“Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”
Today is the last week of the Epiphany season, with Lent beginning this Wednesday. It is appropriate for us to end the season of Epiphany by reflecting on the Transfiguration of Christ.
The Transfiguration can seem like an odd story, and its import is not always clear. After Peter has recognized Christ as the Messiah, and after Jesus has foretold his death and resurrection to his disciples, Jesus withdraws with Peter, James, and John to a mountain to pray. There, Elijah and Moses come to speak to Jesus about his departure to Jerusalem (the Greek word used in Luke, intriguingly, is his exodos), and his impending death. Just when Moses and Elijah are about to leave, Peter speaks up, suggesting they create tabernacles, or dwelling places, for all three of them. At that moment a Glory-Cloud envelops Jesus, and a voice from the Cloud says, almost in rebuke to Peter, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” Then the Cloud disappears, and Jesus is alone.
The next day, they go down from the mountain and Jesus casts out a demon from a boy, and the story seemingly picks up again from there.
At first glance, the Transfiguration seems like a strange interlude, an interruption in the main plot of Jesus’ story. However, when properly understood, the Transfiguration provides an interpretive key to understanding Jesus’ identity, the Apostles Peter and John’s ministries, and the whole canon of Scripture.
Where Jesus’ baptism marks his entry into the first stage of his ministry, the revelation of Jesus’ glory in His Transfiguration marks his turn to the second stage of his ministry, where he journeys to His Crucifixion. The narrative elements surrounding both events have clear parallels–1) John the Baptist testifies to the Coming One before Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:11-13), Peter testifies that Jesus is “the Messiah of God” a few days before the Transfiguration (Luke 9:20); 2) Following the Baptism, Jesus wrestles with and overcomes the Devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:12-13), following the Transfiguration, Jesus drives out a demon from a boy (Matthew 17:22-24).
The events of the Baptism and the Transfiguration themselves are also similar. At the Baptism, the Spirit descends on Jesus as a Dove and the Father declares that Jesus is his beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased. At the Transfiguration, the Spirit descends as a cloud of glory, and the Father declares that Jesus is the Elect Son, and the disciples should listen to him.
Both events are “epiphanies” or appearances of God, but importantly they are Trinitarian epiphanies–God is seen in the united action of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Peter, James, and John all witnessed the Transfiguration. As evidenced by their writings, it seems that this disclosure of God’s Trinitarian nature was key in shaping the apostles’ understanding of who Jesus is, and who God is.
In his Gospel, John writes that “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Close readers of the Bible might be confused by this statement. In the Old Testament, there are numerous places where God comes down, manifests, or is somehow or other “seen” in Creation–there is the Lord’s visit to Abraham (Genesis 18), the Angel of the Lord in the burning bush calling to Moses (Exodus 3:2-4), and the Lord guiding Israel in the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21), to cite a few examples.
But John’s statement should call to mind the story of Exodus 33, where Moses asked to see God in His Glory. God was pleased with Moses and had been speaking to Him through the Angel, but He would not reveal His Glory-Face to Moses. This is why He hid Moses in the cleft of a rock and allowed Moses to only see His back. Then the Lord comes before Moses in the cloud and declares a covenant with Israel in Exodus 34. Though Moses has not beheld the Lord’s face, because he was in the Lord’s shrouded presence in the cloud, his own face shines with such glory and brilliance that he has to cover it with a veil when he returns to the Israelites.
At the Transfiguration, Peter confusedly attempts to equate the greatness of Jesus with that of Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:33). But what the Father declares, and what the Apostle John comes to understand, is that Jesus is not just shining as a reflection of God’s Glory, as Moses shone in Exodus; Jesus is God’s Glory-Face. Jesus is not only Israel’s Messiah–he is the full revelation and self-disclosure of God.
This is why, for John, Jesus’ presence in the world is comparable to God’s presence to Israel in the Tabernacle. John 1:14 states that the “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” But the Greek word for “lived” could also be translated as “dwelt” or “tabernacled” among us. Further, John’s statement that Jesus is full of grace and truth is itself a call-back to Exodus 34:6, where God describes Himself as “abounding in goodness and truth.”
The revelation of Jesus as the Glory-Face of God is a theme that runs throughout John’s Gospel, even though he does not include the event of the Transfiguration itself. And this theme is further developed in John’s letters. For example, John expresses confidence in 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” John’s experience of the Transfigured Christ allows him to see that the very act of seeing Christ in beauty and power will transform us into reflections of that beauty and power. Jesus is God’s Glory-Face, the true Image of God. Just as Moses’ face shone in reflection of God’s Glory before the Israelites, our faces will shine in reflection of Jesus’ Glory before the world.
The Transfiguration also had a profound effect on Peter’s theology, as clearly shown in his second letter. 2 Peter 1:16-19:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
In 2 Peter 1, Peter draws a connection between the Transfiguration on “the holy mountain” and the Second Coming of Christ. Because the apostles saw for a moment the full glory and majesty of Christ at the Transfiguration, they are able to believe with full confidence and credibility that he will come again in power to judge and reign eternally over all things. At the Transfiguration, we see God’s eternal plan had always been to, as testified in the unity of Scripture, “gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.”
Alastair Roberts has written at length on the importance of the Transfiguration, and his thoughts can be found in free e-book form here. I have drawn very heavily from his writings for this post, and I encourage you to read them in full. As he closes his reflections on the Transfiguration, he writes:
The glory revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration discloses the identity of Christ and thereby the character of his mission. This is the glorious Saviour that came to earth in the incarnation. This is the glorious Son that was declared in the vision associated with his baptism. This is the glorious suffering Servant that went to the death of the cross. This is the glorious Lord that rose from the grave and ascended into the cloud that received him from his disciples’ sight. This is the glorious King that will come again to judge the living and the dead. It is in this glory that we will be caught up to dwell with him forever.