The Transfiguration of our Lord is the annual feast celebrating Jesus’ stunning change of appearance while in the presence of Peter, James, and John on a high mountain. The event is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). Matthew writes, “[Jesus] was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light.” At this moment Moses and Elijah appeared and they were talking with Jesus about the “way,” literally exodus, He was about to undertake. Peter, misunderstanding the meaning of this manifestation, offered to “make three booths” for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. A bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud stated, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” The disciples fell on their faces in awe, but Jesus encouraged them to stand and, “Have no fear.” They saw only Jesus. This event is alluded to in the Epistle text appointed for this day, 2 Peter 1:16-21, which states, “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty,” and, “We were with Him on the holy mountain.” The Transfiguration revealed Christ’s glory prior to the crucifixion. It also anticipated His resurrection and ascension, and so completes the themes of epiphany or revelations into the person and work of Christ Jesus, prefiguring the glorification of the human nature in Christ.
The history of the celebration of the Transfiguration began in the Eastern Church in the late fourth century. The feast is celebrated on August 6. This was the date of the dedication of the first church built on Mount Tabor, which is traditionally considered to be the “high mountain” of the Transfiguration. It was declared a universal feast of the western church by Pope Callistus III in 1457 to celebrate a victory over the Turks at Belgrade on July 22, 1456. News of the declaration reached Rome on August 6, and the date of the Feast of the Transfiguration was set as a thank offering. However, the Transfiguration Gospel is used on the last Sunday after the Epiphany in the eucharistic lectionary. As an Epiphany story, the Transfiguration provides one of the most distinctive and dramatic showings of Jesus’ divinity.
In our text this Sunday, Saint Peter asserts that “the morning star” which “shines in your hearts” (verse 19) is the promise of Jesus Himself, returning at last to signal God’s great coming day is about to dawn. Everything the early Christians believed had this as its future horizon: The time would surely come when what had begun with Jesus would be completed at His return, His reappearance. The connection with the Transfiguration is that the “inner circle” of disciples saw the future of Christ’s dwelling with humanity (hence the request to build “tabernacles” for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah) and now in our text a confident Peter speaks about the coming future, which is as certain as Christ before his eyes on Mount Tabor.
Everything the early Christians believed had this as its future horizon: The time would surely come when what had begun with Jesus would be completed at His return, His reappearance.
The background helps us understand why Peter says what he does in verses 12-15. He knows his time to die is drawing near. In fact, Jesus had warned him of this very thing (John 21:18-19), and so verse 14 may refer to a later word Peter had received from the Lord. However, it was important to be sure his readers would be able to hold on to the truths which he had taught and know they are certain with sure outcomes. The death of an apostle must not mean the decline of the apostolic faith. They have a king, Jesus, and Jesus is in charge of the present, leading it to its assured future, as certain as Christ is Himself the security of a resurrection to come and the transformation of all who are united to Him.
The Transfiguration means no one must wait in uncertainty and darkness for the morning star to (re)appear. Again, Jesus has already been revealed to Peter, James, and John as they stood with Him on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8). This story, Peter insists, is not a “cleverly devised myth.” Presumably, by this stage in the early church, some of the opponents of the faith were scoffing at the extraordinary tales going around about Jesus. Peter insists it was the truth and, like the crucifixion and resurrection, the Transfiguration was a fact.
The result of this eyewitness testimony is the apostles could look back on the entire world of biblical prophecy (that great, but unfinished story which functioned as a set of signposts pointing forward to what was to come) and could see how, in retrospect, it all made sense in light of the Messiah, Jesus. Indeed, among the great prophecies was that of the “star” which would arise from Jacob (Numbers 24:17). This was widely understood at the time as a prophesy of the Messiah, and it may well have supplied Peter with the inspiration for the idea of Jesus as “the morning star” in verse 19. Therefore, what Peter is saying is the stories of Jesus, reaching something of a climax in the extraordinary revelation of glory in His transfiguration, mean one can now read the entire ancient Jewish scriptures knowing the end from the beginning, and see with God-given hindsight how everything came rushing together at the point where the Messiah Himself emerged. Jesus taught this in Luke 24:25-27, 44-47 and John 5:39-40, among other places. The revelation of God’s glory in Him goes closely with the promise that we too will come to “share in the divine nature.”
Paul compliments this theme in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Here is the apostolic teaching of the transfiguration of our humanity on the Last Day: “For those whom [God] foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
The result of this eyewitness testimony is the apostles could look back on the entire world of biblical prophecy and could see how, in retrospect, it all made sense in light of the Messiah, Jesus.
Peter is thus addressing the new situation that had emerged, for which no ancient Jew possessed a road map. Everything had been straining forward to the day when God’s glory would be revealed, the “Temple” (that is, the Church in which the Son and Spirit dwell) would be rebuilt, and the Messiah would appear to save His people. The Apostles testified it had happened: The coming of Jesus the Son was the fulfillment of all those promises and prophesies, types, and covenants. His resurrection and, as Peter asserts here, His transfiguration proved it. The challenge now was no one imagined there would be a further period of time between the advent of God’s Messiah and the Last Day, but here it was dragging on. Peter offers both an explanation as to why such a time would exist, the assurance as to where it was heading, and how it would conclude.
Peter explains from the Scriptures how, in the meantime (that is, the time before the Last Day, the Day of the Resurrection of all flesh), Christians abide in the position outlined in verse 19: Jesus, His coming, transfiguration, death, and resurrection has confirmed the prophetic words of Scripture. We hold on to these like people clinging to a shining star through the darkest times, until the day when Jesus reappears as “the morning star” to usher in God’s final day.
Peter now deals with the skeptic who supposes this way of reading the Hebrew Bible is all a Christian invention. What right does Peter or anyone else have to superimpose the person, life, and accomplishments of Jesus on the (Old Testament) Scriptures? Such a proposition finds strong words from Peter (verses 20-21). It is not a matter of private interpretation. This was not his or anyone else’s idea. Scripture itself is not a human invention. Behind the various authors and genres is the divine inspiration, not bypassing human minds, personalities, and situations in question, but working through them to breathe God’s Word through human words; exactly, precisely, definitively. God is the one who made Jesus the fulfillment of it all. In fact, Jesus provides us with the reading horizon for those Scriptures. He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the promises and eschatology of Israel. So says Jesus. So says the Father who commands the world to, “Listen to Him!”
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