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The Annual Remembrance of the Transfiguration

Web posted on August 02, 2014

Sunday Peace

By Rev Robert Lyon

Wednesday 6 August in the Church calendar is the annual remembrance of the Transfiguration. That is the event where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain where his face becomes radiant, his clothing is dazzling white, and he is talking with Moses and Elijah. Peter realizes that this is a defining moment, even though he isn't quite sure what it defines. So he suggests making three booths or temporary shelters, as they do for the Feast of Tabernacles. Peter's brainwave is interrupted when a cloud overshadows them, and a voice out of the cloud says, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."

We know that the Transfiguration was a significant event to the first-century Christians, because Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9), and you also find references to it in the letters of Peter and Paul, and even in the Gospel of John.

In 2 Peter, we have the words of an apostle awaiting martyrdom. Peter is giving his churches some last-minute advice advice to help them stand firm in the face of a culture that he knows will regard the Gospel as humbug. Peter says: "We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, `This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,' we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain" (2 Peter 1:16-18).

The first thing you notice here is Peter insisting that the Transfiguration was not a figment of somebody's imagination. It was not a pious legend invented by a later generation of believers. It really happened. "We were with him," Peter says, "on the holy mountain." "We heard the voice." "We were eyewitnesses."

So they saw what they saw and heard what they heard. Peter described it as well as he could, and Mark recorded it in his gospel, which, the early Fathers tell us, Mark got from Peter's own preaching. But to understand what they experienced, they had to resort to Old Testament passages like Exodus 34, where Moses comes down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, and his face is so radiant from having been in the presence of God that he has to put a veil over it. At the Transfiguration, Jesus' face was also radiant with the presence of God, and there was Moses standing next to him talking with him.

So what's the connection between these two events, besides the fact that they were both, literally, mountain top experiences? Just before Moses died, he told the assembled Israelites that God had promised that "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [that is, like Moses] from among you, from your brethren. It is to him that you shall listen" (Deuteronomy 18:15). And what did the voice from the cloud say? "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." In the last chapter of Deuteronomy, just after the death of Moses, the editor adds the observation that, "Since that time there has not arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (34:10). What the Transfiguration says to us is: Now there has!

This idea that Jesus is the promised second Moses was really important to the early Christians. It was one of their "proofs" from the Old Testament that Jesus was the Messiah, that 1400 years of history and religion had found their fulfillment in Jesus. It's an idea that even influenced the composition of Matthew's gospel, where the writer packages Jesus' teachings into five speeches spread throughout the gospel, which he wants us to see as an analogy to the five books of Moses, and of course the first of those speeches is the Sermon on the Mount(ain). (The five speeches are found at Matthew chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24.)

But Moses is not alone with Jesus in his Transfiguration. The prophet Elijah is also with them on the mountain. So we have to ask, What's Elijah doing in this story? Well, at the end of the last chapter of the very last book of the Old Testament, Malachi writes: "Behold, I will send to you the prophet Elijah before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 4:5). So just as the Messiah is to be a second Moses, so his coming is to be heralded by a second Elijah. The expectation of Elijah's return is the origin of the Passover custom of pouring an extra glass of wine for Elijah, and opening the door of the house after dinner to invite him in.

Trying to understand the Transfiguration experience, the disciples say to Jesus, with a question mark in their voice, "The scribes say that Elijah must come first." Jesus replies, "Elijah does come first to restore all things." So to Jesus, this reference to Elijah must mean the Messiah, because only the Messiah is able to "restore all things". But then Jesus says, "So why is it written that the Son of Man will suffer many things and be treated with contempt?" Jesus wants them to understand that the restoring of all things is not going to happen just yet; the cross and the resurrection and the spread of the gospel must happen first.

Luke confirms this by adding the explanation that Moses and Elijah "spoke about his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). And to make sure that we don't miss the idea that Jesus is the second Moses, the Greek word that Luke uses for Jesus' "departure" is "exodus". Moses and Elijah "spoke of his "exodus" which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem."

Now, let me confuse you for a minute. Right after giving Peter, James, and John to understand that he is the second Elijah, Jesus says, "But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him" (Mark 9:13). Matthew adds, "Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist" (Matthew 9:13). But you'll recall that when people asked John the Baptist who he was, he said he was not Elijah, he was just a voice in the wilderness (John 1:19-23). So what are we to make of the fact that John says he was not Elijah, and Jesus says he was? Well, of course, they were both right. John the Baptist was like Elijah, as the herald of the coming of Jesus, but Jesus was also like Elijah, as the herald of his own second coming when he will "restore all things".

So the Transfiguration shows Jesus to be a second Moses, and also a second Elijah who is coming again. But it shows him to be even more than that, for Mark says that "his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no launderer on earth could bleach them." Now, those first-century Jewish Christians knew their Bible, and this description would point them directly to Daniel 7, where Daniel has a vision of God presiding over a court of judgment at the time of the restoration of all things. Daniel says, "As I looked, thrones were placed,and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
 his clothing was white as snow,and the hair of his head like pure wool. And with the clouds of heaventhere came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Daysand was presented before him. And to him was given dominionand glory and a kingdom that shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:9,13,14).

Do you see what the Transfiguration does with Daniel's vision? In Daniel, the Ancient of Days is dressed in clothing as white as snow. At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John see Jesus dressed in clothes that are "radiant, intensely white, as no launderer on earth could bleach them." What Peter, James, and John saw on the Mount of Transfiguration was Jesus dressed like God in Daniel's vision. Compare that to John's experience at Sunday worship years later on the island of Patmos, when he saw a vision of Jesus as "one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest; [and] the hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow" (Revelation 1:13f). Like God in Daniel's vision.

Before we go, St Paul also wants to have a word with us about the Transfiguration. He wants to show us how the Transfiguration applies to us personally. Making a loose analogy to the veil over Moses' face in Exodus 34, Paul says that folks who don't believe in Jesus have a veil over their hearts. "But when we turn to the Lord, the veil is removed. And [when that happens] we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." (2 Corinthians 3:16,18).

Do you see what that says? We're invited to participate in the Transfiguration! Not just to witness it, but to participate in it! If we believe in Jesus, "we all, beholding the glory of the Lord with unveiled face, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." The Greek verb that's translated "beholding" suggests "a mirror". As we respond to the Holy Spirit and the veil of unbelief drops away, we behold the glory of God reflected in the person of Jesus. Jesus becomes for us the mirror that reflects the glory of God. "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father."

But the verb that's translated "beholding" is deliberately ambiguous; it can also mean "reflecting". So, if we believe in Jesus, "we all, reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." That's what we're called to do: reflect the glory of the Lord. Most of us do it rather badly. But the inevitable truth whether we take it as a promise or as a warning is that we become like whatever we love.

So how much can we reflect Jesus? That's the same as asking, How much can we participate in his Transfiguration? And the answer is: "We all, beholding [and therefore reflecting] the glory of the Lord, are [even now] being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." When Paul says that believers are "transformed", he's using the Greek verb for a "metamorphosis". And wouldn't you just know it! that's the same word that Mark uses when he says that Jesus was "transfigured" before them. Transfigured, transformed: that's us. If you believe in Jesus, you are by the gentle, persistent persuasion of the Holy Spirit undergoing a metamorphosis, just as Jesus did on the Mount of Transfiguration. Where and how will it all end? St John answers: "Beloved, we are even now the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but this we know: that when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

Robert welcomes your questions and comments at nm@bbs42.net


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