Six days after foretelling his death, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and “leads them up a high mountain, by themselves” (Matthew 17:1). Together with Peter’s brother, Andrew, these three disciples have been with Jesus the longest of any of his followers, ever since Jesus called them away from their fishing nets alongside the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:18ff).
Perhaps they have earlier mountain treks in mind as they climb the steep slope: Jesus’ extended sermon on the mountain (Matthew 5:1-7:29) or the mountain on which Jesus healed the blind and lame and maimed (15:29). Perhaps they recall an even earlier story of Abraham’s journey with Isaac to the mountain where God provided a ram (the verb ajnafevrw in Matthew 17:1 can mean “to offer a sacrifice,” as it does in LXX Genesis 22:2). What will the followers of Jesus encounter on this mountain, on this occasion? Will it be something new? Or something old?
Early readers of Matthew’s gospel probably heard echoes of Exodus 24 as the events of the Transfiguration unfolded in their hearing, enabling them to perceive Jesus as the “new Moses” who leads and empowers the people of God. They know that older story. Leaving Aaron behind along with the elders, Moses took Joshua with him into the mountain, where, after six days, the glory of the Lord burned on the mountain top and God spoke to Moses in that place, giving to him the words of the covenant with God’s people (Exodus 24:13-18). Similar echoes of Moses’ experience sound in the account of Elijah’s mountaintop encounter with God (1 Kings 19:8ff).
When Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain of transfiguration with Jesus, these echoes from long ago resound in the ears of the disciples (and readers). Jesus and his followers are new players in the old, old story of God’s encounters with God’s people.
New Story, Old Players
A face shining like the sun, clothes of dazzling white, a voice from a cloud: something powerful is occurring on that mountaintop, but it is difficult for the disciples to comprehend. They (along with others) have known Jesus as a teacher, a healer, even a prophet along the lines of Elijah or Jeremiah. To be sure, each of these is a role that Jesus fills, but none alone captures his full identity. Peter gets it right in his confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16), but his human limitation prevents his understanding of what that confession will mean (Matthew 16:23).
On top of the mountain, Peter recognizes that Jesus’ dazzling appearance in the presence of Moses and Elijah is significant–“Lord, it is good for us to be here!”–but he does not fully understand what he is seeing. His suggestion to build three booths, or dwelling places (skh’no” = tent), sounds like an attempt to capture the moment, to preserve it for safekeeping, to domesticate this wild, frightening experience into an everyday, household encounter. One might imagine Peter, jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like an elementary student who is desperate to give the right answer, but who cannot quite get it right because he does not fully understand the question.
In his attempt to make sense of the magnificent transformation taking place before his eyes, Peter tries to talk it out, to speak words for the unspeakable. Indeed, while he is still speaking (the Greek construction at 17:5 is a genitive absolute), a bright cloud overshadows all of them and a voice interrupts his speech: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5, cf. the voice at Jesus’ baptism, Matthew 3:17).
There are times when it is best to be quiet.
Do not be afraid: Waiting for the Rest of the Story
Jesus speaks to Peter and the others, “Get up and do not be afraid (Matthew 17:7). His touch is a sign of comfort and healing (cf. Matthew 8:3, 15; 9:29; 20:34), and his words reassure that whatever happens next will be in God’s hands, no matter how frightening the circumstances (cf. Matthew 1:20; 10:26; 28:5, 10).
The dazzling appearance of Jesus reflects Daniel’s apocalyptic Son of Humanity (NRSV “Son of Man,” Daniel 7:9; cf. Revelations 1:12-16; 3:4-5) and previews the appearance of the angel at the empty tomb later in Matthew (Matthew 28:3). It is a powerful vision, rich with meaning, but the time is not yet right for the three disciples to tell others about their experience (Matthew 9:1). Even as a preview of the resurrection, the Transfiguration cannot be fully grasped until after Jesus has been crucified, laid in a tomb, and raised from the dead. Could it be that resurrection is meaningless without the stone, cold reality of death?
Then and now, the full meaning of a mountaintop experience may not become clear until after the return to the valley, after the passage of time. After they come down from the mountain, the disciples listen, as the voice has instructed: they hear Jesus’ parables, they hear his response to friends and foes, they hear his repeated references to the Son of Humanity. Even so, it is not long before these same three disciples fall asleep despite hearing Jesus’ request for their wakefulness and their prayers (Matthew26:36-46). They watch as he is arrested and led away. What they hear, see, and experience in the garden is a far cry from the dazzling display on the mountain.
But the rest of the story–it’s fuller meaning–includes another mountain, to which Jesus has directed his followers after his resurrection. In that place, in the company of the gathered community, Jesus’ followers receive the promise that his story and their story will be forever intertwined, whether they are on mountaintops or in valleys or someplace in between: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Exodus 24:12–18 has shaped the traditions of transfiguration that we find in the Synoptic Gospels. Placed on Transfiguration Sunday, this passage, which describes Moses’ encounter with the Lord on Mount Sinai, brings the season of Epiphany to conclusion. Thus, in this season of reflection upon God’s manifestation and incarnation, today’s lesson brings us to the place of revelation–God’s holy mountain–where heaven meets earth and humans encounter the divine.
The chapter of Exodus 24 is full of seams and internal tensions, because it contains different source traditions that overlap one with another. This can make the details of the text difficult to understand on first glance. In its final form, Exodus 24:1–11 represents a concluding ceremony at Sinai between the Lord and Israel. This ceremony ends with a ritual of blood (vv. 4–8) and a sacred meal (v. 11). Thus, the Lord’s descent upon the mountain and Moses’ ascent into the cloud in vv. 12–18 emerge from the broader context of covenant ratification. One can divide today’s passage according to Moses’ movement up toward the Lord’s presence on the mountain:
As Moses ascends the mountain and draws closer to the glory of the Lord, he is removed spatially from the others who are with him.
There are three prominent themes in this passage: 1) Moses the mediator; 2) the manifestation of the Lord’s glory; and 3) the significance of the revelation. The entire event is a holy occurrence, a specially marked encounter between God and human upon the mountain, from which divine instruction emerges. The event points simultaneously to the Lord’s presence among the people and the uniqueness of Moses who alone enters the cloud. The sanctity of this encounter emphasizes the importance of the directions for the Tabernacle that follows (Exodus 25 ff.).
Moses’ special status among the people and among the leadership of Israel is accentuated in this passage. In v. 12, the Lord instructs Moses to approach the mountain in order to receive the tablets of stone, upon which the Lord has written “the law and commandment.” Earlier in chapter 24, the Lord makes clear that only Moses will draw near to the divine presence (v. 2). In vv. 13–14, he departs on his journey toward the mountain, followed by his assistant Joshua. Moses gives instructions to the others before he proceeds up the mountain alone (v. 15a). As the story progresses, Moses becomes further removed from Israel’s leadership as he draws closer to the divine presence. Finally, at the climax of the passage, the glory of the Lord covers the mountain (vv. 15b–17), and Moses enters the cloud (v. 18). This narrative movement emphasizes Moses’ privileged status as mediator, representing Israel before the Lord, and therefore stresses the importance of the words that emerge from this divine/human encounter.
The manifestation of God’s presence in this passage is characterized through the expression “the glory of the Lord” (v. 16 and v. 17). Priestly writers from the period of the Babylonian exile incorporated vv. 15–18 into the traditions found in Exodus 24. God’s transcendence is a prominent theme within this source. The Lord’s glory (Hebrew, kābôd) in this passage is described as being “like a devouring fire” on the summit of the mountain. This awesome spectacle has at least two functions. First, it emphasizes God’s holiness. The Lord is the awesome holy other, whose glory descends upon the mountain. Divine otherness is stressed through descriptive language. The doubly modified phrase, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord” (v. 17, emphasis mine), characterizes God’s presence. A similar expression is found in Ezekiel’s chariot vision (Ezek 1:28). This careful use of language emphasizes transcendence. The Lord becomes manifest on the mountain, but the author qualifies the description of the divine presence as “the appearance of the glory of the Lord” (v. 17). The image of a cloud that covers the mountain’s summit (vv. 15–16, and v. 18) also emphasizes the mystery and holiness of God’s manifestation.
The second function of this awesome spectacle is to set apart the event itself as a holy occurrence. The Lord’s descent upon the mountain sanctifies the mountain’s summit, setting it apart as a holy place. The author evokes the language of creation in Genesis. The cloud covers Mount Sinai for six days, and on the seventh, the Lord speaks to Moses (v. 16). The setting apart of the seventh day, makes this time and space holy just as God hallowed the seventh day as a Sabbath in creation (Gen 2:2–3) The sanctifying of this event suggests that the words that proceed from this place will be of particular binding significance for the people of God. Thus, as stated earlier in v. 12, the Lord will give to Moses the tablets of stone with the “law and commandment” written upon them. Moreover, this holy encounter signifies the importance of the Lord’s very specific instructions regarding the Tabernacle that follows.
The meeting of the divine and human at Sinai signals the importance of this time and place in Israel’s memory. The event itself is set apart as a holy occurrence in which the Lord speaks a particular word of revelation to the people. In the ancient Near East, mountains often represent the dwelling places of the gods. Within these Israelite traditions, however, the divine encounter was not simply an end to itself. The words that emerged from this hallowed place were given particular significance in the life of the community. The utterances that come forth from the mountain’s summit are holy commandments and divine instruction. It should not surprise us that the Synoptic writers evoke this tradition of revelation at Sinai, when God’s voice from the cloud instructs those present at the transfiguration to listen to God’s “Beloved Son.”
The final Sunday in Epiphany is when the church remembers the Transfiguration of our Lord. Truth to tell, it’s a strange story, told in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; and Luke 9:28-36).
In the story, Jesus takes three of his disciples–Peter, James and John–with him up onto a “high mountain,” where his appearance dramatically changes, i.e., he is “transfigured” before them. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus’ face shines “like the sun,” and his garments become “as white as light.” After Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, a voice comes from heaven–it’s God’s voice–and says, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
The author of 2 Peter appeals to this event in the epistle lesson for today as part of a sustained argument with a group of people to which he refers as “false teachers” (2:1). But before we look at the false teachers, a brief note about the authorship and genre of 2 Peter is in order. This letter appears to be a “testament,” i.e., a common genre of Jewish literature in which the purported author is presented as being near death and giving a final message to his people. These final messages usually included ethical exhortation and predictions of things that were to happen in the future. Testaments were pseudepigraphical (written under an assumed name) and probably understood by their readers as exercises in historical imagination in which words are put into the mouth of some now-dead historical figure. As a testament, 2 Peter was probably written a few decades after the death of Peter in order to bring the message of Peter to bear on a situation of false teaching that arose during those decades.1
These false teachers that 2 Peter opposed appear to have been teaching that the belief in the eschatological coming (Parousia) of Jesus Christ was a “cleverly devised myth” (1:16) which it would be good to discard. Their reasoning seems to have been that Jesus’ return was expected during the lifetimes of the first Christian generation. Since by their time this generation had died without seeing the Parousia, this expectation must have been false. (See 3:4–“Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers [probably a reference to Peter’s generation] fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.”) From the perspective of the author of 2 Peter, this abandonment of the expectation of the Parousia (and its related expectation–eschatological judgment) is ethically disastrous. In a passage that is so unreservedly damning that it is almost difficult to read, he criticizes these false teachers for being corrupt and sinful…and worse still, hoodwinking others into joining them in their corruption (2:10b-22).
There is, of course, something to be said for the position of 2 Peter’s false teachers. The Lord Jesus has yet to return in glory and power, and insisting on the reality of this expectation can come across as a little embarrassing. Things are as they ever have been! Eschatological expectations can seem woefully out of touch with the realities of this world, where justice is too often left undone and where eschatological hopes look strangely unrealistic. How can intelligent people take the return of Christ seriously? Why not just admit as much and move on?
The author of 2 Peter wants more for his audience than this, however. His appeal to the Transfiguration is an attempt to root the eschatological expectations of the church in the eyewitness (and ear-witness) experience of those who were present at the Transfiguration. They saw Jesus “receive honor and glory from God” that day, and they heard the authoritative voice from heaven: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” The Transfiguration is understood as a foretaste of the Parousia, when the Son will come again, in the same glory and honor that infused the Transfigured Jesus, with salvation and judgment.
Still more, 2 Peter maintains that the eschatological hopes of Christians have profound ethical consequences. In other words, the expectation of Christ’s return makes (or ought to make) a difference in the day to day lives of those of us who expect it. That difference is in how we live. Our lives ought to be characterized by things such as faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and love (1:5-7). The expectation of eschatological judgment ought to provoke us to lives characterized by godliness and holiness (3:11). This is a far better–one might say more faithful–ethical profile than the one associated with the false teachers (2:10b-22).
As the last Sunday in Epiphany, this is the day when the church turns the corner into Lent, the forty day season of preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus which we celebrate during Holy Week and Easter. Lent is traditionally a season for grief and repentance, in which Christians look hard at our lives and notice where we come up short of God’s expectations for us. The idea for the season is for us to repent of our sin and to work hard to become the sorts of people who are ready to behold the risen Lord. That expectation of the resurrection of the Lord, an eschatological event if ever there was one, is supposed to have ethical consequences for us during the Season of Lent.
2 Peter 1:16-20 grounds the expectation of the eschatological return of our Lord in the experience of Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. That expectation is understood as having significant daily behavioral consequences which (ought to) distinguish Christians from an unholy world. Consequently, the passage can serve as a good archway through which to enter Lent.
1 For a fuller discussion of the genre and authorship of 2 Peter, see Richard J. Bauckham, “2 Peter,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 923-927.