In the Harry Potter books, the students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy have to take a course in “Transfiguration.” There they learn how to change teacups into rats or flowers into candles. And to most people’s minds that is pretty much what “transfiguration” is, too: it is a change of state from one thing into something quite different. The Greek word used in Matthew 17 is the word from which we derive the English word “metamorphosis” and that word likewise conjures up caterpillars turning into butterflies or a Franz Kafka character waking up one day only to discover he had turned into a giant beetle.
But none of those associations seems quite apt for whatever it was that happened to Jesus on that mountaintop. We don’t want to say (do we?) that Jesus changed from one kind of being into a completely different type. For the better part of two millennia now the church has struggled to hold in tension the idea that Jesus was one person with two natures (fully human and fully divine) and that those two natures co-existed in Jesus without confusion, without mixture, without one altering the other, and so on (cf. The Athanasian Creed for an exceedingly thorough drubbing on this subject). So we can’t theologically countenance the idea that Jesus could toggle between being either human or divine, as though he had not been both at the same time all along.
To avoid this, we could say that what happened on the mountaintop is that the divine nature rose to prominence in a way that had not generally been the case throughout Jesus’ earthly existence up to that point. Or we could say that for a few brief moments the Father showed the disciples what Jesus (as Son of God) had always looked like before he emptied or stripped himself of certain ordinary divine traits so as to become incarnately human (think of it as a temporary reversal on the kind of kenosis spelled out in Philippians 2). Either way or both ways, however, it was not that Jesus became something he generally speaking was not but more the case that something that was a part of who he had been all along was displayed in a different way.
This may be important to remember. Because when Jesus said things like “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” he didn’t mean just this one incident of blazing glory. He meant that divinity had been on display every day of his life. Divinity was on display when he spoke kindly to ostracized women and outcast lepers. Divinity was on display when Jesus wept over a dead friend and when he smiled gently at a misguided yet earnest rich young ruler.
In other words, we dare never say of Matthew 17 that this was one time when we could see Jesus as divine in addition to being also human. After all, this lection occurs on the final Sunday before the start of Lent and we want to be clear all through the Lenten Season that the glory of the Father and of the fullness of the Godhead were on display even when a crown of thorns got pressed into the flesh of Jesus’ scalp, even when that same man was hoisted up on a spit of wood like some grim scarecrow atop a garbage heap.
When Peter made his impetuous suggestion that they capture the moment forever by building some shelters up there on the mountaintop, the foolishness of his suggestion is not what we normally think it is; namely, that you just can’t just reach out and bottle divine incandescence as though you were doing no more than capturing a firefly in a jar. No, the true folly of Peter’s suggestion stems from the fact that he didn’t need shelters to capture what was going on up there on the mountain: that same reality had been with him and the other disciples from the very first day they met Jesus. Peter suggested that they build skene, or “tabernacles/tents,” which is the same word John uses in his prologue about Jesus “tabernacling” in our midst. The skene Peter sought had been with him in Jesus’ fleshly tent all along.
When the spectacle was over, verse 8 says that the disciples looked up “and saw no one except Jesus.” But had anything really changed? Was Jesus any less glorious then than he had been a few moments earlier? And what about when Jesus would soon get to that point when he would become, in the words of the prophet, “like one from whom people hide their faces”? Was he any less glorious there as the true Son of God than in those few moments of obvious shining?
It is ironic that this moment of transfiguration always strikes us as being all about what can be seen and yet when God’s voice thunders from heaven, what he says is that the disciples must listen to Jesus! Apparently, if they listen to what Jesus says, they will discover windows on glory they had never before suspected were there.
Perhaps it’s no different today. Our modern time is as enamored of outward glitz and glitter and eye-popping spectacles as any era has ever been. The media is drawn to megachurches full of glamour. Our attention is nabbed by the spectacular, the superstars, the headline grabbers. But true glory lurks in unexpected places and in generally humble wrappings. It lurks in every believer, in all those about whom Jesus once prayed to be one with even as he and his Father were one.
It’s when we listen to the Word of Jesus, including when that Word comes through any number of Jesus’ latter-day followers, that we start to see the glory we too often miss. Curiously, Jesus tells the disciples to tell no one about this incident until after he had been raised from the dead. But, of course, once Jesus was raised, he didn’t stick around long. By the time the disciples were free to tell folks about this, they would not be able to point to Jesus in physical form. He’d be gone back to heaven by then and so all that would be left would be words and witness and things to which people could listen.
Compared to that, we’d all like to join Peter and capture the more obvious features of glory. What we really are left to do, however, is to see the glory that surrounds us always whenever we hear and repeat the Word of Life that just is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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Frederick Dale Bruner points out that the Transfiguration has three main biblical parallels: Exodus 34:29-35 where Moses’ face was said to shine with the reflected glory of Yahweh after his meeting with God on the holy mountain; 2 Peter 1:16-18 where Peter makes overt reference to this incident and all the confirming words and signs that accompanied it;. and Deuteronomy 18:15 where God (through Moses) predicts that he will one day raise up a prophet like Moses and that when that one comes, the people will have to listen to them.
By the way: as most scholars of the Old Testament know, the Deut. 18 text is a key text to understand the role of the Prophet in ancient Israel but also as a key text that points forward to the ultimate Prophet, Jesus Christ. A key job of the Prophet in Israel was to mediate the covenant by applying Torah, the Law, to the people. Sometimes that application was in a call to return to God’s covenant intentions for his people and often that call came in the form of rebuke and the cry of repentance to a stiff-necked and disobedient people. This is in part why Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophet) appear with Jesus even as Jesus in his own being fulfills the Law and the Prophets perfectly, not so much applying the Law to the people as fulfilling its very purpose through his own life and sacrificial death.
In popular culture in recent years a great many people are aware of a now-famous transfiguration scene from Peter Jackson’s first The Lord of the Rings films.
In this scene, the Elf queen Galadriel is offered the one Ring of power by the Hobbit Frodo Baggins. This is tempting for even as strong a spiritual being as Galadriel because in her hands, she could indeed wield the Ring to great and powerful effect. But like the wizard Gandalf (who likewise refuses to touch or take the Ring), she knows she would be utterly corrupted by the Ring’s evil. Thus, in the end, she will not touch or take the Ring from Frodo. She cannot.
But in the scene, she briefly toys with the idea and so transfigures into a towering figure with a voice like the sound of many rushing waters. She shines with a bright, incandescent light of terrifying power before finally shrinking back down to an ordinary sized and normal looking Elf.
The difference between this kind of scene and Christ upon the mountaintop in Matthew 17 is that Jesus did not transfigure into something he was not—much less into something potentially awful—but rather reveals what he already is as the true Messiah, the true Son of God.
And it’s kind of a reverse Galadriel transfiguration in another sense: Galadriel transfigured at the prospect of taking on huge powers; Jesus transfigured into his true glory, which was ordinarily hidden from the disciples’ eyes on account of Jesus’ having given up his true divine powers in order to be born also truly human.
And it was the giving up of those divine powers and perquisites that spells the salvation of our cosmos!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9 Commentary