Scripture: And 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.” And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. Matthew 17:1-13 ESV
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Observation: In Friday’s Daily Focus (click here to read it), Jesus partially pulls back the veil to reveal in part the cost of following him. If they genuinely desire to thrive in his kingdom, they must forsake anything or anyone who would compete for their loyalty—even at the expense of their mortal lives. Thus, having garnered their attention and unsettled their naive expectations of what it means to be his disciple, Jesus concludes with an upbeat but cryptic statement promising that some of them will “see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (v.28b ESV), pointing to his soon transfiguration that will serve to prepare him to complete his mission at Calvary.
The above Transfiguration narrative finds its parallel in Mark 9:2-8 (click here to read) and Luke 9:28-36 (click here to read). Matthew provides a timeline that Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain one week after Jesus’ startling declaration regarding the cost of discipleship. So these three disciples had sufficient time to process expectations versus reality.
Most scholars believe Matthew refers to Mount Hermon, which is immediately accessible from Caesarea Philippi (where they had stayed before his transfiguration). Matthew uses the passive Greek verb metamorphoo to describe Jesus’ transfiguration, which means to “change in form.” The passive tense implies that the Father instigated the change. And it is not merely a spiritual transformation but a physiological change apparent to the three disciples as they later report to Matthew.
During this transfiguration, Moses and Elijah (the patriarchs of the Law and the Prophets, respectively) appear and bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah to Peter, James, and John. Peter, overwhelmed by their otherworldly appearance and not fully comprehending what he earlier proclaimed about Jesus being “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16), anxiously blurts out that it is good for the three of them to bear witness and offers to memorialize the occasion by building shelters. At this point, a voice speaks from an overshadowing bright cloud and pronounces, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (v.5b above). Terrified, all three fall prostrate to the ground, at which point Jesus touches them and commands them to rise and stop fearing (a familiar admonishment during two previous boat trips amid storms).
As they come down the mountain, Jesus, still maintaining his messianic secret to limit interference with his mission, tells the three to keep this supernatural event to themselves until his resurrection. They then ask Jesus why the scribes say Elijah must come before the Messiah. Jesus explains that in the spirit of John the Baptist, Elijah has already come. And just as those who perceived him as an enemy found a way to silence him through an execution, so will they have their way with the Son of Man.
Takeaway: Moses and Elijah had visions of the glory of God on mountains. For Moses, his close encounter with Yahweh on Mount Sinai caused his face to glow with the shekinah glory (a non-biblical term developed later by Hebraic scholars, which means “he caused to dwell”). Elijah’s encounter occurred on Mount Horeb, where the Lord would take him directly to heaven. Thus, these forerunners of the Messiah would point to Jesus as the fulfillment of what they and all of Israel longed to see. And Peter would later reflect and write about this monumental event in his second letter to the church (see Yesterday’s Daily Focus, link provided above).
For Peter, the Transfiguration stood as confirmation of the integrity of the word of Christ: “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV). Undoubtedly, the morning star rose in Peter, James, and John’s hearts when the Transfiguration inaugurated the soon climactic end to Jesus’ first mission when he would die for the sins of the world and rise from the dead as the first fruits of eternal life in the kingdom of God.
So what does the Transfiguration mean for you and me? It’s tempting to skim this story with an eye on the Passion, but the Transfiguration speaks to us today regarding our transformation in Christ. Paul writes to the Roman church, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Indeed, Paul and Matthew use this same Greek word for our transformation and Christ’s transfiguration. Just as Jesus did not conform to the world but always sought to do the Father’s good and perfect will, so must we who follow in his footsteps. And when we do, the Holy Spirit will supernaturally change us from the inside out into image-bearers of Christ.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son whom you glorified and confirmed before Peter, James, and John. And we thank you for your Holy Spirit, who continues to verify Jesus in the hearts of believers as your Son and our Lord and Savior. So would you please help us to submit to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit and follow in the footsteps of Christ, seeking to do your will and obey his commands? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling