Transfigured Hermeneutics - Introduction

The Transfiguration holds great significance within the narratives of the Synoptic gospels and considerable promise for Christian theological reflection more generally. Yet it receives relatively little attention in many quarters, its importance lying underappreciated and unexplored. This neglect may arise in part from the apparently irruptive character of the event; to many, the glory of Christ witnessed at the Transfiguration may seem akin to an actor who has mistaken his cue and prematurely burst onto the stage. Much as the special musical episode of a TV series, the Transfiguration accounts appear to many as if detached from--or, at the least, uncertainly related to--the gospels' narrative progression, its dramatic revelation of Jesus' glory incongruous with the veiling of that glory in the accounts that surround it.

The purpose of this ten part series of posts is to establish the importance of the event of the Transfiguration and explore its theological potential. In my opening posts I will begin by examining the event within its immediate literary context in the gospels, gradually expanding the horizon of my enquiry to situate the event within the large sweep of redemptive history, before devoting close attention to the Transfiguration's fruitfulness for our theological reflection and Scriptural reading.

Baptism and Transfiguration

A more adequate appreciation of the Transfiguration will probably need to begin by demonstrating ways in which the event relates to the larger sweep of the gospel and to the Scriptures as a whole. The Transfiguration occurs at a pivotal moment in the gospel narratives, immediately after Jesus' first teaching concerning his death and Peter's confession. From this point onwards, Jesus' face is set towards Jerusalem.

Jesus' baptism and his transfiguration are correlated in a number of respects. If Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan was the revelation of his identity that initiated the first stage of his ministry, the Transfiguration is the revelation of his glory associated with the second stage of his ministry, leading up to the crucifixion.

The two events have a number of parallels and relationships that emerge within the literary structure of the narrative. Both are preceded by clear testimony to Jesus' Messiahship, against the backdrop of the crowd's speculations (e.g. Luke 3:15-17; 9:7-9, 18-20). Prior to Jesus' baptism, John the Baptist bears witness to him as the coming One; prior to the Transfiguration, Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. John the Baptist's death shortly precedes the Transfiguration, bringing the chapter of the gospels framed by his ministry to a close. Herod and the crowds are speculating whether Jesus is John redivivus (9:7-9) and it is at this point that the true nature of John's mission was revealed and both its preparatory relationship to and similarity with Jesus' own highlighted:
And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"
Jesus answered and said to them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist (Matthew 17:10-13)

John the Baptist, the Elijah that was to come, has gone first and been put to death. Now the time has come for Jesus to make his way towards his own death (the speculations about John the Baptist's resurrection, mentioned in Luke 9:7, may also represent an interesting parallel with Jesus' own resurrection). John's work was a preparation of the building site, a felling of trees and a purging of the threshing floor (Matthew 3:10-12 ); just before the Transfiguration, Jesus announces the start of the great building project (Matthew 16:17-19). Both the Baptism and the Transfiguration are followed by a showdown with Satan and his demons--Jesus overcomes the tempter in the wilderness following his baptism and casts out the unclean spirit in the child after descending from the Mount of Transfiguration. He then passes through Galilee to stay in Capernaum (Matthew 4:12-13; 17:22-24).

The events of the Baptism and Transfiguration themselves are similar in some noteworthy respects. When he was baptized, the Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and the Father's voice declared Jesus to be his beloved Son, in whom he was well pleased. At the Transfiguration, the Spirit descends in the form of the bright glory cloud [2] and the voice of the Father announces that Jesus is the Chosen Son, and that the disciples should hear him. Understood in such a manner, both the Baptism and the Transfiguration are overtly Trinitarian theophanies. In Luke's gospel, there is also a characteristic emphasis upon prayer common to both accounts: both of the events occur while Jesus is praying (3:21-22; 9:29). Such associations between the Baptism and the Transfiguration--great disclosures of Christ's glory and mission that initiate successive stages of his earthly ministry--are indications, far from being an anomalous event within the larger plot, the Transfiguration may be structurally integral to the progression of the gospel narratives.

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


[1]  Solomon's Temple was built on a threshing floor (2 Chronicles 3:1) and John the Baptist alludes to a prophecy about purifying Temple worship in his statement about purging the threshing floor (Malachi 3:1-3).
[2] See Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority [second edition] (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), pp.201-202 on the connection between the Spirit and the glory cloud.