People love to talk about mountain-top experiences. They want nothing more than that spiritually uplifting experience, because then they think they will know all that they need. And certainly, we do not want to downplay what many people experience every now and then, when it comes to a glorious transcendent experience of God’s goodness. Of course, we have to be careful, because Satan is very good at counterfeiting these experiences. And it seems that the more Satan is active, the more certain people are that their experience is from God. However, when it comes to the Transfiguration, we can undoubtedly say that it was a mountain-top spiritual experience for the disciples, and that it confirmed them mightily in their faith.
The Transfiguration, however, is difficult to understand. One of the main reasons for this is that this story is absolutely drowning in references to the Old Testament. And, as we shall see, we have to look at other parts of the New Testament as well, in order to understand. At the most basic level, however, we have to look at the immediately preceding context in order to know why the passage is here. We must note that the chapter divisions of the Bible are not part of the original manuscripts. They were added a lot later. Some chapter divisions make more sense than others. This chapter division is understandable in one sense, but we must be able to connect the two chapters together. We have seen that suffering and death is in store for Jesus, and for the disciples, who are commanded to take up their cross and follow Jesus. That kind of language is very discouraging to the disciples, since they really cannot see through Jesus’ death to the other side of resurrection glory. Jesus knows this about His disciples, and so He gives them a taste of that glory, telling them in effect that the suffering and death are not the end of the story. And that is the main message: we should listen to Jesus, for He is the end of the story. And the end of Jesus’ story is not the cross, or even the empty tomb, but rather the glory of being exalted to the right hand of God. I hope to communicate something of the excitement that this passage is supposed to bring up in us. And if we are not moved by this account, then there is something wrong with us.
The passage starts with something significant, but easy to miss. It says “after six days.” In Exodus 24:16, we hear this: “The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” And then also we are reminded of the creation week: six days of labor and one day of rest. Both of these passages are in the background to this time marker.
Jesus took three disciples with Him (Peter, James and John), and took them up on a high mountain. This is a mountain-top experience indeed! For Isaiah 40:9 says (which we providentially just read!), “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” The disciples are the heralds of this news, although they cannot bear these tidings to anyone just yet. Not until the resurrection happens, to which this Transfiguration points.
Verse 2 tells us that Jesus was transfigured. You maybe have heard the word “metamorphosis.” It means a change in form. That is the Greek word here used. He was transformed into a different form, a glorious form. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes were radiant, since the glory of the Lord shone right through the clothes and made them radiantly white. What is this form in which Jesus now appears? It is the form of glory. Jesus had glory before he came to earth, and He has glory now, after He was raised from the dead. Jesus revealed a hint of that glory here and now.
When it says that His face shown like the sun, we are certainly to be reminded of the passage we read as a call to worship, that when Moses came down off the mountain, his face was shining. Jesus, however, is the new and better Moses, for Moses had to put a veil over his face. Jesus here is unveiled.
Speaking of Moses, there he is, right in the passage! In fact, Moses and Elijah both appear to Jesus. As an interesting and comforting side-note, this passage proves that people do not lose their identity in heaven. We don’t know how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah, since they had never seen them. But Jesus probably told them about who they were. But they were Moses and Elijah, clearly recognizable as such. Our loved ones in heaven will be recognizable by us as those people. Only they will be better, for they will have much greater glory. Of course, even the glory they have now will be as nothing compared to the glory they will have at the Resurrection. For here, Moses and Elijah are temporarily given bodies that look exactly like the resurrection bodies we will all receive. Jesus wants us to know that this is the true end of the road.
And that end is not just for Moses and Elijah. It is for all who believe in Jesus Christ. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” The word for “transformed” in 2 Corinthians is exactly the same word used here. But Paul says that we are even now being transformed. How is that? For we cannot see this transformation in our bodies. Paul explains this in Romans 12:2 by means of a command: “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.” You see, it is our inner being that is being transformed by the Word of God. Paul says that we should not be forced into the mold of the world, but rather that we should be put into a new mold, that of Jesus Christ.
Peter is so excited that he gets ahead of the program in verse 4. Peter is not being stupid, as many suppose. It was standard courtesy to build a place of relaxation for important people who came your way. There may also be a reference here to the feast of Tabernacles, where people built booths in which the lived for a short time. We could also think of the Tabernacle, built as the temporary residence of God Almighty. But Peter’s error here is two-fold. Firstly, he had the timing wrong. This was a fleeting moment, wherein just a glimpse of the heavenly world was revealed to Peter and the others. It was not a moment that could last, for Jesus still had to suffer and die. Peter wanted to prolong the moment, but that could not happen. The other error he makes is that he puts Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all on the same level by his offer of making a tent for each of them. It says clearly in Hebrews 3 that Moses was a faithful servant in the house of God, but that Jesus is the Son who rules over the house. Jesus is Lord of Moses and Elijah. This we find out clearly, when the voice comes out of the cloud and tells the disciples to listen to the well-beloved Son. Notice that the voice from the clouds actually interrupts Peter. Peter was still talking. This is somewhat humorous. God cannot wisely wait for Peter to finish what he is saying before the much more important words of the Father come out of the cloud. Listen to Jesus, fix your eyes on Jesus. He is the only ultimate voice to which we can listen. It is as if the Father is saying, “From now on, I refer all knowledge of Me to the Son. He will tell you all you need to know.”
All the Scriptures breathe of him. That is part of the significance of having Moses and Elijah there. They stand for all the law and the prophets. The law and the prophets all point to Jesus. They all mean that we should listen to Jesus. And that means not only that we hear what Jesus says. The word “listen” here means what it so often means in Scripture: hear and obey, hear and believe. To understand this fully, we have to go back to the OT once more to hear Moses speaking to us in Deuteronomy 18:
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen– just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ Here at the Transfiguration, the Father is saying, “Here is the Prophet Moses promised to you. Listen to Him.” Jesus is like Moses. Both go up on the mountain to receive the Word of the Lord, the only difference being that Jesus had the Word inside Himself.
The last point for understanding is that we need to notice the presence of God here. Just as the Lord descended in fire and cloud upon Mount Sinai, and upon the tabernacle, and upon the temple, so also the cloud descends here upon the mountain. That symbolized God’s presence. It is from that cloud that the voice came. When the disciples heard that voice, they fell down and were terrified. While I’m sure the experience was thrilling, that’s not all it was. Being in the presence of the Lord while being a sinner is a terrifying experience. But the Lord Jesus is with us to touch us, and to let us know that our sin problem can be erased through His Person and work. That Moses and Elijah vanish, and it is only Jesus remaining teaches us that only Jesus can fix our sin problem. He tells us to believe. The Father tells us to believe what Jesus says.
While this moment may have lasted only for a short time, the resurrection lasts forever. We need, therefore, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. And we need to live this from the perspective of someone who is raised from the dead. Spiritually, if we believe in Christ, we have the new resurrection soul. And we have the promise of the resurrection body. This is true. It is going to happen. Peter uses this Transfiguration account to prove to his readers that what he says is in line with what Jesus says:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, 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. (2 Peter 1:16-19)
The question is whether we believe and worship Jesus.
For a final application, I can do no better than to quote one of my very favorite hymns, “For All the Saints.”
For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. You were their rock, their fortress, and their might: you, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight; you, in the darkness drear, the one true Light. O may your soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold. O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in you, for all are thine. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, then steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. The golden evening brightens in the west; soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest; sweet is the calm of paradise the blest. But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on His way. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia, Alleluia!