D. M. Adams
The three accounts of the Transfiguration are found in Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-9 and Luke 9:28-36. Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a high mountain apart and was transfigured before them in an intense blaze of light. Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with him. Then a cloud overshadowed them and a voice spoke out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son: hear him.” John does not directly mention the Transfiguration in his gospel but may be alluding to it when he says “. . we beheld his glory . .” (John 1:14).
The setting of the Transfiguration in the gospel narratives is significant. It took place in the closing stages of the ministry in Galilee and before the final journey to Jerusalem. Each of the three evangelists describes the same incidents and sayings leading up to it. Jesus and the disciples came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi and
there Peter made his confession: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Jesus then predicted His journey to Jerusalem and His sufferings, death and resurrection. He told those who would come after Him that they must deny themselves and take up the cross and follow Him, and He predicted His coming again in the glory of His Father. In each of the three gospels the account of the Transfiguration then follows immediately afterwards. It has been said that the Transfiguration seems to stand at a watershed in the ministry of Jesus, and to be a height from which the reader looks down on one side upon the Galilean ministry and on the other side upon the way of the Cross.
Mark’s account is the simplest. Matthew’s is close to it, but he emphasises the shining of Jesus’ face and the brightness of the cloud and tells us that Jesus touched the disciples and bid them fear not. Luke’s account is more detailed and suggests that the event could have taken place at night – “Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him”.
It may be helpful to consider the Transfiguration under three headings:-
(1) The account of what happened, drawn from the narratives of the three evangelists.
(2) The significance of the Transfiguration for the three disciples.
(3) The significance of the Transfiguration for ourselves.
(1) The Narratives
“Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves.”
Ancient tradition named the site as Mount Tabor near Nazareth. This is, however, unlikely. Tabor is not a very high mountain, neither was it a lonely one. Josephus (Wars of the Jews: Book IV, 1,8) says that there was a fortress on the summit at the time when vespasian put down the rebellion in Galilee in 67AD and it had probably been fortified for many years before that. The transfiguration is more likely to have taken place on one of the spurs of Mount Hermon which rise to considerable heights and overlook Caesarea Philippi.
“And he was transfigured before them.”
Matthew and Mark use the word “transfigured”. Luke does not. All three evangelists say that not only the face of Jesus but also His clothes shone. Mark’s reference to the fuller’s art is significant. To ‘full” is to cleanse, shrink and thicken cloth in a mill and goes beyond bleaching. Luke, however, probably takes us nearer to what happened: “as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was
altered, and his raiment was white and glistering”. It would seem that so intense was the communion of Jesus and His Father that it brought to His body a supernatural radiance. Moses and Elias, standing for Law and Prophecy and demonstrating the unity of the old dispensation with the new, appeared in glory and talked with Jesus. And the three disciples were drawn into this sweet communion. They were more than spectators. “Master, it is good for us to be here”, said Peter. His desire to make tabernacles and so perpetuate the scene was understandable but evoked no response, for Jesus and His disciples must return to the turmoil of the plain below.
“There came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud.”
In the Old Testament the cloud is the seat of the presence of the glory of God. It is not itself the glory but rather a covering which conceals the glory that shines through it from within (Exodus 24:15-18; 1 Kings 8:10,11; Ezekiel 1:4). It is in this sense that Matthew describes it as a bright cloud. In the Old Testament the word “glory” is a translation of the Hebrew word “Kabod” denoting “heaviness” or “weight”. The glory of God was associated with awe and fear. It was so over Mount Sinai; at the dedication of the Temple, and in Ezekiel’s vision. Conscious of this the three disciples feared as they entered the cloud and the immediate presence of God. They were sore afraid even when they heard the heavenly voice: “This is my beloved Son …” But it was the voice of love pointing them to Jesus, and Jesus Himself came and touched them and said, “Arise, and be not afraid”. Indeed, they had no reason for fear, for the concept of the glory of God had been transformed, from the sense of awe and fear in the old dispensation to the concept of light and radiance inherent in the Greek word “doxa” which is used for glory in the New Testament. God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, had shined in their hearts “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” With this assurance they lifted up their eyes and saw Jesus only.
(2) The significance of the Transfiguration for the three disciples
For Peter, James, and John the Transfiguration had both a present and future significance, linked to what immediately preceded it in the gospel narratives. At Caesarea Philippi Peter had declared “Thou art the Christ”: in the Transfiguration the voice of God had confirmed this. Jesus had predicted His sufferings and death at Jerusalem: in the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah had spoken of His decease which He should accomplish there. Jesus had predicted His coming again in the glory of His Father: in the
Transfiguration a veil was withdrawn briefly and the disciples were allowed to see the glory of Christ – they were, as Peter says, ‘eyewitnesses of his majesty”. The glory revealed was a future glory, for the Transfiguration foreshadowed the second coming of Jesus in majesty. It is a glory that will become visible to the Church only at His return but it is nevertheless the glory of Him who is the eternal Son of God.
For the three disciples the Transfiguration was also a preparation. Before them lay the journey to Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Calvary and the resurrection and ascension. Further still lay Pentecost and the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles. For all these things the Transfiguration was a preparation and support, a continuing assurance of their union with Christ.
(3) The Significance of the Transfiguration for ourselves
“And Jesus came and touched them, and said, ‘Arise, and be not afraid’.”
The Transfiguration was unique, but the experience within it -calling apart, blessing and preparation – Jesus makes known to His people still. He may come at times of crisis, as to Jacob at Peniel. He may come when illness, pain and trouble lie ahead. He may come to prepare us for a new task or experience in life. Then it is that He draws us aside and speaks words of comfort and encouragement which prepare and strengthen us for what lies ahead and which assure us that, in spite of the sins, mistakes and failures which have cluttered our lives. He is with us still. And there are times, rare though they may be, when Jesus takes His people in spirit “up into an high mountain apart by themselves” and there, transfigured before them, draws them into that mystic communion which is the essence of spiritual revival,
“O God, who before the passion of thine only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: grant unto us thy servants that in faith beholding the light of his countenance we may be strengthened to bear the cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”
(Collect for Transfiguration).