The Climactic Word - Transfigured Hermeneutics 6
March 16, 2016
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'. 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.
 Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) p. 60.