Results tagged “transfiguration” from Reformation21 Blog

The Climactic Word - Transfigured Hermeneutics 6

This is the sixth of a ten part treatment of the significance of the Transfiguration for Christian theology and biblical reflection. I am currently exploring the way in which the Transfiguration draws upon associations with the events of the Exodus and Mount Sinai and upon broader Old Testament themes.

At Sinai, the Law of God was given to Israel on tablets of stone. At the Transfiguration, God declares that Jesus is his Son and his Word to the world: 'This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!' Jesus is God's climactic word, the Word that all of the other words anticipated. Although Jesus' identity as God's Son and Word given to the world is the fundamental implication of the gospels and the New Testament in their entirety, it is here, at the Transfiguration, that God's gift of his Son as his revelation to the world is declared in a direct and unmediated word from God himself.

Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, both persons who had spectacular yet fleeting visions of God's glory at Mount Sinai and both persons who had experienced a form of transfiguration by the Glory of God themselves (Moses' shining face and Elijah's ascent in the divine throne chariot in 2 Kings 2). Moses was the one through whom God gave the Law; Elijah was the one through whom God established a remnant prophetic movement. Between them they are the two greatest OT witnesses: some have seen Moses as representing the Law, and Elijah the prophets. They stand for all of the revelation that had come beforehand, revelation that witnesses to and is exceeded by God's gift of his Son.

Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus concerning what he is about to fulfil. Jesus' superiority to them is apparent, especially as they are removed from the scene and God testifies to his Son. Even the most important prophets and mediators of revelation in the Old Testament are surpassed by Jesus.

The words of God's declaration concerning his Son in verse 35 resonate deeply within the world of the Old Testament. Richard Hays observes the presence of Genesis 22 and Isaiah 42:1--'Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights'--in the background of God's declaration at Jesus' Baptism. The Isaiah echo is more prominent in Luke 9, where it is 'amplified into a more explicit allusion' as Jesus is referred to as the 'chosen one'.[1] This designation as the Isaianic Servant presents Jesus as the True Israel, and as God's faithful covenant partner.

In contrast to the divine voice at Jesus' Baptism, the voice here is directed to the disciples, not to Jesus himself. The disciples are instructed to 'hear' Jesus, a probable allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15-19. The promised Prophet like Moses is one that the people must 'hear' (cf. Acts 3:22). Jesus is the One for whom Elijah was preparing the way and he is the great Prophet like Moses that was foretold. His word comes with a glorious finality in the history of redemption, the revelation that will not be surpassed. 'God, who at various times and in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son ... the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person' (Heb. 1:1-2).

In Malachi 4:4-6, the final verses of the Old Testament prophets, the coming Day of the LORD is announced and the people are told to remember the 'Law of Moses,' God's servant. It is also promised that 'Elijah' will appear 'before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.' This prophecy is prominent in the context of the Transfiguration account, where Matthew's account records Jesus referring the prophecy concerning Elijah to John the Baptist (Matthew 17:10-13). As Moses and Elijah are the great witnesses and the ones who will prepare the way for the climactic coming of the LORD himself, their appearance with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration is very fitting.

Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his departure--literally his 'Exodus'--that he was about to 'fulfil' in Jerusalem. The use of such a resonant term at this juncture is worthy of attention: Moses and Elijah are not merely referring to Jesus' coming death as an event about to befall him, but to his purposeful and powerful outworking of a new Exodus, in which all previous and anticipatory 'exoduses' will be fulfilled and all the promises of God realized. Jesus' departure--his 'Exodus'--is more than merely his death: it is also his resurrection, ascension, and his deliverance of a great multitude of captives. By his death and resurrection Christ tears open the sea of Death and Hell, allowing all of his people to pass through unscathed, while drowning all of their pursuers behind them.

The literary purpose of the overarching Exodus motif in this passage in Luke, to which I drew attention earlier, should become more apparent now. Luke's use of a mini-exodus pattern in this passage is akin to the composer of the film score who allows the hero's theme to surface in the background, readying the audience for its full expression as the hero achieves his magnificent victory. Luke wants our minds to be on Exodus, so we will understand both what is taking place on the mountain and what Jesus is about to go to Jerusalem to achieve. Jesus' Exodus will be the culmination of redemptive history, the decisive, definitive, and dreadful statement of fundamental themes that had been hitherto only quietly, yet pervasively, intimated.

Within the next post, I will discuss the relationship between the Transfiguration and the parousia.


[1] Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) p. 60.

The High Priest and the New Temple: Transfigured Hermeneutics 5

This is the fifth of a multipart discussion of the importance of the event of the Transfiguration for Christian theology and biblical reflection. I have argued for illuminating parallels between the events of Sinai and that of the Transfiguration. My previous two posts explored the gospels' presentation of Christ as God's glory theophany. Within this post I will turn to the themes of priesthood and sanctuary, which the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration also share with the events of Sinai recorded in Exodus.

If Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan was, as Peter Leithart has argued, an initiation into priesthood, his Transfiguration declares his great high priesthood as the Son over God's house:
Other details of the transfiguration have priestly connotations: The event occurs on the "eighth day," which was the beginning of Aaron's ministry (Lev. 9:1; Luke 9:28); Jesus' clothing is transformed into garments of flashing glory like those worn by the High Priest (Luke 9:29); glory surrounds Jesus (Luke 9:31, 32); Peter wants to build "tabernacles" (Luke 9:33); and Moses and Elijah disappear after a cloud overshadows the mountain (Luke 9:34; cf. Exod. 40:34-38). Shortly after, Jesus begins His march to Jerusalem, where He will cleanse the temple, begin to teach, and eventually offer His once-for-all sacrifice (Luke 9:51; cf. v. 31). The transfiguration publishes the truth of the baptism: Jesus has been, and will be, glorified as High Priest over the house.[1]
In light of Jesus' revelation as the great and glorious High Priest, the sacrificial character of his death becomes more apparent. As Jesus sets his face towards his death in Jerusalem, he unveils himself as the archetypal High Priest and Son over the heavenly sanctuary. Jesus is not overtaken by events nor cornered by the political machinations and conspiracies of his enemies: he goes to the cross with the power and determination of the heavenly High Priest who will accomplish his sacrifice.

In Matthew's account of the Transfiguration, temple-building themes are present in the near vicinity. In 16:17-19, in response to Peter's confession, Christ declares that he will build his Church--his assembly--upon the rock of Peter. As Leithart observes, there is a mixture of imagery here. The architectural language of building would suggest Temple-construction, as would the context, where Peter has just identified Jesus as the Christ, the figure who would establish the true Temple. However, the specific term used for the Church is not the term for a building, but for a human assembly, an assembly that can carry military connotations (connotations that are live in Matthew 16, where conflict with the gates of Hades is prominent). This fusion of imagery is suggestive: the 'building' of the new Temple is not a physical building made with hands, but an assembly of people that God would indwell.

These themes of building resurface in a surprising way within the narrative of the Transfiguration, where Peter suggests that they build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Elijah, and one for Moses. Peter's proposal, especially as it features within Luke's gospel--where it is uttered as Elijah and Moses where parting from Jesus--seems to be an attempt to get them to stay.

Many commentators have seen in the word 'tabernacles' a possible allusion to the Exodus Tabernacle or, alternatively, to the Feast of Tabernacles (a feast commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, Leviticus 23:39-43). Whether this is reading too much into the term or not, God takes Peter's mundane proposal and responds in a manner charged with theological meaning, implying that Peter unwittingly said more than he knew (v.33b).

We should recognize the cloud that descends as the Glory cloud--the Shekinah--that came upon Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16), the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38), and the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-13). Peter had suggested that they build 'tabernacles', so that they might continue to enjoy the presence of Moses and Elijah. God's responds by removing Elijah and Moses, but causing the Shekinah to descend upon Jesus and his disciples. Peter's desire that Moses and Elijah tarry with them in temporary 'tabernacles' is answered by God's enacted declaration that Jesus is the Tabernacle of his personal dwelling, the glorious Son who must eclipse all lesser reflective lights.

Peter believed that it would be good to delay the departure of Moses and Elijah. However, Moses and Elijah must decrease so that Christ can increase. They are witnesses that must step back when the One they foretold arrives. The Law and the Prophets are passing and temporary: Christ is lasting and permanent. Peter and the disciples would be called to build something. However, it wouldn't be a temporary tabernacle, but an eternally enduring Temple.

Just as God gave Moses the plans for the Tabernacle on Mount Sinai in Exodus and revealed the plans for a new prophetic temple to Ezekiel on a high mountain in Ezekiel 40, so God reveals his new Temple on the mount of Transfiguration. The Temple is Christ himself, in whom all of the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, and the assembly of his people. Peter, James, and John are fellow cornerstones of the new Temple, with Christ himself the chief. Christ is both the glorious High Priest and the new Temple.

Within my next post, I will conclude my discussion of the parallels between the Transfiguration and the events of Sinai.


[1] Peter Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), p. 119-120

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

Transfigured Hermeneutics 3: Transfiguration as Theophany

This is the third part of a multipart series of posts on the subject of the Transfiguration and its significance for Christian theology and biblical reflection. Within the first couple of posts I explored the literary presentation of the event of the Transfiguration, chiefly as it appears in Luke's gospel. I argued that the Transfiguration is paralleled to the Baptism of Christ and is also framed by an Exodus pattern. Within this Exodus pattern, the analogies between the Transfiguration and Sinai are cast in bolder relief, enabling us to see the mutually illuminating character of the events that occur on the two mountains. It is to this that we will now turn.

In Exodus 33:17-18, Moses asked the LORD to show him his glory. The LORD descended in the cloud, stood with Moses, and then passed before him in 34:5-9, declaring his covenant name. As Meredith Kline has observed, there is both a close interrelationship and a distinction in the Old Testament between the Angel of the LORD and the Spirit-Presence.[1]  The Angel (or Messenger) of the LORD is identified with God and is spoken of as a divine figure, but can also be distinguished from God 'as one who is sent by God on a mission or who himself refers to the Lord in the third person.'[2] The Angel is the divine archetypal prophetic figure--a form of God's self-manifestation--declaring the LORD's will and representing his authority to his people. The Spirit-Presence (or Glory) is the LORD's own majesty and splendour.

There are many accounts of theophanies in the Old Testament. It is important, however, to observe their differing characters. In some theophanies, as in the LORD's appearance to Abraham at Mamre (Genesis 18) or the Man who wrestles with Jacob at Peniel (Genesis 32:22-32), the appearance is of the Angel of the LORD, with apparently no accompanying Glory phenomena. In other cases, such as the pillar of cloud and fire that led the children of Israel out of Egypt and the theophany witnessed by the nation at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 and 20, it is the phenomena of dreadful and awe-inspiring Glory-Presence that is most prominent, a burning radiance shrouded in thick cloud and darkness. Kline writes:
During the earlier period when the kingdom offered in the Abrahamic promises was still abeyant, God appeared as the Angel, apart from the Glory phenomena. But the advent of the age that was prototypal of final judgment and kingdom consummation witnessed a form of theophany appropriate to an age of eschatological fulfillment. God's self-revelation to Israel in this age of exodus triumph and kingdom founding was still a revelation through the Angel, but now the Angel appeared in union with the Spirit-Presence, in the more public and continuous and awesome epiphany of the Glory-cloud.[3]
When the Angel is accompanied by the Glory, it is the Glory-Face of the LORD that is seen. Moses' theophany upon Mount Sinai is of a distinct character from previous theophanies. While the Angel of the LORD laid aside his Glory in previous theophanies, Moses witnessed the Angel in his Glory-form. As Moses saw the Glory-Face of the LORD he was transformed by the sight, his own face bearing a reflected glory so dazzling that the Israelites could not bear to look upon it. To spare the Israelites from the sight, Moses covered his face with a veil, only removing it when he went into the Glory-Presence of the LORD to speak with the LORD again (Exodus 34:29-35).

As I have observed, Luke narrates the Transfiguration of Christ in a manner that accents Exodus themes. The relationship between the Transfiguration and Sinai is found primarily in the theophany, although the contrasts here are as important as the similarities. The most significant of these contrasts is that, while Moses' face is changed as he reflects the LORD's Glory-Face, Jesus' Transfiguration isn't a reflection, but is an unveiling of God's own Glory-Face. This is a point of no small significance: in his Transfiguration, Jesus is implicitly disclosed as the Messenger of the LORD, the archetypal divine prophet, the radiant Image or Face of God, the one witnessed by the people of God in the Old Testament.

Within the next post, I will continue to explore the theme of Christ as divine theophany, focusing upon the treatment of the subject in the gospel of John.


[1] Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), pp. 70-75

[2] Ibid. p. 71

[3] Ibid. pp. 72-73

Transfigured Hermeneutics - Transfiguration and Exodus

In my previous post, I introduced my exploration of the significance of the event of the Transfiguration. I began by observing the prominence of the event within the narrative structure of the gospels and its various parallels with the event of Jesus' Baptism. In addition to the parallels and interrelations between Baptism and Transfiguration, the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration also echo events at Sinai in the book of Exodus, escalating and developing some of its themes. Within this post, I will explore some of these parallels, preparing the ground for a discussion of the mutually illuminating character of the events that occurred on the two mountains.

Luke's account of the Transfiguration is situated within a broader Exodus pattern in chapter 9. Signs and wonders are performed by Jesus and the Twelve, leading the Pharaoh-like Herod--who, like Joseph's Pharaoh in Genesis 40:20-22, had just celebrated his birthday with an execution (Matthew 14:1-12)--to seek to see Jesus for himself. Jesus then goes out into the wilderness, where he is followed by a multitude (Luke 9:10-11--John 6:1 refers to Jesus crossing a sea to do so).

The feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness is a food miracle with similarities to God's provision of manna for the children of Israel during the Exodus. While within the gospel of Luke the connection is established chiefly by literary framing and echoes, John's gospel makes the connection more apparent within the bread from heaven discourse that follows the miracle. Jesus' delegation of the ordering of the multitude to his disciples is reminiscent of Moses' delegation of the rule of the multitude of the Israelites to the elders in Exodus 18. In Mark 6:40, the people are described as sitting down in ranks, in fifties and hundreds, as if in military array. The numbering of the males and the division of the 5,000 into groups of 50 might also recall the numbering of the people in the wilderness (Numbers 1 and 26) and the departure from Egypt and entrance into the Promised Land in companies of fifty (see the Hebrew of Exodus 13:18 and Joshua 1:14).

While John's gospel situates the feeding of the five thousand upon a mountain (John 6:3), Luke speaks only of a deserted place (Luke 9:12). The 'mountain' comes later in Luke 9, in the account of the Transfiguration. In verse 28, Jesus ascends the mountain, accompanied by Peter, John, and James. In Exodus 24, Moses takes Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu and seventy elders with him up Mount Sinai. Like those who accompanied Moses, the disciples see a divine theophany on the mountain (Luke 9:29; cf. Exodus 24:10-11).

After descending from the mountain, Jesus encounters a multitude (v.37), much as Moses encountered the multitude of Israel when he descended Sinai in Exodus 32. Both Jesus and Moses face representatives who have proved faithless in their task during the period of their absence on the mountain. Here the disciples are like Aaron and the demon-possessed child like the people of Israel. Aaron could not restrain the Israelites and the disciples could not restrain the demon. Indeed, although it is not attributed to it, the behaviour of the Israelites in Exodus 32:25 is described in a manner that bears some resemblance to demon possession. The impression is given in both accounts of a rebellion expressed in a violent physical manner.

The demon throws the boy down (v.42) and 'shatters' him (v.39). The same verb is used in the LXX to describe the shattering of the tablets when Moses casts them to the ground at the foot of Sinai (Exodus 32:19). Jesus' response is surprisingly accusatory: 'O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you and bear with you?' The clearest echoes are of the statements of YHWH and Moses concerning the children of Israel in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:28; Numbers 14:11, 27). In particular, one is reminded of Deuteronomy 32:20, where Israel is described as a 'perverse generation, children in whom is no faith'.

Although such literary parallels may initially appear no more than decorative, one of their effects is to frame the Mount of Transfiguration and the events that occurred there as a new Sinai, placing in sharper relief the relationship between the two. Among other things, three key events occurred at Mount Sinai: the LORD's glory was revealed to Moses, the plans for the tabernacle were laid out, and the Law was given. On the Mount of Transfiguration, we see analogies to each of these. Within the next post, I will begin to discuss them.

Alastair Roberts did his doctoral studies in Theology in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair's Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged