The Mount of Transfiguration has long been considered one of the most mysterious events in the New Testament (Matt 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; Luke 9:28–36). Some source-critical scholars have considered it no more than a symbolic (non-historical) story taught to demonstrate the Messiahship and deity of Christ. Others have believed it to be an ecstatic vision experienced either by Peter or even Christ himself. Still others have considered it a misplaced resurrection narrative out of chronological order in the synoptic gospels. The reasons for attempting to explain away the miraculous nature of this event are predictable, though still unnecessary.
According to John McGuckin, whose work surveys the first eight centuries of attempts to interpret this event, the dominant approach of the church fathers (and that of conservative scholars today) is that of a supernatural historical event reflecting a high Christology. It was a marvelous revelation for the disciples on that mountain. McGuckin describes it as “an epiphany of the essential deity of Christ.” Robert E. Webber writes, “The Transfiguration seems to be a preview of the Resurrection, and a verification of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.” Kent Hughes explains, “This is not only a declaration about Christ, but a prophecy of what was to come.” The event held implications for the present as an affirmation of Christ’s deity, but also for the future as a preview of the coming kingdom. The presence of Moses and Elijah in the revelation also communicated a compelling perspective upon the past.
Many approaches to understanding this event lean heavily upon its parallels with a similar theophany that Moses experienced on Mt. Sinai in the Old Testament (Ex 24–34) and therefore may be seen as a type foreshadowing this event. The effort of discerning additional implications for worship is aided by considering both of these as worship events. Each demonstrates an event of worship as man encounters unveiled deity in a theophany and Christophany respectively. Each also serves as a prototype for authentic worship relative to the covenant in which the event is centered. Mt. Sinai is the locale where the old covenant was established and its cultic practice of worship formally inaugurated. The Mount of Transfiguration is a unique event in the New Testament, as it seems to reflect a physical manifestation of the spiritual type of worship encounter that Jesus explains in John 4. It prefigures the future glory that will be revealed to all believers in eternal worship, the fulfillment of which our temporal worship is a pattern today (Heb 8). “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). Comparing Sinai and the Mount of Transfiguration establishes priorities of earthly worship that point toward heavenly fulfillment. Contrasting the two highlights the distinct implications of the latter for Christian worship.
Mt. Sinai and the Mount of Transfiguration
Few commentators discuss the Mount of Transfiguration apart from its seemingly undeniable connection points to Mt. Sinai. Parallels between the two include 1) the number in the party; 2) the reference to six days between a key previous event and the encounter; 3) the place of the encounter with God (e.g., a high mountain, though not either of the mountains referenced in John 4 as prescribed locales of worship at the time); 4) the manifestation of the presence of God’s glory in the midst of his people (e.g., the “tabernacling” of his presence); and 5) the transforming effects of that manifestation upon the people involved. The main difference between the two is the presence of Christ in his incarnated form and the degree of effect upon the attendees. Therefore the differences between the two accounts must be considered to be due to the illuminating light and transforming power of fulfillment of Jesus as the new Moses, and the new covenant that Jesus came to ratify. Both undergird the New Testament experience even though the cross and resurrection is still to come. It is a preview for the disciples of the glory of Christ (see 2 Pet 1:16) demonstrated in the resurrection, the ascension, and second coming, and is therefore reflective of new covenant worship in spirit and truth that will one day be fully experienced, but even now is experienced in part (Matt 5:8; 1 Cor 13:9–12, 1 John 3:2).
The implications for corporate worship will be founded in part upon Paul’s discussion in 2 Corinthians 3:7–18. In this passage, Paul contrasts the two covenants and argues that the new covenant is greater because it alone has the power to unveil the glory of God in the face of Christ for believers and therefore the power to conform them to the image of Christ as a result. Based upon this text, it will be argued below that this will be the effect of worship when it is Christ-centered and gospel focused, which are the primary implications for worship from the Transfiguration event.
Two Mountains of God
Mount Sinai and the Old Covenant
In some ways, the nature of worship’s development—as well as the entire redemptive story—can be summarized simply in the two accounts of Mt. Sinai and the Mount of Transfiguration. In Exodus 19, the people of Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai having recently been delivered from the bondage and oppression of Egypt in a stunning and miraculous manner. They had been delivered for the purpose of worshiping and serving God, but were shortly wandering in the desert, complaining and longing to return to captivity. God had initiated this deliverance through an exiled Israelite who had experienced his own encounter with the God of Israel in a profound way on the same mountain. Moses’ extraordinary calling from God at the burning bush on Mt. Horeb (Exod 3) served as the impetus to return to Egypt as God’s agent of deliverance for his people. Under his leadership, Israel learned of God’s character and power through the devastating display of the ten plagues in Egypt (including the death of the firstborn son and the institution of the Passover). They also experienced the miraculous deliverance from Pharaoh’s army by the parting of the Red Sea; the miraculous provision of their physical needs in the wilderness with manna from heaven and water from the rock; and a stunning defeat of Amalek through the simple human means of Moses holding his hands up over the battle, with some assistance (Exod 7:1–12:51; 16:1–17:7; and 17:8–16). Through all of this, Moses came to be seen as the central figure and leader among the people of Israel and serve as a type of Christ in the Old Testament. He was a prophet and priest for the nation. As they gather around Mt. Sinai, “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.’” Regarding this event John Durham declares, “The Advent of Yahweh’s Presence at Sinai is the formative event of OT faith.”
During the time at Sinai, God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Moses made two requests of God as this extraordinary time at Sinai came to a close: (1) “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here;” and (2) “Please show me your glory.” God responded positively to both requests and when Moses finally returned to the people after forty days on the “mountain of God,” his face shone from having been in God’s presence. He had to put a veil over his face because the skin of his face shone and the people were afraid to come near him. God had allowed Moses to see the “afterglow” of his glory, which had transformed his appearance and gave him faith to move forward with God’s presence. Its effect seemingly went no farther than this. Remarkably, God eventually allowed Moses to look upon the glory of God with an unveiled face in the Tent of Meeting—“Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out,”(Exod 34:34)—but he was the only one at this time to do so. A greater covenant and great high priest would be needed for God’s people to be able to worship in spirit and truth. In effect, a greater Moses would come to provide a greater worship.
This is the first part of a 5 part series. Come back next week for Part II.
Dr. Scott Connell is Assistant Professor of Music and Worship Leadership; Program Coordinator, Worship and Music Studies at Boyce College in Louisville, KY.