One of the main ideas of Christianity is that Jesus is the Son of God. For most of his ministry on Earth, he seemed to be a regular guy. He was not really notable for handsome looks or spectacular wealth. So how would we know that he was different if we were there with him before he was crucified?
For one thing, there were the miracles that he performed. Those are strong indicators of his unusual nature. There was one event though that was off the charts in terms of its fantastical nature. Anyone seeing it would not have been able to deny that something divine was happening with Jesus of Nazareth. That event was called the Transfiguration.
In it, Jesus, witnessed by his closest friends, transformed from an unassuming man in regular clothing into a being emanating intense white light who was also talking with two of the main figures of ancient Judaism.
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What Does 'Transfiguration' Mean?
A transfiguration is when something changes in a very notable way, usually from a lowly state into a much greater state. Of the passages that discuss the Transfiguration event, two of them (Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2) use the Koine Greek word “metamorphoo” which means to change from one form into another. It is where we get the English word “metamorphosis.”
To give you an idea of how complete the change is, this is the word that scientists use to describe the process that turns a caterpillar into a butterfly. The other two instances of this word in the New Testament both normally translate it as “transform.”
Everything about this event would have been startling. The complete change, the obvious power emanating from Jesus, the meeting with Moses and Elijah, and the voice from heaven declaring the Father’s love for his son, Jesus. This was an absolutely supernatural event with no other possible origin than God.
Understanding the Biblical context is difficult without certain cultural norms. All of the versions share that this event began when Jesus took his closest disciples up on a mountain to pray. Then he transfigured and they saw Moses and Elijah conversing with him. Randal Niles observes that the cultural cues are leaning toward the moment where Moses comes down from the mountain after receiving the ten commandments. Moses had been in such intense contact with God’s presence that he was radiating light (Exodus 34:29-35).
Peter’s response gives us a clue to this. He tells Jesus that they should build “tabernacles,” one for each figure that they had seen. One of the things that Moses received instructions for in his time with God was how to build the Tabernacle, a tent for the worship of Yahweh as the Hebrew people traveled in the wilderness. Peter was just trying to respond in a way that he thought was appropriate for the moment, and his only frame of reference for an entity emanating holy light would have been the story of Moses coming down the mountain.
So, did this arise from a Greek or Hebrew background? There were other religions at and before the time of Jesus that claimed transfiguring moments for their founding figure. Because of the specific language included in the Biblical event, Jewish readers would have instead focused on the clear parallels between Jesus’ transfiguration and the similar event that happened to Moses. At that time, when he met with God, people became afraid because his face was radiating light (Exodus 34:29-35).
In this case, it originated in the Hebrew culture long before, but found an understanding audience in the Greco-Roman culture that had existing transfiguring heroes from other religions.
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Where Is the Transfiguration Recorded?
The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They are referred to as such because they share many common events, although from different perspectives. All of the Synoptic Gospels have a version of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8) (Mark 9:2-8) (Luke 9:28-36).
As it shows up in three of the Gospel witness accounts and is referred to by Peter in one of his letters (2 Peter 1:16-18), it is clearly a very important event. Because most Christians today are Gentiles and not culturally Jewish, we miss the importance of this moment. Oddly enough, John did not record it in his gospel account even though he was listed as being there.
There are often interesting patterns that occur in the Bible which provide us with context. When you see them, they can tell you important things about an event such as the Transfiguration. If you read the three accounts, this event occurs at some point after a mass feeding miracle, after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, after Jesus predicts his death/resurrection, and before Jesus exorcises a demon from a boy. These all occur in all three Synoptic Gospel versions of this event.
The events of this pattern do fall into a category – these were all things that could only be accomplished or caused by God. The Gospel writers were providing evidence backing up Jesus being who he said that he was.
As far as to when Jesus’ transfiguration occurred, most timeline sources place it in the late Spring or early Summer of his second full year in ministry (30 AD).
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What Happened at the Transfiguration?
A condensed version of the Transfiguration would look like this: Jesus and his disciples would have been in a very active time of ministry. Many miracles and public interactions would have been going on. As was his habit, Jesus took his disciples up a mountain to pray. They probably assumed that this was one of his normal breaks and that not much was going to happen.
However, when they got there Jesus started to change his appearance. His clothes became dazzlingly white and his appearance changed. When he had changed, Moses and Elijah appeared and they had a conversation with Jesus (the contents of which are not recorded). Peter was always a person of quick action and response. This moment was startling and he blurted out that they needed to build a tabernacle to celebrate each figure in the transfiguration dialog. Then God spoke from heaven, saying that Jesus was his son and he was pleased with him.
Moses and Elijah have deliberate purpose in this narrative. Teacher and Bible commentator Don Stewart shares that Moses represents the Law that was given by God to the Hebrew people in their gathering at Mount Sinai. Elijah is the chief of the prophets and represents their work in pointing the people of Israel toward God. God intervened at the end of both Moses and Elijah’s lives; He buried Moses himself and carried Elijah away in a chariot of fire while he was still alive.
Because of these divine interventions, the Jewish people believed that both Moses and Elijah would return when the end of the age occurred. Matthew’s narrative of the event includes a hint to the connection, at least for Elijah. Here Jesus shares that John the Baptist is Elijah returned and his message of repentance was not only unheard, but that John had been killed (Matthew 17:9-13). This is the sign that the end of the age was upon them according to Jewish tradition.
Another idea regarding what was happening in the Transfiguration is shared by Matthew Kent. He asks us to recall that Moses and Elijah were the only two people in the Old Testament that experienced and saw the full glory of God, both at Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:18-23) (1 Kings 19:9-13). In both of these encounters, Moses and Elijah were prevented from seeing the face of God. In the Transfiguration, they would have gotten to see the face of God (as Jesus) for the first time.
This is a beautiful moment of closure that represents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets and the fulfillment of the promise that God made to both of these men that they would see him.
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Why Is the Transfiguration Important?
For the disciples, this moment becomes a critical point in time. In Jesus’ day, the belief was that because Moses was buried by God himself and because Elijah was carried away by God still alive, then when the end of the age came about, Moses and Elijah would appear as indicators of that time.
The old covenant was about to be completed and a new covenant was going to be put in its place. For the Jewish disciples, this would be one of the most Earth-shattering things that they could conceive. Mosaic Law was how they had defined their lives, whether in how well they achieved it or how spectacularly they didn’t. A new covenant was an unfathomable thought.
Let’s add to this a layer of understanding that is revealed to the disciples in this moment. In Matthew 17:5 a voice from heaven claims Jesus as his son and instructs the disciples to listen to him. This is after Jesus is seen conversing with Moses and Elijah. Now we have the indicators of the end of the age who represent the Law and the Prophets. The disciples have been living by the instruction of the Law and the Prophets their entire lives and the audible voice of God from Heaven tells them to listen to Jesus. Overall, this reorders their understanding of who Jesus is, not just by a visual transfiguration but by divine fiat, that Jesus is the Son of God and he takes precedence over the Law and the Prophets.
In our time and place, this event also becomes important as a way to address deficient Biblical training that often comes when Christians only study the New Testament. We cannot understand the full message of the Gospel unless we seek to understand what God has been trying to accomplish since the very beginning. The old covenant always pointed to a coming Messiah.
That is what Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets was about. Within it, the old covenant contained the beautiful message of God speaking to the people that he wanted to return to loving him. If you only read the New Testament, you will hear the Gospel message, but you will be missing a lot of foundational underpinning that makes the followers of Christ also the spiritual children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7-9).
Jesus is God the Son. His ministry on Earth was to display the coming kingdom of God and reveal the pathway to citizenship in that kingdom. In order to do this, he revealed his divine nature to humanity in very real ways. The Transfiguration event was probably the most definitive revelation of Jesus as divine next to the resurrection itself. Here Jesus is shown to be greater than the Law and the Prophets and that he was the beginning of the new covenant of grace that brings humanity to salvation and glory to God.
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Larry White is the pastor of Ephesus Baptist Church near Sanford, NC