Friday, December 28, 2012

Disecting the Transfiguration: Matthew 17:1-13

The Scripture Passage
1 Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves.
2 And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light.
3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.
4 Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!"
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified.
7 And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, "Get up, and do not be afraid."
8 And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone.
9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead."
10 And His disciples asked Him, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"
11 And He answered and said, "Elijah is coming and will restore all things;
12 but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished.  So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands."
13 Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.
Transfigured Glory

What does it mean to be transfigured?  Well, if you look in the original Greek, it means...transfigured.  Basically, the only explanation we have is contained in the description that follows the word: a shining face and glowing clothes.  In modern terms, we might think of it as similar to shape-shifting.  Jesus was just miraculously transformed temporarily into something with more glory than a human.  Yet, I don't think this was Jesus being revealed in His full glory to the three disciples.  You see, no man can see God in His glory and live.  While there are exceptions when prophets witnessed God's glory (you'll run into some descriptions in the Old Testament), (1) These were in visions, not a physical, face-to-face state like the disciples saw Jesus in, (2) this description is only a small portion compared to other descriptions of God's glory, and (3) most importantly, reactions to seeing God's glory in visions were quite extreme, certainly not a matter of "Hey, I've got an idea - let's pitch some tents!"  If you're interested in what God's glory looks like, and people's reactions to seeing it, check out Revelation 1:12-17 and Ezekiel 1:26-2:2.  So anyway, I think this was sort of a "partial glory" - the disciples saw a bit of His deity in that incident, but He wasn't revealed to them with the outward appearance of His fully-God side...if so, then it was a perfect picture of Christ being both Man and God.
But when the disciples hear the voice of the Father, far less masked than Jesus's glory, their reaction of falling on their faces in terror is the appropriate reaction of human beings before the Almighty revealed in all His perfection - and, I believe, and unavoidable reaction.  We sinful human beings simply cannot handle that much Perfection.  And here's the thing - the Father even kept Himself behind a cloud (like He did for the ancient Israelites) to shield them from His full glory, and they still couldn't help but face-plant!  As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, "God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror...Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun.  They need to think again.  They are only playing with religion."
Now, I take the booming voice of God proclaiming, "Listen to Him!!!!" as a firm admonition for thoroughly wrong behavior (as we'll examine in a moment), and the disciples clearly got the message that they messed up - but look what happened next: Jesus immediately offered forgiveness.  The very instant we confess, "God, I screwed up," His arms are open wide to us.
Moses and Elijah

Why, specifically, were Moses and Elijah present at the transfiguration?  Well, they represented the entirety of the Old Covenant - the Law and the Prophets.  Jesus taught that He was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (in that His death fulfilled the Law's requirements of blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin, and that both foretold the coming Messiah), and greater than the old system the Law and Prophets revolved around (in that God is so far beyond human comprehension, we can't even begin to explain Him, even with such an intricate system as the Old Testament Law), and this is where He demonstrated all that.  The transfiguration is how He demonstrated His authority to issue the New Covenant of forgiveness by faith in Christ.
This is tangential to the passage, but I find it interesting nonetheless, so I'll share. :-)  It seems God has many plans for Moses and Elijah.  Let's start with their mysterious partings from this Earth.  We know that Elijah did not die, but was rather taken to heaven in a fiery, flying chariot.  Although Moses died, God Himself buried Moses in a secret place, and the angel Michael and Satan apparently fought over the body at one point.  Weird, right?  Well, it's thought that God wanted Moses and Elijah to reappear here at the transfiguration, and perhaps later as the Two Witnesses in Revelation 11:1-14.  A lot of it's speculation, but...the mystery is intriguing.
The Disciples' Roles in this Scene

Peter, James, and John were sort of Jesus's closest three disciples (He had the 3, the 12, the 70, and then all His followers).  And even the best three screwed up colossally (here, and elsewhere) - which is very encouraging for us in that it demonstrates that God loves us, too, no matter how much or how often we fail Him.  So what exactly did they do wrong here?
Well, a tabernacle wasn't just a tent - in the Judaic context, it was a holy tent.  Jews lived in them during the "Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths)," but most importantly, before the Temple was built, God met with His people in a sacred Tabernacle.  So, by offering to build a tabernacle for each of them, the disciples demonstrated that they though Moses and Elijah were on an equal plain with the Messiah!  In other words, they completely missed the entire point of the experience: that Jesus is greater than the Law and Prophets, that Jesus, as God, is far greater than the heroes of the faith.  Jesus was not just some prophet or teacher; He is God Himself.
But we shouldn't ignore the fact that after the reprimand, the disciples did something very admirable: They paid attention to what had happened, connected that event to what they had already learned, and asked a question about it...
Elijah Here, Elijah There, Elijah Everywhere!

Was John the Baptist literally Elijah, back on Earth?  Yes and no.  Just as Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah's spirit, John the Baptist came "in the spirit and power of Elijah."  Elsewhere, Jesus says, "If you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come."  The "if you are willing to accept it" basically means...yes and no. :-)  In John 1:21, John explicitly stated that he was not actually Elijah...but sometimes Jesus says he kind of was...  Just as, when we do something in Jesus's name, we are doing it in the capacity of Jesus or as Jesus would do it, coming in the spirit of Elijah doesn't mean actually having Elijah's soul in you, but rather, acting in the same manner as Elijah did and in a way that harkens back to Elijah...but with special involvement by the spiritual realm.  The specifics of this are quite hazy, but basically, this is what we know: The Messianic prophecy in Malachi 4:5-6 states that Elijah will return before the Day of the Lord (in the End Times) to turn people's hearts back to God.  John the Baptist was a partial fulfillment to this - he was a precursor, a pseudo-Elijah present at Christ's first coming, while the literal Elijah will be sent to Earth again to herald Christ's second coming.  They both serve the same purpose: To proclaim Christ, and bring people to repentance and faith in God.
Anything you'd like to add to the discussion or ask?  Comment below. :-)
Image Number One: The Transfiguration, by Lodovico Carracci.  Wikipedia. Public domain in the United States.
Image Number Two: Torah and Jad.  Wikipedia. Used by permission.
Image Number Three: St. Paul Writing His Epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne.  Wikipedia.  {{PD-1923}} Public domain in the United States.
Image Number Four: Greek icon of Elias (Elijah).  Wikipedia.  {{PD-1923}} Public domain in the United States.  {{PD-old-70}} Public domain in the Europen Union, including Greece, the source country.

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