"What on Earth Was Peter Thinking?"

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1 "What on Earth Was Peter Thinking?" A brief enquiry into the disciple's response to the Transfiguration (Mt 17:4) Copyright 2003 by Calvin Smith & Midlands Bible College During the Transfiguration of Jesus, which the gospels portray as a spectacular, visually dazzling event, Peter responds with the words, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah" (NASB). Given the nature of the setting, Peter's statement appears irrelevant, even foolish. What on earth was he thinking, to offer to build three shelters at a time such as this? One is reminded of those instances when a thoughtless comment is made by someone within a group that has much the same effect as pouring iced-water on those assembled (we've all been there, the less fortunate among us being the one who made the blunder!). From childhood, I was always puzzled by Peter's strange response, and simply concluded he firmly placed both feet in his mouth. Several commentators concur. Some suggest Peter was so awed by the occasion that he did not know how to respond. Others believe his ineptitude was the result of being only half-awake. After all, most of us have experienced how, during that surreal moment between sleep and wakefulness, our brain is not fully engaged and what we say sometimes makes little sense. Yet explanations based on ineptitude or semi-consciousness appear inadequate. After all, Peter is wide awake by the time he speaks (Lk 9:32-3). Moreover, just six days earlier he understands and famously confesses that Jesus was the Christ (Mt 16:16-17 cf 17:1), leading Christ to single him out as one blessed with special revelation. Thus, given Peter's spiritual "savvy" just a few days earlier, his apparent blunder on the Transfiguration mount appears all the more surprising. In light of such objections it seems appropriate to re-evaluate Peter's statement. That is the purpose of this brief article, which explores his words from three different perspectives. Peter the Jew Throughout time, God has spoken in many ways (Heb 1:1-2). The Transfiguration exemplifies three such stages of that revelation, namely, the Law (as represented by Moses on the Transfiguration Mount), the Prophets (epitomised by Elijah), and finally, through Jesus Christ, who is God's very Word to humanity (Jn 1:1). It is important to note how the voice from heaven singles out Christ as that superior revelation (a theme echoed throughout the book of Hebrews). Thus, through the three central characters we see the general significance of the Transfiguration event. But what would it have meant to Peter, standing there and seeing it? Let us explore a little more deeply the actual Transfiguration event. Matthew 17:2 tells us that Jesus' appearance changed. The Greek verb employed is metamorphoo (cf. `metamorphosis'), meaning "to change one's form", to be transformed. The gospels provide some inkling of Jesus' transformation. Matthew states that His "face shone like the sun," and "His garments became as white as light". Mark, who by far among the Evangelists provides us with the most descriptive and vivid narratives, states that Jesus' garments were "radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them" (9:3). Luke details how the appearance of Jesus' face changed (9:29). So what happened to Jesus? What was this transformation that Peter, James and John witnessed? The answer is found in Luke 9:32: "They saw His glory " Reminiscing later about these events, Peter says, "We were eyewitnesses of His majesty" (2 Pe 1:16-18). In short, though Christ was exalted upon His Ascension (eg 1 Pe 3:21-22), these three disciples were privy to a foretaste, a preview, of His exaltation and glorification. What a sight it must have been. It is while he is confronted with this majestic Christ that Peter immediately offers to build three tabernacles (Gk. skene, meaning tabernacle, or booth). This is far from a blundering fool making an irrelevant

2 statement. After the Exodus, the Mosaic Law details how the Jews were instructed to build the Tabernacle. (In fact, we know from the book of Hebrews that the Tabernacle is a type of heaven, see 9:1-6, 11-14). When it was finally completed and pitched for the first time, the glory of God filled the Tabernacle (Ex 40:32-35). Jews refer to this glory, the presence of God, as the shekhinah, the "dwelling of God," an inter-testamental word that derives from the Hebrew verb sakan, meaning to pitch a tent, or tabernacle. Thus, when Peter suggests building tabernacles, he uses a word (skene) deriving from the Hebrew shekhinah. In other words, he was clearly alluding to the glory of God in the Old Testament Tabernacle, drawing on Jewish inter-testamental language to do so. Peter was a good Jew, one who undoubtedly would have been intimately aware of his ancestors' wanderings in the wilderness, and of course, the Tabernacle itself. He would also have known all about how it housed God's glory and majesty. Then, suddenly here on this mountain, he comes face-to-face with the glorious, majestic Christ, whose face shines like the sun and whose clothes glow the brightest white. Given Peter's Jewish background, his suggestion about building a tabernacle to house this glory is perfectly appropriate. He merely sought to replicate what his ancestors had done, to build a dwelling place for God. We have already seen that Peter recognised Jesus as the Christ (Mt 16:16). Before him now was dramatic, visible, incontrovertible proof. Thus, Peter's suggestion to build tabernacles was neither foolish nor nonsensical - from his perspective as a Jew it made perfect sense. Peter the Stumbling Block But perhaps there was even more to Peter's statement than meets the eye. As stated already, the events of the Transfiguration occurred just six days after Peter's great confession of Christ. Notice how, after this confession, Jesus from that time on begins to explain He must die (16:21). Peter's response is unexpected: he takes the very One he has just recognised as the Messiah to one side and rebukes Him for talking of death (16:22). Peter is clearly not interested in Jesus' death, in suffering, in the way of the cross. In short, he is not concerned with God's interests, but man's (16:23). Moreover, Peter's rejection of Jesus' words is nothing less than a stumbling block to Jesus Himself who, looking at Peter, states: "Get behind me, Satan." (16:22). By rejecting Christ's death, I believe Peter was a stumbling block, or a temptation to Jesus not to go through with His mission his very words threatened to stop Christ's mission dead in its tracks. "Impossible!" some might argue. "This is the Son of God we are talking about, sent for the express purpose of dying for the sins of the world. How, then, could Peter possibly dissuade Him from this mission? Aren't you reading too much into the text?" Not at all. Hebrews 4:15 makes it clear Christ was tempted, or tested (cf Mt 4:1-11, Lk 4:1-13). Such temptation was real, not illusory; otherwise what was its purpose? Neither did Christ's temptation end after the events of Matthew 4 or Luke 4; Luke 4:13 makes it very clear that Christ was tempted afterwards also, and in fact throughout His ministry to the very end. Satan tempted Him after His baptism, Peter was a stumbling block to Him (clearly used by Satan, Mt 16:23), and in the Garden of Gethsemane, near the very end, Jesus still struggled with the immense suffering He was about to go through (Mt 26:38-42). The fact is, Christ did not relish suffering and dying. Why should He? After all, He had committed no sin; of all humanity He was the only One who did not deserve death. In Gethsemane, though His spirit was willing nonetheless His frail, human (though sinless) flesh baulked at the knowledge of the vile torture, pain, mockery and death he was shortly to face (Mt 26:41). Now we understand how Peter's opposition to Jesus' words that He was to die was a stumbling block to Christ. What has all this to do with the Transfiguration? In Luke 9:30-31 Elijah and Moses speak with Jesus about His departure at Jerusalem. Notice that they were not discussing His departure to Jerusalem, but rather, they spoke of his departure (Greek. exodus) at, or from, Jerusalem. In short, they were discussing the forthcoming culmination of His mission, His departure from this world, of His passion and death at Calvary. Six days earlier, Peter's rejection of a suffering Messiah was a stumbling block to Jesus, and now, here on the Transfiguration mount, Peter is at it again! As Moses, Elijah and Jesus discuss His death, or departure, Peter says, "Lord, it is good for us to be here let me build you a dwelling place here." Forget Jerusalem, forget suffering and death, forget your mission. I doubt Peter knew the significance of his words (cf Lk 9:33). But Satan knew, and just as Peter's words in Matthew 16:22

3 represented a stumbling block, an instance of devilry, so cannot help but wonder if, yet again, Peter's unwitting statement on the Transfiguration mount was likewise meant as a stumbling block to dissuade Christ from accomplishing His mission. Interestingly, it seems Jesus always prayed at times of temptation. This was certainly the case after His baptism, when he fasted and prayed in the wilderness. Notice also how, when it seems the crowds might believe in Him and make Him their Conquering King, their Kingly Messiah (which would have curtailed His mission), usually after a great miracle, Jesus sometimes goes away to pray alone (eg Mt 14:22-23, Lk 5:15-16). This is exactly what He does in Gethsemane; recognising that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, he prays at the greatest moment of temptation he faced, and later telling the disciples to "pray that you enter not into temptation". Neither can it be a coincidence that Jesus went up the Transfiguration mount to pray (Lk 9:28-29). Here we see a replica of Gethsemane: Jesus is tempted and prays, while the disciples asleep! The temptation of Jesus is a concept that Christians really need to take hold of and seek to understand. Too often, we overemphasise Christ's divinity at the expense of His humanity. Yet Christ is fully God and fully Man; an unbalanced emphasis either way has always led to heresy throughout the Church's history. I am not convinced that Christ was tempted to sin as such. After all, He did not have a sinful nature. I find it unlikely that Jesus was tempted to sin in word or thought or deed (after all, even the very thought of sin, whether or not it is actually acted out, appears to be a sin in itself, eg Mt 5:28 cf. Jas 1:12-15). No, Christ faced real temptation, real testing, but if we look at the nature of His temptations throughout His ministry, they always seemed to be aimed at dissuading Him from fulfilling His mission. This was real temptation, a real struggle for Jesus, to the extent that we see Him sweating blood at Gethsemane at the height of His trauma. It might even be, at a time of such temptation, that the Transfiguration was meant for Jesus Himself. After all, it occurred at the exact moment He was praying and maybe seeking succour (Lk 9:29). As He contemplated this most difficult, painful and horrendous of missions - to be mocked, scourged, and nailed on a cross naked for all to see and jeer, whether crowds or principalities and powers of the air - He prays He will not fail the test, that He will fulfil His mission. At that moment, He is transfigured and experiences a temporary preview of His own exaltation, almost as if it is a promise of what shall be His forever upon successful completion of His task. Yes, He was truly the Son of God, but He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Instead he emptied Himself, endured temptation, and was subsequently exalted and sits at the right hand of the Father (Php 2:6-11). It is only because he endured this constant temptation that He can be our Great High Priest and we are saved today (Heb 4:14-16). Peter was clearly unaware of the destructive nature of his statement on the Transfiguration mount (Lk 9:33). When he suggested building a dwelling for the glory of Christ perhaps he wanted to see the kingdom of God established now, and was not interested in a suffering Messiah (cf Mt 16:22). Perhaps he hoped, even expected, the Kingdom to be established there and then in power, and by ignoring Isaiah's suffering servant model he had instead embraced contemporary Messianic expectations of a warrior-king (even to the extent he was prepared to take up a sword, Lk 22;36,49, Jn 18:10-11 cf Mt 10:34). Or perhaps, seeing this vision of an exalted Christ and reminded of the shekhinah within the ancient Tabernacle, he merely wanted to stay on that holy mountain. Leon Morris believes Peter tried to retain the experience, while R.T. France suggests he possibly wished "to institutionalise the fleeting vision". What is clear is that Peter recognised he was blessed and wanted to stay: "It is good for us to be here". But in seeking to do so, he uttered words that, once again as they had done six days earlier, apparently threatened to stumble Another. This is an important lesson for us all: we should take great care with our words. Peter the Old Man However, towards the end of his life Peter quite clearly now understands the significance of the Transfiguration (see 2 Pe 1:12-18). Apparently writing shortly before he was violently killed, Peter recognises that now his own time has come. Echoing the language used in the Lukan account of the Transfiguration, Peter knows that he too must soon be prepared to lay aside his own earthly dwelling (v

4 14). For earthly dwelling, ie his body, he employs the word skene (see above, and 2 Co 5:1-5). Thus, just as Jesus was ready at the Transfiguration to set aside His own earthly dwelling, His own body, so now it is Peter's turn. It is indeed ironic that Peter wanted to build a tabernacle to house the glory of God, given that that same glory was already housed, or tabernacled in the body of Christ. John 1:14 says that the Word became flesh and "tabernacled among us, and we beheld His glory"! There was no need for Peter to build a tabernacle on the Transfiguration mount, as the Word had already become flesh, was already housed in a skene, and dwelt among men. Moreover, in verse 15 Peter recognises that his own departure (Gk. exodus cf Lk 9:31) will soon take place. He too will die, just as Jesus did. Peter was apparently even martyred in similar circumstances to those of Jesus (Jn 21:18-19); certainly, according to tradition he was likewise crucified. As Peter discusses his reminiscences of the Transfiguration in 2 Peter, he writes as one who now fully understands what Jesus was going through, how he had to die, because Peter himself is facing a similar situation. All of a sudden, for Peter, the Transfiguration has a much richer, deeper meaning. Application and Conclusion What can we learn from this narrative and Peter's words? (And learn we must; exegesis without a hermeneutical application is nothing more than an academic exercise). The Transfiguration narrative yields several important lessons for Christians. Firstly, we learn from Christ's example that at times of temptation and testing we ought always to pray, to seek God's assistance. It is an important lesson to learn. If, at times of temptation, we sought God's help more, keeping our minds Christ-like and on Christ, we would fail far fewer tests. After all, God will not let us be tempted beyond what we cannot endure (1 Co 10:13). If we fail a test, it is our fault, not God's. Thus, we ought always to pray that we fall not into temptation, because however willing the spirit might be, the flesh is nonetheless weak. Secondly, we must always seek to ensure what we say or do is not a stumbling block to others. If even Christ, the Son of God, could be tempted (yet without sin, Heb 4:15), then surely every one of us is susceptible to temptation? Moreover, if even Peter, a giant of the church who recognised Jesus is the Christ, could become a stumbling block just a few moments later, then quite clearly it is in every one of us, being far less illustrious than Peter, to do likewise. Our words can cause great harm (Jas 3:1-10). Certainly, there are issues which God leaves to our own conscience (see the issue of liberty of conscience, as dealt with by Paul in Romans 14), but we must be sure not to say or do anything that causes a weaker brother to stumble (Ro 14:13ff). By setting our minds on God's plans, rather than the interests of men (Mt 16:23) we are less likely to become a stumbling block to others. Thirdly, however good it is to be in the presence of God, there is a time to come down from the glorious mountain, to come back into the real world. Too often, Evangelical Christians have practised an otherworldly Christianity. Yet we are instructed to be as salt. Salt is often associated with purification (thus Christians are meant to be an agent of purification; upon their removal from this world it will be destroyed, cf Ge 18:23ff; when righteous Lot [2 Pe 2:7] was removed from Sodom, the purifying element had gone and the city was destroyed). No one hides a light once it is lit, Jesus said (Mt 5:13-15). Unfortunately, many Christians enjoy the dizzy heights, the magnificent side to being a son or daughter of God. They enjoy that moment of worship that appeals to the senses, the exciting revelation when studying a particular aspect of God's work. Subsequently, too often many Christians do not wish to come down from those dizzy heights and engage with this world. Like Peter, they live for that moment. Certainly, as Peter states, it was good for the disciples to be there and see the exalted Son of God. But all three synoptic accounts point out how, after the event, they descended from the mountain and once again engaged in mission, this time challenging Satan's devilry through having to deal with a distasteful scene of a demonpossessed boy who was the only child of a distraught father. I am quite sure the boy and his father were so very thankful that Jesus and the disciples did come down from the mountain! There is a time to come down from the dizzy heights. Finally, the events surrounding this narrative teach us something of the grace of God. Peter had become a stumbling block to Jesus and had misunderstood the full significance of the Transfiguration until a later

5 time. But eventually, he did understand. Moreover, Jesus appoints Peter as a pillar of His new Church (Jn 21:15ff). And close to death, Peter understands the full significance of an event he was truly privileged to see. This surely demonstrates God's grace and mercy; He does not give up on us, despite our shortcomings. He still has a plan for us in the work of His Kingdom. Dr Calvin L. Smith Editor, Evangelical Review of Society and Politics Course Director and Lecturer in Theology Blog:

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