A Pepper Grinder Post

Three Tents

It probably comes as no surprise that the Bible has many different styles of literature.  But there is one style common today which many would say is missing in the Bible—comedy!  However, the passage I’m looking at today makes an astonishing shift from spine-tingling awe to something that could almost be called a dumb disciple joke.

Let’s set the scene first.  In the chapter before ours, Peter stated openly that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus said that he would build his church on this rock (Peter meaning rock in Greek).  Then, just a little later, after Peter upbraided Jesus for predicting his own torture and murder,  Jesus rebuked him sharply.  (“Get behind me, Satan!”).  So Peter has gone from the star to something worse than the class dunce.  Here is where our passage picks up.

After six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and John (James’s brother) and led them up onto a high mountain by themselves.  Jesus was transformed before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.  Moses and Elijah appeared and were talking with him.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it’s a good thing we’re here.  If you want, I’ll set up three tents—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was speaking, a bright cloud passed over them, and a voice came from the cloud saying, “This is my son whom I love.  I’m delighted with him.  Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown and were terrified.  But Jesus came and lifted them up and said, “Get up.  Don’t be afraid.”
They looked around and saw no one but Jesus.      (Matthew 17:1-8, my translation)

mountainPicture it.  Jesus chose just three of his disciples to come with him.  After recently being called Satan, Peter must have been pleased to be included.  They started climbing a desolate, stony mountain.  After an exhausting climb, they reached the top.  Jesus started to talk to God; Peter, James, and John fell asleep. (I’m bringing in some details here that come out in the parallel versions to our passage--Mark 9:1-8 and Luke 9:28-36.)  When they woke up, they saw something more amazing than the panoramic views on all sides.  They saw Jesus, but this was not the Jesus they had seen before.  It was as if his face and his clothes were giant light bulbs—he was glowing.  What’s more, there were two other glowing gentlemen speaking with him.  Somehow the disciples knew these were Moses and Elijah.

Not surprisingly, the disciples were stunned, awed, and terrified.  The funny part comes in the way Peter reacted to this:  he proposed setting up some tents.

LloydDid you ever see the movie, “Say Anything”?  The hero of the movie is Lloyd Dobler.  He is a young man with a great personality, who isn’t very sure what he wants to do when he grows up, and who falls in love with Diane Court, the school valedictorian.  It is when Lloyd gets invited to have dinner with Diane, her father, and a few of her father’s co-workers that we first see one of Lloyd’s flaws.  When he gets nervous, he babbles.  When he is asked about his future plans at dinner, he launches into this speech: 
“I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that.”  He then goes on to describe his interest in kickboxing, the “sport of the future.”

Like Lloyd, Peter’s reaction to nervousness or outright terror seems to be to “say anything.”  The parallel verses in Mark make this even clearer.  After reporting Peter’s suggestion, Mark adds the parenthetical comment:

(He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)   (Mark 9:6 NIV)

James and John were terrified and didn’t know what to say, so they said nothing.  Peter was terrified and didn’t know what to say, so he suggested setting up a campground. 

In a way, I can relate to Peter.  If my wife or one of my kids comes into the room where I am asleep and says something in an agitated or urgent tone of voice, my natural reaction is to leap out of bed and into action.  At a moment’s notice, I am ready to fix an overflowing toilet or kill some menacing insect.  I have more trouble if careful thought is required.  The fight or flight switch has been tripped, but my brain is still not 100% awake.  The worst for me is a situation where speech is involved.  I am not a quick verbal responder at the best of times, but I have had times when I got a night call about a computer problem at work,  when, while striding rapidly to get to my laptop and boot it up, I struggled just to put a few words together to respond to the person on the phone.

For me, the first part of my brain to wake up is the action part.  For Peter, it has to have been the speech part.  The drawback to this is that in a situation where Peter woke up to find something happening that he couldn’t comprehend, he started to talk before he started to think.

tentBut why would Peter suggest pitching tents? 

It isn’t actually as silly as it sounds to us.  To understand this better, we need to understand ‘skainos,’ the Greek word I translated as ‘tent,’ and that some Bibles translate as ‘tabernacle.’  The word is used 20 times in the New Testament.  Three of those times are in this passage and in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, but a full half of those 20 occurrences are in the book of Hebrews.  Hebrews is a book that talks a lot about the Old Testament and is directed to Jews, so this should tell us something about the word.  Sure enough, if we look at the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in use at the time of Jesus (the Septuagint), we find this same word occurring over and over in the Old Testament, especially in the early books from Exodus on.

When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and started leading them through the desert, he commanded them to build a kind of portable sanctuary where God’s presence would rest and sacrifices could be presented.  This sanctuary was in--you guessed it-- a tent (a ‘skainos’ in the Greek).

Peter is not suggesting setting up a campsite and making S’mores, he is popping out with the first idea his practical, Jewish brain comes up with for how to honor and welcome these god-like beings.  We also have to remember the importance, to this day, of showing hospitality in Middle Eastern cultures.  Peter was trying to be hospitable, and he was trying to show honor in the way that his forefathers had been commanded by God to show honor to the Lord.

These seem like pretty good intentions, but I suspect there may have been something else at work as well. I don’t know for sure that Peter was doing this, but I think there is a strong human tendency to want to preserve and institutionalize pivotal experiences.  We see God at work, and many of us think, “This is great!  I want this to happen again and again.”  This is when we try to find ways to re-create or hold onto the experience.

One of the funniest (though also sad) examples of this, to me, is modern revival meetings.  When I have read about great revivals in the past, the impression I have is that people prayed and prayed, and finally, God moved sovereignly and did something amazing.  Now, however, some churches will schedule revival meetings.  They will line up a powerful speaker and post announcements that there will be revival meetings on a particular set of days.  I think the desire for revival is commendable, but the idea that we could schedule one seems like a classic example of us taking a powerful God-experience and trying to institutionalize it.

I suspect some other church programs are like this, too.  I have no idea who held the first vacation Bible school (though I imagine Christian education publishers hold him or her in high honor!), but I am guessing someone had a new and interesting idea for how to reach out to a particular group of kids, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was quite successful.  The problem I have with VBS now is that it has become a settled institution in so many churches.  Every spring in Christian Ed committees all over America, the question asked is not, “How does God want us to reach out to the children in our church and our community?”  but,  “What dates should we choose for our VBS?”  and “What curriculum should we purchase for it?”

carouselWhen we take something that may once have been a great idea, coming from the Lord himself, and make it into an institution, we do something sad to it.  It is as if there were a fast race car with a brilliant and unpredictable driver.  We watch the car and driver do amazing things to win an important race.  We are so excited that we build a special amusement park ride to re-create that race.  In our re-creation, all the cars will run on special tracks and their speed will be controlled by a computer, so we can make our reenactment as much like the original race as possible.  Then, once a year, we take that driver and that car and put them on the special track and run that amazing race again.  How do you think the driver would feel?  Perhaps a little honored, but mostly frustrated, because he is a driver and he wants to DRIVE!  And this is what we do to the Lord of the universe!

And what does God say in response to Peter’s proposal?

“This is my son whom I love.  I’m delighted with him.  Listen to him!”

This is the message for us.  We should always have our ear cocked, listening for what Jesus is saying.  Sometimes he will speak to us; other times we may hear nothing.  That’s OK.  I believe if we consistently have the attitude of, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” God WILL communicate with us and keep us on the right track.

My wife and I recently attended a church in another area.  There were many things I liked about the church, but one of them was that this church seemed convinced that God had called them to a special type of prayer ministry.  To this end, they have trained a large prayer team.  They have a time after every service when individuals and couples can go and be prayed for by two people from the prayer team.  They also have special appointments you can set up to have more in-depth prayer times.  They even have a number you can call and leave a voice mail prayer request which they will pray about for 2-4 weeks.

I am not for an instant saying every church should do this, or even that this church should always continue this ministry.  What I liked was that they had decided what God wanted them to do and were doing it in a dedicated and creative way.  They were not just following the path every other church follows.  Would it be possible for this ministry to become “tented” (institutionalized and dead)?  Of course.  But it does not feel like that now.

I totally sympathize with churches and individuals who build tents for Moses and Elijah.  It feels safe.  It’s something we know how to do.  It spares us from the insecurity of not being sure WHAT we are supposed to do.  But the difference between the tent approach and listening to Jesus is like the difference between a stuffed lion and the real thing.  One is safe and predictable.  The other is real.


*Photo Credits: carousel by