For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter. Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.
“Just do what the Bible says.” That seems straightforward.
But sometimes the Bible’s guidance appears muddled – even contradictory. Consider a few cases in point.
According to Leviticus 20:10, a couple caught in the act of adultery should be stoned to death. But Jesus tells a woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). The Mosaic Law forbids, among other things, eating ham sandwiches and shrimp cocktails. But Jesus declares all such restrictions null and void (Mark 7:19). David says concerning his enemies, “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them” (Psalm 139:21-22). But Jesus counters, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).
These are not trivial issues.
If we stand with orthodox Christians of every generation who have affirmed the validity of all that we find in Scripture, how in the world do we go forward?
There’s a fascinating moment recounted in three of the four Gospels that helps us answer that question. It’s a Jesus story. But it’s also a Peter story – one of those moments where Peter just can’t resist saying something, even though it would have been so much wiser for him to stay quiet.
As Mark 9 opens, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, some of you who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
This must have electrified the disciples. At last – the Messiah is going to do something instead of making sad predictions about his own fate. But they could hardly have expected what happens next.
“After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.”
The Greek word for “transfigured” is the verbal form of metamorphosis. Jesus undergoes a dramatic change. Mark emphasizes the brightness of his clothing. The word for “dazzling” was commonly used to describe the blinding glare of light reflected off polished metal, or of sunlight shimmering in the water. Mark says, essentially, “No same-day-service dry cleaner could ever have gotten clothes this white.”
The mystery immediately deepens: “And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”
Suddenly we have a biblical Who’s Who. Scholars have long wondered why Moses and Elijah were invited to this party. The best guess is that Moses, as the supreme lawgiver in the Old Testament, represents the written commands of God. Elijah, as the first and greatest of all the prophets, represents God’s in-breaking voice. In a vivid scene that sears itself into the memories of the disciples, Jesus is presented in lively conversation with the Law and the Prophets.
In other words, this is the New Testament standing in solidarity with the Old Testament.
And Peter simply has to say something. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here!” he says to Jesus. “Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” This is crazy. What prompts this sudden outbreak of Foot in Mouth Disease? Mark observes, “He did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mark 9:6).
Perhaps Peter has camping on the brain because God’s people had been instructed in Old Testament times to build a tabernacle for face-to-face meetings with the Lord. Or perhaps, in the middle of this literal mountaintop experience, he’s proposing a means of making it last a bit longer.
Suddenly the experience becomes even more extraordinary. “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’ When they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.”
God’s voice is heard audibly only three times in the New Testament. All three times, God tells those present to pay attention to Jesus. “This is my Son… Listen to him!”
God does not spotlight Moses and Elijah and say, “Listen to them.” That’s not to say that followers of Jesus should dismiss the Old Testament. Jesus himself was committed, heart and soul, to the Hebrew scriptures. And Jesus clearly doesn’t repudiate Elijah and Moses on the mountain. They share a positive conversation. His story is both the continuation and the fulfillment of their story.
But when it comes to wrestling with Bible issues today – when we assess what God said in the Old Covenant versus what Jesus says in the Gospels – the resolution is clear. First and foremost, we are to listen to God’s Son.
That’s because, in a way the disciples can never forget, Jesus is left standing alone on the Mount of Transfiguration.
This means that the days of “holy wars” like those in the Old Testament are gone. Nor should we rejoice in the destruction of those we identity as God’s enemies. Today we read the Old Testament through New Testament eyes. The words and the way of Jesus must always rule the day.
Which brings us back to Peter. And to that oh-so-crucial word spoken by God the Father: Listen.
It was hard for Peter to listen. His impulse was to do something. To build something. To be preoccupied with something – the feeling that overwhelms so many of us when we’re afraid or confused or quite simply don’t know what to do. As the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming soon. Look busy.”
But our call is not to “do things for God.” It’s to develop a lifestyle of listening to the One who was specifically honored by his Father on the mountain.
Author Richard Foster observes, “Superficiality is the curse of our age… The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
By God’s grace, may this Holy Week become a gateway to listening to the Lord we love – so we can grow deeper in him.