We Saw His Glory -- A Lectionary Reflection for Transfiguration Sunday (2 Peter 1)
2 Peter 1:16-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
Epiphany begins with a star shining in the night sky pointing us to the child born in Bethlehem. It ends with this same Jesus, now an adult who is fully engaged in his ministry, standing on a mountain-top, his glory fully revealed and witnessed to by a voice from heaven. The day on which we celebrate this revealing of Christ’s majesty is called Transfiguration Sunday. While you will find a full description of this event in the reading for today in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt.17:1-9), there is another witness to the event, that witness is found here in 2 Peter. The season of light is coming a close, with this brief revelation of Christ’s glory, but the witness continues on to this day.
This passage bears witness to the moment of transfiguration. The author, whose identity is not known to us, tells us that what is being made known is not a “cleverly devised myth.” It is an event to which there were witnesses. Now, the author claims to be a witness to the event, but scholars suggest that this is a rather late document. We need to recognize the irony here of a message that opposes cleverly devised myths with eyewitness testimony given by an unknown, rather late in the game, author. Nevertheless, even if this wasn’t written by St. Peter, as claimed by the letter, it is likely rooted in a communal witness that goes back to the apostolic era. The reason for claiming apostolic authorship is to support the authoritative nature of the witness. The original readers likely knew this wasn’t written by Peter, but they accepted it as an authentic witness. For our purposes, it stands in line with the witness of the Gospels. In fact, it’s rather sparse in its details.
Although no mention is made here of the transformation of Jesus’ appearance or the presence of Moses and Elijah (nor of James and John for that matter), what is referenced is the voice of God. It is God who bears witness to Jesus’ majesty, declaring: “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The author reveals that he was present to witness this voice from heaven. Now, he shares it with others.
The purpose of sharing this message of the Transfiguration is revealed in the words that follow. That has to do with the prophetic witness of Scripture. Be attentive to it, the author says. He compares it to a lamp shining in a dark place. That is a message that resonates during Epiphany. We’re told that the revelation of Christ’s glory and majesty on the mountain top gives credibility to the message of Scripture and their witness to it. While Protestants, and I count myself among them, have hailed the right of the individual to read and interpret Scripture for themselves, the author of 2 Peter isn’t quite as sanguine about this. The author writes that “you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (vs. 20). Instead, the prophecy of Scripture, the revelation of God, comes as men and women are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak for God.
While what we call the New Testament is in formation by the time 2 Peter is written, it’s still forming. Gospels and letters are floating around, but they’ve been organized into a whole that one would call Scripture. So, we’re likely talking here about what Christians call the Old Testament, most likely that testament was written in Greek, what is known as the Septuagint (LXX).
Whatever is meant here by prophecy and Scripture, the author is clear that it can’t mean whatever we want it to mean. Contextually, the interpretation of prophecies was often a matter of conjecture. As Pheme Perkins notes, this was known to occur at places like Delphi. She writes that “Second Peter insists that prophetic words inspired by the Holy Spirit are not that sort of prophecy; they reflect God’s purposes, not human cleverness” [Feasting on the Word, p. 451].
So, this reading reminds us that we should be attentive to the witness of Scripture, that it might be a lamp to light the way forward, until the morning dawns and the full light of God has been revealed to our hearts.
The story of the Transfiguration suggests that for just one moment the full majesty of Jesus’ identity was revealed. Only a few people (Matthew names Peter, James, and John) got to see that revelation. Only they got to hear the divine witness to Jesus’ identity. We the readers of the Gospels and of this letter must take their word as being true. This witness is extended to Scripture, which isn’t open to just any interpretation but requires the movement of the Spirit. That is tricky because it’s easy to claim the Spirit’s lead. How do we discern when and how the Spirit is leading? It’s a question that we preachers ask all the time as we consider the message found in Scripture and seek to bring something of value to our congregations. We pray for the Spirit’s guidance. We also pray that the Spirit will speak in, through, under, or over our words (that’s something akin to consubstantiation, just applied to Scripture rather than the Eucharist).
As we move into Lent and journey toward Easter, may the lamp that 2 Peter speaks of light our way until morning dawns and we can see more fully the things of God.
Image attribution: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319. Transfiguration of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46150 [retrieved February 16, 2020]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.