Fire on the Mountain: The Transformation of Peter


TransfigurationLightning struck. Thunder clapped. The disciples of Jesus—Peter, James, and John—buried their heads in their arms. What is happening? What is Jesus up to now? Another manifestation of the Spirit. We already know that Jesus is God and on this night another affirmation. How could we forget?

Throughout their three-year ministry with Jesus the Lord often reminded the disciples of who he was and of what he was capable. “Without me you can do nothing,” he told them. A bold statement, but not without the truth of the facts to back it up. The proof is on every page of the gospel.

Don’t we need to be reminded occasionally? To have our hope strengthened, our qualms calmed, our doubts dispelled. Lent is a long hike through the desert, a riddle to be solved, a puzzle to be completed. The lighter the load the faster we reach our intended destination: Easter and the Resurrection. Keep on truckin’ on.

As they climbed Mount Tabor the law firm of Peter, James, and John had no idea what awaited them at the summit. Man, would they be surprised.

God transformed his son in angelic fashion to help prepare his friends for the remainder of a long journey to Jerusalem where he would fulfill his destiny, the time and place prepared for him by his Father.

Peter, James, and John witnessed many signs and wonders during the three years they trucked with Jesus. He cured the sick. He exorcised devils. He raised the dead. For the lepers he restored their skin white as snow. This guy has star power, friends in high places, the Apostles said. Let’s ride this strange torpedo for as far as it goes.

Difficulties and doubts are bound to occur in the mind of the sojourner. Two weeks earlier Peter confessed that Jesus was “the Son of the living God.” He spoke this openly. Then Jesus shocked him when he said, “The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners, who will mock him, spit upon him, have him scourged and be crucified and killed and on the third day be raised from the dead.”

Peter went completely sideways. “No, Lord. Say it isn’t so.”

Jesus stared him down. “Be gone, you son of a devil. You are an obstacle to me.” With the patience of Job he looked upon the crestfallen man with love but also with pity. “I prayed so hard for you, Simon, that your own faith may not fail; you must strengthen the faith of your brothers.”

Peter looked away. I never should have sold the boat, he thought. Strange ramblings throughout the desert seemed nebulous, felt like the fool’s progress.

But the transformation of Jesus on Tabor Mountain really freaked Peter out. Bright light. The top two distinguished members of the college of the prophets, the kingmakers Moses and Elijah, representatives of the Law and the Prophets, respectively, emerged from retirement for a one-night-only appearance to endorse Jesus as Lord and Messiah. The stage was set. The primary roles were cast. Lights, camera, action. Peter sat front row center stage.

The mountain was the traditional site for theophany, the manifestation of God in the material world. The ancient Greeks believed that the gods walked the earth and displayed their glory before mortals. They even copulated with them. Men built shrines to house the gods but in Hebrew literature the domicile of the divine was a tent.

The Israelites called this the meeting tent and inside Moses met God and chatted the way old friends play checkers in Central Park. Outside the tent flap a column of cloud stood watch. When the sun set the column rang like fire on the summit and the people glimpsed the splendor of God.

Moses was God’s own prototype. Jesus chose Peter to be his second in command because Peter was real. Just folks. So when Peter offered to erect three tents, “one for you, one for Moses, and another for Elijah,” he was calling to mind his Exodus and his Numbers that he studied in the synagogue in addition to being catatonic with fear.

It was a night that the Rock would never forget.

He detailed his encounter with Christ on Tabor in his posthumous memoir, The Second Letter of the Apostle Peter (c. AD 120).

We ourselves heard the voice from heaven while we were with him on that holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the dawn when the morning star rises in your heart (2 Pt 1:17-19).

Catholic tradition holds that the Transfiguration of Jesus, white-hot lightning, a fragile peal of thunder, occurred forty days prior to Jesus’s resurrection. In the season of Lent this gospel exists to remind the pilgrim why they pray, work hard, fast, and walk step by step through the wilderness to the mountain that is called Easter.

This truth was not lost on Paul, whose faith in Christ tended to be heartier than the bull-in-the-china-shop temperament of the man that Jesus ironically named Rock. “Christ Jesus it is who died, or rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.”

This is not to say that Peter was on the fence about the Lord’s divinity. How could he be? He worked hard to brand the notion into his mind like a tattoo. The fire on the mountain that he and James and John witnessed empowered him to hang tight with Jesus step for step, more or less in line, as they journeyed toward Jerusalem where the Lord would fulfill his destiny. That was the place in mind.


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