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The story of the Transfiguration in Luke 9 is one of the most puzzling stories in the Bible.

Biblical commentators, in fact, tend to throw up their hands in defeat. One commentator remarked that there is “rather limited success in understanding the meaning of the transfiguration.” It is not altogether clear what is the point of the story. The details of the narrative wander off in a number of directions. Nothing is explained. Jesus does not unpack the experience with his disciples on the way down the mountain. They – and we – are left baffled.

Except, there is one thing that is clear – what is really clear is that this story speaks consistently and compellingly about the glory of Jesus Christ. It is a glory story.

Of the many clues in this puzzling, meandering narrative that point to the glory of Jesus, perhaps Peter’s words and actions are the most revealing. Let’s allow ourselves two attempts to understand the behavior of Peter.

Many commentators complain a bit about Peter, accusing him of rudeness, even stupidity. But maybe Peter wasn’t being inconsiderate but awestruck. Maybe Peter wasn’t blurting out a rude demand but expressing a deep longing to celebrate and enjoy the glory of Jesus. It’s true – the text does admit that Peter did not know what he what saying. But I suggest that, even though Peter did not know what he was saying, he was yet reaching for that glory, sensing it. After all, this is the same Peter that made a stunning declaration in the previous chapter in Luke. When Jesus asked him, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered boldly, “The Messiah of God.” It’s not hard to imagine then that here, on this holy mountain, Peter continues to lift up the glory of Jesus.

That’s the first attempt to understand Peter. It is the optimistic understanding – giving Peter the benefit of the doubt and imagining that he is witnessing to the glory of Jesus.

There is, of course, another possibility. Stanley Hauerwas suggests that Peter wanted to “secure in place, if not tie down and domesticate, the wild spirit of God’s kingdom.” That, certainly, is the pessimistic understanding – that Peter was trying to take all that glory and tame it. If that is the case, then Peter truly did not know what he was saying. The glory of Jesus cannot be domesticated. It fills the whole earth.

Interesting, though, isn’t it – that both the optimistic and the pessimistic understanding of Peter’s bold suggestion, “Master, let us make three dwellings” – both still point to the glory of Jesus. In the first, Peter begins to see the cosmic expanse of the glory of Jesus and he is compelled to witness to it. In the second, Peter sees that glory and wants to capture it, contain it, and even control it.

We need not choose between the optimistic and pessimistic understandings of Peter’s impetuous request – instead, we see both operating in Peter and we see both in ourselves. By God’s generous mercy to us, we sometimes see the vista of the grace of Jesus Christ and speak out our praise. In our own foolish pride, we also sometimes presume on the glory of Jesus and want to seize it and tame it.

The season of Lent now invites us to enter once again the glory story of Jesus, to set wide the window of our imagination and to expand the scope of our hope.

Leanne Van Dyk

Leanne Van Dyk is the President and Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. She served, some years ago, as a co-editor of The Reformed Journal in its previous life as Perspectives.

4 Comments

  • mstair says:

    To me, the story in Luke is about the Jesus we see. Luke, being “the Gentile gospel” has a lot of Paul in there, who saw the risen, ascended, glorified Christ. That Christ is the one we see (indeed, according to Paul, the one whom we are now “in”). This is revealed truth of The Transfiguration, Immanuel is right here! And someday (according to one if the witnesses to it) we shall be like Him as, that is how we shall see Him.

  • George E says:

    “But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

    And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah,

    Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”

    Thus the message of the Transfiguration is that some of disciples were seeing the kingdom of God within days.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Leanne, for your take on this glory story of Jesus. You suggest at the end of your article that we enter once again the glory story of Jesus and set wide the window of our imagination… The art work displayed with this article shows how some historic artists have expanded their imaginations to display the Biblical narrative in bizarre ways. Even Luke’s depiction seems overly bizarre for an actual historic event. It takes some heavy expansion of imagination to come up with such a story. But that is what legends are made of, an expansion of reality. Doesn’t it make you wonder what really happened on that mountain? Rather that trying to expand the legend, I would rather know what actually happened. Back to Reality

  • Cheryl Scherr says:

    Why can’t we just accept that it’s a glorious mystery and leave it at that? Why do we have to explain it or Peter’s motives?

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