Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Alastair Roberts, a favorite blogger of mine, has just finished a 10-part series on the Transfiguration. It’s really interesting, and I highly recommend it for any of you who can fathom 10 blog posts covering just the Transfiguration. Reading this series has given me two thoughts I feel are worth sharing, one more directly from the series and less directly.

The first point of note is the dramatic role of the Transfiguration in the history of Israel and their God. From time to time in Israel’s history, God was seen, but never fully. Moses saw God’s back, the 70 elders saw His feet, Isaiah saw His robe and throne, but His face was not ever mentioned or described. It is something like in a TV show where you never see an important background character, only having name-drops, instructions, references, and maybe even an occasional glimpse of part of their body. Yahweh’s face remained a mystery, one too glorious for human viewing.

Yet there are references linking the Transfiguration to these events, and it is portrayed as essentially the same thing: a theophany. In the Transfiguration, the glory of God is revealed on a mountain like so many times before. But this time that glory shines from a face. The face hidden throughout the Old Testament is revealed, and it is no other face than that of Jesus Christ. Yahweh is no other God than the God whose fullness dwells bodily in Christ, of whose glory the Son is the radiance and exact expression. The face of the main character of the Old Testament finally comes into view, and it was Jesus all along. Now we know who God really is: whoever has seen Jesus has seen Him.

The other interesting point that I drew from Alastair’s posts is this glory is to become our glory. The glory which Jesus bears by nature as the Son of God, we will one day share by grace as sons of God. See, the glory which was revealed in the Transfiguration has been alternately viewed by some either as a divine glory (which Alastair focuses on) or as a prefigured resurrection glory. But there is no need to separate these. The glory of Jesus, of the one who is both God and man, is the glory of God in a human “shape.” Before Jesus rose, this glory remained veiled, with a single peek coming through in the Transfiguration. When He did rise, He was exalted and could be fully and simply an example of a glorious human filled with the life and glory of God.

We are also united to Christ, though. We share in His death and His resurrection, and one day will experience that fullness when our bodies are brought to new life. At that point, when Christ returns, John tells us, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2), Paul notes that we are “looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and Peter says that we will “share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world” (2 Pet. 1:4). Our resurrection, an event in theology often called “glorification,” is the time that we will share the glory of Christ, who is the glory of God. The Transfiguration glory is our destiny. We will be truly and fully humans in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Or, as Irenaeus put it, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ…did…become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”1

With all of this in mind, let us read the Transfiguration account and be moved to worship. Jesus is the God who has been working in salvation history from Abraham to Malachi and beyond, and He is so gracious as to unite us with Himself and raise us to His very own glory. Amen!

Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

“Glory, hallelujah! Praise Jesus!” This kind of talk is naturally a common part of church life, especially in the more energetic places. And that is good. When we are loved by so great a God and called into His service, for us to offer what Scripture calls a “sacrifice of praise” to Him is only fitting. To God be glory forever! Amen.

Yet sometimes this seems to be the only glory we feel the need to offer our Lord. And while this often can be sincere and heartfelt, glorifying God this way can be something else, too. Praise with our words can be all too easy and comfortable, requiring no real commitment or action. No matter how loftily we speak of God, or how much we call others to worship Him, we can do this all as merely an outward religion, either for show and glory or maybe even just to tide over our own conscience as it tells us to think beyond ourselves.

Beyond this, maybe we’ll read God’s word or pray to Him. We might even make an excellent habit of both, though most of us don’t. Even if we do, how easy is it to simply use these disciplines to fulfill the demands of religion on our conscience, so that we don’t feel guilty? Personal communion with God is rich and vital, but is also so intangible, so invisible, that we can easily just pretend or use “devotion” for our own purposes.

Really, doing piety—respect of God—is easy if we see God as a distant figure, a big and separate Deity a million light-years away, whom we can keep happy with our exalted speech, dedicated devotions, and constant prayers. Even though we usually wouldn’t admit or even realize this tendency, we often look at God this way. That can lead us to taking devotional activities—good activities that are God-blessed and right—as a kind of checklist righteousness which calms our conscience’s demand for higher living.

But our God is not that distant Deity. He is not a king who lives aloft from his kingdom, content to see his subjects give him due honor and taxes. Our God is the King who acts like a member of His own kingdom. He cares for and identifies with everyone under His rule, treating them as though they matter more than He does. This Lord is love. He’s so invested in the people beneath Him that He actually became one of them. He lived, died, and rose again as a human being for human beings. Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ calls us brothers and sisters, since He has become like us in every way, except without sin.

Because of this, there is no possible way to glorify God if you aim exclusively for His direct and immediate glory. God has bound Himself to humanity in Christ. In His covenant with us, He is happy to be “man’s God” and to share His own life for our benefit. This means that He is deeply invested in the situation of all people. As we know from the parable of the sheep and the goats, He identifies with us so closely that He counts what we do for others as what we do for Him. He counts what we do not do for others as ignoring Him. So to glorify God we have to treat the people He loves with the same great importance that He does.

Since God is so invested in love with people, and since people bear His image, we cannot glorify Him without being interested in people. Praising the Creator means nothing if we curse people He created. Prayers to our heavenly Father are insulting to Him if we refuse to speak with our earthly fathers He gave His only Son for. Dedicating ourselves to serving Christ’s church is a lie if we are too selfish to serve everyone Christ died for.

To sum it all up, God freely chose to create us, make a covenant with us, become one of us, live for us, die for us, rise for us, and delay His coming for us, all so that He could share His eternal life of love with us. If this is truly God’s passion in history, then in order to truly honor Him, worship Him, and give Him the glory He so richly deserves, we absolutely have to share that passion and devote ourselves to the same cause He champions. To glorify God, we must love human beings.

Back to my original point, though, this is a very hard task. Loving others is a radical way that actually honors the time and effort God puts into people is terrifying and exhausting. So what do we naturally do? We substitute what God say fulfills His whole law—to love your neighbor—with just the basic stuff that is easy to do to an invisible God. We skip caring for other people—which James says is the heart of pure religion—and substitute inexpensive sacrifices of praise, Scripture, Facebook shares, and prayer. But Jesus said to go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

So we should continue to rightly worship our glorious God. We should never stop praising and communing with Him in song, prayer, and devotion. But we also have to radically and completely love our neighbor. That is what fulfills the law. We must insist on doing the latter despite its difficulty, without neglecting the former. For this is what Jesus taught us Himself. Amen.

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2

In the first part of this post, I tried to Biblically ground a concept of “holy love” which integrates what we know of God’s love with the revelation that He is also a consuming fire and has sometimes enacted terribly violent judgments. Now I move on to apply that to the problems we see in the Old Testament.

When Holy Love Elects a Beloved

All of the problems we will be looking at deeply involve Israel, so to make a strong foundation I’ll need to examine who and what Israel was in God’s plan. What was the point of Israel as God’s chosen people? I think God’s concluding line in His promise to Abraham holds the key: “All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you”1. God elected Israel because He had already freely chosen to love all humankind2. He did not choose them for their own sake, as though they deserved anything more than the rest of us3, but so that they could be a kingdom of priests4.

See, if God only chose humanity in general, loving everyone in some abstract equality, then His love could not be completely real for each individual person in their concrete existence. But by placing His electing love in a particular way on a specific human family in Abraham, He gave His love a real form in the human world of space, time, and matter. Therefore Israel was born as God’s chosen people, a microcosm of all humanity before God, and priests of God before all humanity.

This covenant relationship, though, is a relationship not of soft love but of holy love. An utterly sinful people filled with rebellion5 was called to draw near to a God who is holy love. He gave and revealed Himself to them as who He is6, and that meant danger. For if God’s holy love, as we mentioned before, opposes and condemns all self-love, then sinful people are in for disaster when drawn near. God made this clear when He appeared at Sinai, in the burning bush, and in a pillar with the form of a consuming fire7. If they lived with the holy love which God possesses, they would experience His life and blessing8. But if they continued resisting God’s love by wronging their neighbor and forsaking God’s redemptive purpose for their election, then His holy love would bear down on them with painful pressure and cause curse upon curse9.

The God of Love vs. The People of Hard Hearts

Having given Biblical grounds for these ideas of holy love and Israel’s election, I propose that God drawing near to a people in His holy love is exactly how we must understand the frequent application of violence in Israel’s history. God in His holy love is a consuming fire, yet He brought Israel close to Himself10. In doing so their sin and rebellion found opposition in the Lord’s presence. Yahweh’s relentless love became painful and torturous when they dashed their hard heads and hearts against Him. Capital punishment and spectacular judgments were not the result of an irritable God losing His temper11, but in fact were the historical actualizations of God giving Himself to a people who couldn’t and wouldn’t open to Him.

We must remember that for God to really be anything in relation to flesh-and-blood people, He must be Himself in a tangible way12. The God of people who exist in space, time, and matter can only reveal Himself in ways particular to space, time, and matter. This means that the conflict between God’s holy love and Israel’s sinful resistance had to take physical form. So when God’s wrath was kindled against His beloved by their own self-destructive self-love, He chastised them with tangible consequences of death, plague, and exile. What else could He do if He wanted to make real changes on human existence?

This concept reaches the sharpest expression in worship. The system of worship God gave Israel was His own design. Apart from Him, the Israelites had nothing good to offer, so God provided them within His covenant with sacrifices and rituals by which they could approach Him13. This was to be a constant reminder to them: they were sinful, but God was gracious enough to provide a way to Himself. So important was this truth, so necessary for Israel to know, that the most severe punishments were reserved for violating right worship. If God in His holy love is a consuming fire, then sinners who approach Him on their own terms cannot avoid being consumed. Thus the fate of Aaron’s sons who offered unauthorized fire on the altar, high priests who came unclean into the Holy of holies, and the Korah’s rebels. Only in Christ is there a safe way to the Father (on this, see the end of my post on law and evil), and the only way for a pre-incarnation people to approach God through Christ is by faith which uses the types and shadows of Him which God provided in the OT priestly system. All other ways brought death as the sinner approached the fire of God’s holy love in their sinfully flammable state.

Mediation and Holy War

Now that we’ve looked at the harsh penalties of the law, what about holy war? Why did God order such extreme destruction against the peoples of Canaan? I do not expect there to be one straightforward answer. I do, however, believe that the concept of Israel’s election and God’s holy love might be able to shed some light on this question. Yet I tread lightly, because holy war really is a minefield, with wrong and destructive answers hidden under every other step.

If I was right to say that Israel was elected to be a kingdom of priests to the nations, what would that involve? Priests must mediate; they bring people to God and God to people. So I suspect that this is precisely what happened in holy war. Israel brought God Himself to the nations.

Unfortunately for the nations, they were in even worse shape than Israel to meet God. Israel could approach God despite their sinfulness because of the safe way He provided in the covenant, but the nations had no such covenant. Unless they repented of their sins, God’s coming to them could only mean judgment14. As long as they were steeped in the flammable sins which oppose all that holy love is (such as sacrificing children to idols), an encounter with God, mediated through Israel, had to mean they were burned up. And as I’ve been saying, all that God is and does to humanity must be done in a tangible, flesh-and-blood way if humanity is to be affected or care. So God commanded the Israelites to kill them all.

Of course, the most difficult part of all this is the children. I’ve personally been able to cope more or less with the adults deserving their execution by Israel, but what about the babies? Why did God even have them kill the babies? I definitely can’t say much about this, because clearly the horror is deep and complex, but as present I mainly think this: as Israel brought the adults of the nations to God, which led to judgment, they also brought the children to God. They ushered them into God’s immediate presence by the only way possible before the end—namely death—and in that presence I do believe God saved them. Instead of these children growing up among immoral people to become even more immoral and be judged, God rescued them while they were yet ignorant.

Naturally, any answer I can provide on this last point can’t be completely satisfactory. I am only somewhat okay with this conception. But thinking this way does help me, and I do hope I am not the only one. But God is God, after all. While my application of holy love, mediation, and election might be able to help get my mind around OT violence, ultimately He did what He did and I can only pray that I’ve honored Him for who He is in my theology. And with that said, I’m left with nothing but Paul’s praise to handle my ignorance:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2