Five questions about the Transfiguration

A commentary on one of the strangest stories in the New Testament

(For your convenience, the three source texts are reproduced at the foot of this article)

If this isn't the strangest story in the gospels, it must come close. Apart from the unusual setting, the limited audience, the peculiar light, and the mysterious appearance of two long-dead men, Jesus capped the mystery by telling his companions not to tell anyone what they'd seen. This story immediately follows Peter's declaration that Jesus is "the Christ", and Jesus telling the disciples that some of them would see him coming in his glory "not many days hence". From the concurrence of these passages we can conclude that the Transfiguration was the fulfilment of that promise.

The Transfiguration story is told in all three synoptic gospels in almost identical words, and within the same context. But the event is never mentioned in the book of Acts, was never used as evidence to support any doctrines, and was eventually mentioned in just two late apostolic writings. The clearest of these is Peter's recollection (see 2 Peter 1:16-18). The less obvious, but probable alternative reference to it, is in the early verses of John's gospel ("…we beheld his glory…" John 1:14). In the face of such an extraordinary story the shortage of apostolic references to it is surprising and provokes several questions:

  1. How did Peter and Co know the identity of the figures they saw?
  2. Why Moses and Elijah?
  3. What were they discussing with Jesus?
  4. What does the Transfiguration mean?
  5. Who was it for?
  6. Question 1 has an obvious answer. All three disciples were asleep when the transfiguration began, so they missed some of the story. But the two patriarchs would not have been labelled (!) Nor is it likely that their clothing or appearance would have identified them. The Old Testament accounts tell us a lot about their personalities, but not their physical appearance. So, the only way the disciples could have identified the visitors is if Jesus told them who they were.

    In response to Question 2, many teachers have observed that Moses and Elijah were primary representatives of the twin sections of Hebrew scripture - the Law and the Prophets. The message, it has been said, is that the vision demonstrates that Jesus is superior to the Law and the Prophets. I have no quarrel with that explanation; but Jesus said the same thing clearly in words, and the person who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews taught the same in many more words - but neither saw the need to use the Transfiguration as a proof of those teachings.

    As for the subject of this remarkable conversation (Question 3) Luke's account tells us that they were discussing Jesus' forthcoming trial and death (Luke 9:31). That gives a clue to the remaining two questions.

    Regarding the meaning (Question 4) it has been taught that the Transfiguration proves the divinity of Jesus, and I don't dispute that. However, the event seems both too small and too big for that to be its sole meaning. It's too small, because it is outclassed by the Resurrection, which was central to the preaching of the apostles in Acts, and their teachings in the epistles, and was a powerful witness to Jesus' unique nature. By contrast, the Transfiguration is hardly mentioned in the later New Testament books - and was never used as a proof of Jesus' divinity.

    Remaining with Question 4, the event is too big because such an extraordinary and memorable story, including a direct intervention from heaven, must have special meaning. But, if that meaning is different from, or more than, a proof of the divinity of Christ, what could it be? Question 5 points us to the answer. Who was the Transfiguration for?

    Let's rephrase the question. Who was meant to benefit directly from this heavenly intervention? It couldn't be the crowds waiting at the foot of the mountain, nor the disciples who had been left behind in the valley. Those people were excluded, because Jesus told the privileged three not to tell anyone what they'd seen "until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead". As far as we know, James, who was martyred not long after the resurrection, never told the story. Peter and John seem to have kept it to themselves until many years afterwards, so they didn't use the story to benefit the early church. We can even rule out the three disciples who witnessed the event, because they slept through much of it. That leaves one other possible beneficiary - Jesus himself.

    The Transfiguration came at the moment when the full force of his destiny hit Jesus, not as a distant possibility, but an immediate threat. He knew then, as a certainty, that he would face an excruciating test involving torture, humiliation, and a lingering, painful death. God could have spoken to Jesus in a dream, or in a waking vision. But Jesus needed the strongest reassurance. So, his Father sent him such a clear message that three other people witnessed it. Even Peter's bumbling response helped, by confirming immediately that the vision was no illusion.

    The idea that Jesus might be scared might worry many Christians. He was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, divine through and through. But he was also completely human - subject to pain and, as the book of Hebrews puts it, " who has been tempted in every way, just as we are" (Hebrews 4:15 NIV). The humanity of Jesus is a central plank of our faith. If he was not truly human, his suffering on the cross would be a sham. If he was truly human, he would not only suffer in the experience, but in the anticipation of it.

    The disciples never questioned the genuineness of Jesus' humanity - they knew him personally. It wasn't until the end of the Apostolic Age, when many of those who had known Jesus in the flesh as a day-by-day companion, had already died. It was then that some people started to question whether such an amazing person could really be human. Then John affirmed, "...Everyone who confesses openly his faith in Jesus Christ--the Son of God, who came as an actual flesh-and-blood person--comes from God and belongs to God." (1 John 4:2 The Message).

    So, the answer to Question 5 is "Jesus", which takes us back to Question 4 and the meaning of the Transfiguration. This event teaches us about the unique relationship Jesus had with the Father, but it also shows his vulnerability. One amazing story demonstrates both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus, the Christ. It confirms his divinity because the Old Testament (the Law and the Prophets) foretold his coming and his life, and the voice of God confirmed it in the present. It confirms his humanity, because Jesus was human enough to need that reassurance to strengthen him for the last, dreadful stages of his mission.

    The book of Hebrews says, "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame…" (Hebrews 12:2). It was the Transfiguration that placed that vision of joy before our Saviour. .

© Derrick Phillips - 2020

Here are the New Testament passages that relate the Transfiguration story:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters-one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid." When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." (Matthew 17:1?-?9 NIV)

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what "rising from the dead" meant. (Mark 9:1-10 NIV)

"Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God." About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, "Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him." When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The discipleskept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen. (Luke 9:27-36 NIV)