Our constant temptation is towards the theology of glory. We want to see God with all the bells and whistles. We want a God revealed in the strength of his raw power. This penchant toward a theology of glory facilitates an interpretation of the Transfiguration as the apex of divine revelation: Here is Jesus as God! But that is exactly what the cross presents to us but in the most profound irony. One finds the wisdom of God in the foolishness of preaching; the power of the Almighty in subjection to weak men; the wisdom of God in the absurdity of the cross. Where you belong, he hangs. This is a theology of the cross and the Transfiguration actually serves as a road marker on the way to Golgotha.
The scene at the Transfiguration offers a strange parallel and contrast to crucifixion (Matt 27:33-54). If you’re going to meditate on the Transfiguration, you should hold the crucifixion as a sort of backdrop and terminal point. Here, on the mountain, is Jesus, revealed in glory; but there, on a hillside outside of Jerusalem, is Jesus, revealed in shame. Here his clothes are shining white; there, they have been stripped off, and soldiers have gambled for them. Here on Mount Hermon Christ is flanked by Moses and Elijah, Israel’s greatest heroes representing the law and the prophets; there on the mount of Golgotha, he is flanked by criminals, representing the level to which Jew and Gentile had sunk in their rebellion against God. Here at the Transfiguration a bright cloud illuminates the scene; there at Calvary darkness overshadows upon the land. Here Peter blurts out how wonderful it is; there, Peter is hiding after repeatedly denying he knows Jesus. Here a voice from God declares that this is his wonderful Son; there, a pagan soldier declares, in surprise that this really was God’s Son.
The mountain-top explains the hill-top; the hill-top explains the mountain-top. We only really understand either of them when we see each side by side with the other. The thrust of Matthew 17 tells us that we must learn to see the glory of the cross; learn to see the glory of the cross. For it is only in the glory of the scandalous cross that the Father makes himself known in an ultimate and decisive way—in the remarkable person of Jesus himself. On the cross with Jesus issuing forth his royal decree, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do,” is where we find the kingdom of God, its King, and the nature of Christ’s rule on earth: forgiveness. It is at the cross of disfiguration far more than at the Mount of Transfiguration that we find God in Christ ruling through grace, mercy, truth, peace, and love.
The crucifixion of the Son of God is about being surprised by the power, love, and beauty of God. If we think God’s power, love and beauty are reserved merely for the glories of Transfiguration, then we have not understood the Father; we have not understood divine revelation. For, since the Fall, the Father is not much found in the spectacular glory as in himself clothed in our humanity, brutalized, and hanging from a tree.
Do you desire to see God’s face? Then you shall see it; but you shall only see it in Christ. Look now and take comfort. Look now and see the face of God with thorns pressed about His head. Take comfort, for the Lord our God is not one who now says as he had in the past, “no man may see my face and live” because now in Christ he reveals His face, bloodied and bruised, that we may live.