New Covenant Implications of the Transfiguration
All three synoptic Gospels record the transfiguration of Jesus, indicating the importance of this supernatural event. Most significantly, perhaps, the transfiguration signals the beginning of the passion account, and as such, marks a turning point in the Gospel narratives. The Father’s declaration that Jesus is His beloved Son resembles the statement spoken at Jesus’ baptism; furthermore, like the crucifixion and ascension, this event occurs on a mountain. Elsewhere in Scripture, mountains are identified as a “place of revelation” (Liefeld 839). Walter L. Liefeld, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in fact, asserts that the “central theme of the Transfiguration is revelation” (cited in Penner 201). What revelation does God give atop the Mount of Transfiguration? In light of the Father’s command to “Listen to him!” as opposed to Moses and Elijah, James A. Penner, pastor of the Emmanuel Evangelical Missionary Church in Holden, Alberta, writes in Bibliotheca Sacra that the major issue is the “relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament” (204). Therefore, in addition to looking at the synoptic accounts of the transfiguration, this paper will show that the transfiguration is a proclamation of the coming New Covenant and its implications as such.
As modern biblical scholarship ascribes priority to the Markan account, this paper will first look at Mark’s record of the transfiguration found in chapter 9, verses 2-8. The account begins “six days” after Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ” in Mark 8:39. In a commentary on Mark edited by Everett Ferguson, Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Abilene Christian University, author Earle McMillan asserts, “It is possible to show that Mark intended that his reader come to the same conclusion—as the result of perusing the same evidence—that Peter himself came to when Jesus put the question to him, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ It is in this way that Peter’s confession becomes the pivot of the entire Markan narrative” (10). As the transfiguration pericope opens, Jesus is leading Peter, James, and John up a “high mountain.” Liefeld points out that this resembles Isaiah 40:9: “You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain,” indicating that Jesus is bringing good news to Jerusalem. He further notes the “striking similarity” to Exodus 24:16 in which Moses takes three companions—Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu—with him to meet God on Mount Sinai (839). Moses’ six-day wait prior to God calling him from the cloud in Exodus 24:16 is comparable to the six days which transpire between Peter’s confession and the transfiguration account, which further connects Sinai and the Mount of Transfiguration (Liefeld 839).
Once atop the mountain, Mark records that “Jesus is transfigured before them” (vs. 2). Mark and Matthew both use the Greek word for metamorphosis in describing Jesus’ transfiguration, which indicates “a visible change of the outward form as expressive of the true inner nature” (Hiebert 213). D. Edmond Hiebert, formerly professor of Greek and New Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, explains the meaning behind the form of the verb: “The aorist tense simply records the historical fact, while the passive voice indicates that the change was wrought by the Father” (213). Thus, rather than Jesus working miracles on behalf of others, in this instance, the Father is causing something extraordinary to happen to Jesus. Next, Mark uses an analogy from daily life to describe Jesus’ garments, saying they “became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (9.3). I. Howard Marshall, formerly reader in New Testament exegesis at the University of Aberdeen, suggests that Mark’s account depicts Jesus as “the Son of man who appears in the manner of Yahweh at Mount Sinai” (381). Jesus is appearing in brilliance as God did to Moses on Sinai when “the glory of the LORD looked like consuming fire on top of the mountain” (Ex. 24.17).
Next, two Old Testament figures appear and begin to talk with Jesus (vs. 4). It is interesting to note that only Mark lists Elijah before Moses in the transfiguration account; Hiebert speculates that the emphasis on the former “may be due to the fact that the scribes expected his return as the preeminent harbinger of the Messiah [….but about] the return of Moses the prophets said nothing” (213, 214). At this point, Peter suggests that he and the other two disciples construct “three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (vs. 5). This offer places Moses and Elijah on the same plain with Jesus, but “[i]t was not enough to acknowledge Jesus’ authority as equal to that of Moses and Elijah. His authority […] is far greater” (Penner 204). Thus, God spoke to them from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (vs. 7). According to Penner, this “proclamation from God was a rebuke of Peter’s mind-set as much as a rebuke of his suggestion” (204). Hiebert explains further that the Father’s command to “Listen to him!” is in the present imperative and thus “sets forth the continuing duty” to do so; Jesus, “rather than Moses or Elijah, is now God’s authorized Spokesman” (215). The transfiguration ends with the sudden disappearance of the heavenly visitors, and the disciples “no longer [see] anyone with them except Jesus” (vs. 8).
Matthew’s Gospel is known for its many allusions to Moses, who, with nearly eighty references in the New Testament, features more prominently than any other character from the Old Testament (Filson 28). However, according to Donald A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the “whole point of the Matthean account [of the transfiguration] is that Jesus alone and not even Moses or Elijah is to be heard as the voice of God” (75). Floyd V. Filson, formerly dean and professor of New Testament literature and history at McCormick Theological Seminary, states a perspective that has been prevalent since Augustine: “Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets; the O.T. witnesses to Jesus and he fulfills what it says” (192). Additionally, Filson interprets the transfiguration to mean that the “Law is not the focus of the life of the disciple; the disciple follows Jesus, who not only has supreme authority now but also will speak the decisive word at the end” (31). It is Jesus, therefore, who has jurisdiction in both the present and the future, replacing the Old Testament figures.
Matthew’s description of the transfigured Christ relates that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (17.2). This constitutes an interesting parallel to Moses after he was with the Lord on Mount Sinai receiving the stone tablets of the covenant; “his face was radiant,” and when the Israelites saw him, “they were afraid” (Ex. 34.29, 30). Then Moses “put a veil over his face” for their comfort but removed it whenever he went into the presence of God (Ex. 34.33-35). The late Meredith Kline, an influential Old Testament scholar who taught at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, and others, explains that the glory in both instances, although transcendently greater in Jesus’ case, was the “reflection of the glory of the Shekinah” (17). In 2 Corinthians 3 there is again reference to this matter: unlike the Israelites, though, believers are “ministers of a new covenant,” a “letter from Christ” written “not on tablets of stone,” as was the Decalogue (vs. 3, 6). Verses 7-18 explain that unlike the “fading” glory of the Old Covenant, the “much greater” glory of the New Covenant “lasts” (vs. 11).
The correlation to Exodus 34 continues as Paul contrasts the Jews with New Covenant believers. He explains that “the same veil remains when the old covenant is read […] because only in Christ is it taken away” (vs. 14). However, the veil is removed “whenever anyone turns to the Lord” (vs. 16). Coming full circle, 2 Corinthians 3 ends with an allusion to the transfiguration: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed (metamorfoumeqa; transfigured) into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord” (vs. 18). In describing the transformation that occurs in the lives of believers, Paul uses the same verb that Matthew and Mark would later employ in their Gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. In so doing, it appears that the apostle is not-so-subtly alluding to the transfiguration event, in which the focus is on Jesus—not on Moses, who represents and was the mediator of the Old Covenant. As Moses led the children of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea, Jesus “leads his people through the sea of death” (Kline 15). More significantly, though, Kline points out that while Moses offered the covenant sacrifice on behalf of the people, in the New Covenant, Jesus not only offers the sacrifice but “is himself that sacrifice” (20).
In Luke’s Gospel, Liefeld observes that in close proximity to the transfiguration account in chapter 9, the author presents three instances in which individuals inquire about Jesus’ identity (834). When Jesus Himself finally poses this question to His disciples, Peter answers that his teacher is the “Christ of God” (Lk. 9.20). The importance of this theme is enhanced by a chiasm embedded in verses 20-35; the first part comes the week before the transfiguration and the corresponding second half is in the transfiguration account itself (Liefeld 835). First, Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Christ is related to identity (A); Jesus’ declaration of his death (B) comes in verse 22; verse 26 reflects the future glory (C) of the Parousia (Liefeld 835). Jesus’ divine glory (A’) is visible at the transfiguration; Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus of his upcoming departure (B’), which likely refers to his death; and finally, Jesus’ identity (C’) is confirmed in verse 35 when the Father says, “This is my Son” (Liefeld 835). Thus, the chiasm provides a literary link between Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity as the Christ and the transfiguration account a week later in which the Father audibly affirms Peter’s declaration.
Luke is the only synoptic author whose transfiguration account includes the word exodos (departure), which is the subject Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discuss on the mountain (Lk. 9.31). There are many possible interpretations as to what is meant by this word. First, Jesus is the “new Moses” whose “saving acts” of death and resurrection lead His people in a “new exodus” of deliverance from their sins (Kline 9). Second, Jesus’ upcoming “exodus” may refer to the “baptismal ordeal of his passion” as a parallel to that of the Hebrews crossing through the Red Sea (Kline 10). Furthermore, the departure over which the three confer could refer to Jesus’ exit from the earth after his resurrection and/or ascension (Kline 10). McMillan observes, “Luke explicitly balances the eschatological glory evident in the transfiguration with the passion [….] saying that the death of Christ is necessary” (109). Luke’s use of a form of the verb plhruw (fulfill) in connection with Jesus’ upcoming "departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem" in verse 31 is the same root word used in Matthew 5:17 when Jesus says he has come to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets. Thus, led by the Spirit, Luke recognizes that Jesus’ mission was to accomplish the atoning sacrifice prophesied of Him in the Old Testament, and he contrasts the glory of the transfiguration with the coming passion.
Marshall points out that in Luke’s account, Peter addresses Jesus using a different term than the other two synoptic authors; he calls Jesus epistata, which is a “respectful title used by the disciples when addressing Jesus as a person of authority,” but far from Peter’s confession of a week before in which he identified Jesus as the Christ (385). Because Peter uses a title that “is inadequate for a glorious figure,” Luke emphasizes the “inappropriate character of his suggestion” that the disciples make booths for Jesus and the two heavenly visitors (Marshall 386). Marshall explains that in Luke’s account, the Greek syntax of “diacwrizomai gives the sense of ‘while they were beginning to go away’” (385). So, with this additional detail, it seems likely that Peter’s suggestion was prompted by the departure of Moses and Elijah, because he wished that “the glorious experience might be prolonged” (Marshall 386). Clearly, Peter did not yet understand the true significance of Jesus and His superiority over even such Old Testament worthies. Marshall explains, "Only later was [the transfiguration’s] significance to become fully apparent” (389). In time, the Holy Spirit would teach Peter that the New Covenant Jesus was ushering in really did mean that the Old Covenant, represented by Moses and Elijah, was “beginning to go away.”
In Luke’s account of the transfiguration, there are a couple of differences from the other two synoptic accounts that may be reflective the author’s own Greek heritage and audience. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke writes that the transfiguration happened “about eight days after Jesus said this” (Lk. 9.28). Marshall explains the discrepancy thus: “Luke may be using a Hellenistic form of reckoning based on an eight-day week by contrast with the Jewish seven-day week” (382). In any case, each of the synoptic accounts of the transfiguration place it within the context of a specific time frame, “firmly linking it to history in time and place” (Hiebert 212). Secondly, in choosing not to use the verb metamorpheo to describe Jesus’ transformation as do Mark and Matthew, Luke is sensible of confusion that this particular word might elicit in his Greek audience (Marshall 383). Such terminology “might call to mind the stories in pagan mythologies of divine epiphanies (appearances),” so instead, Luke writes that “the appearance of his face changed” (Liefeld 837). Thus, the synoptic authors' Spirit-inspired redaction allows for more incarnational messages, resulting in Gospels that are specifically suited to the Sitze im Leben of their respective first-century audiences. Additionally, Luke is the only Gospel to include the detail that Jesus took the three disciples to the mountain in order to pray, which is “in accord with Luke’s habit of stressing prayer and is in addition to, not a contradiction of” the other transfiguration accounts (Liefeld 837).
The “motif of witness” may be functioning in Luke’s account, making Moses and Elijah “appear as the representatives of the law and the prophets” (Marshall 384). As Paul writes of Christ in Romans 3:21, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” Penner explains that Jesus’ “uniqueness is further demonstrated by the disappearance of Moses and Elijah after God’s proclamation, [when] Jesus alone was left for the disciples to honor” (Penner 207). Additionally, Marshall notes that “it is appropriate that the two men who had mysterious departures from this world and who were expected (either personally or in their counterparts) to appear again at the end of the world should be present in this scene of eschatological anticipation” (384). Finally, as only Luke refers to Moses and Elijah as andreß duo (two men), this choice of words may foreshadow Luke’s “resurrection and ascension scenes (24:4; Acts 1:10) where two heavenly visitors again give a commentary on the proceedings” (Marshall 383-84). If Marshall is correct, this detail provides a strong literary clue to the level of importance Luke attached to the transfiguration event. Its significance ranks with two of the most theologically weighted events in the Christian faith.
Second Peter 1:16-18 contains the fourth and final mention of the transfiguration. Liefeld observes that the writer’s use of the word eyewitnesses (vs. 16) and his declaration that “we ourselves heard [the Father’s] voice from heaven” (vs. 18) assures the audience that “the event was observed and is not mere legend” (836). Some scholars also see an allusion to the transfiguration in the Gospel of John. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1.14). Hiebert explains that the absence of the transfiguration in John's Gospel “is in harmony with [his] practice of not repeating events that had already been sufficiently recorded”; nonetheless, the entire book “sets forth the glory of Christ” (212). Regarding John 1:17, Kline notes that “[i]t was ‘through’ Moses and ‘through’ Christ that the old and new covenants came” (16). This verse segues to the related topic of the roles of these two covenants and their covenant mediators.
The significance of the transfiguration centers on a proper understanding of the Old and New Covenants. The covenantal implications of the transfiguration start to become evident in the parallels between Exodus and the Gospels. Based on form criticism and his expertise in ancient Near Eastern treaty documents, Meredith Kline writes that the book of “Exodus appears to have the same thematic focus and to exhibit comprehensively the same literary structure as the gospels” (4). Both consist of “historical narrative” and secondly either “legislation” or “authoritative sayings” (Kline 4). As this “combination was a regular feature of the second millennium B.C. treaty genre,” the gospels are essentially an adapted form of the Hittite covenant document (Kline 4). Kline further explains how the prominently featured passion account, “starting with the transfiguration event (in the Synoptics) and continuing through the resurrection-ascension […] has its counterpart in the Book of Exodus in the dominant position occupied there by the account of the inauguration of the Sinaitic Covenant” (5). The “covenant ratification” in Exodus takes place at Sinai, while Golgotha is the site of the ratification of the New Covenant (Kline 5). Exodus chapters 19-40 record the “inauguration of the covenant” just as do the passion narratives in the Gospels (Kline 6). Furthermore, both the Old and New Testament gospels record “the public career of the covenant mediator” (Kline 6). Moses, as a type of Jesus, mediates the Old Covenant given at Sinai; Jesus, the antitype, is the mediator of the New Covenant predicted in Jeremiah 31:31. Moses initiated the Old Covenant with the blood of animals (Ex. 24.5-8); Jesus initiates the New Covenant with his own blood: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22.20). Kline concludes that the gospel genre centers on “an account of the inauguration of a divine covenant” (8).
The experience on the Mount of Transfiguration prefigured the transition of Old Covenant to New. According to Larry D. Pettegrew, formerly a professor of theology at The Master’s Seminary and now Executive VP of Shepherds Theological Seminary, when God tore the veil in the temple at Jesus’ death, He “clearly indicated the [the Old Covenant] was no longer in existence” (186). Hebrews 8:7-13 supports Pettegrew’s claim, stating that the Old Covenant was made “obsolete” to make way for the New. From the declaration Jesus made at the Last Supper, as recorded in Luke 22:20 and 1 Cor. 11:25, it is clear that “the shedding of His blood is the basis of the New Covenant” (Pettegrew 186). The New Testament also indicates that “the death of Christ marked the inauguration of the New Covenant” (Pettegrew 181). Thus, as believers living under the New Covenant rather than the Old, Christians “are required to follow the law only as it comes to us through the grid of Jesus Christ, the law’s Lord and fulfiller” (Zaspel qtd. in Pettegrew 190). “The authoritative sayings of Jesus that are interspersed through the narratives of his saving acts” in the Gospels replace the laws and commands given by God through Moses in the Torah (Kline 7).
The prime significance of the removal of the Old Covenant lies with its implications on the law. Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, in their book New Covenant Theology, write, “It is the Mosaic code as a whole and in all its parts that has passed away, and the apostolic declaration to that end must therefore be seen to embrace even the Decalogue” (qtd. in Pettegrew 183). Jeremiah prophesies, “‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers [….] I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’” (Jer. 31.31, 33). Playing off the language of the transfiguration, Tom Wells writes that “the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:33 is a fulfillment that involves a transformation from the Ten Commandments as written in the OT to the teaching of Jesus and his writing disciples. The caterpillar has been transformed. He now looks very different” (qtd. in Pettegrew 190). Pettegrew explains that the Hebrew word describing the covenant in Jeremiah 31:31 “means ‘new,’ ‘fresh,’ something ‘not yet existing’” (Pettegrew 194). Therefore, the claim that the New Covenant is just the Old Covenant Decalogue “written on the heart” does not seem accurate. Instead, the law of love as taught and modeled by Jesus takes priority in the Christian’s life. A believer who is obeying the indwelling Holy Spirit will not murder, steal, or lie. Indeed, the law of Christ is a much higher standard than the Ten Commandments, as is clear from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7). In the New Covenant ushered in at the crucifixion, Jesus replaces Moses as both the authoritative lawgiver and covenant mediator.
As for the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law, type met antitype in the coming of Jesus. For example, Carson writes that “Jesus saw Himself as the focal point in redemptive history, for even the temple pointed to Him” (70). In John 2:19, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days,” referring to his own body. “In this sense, the temple does not now serve as the symbol of Christ’s mission; rather, it lived out its life as a pointer toward Christ’s mission” (Carson 75). Kenneth E. Bailey, lecturer and emeritus research professor of Middle Eastern New Testament studies for the Tantur Ecumenical Institute writes, “Throughout the New Testament there is witness to the astounding fact that a person had replaced a building” (328). Similarly, in His atoning death on Calvary, Jesus is the “Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5.7). Today, there are even a growing number of Christians who see Jesus as the fulfillment of the Sabbath commandment. Rather than being a moral obligation as the other nine commandments of the Decalogue, New Covenant Theology understands the Sabbath as foreshadowing the rest of grace found through saving faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ own words in Matthew 11:28 hint at this New Covenant reality: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” As Jesus replaced the temple in which Israel worshiped, so, too, the Person of Christ both replaces and transcends a day of rest and worship. Carson explains that the “Sabbath is another of the Old Testament pointers to the messianic rest” (75). This conclusion “agrees with Matthew’s fulfillment motifs. The gospel rest to which the Sabbath had always pointed” appeared in the person of Jesus (Carson 75).
Additional support for abolition of the Sabbath command as a moral obligation under the New Covenant comes from the study of ancient Near Eastern treaties. Citing Meredith Kline’s Treaty of the Great King, Dale Ratzlaff writes,
Each covenant had a sign which was arbitrarily assigned by the suzerain [conquering king] and placed in the very center of the covenant document and was unique to that covenant agreement. The ruled party was to keep or display the sign of the covenant as a symbol of their obedience to the covenant stipulations. Failure to do so would be considered by the suzerain a sign of rebellion and called for drastic consequences. (42)
As the Sabbath was the sign of the Old Covenant (Ex. 31.13-17; Ezek. 20.12-21), so the Lord’s Supper is the sign of the New Covenant—the repeatable remembrance symbol signifying one's continued devotion to the covenant. God commanded the Israelites to “remember” the Sabbath day, and Jesus likewise instructs Christians to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22.19). The New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant, of which the Sabbath was the sign, and so, too, the Lord’s Supper has replaced the fourth commandment. In light of this, then, it makes sense when Paul explains that the reason some believers “are weak and sick, and […] have fallen asleep” is because they have been partaking of the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner”; thus, they have brought judgment on themselves (1 Cor. 11.27-30). As the Israelites were punished for disprespecting the sign of their covenant in the Old Testament period (see Ezek 20.11-26), so were the early Christians chastized for their abuses of the sacred sign of the New Covenant.
In conclusion, the transfiguration serves as witness to Jesus’ preeminence over every Jewish figure to come before Him. He appears “not as a new Moses but as one who utterly transcends Moses” (Kline 20). Kline perceptively writes,
If then in adopting the gospel genre once again in the administration of the new covenant, the Lord of the covenant designed that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John should perform the same function for the church that the Gospel of Moses [Exodus] performed for Israel, their purpose is to provide documentary attestation to the new covenant. Doubling the number of official documentary witnesses provided for the Sinaitic Covenant (that is, the two stone tablets), the Lord gave the community of the new covenant four such witnesses, and indeed four different rather than duplicate witnesses as in the case of the Sinaitic tablets. (22)
Thus, the revelation of the transfiguration, like the Gospels that record this event, is that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant. Once initiated on Calvary, this covenant would have the power to save to the utmost all who are sprinkled with His blood. “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9.15). In Jesus, every believer experiences a transfiguration, for those who trust in Him “are being transformed into his likeness, with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord” (2 Cor. 3.18).
~ by Jennifer Rector, December 2010 (This paper was written for a Synoptic Gospels class). We invite you to read a related paper, "Jesus Christ: The Sabbath Rest of the New Covenant."
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