(Year B, Last Sunday of Epiphany [Transfiguration], February 11, 2018; Epistle reading 2 Peter 1:13-21)
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” – 2 Peter 1:16-18 (ESV)
This Sunday is the day that the Church commemorates the event which fully revealed to the apostles the true nature of Jesus – that he is not “just” a man nor “only” divine. The true nature, the true Glory of Jesus Christ, is that truth which orthodox Christians weekly pronounce in the recitation of the Nicene Creed – “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of One being with the Father.” The Gospel reading today is from Mark’s account of the event, but in reading the lectionary for this Sunday, I felt more pull to focus on Peter’s first-hand account of the Transfiguration, and especially the emphasis he places on having been an eyewitness to this event, which is on par with the miracles of the Incarnation and the Resurrection themselves.
Why is it important that Peter makes a first-hand affirmation of the Transfiguration account in this letter? In all three of the synoptic Gospel accounts, Peter is named along with James and John as being present at the Transfiguration. If it had just been a feature of the Gospel narrative, absent any personal confirmation, the critics of the Gospel account could point to this as myth-making, as many false teachers apparently were in the first century, and many skeptical “Christians” continue to do today. But Peter affirms without equivocation that the Transfiguration happened, that he and the others were physically present on the “holy mountain,” as Peter calls it.
Peter says that he, James, and John were witnesses to Jesus’ “majesty.” We know from the Gospel accounts, and from other epistles, that Jesus’ everyday visage was not “majestic.” Precious little is written about his physical appearance, but he is described as meek, lowly of heart, and having no place to lay his head. His quality of majesty was one that was revealed on the mountain, meaning that it was not evident in the everyday conditions the disciples and apostles would have known Jesus. From the Gospel accounts, we also know that this quality was hidden again after the Transfiguration, that the permanent appearance of His majesty was held off until after Jesus was raised from the dead (Mark 9:9).
The word “glory” is used in all of the Transfiguration accounts, and Peter uses it in the sense of God giving glory to Jesus. In preparing this reflection, I did research to see if there are any other places where God gives glory to any human. The closest I could find is in the Law where God promises that the people of Israel will have the highest fame, honor, and esteem of all the nations that he made (Deuteronomy 26:19). So, for God to give glory to Jesus is extraordinary – God treated the patriarchs, prophets, and select kings as friends; but of all humanity, only Jesus was given “glory.” Again, from the Gospel accounts, we know that this was a temporary revelation of an eternal glory, which would be fully and permanently revealed after the Resurrection.
The Transfiguration is chock-full of teachings on the nature of Jesus, the trinity, and the glorified life. It would take little effort to write pages about any one of these topics. However, what stands in my mind most while reflecting on the Transfiguration event itself, and Peter’s account of it in particular, is the parallel it has to Moses’ multiple interactions with God Almighty on holy mountains. First, when the Angel of the Lord appeared out of the burning bush on Mount Horeb; then when Moses went up on Mount Sinai to hear the Law; when he stood on the rock as the Lord’s “glory passed by”; and finally when Moses went up on the mountain so that God could show him the Promised Land, after which time Moses died. The Transfiguration has that feel to it – a momentous occasion showing the people of God through those chosen to witness to them the plans and promises God has for them.
But what most strikes me is that where Moses was told he could not see God’s glory and live (Exodus 33:20), Peter, James, and John all saw Jesus glorified and lived and bore witness to the event for many years after. The promise that God would dwell with man, and that we would be able to witness His Glory without fear of death and destruction was given substance on the Holy Mountain when Christ’s visage, for a brief time, was transfigured to show the divine truth of His Being.
As we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord, ask yourself how you approach the accounts of great works and miracles in the Bible. Do you take them at their word, or do you internally gloss over them and tacitly dismiss them as “myth-making”? As someone who has at times straddled the fence between the two stances, I encourage you to pray for deeper faith even in things that are hard to believe. Meditate on what the Transfiguration accounts tell us about the person of Jesus, and the Good News that he sent Peter, James, and John – along with the other Apostles and disciples – out to share with all the world.
Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.