Listen to Him (Genesis 12: 1-8, Luke 9: 28-36)
by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Genesis 12: 1-8, Luke 9: 28-36
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter, John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. ... And a voice came out of the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him’.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is in all the synoptic gospels. When we look at the structure of the first three gospels, the central place of the gospel narrative is taken by the story of the passion. This is so because the faith of the early church was in the crucified and risen Messiah. This was what they preached.
Paul writing to the Corinthians reminded them of the Gospel which he had received and which he passed onto them. ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.’ (I Cor. 15:3,4) The Gospel of the early church was not simply that Jesus was the expected Messiah of the Jews, but that he was the crucified and risen Messiah of all the people. Hence great importance was given to the passion narrative in the Gospels.
The story of the transfiguration stands at the beginning of the passion narrative. After Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Son of the living God, Jesus began to make clear to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. He told them, ‘If any one wishes to be a follower of mine he must leave self behind, he must take up his cross and come with me’. Luke says that a follower must take up his cross daily, day after day. St. Ephrem, an East Syrian church father, translated this saying of Jesus as that a disciple must take up his cross on his shoulders and walk after Jesus. The transfiguration is about the suffering Messiah and costly discipleship.
After eight days (Matthew and Mark speak of six days)... ‘After’ establishes a connecting link between what went before and what happened after. The event of transfiguration is to be seen in relation to Peter’s confession and the teaching of Jesus about his death and the nature of Christian discipleship. The confession of Peter is that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus then tells them that he is the Messiah who suffers. He is the suffering servant of Isaiah chapter 53, and his disciples should go the way of the cross. The story of the transfiguration brings together Peter’s confession and Jesus’ teaching in a very dramatic way.
Eight days after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus took Peter, James and John to Mount Tabor in southern Galilee. Three important things happened there. First there was the presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. They were the two great personalities of the Old Testament. It was believed that Elijah was the forerunner of the Messiah and Moses would accompany the Messiah when he came. Their presence with Jesus was an indication that the Jewish messianic expectation was being fulfilled. Matthew and Mark do not tell us what they were talking to Jesus about on the mountain. But Luke tells us that they were talking to Jesus about his departure, about his death which was to happen in Jerusalem.
Moses and Elijah were two peaks of Israel’s history. They represented the Law and the Prophets. They were reminding Jesus that both the Law and the Prophets point to a suffering Messiah. They assured Jesus that it was God’s will that he should suffer. They confirmed and strengthened his decision to face the cross.
From Mount Tabor they pointed Jesus to the Mount of Golgotha on the far horizon and made it clear to him that the way to Calvary was the only way he could travel to fulfil God’s will. In the Old Testament lesson for today (Genesis 12:1-8), when God told Abraham, ‘Leave your country, your people, your father’s household, go to the land I shall show you,’ Abraham obeyed. In that obedience, Abraham became the father of the nation. If Jesus is to be the Saviour of the world, there is only one way, the way of Golgotha. Jesus accepted it. He is the suffering Messiah.
Secondly, there was something which happened to Jesus. He was transfigured. While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light. When Moses came down from the mountain after receiving the Law from God, the skin of his face shone because he was speaking to God. (Exodus 34:29)
What was it that happened to Jesus? Was it magic that was performed there? Was it only the external appearance that was changed? No, it was not merely the external appearance that was changed. The light which transfigured him completely was shining from inside. Was it theophany that happened on the mountain, that is, the manifestation of God? Does the transfiguration mean that Jesus was fully God but disguised himself as a human being for some time and now on the mountain he appeared in his true colors? Was it that behind the mask of his humanity was hidden divinity, and now on the mountain he threw away the mask and showed that he was truly God? No, the transfiguration was not the throwing away of the mask of humanity. It was not ceasing to be human. It was the human Jesus who was transfigured. The face that was radiant and shone was the human face of the human Jesus. It was the radiant face of a son who submitted himself to obey God’s will; his cross was the secret of the radiance and transfiguration. Remember how Moses’ face shone because he was talking with God.
A number of eastern church fathers have taught that God became human so that human beings might become divine. To become divine is not to become God, but to remain as human and be transfigured, to be filled with divine light. By God becoming human, he has given the possibility for every human being to be transformed, to be filled with the divine light. Transfiguration is not magic but the destiny of all creation in Christ -- to be transformed and filled with the divine light.
Thirdly, while they were talking, a cloud overshadowed them. Cloud in the Bible indicates the presence of God. In the wilderness, the Israelites were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. On Mount Sinai, the Lord descended in the cloud to talk to Moses. At the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, a cloud filled the house of the Lord. Cloud represents the divine presence. Out of the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son, my chosen; listen to him.’ It was the same voice which was heard at the time of the baptism of Jesus. Who is the beloved Son of God? -- One who surrenders to God’s will, even to the point of death.
We need to listen to him. What is he saying to us? Jesus says, ‘If any one wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind and take up his cross and follow me.’ To listen to Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus, is to walk with Jesus to Golgotha. As we walk with him, as we talk with him, our human nature is being transformed into the likeness of divine nature.
The period of Lent is a time when we specially think of our life as a journey to Calvary in the company of Jesus. As we walk with our crosses on our shoulders, as we come nearer and nearer to Golgotha, we are also being transformed and transfigured. The life and the light of the cross will shine on our face. To be filled with the divine light is our destiny.