Four Key Features of the Transfiguration

Church of the Transfiguration, Mt. Tabor

Christ’s revelation of his glory to Peter, James, and John through his transfiguration confirmed Peter’s earlier confession of Jesus as the Messiah (Mark 8:27-30). But there was a much broader purpose of the vision as well:

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’ Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mark 9:2-8).

1. The Presence of Moses and Elijah

Moses represented the Law, which was the basis for the covenant between God and His chosen people, reestablishing His relationship to a fallen human race. Elijah represented the Prophets, through whom God would communicate His will to His people. Together they represented Judaism. Yet on the mountain their attention was focused on the Son of God in all His majesty, discussing the eventual accomplishment of his mission in Jerusalem.

There are numerous other allusions to the Old Testament in this story: the mountain recalls Mount Sinai; the cloud, God’s presence; the command to “listen”, the Ten Commandments, etc. Peter and the others were seeing a vision representing the critical juncture in God’s plan of salvation, the transition point between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.

The disciples were present with Jesus during his daily conflicts with scribes, priests, and Pharisees, facing interrogations designed to humiliate and smear him. The contrast of this with the presence of the pillars of Judaism on the mountain, supporting the mission of Christ was probably not picked up by the three.

2. The Conversation

Matthew and Mark report that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus; but Luke adds what it was they were discussing:

“And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).

This is a reference to Christ’s passion and resurrection. The word exodus comes from Greek, Exodos, the word used by the Jewish translators of the Septuagint to refer the second book of the Pentateuch. The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and was in widespread use among both the Jews and the early Christians. So when the readers of Luke’s gospel saw the word exodos, they would have reacted just as we would, recalling the book that records the rescue of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt.

So we have Moses, who wrote the book of Exodus, and whom God appointed to redeem his chosen people from slavery, establish a covenant, and guide His people to the Promised Land, discussing with Jesus’ his own upcoming “exodus”. In this exodus Jesus would redeem the human race from sin, establish a New Covenant, and through his church guide believers to heaven.

Moses’ exodus foreshadowed Jesus work of redemption. It is doubtful that any of the three disciples grasped the significance of these allusions at the time. Peter’s sincere but awkward offer to construct tents is a reflection of this.

3. “Listen to Him!”

Why did God command the disciples to “listen” to Jesus? It seems to me that while they did not always understand what he was saying, they consistently listened intently; these were his most devoted disciples. Perhaps it was to underscore that the teachings of Jesus which, while they do not abrogate the Law, are nevertheless presented as superior to it. If this is the case then we may want to emphasize the pronoun, hence, “Listen to HIM!” (as opposed to “them”). Jesus would say a lot of things that went beyond traditional Jewish instruction, even contradicted it (for instance, the indissolubility of marriage, “love your enemy”, etc.).

The command recalls the prophecy of Moses in the Deuteronomy 18:15:

“A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen.”

4. The Order to Keep Silent

“As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9).

This confirms that the disciples, including the three, would not have understood the full meaning of this revelation until after Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, something that at this point they were not able or willing to comprehend (see Mark 8:31-33).

It can be assumed that it was early in the week that followed the resurrection that Peter, James, and John, after they had embraced the reality that Jesus had truly risen, shared their experience of the Transfiguration with the rest of the disciples. Consider how the other eight might have reacted to this. It surely would have dispelled any doubt among them that Jesus was the Son of God. Also, the command of God to listen to Jesus would now be viewed as directed to all eleven of them.

The timing is interesting; leading up to and including the Passion, as well as after the resurrection, Jesus’ parables and sermons were replaced by direct instruction to the disciples with the respect to the establishment of his Church and its mission, a radical departure from the Jewish religion. Examples include the institution of the Eucharist as a “remembrance” (a commemorative rite), the necessity of Baptism for salvation, the Great Commission (all nations), the empowering of the Holy Spirit, etc.

The disciples were now faced with three incontrovertible facts: Jesus is the Son of God, he voluntarily suffered and died by crucifixion, and had risen from the dead. They would soon find out that what had seemed so incomprehensible was revealed in the scriptures all along.


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