“The Transfiguration of Jesus”

Categories: Faith

Written By: M. Thaxter Dickey

Jesus was transfigured on a mountain, and we are like Peter, who requested the building of three tabernacles because “he knew not what to say.” There are remarkable things about this incident which ought to cause us to fall silent; however, the incident is recorded for our benefit, so let us respectfully consider its meaning (Matthew 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36)

The Occasion

To understand the transfiguration we must understand its timing. It is connected to the earlier announcement of His death by all three evangelists. The clearest account is in Matthew 16 where we read of Peter’s confession that the Jesus is the Christ and the revelation following it that even though He is the Messiah He must suffer and die. This is so traumatic that Peter denies it, “God forbid!” and is rebuked by the Lord. This connection to the transfiguration is even clearer when we note that the theme of the discussion between Jesus and Moses and Elijah is His death.

Luke tells us that Jesus’ purpose in going onto the mountain was to pray. He prayed, then He was transfigured. Was the transfiguration an answer to the prayer?” Did the prayer concern His death? The circumstances are very similar to those in the Garden of Gethsemane: He was alone except for three disciples. He was thinking about His death. He prayed. The apostles, who should have prayed too, were heavy with sleep. (How many times did it happen that Jesus prayed and they slept?) There follows a heavenly ministration. Thus the transfiguration serves to strengthen Him for what is to come. But perhaps it is as much for the disciples as for Him. Did He not pray for them as well?

The Transfiguration

While He prayed He was transfigured. The writers struggle to make sense of it. His countenance was changed, but how? The best they can do is speak of the light. His face shone like the sun. His clothes are white and glistening, whiter than any launderer could get them, whiter than snow. All the cliches are used, but none match the reality. Whatever it was, its impact was tremendous for it is this incident that Peter recalls years later when he argues that we did not follow cleverly devised fables but were eye witnesses of His majesty (2 Peter 1:16–18).

The Visitors

Two men talk with Him. Moses and Elijah are, respectively, the representatives of the law and the prophets from which we learn of the Christ and of which He is the culmination. And what is the theme of the discussion? His death. There were other possible topics of discussion: ancient days, the celestial heavens. But it is the work of redemption that Jesus was about to accomplish that they discussed. And what greater theme than that? Indeed angels desired to look into it (1 Peter 1:16). With what trivialities we fill our days, when we could discuss this theme as well.

The Purpose

The transfiguration provides three aids to the Son of Man as He faces His self-sacrifice:
1) A foretaste of glory divine (Hebrews 12:2).
2) An assurance that heaven is interested in these things.
3) The approval of the Father.

But perhaps more importantly it strengthens the apostles who were having difficulty adjusting to the idea of a suffering Savior. Even if the three apostles were not permitted to tell of the event (and probably they couldn’t have communicated it accurately if they’d tried), the change in their demeanor brought about by this event would encourage the others as well.

Peter’s Response

Peter answered, but no one had said anything to him. He is the kind of person who always has to say something. “It is good to be here,” he says. What he means is that it is better to be here on the mountain of glory than at the cross of suffering. He almost implies again what he had said on the plains of Caesarea. “God forbid,” he had said then and now he says, “Let us build three tents.” “And stay here longer” is the implication. He expresses what they all feel. We long for the moment to continue. Who would not?

God’s Answer

But they are overshadowed by a bright cloud. The cloud is always a symbol of the divine presence, especially this bright cloud, which is reminiscent of the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day that preceded the Israelites in the wilderness. No wonder they feared as they entered the cloud. God speaks, “Hear Him,” and they fall over. How long till they were raised by the reassuring words and touch of the Lord and started down the mountain?

The Aftermath

They cannot remain on the mountain of glory. There will be no tents. But the apostles can’t let it go: “Don’t the prophets say that Elijah should come first and restore all things?” They expected him to come and stay and transform society. They looked for an easier way. But the work of salvation is not easy and we cannot grow weary in well doing (Galatians 6:9). Even the Lord was so tempted when He came down and said, “How long shall I bear with you” (Matthew 17:17). But strengthened by the transfiguration, He pressed forward to accomplish His work. So did the apostles. And so must we.

Originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of Christianity Magazine.