Monday, February 14, 2011

Reflections on Matthew's Account of the Transfiguration.

I was listening to the reading yesterday for Transfiguration Sunday and it struck me how in keeping with the rest of Matthew's theme of "rest" his account of the Transfiguration is.

Matthew tells us that the Transfiguration happened "after six days"- i.e. on the seventh day after Jesus' promise that "some will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom in power."  At this time, the seventh era of the world was viewed by many Jews as being the age of Messiah and the Sabbath of the world-in other words, the coming of the kingdom of God.  Jesus' hearer will now see what the kingdom is and about.

The seventh day is also the day of rest and Jesus brings that rest: "Come to me all of you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest."  Rest is what happens when you receive the promise- hence the day of Sabbath- that is the day of the reception of the Word.  This is also why the 49th year was a year of Jubilee and Daniel predicted "seventy-sevens" when the Messiah would come.  This is the same day that the prophet speaks of in Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor"- i.e. a final Jubilee.

On the Mountain of Transfiguration, they see Jesus with the two great prophets of the OT.  Then he appears in glory.  Not only does this show that Jesus was the one they encountered in their OT theophanies, but it also suggests that Moses and Elijah are like the angels on the Ark of the Covenant that the kavod appeared between (Jesus is the kavod, since he reveals that he is the hypostatized Glory of YHWH).  Jesus also appears between two person on the cross.  Two angels also sit in his tomb, one on the top and the other on the bottom where he lay.  So, he is the concealed God who appear in the cloud of incense and he is the sin-offering of the Day of Atonement.  He is the "mercy seat" as Paul puts it in Romans 3.  He is the place that gives rest, because he is the place where God is both most present, most concealed, and propitiated with blood.  Again, he is the one who makes passive and gives rest through his forgiving word of promise in his blood.

Therefore Peter has the wrong reaction.  He wants to build "Tabernacles" for Jesus and the other two.  It is the Sabbath, why work?  Jesus is the one who gives rest- why work?  Jesus is the son of David who builds the "house for my Name," (a Temple/Tabernacle!) not you!  He was the builder of the original creation, which Genesis describes as a cosmic Temple.  He is the builder of the eschatological Temple, the Church.  As the creator God and Temple-building son of David.  Therefore it makes a lot of sense that he would be a carpenter!  

In a word, it is Jesus who builds and not us.  So, Peter is wrong to want to build, rather than receiving his building.  After all, Jesus has just told Peter that he will build the Christian Church on the faith that he represents "on this rock I will build my Church..."  Jesus is the one who builds Peter up into the eschatological Temple "built on the apostles and prophets, with Christ the chief cornerstone" and not Peter!

God does not want work, but to listen and be passive.  The Father appears and silences Peter: "This is my beloved Son, listen to him."  Peter will do a similar thing later.  He will promise his own death to Jesus.  But again, Jesus isn't the one who you actively die for, but one whom you passively die with when he dies for you.  Peter tries to be active and fails.  It is only in recognizing his sin and listening to the word of promise, that he is placed in the right relationship with Jesus.


  1. I would be interested in knowing your view of the theophanies and the light of Tabor/Transfiguration. The Easterners call them energies. Barlaam of Calabria called them emblems of the divine nature, not the divine nature itself, kind of like holograms that God united himself to sacramentally. I would be inclined to barlaam's view to preserve the immutability of the divine nature, though the East does have a point that the nature and will are distinct in some real sense. I just do not see the Eastern view as very coherent.

  2. Great stuff, Dr. Kilcrease! One unclear sentence: "Again, he is the one who makes passive and gives rest through his forgiving word of promise in his blood." Makes passive?

  3. I agree. This is an awesome mediation on the Transfiguration. I appreciated the cross reference to the tomb and St. Paul because I never thought of Elijah and Moses representing the cherubim on the "mercy-seat". I do think that translations often obscure St. Paul when they don't translate hilasterion as mercy-seat.

    One question, by "the faith" in the following sentence do you mean fides qua creditor or fides quae creditor?

    After all, Jesus has just told Peter that he will build the Christian Church on the faith that he represents "on this rock I will build my Church..."

  4. Thanks for the responses! I will answer them one-by-one.

    Drake: I would reject the view of Palamas. I agree with Augustine and Palamas' opponent Baarlam that the divine essence can't be seen this side of eternity. I also think the distinction between "energies" and "essence" is unbiblical and merely an attempt (after EO Platonic thinking had failed in every way possible to separate God from the world (first Arius, then Nestorius, etc.), to finally achieve that.

    I think though that Augustine and Aquinas fail to when they say that the light is a kind of analogy for the divine being and that our intellect knows God primarily through a created similitude.

    Luther has a better perspective, and that is that we "hear" rather than see God. God wraps himself up in created things to conceal himself and not make a created similitude between the vision and the reality. God then announces that he is there and we passively hear his Word. Both EO and RC people assume that our knowledge of God is based on a kind of "vision." This corresponds to their emphasis on "love." Love sees and desires God as the highest object of desire. Faith hears and passively waits for God's promise.

    Hence the light of Tabor is a "wrapping" that God conceals himself in so that we can hear him "this is my beloved son, listen to him!"

    Brent: I mean that in speaking his Word God makes us passive receiver of it. Human being's problem is not that they aren't active enough in doing righteousness (though derivatively that is part of it). Rather it is that they lack the capacity to be passively listening of God and his gracious Word. The law beats us into passivity. Now that we are reduced to passivity, the gospel comes and gives us the gift.

    Steve: When I wrote it, I mainly meant the faith that is believed. In any case, Peter represents both in a sense because he represents the sort of believing that Jesus wants and also the content of that belief. I don't think though that the passage is really about Peter's individual faith, because the "gates of hades will not prevail against it." Obviously if we were talking about Peter's individual faith, then that would be false. Peter fell on many, many occasions, so I guess the gates of hades did for a little while. It fits better though if you assume that it is the faith that is believed, since that faith didn't die even when Peter's did temporarily.

  5. Steven: When I wrote it, I mainly meant the faith that is believed.

    I agree with you that is the faith that is believed. As Melancthon puts it, Christ is not "referring to the person of Peter" but the "rock of [Peter's] confession"

    I was thinking the other day about what to say when someone says, "Can't I worship God on a mountaintop?", and Luther's words came to me. God has not promised in His word to be on the mountaintop for you, but He has promised to be there in the Sacrament for you.

  6. And I had decided to preach from the Epistle on Transfiguration. I may have to change my mind after reading this rich Gospel exposition.