The transfiguration was an amazing event in the life of Jesus Christ, and a memorable occasion for three disciples. Jesus, at this time, is in the closing months of his life on earth prior to his crucifixion. The account of this remarkable event may be found in Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9 and Luke 9:28-36. Our study will be taken from Matthew’s account (NKJV), which reads:
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”
THE TRANSFIGURATION ITSELF
- The time. The transfiguration occurred “after six days” (Vs. 1) from the events of chapter sixteen. Luke tells us that it was “about eight days” after these things (Lk. 9:28). The reason for the difference is that Luke counted parts of two days that Matthew did not. Six whole days intervened.
In order to grasp the full significance of Jesus’ transfiguration we must remember what precedes it in chapter sixteen of Matthew. The transfiguration closely follows Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (Matt. 16:13-20), and Jesus’ prediction of his own death and resurrection (Matt. 16:21-23). This means that the Lord gave the disciples about a week to contemplate his prediction of death and his bold retort when Peter tried to redirect him.
2. Those present. Peter, James and John were the three privileged apostles who witnessed the transfiguration of Christ (Vs. 1). Why did Jesus select just these three to witness this event? His reasons may have included these two: First, to secure the desired secrecy (Vs. 9) he chose three and no more. Second, the Law of Moses required “two or three witness” in order to establish the truthfulness of any fact in court (Deut. 19:15).
Above all, these three, as leaders of the apostles, would need the encouragement that they would receive in view of their attitude toward the coming crucifixion of Christ. The reason for their presence goes back to an event six days earlier. Jesus had shown his disciples that his death at wicked hands was necessary (Matt. 16:21; Acts 2:23). The apostles had refused to accept Jesus’ predictions and Peter in particular had become a hindrance to the Lord in his plans for the coming Kingdom (Matt. 16:22-23).
3. The place. It was “on a high mountain by themselves” (Vs. 1). Luke informs us that Jesus went up the mountain to pray (Lk. 9:28). The design was obviously for privacy, because as a city set on a hill cannot be hid, three disciples and the Lord on a hill can hardly be found.
4. The manner. The word transfigured provokes our interest. It comes from the Greek word metamorphoo, meaning, “to be transformed,” and the description shows to what extent (Vs. 2). Mark said that “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (9:3). In the midst of this change the Lord’s identity was not lost, but his form was changed so that his deity shined through his humanity.
MOSES AND ELIJAH
How instructive are these words: “And behold Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him” (Vs. 3). In Jewish history these two men represented the sum and substance of the Jewish economy. Moses was the great lawgiver and deliverer, who served as an Old Testament type of Christ (Jn. 1:17; Acts 3:22). Elijah was one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets (Matt. 16:14).
What do these matters have to do with the reason for their appearance, that being that they “spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:31)? These visitors from the hadean realm conversed with Jesus about his death, which showed their continued interest in God’s plan of redemption. This encouragement was important to Jesus as the cross edged closer into view. Whereas the disciples did not believe that the crucifixion of Christ would be consistent with the Old Testament picture of the Messiah, Moses and Elijah discuss his death as being in perfect harmony with all that they taught. The transfiguration of Christ would open the eyes of the disciples to one grand truth – that everything written about him in the Law and the prophets must be fulfilled (Lk. 24:44). If the teaching of a crucified Savior was consistent with the Law and the prophets, why should the disciples continue to balk?
- The transfiguration confirms the divinity of Christ. Light and language have done such. This is first suggested by the descriptions of Jesus’ countenance and clothes (Vs. 2; Mk. 9:3; Lk. 9:29). His face and raiment shined because he was God (Jn. 1:1), and God is light (Jn. 1:5).
Then, as the Father in heaven had done at the baptism of Jesus, so does he here, and declares, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased…” (Vs. 5; Matt. 3:17). This was the glory of God (shekinah) appearing to give honor and glory to his Son. The cloud and the voice coming from it suggest the Shekinah, that is, the visual representation of God’s presence (Exo. 13:21-22; 40:34). One purpose, therefore, of the transfiguration of Christ was to declare his divinity before credible witnesses.
2. The transfiguration confirms the authority of Christ. There are two primary elements in this event that are strongly suggestive of the supremacy of Christ. First, the appearance of Moses and Elijah confirmed the Lord’s authority. These two Old Testament figures represent twin strongholds of the Jewish economy – the Law and the prophets. They, as it were, yielded their positions to Christ. In addition, their appearance was the signal for Jesus to continue with his exodus (death) at Jerusalem and Calvary.
Second, the voice of the Father in commanding the disciples to “Hear Him!” confirms the authority of Christ (Vs. 5). The authority, which at that time resided in Moses and the prophets, was about to be shifted to Christ (Heb. 1:1-2). When Peter offered to build three tabernacles, the voice from the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (Vs. 5; Lk. 9:35). The command for the disciples to hear Jesus appears to be a solemn endorsement of all that Jesus had taught concerning his suffering, eventual death and resurrection. The Father from heaven gave his sanction to Jesus’ course as being in harmony with the divine plan to redeem man.
The presence of Moses and Elijah suggest another aspect of Jesus’ authority. While there certainly was a time when Moses and the prophets were to be heard in religion (Lk. 16:29; Acts 15:21), that would end with the death of Christ upon the cross (Eph. 2:13-22; Col. 2:13-14). All religious authority now resides in Christ (Matt. 28:18), and shall until the end of time (1 Cor. 15:24-26). The principle of “hear Him” applies to us today as we must hear Christ, not the pretensions of popery, the delusions of denominationalism or any tradition of man. The word of Christ is the final word in religion today (Heb. 1:1-2).
3. The transfiguration confirms the return of Christ. Peter, an eyewitness, in his second epistle, supplies this point, though lacking in the gospel accounts. The apostle introduces the thought of the return of Christ by saying, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). Then, to establish the truthfulness of such, Peter reminds his readers of the transfiguration by saying, “For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (Vs. 17). He then adds that he “…heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain” (Vs. 18).3.
We might ask how the facts here stated demonstrate that Christ will return in power? The answer is that Peter’s great aim in this letter was to recall Christians to faith in the second coming of Christ (2 Pet. 1:13). This fundamental tenet of Christianity was denied by some of those to whom Peter wrote, and it was vital to state the grounds upon which it was to be accepted. The apostle’s point is that Christ will return in the glory of which he was seen on the mountain of the transfiguration (Cf., 2 Pet. 3).
The purpose of the transfiguration was to strengthen the hearts of the disciples whose concept of the crucifixion of Christ was one of denial. It was vital that they not stand in the way of Christ’s fulfilling heaven’s plan to redeem man. Jesus finished his journey to the cross in order that we might finish our journey with a cross (Lk. 9:22-23).