Sunday, November 2, 2008

Christ's Transfiguration - Meaning for the Apostolic Mission

The manifestation of Christ’ glory at the transfiguration is to affirm Jesus’ exodus – His suffering, death, and resurrection as the Lamb of God. This serves as the climax to the Epiphany season. Here Jesus is born of the Virgin Mary, extending salvation to all humanity thus fulfilling all that which is spoken of by Moses and Elijah. God speaks to the disciples affirming the mission of Jesus, whom is to be crucified as the suffering servant.

Rudolph Bultmann’s observation that the transfiguration is merely a misplaced resurrection narrative, though clearly misguided, is marked by an element of truth. The transfiguration involved a scene where Peter, "and those who were with him" (John and James), saw the glory of Jesus. This glory is beheld after Moses and Elijah have a conversation about Jesus’ departure or exodus which will be accomplished at Jerusalem. That which Jesus accomplishes in Jerusalem is not earthly or military might but the glory of the cross. Bulmann’s observation has some truth insofar as the transfiguration prefigures the death and resurrection. The transfiguration might therefore be seen as an expectation event which foretells that which is to be the glory of Jesus at his resurrection, or a Parousia account. That which is spoken by Moses and Elijah, though we are no privy to the specifics of the dialogue, is a recounting the glory of the departure or exodus in Jerusalem. This glory is the suffering servant of Isaiah.

The significance of the transfiguration in the context of Luke 9 is marked by a very rapid climax of events. The feeding of the five thousand is probably the most significant miracle, and the only one shared by all four Gospels, besides the resurrection account. It is here where Jesus teaching the crowds about the kingdom of God, preaching, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry. This account is profoundly Eucharistic and points to the sacrament at the alter and the ways that Christ comes through word and sacrament. In this miracle Jesus reveals himself to be the greater Moses, who feeds His people until all are satisfied. This is not mere manna that falls from heaven, but here, Jesus is revealing the sum and substance of his mission to preach, heal, satisfy, and feed his people. Seeing these miracles, Peter is the first to confess that Jesus is in fact "The Christ of God." In response to this giant confession, Jesus warns the disciples saying, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life" (Lk. 9:22). Therefore the passion prediction is set forth in stunning clarity, though fails to be understood by the disciples. This is followed by the call to discipleship, which precedes the transfiguration.

It is important to note the divergence in the gospels as to the transfiguration accounts. In Mathew 17:2 we find that for Jesus "his face did shine as the sun." This language and the broader transfiguration account which follows it can be seen to parallel Moses on Mount Sinai, where his face also shone as the sun. In Luke’s account, he records that "the appearance of his face changed." This is a much broader statement regarding this metamorphosis and would leave a much greater liberty of interpretation. One such scholar has suggested that this metamorphosis contrasts the stories in the ancient world whereby certain human being or animals were morphed into shapes of animals assuming others forms than what were properly accorded to them. Yet in Luke’s account, he suggests a change, or metamorphosis in which Jesus is changed from an earthly appearance into the glory that is more his own – or from a temporary to a more permanent form. Yet this glory or permanent form must be seen through the passion narrative, which is entailed in the dialogue with Moses and Elias. Mark’s account the change in facial appearance simply has that "he was transfigured before them" with no specific adjectives to describe the nature of this metamorphosis.

Geographical speculations regarding the site of this "high mountain" are somewhat futile, given the synoptic accounts that reveal a general agreement that Jesus was in the Caesarea Philippi area, clearly seen in Mark 8:27. The mountainous region that surrounds this area is likely the place of the transfiguration. Some sources suggest Mount Tabor as the site of the transfiguration, though this does not reconcile with Jesus being in Caesarea Philippi. 2 Peter (1:18) confirms that the transfiguration took place as the "holy mount." Luke’s account is unique regarding the purpose of the trip up the mountain to simply prayer.

It is important to note the opening of the transfiguration account that "These things came to pass" or "after these sayings." For Luke this certainly shows the continuity of the basic continuity of the narrative and to show a certain progression of the catechetical nature of this gospel account. Matthew’s gospel uses the same language as conclusion to the five discourses. This also stresses an importance or continuity with Peter’s confession and how this moves the gospel along. Luke by writing, "it came to pass," also shows the historical recounting of the biblical narrative.

A significant difference among the gospels with this pericope is Luke’s time reference to "eight days" (9:28). Both Mathew (17:1) and Mark (9:2) reveal a more precise date for the transfiguration as "After six days." It is more chronologically concerned with the order of events. This would certainly parallel Exodus 24:16 where the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it six days. The Jewish hearer of Matthew or Mark would certainly see this connection with the theophany at this central point in Hebrew history. Luke’s addition of this account occurring "eight days after these sayings (9:28)," opens up other theories on the meaning of this number for early Christian communities. "Eight" is a reference to the greater eschatological community. This finds its basis starting with the Noah account where eight human souls are preserved through the great ark – the church. Christ also rose on the first day after the Sabbath (Jn. 20:19), this "first day" of the new week of "new creation." The next Sunday, when the risen Christ appeared it was also "eight days." This first day after the seventh day, or Sabbath, therefore marks the new creation. This is a time where there is no time. For this day is wrapped up in the eternal day - reclining at the final feast.

That the garment of Jesus became "dazzling white" finds a parallel with the two men who appear at the tomb (24:4). That (ex) is added to astpaptwv show a distinguishing brilliance of white however, compared to that of the two men. This should not be overlooked. The brilliance of the garments of Jesus are extra dazzling, which suggests that Jesus is not just another dazzling white angel but the extra dazzling white One and true Lord. The eschatological movement therefore should be seen in light of this. That heaven is not an egalitarian Paradise where everybody is equally dazzling. There are indeed different spots at the banquet table, in which a hierarchal nature is assumed. That Jesus is the one true Lord, most dazzling, more pure and holy. Others in heaven, all saints, angels, and archangels are loved in special or different ways based upon their works and distinctive loveliness accorded by Christ. The scriptures are filled with the images of whiteness, symbolizing purity and godliness. Jesus is indeed the pure and spotless Lamb of God who sheds blood on the cross. The book of Revelation pours with fantastic images of white robes (6:11), garments (3:18), clouds (14:14), horses (19:14), and thrones (20:11).

The topic of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is the"departure," or from the Greek, the "exodus." This exodus is no doubt talking about what is to transpire in Jerusalem. This is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection Jesus the Christ. Scripture often recounts the exodus from Egypt as a way that God saves His people. But there are greater references that points to the greater and final saving work that will be accomplished in the Messiah. This is not simply a savior who will deliver the Jewish nation but one who will ultimately reconcile the whole world back to God. This universality of the coming Christ is lucidly spoke of by Isaiah, notably as the final redemptive event for all humanity, event the pagan nations (Is. 11:11-16). This new event in the destruction of Satan and all his works.

Much debate seems to go into how one might look at Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration. The typical Lutheran response is that Moses represents the Law and that Christ is the Gospel. Although very true, this is an over simplistic reaction to the relationship. Moses is certainty a Christ character. He delivers people from bondage, and oppression from evil pharaoh and leads the Israelites towards the Promised Land. He parts the Red Sea and delivers the people. Yet Jesus ultimately leads humanity to the true Promised Land, that of eternal glory, where all have been set free from sin and reconciled to the Father. Elijah is the great representative of prophecy of the coming Messiah. What seems to be most important however, is that Moses and Elijah are intended to make plain to the disciples and to all people that Jesus is indeed to be slain, which in accord with the Old Testament and all prophecy.

When the voice out of the cloud says, "This is my Son, my chosen One," this is directed toward Jesus. Moses and Elijah are not addressed as to their specific role in what is to come. It is clear from this that Jesus is the sum and substance of all that Moses and Elijah represent. Moses is the head of Israel’s history, and Elijah is the great prophet when only 7000 remained, who had not succumbed to idolatry. The OT makes clear that such prophets will behold and have participation with the coming Messiah. God does promise, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day the Lord comes" (Mal. 4:5). Jesus also says that the patriarchs and the prophets would have their place in the Kingdom of God (Lk. 13:28).

The conversation is all about Christ however. The dialogue is not explicitly recounted but it need not be. The impression is that these three men knew exactly what was to come and were in perfect accord with it; the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus Christ. They speak of the passion, which is the "departure" or "exodus." Jesus therefore is the new Moses and the new Elijah. The disciples are told to listen to him (Jesus). This is a Christological command that all theologians and Christians should take note of.

All the Gospel writers agree that Peter, John, and James were taken up into the mountain to pray. This central core of the apostolic band is chosen here. Maybe this reveals the way that Christ reveals himself to a strong core of faithful men, who in turn are used by him to testify to larger circles of people in dire need of Christ’s mission. Ambrose in his Exposition on the Gospel of Luke has a distinct opinion of what these three were chosen. He writes, "Only three, three were chosen, were led to the mountain…This perhaps means none can see the glory of the resurrection except he who has preserved the mystery of the Trinity intact with the undefiled purity of faith. Peter, who received the keys of the kingdom, John, to whom his mother was entrusted, and James, who was the first to mount a bishop’s throne, ascended."

Peter and the disciples response to the transfiguration is one of confusion and becomes an incomprehensible physical encounter. The church fathers speak of the transfiguration as the Godhead overwhelming the bodies of the disciples. Ambrose asks, "If the sharpness of bodily vision cannot bear the ray of the sun directly into watching eyes, how may the corruption of the human members endure the glory of God?" It seems that there is somewhat of a consensus among interpreters of the transfiguration that encountering the glory of Jesus in this way involved a hindered alertness, insofar as a sinful man has a clouded perception of a theosophical encounter. One gets the impression, given that they were "heavy with sleep," that they could not perceive in full the sounds, sights, and smells of the encounter. That Peter and the disciples saw Jesus in his glory leaves much up to the imagination, given that Jesus’ glory is indeed his death on a cross. We do know that Peter and the disciples were in deep awe for what they were seeing – heavenly glory in which Jesus was glorified in divine majesty (2 Pet. 1:16). It is clear however, that Peter fails to understand this glory of Jesus, and what this all means. Peter addresses Jesus as "Master," which demotes him back down to mere teacher, among his company of Moses and Elijah. Luke leaves him off the hook a little bit for he acknowledges that Peter was in a trancelike state. Peter’s demotion of Jesus is explained by granting that Peter uttered these things "not knowing what he said (v. 31).

This sort of babbling from Peter is seen in his desire to build tents (sknvn) for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This would most likely be a reference to the sort of tents that were constructed to celebrate Succoth, the "Feast of the Tabernacles." This was the historical memorial of the wandering Jewish people in the wilderness. During this celebration the records of the exodus and giving of the Law were read to the congregation. Peter wants to preserve this heavenly committee meeting but does not understand the glory that is to come, the death of the Lamb. After the transfiguration and "while he (Peter) said these things there came a cloud and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud" (Lk. 9:34). God also speaks from a cloud to Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24:15-18. That the cloud and the voice of God come after Peter’s babbling suggests this may be a rebuke to Peter’s failure to understand the glory of Christ. Peter had certainly planned for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to stay put for the night. Yet the voice out of the cloud says, "This is my Son, my chosen One, listen to him!" (Lk. (9:35). This parallels the baptism of Jesus and is a dramatic and climatic affirmation of the identification of Jesus as the Messiah. God is directly speaking to the disciples as to the authority of Christ and infers their future responsibilities of carrying out the apostolic office. Jesus is the revelation of God, whom God has given complete authority.

The transfiguration in the church year comes on the final Sunday of the Epiphany season. The Epiphany of the Lord symbolizes Christ manifestation to the Magi and grafting the gentiles into his kingdom for life and salvation. It is closely associated with Christ baptism also and the miracle at the wedding in Cana. The transfiguration serves as a climax to the epiphany season whereby Christ is shown to be the new and greater Moses who will save all of humanity from sin, death, and the devil. Through the cloud, God speaks directly to the disciples, affirming Jesus’ authority as the true Christ of God. The disciples and whole world are to "listen to him," whose very word gives life and salvation. This is the summation of what Epiphany season means, and this particular theophany account serves as the most sobering confession of Christ yet. This tops Peter’s confession for it is the confession of Jesus’ divinity and this Christ’s mission, for it is from the very mouth of God himself.

It has been suggested that the transfiguration is a picture of inaugurated eschatology and that it therefore might describe the liturgy. This is true in that that God does not conceal the glory of Christ. Although his divine majesty will be most fully received in death, the eschatological reality of Christ comes assuredly in the Divine Service. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ offers His very body and blood which fulfills all that testified to by Moses and Elijah. He feeds His church with His body which sustains her forever.

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