Suffering, then Glory

Text: Luke 9:28-36

When Jesus took on the mantle of his messianic mission at his baptism, a voice “from heaven” declared: “You are my Son.” And then the Son was led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to be tested. Now, just after Jesus announced his future messianic suffering to his disciples, a voice “from the cloud” declared “This is my Son…listen to him.”

The transfiguration is a dense theological text. It is filled with allusions to significant events within Luke’s narrative as well as in the Hebrew Bible.

Luke anticipates the Garden of Gethsemane—1) he takes James, Peter and John with him; 2) he goes to pray with the prospect of suffering; 3) the disciples slept; and 4) Peter says/does something stupid indicating the disciples’ lack of understanding. Jesus finds a place to pray with his intimate friends, but they fall asleep. Analogous to Gethsemane, Jesus agonizes over the prospect of his future suffering in Jerusalem as he turns his face toward the city (9:51).

Luke anticipates the Resurrection/Ascension stories—1) two “men” appear with Jesus; 2) the eschatological nature of glory; 3) a cloud appears; and 4) revelatory speech (“listen to him”; “he is not here”; “coming again”). The glory of this “transfiguration” (metamorphosis) is eschatological. It anticipates not only his resurrection but his ascension to the right hand of God (“taken up into heaven,” 9:51). Suffering is not Jesus’ final destiny.

Luke remembers Theophanies in the Hebrew narrative: 1) mountain experiences; 2) glory of divine presence; 3) “listen to him” (cf. Deut 18:15); and 4) encouragement in the mist of despair (Moses in Ex. 34; Elijah in 2 Kings 18-19). Moses and Elijah both encountered God at Mt. Sinai at times of great disappointment and despair.

Jesus’ transfiguration from Adamic, fallen existence into eschatological glory was designed as an encouragement, not for his disciples, but for Jesus himself. The Father lifted his Son into the glorious experience of conversation with Moses and Elijah. They discussed his “exodus,” that is, his journey to Jerusalem. They discussed his future suffering.

This was a proleptic event in the life of the Son. It was the experience of his future glory—his resurrection glory, his ascension glory, the glory of the second coming (cf. 2 Peter 1). In answer to his prayer, the Father encouraged his Son to complete his mission. Divine presence and the presence of the future empower his mission. Jesus is assured that the cross is not the end game.

It would be a mistake to reduce this “mountain top” experience to our own “mountain top” experiences. We may have moments when we sense the presence of God in transcendent, even mystical ways. I often sense this in the assembly of God’s saints as we are lifted into the divine throne room, into the divine presence. But this moment in the life of Jesus was the in-breaking of the future—not just a taste, but a full experience of that future through the presence of “witnesses” (Moses and Elijah), the divine presence, and a transformed appearance.

And yet, our worship experiences are also an encounter with divine presence. They are the alreadiness of the future. We do not yet experience what Jesus did on that mountain, but we already experience a “taste” of it. Our assemblies gather in the presence of God, they are encounter with glory and witnesses (angels, the church universal, and our beloved departed) are present. Our worship is a taste of the future, and the future encourages us as we face the reality of death in this present world. Like Jesus, I need that divine encounter to encourage me to pursue my divine mission. Worship—because it is the in-breaking of the future though not yet the fullness of that future—empowers me to serve and it brings hope into the darkness.

The disciples were awed by this event. They fumbled for words. Peter speaks but he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. He misses the point—Jesus, Moses and Elijah are not equals. Jesus is not only Messiah, but Son of God. The cloud of divine presence descended among the disciples. God spoke. The disciples listened. They followed Jesus…they followed him down the mountain in awe and silence.

We, too, are awed by divine presence. We encounter God through worship and prayer. And we listen to Jesus. And we, too, follow him down the mountain into the world…on a mission, the mission of Jesus. We follow him to the cross and die to ourselves on our own cross. But his transfiguration is also for us, just as his resurrection and glory is ours. It empowers our mission. Suffering is not our final destiny either. His future is our future.

18 Responses to “Suffering, then Glory”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I have been waiting for you to post again. Your posts are always intellectually instructional and spiritualy encouraging. Thanks!

  2.   Keith Brenton Says:

    Can’t I just have the glory without the suffering?

    Isn’t it enough that He suffered?

    And a couple of centuries’ worth of believers after Him?

    Can’t I just bask in my glory now?

  3.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Well, of course, you can Keith…but it would be your own glory instead of God’s.


    John Mark

  4.   Brady Says:

    There is much in the Transfiguration that reminds us of the Ascension. Thanks for bringing it to mind. pszehqb

  5.   Keith Brenton Says:

    JMH … would be interested in your thoughts about whether there are parallels between Christ’s transfiguration and our own transformation. It just came to mind on a second reading; I haven’t thought further on it.

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Keith, I think there is a direct correlation. If the transfiguration of Jesus is an intrusion of his future so that the glory of that moment is the glory of his future somatic (bodily) reality, then it is directly related to our future somatic existence.

    Our bodies will be changed so that they are like his body. Our fallen, Adamic bodies will be transformed into his glorious body. While we now live in Adamic bodies by the power of flesh and blood, in the new heaven and new earth we will live in Christic bodies by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit who now transforms our inner person will in the resurrection transform our bodies.

    Jesus’ future is our future.

  7.   Khris Says:

    I wrote a song about this once called “The Already and the Yet to Come”…thank you for the very good explanation and thoughts regarding our “Christic” transformation.

    Paul’s favorite term for the church is that we are the “body of Christ”…for me, your comments bring it to full culmination of that reality.

  8.   Milton Stanley Says:

    Thanks, JM. I enjoyed this one and linked to it on my blog. Peace.

  9.   Doug Vile Says:

    I have been puzzed as to what the transfiguration was all about. you have cleared up some issues. However, one question still nags at me. If Jesus was to be ther first born of the resurrection how did Moses and Elijah figure in? Did they exist in a pre-resurrection state? Why were they not asleep awaiting the 2nd comming of Christ? Is it possible that my understanding of life after death needs more work?

  10.   Keith Jones Says:

    God provided Jesus with encougagement and perspective from Moses and Elijah. It weems almost odd that the Savior of the world would need this, but it shows us that this human being that was experiencing life the same way we do needed the same things that we need to persevere – encouragement and perspective.

  11.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Doug, it is always possible (indeed probable–no, certain) that our understanding of life after death needs more work, and we have little to work with.

    I do not advocate “soul sleep,” though I see it as an attractive alternative perspective and I can understand why some believe such.

    In what form did Elijah and Moses appear here–were they also included in this eschatological projection, that is, they appeared in resurrection bodies that they did not yet have? I don’t know. The focus is not on Elijah and Moses, but on the transfiguring of Jesus. They appeared in glory with Jesus–perhaps that is all we can really say.

  12.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Keith, I think it is very important that see Jesus as human, with a human psyche and with human anxieties. He agnoizes in the garden, for example.

    Too often our emphasis on the deity of Jesus has skewed our understanding of his humanity. He ends up being the “teflon man” (nothing sticks, he feels nothing) or “superman” (nothing hurts) or not a man at all. We need a renewed emphasis on Jesus as our example who fully experienced our human existence as human.

  13.   Keith Brenton Says:

    From the first Keith (Brenton):

    I’ve puzzled over how the transfiguration figures into our transformation, too.

    I’ve wondered if it reveals to us that Jesus is Lord of time as well as eternity … if no one comes to the Father except through Him, then Moses’ and Elijah’s presence on the mount with Him is living proof that He will have the strength to do what He must: go to the cross and conquer the tomb.

    Otherwise, they could not be standing there with Him.

    (It’s really hard for me to grasp this, let alone try to explain it in words.)

  14.   Keith Jones Says:

    I agree completely. The earliest heresy the church dealt with was not of Jesus’ divinty but his humanity. From the beginning it seems that Christians have so focused on the fact that Jesus was the begotten Son of God that they neglected or even rejected his humanity. While Jesus’ connection to his Father gives him authority, it is his connection to humanity that gives him the compassion (sympathy with the desire to fix the problem) necessary to become that sacrifice we need to have access to God.

    I wonder if our tendecy to negect the humanity of Jesus has anything to do with the low expectations that we place on our own humanity. It seems that often we are too quick to attribute bad behavior and attitudes to “human nature” and thereby minimize their seriousness and neglect the discipline necessary to overcome them.

  15.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Keith, our low expectations of humanity might be justified, but not our low expectations of empowered humanity. Just as Jesus was led by the Spirit in the power of God, so we too can be led by the Spirit and empowered to fulfill our mission in the kingdom of God. We are not moral defeatists in the kingdom of God, and thus our expectations should be high as we aim high.

  16.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Keith, I certainly don’t know the answers to some of thes mysteries. And there is a mystery to the transfiguration that is beyond us. Perhaps that is part of why the disciples were silent and awed by the experience. Maybe that should be our fundamental response as well.

    However, I do think we can say a few things, and one of the most significant ones is that the transfiguration reveals our future. His future is our future–we may not all sleep, but we will all be changed (transformed, transfigured). Just as Moses and Elijah shared his glory and stood in his presence, so will we.

  17.   Mark Says:

    There’s something so wonderful about serving a God who remains somewhat mysterious to us. What would be the fun or benefit in worshipping someone I can completely comprehend and predict?

    In my Early & Medieval church history course, we studied something by Pseudo-Dionysius. I believe we were comparing cataphatic and apophatic theology. If I understood it all correctly, instead of focussing on the positive things we CAN know about God, this group of people (the apophatic ones) focussed on the negative approach. God is not love, but he is not unlove. He is father, but he is also not father. He is much more than all of these things.

    You continue to look at aspects of what God kind of is, but each time you are forced to acknowledge that your terms for describing God fall far too short. The ending result is that you sit in silent contemplation because your words and thoughts are inadequate to describe God. I don’t sit around and do that, but I certainly appreciate the importance of letting God be God instead of trying to break him down into digestable categories. Dr. Hicks, I’m sure you can straighten me out if I’m misunderstanding that stuff. I enjoy your blog (and your class). Keep up the good work.

  18.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think it is best to assess all knowledge (and language) about God as analogical–it is like and unlike him. In other words, nothing we say with human words is univocal with God’s own mind. His experience of love is not identical to our experience of love, and the meaning of the term “love” in reference to God is not the exact same as our meaning of the word “love.”

    However, this is not to say that our language about God is equivocal. There is shared content; there is apprehension without comprehending the fullness of its meaning for God.

    What that the human word “love” communicates something of God in that our experience of love is like his experience but it is neither equivalent to nor comprehensive of his love. We love in analogous ways to how God loves.

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