Jesus—His Life and Message: The Transfiguration
May 21, 2019
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Transfiguration
The transfiguration of Jesus was a unique event within His ministry. The only other comparable moment happened earlier on, when He stood in the Jordan River and was baptized by John the Baptist.
When Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”1
In the book of Matthew, the transfiguration happened six days after the apostle Peter stated “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” 2 and when Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.3
After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”4
Within the Gospels, Peter, James, and John form what seems to be Jesus’ inner circle of His closest companions. They were with Him in the garden of Gethsemane right before His arrest,5 and they were the only ones allowed into the room when He raised the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue.6 It was only these three who accompanied Jesus as He took them up a high mountain so that they were far from other people and the distractions of daily life. There are differing opinions as to which mountain they ascended, but it is impossible to know. The point is that He took them to a place where no one else would be present, so they could be alone for this unique occasion.
Once they were alone in this isolated spot, he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. In the Gospel of Luke we read that the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.7 In Mark, it says: his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.8 These descriptions of Jesus are similar to the biblical descriptions of other heavenly beings who appeared to people.
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white.9
While they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes.10
I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist.11
In the Old Testament, we read of God clothing Himself in light.
O LORD my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment.12
We’re also told that even we who believe will shine.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.13
One author explains:
The visual “transformation” is not so much a physical alteration as an added dimension of glory; it is the same Jesus, but now with an awesome brightness “like the sun” and “like light.” Or, one might better say, with the dullness of earthly conditions temporarily stripped away, so that the true nature of God’s “beloved Son” can for once be seen.14
The concept of seeing Jesus’ “majesty,” “honor,” and “glory” is expressed by the apostle Peter when he later wrote about this experience.
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.15
During Jesus’ transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus. In the Old Testament, we read that both of these men had gone up on Mount Sinai (also known as Horeb) to meet with God, see His glory, and hear His voice.16 Some commentators suggest that the reason Moses and Elijah appeared was that Moses was the great lawgiver and Elijah was an important figure among the prophets, and thus they represent all of the Old Testament revelation fulfilled in Jesus. Others point out that both men’s earthly lives ended in a supernatural way—Elijah was taken up to heaven without dying17 and Moses was buried by God.18 Yet others feel it had to do with the expectation of Elijah’s predicted return in the “last days” and the raising up of a prophet like Moses.
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.19
The LORD said to me, “They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you [Moses] from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”20
Whatever the case might be, these three disciples were witnesses to Jesus speaking with prominent Old Testament figures.
In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, nothing is said about what they talked about; however, in Luke, we read:
Two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.21
The Greek word translated as departure is exodus, which can also be translated as one’s departure from life.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”22
In this context, Peter pointing out to Jesus that it was good that the three disciples were there would indicate that he meant that it’s good they are available to do what needs to be done—namely, to make shelters for them. These shelters, like those made during the Feast of Tabernacles, would have most likely been made with branches and leaves and would keep them from the heat of the sun. The Gospel of Matthew makes no further comment about Peter’s suggestion, but the Gospel of Mark states, He did not know what to say, for they were terrified,23 while Luke refers to Peter as not knowing what he said.24
He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”25
While Peter was still speaking about his tent plan, a bright cloud overshadowed them. Within the Old Testament, the presence of God is often symbolized by a fiery cloud associated with God’s glory.
The LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.26
When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door.27
When the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.28
God also spoke to Moses from the cloud so that the people would believe in Moses.
The LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.”29
In a similar manner, both through the presence of the cloud and God speaking about His beloved Son, the Father was setting His seal of approval on Jesus’ ministry and making it known that the disciples should listen to him.
Upon hearing the voice of God speaking directly to them, Peter, James, and John fell on their faces and were terrified. These three disciples were having an awesome experience, so it’s only natural that they would be frightened. They responded as did others in both the Old and New Testaments when they heard God speak directly to them, appear to them, or they witnessed His power.
Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.30
When he had spoken to me according to these words, I turned my face toward the ground and was mute.31
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”32
The disciples stayed in that position until Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.33 As the divine endorsement through the appearance of these two important Old Testament individuals and Jesus’ transfiguration came to an end, Jesus touched the three disciples to reassure them that all had returned to normal.
They then started back down the mountain, and Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”34 Jesus had selected Peter, James, and John to go up the mountain and to witness this astonishing event. However, He didn’t want anyone else to know about it until after His death and resurrection. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.35 In this case, He didn’t want anyone else to know about His transfiguration. In both instances it’s likely that He didn’t want people to misunderstand His mission. His suffering, death and resurrection had yet to be accomplished. His destination was the cross, to lay down His life for humanity to bring us salvation.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 3:16–17. See also Mark 1:9–11 and Luke 3:22.
2 Matthew 16:16. See also https://directors.tfionline.com/post/jesus-his-life-and-message-peters-profession-faith/
3 Matthew 16:21.
4 Matthew 17:1–9.
5 Matthew 26:37.
6 Mark 5:37.
7 Luke 9:29.
8 Mark 9:3.
9 John 20:11–12.
10 Acts 1:10.
11 Daniel 10:5.
12 Psalm 104:1–2.
13 Matthew 13:43.
14 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 647.
15 2 Peter 1:16–18.
16 Exodus 24:15–18; 1 Kings 19:8–12.
17 2 Kings 2:11.
18 Deuteronomy 34:5–6.
19 Malachi 4:5.
20 Deuteronomy 18:17–18.
21 Luke 9:30–31.
22 Matthew 17:4.
23 Mark 9:6.
24 Luke 9:33.
25 Matthew 17:5.
26 Exodus 13:21–22.
27 Exodus 33:9–10.
28 1 Kings 8:10–11.
29 Exodus 19:9.
30 Ezekiel 1:28.
31 Daniel 10:15.
32 Revelation 1:17–18.
33 Matthew 17:7–8.
34 Matthew 17:9.
35 Matthew 16:20.