profound means by which we can “extol the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain” (Psalm 99:9).

1Weiser, Artur. The Psalms: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 640-41.

2Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 60-150: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 268-69. Cf. Psalms 96 and 97.

3Weiser, 641-45.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

Carla Works

The epistle reading for today reminds us that the revelation of Jesus’ glory is so spectacular that it initiates the transfiguration of all who are in Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul claims that even the Corinthian church is being transformed to reflect God’s glory.

Given what is revealed about the Corinthians in this letter, this is a preposterous claim. Has the Corinthian church really been transformed by God’s glory? These believers have caused great heartache to the apostle and to one another. Paul admits to a previous painful visit and a tearful letter. Yet, the apostle is certain that the church’s continued existence, in spite of itself, is a sign that God is at work within it.

As preposterous as it may seem, God has called the Corinthians to be God’s church, and God is actively at work transforming the believers from one degree of glory to another (3:18). Paul has faith — not in the church’s abilities to change itself — but in the Spirit’s work within it.

The text is saturated with hope that is firmly planted in God. At the beginning of 2 Corinthians 3, Paul refers to the church as his letter of recommendation (3:2). The believers themselves are the evidence that the Spirit of the living God is active in Corinth (3:3). All that they have and all that they are comes from God (3:4-5). It is Paul’s confidence in God’s work through Christ that undergirds verse 12: “since we have such a hope, we are very bold.”

Not Like Moses

Moses’s response to hide the fading glory stands in contrast to Paul’s argument. If a reader begins reading at 2 Corinthians 3:12, then the reference to Moses’s veiled face might seem like an act of deception.

According to verse 13, the intent of the veil is to disguise the fading splendor. The veil prevents the people from seeing glory, however fleeting, and that veil retains its function whenever the old covenant is read (3:14). Therefore, Moses himself becomes something of a mystery, and “reading Moses” is no different (3:15).

Taken out of context, this passage has unfortunately been used to portray Moses and the old covenant in a completely negative light. Paul’s argument, however, assumes a reverence for the written code. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul does not dispute that the written code was from God and conveyed God’s glory, but that glory was fleeting. The written code, written on tablets of stone (2 Corinthians 3:3, 7), has its limitations. Paul preaches to the Gentiles that following the written code cannot guarantee life (cf. Galatians 3:21-22).

Paul’s argument follows the general pattern of qal wahomer — an argument that moves from the light to the heavy, from the lesser to the greater. If it were true in a lesser matter, how much more would it be true for a greater matter? If what was fading produced glory, it is certainly the case that what is permanent will have splendor. If the written code, which brought death, could transform Moses’s face for a time, it is certainly the case that the Holy Spirit — which brings life — will exceed that transformation. The Spirit is written not on stone tablets but on our hearts.

In 2 Corinthians 3:7, the written code is tantamount to the “dispensation of death.” Though Paul is not developing an extended argument concerning the law in 2 Corinthians 3, there are plenty of clues in his other letters to help interpret this passage. In Romans 7, Paul argues that the law is holy, just, and good, and in Galatians 3 the law has a purpose as a guide or tutor. The problem with the law is that it cannot produce life (Galatians 3:21-22). It cannot adequately deal with sin’s hold over all creation. The law, too, is subject to sin and cannot rescue from death. Hence, Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3:6: “for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Thus, if the law which cannot rescue one from death has the power to transform Moses’s face for a little while, how much more is it true that this new covenant that brings life through God’s Holy Spirit also produces a glory that does not fade. Rather than tablets of stone, this spiritual ink inscribes our very hearts. If something as holy as the law could lead to a fleeting transformation of Moses’ face, then surely God’s work through Christ can lead to permanent transformation.

Unlike Moses’ fleeting glory, encountering the transfigured and glorified Christ produces a growing glory — glory that becomes more and more like Christ (3:18).

Christ has removed the veil that conceals God’s transformative glory. The veil is a huge obstacle. It is a barrier for those who are reading the old covenant (3:14) and a hindrance for those who do not believe (4:3-4). For Paul, Christ’s removal of the veil cannot help but be a transformative experience. Seeing the glory of the Lord changes everything. God’s glory is exposed, but so are the depths of God’s mercy.

In 2 Corinthians 4:1, Paul uses the term “therefore,” a term that reaches back to what has come before and supports the point that he is about to make. Paul says that he and his coworkers, as recipients of God’s mercy, have the ministry to shine in the darkness and “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (4:8). Paul sees himself as one whose motives have been laid bare in the light of God’s glory. How could he do anything other than reflect the marvelous grace that God has granted him?

God’s grace is changing him, as he believes it is also changing the Corinthians from glory unto glory. They are being transformed by the glory of the Lord. The Corinthians may not be the perfect image of God’s glory, but Paul knows that God has not abandoned them. God’s Spirit is at work within him and within this struggling church.

On this day that the community of saints celebrates the Lord’s transfiguration, perhaps we should pray that we see the transfigured Lord in all his glory. Seeing the glory of the Lord initiates a transfiguration for all who dare to look on the splendor of Christ.