Transfigured Hermeneutics 4 - Jesus as God's Glory Face in John's Gospel

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This is the fourth part of a multipart discussion of the importance of the event of the Transfiguration for Christian theology and biblical reflection. In my first three posts, I argued for the significance accorded to the Transfiguration by its location within the narrative structure of the gospel, I explored the manner in which it is cast in relation with the events of Sinai, and I argued that it implicitly presents Christ as the divine glory theophany that was partially witnessed in the old covenant. Within this post I will turn to the gospel of John which, despite not recording the event of the Transfiguration, manifests a robust appreciation of Jesus as divine glory theophany.

John 1:14-18 is another instance where the Exodus theophany to Moses on the mountain is alluded to within the gospels. Jesus is the glorious only begotten of the Father, 'full of grace and truth,' the Word that has become flesh and 'tabernacled' among us. God's presence in the world in Jesus Christ is comparable to his presence in the midst of his people in the Sinai tabernacle. In verse 32 of the chapter, John the Baptist bears witness to the Spirit descending and remaining upon Jesus, much as the Glory cloud descended and remained upon Sinai and the tabernacle (cf. Exodus 33:9; 34:5).

Within the biblical resonance chamber provided by the Exodus theophany to Moses, John identifies Jesus as the Glory-face of God. No one has seen God at any time (v.18, cf. Exodus 33:20), yet in Jesus Christ we behold the glory of God. While Moses saw the 'back' of God's glory presence, the Son is in the very 'bosom' of the Father. The Word made flesh is 'full of grace and truth' (v.14b), an expression deeply redolent of Exodus 34:6, where God describes himself as 'abounding in goodness and truth.' By such literary parallels, John reveals that the Glory-face of God is made known in Jesus Christ.

Moses, having witnessed the Glory-presence of God, was the mediator through whom the Law was delivered. Moses and the Law gave testimony to this glory, but neither of them were this glory. While the Law came through Moses, 'grace and truth'--the very theophanic presence of God--comes through Jesus Christ. Moses and the Law testified to the glory of God: Christ is that glory. In seeing Christ, we become like Moses, witnessing the very glory of God.

The claim in John 1:18--'no one has seen God at any time'--is a statement that needs to be qualified (cf. Exodus 24:10-11, which explicitly says that Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel 'saw' the God of Israel). Exodus 33:20 helps us to clear up what might be meant here. No one can see God's 'face' and live, while Moses could see God's back. Ezekiel saw the figure of a 'likeness with the appearance of a man' (the accumulation of phenomenological terms is important here, serving as linguistic veils at points beyond which direct expression dare not tread) in Ezekiel 1:26-28. However, while the body is described both above and below the waist, no description of the face is given. Moses saw the pre-existent Son, but not as we see him. The face is the focal point of the person's identity--their countenance. By contrast with the theophanies of the OT, Jesus' face is central at the Transfiguration (this is also the case in Revelation 1, which shares with Matthew 17:2 the description of Jesus' face shining like the sun in its glory). In Jesus, God's face is finally seen.

This theme of Jesus as the Glory-face of God, the ultimate theophanic revelation, continues throughout the gospel of John. 1:14-18 and presents Jesus as the glorious revelation of God that Moses witnessed upon Mount Sinai. In 1:32-34, John the Baptist has a theophanic revelation of Jesus' identity as the Spirit descends and remains upon him. In 1:51, Jesus presents himself as Jacob's Ladder (cf. Genesis 28:12), the connection between heaven and earth. Perhaps we can see a progression here: the first theophany is of the descending Word; the second theophany is of the descending Spirit upon the descended Word; the third theophany is of the angels of God ascending and descending upon the descended Word upon whom the Spirit rests. In Jesus Christ, heaven is taking up residence on earth.

John's implicit identification of Christ as both the agent and glorious fulfilment of the great theophanies of the history of Israel establishes Christ's pre-existence and discloses the deep unity of covenant history. The glory that Jesus will be raised to is the glory that he enjoyed with the Father before the world was (17:5), the eschatological glory anticipated by the patriarch (8:58), the theophanic Glory-face of the Lord witnessed by the prophets (12:41). Christ is not a new actor in Israel's history, but the once veiled One who has been active all the time and has now, in the fullness of time, made himself known.

For a time this Glory is concealed. As Meredith Kline observes, the pattern of concealment followed by glorious revelation that we see within the Old Testament itself 'has its antitypical parallel in the successive states of humiliation and exaltation in the history of the incarnate Son, whose triumphant exodus entrance into the heavenly kingdom is marked by his investiture in the clouds of glory as the glorified Spirit-Lord.'[1] The pattern of concealment followed by manifest glory is both recapitulated and escalated within the New Testament, so that, even with the dramatic displays of glory of the Exodus and Sinai succeeding the concealment of the patriarchal theophanies, the Old Testament represents, relative to the New, a period of concealment. While John may not record the event of the Transfiguration, he shares the Synoptics' concern to show forth Jesus as the temporarily veiled but now revealed Glory-face of God.

Within the next post, I will turn to explore the theme of priesthood and tabernacle in the context of the Transfiguration, discussing some further respects in which it parallels the events on Mount Sinai.


[1] Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), p. 73

Posted February 1, 2016 @ 9:06 AM by Alastair Roberts

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