Forming Faith Blog

Messianic Metamorphosis (March 3, 2019)

Messianic transfiguration, Ethiopian Gospel Illumination

The season of Epiphany (or after Epiphany if you prefer) is coming to a close this coming Sunday. This last Sunday before Lent is when we celebrate Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop, called (obviously) Transfiguration Sunday. If Epiphany is about the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God, then we reach the crescendo this week.

Messianic Identity

Outside of the assigned passage, but an important part of the literary context of this story is Matthew 16:13-23. Here, Jesus quizzes the disciples on popular opinion: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mark and Luke use the personal ‘I am.’) They report the belief that Jesus is perhaps “one of the prophets of old.” Then, the question is turned to the disciples themselves. Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Messianic Expectations

But, what does this messianic identity mean for the disciples and the rest of the first-century Jews? There were many opinions, but one was the expectation that a king of the line of David would rescue the people from their oppressors (the Romans at this point) and set up the earthly kingdom of God in Jerusalem. From our vantage point, almost 2,000 years later, we know that Jesus is a much different Messiah. And, Jesus quickly moves from Peter’s messianic declaration to teaching the disciples about what type of Messiah God has really sent.

The next section, Matthew 16:21-23, is often called a “passion prediction” as Jesus is telling the disciples what “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo” (v. 21). But, I don’t think it’s best to call this a “prediction,” either from the perspective of Jesus or the Gospel writer. It’s not about predicting what is going to happen. Instead, it is Jesus teaching his disciples what it means to be God’s Messiah. But, this is not anything new. I’ve written about this before and so have many others.

Transfigure/Transform

The focus this week is not on Jesus’ upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection, but on the unusual event of the transfiguration. I started out today digging into the word “transfigure” (Gk. metamorphoō, from which we get metamorphosis, changing shape or form) and trying to figure out why this became (through Latin) transfigure, not transform. But I discovered that I just don’t have the resources to make any conclusions. I did, however, notice that throughout its usage, the Greek verb is really only translated as “transfigure” here, and most of the “transfiguration as spiritual revelation” definitions arise from this particular story. Just something to consider.

Messianic Metamorphosis

Back to my topic, Jesus/Matthew has just finished teaching about what it means to be the Messiah, and what it means to follow the Messiah (Matthew 16:24-26). Now we get a totally different perspective on Jesus. He is not just the suffering Messiah, but the exalted Lord. This is the one who wields God’s power, who calms the storm, casts out demons, heals the sick, and multiplies food. Here we see John’s Word made flesh, whom “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We see a preview of the transformation Jesus will undergo in his resurrection.

With our theological hindsight, we can see the two sides, Messiah as Suffering Servant and Messiah as Lord of All, as Jesus being fully human and fully divine. Moving from the glorious revelation of the Son of God in Epiphany to the journey to the cross in Lent, it’s important to hold these two images together, distinct but inseparable.

Free Resource

This week, our free activity “Transfiguration Science,” is a simple, delightful demonstration of transformation. It is from our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th) curriculum and is a fun and dramatic visual that could be used for all ages.

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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Image © Ethiopian Gospels, Transfiguration. Image by Walter Arts Museum Illuminated Manuscripts via Flickr; public domain.