Commentary on 2 Peter 1:16-21
The transfiguration of the Lord Jesus as recorded here in 2 Peter is a message to us about the content and character of the coming king and his kingdom.
The writer of this letter, along with his sisters and brothers in Christ, is clearly facing opposition to the message that he has sought to faithfully proclaim. At the heart of the opposition are the objections to either the entirety or to aspects of the message about the return (parousia) of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It may well be the key to this opposition is not simply the timing of this turn (2 Peter 3:4), but also the preached character of the king and his kingdom. Sometimes we see that people would prefer Jesus to be some kind of tyrant king, rather than the king revealed in the transfiguration—a king of good, loving, and generous character.
We cannot be entirely sure about the precise content of the objections faced by the preachers and teachers, but within the whole context of 2 Peter we note that there seems to be a relationship between the parousia of Jesus rooted in the prophetic words we read in the Old Testament (2 Peter 1:19; 3:2) and an emphasis upon living lives of good character (2 Peter 1:5-7; 3:11).
What makes most sense here is that the Writer is contrasting the gospel message with the myths perpetrated by the “false prophets” (2 Peter 2:1). Interestingly, we know that in the mid-first century there was skepticism put about by the Epicureans about what they called the myths of the Christians. This was when the Epicureans considered that the lives of the Christians didn’t seem to reflect the Epicureans interpretation of the Christians’ teaching.
Moreover, the Epicureans were also skeptical of the existential threat perpetrated by messages about punishment in the afterlife. The Transfiguration communicates a very different idea about the life and character of the kingdom of God—one based not on fear, judgement, and threat, but on love, mercy, justice, and goodness.
The writer is adamant that his testimony is true and writes about his eyewitness (and ear-witness) account of what we know as the transfiguration.
Jesus: enthroned by God
The transfiguration of the Lord Jesus Christ confirms that Jesus has been or is being enthroned by God. The Writer speaks of being an eyewitness to his “majesty”—a term often used to designate divine splendor. We also know that the Emperor Gaius Caligula liked to apply this term to himself—he was the only one of the early Roman emperors who claimed divinity for himself during his lifetime.
At the point of writing the author and his readers are very familiar with the news of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, which confirmed his enthronement over all other kings—including the Roman emperor. We are being reminded that Jesus—enthroned by God—is superior to the highest earthly ruler. The values and ethos of the kingdom of Jesus subvert the values of the dominant culture of the day.
What then follows is a clear articulation of the character both of the King and his kingdom.
Jesus: The Son of the Father
The writer seems to be at pains to stress that not only did he witness the transfiguration of Jesus with his eyes, but he also heard the words of God the Father. This is conveyed twice here. First, that Jesus received honor and glory from God the Father, and second, when the voice speaks, “this is my Son…” No doubt we will be reminded here of the words spoken over Jesus at his baptism, a clear anticipation of his revealing as King.
We therefore understand that the identity of Jesus as King is founded upon this deep, strong, and wonderful relationship with God as Father. Jesus is not an isolated, autonomous King, but a King in a familial relationship.
We should also note therefore that the message of the transfiguration remind us that the kingdom of King Jesus has family relationship at its heart. The King relates to the citizens of the kingdom as Lord, but also as brother; the citizens relate to one another as sisters and brother; and maybe we also want to suggest that the citizens of the kingdom of Jesus relate to those outside the kingdom with the spirit of this same family kindness, love, and welcome.
Jesus: The King who is loved
Jesus, the transfigured One, is also the one who is loved, “my Beloved.” Love is massively transformative. The life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus is founded upon and arises from the sure foundation of Love. Jesus is faithful to the call to love God and to love neighbor, even to the extent that he loves and forgives at the cross. The power of the resurrection is the power of love to create life.
The life of the Kingdom of Jesus is also founded upon this love. Love that forgives, welcomes, is kind, gentle, merciful, and good. We can note the way in which the Writer calls his readers to live lives of good character—see 2 Peter 1:5-7, and then explicitly in 3:11-12 relates their good character to the revelation of “the day of God.” The call upon the disciples is that even as they wait for the revelation of King Jesus their lives should reflect the character of both the King and his kingdom.
The transfiguration, which in this passage is used as prima facie evidence of the content and character of the coming kingdom, reminds us that love is at the heart of this kingdom.
Jesus: the King faithful to his mission
God speaks of Jesus at his transfiguration as the one, “with whom I am well pleased.” But from what does this pleasure arise? Why is God pleased with Jesus, and why then might God be pleased with the disciples of Jesus?
First, it is the pleasure of the Father for his Son. A pleasure that is innate in the relationship, needing no explanation. As this is true for Jesus, so it is also true for the followers of Jesus. God delights in his daughters and sons simply because they are his daughters and sons.
Second, it is the pleasure of the Father as his Son is faithful to his own identity. The event of the transfiguration suggests that the identity of Jesus is found within this loving relationship with his Father. The life, purpose, and mission and Jesus thus is to be true to his identity—to love even as he is Himself loved.
This then is the founding identity of all citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus—to know that they are loved. And this is also the mission and purpose of the kingdom in which they live—to love as they are loved. This is why the writer highlights the character of the readers in 2 Peter 1:5-7—this is the very essence of the kingdom.
The authentic, confirming witness of the prophets
It is important then to note that the writer, having already emphasized the authenticity of his evidence as eye- (and ear-) witness to the event of the transfiguration, now makes clear that his witness statement about the content and character of the King and his Kingdom is fully in line with all that the prophets had spoken about. This double witness is commended to the readers in order to encourage them and create a light of hope within them even as they live in an era where the culture and society promotes and rewards injustice, disregard of God, and dismissal of loving kindness.