The Transfiguration of Our Lord · 2 Peter 1:16-21 · February 3, 2008
By David I. Lewis,
Introduction: This Sunday provides one key point of structure within the church year, both in how it looks back over the season of Epiphany and how it also looks forward through the season of Lent to Easter. The Sundays in Epiphany are “framed” between the Baptism of our Lord and His transfiguration. The Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ Baptism and of His transfiguration each relate that the voice from heaven acknowledged Jesus to be God’s Son. This witness from heaven frames the season of Epiphany: in His ministry we see that Jesus is the true Son of God incarnate in the flesh, and this is just as the voice of God the Father also testifies both at the Baptism and at the transfiguration.
But the Sunday of the Transfiguration also anticipates the glory of Jesus’ resurrection. The transfiguration and the resurrection then together “frame” the season of Lent from the outside (just as the Sunday of the Temptation and the Sunday of the Passion frame this season from within). Finally, the transfiguration, in depicting Jesus “appearing in glory” on the mountain, also points ahead to the Parousia when He will appear again in glory—and so the Last Sunday after Epiphany also anticipates the Last Sunday of the church year.
It is especially this final point regarding the relationship of the transfiguration to the Parousia that most directly relates to the message of 2 Peter. 2 Peter 1:16-21 is read on this day because of the direct reference in 2:17-18 to the transfiguration as witnessed by Peter. But the purpose of this epistle was in part to attack false teachers who denied that Jesus would come again in glory (2 Peter 3). The reference to the events on the holy mountain in today’s text is used as one witness to establish the reality of Jesus’ “power and appearance.” Though the focus here is upon what happened in His first advent, yet as Jesus appeared here, so He will appear on the Last Day.
Details: Verse 16: In the epistle’s opening the readers are exhorted to godly living as would reflect their calling (1:3-11). In verses 16-21 the author provides a basis for this exhortation: the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in power has been made known to the recipients of this epistle in the apostolic preaching that has come to them.
How has this message come? The author distinguishes both how the message has come and how it has not come. It has not come by following “cleverly devised myths” (ESV). Rather than this being a reference to a proto-Gnostic or some other kind of heretical story that the author is writing against, this could very well be how the false teachers have tried to characterize the apostolic preaching—as a sophisticated story made up by men. If so, this characterization is here denied. The apostolic message is not man-made. It is instead based upon eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ majesty. In the following verses the events of the transfiguration will be singled out as one notable example of Jesus’ power (δύναμις) and appearance (παρουσία), but Jesus’ entire ministry of teaching and miracle-working could be seen as evidence of how He came.
Verses 17-18: The events of the transfiguration are here briefly described as this event is used as the one example par excellence of the manifestation of Jesus’ divine glory at His first coming. Note how the transfiguration is described as Jesus receiving honor and glory from the Father, that this is what was happening on the mountain. Note also the mention here of the voice from out of heaven—”This is My beloved Son in whom I delighted/am well pleased.” As also described in the Synoptic accounts, the transfiguration was occasion for God both to honor and to testify to His Son. The three apostolic witnesses have testified to the Father’s witness, a testimony now preserved for us in the three Synoptic accounts and referenced here in 2 Peter.
Contra the false teachers, the transfiguration is here described as something that actually happened and that was seen by eyewitnesses: this event is not merely legend or saga or some made up tale to make a spiritual point about Jesus’ identity. It actually occurred and is evidence both of Jesus’ power at His first coming and of the power that will be seen on the Last Day when He comes again. It is upon such eyewitness testimony that the hearers have been called to faith and are exhorted to faithful living. (Note: Even if someone were to dismiss 2 Peter because of its status as antilegomena, there are still the three Synoptic accounts of this event to rely upon.)
Verse 19a: “We have as very reliable the prophetic word.” Questions arise when reading and interpreting this verse. First, what is the referent of τὸν προφητικὸν λόγον (“the prophetic word”) in verse 19? This is apparently the same as πᾶσα προφητεία γραφῆς (“every prophecy of scripture”) in verse 20. Is this a reference to the entire Old Testament? Is it a reference only to the prophetic portions of that corpus? Could it refer also to any prophetic word given in the apostolic age? Most agree that the author is not referring to the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as such. Yet his understanding of “scripture” could theoretically embrace some or all of Paul’s epistles, for these are also grouped along with the “other scriptures” in 3:16. At the least it is the books of the Old Testament that are referenced here as they continue to witness to Jesus’ coming.
Second, what is the function of the comparative adjective βεβαιότερον (“more sure” in ESV) in verse 19? Is this making a comparison between the eyewitness testimony described in verses 17-18 and arguing that the OT prophecy is somehow more reliable and certain than that? Or does this adjective function in an elative sense and thus simply describe the prophetic word as being “very reliable”? Either way, two witnesses are given to Jesus’ coming in power: the eyewitness testimony of those who saw and heard—here, in particular, the transfiguration—and the prophetic word of the Scriptures.
Verses 19b-21: The hearers are admonished to pay special attention to the witness of the prophetic word. Why? The origin of prophecy is not with men. It comes from God through the work of His Spirit. One should note that in this verse—a verse which is used as a proof text for the doctrine of inspiration—the author has in mind specifically the prophecy found in the Old Testament. (It is by analogy that one would see these verses as speaking to the New Testament, for these books are not referenced here—though note again the author’s view of the Pauline epistles.) Thus here it is the testimony of the Old Testament that is considered a very strong witness in support of the apostolic message regarding the coming of Jesus. The false teachers are at odds not only with the eyewitness testimony of the apostles, but also with very reliable, prophetic words of Scripture.
Considerations for preaching:
I. The Gospel appointed for today, Matthew 17:1-9, provides the fullest account of the transfiguration and the preacher would be wise to reference this in the sermon as providing the “full story” of the transfiguration. The preacher could well decide to focus on the Gospel text and use the epistle to illustrate what this event means for the lives of believers: we can rely on the witnesses that Jesus is the Son of God who came and will come again in power.
II. If preaching on the epistle, one should focus on the witness of both the transfiguration and Old Testament prophecy to Jesus’ powerful appearing. (Do not let the sermon devolve into an exercise of merely discussing the doctrine of verbal inspiration by focusing only upon verses 19-21). Those who deny that Jesus will come again are refuted by the prophecy of the Old Testament and by the apostolic witness to Jesus: these testify that He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead—just as we confess in the creeds.
III. What is important about the transfiguration as used in 2 Peter 1:16-21?
A. At the transfiguration the Father gave glory and honor to Jesus and testified that Jesus is His Son. The Father’s actions and words still witness to Jesus today. Looking ahead into Lent, we can anticipate how Jesus will show Himself the Father’s true Son by being faithful in His calling to give His life as a ransom for many. Yet the Father’s honoring of His Son on the mountain also anticipates Jesus’ vindication on Easter.
B. The transfiguration is also analogous to the Second Coming, and this seems to be the main point made in today’s text. In both events Jesus comes and appears in glory. The events on the holy mountain provide a foretaste of what is yet to come on the Last Day when we too will see the Son of Man coming in His glory.
C. The false teachers described in 2 Peter lived as if there were no final judgment to come (see 2 Peter 2); the true believers are to live as if their Savior will come again. The transfiguration serves as one vivid and visual reminder that He who goes to the cross is also the glorious Son of God who will judge the world on the Last Day. The church is called to live faithfully today in light of this hope.