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