What Does the Transfiguration Mean to Us Today? - Part 1

Thomas Lieth

Matthew the evangelist reports that “after six days,” Jesus led three of His disciples “into an high mountain apart” (Matt 17:1). What happened six days prior? The answer is in the directly preceding passage. There it is reported that Jesus spoke with His disciples about the following: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matt 16:28).

This verse has always been a bit bothersome. The statement of the Lord Jesus cannot actually refer to His future return in power and glory, nor to the millennial kingdom, because then His statement that some would not taste death until that event would be difficult to explain. Therefore, I think that these words refer instead to the Transfiguration that occurs six days later, and the subsequent events. The Lord Jesus practically says that the kingdom of God will be brought before their very eyes in just a short time. So, it’s not about the kingdom of God in power and glory, but about the kingdom of God which begins in Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God in relation to His life and ministry on earth, as in Luke 17:21b: “For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Or, as Paul puts it in Colossians, “Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col 1:13). This refers not only to the future, but already to the present. The Transfiguration that took place shortly thereafter was something like a first step, as if God was pointing out: the kingdom of God is dawning! The promised Redeemer is starting His triumphal procession.

But the accounts of Matthew and Mark differ from the account of Luke in how many days later the Transfiguration occurred. It’s irrelevant to the substance, but I’d like to go into that briefly, to make it clear that there’s no reason to distrust the Bible’s statements. Matthew and Mark speak of exactly six days. Luke, on the other hand, speaks of roughly eight days. In Biblical interpretation, we must always pay attention to what is said and what is not said. For example, if my wife says that I ate meat loaf yesterday, that does not mean that I did not eat potatoes. Or if someone asks me how long I will be on a trip to Germany in September, then I will answer “About two weeks.” One understands it to mean 14 days, another maybe 10 days, my children hope 16 days… Luke speaks of about eight days here, so he does not make a precise statement. And, unlike Mark and Matthew, he may not only count the days between the two events, but also the days of the events themselves. We can’t know exactly, but it isn’t a contradiction. Nothing shakes the Word of God. And when supposed contradictions are found, it’s only because we misinterpret it.

It’s unsurprising that it is Peter, James and John who Jesus takes with Him to this mountain, because these three disciples were something like the solid core of the apostles. These three were also present on other occasions: for example, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus withdrew with the three (who unfortunately fell asleep while their Lord and Master persevered in the agonizing prayer struggle). Obviously, James, John and Peter were good sleepers, because they slept not only in the Garden of Gethsemane, but also here during the Transfiguration (Luke 9:32a). It’s also interesting that Jesus brought someone onto the mountain at all. He could have gone alone. This action is reminiscent of the Old Testament witness principle, which states that an event requires two or three witnesses (Deut 17:6; 19:15). I think that this was always of concern to Jesus. He virtually never acted without witnesses, so that His life and ministry are so well attested to and witnessed as no other event occurring more than 200 years ago.

And with that we come to the actual occurrence: “And [he] was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light” (Matt 17:2). Depending on the translation of the Bible, it is translated as “transfigured,” “transformed,” or “changed.” In any case, something very unusual happened here—I am inclined to say something extraterrestrial. And yet it took place on earth in front of the three witnesses. Let’s try to shed some light on the event. Peter, James  and John had seen the Lord Jesus exclusively as a human being. Certainly Jesus was an extraordinary man, but He was still only a man. And now, on this mountain, the disciples first see their Lord in His divine glory. Luke reports that this happened while Jesus was praying. Jesus withdrew to seek conversation with His heavenly Father again and again. He was always intimately connected with God through prayer.

As already mentioned, the disciples were asleep. Perhaps this is even a fundamental problem for us today. Don’t we often become tired when we want to pray? Don’t we become more and more distracted and discouraged from prayer? If it’s not fatigue, it’s our thoughts suddenly digressing, or the phone ringing, or the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I believe that many of us, myself included, are no longer able to enjoy the peace and solitude of prayer with God. How is our quiet time with God ordered? And when I say quiet time, I don’t mean reading the Bible and praying on the fly. The Lord Jesus wants us to pray. He unequivocally demands it of us. And how sad was He, when He repeatedly had to experience that His disciples were overcome by fatigue and kept from praying: “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Matt 26:40). And besides, Jesus knows how much we need prayer: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (Matt 26:41a). I am convinced that the more a child of God prays, the less space he or she allows for sin; and the more a church prays, the more powerful its testimony is. But, on the other hand, there is someone who wants to prevent just that: the devil, who wants to choke out each prayer. That’s why it’s better to go to church without a clock, let alone a phone. Jesus not only taught His disciples how to pray, but also set an example through His own prayer life.

As Jesus prayed, His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light. Perhaps this Transfiguration was also a direct response of the Father to the prayer of His Son. What Jesus prayed is not known to us, but we know what He was talking about with Moses and Elijah. This suggests that His prayer was also about the way ahead of Him, especially since just before, Jesus had also confronted His disciples with the first message of suffering. He was preparing His disciples—hence the conversation about discipleship—but Jesus Himself needed someone to prepare Him. Anyone who thinks that the Son of God went to the cross in a laid-back way has the completely wrong idea. His prayer struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane speaks volumes.

Jesus sought closeness with His Father, seeking His Father’s strength, preparation, and confirmation. And that is exactly what would happen here before the eyes of the three disciples. Incidentally, that was also the only time the Lord Jesus ever revealed Himself in glory before His death and resurrection. Here, at the Transfiguration, His face changed and His divinity radiated majestically. For a moment, Jesus was not only human, but His divine nature first became visible to some of His disciples. For the disciples, this Transfiguration was a foretaste of the future, when they would see the Lord Jesus in all His glory, as described in 1 John 3:2b, “we shall see him as he is.”

Further on in the text: “And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him” (Matt 17:3). The Transfiguration itself is very extraordinary. But it doesn’t stop there: now also Moses and Elijah appear on the scene. And, as if that didn’t suffice, they don’t just appear; they also talk to Jesus. Of course, we can now try to interpret this symbolically and say: Moses and Elijah are just examples and didn’t really appear. Most likely, the disciples were only blinded by the low sun. No! We must not reinterpret anything, and we must not humanize anything. Here on this mountain and during the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus, Moses and Elijah truly appeared. Just take it as it is written.

Luke likewise speaks of Moses and Elijah also appearing in glory, whatever that may have looked like in practice. Both had said an extraordinary farewell to earth, and in Judaism both are considered to be a precursor of the Messiah. It is said about Moses that God Himself buried him and that his grave is still unknown (Deut 34:5-6). And Jude 9a describes that the archangel Michael had a quarrel with the devil and negotiated for the body of Moses. We see how Moses’ body was under the command of God Himself, who watched over it. So, it is all the more easy for God to make Moses appear in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. Elijah, on the other hand, was caught up, so he was brought to heaven by God Himself (2 Kings 2:11). Both what happened to Moses and Elijah, as well as the Transfiguration, are secrets and the personal intervention of God, which overrides all laws of nature, let alone all human logic. It is the visible work of God on and in His Son.

Moses and Elijah also play a significant role in the history of salvation, so of course there is a reason that the two appear here, and not Aaron and Enoch. What does Moses stand for? Moses was the one to whom God gave the tablets of the law; in Judaism the five books of Moses (Genesis—Deuteronomy) are not called “The Law” in vain. Moses is the epitome of the law. And who in Judaism especially represents the prophets? Elijah. The only prophet who did not die, but was raptured; the prophet who once led the people out of Baal worship, and who is also associated with the return of the Lord Jesus (cf. Mal 4:5). Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets. Both the law and the prophets point to the coming Redeemer. It is even the very purpose of the law and the prophets that the kingdom of God begins in Jesus Christ.

The Transfiguration makes clear that the Old Covenant is abolished because Jesus fulfilled the law. And prophecy has also reached its goal with the establishment of the New Covenant—in Jesus. Now grace is at the center. No longer Moses and Elijah, but Christ alone! In the course of the Transfiguration, Jesus is confirmed here by God the Father: as the One to whom the law and the prophets testify, as the Messiah, the Redeemer of the world.

Midnight Call - 05/2018

ContactAbout UsPrivacy and Safety