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Introduction To The Scripture For Transfiguration Sunday - Year A
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Transfiguration Sunday - Year A


EXODUS 24:12-18          There is an intentional similarity between our Old
Testament and New Testament lessons today.  Almost certainly, the Gospel
author used this Exodus passage as the basis for his narrative of the
Transfiguration.  This is actually the ending of an extensive definition of
the covenant God made with Israel (chapters 19-24 inclusive).  Moses is bid
come up the sacred mountain to receive the stones on which the terms of the
covenant (the Ten Commandments) were written.  There Moses meets God in a
cloud and stays forty days and nights.  Forty is a sacred number which
appears many other times in the Old and New Testaments.


PSALM 2                  Rightly or wrongly, the early Church interpreted
this psalm as referring to Jesus as the Messiah.  In its original form it
was probably a poem encouraging confidence in an unnamed king of Israel at
the time of his accession or an anniversary of that event.  Verse 7 was
quoted in the narrative of Jesus' baptism in Mark, then copied by Matthew
and Luke.


2 PETER 1:16-21          This is the one reference to the Transfiguration
outside of the first three Gospels.  It interprets that mysterious event as
a guarantee of Christ's Second Coming in glory.  This element of faith was
in decline early in the 2nd century AD when this letter was composed.


MATTHEW 17:1-9           Does any other story of Jesus' ministry greater
contain more mystery than this? Was it a vision revealing to the disciples
Jesus' true nature and his future glory after death? Or is this an
interpretation of what the ministry of Jesus meant to the church founded by
the apostles.  The cloud and the voice symbolize the close presence of God
and the support of the law and the prophets at a crucial moment in Jesus'
ministry.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:


EXODUS 24:12-18   An intentional similarity links the Old Testament and New
Testament lessons today.  Almost certainly the Gospel writers used this
Exodus passage as the basis for the narrative of the Transfiguration.  
     
Like so much else in the Bible, the account of this event ratifying the
covenant is a composite drawn from different sources which do not entirely
agree.  For instance, in vs.12 the law and commandments are said to have
been written on tablets of stone.  This contradicts what had been said in
vs.7 where Moses "took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing
of the people." Scholars tell us that vss.3-8 belong to the E source while
vss. 1-2 and 9-14 have generally been assigned to the J source.  Vss. 15-18
are thought to have been added by the priestly source (P) to serve as an
introduction to the narrative of the giving of the cultic ordinances in
chapters 25-31.

As it stands now, the passage ends an extensive definition of the terms of
the covenant God made with Israel (chapters 19-24 inclusive) as well as
introducing the cultic account.  Moses went up the mountain to receive the
stones on which the terms of the covenant were written.  There Moses met
God in a cloud and stayed forty days and nights.  The symbolic number forty
appears many other times in both Old and New Testaments.  It meant a
strictly limited period of time, e.g.  about six weeks.  Forty years was
approximately the length of one generation.

In vs.16 "the glory of the Lord" settled as a cloud on the mountain for six
days, out of which Yahweh called to Moses.  Vs.  17 describes this glory as
being " like a devouring fire" which the people below could see.  Indeed,
in vs.  18 we are told that Moses himself entered the cloud for this
epiphany.  This is what the rabbis in post-biblical times called the
*shekinah,* from the root verb *shakan* meaning *to dwell.* It symbolized 
the presence of Yahweh.  In some OT references, the glory and the deity
become synonymous (cf. Ex. 33:22; Lev. 9:6, 23-24; Ps. 113:4; Zech. 2:8). 
Accordingly, rabbinical literature used *shekinah* as a reverent equivalent
for God.  Because the word in Hebrew is feminine, modern Jewish feminists
frequently speak of it as the feminine aspect of the divine being.


PSALM 2   In its original form this royal psalm was probably a poem
encouraging confidence in an unnamed king of Israel at the time of his
accession or an anniversary of that event.  Other ancient Middle Eastern
literature contains similar odes celebrating coronations.  The apparent
instability of the monarchy described may also point to a time when an
incipient rebellion was feared when a child-monarch succeeded to his
father's throne.  
     
In some of the early Hebrew versions as well as Greek and Latin
translations, it was included as part of Psalm 1.  Scholars speculate that
it may have been editorially selected as an introduction to the first book
of the Psalter (Pss.1-41) in the same way that Ps. 1 served for the whole. 
For some, the king of vss. 2 and 6 is reputed to be David, but that is
highly unlikely.  It is one of only four psalms in the first book of the
Psalter which does not bear the Davidic superscription.  Almost certainly,
it had been written before the Babylonian exile which ended the monarchy.
     
Rightly or wrongly, the early Christian church interpreted this psalm as a
reference to Jesus as the Messiah.  Mark quoted vs. 7 in his narrative of
Jesus' baptism, which was then copied by Matthew and Luke.  Yet there is
very little of its contents which refer to the messianic ideal.  Especially
the plot of revolt against the king by those lesser rulers already
subjected (vss.1-3) has no messianic precedent.  Because he holds the
anointed monarchy to be inviolable (vss.4-6), the psalmist views this
conspiracy as a rebellion against Yahweh.  If the monarch in question was
also an imagined ideal, the belief expressed in Yahweh's sovereignty was
not.  Though Israel was a small, insignificant nation, Israel had a great
God.
     
The idea of the king as the son of the national deity had common currency
in the ancient Middle East where polytheism and henotheism (each nation
having its own god) flourished.  Here it explains the theocractic
significance of Israel's monarchy.  The actual declaration, "You are my
son," served as a formula for adoption as early as the time of Hammurabi,
king of Babylon in the 18th century BCE.  In Roman times and probably much
earlier, it was not uncommon for the emperor to adopt someone other than
his own offspring to be the heir to the throne or for prominent citizens to
arrange for property of to be similarly inherited.  
     
The psalm ends with an ultimatum to the conspirators urging them to submit
to their rightful sovereign by performing an act of obeisance and seeking
refuge under his rule (vs.11-12).  To do so was to submit the Yahweh as the
ultimate sovereign of the universe.


2 PETER 1:16-21   The Second Letter of Peter remains one of the enigmas of
the NT.  Although it bears the name of Peter, most scholars consider that
as a pseudonym used by an unknown author early in the 2nd century to give
his letter apostolic authority.  The author sincerely believed, however,
that he expressed Peter's views if confronted by a similar situation.  It
had the style typical of a literary genre known as a "testament" of a
biblical figure aware of approaching death.  Such testaments, found
extensively in the Apocrypha, were generally pseudonymous, but included
exhortations and prophetic revelations of the future.  

Several references indicate that the author was familiar with at least some
of the gospels as well as the letter of Paul and the general epistle of
Jude.  The threat facing the church at this time has usually been
considered to have been the Gnostic heresy.  Current scholarly opinion
discounts this due to the evidence of eschatological apocalypticism, never
favoured by Hellenistic culture.  A more likely background was a
libertinism opposed to Christian ethical standards common to any declining
society.  In the face of this opposition, the author presents a strong
defense of the apostolic expectation of judgment and salvation at the
Parousia as the true motivation for rigorous moral behavior.

In this light, the author has interpreted this sole reference to the
Transfiguration outside the first three Gospels (vss.16-18) as a guarantee
of Christ's coming in glory as eternal judge and ruler.  That element of
the faith had played a significant part in early Christian teaching, but
had fallen into decline by the early 2nd century.  The claim to be an
eyewitness of this event (vs.16b-17) serves the author as proof of
authenticity.  He may well have had one or other of the synoptic gospels at
hand, possibly Mark's Gospel, if as some speculate, he was the leader of
the church in Rome which already regarded Peter as its prestigious founder. 
The further reference to divinely inspired prophecies (vss.19-21) would
also confirm his familiarity with other scriptures of the Jewish tradition
in which similar testaments and apocalypses were common.


MATTHEW 17:1-9   Has any other story greater mystery than this? Was it a
vision revealing to the disciples Jesus' true identity and his future glory
after death? The cloud and the voice symbolized the presence of God and
support for the law and the prophets at a crucial moment in Jesus'
ministry.  As such it stressed the continuation of God's self-revelation
and represents a disclosure of the future glory of the risen Christ. 
Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John does not limit the future manifestation
of glory of God's only Son to this single event.  
     
The passage contains obvious reminiscences of the epiphany of Moses on
Mount Sinai in Exodus 24.  In fact, Luke refers specifically to Jesus'
death as 'his exodus' (Lk.9:31).  As Moses had led the chosen people out of
Egypt to the promised land, so this greater Moses will by his passion lead
the new Israel to the kingdom of God.  Presenting Jesus and the new Moses
shaped much of Matthew's thinking in composing his gospel

While the three synoptic accounts of the event do not entirely agree on
certain details, all do regard it as the transforming event in the life of
Jesus.  The tradition repeated the narrative as an event which occurred
during a vacation journey Jesus took with his disciples, probably near
Caesarea Philippi, in the foothills of Mount Hermon.  Since the 4th century
CE, following St.  Helena's naming of holy sites, some Christians have
claimed that the site was on Mount Tabor where commemorative churches have
been erected since the 6th century CE.  That site has many characteristics
to commend it, offering as it does a magnificent view over the fertile
Plain of Jezreel.  In the OT, the mountain served Barak as the base from
which he launched his successful attack against Sisera (Josh. 4:6-14). 
Later, it was named the meeting place of the territories belong to three of
the belonging to the twelve tribes (Josh. 19:12, 22, 34).
     
The cloud is the *shekinah,*  the term by which rabbinical literature
interpreted the many OT references to divine glory.  Matthew seems to be
saying that as he made his way toward Jerusalem to undergo the passion,
this glory was shed upon the human person of Jesus.  As at his baptism, the
divine voice declares him to be the *only* Son of God.  Moses and Elijah
represent the continuing revelation which he represents.  Although Peter
would have made tabernacles for the three, the two fade away and only Jesus
remains.  This was no gauche remark, but a recognition that the dwelling
place of God would be not only with Jesus but with all humanity. (Cf. 2
Peter 1:19; Rev.21:3)
     
We must view this passage from the perspective of Matthew writing some
fifty years after the resurrection.  The story is filled with theological
symbolism as to the nature and mission of Jesus as the Messiah of God.  If
they were only vaguely aware of it at the time, after the resurrection the
three apostolic witnesses would have understood it in those terms.  By
placing this story at the centre of his gospel Matthew  provided the post-
apostolic church with assurance of the fulfillment of those things for
which all Christians hope.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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