The Transfiguration of Our Lord, February 14, 2021

Elijah, the Shadow Man Text: 2 Kings 2:1–12

It is well stated that “The Transfiguration of Our Lord [is] the remembrance of an epiphany which brings the Old Testament into Jesus’ time” (Philip Pfatteicher and Carlos Messerli, Manual on the Liturgy: Lutheran Book of Worship [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1979] 23). 

  • “Tying the Bow Tie” of the prophetic message
  • Elijah the prophet did incredible things. He lived about 850 years before Jesus was born.
  • He prophesied for 15 years or so and then was gone. 
  • Elijah’s ministry as a prophet to Israel was fraught with bitter disappointment and dark despair. 
  • Elisha served as Elijah’s attendant until the moment of our text, when the latter was relieved of his earthly ministry and received, in exchange, life in heaven, where the whole of his earthly heartbreak was wiped from his memory.
  • The three places of destination mentioned in the text provide a recapitulation of the long history of God’s covenant people. 
  • Bethel, once the place of encampment for Abraham’s nomadic band and later the site where Jacob had his famous dream of the stairway that led into heaven. More recent to Elijah’s time, Bethel had become known as a place for Israel’s folly, a golden calf having been erected in a shrine there by Jeroboam (1 Ki 12:28–33). 
  • Jericho, the once proudly fortified city was reduced to ruin as the people of Israel made their liturgical march around its walls; hence, the city would evermore be an icon of the Lord’s power and might employed to lead his people past all obstacles that would otherwise bar them from entering the Promised Land.
  • The Jordan, was a veritable gateway in its own right. Its waters had parted to allow Israel access to Canaan (Joshua 3), and now at the slap of Elijah’s mantle the river opened to provide egress for the two prophets. Once the door of entry for nomadic Israel, the Jordan now served as an open gate as Elijah leaves one promised land to enter another.
  • Elisha was following from one “certain place of God’s coming” to another - his response seems to be one of understandable irritation.
  • This text records a “handing over” from Elijah to Elisha. 
  • Moses’ leadership is handed on to Joshua in the last chapters of Deuteronomy—in a similar location (on the far side of the Jordan), with a parallel blessing of the Spirit (Deut 34:9) and with the mystique of disappearing without a trace (Deut 34:6). 
  • Moses and Elijah depart in favor of Jesus, the Law and the Prophets giving way to Christ.

V 1: 

  • “to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind.” 
  • Elijah did not die but rather was taken into heaven and transfigured in the presence of God. 
  • The word susseismw'/, “earthquake,” the same word encountered when God sent a strong wind, an earthquake, and a fire as precursors to the “gentle whisper” that was the voice of the Lord speaking to Elijah at Horeb following his flight from Jezebel’s wrath (1 Ki 19:11–12). 
  • The storm imagery involves a cloud, which typifies the cloud that enveloped Jesus and the three disciples, as well as Moses and Elijah, at the transfiguration of Christ (Mk 9:7). 
  • A cloud hid Jesus from the disciples when he ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9). 
  • A pillar of cloud led ancient Israel in the exodus (Ex 13:21) and then took up residence in the sanctuary (Ex 40:34); 
  • it revealed the heavenly presence of the Lord among his people in the Old Testament. 
  • On the Last Day, all Christians will be brought up to Christ in the heavenly clouds (1 Thess 4:17).

V 3: 

  • “sons of the prophets” always refers to disciples of true prophets, they are therefore dependable. 
  • Similarly, at the transfiguration, the most trusted inner circle of disciples is chosen as witnesses, and their reliability is precisely the point being made in the traditional Epistle for this day from 1 Peter. 
  • Significantly, after the transfiguration, those select disciples, trusted also as witnesses of other events such as the raising of Jairus’s daughter and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, are charged to keep their own counsel regarding what they have witnessed (Mt 17:9).

V 7: 

  • “fifty men of the sons of the prophets.” 
  • Although his ascension involved the significant number of fifty witnesses, Jesus’ resurrection is clearly seen by the superior number of five hundred people, ten times fifty (1 Cor 15:6).

V 8: 

  • Water was divided in two - literally - "That water and that water" 
  • This is reminiscent of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on dry ground and then crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. 

V 9: 

  • A similar saying is recognized in older forms of the liturgy during the Salutation, when the congregation responds to the pastor’s declaration of the Lord’s presence in the worshiping assembly (“The Lord be with you”) with the words, “And with thy spirit.” 
  • Elisha was acknowledging Elijah as his prophet-father 
  • “double portion” refers to twice what other heirs might inherit, rather than twice the portion of the spirit Elijah himself possessed. 
  • This would be in line with the allocation bequeathed to the oldest son. By this formula, we may understand Elisha to be the proper heir of Elijah’s prophetic ministry.

V 11: 

  • “chariots of fire and horses . . . And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” 
  • In Hebrew, the same root word that designates an offering by fire is used here to express Elijah going up to heaven. 
  • In the New Testament, 
  • the fire of God is seen in the flames that rested on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:3), 
  • John the Baptist preaches about the refining fire of the Holy Spirit that would be given by Christ (Mt 3:11–12). 
  • At Pentecost, the fire is also associated with the sound of a strong wind, which undoubtedly occurred when Elijah went up to heaven. 
  • Through the Word and Sacraments, Christians receive the Holy Spirit, who refines them and qualifies them to be received into the heavenly realm now by faith and in the end in their glorified bodies (Eph 2:6–7).

V 12: 

  • “He saw him no more.” 
  • The next time Elijah is seen by mortal men is at Jesus’ transfiguration (Mk 9:4). 
  • Luke’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration includes a significant detail: Elijah “appeared in glory” (Lk 9:31). 
  • Elijah’s ascension into heaven is not only a type of Jesus’ ascension; it also prefigures Christ’s transfiguration. 
  • The Old Testament canon closes with the parting promise that “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5). 
  • Clearly by the New Testament era there was an expectation that Elijah would appear before the Messiah. (Extra table setting at the Passover Seder)
  • The Synoptic Gospels portray John the Baptist in terms resembling the description of Elijah the Tishbite in the previous chapter of 2 Kings given by the king’s messengers: “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist” (2 Ki 1:8). 
  • Anyone could recognize John in this role, and Jesus himself affirmed, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Mt 11:13–14). 
  • John himself, however, insists that he is not Elijah when asked explicitly about it (Jn 1:21). So there follows the very literal fulfillment on the Mount of Transfiguration. 

 

Conclusion:

  • In this life, our transfiguration is hidden; on the Last Day, our transfiguration and glory will be seen by everyone in the heavenly presence of our triune God.
  • The body that casts all the Old Testament shadows is the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth. Elijah longed to see the day of his triumph upon the holy cross when the Lord was lifted up and exalted. Blessed are our eyes that see the glory of the triumphant King, who comes to serve us with Easter victory. We, too, shall be transfigured. In heaven, we shall have a glorified body like his body (Phil 3:20–21). Even now, his glory is in us. By Baptism, we are a temple of his Holy Spirit. We receive his majesty in his body and blood. By God’s grace, he has trained our eyes to see what is there to be seen. Amen