Summary of the Text
The transfiguration is theatrical. It is drama at its finest. The mountain peak as the stage of the performance, the appearance of the greatest dramatis personae known to Israel, Moses and Elijah, a moving cloud center stage and the booming voice of God from on high. It is a scene of heavenly marvel which is accompanied by the all too fearful bumbling of our human frailty. Peter, Jesus’ rock and jester of a disciple, tugging on Jesus’ sleeve, “Uh, excuse me Jesus, I don’t know what to say, but maybe I could build a tent for each one of you guys, if you think that is a good idea.”
Peter represents the elements of a tragicomedy. Most of us can relate to his impetuous buffoonery borne out of an insecurity of not knowing how to act in certain circumstances. I know I can! It is comical in this instance, but this same impetuosity foreshadows his tragic denial of Jesus when his insecurities will get the best of him at Jesus’ arrest. Again, sadly for me, a wholly relatable impulse towards self-preservation.
The transfiguration or “metamorphosis” as indicated by the Greek word is a curious event. It is magnificent and confounding at the same time. The three companions of Jesus are so moved by the experience and its affirmation of Jesus’ identity that they fall down and worship him. Yet, how confounding that these men, who just heard Peter confess Jesus as the Christ at Caesarea Philippi, are commanded to tell no one what they saw and heard on the mountain until Jesus has endured his passion.
Why not allow them the freedom to testify to the truth of Peter’s confession which God had affirmed for them on the dramatic stage?
Perhaps part of the answer to that lies in the trajectory of Jesus’ glory. One would imagine that Peter, James, and John having seen what they did would make every effort to elevate Jesus to a place of earthly power. They certainly had their suspicions as to his uniqueness. After the transfiguration, there were no longer any doubts. Muster the troops and usher in God’s kingdom. However, Jesus’ plan for victory did not entail collecting a band of armed insurrectionists who would rally behind his promising charisma as previous and later messianic wannabes. His elevation to power would come through suffering.
We need to dial back to the beginning of the play to understand this scene.
The first act of Jesus’ ministry starts in the muddy waters of the Jordan with an equally divine affirmation of his worthiness. From there he is thrust into the temptation in the wilderness and his subsequent ministry to human misery. Jesus’ final act will start with his exaltation on the mount of Transfiguration and roll downhill into his humiliation on the hill of calvary. The beloved Son will become the messianic martyr. The divinely appointed king will march through the valley of the shadow of death to enter into his glorious dominion.
Peter, James, and John are not fully capable of understanding the irony and apparent contradictions of the transfigured and crucified one in that moment, but they will in time. His resurrection will prove his victory and explain his humiliation. For now, they are told to wait to witness that which none of them can fully comprehend. When all is said and done, though, the transfiguration will become a centerpiece of Peter’s witness, “…we were eyewitnesses of his majesty…for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Angle for Preaching: Even the most exalted of events often travel a circuitous road through pain and suffering. The rallying cry of the mighty prepared for battle taper into inflicted wounds, grievous obstacles, fallen comrades, and countless loses. The way to physical healing in many cases goes through the temporary wounding of surgery and medicine. Jesus’ way of glory begins and ends in exaltation, but the way in between is a soaring dive into the depths of inglorious and humiliating despair. The preacher would do well to recognize this irony between the transfiguration of Jesus and the trials of Christ.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
The glory of Christ is such that it is of a transforming nature. It’s of a powerful nature: it changes all that behold it into the same image; it reaches to the bottom of the heart, to the most inner soul; it is a sight that purifies and beautifies.
Jonathan Edwards, “A Sight of the Glory of Christ,” in Jonathan Edwards Sermons, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1728), 2 Cor. 3:18.
Two theaters compete for our gaze: the theater of sin on earth and the theater of glory where Christ is.
Taken from Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, © 2019, p,88. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
Not Everyone Wanted a Messiah
Not all Jews of this period believed in or wanted a coming Messiah. But those who did, and there were many, cherished a frequently repeated set of expectations as to what the anointed one would do when he arrived. He would fight the battle against Israel’s enemies—specifically, the Romans. He would rebuild, or at least cleanse and restore, the Temple …. He would bring Israel’s long history to its climax, reestablishing the monarchy as in the days of David and Solomon. He would be God’s representative to Israel, and Israel’s representative to God. …
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).