Last Epiphany A
February 17, 2020
The Last Epiphany A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 17:1-9 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 24:12-18 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 2 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Peter 1:16-21 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 99 & 100 (Lord’s Day 36)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In the Harry Potter books, the students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have to take a course in “Transfiguration.” There they learn how to change teacups into rats or flowers into candles. And to most people’s minds that is pretty much what “transfiguration” is, too: it is a change of state from one thing into something quite different. The Greek word used in Matthew 17 is the word from which we derive the English word “metamorphosis” and that word likewise conjures up caterpillars turning into butterflies or a Franz Kafka character waking up one day only to discover he had turned into a giant beetle.
But none of those associations seems quite apt for whatever it was that happened to Jesus on that mountaintop. We don’t want to say (do we?) that Jesus changed from one kind of being into a completely different type. For the better part of two millennia now the church has struggled to hold in tension the idea that Jesus was one person with two natures (fully human and fully divine) and that those two natures co-existed in Jesus without confusion, without mixture, without one altering the other, and so on (cf. The Athanasian Creed for an exceedingly thorough drubbing on this subject) So we can’t theologically countenance the idea that Jesus could toggle between being either human or divine, as though he had not been both at the same time all along.
To avoid this, we could say that what happened on the mountaintop is that the divine nature rose to prominence in a way that had not generally been the case throughout Jesus’ earthly existence up to that point. Or we could say that for a few brief moments the Father showed the disciples what Jesus (as Son of God) had always looked like before he emptied or stripped himself of certain ordinary divine traits so as to become incarnately human (think of it as a temporary reversal on the kind of kenosis spelled out in Philippians 2). Either way or both ways, however, it was not that Jesus became something he generally speaking was not but more the case that something that was a part of who he had been all along was displayed in a different way.
This may be important to remember. Because when Jesus said things like “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” he didn’t mean just this one incident of blazing glory. He meant that divinity had been on display every day of his life. Divinity was on display when he spoke kindly to ostracized women and outcast lepers. Divinity was on display when Jesus wept over a dead friend and when he smiled gently at a misguided yet earnest rich young ruler.
In other words, we dare never say of Matthew 17 that this was one time when we could see Jesus as divine in addition to being also human. After all, this lection occurs on the final Sunday before the start of Lent and we want to be clear all through the Lenten Season that the glory of the Father and of the fullness of the Godhead were on display even when a crown of thorns got pressed into the flesh of Jesus’ scalp, even when that same man was hoisted up on a spit of wood like some grim scarecrow atop a garbage heap.
When Peter made his impetuous suggestion that they capture the moment forever by building some shelters up there on the mountaintop, the foolishness of his suggestion is not what we normally think it is; namely, that you just can’t just reach out and bottle divine incandescence as though you were doing no more than capturing a firefly in a jar. No, the true folly of Peter’s suggestion stems from the fact that he didn’t need shelters to capture what was going on up there on the mountain: that same reality had been with him and the other disciples from the very first day they met Jesus. Peter suggested that they build skene, or “tabernacles/tents,” which is the same word John uses in his prologue about Jesus “tabernacling” in our midst. The skene Peter sought had been with him in Jesus’ fleshly tent all along.
When the spectacle was over, verse 8 says that the disciples looked up “and saw no one except Jesus.” But had anything really changed? Was Jesus any less glorious then than he had been a few moments earlier? And what about when Jesus would soon get to that point when he would become, in the words of the prophet, “like one from whom people hide their faces”? Was he any less glorious there as the true Son of God than in those few moments of obvious shining?
It is ironic that this moment of transfiguration always strikes us as being all about what can be seen and yet when God’s voice thunders from heaven, what he says is that the disciples must listen to Jesus! Apparently, if they listen to what Jesus says, they will discover windows on glory they had never before suspected were there.
Perhaps it’s no different today. Our modern time is as enamored of outward glitz and glitter and eye-popping spectacles as any era has ever been. The media is drawn to megachurches full of glamour. Our attention is nabbed by the spectacular, the superstars, the headline grabbers. But true glory lurks in unexpected places and in generally humble wrappings. It lurks in every believer, in all those about whom Jesus once prayed to be one with even as he and his Father were one.
It’s when we listen to the Word of Jesus, including when that Word comes through any number of Jesus’ latter-day followers, that we start to see the glory we too often miss. Curiously, Jesus tells the disciples to tell no one about this incident until after he had been raised from the dead. But, of course, once Jesus was raised, he didn’t stick around long. By the time the disciples were free to tell folks about this, they would not be able to point to Jesus in physical form. He’d be gone back to heaven by then and so all that would be left would be words and witness and things to which people could listen.
Compared to that, we’d all like to join Peter and capture the more obvious features of glory. What we really are left to do, however, is to see the glory that surrounds us always whenever we hear and repeat the Word of Life that just is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
Frederick Dale Bruner points out that the Transfiguration has three main biblical parallels: Exodus 34:29-35 where Moses’ face was said to shine with the reflected glory of Yahweh after his meeting with God on the holy mountain; 2 Peter 1:16-18 where Peter makes overt reference to this incident and all the confirming words and signs that accompanied it;. and Deuteronomy 18:15 where God (through Moses) predicts that he will one day raise up a prophet like Moses and that when that one comes, the people will have to listen to them.
By the way: as most scholars of the Old Testament know, the Deut. 18 text is a key text to understand the role of the Prophet in ancient Israel but also as a key text that points forward to the ultimate Prophet, Jesus Christ. A key job of the Prophet in Israel was to mediate the covenant by applying Torah, the Law, to the people. Sometimes that application was in a call to return to God’s covenant intentions for his people and often that call came in the form of rebuke and the cry of repentance to a stiff-necked and disobedient people. This is in part why Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophet) appear with Jesus even as Jesus in his own being fulfills the Law and the Prophets perfectly, not so much applying the Law to the people as fulfilling its very purpose through his own life and sacrificial death.
In popular culture in recent years a great many people are aware of a now-famous transfiguration scene from Peter Jackson’s first The Lord of the Rings films.
In this scene, the Elf queen Galadriel is offered the one Ring of power by the Hobbit Frodo Baggins. This is tempting for even as strong a spiritual being as Galadriel because in her hands, she could indeed wield the Ring to great and powerful effect. But like the wizard Gandalf (who likewise refuses to touch or take the Ring), she knows she would be utterly corrupted by the Ring’s evil. Thus, in the end, she will not touch or take the Ring from Frodo. She cannot.
But in the scene, she briefly toys with the idea and so transfigures into a towering figure with a voice like the sound of many rushing waters. She shines with a bright, incandescent light of terrifying power before finally shrinking back down to an ordinary sized and normal looking Elf.
The difference between this kind of scene and Christ upon the mountaintop in Matthew 17 is that Jesus did not transfigure into something he was not—much less into something potentially awful—but rather reveals what he already is as the true Messiah, the true Son of God.
And it’s kind of a reverse Galadriel transfiguration in another sense: Galadriel transfigured at the prospect of taking on huge powers; Jesus transfigured into his true glory, which was ordinarily hidden from the disciples’ eyes on account of Jesus’ having given up his true divine powers in order to be born also truly human.
And it was the giving up of those divine powers and perquisites that spells the salvation of our cosmos!
Author: Stan Mast
We come at last to the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. Epiphany began with the proclamation of Christ to the nations, represented by the Magi from the East, and it ends with an even more dramatic presentation of God’s glory on a mountain. Indeed, all of the lectionary readings for today feature a mountain topped with the Glory of the Lord.
Our passage in Exodus is a foretaste of Christ’s transfiguration. As God confirms his covenant with Israel, he calls Moses, the mediator of that covenant, to the top of Mt. Sinai for a close encounter of the best kind. He will receive tablets of stone on which God has written his covenant Law, so that God’s people will never have to wonder how to live in this world before their God. His will is written in stone.
This episode explains why it was Moses who appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Along with Elijah, he was the premier Old Testament channel of God’s revelation to his people. So, when the final and ultimate revelation of God came in Jesus Christ, it was fitting that Moses and Elijah would be appear with Jesus to “validate” that revelation. Their appearance was one final proof to the disciples that Jesus was everything they thought he was, and more. As John 1:17 puts it, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
So, if the Transfiguration of Jesus was the pinnacle of Epiphany, why would any preacher want to focus on this foretaste epiphany in Exodus 24? Why linger here in the Old Testament when we can go to the fulfillment in the New? Well, for the same reason we preach any Old Testament text—for the way it enriches our understanding of the New Testament. The old saw said, “The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed.” But it is also true that the Old gives us the background that shows the full meaning of the New. You can’t really make sense of the New without the Old.
We can see that here by asking the question, how should we preach this text? It has two parts, the ascent of Moses in verses 12-14 and the descent of God in verses 15-18. So, is this text about Moses’ ascent or God’s descent? Is it a paradigm demonstrating how we should ascend into God’s presence or is it a prophecy revealing how God will descend into our time and space? Is it about deification or incarnation?
I use those last two terms because Exodus 24 was a key text in the ancient Christian ascetic and mystical tradition. That tradition saw this text as a paradigm for every person’s approach to God. Those ancient mystics focused on the progression in the story: the people as a whole had to stay at a distance from the mountain; a select few (Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the 70 elders) were allowed to go up on the mountain where they “saw the God of Israel” and weren’t killed; Moses then went up higher on the mountain where he had to wait 6 days (an obvious reference to the creation account in Genesis 1); finally on the seventh day he entered the cloud where he spent 40 days and nights with God.
By entering that great “cloud of unknowing,” where he came to know God face to face, Moses became more like God than anyone else in history. Thus, he is a model for the process of deification which is so central in Eastern Christianity.
While this doctrine is largely ignored in the West, it definitely has some biblical roots. Consider II Peter 1:4, “he has given us his very great and precious promises so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Or think of these words of I John 3:1-2, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Or, reflect on II Corinthians 3:18 which is rooted in this story. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
Shall we take this opportunity to preach on this relatively unknown aspect of the Gospel truth on this Transfiguration Sunday? Shall we focus on Moses ascent, on deification? Or should we zero in on God’s descent, on incarnation?
In my humble opinion (strongly shaped by the Western tradition), this is mostly about God’s descent. Yes, Moses went up, but, more dramatically and centrally, God came down. “When Moses wen up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sanai.” That’s the gospel in the text; the glory of the Lord settled on Sinai, even as, hundreds of years later, the glory of God would settle on Christ. Here, Israel could see the glory from a distance blazing like a consuming fire. There, the disciples could see the glory up close and personal in the face of Christ.
I think that’s the message of this text not only because of my doctrinal leanings, but also because of textual considerations. This episode is a midway point between Israel’s arrival at Sinai and the complete condescension of God to dwell with his people in the tabernacle. This onetime event points ahead to the everyday meeting of God’s glory in the liturgy of the Tabernacle and Temple.
Or to put it a bit differently, this is the climax of the story of “the God who condescends,” who came down to his sinful people in all his glory. Instead of destroying them, he instructs them about the tabernacle (chapters 25-31). And when they infuriate God by making that Golden Calf, Moses intercedes for them and God relents and forgives. Harking back to this story in Exodus 24, Moses asks for proof that God’s presence will continue to be with such a sinful people. “Now show me your glory (Exodus 33:18).” God responds by showing Moses his back in a cloud and proclaiming his name as the compassionate and gracious God.
So, there can be no doubt that this text focuses on the condescension of God, which came to a climax in the incarnation. As John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling (‘tabernacled’ in the Greek) among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Verse 18 continues, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” On the Mount of Transfiguration, God declared that Jesus was, indeed, that one and only Son who came to make the Unknown and Unknowable God known. As one scholar summarizes, “All of these themes—appearance of the glory, divine condescension, building of a tabernacle—return in the tale of the transfiguration.” So, we see how the Old Testament story shows the fullness of the New Testament Gospel.
That’s what we should preach if we choose this Old Testament text. The Law given by God up on that mountain is important and helpful, in fact, invaluable. It tells us how to approach God, how to walk with God, how to get closer to God. That law is a gift of God’s grace, and we should be grateful, and we should try to live it. But, as the book of Hebrews says again and again, Jesus is better, because he fulfilled the Law that cannot save us because we cannot keep it. In the Gospel we are told how God approached us, how he walked with us, how he died and rose for us, and how he is with us always.
Speaking of Hebrews, the end of chapter 12 gives us a potential angle into this story in Exodus. Hebrews 12:18-24 speaks of two mountains, Mt. Sinai that is burning with fire and cannot be touched and Mt. Zion that is populated by countless sinners who have been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus. That is the conclusion of the writer’s appeal to second generation Christians who were tempted to go back to Judaism, attracted by all the rituals and symbols of the Old Testament, thinking that by those means they could climb the mountain into God’s presence, as Moses did.
The author of Hebrews begs them not to go that route. The only way in to God’s presence is through Christ. That is a message people need to hear in this post-modern syncretistic age, when people are always looking for other ways to God and glory. Preach Christ in whom God settled into human history.
When I read about God’s glory appearing as a consuming fire on top of Sinai, I instantly pictured the mountains and hills of California ablaze with wildfires that consumed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and thousands of man-made structures. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples saw God not as a consuming fire, but as the compassionate face of the Christ. No wonder Paul would later write, “God… made the light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (II Corinthians 4:6).”
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Thanks to Handel’s oratorio Messiah, Psalm 2 often gets associated with Christmas as traditionally it is during Advent that many choirs/orchestras present this well-known piece of music, including the thundering and fiery solo “Thou Shalt Break Them.” Yet here we are on Transfiguration Sunday looking at this very psalm. And if applied to the Messiah (as Handel did), it is quite the poem to ponder. Here we see God’s Chosen One, his Anointed, coming loaded for bear, dashing the nations to pieces like a potter’s vessel. Here the Messiah is a military captain with a scorched earth policy, determined to annihilate all those raging nations that oppose God’s people, God’s ways, and so the forward march of God’s kingdom.
But in order to understand Psalm 2 clearly we need to begin first with the original meaning of this ancient Hebrew poem, shorn of later associations with the Christ. So to begin, recall that most scholars now believe that Psalms 1 and 2 were intentionally placed at the head of the Hebrew Psalter as a way to establish the key themes that would continue to crop up in the 148 psalms to follow.
Psalm 1 establishes the idea that there are two types of people to be found in the world: the righteous and the wicked. There are those who understand that the true delights of human life can be found only by following God’s ways and there are those scoffers who mock God, who make up life’s rules as they go along, and so who have no real root in reality. In the end they will fly away in the wind. But God’s people, firmly planted as they are in the reality of God’s creation, will endure in shalom and joy forever. And that contrast between the righteous and the wicked is a major theme of the psalms.
Psalm 2 pulls the camera back a bit, widening our focus from individual persons to whole nations. After all, in the Old Testament the basis of the covenant with Abraham was the promise that one day Abraham’s offspring would form a mighty nation, out of which would emerge the Christ of God, who would save all peoples. Thus the history of Israel forms the heart of the Old Testament. If Israel really is the Chosen People of God, then what happens to them matters a great deal. Further, if God really did renew his covenant with King David, then the anointed one occupying Israel’s throne was also a vital figure to watch, because one of these days the Messiah was going to be a son of David.
So Israel had to survive and flourish: the salvation of the world depended on it. Of course, the other nations of the Ancient Near East didn’t know that nor would they have had any reason to believe it even if they were told this. All they could see was a small-to-medium size nation occupying a pretty nice piece of Middle Eastern real estate. And in that rough-and-tumble ancient world, the game nations played was war and conquest. So if you were the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, or Romans, then Israel was just one nation among many to be conquered so as to expand your empire.
This reality is what lies behind the composition of Psalm 2. The other nations can see only the surface of history and based on that, Israel is nothing special. And so the kings of the earth gather their generals and intelligence officers together to make plans on how to wipe Israel out. But if you look beneath history’s surface, you find the living God who from time immemorial has guaranteed Israel’s survival. So even as these other nations roll out their military reconnaissance maps to plan strategy, God in heaven laughs–his people Israel will not be thwarted by such puny means as this! Somehow, some way Israel’s line will survive and from it will come, one day, an Anointed One of such power that nothing in all the universe will stand in the way of his saving efforts.
So that is the broader historical context that lies behind the second psalm. More specifically, however, it looks like this was a hymn sung on the occasion of a new king’s coronation. Verses 6-8 and verse 12 all appear to have direct application to the enthroning of a new king. And so to the surrounding nations God declares through the psalmist, “Pay attention, O you nations! This king is my beloved son not some pawn for you to move around on your little military chessboards.”
It’s easy to see why this psalm has come to be so heavily associated with Jesus. The connecting of these words with Jesus did not begin with Handel’s stirring song from Messiah. Instead that is but one example of a very long Christian tradition of linking Psalm 2 with Jesus. That’s true mostly because this is the only place in the Old Testament where the anointed one is called a son. Given what a major theme the Father-Son relationship between Jesus and God will become in the gospels, it was natural that Psalm 2 would gain a messianic significance lacking in other psalms.
But how can we associate the Jesus of the New Testament with this dashing image of the valiant king who squashes the nations? After all, in his time here on this earth, Jesus did not fit this bill. And don’t forget that there were not a few people in his day who wished he had. The people of his day were hungry for someone to knock the teeth out of the Caesar’s mouth. There were many zealots who would never have allowed Jesus to be so easily carried away to a cross if they had thought Jesus had the political and military wherewithal to restore the physical kingdom to Israel.
But Jesus disappointed such hopes. Indeed, the more spiritual Jesus got, the smaller the crowds became until finally he stood alone. After all, Jesus encouraged paying taxes to Caesar, submitting to the governing authorities, and putting away the sword. He spoke of a kingdom not of this world and urged everyone to love their enemies and pray for the power mongers who persecuted them. There was no iron scepter in Jesus’ hands and far from dashing anyone like a potter’s vessel, he was himself finally hung out to dry at a place called Skull Hill. It was Jesus who looked shattered, not any of the foreign powers that occupied the Promised Land in his day! Far from rebuking Caesar or Herod or Pilate, Jesus rebuked his own disciple for brandishing a sword in the moments before they arrested Jesus and led him away.
Based on the gospels, there seems to be virtually no hook-up between Psalm 2 and Jesus’ actual life. But maybe that’s because we’re making the same mistake as the Babylonians and others made about ancient Israel: namely, we’re looking only at the surface of history. Perhaps if our vision could penetrate deeper, we would see that everything Psalm 2 says about God’s mighty anointed King applies to Jesus and then some. Perhaps if we could peek behind the scenes of history we’d see Jesus smashing the forces of darkness with something far firmer than even an iron scepter: we’d see him defeating death itself through the unlikely weapon of his own cross.
It’s not that the New Testament disagrees with the Old Testament’s vision that evil and the ungodly need to be defeated. It’s just that the way by which God chose to accomplish those goals took the astonishing form of Jesus, the Child born in a barn, the carpenter’s son whom no one could figure out, the itinerant preacher whom even his own family once chalked up as crazy, the enemy of the Pharisees who eventually got crossed out for his trouble.
Jesus himself preached a kingdom that looked like a teeny mustard seed, a kingdom that was of great value but that lay hidden beneath the sod out in a field somewhere, of a kingdom that was penetrating the whole world all right but that was doing so in the stealthy, invisible manner of yeast in dough. All of that seemed to be Jesus’ parabolic way of acknowledging that the surface of history will remain pretty much the way it had always appeared. The Wall Streets, Hollywoods, Moscows, and Washingtons of the world will always seem to have more going for them than any church body or communion.
But by faith we look deeper. We penetrate to a level of reality in which God has enthroned his Son Jesus as an eternal King. Those who oppose that King are on the wrong side of history–their causes will not endure nor will they have even the slightest of effects on the coming of God’s kingdom in Christ. And if they persist in their opposition to Jesus, they will be banished from the mind of Him who knows all, banished from the presence of Him who is everywhere, banished to a hell which, in C.S. Lewis’s memorable depiction, is finally nothing and nowhere, encapsulated in no more than a grain of sand on a beach of the New Creation.
Ultimately, of course, such claims are the provenance of faith. But a faith that can see how Jesus’ power through weakness and sacrifice saved the world can see and celebrate God’s victory as depicted in Psalm 2 and as brought to grand fruition on Easter. Or, on this Transfiguration Sunday, we can say that the Jesus who most of the time looked ever-so-ordinary could in the blink of an eye be revealed to be the dazzling figure those few disciples saw on that mountaintop that long ago day. He has won the victory!
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
Lewis Smedes once told a story about Siauliai, a village in Lithuania. Just outside the village is the Hill of Crosses: a cemetery commemorating a host of loved ones and so a hill so thick with crosses you can hardly see the ground because of them. When the Russians came in 1940, the Soviet Army made sure to mow down those crosses the way a farmer mows a wheat field. They later passed a law against any further cross-planting as an offense against the atheist state.
But the Lithuanian villagers paid the law no mind and kept sneaking back in the night to replace the crosses the Russians took. For over 40 years a tug of war between the Soviets and the villagers continued until finally, by 1988, the Soviet Empire had enough other problems and so they left the Hill of Crosses in peace. And then the Soviet Empire died.
Now those crosses have new meaning for the people of Siauliai. Now the people gather there to remember not only their loved ones but the wonderful way by which the cross of Jesus beat back the hammer and sickle emblazoned on those Russian bulldozers. For them, the Hill of Crosses has become a Hill of Hope–hope in God’s Anointed One who alone will emerge the Victor in and through and over history’s every conflict. Or as Psalm 2 puts it in conclusion, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” Indeed.
2 Peter 1:16-21
Author: Doug Bratt
To paraphrase an old cliché, for the RCL’s preachers and teachers, “It’s a good thing Transfiguration Sunday comes but once a year.” After all, it can be challenging enough to proclaim the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. The challenge may become even greater for those who choose to proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday.
Of course, there are riches to be mined from 2 Peter 1:16-21. Its messages of eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration as well as the reliability of the Scriptures can prove, with the Spirit’s help, to be a fertile source for proclamation of gospel truths. But those who try to link 2 Peter 1 to the gospels’ account of Jesus’ transfiguration may have little more to draw on than a somewhat skeletal rehashing of what those gospels portray far more vividly.
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might choose to emphasize just one half of it. Verses 16-21 recount Peter’s experience with the Transfiguration’s display of Jesus’ power, coming and majesty. Jesus’ disciple caught an almost blinding glimpse of Jesus’ honor and glory. That majesty was then confirmed, says Peter, in some disciples’ hearing by God’s announcement that Jesus is “God’s Son,” whom God loves and with whom God is “well-pleased” (17).
2 Peter 1’s proclaimers might also choose to focus on its verses 19-21. They present a somewhat skeletal theology of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. “No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation,” Peter writes there. “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Yet the RCL’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might also want to link those two halves, Jesus’ majesty to the Scriptures’ reliability. We would, frankly, been helped had the Spirit inspired Peter to include in his account of Jesus’ transfiguration the part of God’s message that the apostle omits: “This is my Son … Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). That would have at least linked the need to listen to the Scriptures (19) to Peter’s audience’s need to listen to Jesus. But the apostle leaves us only with his insistence that “we ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (18).
So how might the Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers link the two halves of it? Peter doesn’t provide his readers with a natural link between his message and our need to listen to God’s Son. Yet might he be offering God’s adopted sons and daughters two reasons for trusting the Scriptures’ reliability? Some of those Scriptures are products of eyewitness accounts, as in the case of Peter’s recounting of Jesus’ transfiguration (16-18). But even those that are not the testimony of eyewitnesses, as in the case of the prophetic writings, are inspired by the Holy Spirit (19-21).
This may prove to be a fruitful approach for those who proclaim 2 Peter 1 in the 21st century’s context of skepticism about nearly everything that can’t be somehow “proven.” Our contemporaries assume that each of us has our own story that, while valid to us, is not necessarily valid for anyone else. Your story may not, in other words, be reliable for me.
What’s more, there’s much talk about the loss of American trust in institutions like politics, the church and even big businesses. To that Christians might want to add a loss of trust in the Scriptures’ reliability. How, some of our contemporaries wonder, can we trust an ancient text to provide us anything more than a few moral lessons as well as a glimpse into its outdated world?
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may offer a way to speak to that particular loss of confidence. Peter sets it in the context of “cleverly invented stories” (16). Those myths seem to have revolved around the “coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (16).
Yet while we generally understand that “coming” to refer to Jesus’ second coming, some scholars suggest that the word translated as “coming, parousia, simply refers to Jesus’ presence. In that case, Jesus’ ongoing presence among his believing followers may serve as a confirmation of the truth of their proclamation. Others can trust the words of those followers because Christ remains present to, with and among both those who proclaim them and those who hear them.
Peter insists that not only his message, but also its source is very different from those promoting falsehoods. Peter was, in fact, an eyewitness of the Lord Jesus Christ’s “majesty” (16). He heard God announce that Jesus was God’s “Son, whom I love; with him am well pleased” (17). So unlike the false teachers and prophets, the apostle received his message directly from God.
Of course, as my colleague Scott Hoezee points out, even after the Transfiguration’s startling display of Jesus’ glory the reliability of that message didn’t sink it right away for Jesus’ followers. Almost immediately afterward, after all, those disciples tried to wrangle the best seats in God’s kingdom for themselves. They also tried to convince Jesus to launch a political coup against Israel’s Roman occupiers. And when religious leaders conspired with the Romans to “shoot the messenger,” Jesus’ disciples fled him as quickly as their feet could carry them.
But the Holy Spirit’s descent into Jesus’ disciples transformed them. The Spirit made them realize that in Christ they’d heard God speaking to them. The disciples also came to realize that God expected them to share that holy truth with the rest of the world, including Peter’s letters’ first readers.
That truth, Peter goes on to insist in verses 19-21, also applies to what the prophets relayed through what Christians think of as the Old Testament. Those biblical prophets are trustworthy, unlike the false prophets whom the apostle condemns in chapter 2. In fact, at Pentecost the Spirit made “the word of the prophets more certain,” (19) perhaps making that word more obviously the product of that Spirit’s inspiration.
The Old Testament prophets didn’t speak their own words, or even their own interpretations of God’s word. Nor was the source of Isaiah, Jeremiah and others’ message in “their own will” (21). Instead, the prophets spoke their words “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters that we can trust God’s Word as the prophets, Peter and others deliver it to us because their words are, in fact, the words God’s own Spirit inspired them to say and write. Those words are reliable enough that God’s people can live – and die – by them.
Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld wrote an article in the Scientific American’s January 1, 2010 edition entitled, “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts.” It begins with Kirk Bloodsworth’s story. In 1984 Bloodsworth was convicted of raping and murdering a nine-year-old girl. The testimony of five eyewitnesses helped sentence him to die in the gas chamber. Yet after Bloodsworth had served nine years in prison, DNA testing proved him to be innocent.
Arkowitz goes on to write, “Surveys show that most jurors place heavy weight on eyewitness testimony when deciding whether a suspect is guilty. But although eyewitness reports are sometimes accurate, jurors should not accept them uncritically because of the many factors that can bias such reports.
“For example, jurors tend to give more weight to the testimony of eyewitnesses who report that they are very sure about their identifications even though most studies indicate that highly confident eyewitnesses are generally only slightly more accurate—and sometimes no more so—than those who are less confident. In addition to educating jurors about the uncertainties surrounding eyewitness testimony, adhering to specific rules for the process of identifying suspects can make that testimony more accurate.
“The uncritical acceptance of eyewitness accounts may stem from a popular misconception of how memory works. Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them.
“On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is ‘more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording’.”
It’s a good thing, then, that the Spirit’s inspiration kept Peter, the prophets and other biblical eyewitnesses’ memory sharp.
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