We Ourselves Heard | Transfiguration

2 Peter 1:16-21

16 We didn’t repeat crafty myths when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, we witnessed his majesty with our own eyes. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 In addition, we have a most reliable prophetic word, and you would do well to pay attention to it, just as you would to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Most important, you must know that no prophecy of scripture represents the prophet’s own understanding of things, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will. Instead, men and women led by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (CEB)

We Ourselves Heard

I remember exactly where I was. My American Christianity class with Dr. Grant Wacker was scheduled to end at 9:50 a.m., but I think we got out a little early that day. I was walking back to my car. My path took me past Duke Chapel, across Science Drive, and between the Engineering and Physics buildings. When I crossed Circuit Drive, I heard the radio of some construction workers blaring. But it wasn’t music. It was the DJ from 96.1 WBBB saying that the president had shut down all air traffic across the United States, and I heard the phrase, “terrorist attack.”

I thought, that’s weird, and got into my car to drive home. My radio was already tuned to the same station, so I listened as reports about planes crashing into the World Trade Center buildings. I got home and turned on my television just before the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. It’s impossible to convey exactly what I felt in that moment or throughout the day as other buildings fell, as the Pentagon burned, and as we wondered how many more planes were going to crash into buildings. I certainly felt shock. Anger at the people who would cause such wanton death and destruction against people who had never harmed them. People who, like me, only wanted to live another day with their family and friends. I remember praying a lot. I remember crying. I remember thinking that our nation would be going to war, and that other lives would be lost. A new cycle of violence would begin, and it would leave new scars, deep scars, on the world.

We live in the shadow of significant events that shape our world and impact our lives, yet those events can leave our generations somewhat fragmented. My children will never understand how Tuesday, September 11, 2001 impacted my life and the world into which they were born. They never got to experience the shift that occurred that day. They were simply born into new reality on this side of it.

In the same way, I’ll never understand how the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or Robert Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, Jr. affected my parents and their generation. Or, what it meant when Freedom 7 took Alan Shepard into space, or to watch Apollo 11 land on the moon. And, my parents probably don’t quite understand life under Prohibition, or how the Great Depression affected their penny-pinching parents who would never dare buy something if they couldn’t pay in cash. Honestly, the stories of my grandparents and parents don’t quite affect my behavior as much as the events I, myself, experienced have affected my behavior.

The transfiguration of Jesus was one such event that marked a transition for Peter. Yet, it’s not easy for us to imagine the event as he would have witnessed it. The descriptions found here and in the Gospels surely fall short of the experience itself. What did that magnificent glory look and sound like? I can imagine something like the explosion of the Death Star set to a ripping guitar riff from Jesus Christ Superstar, but it might not do the transfiguration justice.

Besides not being able to fully imagine the event, itself, we can’t really grasp the difference between the world before and after that pivotal moment of Transfiguration. We only have Peter’s words telling us about a magnificent glory and a quotation of what a voice from heaven spoke: “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased” (2 Peter 1:17b, CEB).

What we do have is the significance of what witnessing the transfiguration meant to Peter. He explains earlier in the chapter (verse 14) that he knows he’s going to die soon and he’s eager for us to remember what he outlines as a Christian life in verses 5 through 8. What the transfiguration confirmed to Peter, and what he lays out in our text, is that the teachings of Jesus Christ are not of human origin, but from God.

Some scholars think Peter was addressing Epicurean teaching that had either seeped into the church or become an outside opponent to it. Founded around 307 B.C., Epicureanism grew into one of the major schools of Hellenistic philosophy that lasted into the later Roman Empire. Epicureans taught that there could not be an afterlife. The gods, or any deity for that matter, were uninterested in our world and are so distant that couldn’t really do anything about things here anyway. The world and everything in it; every thought, feeling, and sensation; every body, every soul, even the gods, are merely the random movement of atoms.

Epicurus taught that the goal of life is enjoyment and happiness by ridding oneself of fear and pain. We should enjoy life, but in moderation, because enjoyment in excess can also lead to pain. Too much eating of your favorite food, for example, can give you indigestion and make you not enjoy that food any longer.

Regarding the gods, Epicurus taught that human beings are free from all divine meddling: fear of divine punishment, providence, fate, and myth. He held that the world, itself, was not created by any divine being, nor was there any rationality behind it. It’s all random atoms clumping and breaking apart. In a sense, as merely random clumping of atoms, none of us really even exist.

If the scoffers Peter mentions later in chapter 3 are arguing from an Epicurean vantagepoint that it’s ridiculous for Christians to claim that Jesus is coming in power because religion is all just myth that human beings invented out of fear and foolish hope, then Peter kicks the leg out from under the argument that humans invented this stuff. Peter reminds us that what we believe doesn’t come from repeating crafty myths that human beings invented. Quite to the contrary, Peter, James, and John, witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus Christ with their own eyes. They heard the voice speaking from the magnificent display of glory with their own ears while they were together in a very real place. It wasn’t a myth. He saw it. He says, “We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:18, CEB).

This was one of those watershed moments for Peter where his life wasn’t the same after as it was before. There were witnesses alongside Peter who heard God’s voice declare that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Peter’s words of personal witness might not convince an Epicurean, but they do remind followers of Jesus Christ that our faith is based on actual events that happened to actual people who lived and breathed just like the rest of us. This is not a fancy myth or tall tale. First John begins with a declaration that has a similar ring to it, “We announce to you what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have seen and our hands handled, about the word of life” (1 John 1:1, CEB). What the disciples experienced of Jesus was real enough that they knew it with all of their senses.

Scoffers, especially if they came from an Epicurean viewpoint, would also say that, in a world that has no intelligent design or order, prophecy makes no sense. But Peter declares that we do have a reliable prophetic tradition which foretold what happened to Jesus Christ, and further speaks of his coming as a judge. In chapter 2, he tells how there is such a thing as justice. God does, indeed, punish the wicked and save those who do what is right. God punished Sodom and Gomorrah while saving Lot. (And, remember that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because they “didn’t help the poor and needy” [Ezekiel 16:49, CEB]).

Peter says, “These things show that the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and how to keep the unrighteous for punishment on the Judgment Day” (2 Peter 2:9, CEB). There is a divine rationality to the world. The words of the prophets are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Prophecy speak to God’s purposes, not human attempts at cleverness. Peter calls us to pay attention to that prophetic witness because it has already proved itself reliable.

Prophecy and promises look to the future, and that’s something even Epicureans do all the time. Not only do we remember, but we make plans. We do things that expect that the sun will rise tomorrow as it did yesterday. We exchange vows and bind our lives to a spouse. We have children and hope for their future. We build friendships and nurture our family relationships. When we do these things, we’re entering into covenants that expect the promise of a future.

The transfiguration of Jesus Christ is a moment in time that points toward a future reality. Our Christian faith is not simply faith in Christ who lived, died, and rose for us a long time ago. It’s a faith in the Christ who is coming in power as the prophets foretold. It’s a faith that is never complete, never finished growing, never fully developed because our faith is constantly being transformed—transfigured—into a fuller glory. While our faith and the promises of God to which we hold are a present reality in that we are expected to bear the fruit of holy living now, the promises of God are always future driven. The vision of the prophets foresees a future where we are fully in Christ with a new heaven and a new earth as our home, where nothing can harm or destroy (Isaiah 11:9), and is no longer mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).

In fact, Peter states that our faith is something we must build up when he says, “This is why you must make every effort to add moral excellence to your faith; and to moral excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, endurance; and to endurance, godliness; and to godliness, affection for others; and to affection for others, love. If all these are yours and they are growing in you, they’ll keep you from becoming inactive and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever lacks these things is shortsighted and blind, forgetting that they were cleansed from their past sins” (2 Pet. 1:5-9, CEB).

If we aren’t building our faith up, we risk becoming stillborn Christians: inactive and unfruitful. Peter sounds a reminder for us to exercise an active and fruitful faith that holds up this prophetic vision of the future until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts. Christ will come in glory to transfigure the world and make all things new. This is the promise of God through the prophets; a promise of glory which Peter saw when Jesus Christ was transfigured before his eyes.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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