Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36) has always been a part in the gospel stories where I see God holding himself back, in a way. He’s too bright, too magnificent, too much for us to handle, so he has to tone it down a bit by appearing in human form. And the aspect of this story that I would always reference was how Jesus’ disciples fell to the ground. But what I didn’t realize until tonight – while reading N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus – was that this story isn’t about how awesome Jesus is (though it could be implied). In fact, my whole way of viewing Scripture (and I think the same goes for a good portion of Christians) was slightly wrong.
Okay, “slightly” is an understatement. And no, I’m not talking about inerrancy or any other of an endless number of doctrines, systematic theologies, or dogmas. I’m talking about the Western society in which I was raised and how it tainted the way I ought to approach Scripture. All of this comes from Wright’s book, of course, which might make one wonder if Wright wasn’t somehow sneaking his own agenda by me without me noticing. I find that is not at all his intent. He, like me, is out for a deeper understanding of God. Such an understanding, though, is rendered impossible when Scripture is treated as a proof-text to validate or invalidate our previously-conceived beliefs.
An example would be saying the Bible is true then going through said Bible and finding all the verses where it says the Bible is true. This is an extremely vague example, but you see my point? We take passages like Jesus’ transfiguration and make creedal statements about his divinity and how it works and what it looks like. Like I said above, I took this passage as a way of viewing God as too much for me to handle – God in his nature and me in mine, that is. I’m not saying Jesus isn’t divine; I’m saying, as Wright says, that proving or disproving Jesus’ divinity – or any other doctrine we may believe – is not the purpose of Scripture. Scripture is meant to be one giant megaphone announcing God’s existence, presence, and intentions with each of us. Scripture announces how we might be able to be our true selves.
What is actually going on with Jesus’ transfiguration, then? As N.T. Wright says, it’s a foreshadow of what’s to come – of what kind of people we will be made into. “It forms part of a new set of signposts, Jesus-shaped signposts, indicating what is to come: a whole new creation, starting with Jesus himself as the seed that is sown in the earth and then rises to become the beginning of that new world,” (Simply Jesus, 144). He also points out that, “Moses and Elijah were ‘transfigured’ too,” which seems to indicate what our future natures will be (perhaps this was the “new creation” Paul was talking about in Galatians 6:15?). So instead of this being a passage about how overwhelming God’s nature is compared to ours; it’s a memo from God saying this is the kind of nature he’s adorning us in. He’s telling us who we will be.
It wasn’t just that my interpretation of Scripture was a little wrong for this story; it was that my entire mindset was flawed – my internal need to “prove” my view with this passage of Jesus’ divinity. Such a mindset is difficult to overcome when we have books with titles like Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe and countless books on apologetics, systematic theology, and so on. Some of our most outspoken church leaders have attained their notoriety due to their ability to defend Christianity. Mention Rob Bell’s name next time at church and wait for someone to say they think he’s “biblically unsound” or that he has a flawed theology (not that Rob Bell is considered an apologist; he’s usually the one receiving flack from prominent Christian leaders). These buzz words and phrases cause us to view Scripture in terms of doctrine and theology – not in terms of what Scripture might actually be trying to tell us.
“My problem with ‘proofs of divinity’ is that all too often, when people have spoken or written like that, it isn’t entirely clear that they have the right “God” in mind. What seems to be “proved” is a semi-Deist type of Christianity – the type of thing a lot of Christians in the eighteenth century, and many since then, have thought they should be defending. In this sort of Christianity, “God” is in heaven and sends his divine second self, his ‘Son,’ to ‘demonstrate his divinity,’ so that people would worship him, be saved by his cross, and return with him to heaven. But in first-century Christianity, what mattered was not people going from earth into God’s kingdom in heaven. What mattered, and what Jesus taught his followers to pray, was that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven.” – Wright, Simply Jesus, 148
Even the workbook some members of my church and I have been going through, The Tangible Kingdom Primer, gets at this idea – that God’s kingdom has invaded not to destroy earth and bring everyone back to heaven, but to bring heaven (God’s kingdom) to and through earth, to give it a permanent residence within God’s creation. Not only should this change how we live, but it changes how we approach Scripture. Can you imagine how undivided the Church – the global, catholic church (not just the RCC) – might be if we focused on how we lived instead of how we defined certain terms in our belief statements?
One more big quote from N.T. Wright:
“It has been all too possible to use the doctrine of the incarnation or even the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture as a way of protecting oneself and one’s worldview and political agenda against having to face the far greater challenge of God taking charge, of God becoming king, on earth as in heaven. But that is what the stories in the Bible are all about. That’s what the story of Jesus was, and is, all about. That is the real challenge, and skeptics aren’t the only ones who find clever ways to avoid it,” – 149 (emphasis mine)
I don’t know if my interpretation of Jesus’ transfiguration was a clever way of avoiding the challenge of God taking charge, but I hope you see his point. Much of our Christian society is defined by what we believe, which denomination we’re a part of, and so on – not whom do we believe in or which kingdom we’re a part of. What my earlier interpretation failed to acknowledge was what actually caused Jesus’ disciples to fall at his feet:
“[Peter] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.'” – Matthew 17:5-7
God’s voice is too much for us to handle. And yet we attempt to put him in these neatly-packaged theological boxes and define our involvement within church or within Christianity in general by these belief packages. We don’t realize our error because we have prominent leaders affirming what we do – even teaching us how to do them better! But, as Wright says, maybe the bigger thing for us to do is to let go. Maybe God doesn’t want us becoming great apologists; maybe he just wants us to love others as he has loved us?
P.S. Two things: 1. I would never discourage theological conversations; we must love God and each other with all our minds and 2. Defending beliefs has moments of importance, but should never be the defining factor to one’s faith; that is the point of this blog.