The Transfiguration is a much underrated story that deserves greater prominence in our thinking and which rewards fuller study. It is a significant event, on the same level of importance as Jesus' birth and baptism, his death and resurrection. It provides a key to the understanding of the mystery of Jesus' person and work.
There are three aspects to the well-known Transfiguration story.
Firstly, there is the Transfiguration itself when "the appearance of Jesus' face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning" (Luke 9:29).
Secondly, there is the glorious appearance of Moses and Elijah, who converse with Jesus "about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem" (Luke 9: 31).
And, thirdly, there is the voice from the cloud, directed to the disciples, which required of them obedience to the Son (Luke 9:35). Our purpose is to explore the meaning of the first of these aspects.
It is not easy to get a clear idea of the timescale involved in Jesus' ministry: the gospels seldom give an exact account of the lapse of time one event and another. Since time intervals are rare, importance is to be given to them when they are specified.
In the three gospels that record the Transfiguration, the time lapse between this and the previous events is clearly mentioned: "after six days" (Matthew 17:1; Mark 9: 2), "about eight days after" (Luke 9:28). So this event is specifically linked with what has gone before and we can point to three features of the immediately preceding narrative which help us to appreciate the Transfiguration.
Firstly, Jesus clearly intimated to his disciples for the first time his impending death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22). The reality of impending death is part of the background of the Transfiguration story.
Secondly, Peter rebuked Jesus for speaking in this way (Matthew 16:22-23; Mark 8:32-33) and thus showed the disciples' ignorance of and lack of sympathy with the main thrust of Jesus' ministry. This lack of human understanding and support for Jesus' purpose helps us to understand the meaning of the Transfiguration experience.
Thirdly, and more immediately, Jesus spoke of the Son of Man coming in glory and went on to say: "some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power" (Mark 8:38 and 9:1. Compare Matthew 16:27-28 and Luke 9: 26-27). Hence the Transfiguration is directly connected with the powerful manifestation of the kingdom of God.
The Transfiguration happened at night. This fact is often overlooked but Luke account makes clear that it must have been so.
He records that Jesus went up the mountain to pray (9:28); indeed the Transfiguration occurred as he was praying (9:29). Now, Jesus had little respite during the day and, as far as we can judge, frequently spent the hours of darkness in prayer (Matthew 14:23; Luke 6:12; 22:41). Moreover, the disciples were very sleepy, literally "burdened with sleep" (9:32), something not easily understandable if this occurred during the day. More specifically yet, Jesus and his three disciples came down the mountain the next day (9:37).
Imagine how impressive and awesome this spectacle would be in the darkness of the night. Note how the gospel writers are struggling to find a picture strong enough to express it. "Dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them," says Mark, speaking of Jesus' clothes (9:3). "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as the light," says Matthew (17:2); while Luke describes his clothes as becoming "as bright as a flash of lightning" (9:29). The use of a variety of pictures is a sure sign that the experience was so breathtaking that it could not be adequately described in plain prose.
The Transfiguration was a wonderful event. It must have created the same feelings of awe in the hearts of the disciples as the declaration of Jesus' conception did in the heart of Mary or the awareness of Jesus' resurrection in the feelings of the other Mary. The splendour of the Transfiguration is of such a magnitude that it must be ranked in importance alongside these key incidents.
A Radical Alteration
This spectacular appearance of Jesus was not caused by light shining on to him but by glory shining out from him. Here Jesus is not caught in the beam of a searchlight from heaven. Rather, from him the glory of God shone out. Just as the glory of God filled the temple in the days of Solomon (1 Kings 8:11) so the glory of God fills this Temple.
We cannot over-emphasise the far-reaching nature of the change implied by this. Although "the appearance of his face changed" (Luke 9:29), the change was not merely outward but inward. This is called a "Transfiguration". More literally, according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus was "metamorphosed". That's an important word, suggesting a radical change, a change of his very mode of existence.
One writer illustrates the nature of the change implied by this word. It would not be used, he says, of the change, say, of a Dutch garden into an Italian garden, but it would be employed of the change of a garden into a city. It doesn't refer to a change in outward form — like Satan, for example, when he appears in the form of an angel of light — but a change in inner substance — like happened at the resurrection. Then Jesus appeared "in a different form" (Mark 16:12). There the word "form" corresponds to the "morph" in "metamorphosed". The change involved in the Transfiguration is the same sort as that involved in Jesus' glorious resurrection.
There again is a view of the event which points it up as a significant one.
An Anticipation of the Future
This was a foreshadowing, an anticipation, of future glory — a temporary but real investment with the splendour, characteristic of his resurrection, ascension and final appearance.
This was certainly how Peter saw it. Writing in his Second Epistle, he speaks about "the power and coming" of the Lord Jesus — a clear reference to the glory of Jesus' Second Coming. He claims to speak with authority on this matter, not following "cleverly invented stories". He knows what he is talking about because he has already been an eyewitness of his majesty and seen the Son receive honour and glory from God the Father (1:16-17). This happened when Peter was with Jesus on the sacred mountain (1:18).
This can only mean that, for Peter, the Transfiguration involved the same display of Christ's glory as will be demonstrated at his Second Coming.
The gospel writers too saw the matter in this way. What did Jesus mean when he spoke of some then alive not tasting death till they had seen the kingdom of God come with power (Mark 9:1)?
We reject out of hand the idea that Jesus mistakenly thought that his Second Coming would take place during the lifetime of his disciples. Was he then referring to the display of divine splendour given in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple some 40 years later — a significant event that brought an age to an end and caused the disappearance of what was obsolete (Hebrews 8:13)? Or did he have in mind the splendour of his resurrection and ascension or even the power of the day of Pentecost? Perhaps he did, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the way the gospel writers tie together that saying and the story of the Transfiguration indicates very plainly that to them the Transfiguration was the display of the king in all his future glory. Among those who were to live to see the kingdom of God come with power were these three disciples who had a manifestation of the King's power and glory when he was transformed on the mountain top.
This means that it wasn't simply glory that shone from him: it was the glory of the exalted Lord, of his majestic kingdom and of his spectacular Second Coming. It's that that makes this such a remarkable occurrence. It is a prefiguration of what is yet to be.
Glory the Saviour's Reward
This can easily be passed off as unimportant. It can be pointed out, for example, that the Son had, from all eternity, shared the Father's glory and that John speaks of beholding, in his earthly life, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father (John 1:14). What's so important in glory being displayed in him at this stage and in this way?
It is true that Jesus spoke of being glorified with the glory which he had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5) — as if what awaited him were to be merely a resumption of what he had formerly enjoyed. But the Scriptures also speak of that experience of exaltation in other terms.
God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name" and he did so because Jesus "humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross.Philippians 2:8-9
Similarly, his universal authority in heaven and on earth was given to him (Matthew 28:18).
Such passages remind us that the glory that awaits him is not merely to be thought of as the glory that was his as the second person of the Trinity or as Creator. It is to be seen as the reward for satisfactorily completing the task committed to his trust by the Father. It belongs to him specifically as Saviour. He is exalted as a prince and a Saviour — the two functions being linked. Because of his appointment as King over his people, the honour was given to him: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance" (Psalm 2:8).
Moreover, the majesty that was to be his on completing the work of salvation was not to be experienced only as God. Jesus became man and continues to be God and man forever. The glory that was the reward of obedience was to be experienced in the fulness of his person as God and man.
The significance of the transfiguration is that in his human nature Jesus had never known anything but humiliation: born in a low condition, made under the law, subject to the common sufferings of this life and the assaults of the tempter. But, now, for a moment, that humiliation is swallowed up in glory. His human nature is temporarily flooded with the splendour that will belong to him as the risen and ascended Lord.
The essence of the Transfiguration is that in the midst of Jesus' earthly humiliation there comes a real moment of heavenly exaltation. That is so remarkable that we must ask why.
This was for the comfort and encouragement of the Lord faced with the sufferings of his impending death and the lack of sympathy of his ignorant disciples.
The Lord's human nature was real. Though sinless, he experienced the frailties of human existence in such a way that he is "not ... unable to sympathise with our weaknesses" (Hebrews 4:15). Thus, faced with the prospect of the terrible agony of the cross, his resolve was pushed to its limits and "an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him" (Luke 22:43).
Moreover, human companionship mattered to Jesus. As a boy he grew socially (as well as in other ways) (Luke 2:52). Like Adam, it was not good that he should be alone. Hence one reason why the apostles were chosen was simply that they might be with him (Mark 3:14).
The facts that Jesus needed strengthening when faced with the cross and that he appreciated human companionship make the Transfiguration deeply significant for him, for here is the investment of his whole being with the splendour of his future glory and the provision of human companionship in the form of Moses and Elijah.
When the sufferings of the cross are uppermost in his mind and he seeks his Father's face in prayer, he is granted for a moment the clearest possible knowledge of what the outcome of his sufferings will mean for him. When the pain of his disciples' ignorance is very real, he is provided with companions who do understand why he must die. When the darkness of the path that he has to tread becomes abundantly apparent to him, for a moment he tastes the glory of heaven. Or, to use more Biblical language, here the joy of what is to be is set before him in the most real and vivid form imaginable. In the strength which came through such joy, he endured the cross and despised the shame.
What makes the Transfiguration of such interest is that it has a unique combination of heaven on earth, of exaltation in the midst of humiliation and of the full taste of victory while the battle is still being fought. To Jesus, it brought strength and comfort in the midst of earthly distress. To us it brings the same, because it reminds us of the Transfiguration going on in the believer: "we are being transformed ('metamorphosed') into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18).