Christ is Not as We Are (Matt. 17:1-9)
by Fred B. Craddock
Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 21, p. 179, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found atwww.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus (17:1-9) ushers in Ash Wednesday, the sobering beginning of Lent. This magnificent text also concludes the celebrations of Epiphany, the manifestation of the divine on earth. During Epiphany, the whisper in Bethlehem becomes a shout heard round the world and no Gospel makes the announcement more clearly than Matthew. This is not to imply that the transfiguration story is not read every year on the last Sunday after Epiphany or that Mark and Luke do not contain the account. Rather it is to say that Matthew is, of all the Gospels, most congenial to Epiphany.
There are several reasons: First, Matthew provides the only account of the visit of the magi (2:1-12) , the scriptural centerpiece for Epiphany, the feast following the 12 days of Christmas. Second, the posture of praise especially appropriate at this time is nourished uniquely by Matthew who, unlike the other Evangelists (with the exception of John in 9:38) , portrays Jesus being worshipped. Third, at Jesus’ baptism, one account of which is always read the first Sunday after Epiphany, Matthew says that the voice from heaven spoke publicly (not privately to Jesus as in Mark and Luke) , "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
But finally, only Matthew records three epiphanies, or more correctly Christophanies, in which the living and glorified Christ comes to his followers. (There are countless occasions when others come to Jesus, but in these three texts Jesus comes to his disciples.) One Christophany occurs following the resurrection, on a mountain in Galilee. "And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came to them" (28:17-18) . Another such occurrence is on the sea of Galilee, in the fourth watch of the night, during a storm. In a time of fear and faith, doubt and worship, the disciples wonder whether they are seeing a ghost, as Jesus "came to them, walking on the sea" (14:25) . The other such appearance is recorded in today’s text. Peter, James and John see a dazzlingly transfigured Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah and they hear heaven’s voice declare Jesus the Son of God to be heard and obeyed. While they lie prostrate with fear and awe, "Jesus came and touched them."
To join the transfiguration story to the other two Christophanies is not at all to minimize the importance of studying Matthew 17:1-9 by itself. In fact, those who understand it will see the event in its present context immediately following the first prediction of the passion and Peter’s confession of that which never comes by observation of flesh and blood but only by revelation (16:17) . The voice from heaven declaring who Jesus really is recalls the account of Jesus’ baptism (3:16-17) and heaven’s earlier announcement, which also came immediately after Jesus had submitted himself in full obedience. In the details of the transfiguration one finds echoes of theophanies in Exodus. And the careful reader will not miss the presence of Moses and Elijah who confirm the witness of the law and the prophets to Jesus Christ.
Even so, looking at the transfiguration in conjunction with other Christophanies reminds us that such texts speak uniquely of Jesus Christ in ways that evoke from the church awe, fear and worship. When we understand that, we will be more hesitant about squeezing some relevant exhortation from the story, drawing hasty comparisons to current events, or finding analogies within our own experiences. While interpretation should bridge the distance between the biblical texts and ourselves, it should not facilely collapse that distance, drawing parallels that are not parallel, thereby reducing and even trivializing a grand text. This warning is most appropriate for christological texts. To be sure, the Word became flesh, identified with us, was tempted in every way as we are, knew the common human condition of suffering and death, and in that identification provided us with not only an example but an intercessor who understands our infirmities. But not all Christology fits the contours of our lives, not all Christology can be consumed without remainder in moral examples and ethical preachments. While Christ is as we are, and therefore will help, Matthew’s Christophanies remind us that he is not as we are, and therefore can help.
There is value in referring to this story as one about Jesus’ mountaintop experience, which is followed by his return to the valley where he ministered to human need. To such a presentation we can add recitations of mountaintop experiences we have known, followed by exhortations to return to the valley ready to serve. The connections can not only be clear but also encouraging and challenging. However, large pieces of the text remain intact, containing affirmations not about us but about Christ alone. But this, too, is edifying: to stand before a text full of dazzling light, hovering clouds and a heavenly voice, a text that we cannot explain fully or consume homiletically, a text that is simply there night and day, offering disturbing consolation, a text before which we live out our faith in awe and praise.