Implications for Worship from the Mount of Transfiguration: Part III

Part III: Implication #1—The Centrality of Christ and His Gospel

While Peter, James, and John were asleep, Jesus prayed to the Father as he often did. What the disciples awoke to see was what the Gospel writers described reflectively as seeing “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” “the kingdom of God com[ing] with power,” and simply “the kingdom of God.” Peter would later describe his participation in the experience as the disciples having been “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet 1:16). John would also reflect, “We have seen his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This was a Christ-centered worship encounter for which they had no parallel in history. Just as Jesus told the woman at the well in John 4, worship was changing. It was changing because the Messiah had come just as he had revealed to her in the same encounter (John 4:26).

As with Moses on Mt. Sinai, Jesus’ face began to shine. In addition, his clothes became brilliantly white as he was transfigured, or more literally, “metamorphosed” before the disciples. The veil was being briefly, but remarkably, pulled back—allowing a glimpse into the eternal reality of the nature of Christ. The glory of God in Christ was being unveiled in a brief yet overwhelming way. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. The Scripture does not indicate how the disciples knew who they were, but somehow it was very clear to them. Both had had previous conversations with God on mountaintops—Moses on Mt. Sinai and Elijah on Mt. Horeb where the Lord told Elijah to go “stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord” who appeared as a “gentle whisper.” Both had been shown God’s glory and had famous departures from earth. Their presence has a multitude of meanings, but none more compelling than what Jesus later revealed to two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection when he taught them the gospel: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Robert Webber comments, The presence of Moses and Elijah is of special importance, for they were the two major symbolic figures of Israel’s prophetic faith. As the last two verses of the Hebrew prophetic canon make clear (Mal. 4:4 – 5), together they framed the history of the covenant given at Mt. Sinai; it was through Moses that the covenant was established, and Elijah was to restore the covenant bonds lest the curse of its violation take effect. Their appearance with Jesus in his transfigured glory is an affirmation that the gospel of Jesus Christ, however much it may have seemed anathema to the established Judaism of the first century, arose out of the very heart and essence of the covenant faith of Israel.

Moses as the great lawgiver and Elijah as the great prophet represented the totality of the old covenant. Their submission to the Lord was symbolic of the resignation of the old covenant and consummation of the covenant that Jesus came to secure. The new covenant both fulfilled and replaced the old covenant that Moses and Elijah represented and that fulfillment was portrayed in this profound revelation of their conversation with the glorified Christ. Luke explains that the subject of their conversation was the manner of the fulfillment—the cross (i.e., the gospel)! “And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

Hughes writes,

They were talking about the cross and Jesus’ death! The tense indicates that this was an extended conversation. They, the chief representatives of the Law and the Prophets, were carrying on a conversation with Jesus, who himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

Worship in spirit and truth will of necessity include this central reality that Christ revealed to the Samaritan woman. She said she knew Messiah was coming. Worship now must include the reality that he has not only come, but that in worship, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26). It must also include clear references to the reason he came and the means by which worshipers can see him in worship—the gospel! It is the gospel that reveals His nature and deity (2 Cor 3:18–4:6).

Implication #2—Worship as Beholding and Delighting in His Glory

Peter’s comments at this point are potentially misunderstood. While the gospel writers all indicate that he made these comments “not knowing what he said,” that does not mean that there was not any value to what he said. In some ways, what Peter said brings insight as to how he perceived the event as an ultimate worship event. The first part of his comment was that the experience was profoundly good. “Master, it is good that we are here” (Luke 9:33). Being in the presence of the glorified Christ in worship is a wonderful place to be. It caused them to lose all concern for the “demon-possessed valley” that they had left below and would have to return to. In the presence of such “grace and truth” as John described it, the “image of God” in man finds the greatest satisfaction and fulfillment that he was created to know. It is the pleasure of the garden recaptured and the hope of glory renewed. Luke explains quite simply in Luke 9:32, “Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory.” It was at this point of the experience that Peter declared their delight to be there.

The second part of Peter’s comment explains why he did not know what he was saying and that he would later, with greater understanding, be grateful that Jesus did not grant his request. “Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Most commentaries emphasize the effect of Peter’s act as equating the level of status of Moses and Elijah with that of Jesus. This certainly is part of Peter’s error but there is likely more. Even though Peter had just heard six days earlier Jesus’ first declaration of his earthly purpose to go to Jerusalem to die, he seems to have lost sight of that in this moment (as he would later do again). He did not yet grasp the necessity of future events that must take place for gospel enactment and fulfillment. However, he well understood the depravity and deficiency suffered from past events of rebellion and alienation by Israel. The glory had departed from the temple and Israel’s worship life held no court in the presence of God. It had become empty ritual and practice even where there was an honest attempt to follow the old covenant practices. But with the life that God’s presence gave, and with the hope of glory apparently now restored, Peter seemed to think, just as Moses and the Israelites set up the tabernacle to house the glory of God in the wilderness, “that it is good that all of the participants can preserve this moment for some length of time.” While not realizing this would prevent the fulfillment of the greater covenant, he seemed to see it as a greater fulfillment of the old covenant and a restoration of the kingdom to Israel—an eschatological event!

It was seemingly a good desire in his glory-saturated stupor, but a shortsighted and misinformed one. Accommodating his request would prevent the fulfillment of the gospel plan of redemption and the greater eschatological goal, which is apparently why Jesus remained silent. What Peter was still realizing, but had not yet fully grasped was that in Jesus the presence of God had “tabernacled” among them. Again, referring to John’s description, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). While the Mount of Transfiguration was significant, it was just a step in the process of God’s more wonderful plan for worship restoration and the exaltation of Christ. Honoring Peter’s request would prolong, if not prevent, the fulfillment of the cross and the resurrection’s greater glory. Mediation of the new covenant was still required so that the gospel could be “good news” to a much wider world through the exaltation of Christ. Until the ratification of the new covenant, worshipers could only hope to gaze through a veil upon a fading glory from a distance rather than truly behold it and be transformed by it. The new covenant had to be secured and the Holy Spirit had to be poured out upon Abraham’s sons and daughters.

Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the people of God would become the temple of God (1 Cor 6:19). Peter would later come to understand and teach this great truth to God’s people. “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). Worship would no longer be a matter of time and place, but of “spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Peter’s comments provide insight into how the disciple perceived and valued what was happening as it was happening—it was a worship event unlike any other—one that he wanted to savor. Nevertheless, God’s ways are higher and he directly intervened in the moment to direct Peter’s attention away from the magnitude of the event to the person of Jesus.

Implication #3—The Keeping of Time in Worship

At this point in the narrative a most inexplicable thing occurred. A cloud overshadowed them. D. A. Carson points out that the “cloud” is associated, “in both OT and intertestamental Judaism with eschatology . . . and with the exodus.” The fact that Matthew points out that the cloud was “bright,” is “a detail that recalls the Shekinah glory” and is “the more fundamental idea of the presence of God.” The disciples clearly realized that this was not a meteorological event and they became terrified. The first recorded appearance of this particular manifestation was once again, almost 1,500 years before on Mt. Sinai. It was the same cloud that passed by Moses when he asked God to allow him to “see his glory” and he was allowed to see its afterglow. However, he was not allowed to enter it. It was the same cloud that surrounded Mt. Sinai so that no one could approach the mountain; that later filled the tabernacle to such a degree that Moses could not enter it; that led the children through the wilderness, and years after filled Solomon’s temple on dedication day so that the priests could not enter it.

And it was this same cloud that Ezekiel saw rise from the Cherubim and move to the threshold of the temple because of Israel’s apostasy, then slowly move over the east gate of the temple to disappear over the Mount of Olives and had not been seen again for 600 years.

There had been no recorded sight of it since Ezekiel’s day but at this moment, with no advance warning, it came upon these three disciples and enshrouded them. It was the shekinah glory of God and the view from below must have looked similar to the scene 1,500 years before on Mt. Sinai as the top of this mountain became capped with the glory of God. Only one other person in history had been inside that cloud before. Moses was allowed to enter it to receive the old covenant tablets and to commune with God. The priests were not allowed to enter it. The people were not allowed to come near it. Since the veil was placed in the Holy of Holies to cut off the intimate presence once known in the Garden of Eden, it had been hidden completely or fearfully viewed from a distance. Now the disciples were in the cloud!

What was the difference now? Why could the people not come near the cloud on Sinai but Peter, James, and John could stand in the midst of it on the top of this mountain? Why were the priests, even after all of their preparations of ritualistic cleansing, unable to enter the temple on Dedication Day when the cloud descended, but these three disciples were not struck dead as it engulfed them? And why could Moses (the “friend of God”) not enter the Tent of Meeting when this presence filled it, but these men who would soon flee at Jesus’ arrest and in at least one case deny him publicly three times, became the first people on earth to ever behold the manifestation of the glory of God in the person of Christ? It was because of the presence of the one who brought them into the cloud. It was a gift of the mediator to share this with them in worship and a brief taste of what he was going to accomplish on their behalf (and that of all new covenant worshipers). That gift included a preview of the future glory that they would one day experience in his presence. The accompanying presence of Moses and Elijah demonstrated the elements of the past that had necessarily preceded this event. While worship occurs as a present revelation of the deity of Christ, it rests upon the gospel’s past events and points toward its future hope. There is a timelessness associated with worship that gives orientation to the worshipers’ existence in this lifetime.

This is part three of a five part series.  Come back next week for part four and read parts one and two by clicking here.  

Dr. Scott Connell is Assistant Professor of Music and Worship Leadership; Program Coordinator, Worship and Music Studies at Boyce College in Louisville, KY.