Implications for Worship from the Mount of Transfiguration: Part V

Part V: Implication #6—The Necessity of a Gospel Focus in Worship

In contrasting the experience of Moses on Mt. Sinai with the experience of the Mount of Transfiguration, the gospel focus of worship becomes more evident. While both were experiences of the manifested presence of God, only one was tethered to the new covenant and its fulfillment of the old covenant. While Mount Sinai foreshadowed a more glorious access to God’s presence, the Mount of Transfiguration demonstrated that a time is coming and now is! 2 Corinthians 3 elaborates on the necessity of the gospel to see Christ.

Beholding the Glory of the Lord—2 Cor 3:7–18

There is a very significant difference between the two events that Paul highlights in his second letter to Corinth. It is this passage that lies at the scriptural foundation for this study’s understanding of transforming worship. It arises from the profound difference between the old covenant, which was a weaker covenant, and the new covenant that Hebrews speaks of as the “better covenant” (Heb 7:22). That difference is the presence of Christ’s role in the new covenant and that is why New Testament worship is also Christ-centered worship. At Mt. Sinai a Passover and an Exodus made the experience possible. In the Gospels, however, the fulfillment of these “types” is now present. Sinclair Ferguson points out in his commentary, “[Jesus’] death would be the new Passover; the salvation of his people would be the new Exodus.” Jesus’ role precipitated a new worship. In Created for Worship, Noel Due states, “In a very real sense this is the goal of the process of redemption, just as it was in the Old Testament exodus. God brought Israel out from the bondage of Egypt that they might serve/worship him. God’s mercies have brought this new humanity out from the bondage of its idolatry, legalism, guilt, fear, and the judgment of God’s wrath, to serve him in a new and living way.” The typology of Sinai and the Old Testament is instructive and inspiring, but the difference Jesus makes is extraordinary. Jesus’ perfect work on the cross and subsequent resurrection ratified a new covenant and new access to the presence of God—“But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3:16).

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul contrasts the two covenants. The old covenant he calls “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” which came with such a glory that “the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of it” (2 Cor 3:7). He then asks the question, “Will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? (2 Cor 3:8). He continues to elaborate on this comparison between “the ministry of condemnation” and “the ministry of righteousness.” If the former had glory, then the latter has exceeding glory. In fact, in comparison it makes the former really seem to have “no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it” and “much more will what is permanent have glory” (2 Cor 3:9–11). The degree of the glory is one difference in the two covenants and is demonstrated by the presence or absence of the veil. Moses had to put a veil over his face and as a result, the Israelites could not gaze upon the glory of God. Even then, it was a fading glory. It was a fading glory because apart from Christ they could barely glimpse the “afterglow” that Moses had seen in the cleft of the Rock. Even in that, they were fearful and could not approach that glory, just as they could not approach or enter the cloud. Even to this day, “whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their heart. But when one turns to the Lord (the rock Moses had been hidden in), the veil is removed.” Those who are hidden in Christ have the veil lifted. Which leads to Paul’s conclusion: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Those who are in Christ can look upon the glory of God because of Christ. And not only can they enter the cloud of God’s glory, but when they gaze upon the glory of the Lord in the face of Christ, they are transformed (or transfigured) into that same glory.

They are conformed to the image of Christ who is the exact representation of the invisible God (Heb 1:3). In worship, when God’s glory is revealed in Christ, worshipers are transformed into this same image. Christ-centered worship is transforming worship. One cannot look upon the glory of God and remain the same. John Piper states, “The primary way to become more and more like Christ is to lift the veil and fix your gaze on his glory and hold him in view . . . . In other words we are transformed into his image by looking at his glory. You become like what you constantly behold.” Philip E. Hughes, in his commentary on 2 Corinthians, draws the connection between 2 Corinthians 3 and the Mount of Transfiguration:

Further light is thrown on this passage when we consider what took place on the occasion of the transfiguration of Christ. On that mountain height Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ, but it was Christ alone who was transfigured with heavenly radiance before the eyes of Peter, James, and John. It was His face that shone as the sun and His garments that became white and dazzling. It was of Him alone that the voice from the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.” And thereafter the disciples saw no one, save Jesus only. It is He who abides. The glory in which Moses and Elijah appeared was not their own but Christ’s glory—the glory which He had had with the Father before the world was (Jn. 17:5). Just as in the wilderness the glory which shown from Moses’ face was the reflected glory of Yahweh, so too on the mount of transfiguration the glory with which he was surrounded was the glory of the same Yahweh. Christ’s alone is the full, the abiding, the evangelical glory. To turn to Him is to turn to the Light of the world. To follow Him is not to walk in darkness, but to have the light of life (Jn. 8:12).

Simon S. Lee in his work, Jesus’ Transfiguration and the Believer’s Transformation, also shows similarities between the transfiguration accounts and 2 Corinthians 3. Specifically, “both draw on Moses Transformation account in Exod 34.” There appears to be a triangulation of these three passages (Sinai, Transfiguration and 2 Cor 3) with the new covenant interpretation given by Paul in this passage. Whereas, Moses is the only one who experiences transformation in Exodus 34; and Jesus’ appearance is the only one transfigured on the high mountain; “For Paul, however, the transformation experience is not limited to a special few . . . but instead becomes the normal experience for believers as a result of their exposure to the glory of Christ.” Lee continues,

It is also interested to notice the strong δόξα motif in 2 Corinthians 3–4 and in the transfiguration story, which is clearly from the Mosaic transformation. While this particular use of the word δόξα is not paralleled elsewhere in Paul, it is one of the most important themes of the transfiguration story. Paul insists on the far greater glory which accompanies his New Covenant ministry and as a result of his unveiling of the Gospel of the Lord of glory, “we all” are enabled to see the glory. This revelatory experience of the glory, according to Paul, comes from God’s new creation activity of spreading “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” finds its narrative parallel especially in Luke’s version of the transfiguration story. Luke refers to Jesus’ altered face in 9:29 and associates it with the δόξα in 9:31; And the three disciples are said to witness the δόξα in 9:32.

John Calvin noted the role of the image of God in man when exposed to the glory of God. “Observe, that the design of the gospel is this—that the image of God, which had been effaced by sin, may be stamped anew upon us, and that the advancement of this restoration may be continually going forward in us during our whole life, because God makes his glory shine forth in us by little and little.” This is the effect of the greater covenant. Finally, R. Kent Hughes explains,

Moses’ temporary exposure to the glory of the Lord worked a mighty transformation in and upon him. But the new-covenant ministry of Paul is even more transforming because our exposure is constant and continuous (there is no veil). And more, it works in the reverse order of Moses’ experience, first by effecting a moral transformation into God’s image . . . The change is progressive, so that willing exposure to the sunlight of God’s presence will burn his image ever deeper into our character and will. And ultimately, at Christ’ appearance, we will undergo a physical transformation in glory. This is what Paul’s ministry offered, and this is the grand and great difference between his and Moses’ ministry.

G. K. Beale in We Become What We Worship writes, “People resemble what they revere, either for ruin or restoration. God has made all people to reflect, to be imaging beings. People will always reflect something, whether it be God’s character or some feature of the world.” Reflecting on several New Testament passages Beale applies his thesis to sanctification: “Thus to be ‘transformed [metamorphoō] by the renewing of your mind” in Romans 12:2 is the virtual equivalent to “becoming conformed [symmorphos] to the image of [God’s] son” in Romans 8:29. Such an equivalence is pointed to further from observing the combination of renewal and image in Colossians 3:10: “you have put on the new man who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him . . . (also Eph 4:22–24). Similarly, 2 Corinthians 3:18 affirms that those who want to be near the Lord will take on his likeness.” This idea of transformation (e.g., “metamorphosis”) that results from beholding divine glory in worship events such as those described in the transfiguration and in 2 Corinthians 3, is also used in relation to a lifestyle of unceasing worship described in Romans 12:1–2. The connections between the two are once again quite clear as what takes place in the event is inextricably linked to what takes place in life. In this way, the event becomes a source of empowered lifestyle worship.

Jeremiah Burroughs (1599–1646), an English Puritan and Congregationalist, helpfully summarizes the truths set forth here in his work, Gospel Worship:

This is that which the happiness of the church is set out by in Revelation 22:4: “They shall see His face and His name shall be in their foreheads.” This is the privilege of the church. And that it is such a blessing to draw nigh to God you may see from Ephesians 2:18: “For through Him we both have an access by one Spirit unto the Father.”

Through Christ we have access by one Spirit unto God the Father, and now, Paul says, “Ye that were strangers and foreigners are made fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God,” and verse 13: “but now by Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were afar off are made nigh by the blood of Christ,” and you have access through Christ. So our coming nigh to God is such a privilege as cost the blood of Christ . . . . And by drawing nigh to God often, you will come to increase your graces abundantly. How will your graces act? The presence of God will draw forth the acts of grace as the presence of the fire draws forth out heat. So the presence of God will draw forth our graces. And by this means we come to live most holy lives.

We read that Moses was upon the mountain forty days with God, and when he came down his face so shone that the people were not able to bear it. What’s the reason? It was because he was so near to God. Would you have your faces shine in a holy conversation before men? Converse much with God, be often with God, be near to Him and that will make you shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. We find it so with some who converse much with God: There is a shine upon their very countenances . . . . “You shall have many who love to be in God’s presence so that they think on it overnight and long for the time when it comes. I am never better than when I am with God. I think when I get into God’s presence, either in prayer or any duty of God’s worship, I find my heart warmed and quickened. They are ready to say with Peter, “Master, it is good being here.”

This is what the gospel brings to worship because it focuses us on Christ—the mediator and object of new covenant worship—as the image of the invisible God. In his face is found the all-satisfying and transforming glory of God. Emphasizing these aspects of Christian worship inspires all worshipers to proclaim with Peter, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

This is part five of a five part series.  Click here to find the first four parts.  

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