Transfiguration Year C
Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Co. 3:12-4:6, Luke 9:28-36
The lectionary texts for today all have to do with the light of God’s glory and veils. In Exodus 34 we find the story of Moses coming down from the mountain-his face shining after having been in the presence of God. When Aaron and the people saw this, they were afraid, so Moses veiled his face.
In Luke 9, Jesus appears transfigured with Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration. Peter, James and John are present, and as we will see, they were veiled in their understanding of what was happening.
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul reinterprets the veil of Moses as being a veil that we must remove in order to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
The Transfiguration story, I believe, is one of the most important stories in the New Testament. One reason is that the story gives us a hermeneutic principle as to how to approach all of Scripture. In the story, when Peter sees Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah he says,
“Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah” – not realizing what he was saying. Luke 9:33 NASB
What was Peter thinking that caused him to offer to build three tabernacles? I think that when Peter saw Jesus transfigured and speaking with Moses and Elijah, he thought this was a sign that God was elevating Jesus to the stature of Moses and Elijah. Peter thought that this amazing vision, and the fact that he was there to witness it was God’s way of showing him that Jesus was more than just another prophet-that Jesus should be considered on equal footing with Moses (the lawgiver) and Elijah (the great prophet). But God, hearing Peter’s offer interrupts Peter.
While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” Luke 9:34-35
The voice of God interrupts Peter and says, “This is my Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” In other words, Jesus is not to be considered equal with Moses and Elijah. Jesus is God’s Son…and what He says is more authoritative than what either Moses or Elijah have said-Listen to HIM! This is validated in the next verse:
And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. Luke 9:36a
Moses and Elijah have disappeared. Could God have been any clearer? “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” What Jesus has to say must be given more weight, more authority than all the law and the prophets. I understand that this can be disconcerting if you’ve been taught that all Scripture is equally authoritative, but I see no way around it. If God spoke audibly from heaven, and removed Moses and Elijah from the vision to correct Peter on this, I’m going with the voice from the cloud. But this is not all that these three texts have to show us.
Exodus 34 recounts the second time Moses received the commandments from God. The first time Moses brought the commandments down from the mountain he found the Israelites worshipping an idol. He was so angry that he threw the stone tablets down, breaking them, and ordered the Levites to go throughout the camp killing people. 3000 Israelites died that day. So it’s not surprising that the people are afraid the second time Moses descends from the mountain with new stone tablets, this time with his face shining from being in God’s presence. (The first time this happened was not a good day in the camp.)
Peter, James and John had a similar response on the mount of Transfiguration. When they see Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah, Matthew’s account says, “the disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This time, even though they had misunderstood what was happening, and had perhaps idolized Moses and Elijah, Jesus doesn’t kill them like Moses-he comforts them and tells them to not be afraid. Then, after seeing this amazing vision, Mark’s account tells us,
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
Peter, James and John had just witnessed an incredible sight, but Jesus forbade them from talking about what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead, however, they didn’t know what Jesus meant by “rising from the dead”. Just a few days earlier Jesus had said this to all the disciples:
“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
So they had heard Jesus speak of being killed and raised from the dead, but Jesus apparently knows that they won’t understand these things until he is actually raised from the dead. There is much about Jesus that doesn’t make sense apart from his resurrection. In fact, it is the resurrection that validates Jesus’ life, teachings and example. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead would we still be talking about him like we do today? I don’t think so. It is the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead that makes his life of such import. Nobody else has lived a life of such amazing significance that God would raise him or her from the dead. Coming down the mount of transfiguration that day, Peter, James and John had seen Jesus in his glory, but they could not yet perceive his radical mission.
The Icon of the Transfiguration that accompanies this article shows Jesus, Moses and Elijah in the upper portion. Below them are Peter, James and John in three different positions. This icon is helpful in helping us to understand what these disciples did not yet comprehend about Jesus and his ultimate mission.
Three Disciples – Three Veils
First, the disciple on the left is Peter, offering to build three tabernacles, thinking that he should elevate Jesus to the stature of Moses and Elijah. The voice in the cloud quickly dispels this idea. “This is my Son; My Chosen One; Listen to Him!” I can imagine Peter thinking in response, but isn’t it a good thing to build three tabernacles? Perhaps, but tabernacles contain altars…sacrificial altars. Altars like the one Elijah sacrificed the 400 prophets of Baal on, thinking it would please God. Altars like the one Abraham built to sacrifice his son, Isaac on, believing like most people of his day, that sacrificing a first-born son or a virgin daughter was what the gods required, but God intervened to stop Abraham, putting an end to the idea that God requires human sacrifice. Peter was living behind a veil-a veil that sees God as demanding blood-a god who slays his enemies on sacrificial altars, and who demands the blood of sons and daughters.
But I hear Jesus saying something he often said, “Go and learn what this means; I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And I hear the Father saying, “This is My Son; My Chosen One; Listen to Him!”
Second, the disciple in the middle is cowering in fear. His experience of seeing the glory of God is to hide his face in fear, and even to flee from the presence of God.
This represents people who think of God the way Jonathan Edwards did, as an angry, petulant, vengeful god-a god who takes pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering on sinners. This is the same response Aaron and the Israelites had after Moses had ordered 3000 of them to be killed in the name of God. This disciple is also living behind a veil-a veil of fear because someone has told him that God is like Moses, ordering the killing of people that displease him.
But I hear Jesus saying, “Go and learn what this means; I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And I hear the Father saying, “This is My Son; My Chosen One; Listen to Him!”
Third, the disciple on the right is sleeping. He is completely unaware of what Jesus, Moses and Elijah are discussing. He has his own ideas about Jesus as the Messiah. He’s not interested in any discussion that differs from his own opinion. He too is living behind a veil, but he’s not cowering in fear. He’s not afraid of what he might see if he looks at God because he has God all figured out…his god looks just like him. He’s just not that interested in hearing what Jesus has to say, because he already knows what HIS messiah will be like – and suffering and death are not in the cards for HIS messiah. Paul speaks of people like this in our text from 2 Corinthians 3:14:
“But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside.”
But I still hear Jesus saying, “Go and learn what this means; I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And I hear the Father saying, “This is My Son; My Chosen One; Listen to Him!”
Just after the Transfiguration, James and John prove that they didn’t understand any of this. They ask Jesus if they should call fire down from heaven (like Elijah did) to destroy a Samaritan village that didn’t receive Jesus. (Luke 9:51-55) Jesus rebukes them for the idea. Why? Because there was zero mercy in it! No wonder Jesus told them to wait until after the resurrection to talk about what they had seen!
Paul also speaks of veils in our 2 Corinthians 3 text:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Paul understands that we must have our veiled understandings of God removed in order for our own transformation into the image of Jesus to begin. Paul had previously had his own encounter with the glorified Jesus. When Paul was a devout and zealous Pharisee, going by the name Saul, he went about the region seeking out followers of Jesus, persecuting them and even overseeing their executions. On his way to Damascus to do more of the same, the risen and glorified Jesus appeared to him and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
In this experience with the risen & glorified Jesus, the tables are turned. It’s not God who is perceived as requiring the lives of idolatrous people like Moses thought.
It’s not God being perceived as wanting the blood of false prophets like Elijah thought. It’s Jesus asking Saul why he is persecuting God! The violence that Saul thought was intrinsic to God’s nature is revealed as being his own!
The Israelites feared God because Moses presented God as someone who required the lives of those who didn’t please Him. The prophets of Baal feared God because Elijah presented God as someone who required the blood of unbelievers. But on the road to Damascus, Saul came face-to-face with the fact that it was himself, not God who was in the business of violent persecution.
IN THE LIGHT OF THE GLORY OF JESUS, SAUL CLEARLY SAW HIMSELF, AS IN A MIRROR, FOR THE FIRST TIME.
Like Peter, James, John and Saul, we are all prone to project our own violent natures onto God and declare that we are doing God’s work when we persecute others. The Transfiguration holds up a mirror to teach us something else.
Can we hear Jesus saying, “Go and learn what this means; I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And can we hear the Father saying, “This is My Son; My Chosen One; Listen to Him!”
Let the transformation begin!