Understanding the Transfiguration

By David McClister

The transfiguration of Jesus (recorded in Matthew 17 and its parallels) is a unique scene in the gospels. Unlike many other events, Jesus did not announce that it would happen, the disciples certainly did not expect it, and this event was never repeated. There does not appear to be any Old Testament prophecy connected with this event. It is not connected with any of the great discourses of Jesus, and Jesus instructed those disciples who witnessed it to keep quiet about what they had seen. Even today for many students it is an enigmatic event, one that seems, at first glance, to be out of place. Expositions of this scene often treat it abstractly, as if it had little or nothing to do with our salvation. If we look carefully at this scene, however, we find that it was anything but a random event and that it is not unconnected with Jesus’ mission or our salvation.

The Context

The context of Matthew 17 is extremely important in understanding the transfiguration. In Matthew 16 Jesus had asked the disciples about how the public and the disciples themselves perceived him (v. 13ff). The public response had been that Jesus must be one of the great prophets of Israel returned (v. 14). This was really not a bad response, for the prophetic features of Jesus’ ministry are obvious to anyone familiar with the work of the Old Testament prophets. The disciples, however, who had a more intimate knowledge of Jesus, had begun to perceive that he was the promised Messiah. This was critical.

In Jesus’ work of training the disciples there were two basic phases: identification and understanding. In the first part of Jesus’ ministry the disciples accompanied him all over Galilee observing his power at work and listening to his teaching. The design was to bring the disciples to identify Jesus correctly, not as just another prophet but as the Son of God. The disciples reached this plateau in Matthew 16:16, with Peter’s confession.

The aim of the second phase of the training of the twelve was to teach the disciples what it meant to say that Jesus was the Son of God. It is clear that the disciples of Jesus harbored the same kinds of Messianic hopes as most other Jews of their day. While there does not appear to have been any strict consensus or uniformity in Messianic expectations in that time, people generally expected a militaristic figure who would lead Israel against her enemies and establish God’s kingdom on earth (or, reestablish the glorious kingdom of Solomon). The Jews expected a nationalistic revival and a period of unequaled glory. For example, in Matthew 14 Jesus fed the 5000, and John tells us that this prompted the crowds to try to make Jesus king immediately (John 6:15). However, Jesus refused any part in such worldly expectations. In Matthew 15:29 we read of the healing of the multitudes and the feeding of the 4000. This apparently prompted the Pharisees to wonder if Jesus was the Messiah, for they came to him asking for a sign (16:1ff). Jesus knew that the disciples were harboring the same expectations of him (cf. Luke 22:37-38 and Acts 1:6), and so he asked them the famous question in Matthew 16:15, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16 was a great break-through, and Jesus commended Peter for it (v. 17). He wanted his disciples to believe that he was the Son of God, the Messiah. Now, from this point onwards, there is a marked change in the narrative. Up until this time Jesus had been working signs and debating with the Pharisees, dropping hints as to his identity. Now, after Peter’s confession, Jesus is much more direct in the way he deals with the disciples.

Immediately after Peter’s breakthrough confession, Jesus announces, for the first time in an explicit way, his coming death and resurrection (Matt. 16:21). Here was a head-on collision between the popular idea of the Messiah (which the disciples held) and the biblical concept (which Jesus held). The popular idea involved a Messiah who came to earthly glory in victory over the Jews’ enemies. Jesus, now acknowledged as Messiah, tells his disciples that he will, in effect, be the opposite of what they expected. He will die an inglorious death in apparent defeat by his enemies. Although passages such as Isaiah 53 made this clear, the popular Messianic expectation did not include this. Moreover, Jesus’ predicting his own resurrection must have sounded like nonsense to these men.

It is no wonder that Peter reacted as he did upon hearing this announcement (Matt. 16:22). Peter could not imagine the Messiah dying at the hands of his enemies. Jesus was mistaken, he thought. However, Jesus turns and rebukes Peter sharply for not accepting the idea of his death and resurrection. He even goes on to explain that not only will he die, but every disciple of his must follow him into that same death (v. 24ff).

The Transfiguration

It is in this context of confusion among the disciples that we read the transfiguration story. Six days went by after Peter’s confrontation with Jesus, apparently uneventful but no doubt filled with confusion on the part of the disciples. Then Jesus took Peter, James, and John up “to a high mountain” where they witnessed a most wonderful sight. Jesus was glorified before their eyes. His body took on a different appearance (Matt. 17:2). Then there appeared Moses and Elijah. When we think about it, these two characters fit perfectly in this scene. Moses was the great lawgiver in Israelite history, but he was also the first of God’s great prophets (cf. Deut 18:14ff). Elijah was a great prophet too. Furthermore, both of them saw an appearance of God in their lifetimes (Moses: Exod 33:17ff; Elijah: 1 Kings 19:9ff), and both of these occurred on a mountain (Mt. Sinai). Both of them, like Jesus, had performed mighty works in the name of the Lord God of Israel, and both had experienced, to some degree, the rejection of their own people. These two characters have symbolic significance as well. Together they represent the Law and the Prophets, both of which pointed to Jesus (cf. Rom. 3:21).

Then there was the heavenly voice speaking the same words that were heard at Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:17). It is important to note that the heavenly voice sounded while Peter was suggesting the building of three tents (no doubt as “shrines”) for Jesus and the other two figures. It seems that Peter thought the kingdom could be established right there and then. Just a few days earlier he had heard Jesus say that some of them would live to see it (Matt.16:28), and no doubt he assumed this was it. But whereas Peter wanted to give Jesus, Moses, and Elijah equal treatment, the divine voice corrects him. The voice from heaven singled out Jesus as the new and sole source of authority. Again, Peter stood corrected. Then, just about as quickly as it had happened, it was over (Matt. 17:7f).

The Meaning

What did this mean? First, it was a lesson for the disciples about who Jesus was. Recall the context here. The disciples (Peter speaking for them) had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah but they had a mistaken idea of what that meant, and Jesus’ speaking of his death had confused them. The transfiguration served to confirm Peter’s confession. It showed Peter, James, and John that Jesus was no ordinary man nor even a great prophet, but that he was indeed no less than the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel. God was confirming the disciples’ confession.

Second, this scene demanded that men hear Jesus as one who had authority to speak to them. Peter later came to understand this point. In 2 Peter 1:16-21 he acknowledges that the word of Jesus is sure and confirmed and that we must not move away from it. In that passage he tells us that the transfiguration, of which he was a witness, carried this significance. The transfiguration was a statement about the authority of Jesus. On that mountain it was demonstrated that it is now Jesus alone who has authority over men. Moses and Elijah served only a temporary purpose in the plan of God (cf. Rom. 3:21). I think that it is interesting that it was this very point (the passing away of the Law and Prophets) that caused so much trouble in the early church (cf. Acts 15, Galatians, etc.), yet God had already settled this question in the transfiguration of Jesus.

Third, the transfiguration confirmed that the kingdom of the Messiah would be characterized by glory. In the transfiguration the three selected disciples saw a foretaste of the glory and victory of Jesus. This posture of victory would be even clearer to them after Jesus’ resurrection, and it was really only then that the disciples began to put it all together. But for now this scene encouraged the disciples. It showed them that Jesus was indeed the glorified Son of God.

Fourth, this scene is the key to understanding the cross of Jesus and his commitment to it. In Luke’s version of the story he tells us that Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about his approaching death in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). This is an important piece of information, for it shows us the proper context in which to view this scene. The sequence of events in the narrative here in Matthew also shows us very plainly that the transfiguration was meant to be interpreted in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. References to Jesus’ death literally surround the transfiguration story (Matt.16:21; 17:12, 22f), and Jesus told his disciples not to discuss what they had seen until after his resurrection (Matt. 17:9). Clearly, he wanted them to view the transfiguration in that specific context.

Jesus wanted his disciples to know that he would, in-deed, be glorified, but it would not at all be the kind of glory most people were expecting (a worldly kind of supremacy). Nor would he gain that glory in the way most people thought he would (by physical war with Rome). The glory that lay in store for Jesus, which the disciples previewed in the transfiguration, would come through his death and resurrection. The transfiguration was therefore meant to be a lesson on the cross, to show its necessity. It would only be through his death and resurrection that he would attain glory. That’s why Jesus committed himself to the cross: it was the path to glory (cf. John 12:24). The disciples needed to begin to learn this new, biblical but unheard-of idea of glory.

Thus with the transfiguration began phase two of the disciples’ training. The transfiguration was not a random event, but was a precisely timed and executed manifestation of glory that was to serve as a lesson to the disciples about what kind of Messiah Jesus was, and how he would attain his greatness. It was the first lesson in Jesus’ at-tempt to get them to understand his Messiahship and what it entailed. They had to unlearn the physical, worldly notions of their day and come to terms with the biblical concept of the Messiah that Jesus would fulfill in the days ahead of them.

Guardian of Truth XL: 8 p. 20-22
April 18, 1996