This week’s gospel reading is one of those texts that will tell you what sort of Bible reader you are: one sort of reader will note with the poetry-lover’s relish the grandeur of the vision: Jesus alongside the grand prophets of the Old Testament. Another might note the ethical force of the final prohibition, the incompleteness of the cosmic Christ until the resurrection enacts God’s final victory over the grave. Another still might take this story devotionally, wondering what the experience of this sort of vision might have been like compared to the more mundane encounters with God that make up most of our lives.
And then there are the people who ask, “How in the world does Peter know what Moses and Elijah look like?” That would be my sort of reader.
My good friend Brad Warfield and I used to ask that question of the text as the sort of joke that Christian college students bring to the strange scenes of the Bible, reveling in our cleverness and knowledge of Judaism’s long (if inconsistent) tradition of refusing visual representations of the Bible’s characters. (Yes, I think I stole this particular observation from Brad.) Now that I’m a bit older, I realize that the question carries with it all sorts of philosophical and aesthetic weight, as some of the best jokes do, and Peter’s recognition brings light to some Christian realities that otherwise I might never have considered.
When the Transfiguration happens, Peter is at the end of a bad week. Six days earlier, according to Matthew’s account, Peter has gone from the keeper of the keys of the kingdom to Jesus’s Satan. Peter has not so much grown horns as taken on the role of Abishai in 2 Samuel, David’s nephew who balks when David forgives the sins of Shimei, a kinsman of Saul who has uttered a curse against David and his household. In that exchange, Abishai insists that Shimei be put to death for impiety, and David asks rhetorically why the sons of his sister have become satan (adversary, enemy) to him. In Peter’s case, Peter insists that Jesus stop talking nonsense about the Romans’ killing him, and Jesus (emphatically the new David in Matthew’s version of the story) calls on his own satan (adversary, enemy) to get behind him.
All of that background is to say that Peter, when he sees what transpires atop the mountain, is already extraordinarily aware of his own life’s place in the grand story of God’s saving the world. After all, he’s already been cast as the King’s nephew and as the keeper of the kingdom’s keys. When he looks up on the mountain, the geographic setting both of Moses’ receiving the Torah and Elijah’s hearing the “still, small voice” of God, he knows full well, even though he’s never seen a painting of either of the great ones of Israel, that these figures on this mountain cannot be other than the prophets in whose moments God moved to overcome the oppressors of the faithful.
Therefore the voice from the cloud is not merely capping off a good Sunday school lesson with a good reminder to “listen to Jesus” in some general moral sense. Instead, as Peter realizes that the one who promised the Kingdom to him and the other disciples is now in the bodily company of the great figures of resistance in his own tradition, the voice and the cloud make perfectly clear that in fact the mantle of resistance, the office of leading the people out of the clutches of sin and death as Moses led the people out of the domain of Pharaoh, the duty of one who will resist the Satanic ideologies of first-century Jerusalem the same way that Elijah resisted the Punic concessions of Ahab, now lies with his teacher and friend Jesus. To put it another way, this voice tells Peter to listen to him, certainly, but perhaps more importantly, the voice confirms that this is the moment in God’s story of saving the world to listen to him.
When the epistle of 2 Peter makes reference to this story, that text does so as a lead-up to one of the more famous affirmations of Scriptural revelation in the New Testament. While the world is dark, 2 Peter counsels, look for those instances of divine light that God has offered to guide the faithful, namely the prophecies that make up the Holy Scriptures. Look to the grand struggles of the gods in Moses’s moment and in Elijah’s, and realize that not only Jesus’s moment on the cross but also every faithful follower’s moment is in its own way a contest of gods. Whether that god be Pharaoh or Ba’al or Death or the seemingly irresistible, inhuman force that confronts the faithful in 2011, Matthew and 2 Peter call on us to expose that would-be deity to the light, to reveal its lies, to rest secure in the grand promises of the one true God, revealed as creating Father and resurrected Son and indwelling Spirit.
When Peter proposes the three tents, one for each of the great prophets, he’s careful to frame