...What WE LOST IN THE FOG,
and What remained
WE BEGIN WITH A READING FROM MATTHEW 17...
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. He was transformed in front of them, and His face shone like the sun. Even His clothes became as white as the light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here! If You want, I will make three tabernacles here: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said:
This is My beloved Son.
I take delight in Him.
Listen to Him!
When the disciples heard it, they fell facedown and were terrified. Then Jesus came up, touched them, and said, “Get up; don’t be afraid.” When they looked up they saw no one except Him—Jesus alone.
Having read that, I want you to imagine with me the kind of scenario you would normally encounter only in a bad joke:
Let's say that you're Moses. You have the robes, the sweet beard, the über staff. You're pretty cool. But by the time of Jesus, you've been dead for 1400 years. Laid to rest, you are at peace in the grave, comforted in the ancestral realm of the Hebrew afterlife: "Abraham's Bosom". You have already lived your life. You have already seized your moment. You have made a huge difference in your world and for your people. You are remembered, respected, revered... So it may come as a surprise to you when, at some point, you are approached by an angel... let's say Gabriel, because, why not? ...And suppose Gabriel rests a hand on your shoulder and says,
"Oh, Gabriel! Hello."
"Hello, Moses. I'm here to let you know that we have one more thing for you to do. Back on the surface, I mean. In the flow of time."
"Really? That's amazing! Will I be leading my people out of bondage again? Will I be parting large bodies of water? Will I be receiving a new Law and handing it down? Will I be defining a nation?!"
"No, Moses, no. Nothing like that."
"Oh... Well then, what is it God would have me do?"
"Well, you know God. Such a poet. Big on metaphor. God is going to have you, well, sort of just... fade away."
"Fade? What do you mean fade?"
"I've already spoken with Elijah, and he's on board. You won't be alone - he's going to fade with you."
"Because all that you knew and established has served its purpose and demonstrated what it needed to demonstrate to the world, Moses... What you knew was never meant to be forever. There is a crucial shift happening, and you need to be there to help mark its significance... to help people see the extent of what it means."
"And I do that by fading?"
"Oh absolutely. Fading away, dissolving, disappearing."
"And I won't be speaking to the people anymore? I won't be speaking... for God?"
"Now you're getting it!"
...And (hopefully) we get it too. Perhaps, in our slowing down to examine "the Transfiguration," we can begin to see something take shape which is bolder and more wonderful than we've ever known. Perhaps we can hear it speak to us in a way that we've never heard before - least of all from the pulpit, and perhaps we can see the kind of immense statement that this story was to a first century Jewish audience.
Perhaps the Transfiguration can finally affect us in the way it might have affected those on the mountain with Jesus that day.
When that happens, we see that we're dealing with one of the most grandly bold, daring, and implicating passages in the entire New Testament... and not just a churchy story where Jesus glows.
For the Jews, a "tabernacle" (Hebrew mishkan - "residence" or "dwelling place") was a sort of portable sanctuary or temple. Its purpose was to house the very presence and glory of God. Peter, in suggesting they build three on the mountain, believes at the time that he has suggested something very fitting. He might even be thinking that his suggestion is a radical and progressive one, as he is extending the recognition he's been raised to associate with Moses and Elijah to Jesus. He is attempting to honor the event properly, and he thinks the way to do that is to recognize God's presence on display in Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. He is under the belief that all three should have a place of prominence, and so he places all three on an equal level, as equal vessels - channels through which God is speaking and identifying with...
So it is incredibly significant that - at this very moment - a cloud envelops them, and now the whole reason Moses and Elijah are there is made abundantly clear: their final task within the narrative will be to literally fade away - to disappear into that enveloping fog - just as God says, "Listen to my Son." ...And God says this to the very people who have been taught for their entire lives to listen to Moses and Elijah.
Moses and Elijah are not just two guys chosen at random to make an appearance here.
Moses represents the Law, and Elijah, the Prophets... which means that, together, they represent the scope of - we might say - their testament. These two are what Jews reference when they're speaking to their entire history and covenant. The Law and the Prophets. They represent the full and entire counsel of God as the Jews had known and preserved it... and they are disappearing into a cloud, at which point...
This stark implication would not be lost on a first century Jew. And it's staggering to think that it could ever be lost on us - when we are supposedly the fruit of that very implication! This makes it all the more important for us to recognize that what The Transfiguration has to say does not end with Jesus' disciples or their Jewish brothers and sisters.
The implication extends... to us.
For us, the religious-cultural pressure to claim a "flat reading" of scripture, and to insist that all that the Bible has to say is equally authoritative, robs the scripture of its own narrative and thematic momentum. How strange that we would attempt to "honor" something by ignoring it! What results from this confusion is that we set ourselves up to deny the same Voice of God in that cloud, as we ourselves revive the flawed suggestion of Peter in our own haste to make tabernacles where they do not belong. Unlike Peter, however, we don't really have a good excuse. As Jeff Turner put so well, when we seek to "hold to a reading that insists Joshua is as revelatory as Jesus, and Ecclesiastes as Ephesians, we are also forced to ignore the internal dialog and debate that occurs within the bible's pages, and therefore delude ourselves..." Scripture is capable of being self-critical, and this is good. The Mosaic Law is radical for its time, and critiques the culture around it. But when the prophets come along, they challenge it. They wrestle with sacrifice, wrestle with covenant, wrestle with what "Israel" really is and what it means to live under Empire... Then comes Jesus, the climax of Israel's story, who casts everything in a new and brilliant light. Jesus even challenges laws that were written down multiple times.
And you can't just read that flatly. To insist it's all on equal footing is to ignore what it's saying.
The way Evangelicals talk about the Bible makes it into a book it simply is not attempting to be. This is not a matter of disagreement over whether the scriptures are inspired or not. This is a matter of whether or not Christians are going to allow their scriptures to inform them of what "inspired" even means. I'm no longer scared to admit this, because I see now that it is not a weakness of inspiration, but a strength.
To be absolutely clear...
ScripturE is brilliant in that it contains
an evolving understanding of God.
That's not popular to say, or even to think, but it's very true. The Bible isn't contrived or manipulated to be cheaply simple. It holds big ideas in tension. It wrestles with them. Tests them. Proves some. Discards others. And the marked shift in how God is speaking and desiring to be known in Jesus is something that is maybe more apparent to the original audience of the New Testament than it might be to modern Christians.
The Jews of the first century understood that they could not just "tack Jesus on" to everything they'd already known and believed. They recognized that he fundamentally challenged a lot of things they held to be sacred, binding, and even eternal. This is why Jesus' words and actions and teachings were so rife with scandal to the established system and order. For example: If Jesus and the Father were "One" as Jesus said, and if "seeing him was seeing the Father" as he insisted, then they had to revisit plenty of their concept of the "Father" God as a result of knowing Jesus. But Christians today do not see the same tension as easily. Christians today are quick to suggest they can easily harmonize and champion the entirety of scripture... But they inevitably have to ignore much of it in order to see God "consistently" in a way they are comfortable with, and they inevitably have to retrofit Jesus in that process - making him subject to the understanding of "God" they have apart from the way Jesus himself reveals God in full. It tends to leave them reading something like the Transfiguration and speaking very passionately about it while still failing to note its central point!
You will hear many Christians who are faced with this discussion get defensive,
claiming something like "Well, I don't 'pick and choose' what I believe in the bible. I believe it all - the whole thing!" It's a bold claim, and maybe even a well-intentioned one. But the only reason it carries as much weight as it does - and the only reason it's such a prevalent argument we hear made - is because so many of those making it are not truly appealing to the entirety of scripture. What they're appealing to is actually "what they've always heard and assumed to be true." (I cover this line of thinking and the issues surrounding it in a full Entry HERE.) But scripture invites us into the flow of its courageous tradition of what we might call conscientious tension. And, ultimately, we all "pick and choose" what we allow to be first in informing our approach to God. We all give something "preeminence" - that is, we all allow something to dominate our perspective and have superiority over it. We allow something to be the lens through which we see everything else. Paul says in Colossians that Jesus alone should have that preeminence in all things, but for many of our brothers and sisters, he doesn't. Some other, former thing has that preeminence.
Here in The Transfiguration, we reach a bold, revolutionary conclusion.
This conclusion means that we must now question and reexamine all that came before it. We must also question all that follows it. With Moses and Elijah disappearing, only Jesus remains. Only Jesus speaks. And... take the time to let this really sink in... Jesus doesn't want his friends groveling on the ground in terror, or keeping him in a distant box in a shrouded tent... He doesn't want things done the old way.
Jesus wants them to get up. To be fearless. And to be with him.
In the Transfiguration, we see the purpose of Moses and Elijah's final appearance: to decrease and diminish as Jesus was exalted to be heard. Jesus - reaching out to comfort and empower his friends who had dropped to the ground in terror - would not be sharing his platform with Mr. Law and Mr. Prophets.
We see there is a clear shift taking place in that moment. Still, many Christians (despite not being Jews) have chosen to cling to certain ideas in scripture and ignore how the New Testament challenges, qualifies, alters, evolves or revolutionizes them. Perhaps this is why you don't hear many Christians choose to quote the beautifully dangerous final statement of Hebrews chapter 8, which says:
In speaking of “a new covenant,”
he has made the first one obsolete.
And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.
This is a huge statement! Do we recognize it? Do we allow it to speak over the clamor of our rush to set up the old tabernacles? We may have lost something familiar in that fog, but what remained was something so much better. It may not be the popular view, but let's not allow that to rob the Transfiguration of the powerful statement it made.
Until We All Have "Clouded" Thinking, may we continue to remember what it meant to be up the mountain with Jesus that day.
...That's probably enough food for thought.
There is much more to cover here, and one thing I would suggest is to continue on by taking a look at Matthew 5:17 with me. This is a verse which many of us have been taught to misunderstand and misuse in order to (sadly) defend ourselves from the new covenant having any real authority.
But what are your thoughts? I'd love to hear them! Comment below, or on Facebook.