The Upside-Down Kingdom of God and the Transfiguration of Christ

February 2, 2018

 

The Transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor recorded in the synoptic gospels (Mt. 17:1–8; Mk. 9:2–8; Lk. 9:28–36) and alluded to in John's gospel (Jn. 1:14) and Peter's second epistle (2 Pt. 1:16–18) is rich with significance. Of these countless layers of meaning, the political dimensions are less known. Among the many patterns in Luke's presentation leading up to, during, and after the Transfiguration, the many times that Jesus alludes to his crucifixion is important to consider (Lk. 9:22, 31, 44). 

 

But the most striking example was when Jesus told his disciples before the Transfiguration, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Lk. 9:22). Then Jesus invited his listeners in v.23 to participate in his kingdom this way: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it”—i.e., crucifixion leads to resurrection. And why do we know this is a description of the kingdom of God? Because he immediately declares in v.25, “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” and observes in v.27, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

 

Many Church fathers point out that the Transfiguration was itself the revelation of the kingdom of God to which Jesus was referring, but his companions on Mt. Tabor give greater texture to this kingdom. Several fathers point out that Moses and Elijah represent the law and prophets respectively. What is less well known is that Moses and Elijah also reveal an upside-down kingdom (i.e., the kingdom that Jesus invited his disciples to participate in by taking up their crosses) that eschews the violence of the kingdoms of this world and whose victory is in the conquest of the death that violence engenders. 

 

Moses therefore represents the crucifixion of Jesus, and Elijah represents his resurrection and ascension. And each reveals a facet of Christ's nonviolent kingdom that offers an alternative to the militarized kingdoms of this world.

 

How so?

 

In the same way that Moses died before he entered the promised land and therefore before the establishment of Israel as a kingdom like any other earthly kingdom built on the slaughter of a territory's inhabitants, Jesus also died before—or rather than—setting up a new Hasmonean kingdom as a militaristic Messiah (like Judas Maccabeus) precisely because his “kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). That the disciples anticipated this earthly kingdom built on military strength is precisely why they didn't know what Jesus was talking about when he predicted his own death rather than a military victory in Luke 9. Jesus' death was therefore a firm “no” to both the expectations of the insurrectionist Zealots that he would overthrow the Roman Empire and to the genocide of the Canaanites that led to the establishment of the kingdom of Israel whose eventual appointment of an earthly political king (Saul) showed God that the Israelites “have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam. 8:7).

 

And as Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire without tasting death, this reflects the resurrection and ascension of Christ. The resurrection—rather than military might—is how Jesus defeated the violence of the Roman Empire that killed him; the fact that this nonviolent victory is so counterintuitive provides a stark contrast to the military victories of earthly kingdoms. And it was the resurrection of Jesus that led to his ascension when he was enthroned at the right hand of the Father as a king who who established his reign in heaven through nonviolence as an alternative to war-mongering kings of this world.

 

In this way, the humanity and divinity of Christ is also revealed: Moses dies, as the humanity of Christ allowed him to be killed, and Elijah did not die but ascended to heaven, as the divinity of Christ conquered death resulting in his resurrection and his ascension. Jesus was enthroned on a cross and in heaven, revealing two dynamics of the kingdom of God through his humanity and divinity, kenosis and transfiguration—Moses and Elijah.

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