An event in Jesus' life in which his appearance was radiantly transformed. The transfiguration is recorded in each of the Synoptic Gospels ( Matt 17:1-9 ; Mark 9:2-10 ; Luke 9:28-36 ) and in 2 Peter 1:16-21. The place of this event is "a high mountain" ( Matt 17:1 ; Mark 9:2 ). The association with a mountain is also found in Luke 9:28 and 2 Peter 1:18. Several geographical locations have been suggested: Mount Hermon (truly "high, " at 9, 200 ft.); Mount Carmel (out of the way for the surrounding events); and the traditional site of Mount Tabor (not a "high" mountain and the presence of a Roman garrison stationed on the top in Jesus' day makes this questionable). The biblical writers apparently were not interested in locating exactly where this event took place; they were more concerned with what took place.
Attempts have been made to interpret the transfiguration as a misplaced resurrection account. There are several reasons why this is unlikely: the title given to Jesus ("Rabbi") in mr 9:5 and the equation of Jesus with Moses and Elijah ( Matt 17:4 ; Mark 9:5 ; Luke 9:33 ) would be strange addressed to the resurrected Christ; the form of this account is quite different from resurrection accounts; the presence of Peter-James-John as an inner circle occurs in other accounts during the life of Jesus, but not in a resurrection account; and the temporal designations associated with the resurrection are "first day" or "after three days, " not "after six days" ( Matt 17:1 ; Mark 9:2 ) or "about eight days after" ( Luke 9:28 ). Attempts to interpret the transfiguration as a subjective "vision" ( Matt 17:9 ; RSV ) ignore the fact that this term can be used to describe historical events. The Septuagint does this in Deuteronomy 28:34 and 67. There is nothing in the accounts themselves that suggests that this is anything other than an actual event.
The transfiguration possesses one of the very few chronological connections found in the Gospel traditions outside the passion narrative. These temporal designations tie this event intimately with the events of Caesarea Philippi ( Matt 16:13-28 ; Mark 8:27-38 ; Luke 9:18-27 ). The temporal tie between the transfiguration and the events of Caesarea Philippi extends to how this event is to be interpreted. The words, "This is my Son, whom I love" ( Mark 9:7 ), are a rebuke of Peter's placement of Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah ("Let us put up three shelters one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah" [ Mark 9:5 ]) as well as a divine confirmation of Jesus' identity given in Peter's confession ( Mark 8:29 ). Whereas the voice at the baptism is directed to Jesus ( Mark 1:11 ), here it directed to the three disciples. "Listen to him" is best interpreted in light of what had taken place at Caesarea Philippi, for Jesus does not speak in the present account. These words are best understood as a rebuke of Peter's unwillingness to accept Jesus' teaching concerning his future passion ( Mark 8:31-33 ).
It is difficult to understand exactly what happened to Jesus during his transfiguration. Unlike Moses, who radiated the divine glory that shone upon him ( Exod 34:29 ), Jesus' transfiguration comes from within. He is transfigured and his garments as a result become radiant. Some have interpreted this event in light of John 1:14 and Philippians 2:6-9. At the transfiguration the glory of the preincarnate Son of God temporarily broke through the limitations of his humanity; the "kenosis" of the Son was temporarily lifted. In 2 Peter 1:16, however, the transfiguration is interpreted rather as a glimpse of the future glory of the Son of God at his second coming (cf. Matt 24:30 ). Still another interpretation is that the transfiguration is a proleptic glimpse of the glory that awaits Jesus at his resurrection ( Luke 24:26 ; Heb 2:9 ; 1 Peter 1:21 ). In light of mr 8:38 and 2 Peter 1:16 the second interpretation is to be preferred. The presence of Moses and Elijah is probably best interpreted as indicating that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). Luke adds that Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus of his "departure" or forthcoming death ( Luke 9:31 ). This fits well Luke's own emphasis on Jesus being the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Gospel writers seem also to have understood this account as the fulfillment of Jesus' words with respect to the disciples seeing the kingdom of God coming with power in their lifetime.
Robert H. Stein
Bibliography. G. B. Caird, ET67 (1955-56): 291-94; A. Kenny, CBQ19 (1957): 444-52; A. M. Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ; T. F. Torrance, EvQ14 (1942): 214-29; J. W. C. Wand, Transfiguration.
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trans-fig-o-ra'-shun (metamorphoomai, "to be transformed"):
Used only with reference to the transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2) and the change wrought in the Christian personality through fellowship with Christ (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18). (1) About midway of His active ministry Jesus, accompanied by Peter, James and John, withdrew to a high mountain apart (probably Mt. Hermon; see next article) for prayer. While praying Jesus was "transfigured," "his face did shine as the sun," "and his garments became glistering, exceeding white, so as no fuller on earth can whiten them." It was night and it was cold. The disciples were drowsy and at first but dimly conscious of the wonder in progress before their eyes. From the brightness came the sound of voices. Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah, the subject of the discourse, as the disciples probably learned later, being of the decease (exodus) which Jesus was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. As the disciples came to themselves, the figures of Moses and Elijah seemed to withdraw, whereupon Peter impetuously demanded tents to be set up for Jesus and His heavenly visitants that the stay might be prolonged and, if possible, made permanent. Just then a cloud swept over them, and out of the cloud a voice came, saying, "This is my beloved Son:
Such is the simple record. What is its significance? The Scripture narrative offers no explanation, and indeed the event is afterward referred to only in the most general way by Peter (2 Peter 1:16-18) and, perhaps, by John (John 1:14). That it marked a crisis in the career of Jesus there can be no doubt. From this time He walked consciously under the shadow of the cross. A strict silence on the subject was enjoined upon the three witnesses of His transfiguration until after "the Son of man should have risen again from the dead." This means that, as not before, Jesus was made to realize the sacrificial character of His mission; was made to know for a certainty that death, soon and cruel, was to be His portion; was made to know also that His mission as the fulfillment of Law (Moses) and prophecy (Elijah) was not to be frustrated by death. In His heart now would sound forever the Father's approval, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." The scene, therefore, wrought out in Jesus a new fervor, a new boldness, a new confidence of ultimate victory which, as a source of holy joy, enabled Him to endure the cross and to despise the shame (Hebrews 12:2). In the disciples the scene must have wrought a new faith in the heavensent leadership of Jesus. In the dark days which were soon to come upon them the memory of the brightness of that unforgettable night would be a stay and strength. There might be opposition, but there could be no permanent defeat of one whose work was ratified by Moses, by Elijah, by God Himself. Indeed, was not the presence of Moses and Elijah a pledge of immortality for all? How in the face of such evidence, real to them, however it might be to others, could they ever again doubt the triumph of life and of Him who was the Lord of life? The abiding lesson of the Transfiguration is that of the reality of the unseen world, of its nearness to us, and of the comforting and inspiring fact that "spirit with spirit may meet."
The transfigured appearance of Jesus may have owed something to the moonlight on the snow and to the drowsiness of the disciples; but no one who has ever seen the face of a saint fresh from communion with God, as in the case of Moses (Exodus 34:29-35) and of Stephen (Acts 6:15), will have any difficulty in believing that the figure of Jesus was irradiated with a "light that never was on sea or land." See Comms. and Lives of Christ; also a suggestive treatment in Westcott's Introduction to the Study of the Gospels.
(2) The transfiguration of Christians is accomplished by the renewing of the mind whereby, in utter abandonment to the will of God, the disciple displays the mind of Christ (Romans 12:2); and by that intimate fellowship with God, through which, as with unveiled face he beholds the glory of the Lord, he is "transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Charles M. Stuart
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