When God entered into a covenant with Abram, “a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.” When Jesus took Peter, James and John to the mountain to pray, “a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.” The terms of the covenant are not grounded in a gentleman’s agreement or a polite handshake between equals. They embody a relationship between the people of God and the living God himself.
In this relationship God’s whole being is present, including the reality of God’s fearsome power. But if the encounters with God that sometimes mark the covenant are not “terms of endearment,” neither should they be construed as ancient manifestations of “terrors of the covenant.” These are the terms of the covenant.
Nothing new comes without change, and the necessary transformations bring fear and trepidation. The spiritual transformation essential for the people of God, however, requires the power and grace of God to be present in ways that overshadow human beings. Often these changes require suffering rooted in our own fear that we cannot change or cannot maintain faith in the ways of God.
Note, however, that although Abram and the apostles experienced the darkness, terror and fear that accompanied the presence of God, this was not their entire experience of God. They did not flee. Peter, in fact, says, “Master, it is good that we are here,” and he is correct. Peter is sometimes mocked for speaking before thinking during the Transfigura-tion. But when we consider what he says, he is correct that the good place, the best place, is in the presence of God.
Luke describes Peter as “not knowing what he was saying”; and this lack of “knowing” could describe either his need to say something in response to Jesus’ glory or the inspiration to speak words whose full meaning was not apparent to him. Peter continues to speak, telling Jesus that three tents ought to be built for him, Moses and Elijah. Some commentators have seen in this a desire to capture the experience. But should we not want glory to dwell with us? Perhaps the problem with Peter’s suggestion is that he can imagine only temporary dwellings, when God’s glory is meant to dwell permanently among the people of God.
Peter also attempted too quickly to ground the glory of God in his midst by bypassing the spiritual transformation Jesus was to undergo before he could dwell in glory permanently. Moses and Elijah, the great representatives of the law and the prophets, appear to Jesus and speak to him about the “departure” he was about to “fulfill” in Jerusalem. In Greek this departure is called exodos. Like the wandering Israelites, Jesus had much to suffer before he could enter the Promised Land. The word exodos, found only in Luke’s account, refers to the complex of events that would culminate in Jesus’ ascension. There is no way to the ascension, however, without the crucifixion, the resurrection and the preparation of the church for its own exodos into the world.
Exodus is spiritual transformation, but spiritual transformation is not easy, and only God’s power and grace can truly transform us. Exodus also includes the fear of leaving behind what is good to forge onward for what is better. Peter was right, it was good that he and James and John were there to witness Jesus’ glory, but there was more in store. That which would lead to permanent spiritual transformation for Jesus and his followers required an exodos that demanded suffering, fear and terror. Peter desires three dwellings, with Jesus between Moses and Elijah, but the key verse in this regard might be Lk 23:33, in which Jesus hangs between two criminals, one on his left and one on his right.
“Master, it is good that we are here,” said Peter on the mountain, but the terms of the covenant required a transformation that would make suffering and sin themselves temporary dwellings on the exodus to glory.