Pp Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36
Time and Place
Peter, James and John
What is a ‘transfiguration’ and can I have one?
Moses and Elijah
The Father’s statement
The best way, it appears to me, to introduce and outline the different details in the three parallel passages is to simply attempt some sort of precised harmonisation of the events that will act as a guideline for the reader to understand why certain statements are being made in my comments on the passage.
Although there are numerous differences in the details which surround this event (an event which is described as a ‘vision’ in Mtw 17:9, an indication that this word can be employed to mean a real life experience which has a spiritual dimension), they harmonise well and it’s quite true to say that each of them adds their own specific details without which the total picture could not be put together.
The reader will need to consult the three passages to get the exact details and precise wording of the statements made but, generally, the incident appears to have transpired as follows:
Six days after the end of the previous incident, Jesus took Peter, James and John and ascended a mountain which was close to where they were, leading them away from the crowds which had gathered to be ministered to (implied by Mtw 17:14, Mark 9:14, Luke 9:37). His intention was to find time to pray alone.
The three disciples were already tired - perhaps because night had fallen - and began to drift into sleep while Jesus began to pray, his face shining like the sun and His garments radiating with bright light.
Peter, James and John awoke from sleep at this point (makes you wonder what they might have missed on previous and future occasions when they must have dozed off, doesn’t it?) and saw that Moses and Elijah were standing with Him, similarly clothed in glory and talking with Him about His imminent death which He was shortly to accomplish in Jerusalem.
The vision was almost at an end but, as the two OT figures were departing, Peter suggested that they make three temporary dwellings, one each for the three figures. They were already afraid at this point but, as a cloud began to envelope the three figures, the disciples began to become increasingly fearful and a voice was heard from the cloud as they also entered it.
The disciples fell on their face as the voice spoke, fearing for their lives, but Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid. When they looked up, the cloud had gone from the mountain and only Jesus stood before them, crouched over them.
Even with the limited resources available to me in the way of commentaries, I noticed that this passage has caused considerable disagreement amongst scholars, some even seeing it as a misplaced resurrection event - that is, that the authors took what happened after the resurrection and included it here thinking that it was supposed to have happened before the crucifixion.
However, if we understand the reason for the transfiguration correctly - that it was given to Jesus not the disciples - we can more fully appreciate why the event must have taken place before the sufferings of Jesus in Jerusalem and why the disciples more or less stumbling upon the event when they wake up in the midst of it shouldn’t cause us to think that it was given to them primarily.
I will deal with this under the subject ‘Glorification’. What I’ve found myself discovering as I’ve come to restudy this passage, however, is that what I originally thought the text meant and what I believed were the mechanics of the event, were incorrect.
I have had to revise my understanding of this particular Scripture simply because my previous belief that here is a demonstration of the divine nature of Jesus shining through His bodily form is unsubstantiated by the Scriptures in question and disproved by an eyewitness explanation of the incident in II Peter, a passage which most of the other commentators seem never to have discovered, either!
Time and Place
At first glance, there appears to be a discrepancy between the three accounts of the transfiguration for both Matthew and Mark speak of the event taking place ‘after six days’ (Mtw 17:1, Mark 9:2) whereas Luke records that it occurred after ‘about eight days’ (Luke 9:28). The reader should be able to note that Luke’s statement is only an indefinite time period but it does raise some interesting questions which, unfortunately, will remain unanswered despite speculation.
For instance, why didn’t Luke give the precise time of six days as the first two authors? Most commentators envisage all the first three Gospels as being put together from older reports or Gospels which were in circulation when they came to write, but what would have possessed Luke to have altered the plain statement that the event took place after six days to a more vague term speaking of a longer period of time? Especially as Luke goes out of his way to insist that his concern in compiling His work is to make sure that accuracy concerning the events of Christ is one of his prime objectives (Luke 1:1-4).
It seems that the commentator is faced with assuming that Luke either had the unanimous testimony of writings in front of him but chose to ignore them and give a more vague statement, that the manuscripts he had were mixed in their statements as to how long it was after the previous speech and he opted for a general time period so as not to be incorrect or that he knew nothing about the specific statements which both Mark and Matthew record that date it to precisely six days.
There is one other possibility, however, and that’s that Luke is actually giving the more Jewish time period where his statement actually means ‘eight parts of a day’ which would contain the rest of the day on which Jesus taught Mtw 16:24-28, the six full days which followed and the final day on which the transfiguration took place, thus making eight days.
What the first two writers do, therefore, is to give an exact statement concerning the full days which transpired and ignore the two parts of a day which lay either side of them. Seeing as Matthew has the more Jewish feel to its pages and contains frequent places which would indicate that what is being written is primarily directed towards a Jewish readership, this appears to be unlikely.
Whatever the solution - which is now lost to us in history - there remains no discrepancy for Luke’s time period is only a generalisation which could be stretched to be a little longer or shorter - in this case, the latter of these options is necessary. As I started reading up on these two differing statements, my eye caught an explanation in Lukgeld concerning the text of Luke 9:37 which occurs immediately after the transfiguration and which reads
‘On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him’
the commentator numerating the first phrase and commenting that
‘The natural conclusion from this is that the transfiguration took place during the night’
That struck me as rather odd, I must say, and couldn’t understand his logic but Luknol explains it better. He notes that a few manuscripts bear the Greek text which indicates that this next event took place ‘during the day’ and that it probably reflects
‘...Semitic reckoning of the day from sunset to sunset’
As the construction occurs in so few manuscripts, however, it must be wondered whether it’s what the author originally intended to write or whether he was more concerned to leave it as vague as he appears to have done. If the intention was correct, however, to refer to the light period as being the time in which they descended the mountain, it would have to be that the disciples found themselves with Jesus on the mountain at night. Luknol goes on in his commentary of 9:37 to write (my italics) that Luke’s statement concerning the following day is probably indicative of an assumed
‘...night setting for the transfiguration which the sleepiness of the disciples suggests’
where it’s only Luke who records that the disciples woke up while the transfiguration was taking place (Luke 9:32). Although this has a semblance of reason to it, it’s difficult to be certain that they arrived on the top of the mountain as night was approaching and not that they still had daylight as they came to the summit. Besides, the area around Caesarea Philippi is such that they might have journeyed up to one of a hundred of summits for the event to have occurred and have taken well over a day to arrive there, making Luke’s ‘the next day’ become a literal statement that it had taken so long for them to travel back that, for example, Tuesday had become Wednesday.
Although there’s a great amount of speculation surrounding the exact times of the transfiguration, there’s little which can be said with certainty by way of explanation except that the three Gospel records don’t contradict themselves in their reports and that Luke adds additional information which both Matthew and Mark either chose to ignore or felt wasn’t relevant.
Finally, a word needs to be said about the identification of the mountain upon which the event happened. Although it’s hardly important for us to know in which location the event occurred, it hasn’t stopped men and women ‘believers’ from naming mountains and hills in Israel in a vain attempt at locating the precise spot where the transfiguration took place and so erect a shrine for some reason which escapes me at this moment - after all, what’s important to the christian should be to be present where God is not where God was.
I noticed on the Ancient Sandals web site that there are normally three possible identifications made for the mountain upon which the transfiguration took place, only two of which have I ever heard associated with the event.
Perhaps wrongly, the web site identifies one as Mount Hermon and goes about giving ample evidence why such an identification is virtually impossible with various reasons such as the climatic conditions which, even in summer, make periods spent on its top very difficult for any great length of time - let alone for a time of prayer (Luke 9:28). However, this is probably an erroneous identification simply because ‘Hermon’ refers to the entire mountain range which rises from the foothills to the east of Caesarea Philippi and continue rising into present day Syria.
We know that Jesus was certainly in this general region from Mtw 16:13 but, in the six days which have transpired since the last recorded event (Mtw 17:1), there’s certainly enough time for Jesus and the disciples to have been some distance away from the area. This general vicinity, however, seems the most favourable as there are numerous hills and mountains here upon which men and women might ascend and be isolated from anyone else who is travelling through the adjacent valleys.
When I visited the area in 1986, we stood on the summit above the city of Caesarea Philippi and overlooked a steep ravine, across which a large mountain rose to an impressive height. As we continued climbing by coach to Birkat Ram, we journeyed passed successive summits, any of which could have been the mountain upon which the transfiguration took place.
Secondly, I mention Mount Tabor here, even though this seems hardly likely to be possible. If Jesus and the disciples were near Caesarea Philippi at the close of Mtw 16:28, it gave them just six days (Mtw 17:1) to travel around 45 miles as the crow flies (and more likely 55 miles plus) to the site of this mountain which rises 1350 feet above the surrounding plain (the actual height of the hill is given elsewhere in my sources as 1840 feet and roughly confirmed by Zondervan as 1843 feet above sea level).
This mountain is situated almost ten miles due west from the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, a strange location for Jesus to have travelled to from the northern city in the tetrarchy of Philip just a few days previously.
Besides this, Josephus in War 4.1.1 writes concerning the Jewish revolt and the reconquest of the land that
‘...all those Galileans who, after the taking of Jotapata, had revolted from the Romans, did, upon the conquest of Taricheae, deliver themselves up to them again. And the Romans received all the fortresses and the cities, excepting Gischala and those that had seized upon Mount Tabor...’
That the Romans received back the fortifications except the one on Mount Tabor would indicate that a Roman garrison was in existence here which had been taken when the Jews revolted and there seems to be no good reason why it should not have been in existence around forty years earlier in the time of Christ as it gave any occupation force a commanding view of the surrounding plains and of the advance of any foreign, invading army from the north or east.
There are churches here devoted to the event of the transfiguration but it appears that the earliest date one can place on these is the fourth century AD when the mother of Constantinople, Helena, visited the land and built the first shrine on its summit. Zondervans asserts that there must have been close associations with the transfiguration already by this time for this identification to have been possible but, judging by other sites where she proclaimed religious events had taken place, this is hardly necessary.
Finally, Mount Meron is named as a possibility by Ancient Sandals, a mountain
‘...a few miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee...[near] the ancient city of Safed...’
where Lower Galilee can be seen from its summit along with Mount Tabor which lies around twenty miles to the south. The web site lists some interesting pointers towards a positive identification but it suffers from the same problem as Tabor which I didn’t mention there - namely, that it lies in Galilean territory and we have repeatedly witnessed that, in the past numerous passages, Jesus has been trying to get away from Galilee and the public eye but here, for some reason, re-enters the area.
The web page notes one of the major advantages of this mountain as being the fact that the crowd which formed around the nine disciples in Mtw 17:14-21 would necessarily have needed to be Jewish and, therefore, should be considered to be in predominantly Jewish territory (which Caesarea Philippi is not). However, I quoted Josephus on a previous web page to show that it was probable that a large contingent of Jews dwelt in the immediate vicinity of the city as they were securely imprisoned upon the Jewish revolt in case they rebelled against Roman rule and caused civil disturbances.
Therefore, although the specific mountain called Hermon is unlikely to have been the mountain upon which the transfiguration took place, the mountain range of which Hermon is the summit remains, in my opinion, the most likely identification for the area in which it took place.
Peter, James and John
Mtw 17:1, Mark 9:2, Luke 9:28
Matthew’s note that John was James’ brother identifies positively the three who were present when compared with the list of the inner twelve disciples in Mtw 10:2-4. This was to be a time of prayer when three of His closest disciples were to accompany Him and while we could be wrong in thinking that they were chosen because Jesus knew what was about to transpire on the mountain top and that it’s simply that these three represented the closest of the disciples that He took them with Him while leaving the others in the valley or plain below (implied in Mtw 17:14), how these three accompanied Jesus on other important occasions is significant.
These three are also the ones chosen who alone accompany Jesus when He raises the ruler’s daughter from the dead (Mark 5:37) and are the same three which Jesus takes with Him when he goes into Gethsemane to pray before His arrest (Mtw 26:37) when all the others are left behind.
We may not be going too far wrong, therefore, to see that Jesus knew that something special was about to take place and that He specifically chose these three to accompany Him. After all, when they stop to pray in the journeying towards Caesarea Philippi in Luke 9:18 (Cp Mark 8:27), it appears that all the disciples are present.
Why these three were selected is something about which it is by no means easy to be certain - just as we may ponder over the special relationship which one of these three, John, appears to have had with Jesus (John 13:23, 19:26, 21:7, 21:20) over and above anything which the others experienced. It’s easier to interpret the twelve as being the new Israel, corresponding to the OT twelve tribes than it is to explain the choice of a select three.
There’s certainly a parallel with Ex 24:1 where Moses is instructed to bring with Him three specific individuals, a father with his two sons (the sons, being brothers, are paralleled in the choice of James and John), but that this occurred on other occasions should stop us from seeing in it a direct and intended parallel - especially as seventy others were to accompany the four as they journeyed up the mountain to meet with God.
As the reader will note from the chart of the pyramid of Jesus’ relationships I’ve included here, there were both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ disciples in the sense that some appear to have come closer to Jesus than others even though all were important to the move of God within the nation.
What is a ‘transfiguration’ and can I have one?
The reader who’s stumbled on this heading might find it a little flippant - while others may have turned to the article simply because of the header which drew them. In fact, there’s an element of truth in the second phrase of the title which we have long since ignored, for the same Greek word (Strongs Greek number 3339) is used of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain and of the transformation which is supposed to be a present reality in the life of the believer.
We shall look at both these subjects as we deal with the subject of ‘transformation’ and the one should naturally explain the other. We start, however, by trying to come to terms with the Greek word and its fundamental meaning. Kittels defines the word as meaning
‘to change into another form’
and goes on to explain that this change
‘...may be an external one or a change of state or an inner change’
If we take this at face value, therefore, it’s only the context of the passage in which the word occurs that will define the type of change which is being described. For instance, by this definition, a skin graft could be described as a transfiguration even though it doesn’t change what’s on the inside of the person - only the external appearance - while the experience of being born again into the Church is a transfiguration which alters the internal set up of a man or woman - while they look just like they’ve always done.
Perhaps it’s only me but I find it strange that the modern translations tend to use the verb ‘to transfigure’ for the event when Jesus was on the mountain (notice that the noun ‘transfiguration’ nowhere occurs in the NT) but either ‘to change’ or ‘to transform’ when the word is applied to the believer, because the former word implies something different to the third and final one noted.
Matmor, in his commentary, notes that he chooses to retain the traditional word only because
‘...we do not know exactly what happened and this word at least brings before us the truth that Jesus underwent a unique transformation before the disciples’
However, the Dictionary defines ‘transfigure’ as
‘to change the appearance of’
while ‘transform’ is taken primarily as meaning
‘to change the shape of’
but goes on to speak of the meaning where it denotes a change of substance or character. Both words, therefore, can mean a change of form but the latter is more likely to imply a change of composition in the one said to have been transformed than the former in present day English.
The Greek word, however, is a compound word from ‘morphe’ meaning ‘form’ and ‘meta’ which implies change. Very simply, therefore, the underlying meaning of the word has to be ‘to change form’ though this concept can be applied to relate to the essential character of something or to its external appearance and it’s not always easy to attempt a definition as to which is being hinted at by the use of the word.
Therefore, our interpretation of the way in which Jesus was transformed on the mountain may be based more upon what we consider this event to have achieved and of what took place in Jesus than it will be about the fundamental meaning of the word which could apply to different concepts. However, there are indications in the three passages which would point us toward an interpretation which speaks of Jesus not becoming intrinsically any different to what He was as He walked amongst the disciples and performed the miracles, only that His outward appearance changed.
Matthew is ambiguous at this point when he writes (Mtw 17:2) that Jesus
‘...was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light’
and also Mark 9:2-3 which speaks of Jesus being
‘...transfigured before them, and His garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them’
In both these passages, we could take the ‘transformation’ to be one of His essential character and being, simply because the word is open to interpretation in the context in which it sits and both writers give no clear explanation of what they actually mean, being more content to record the event and move on. Luke 9:29, however, doesn’t use the word ‘transform’ and records instead that
‘...as He was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white’
where Vines comments that the reason for Luke avoiding the use of the Greek word used by the other two writers probably was to avoid the suggestion to Gentile readers that there was something similar happening such as the metamorphosis of the pagan gods who could change form and shape as they so willed, appearing to mankind as they chose.
Luke’s intention would seem to be, therefore, to safeguard his readers from thinking that Jesus was now duplicating something which the pagan gods were also reputed to do and that, while retaining His bodily shape, was now beginning to appear different, the change being in the brightness with which He shone. What was happening, therefore, was that something that had not been apparent to them in the last couple of years of being with Him was now being allowed to be seen - as if a lamp which had been for so long hidden under a cover had now had it removed so that the light would become clearly visible.
Both Matthew and Mark’s accounts support this interpretation by speaking only about the brightness and whiteness of what was witnessed rather than speak of any fundamental change to the shape of the figure of Jesus as they witnessed Him on the mountain.
Jesus should be, therefore, seen to be essentially the same Person as He was both before and after the event took place and that all that transpired on the mountain was that some temporary transformation took place which was reversed in a moment, the traditional viewpoint being along the lines that what was within Jesus and which had been concealed at the incarnation was now being temporarily allowed to shine out from Him. I will return to this belief in the next section, however, and I am not offering it here as a conclusion of what actually occurred at the transfiguration.
When we come to the two uses of the Greek word as applied to believers, however, what appears to be implied is not simply the manifestation of what is within but a radical change of the essential character of the person so that they find that they are radically different after the experience of transformation which takes place - with Jesus, the first state was restored after the temporary transformation but, with believers, the first state is never returned to and is rejected because it is less like the image of God than the second. Therefore Paul writes in II Cor 3:18 (my italics) that
‘...we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another...’
and, in Rom 12:2, he writes the command
‘Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’
In the first, the believer becomes more like the One who they serve and, in the second, are able to understand what the will of God is. Both are radical changes within that draw the believer into being more like God Himself.
In conclusion, we need to note that both Jesus and His followers are spoken of as being transformed or transfigured. For Jesus, the context is one of a temporary revelation of the divine glory (explained in the next section) even though the essential outward form of His human body is being retained. For the believer, it’s a radical and permanent alteration of what’s within so that they may become more like Christ.
Mtw 17:2, Mark 9:3, Luke 9:29
In the previous section, we looked briefly at the Greek word from which the English translations use the verb ‘to transfigure’ and attempted to get some idea of exactly what the employment of such a word meant. We concluded that, although it fundamentally means ‘to change form’, just what the ‘form’ is isn’t always easy to determine and, on occasions may mean the outward appearance while, on others, it may mean the inner substance of a thing - and, by a further extension, it could also mean an inner change which results in an external one as well.
Therefore, the word doesn’t, of itself, help us come to an explanation of what took place at the moment that Jesus was ‘transfigured’, when His garments shone with an intensity which was unexpected and unnatural. This phenomenon is variously described by the Gospel writers, Mtw 17:2 recording that Jesus’
‘...face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light’
while Mark 9:3’s statement that
‘...His garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them’
adds the description that this was no natural event that could be reasoned to have occurred because He’d recently visited Rabbi Saul’s new laundromat. Luke 9:29 is more unique in its description when the author comments that
‘...the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white’
But what exactly are we to think took place when this event actually happened and what was the significance of the radiance which was now lighting up the mountain top? Most commentators are quick to jump to the conclusion that what’s being revealed is the intrinsic divine nature of Jesus, that the veil which was covering His own deity was being drawn back for the briefest of moments that the hiding of the incarnation might be temporarily reversed.
Therefore, the commentator on the Ancient Sandals web site previously referred to states that the event was the occasion when
‘...Jesus revealed the glory of His deity which He had concealed in His incarnation’
a statement which seems to imply also that Jesus was the prime mover in the incarnation rather than the Father. Whatever, the real point of the statement is that the light now being witnessed by the disciples is nothing less than something which is coming from within rather than being something external.
Markcole also makes it sound as if there’s a choice of the will in what’s transpiring when he writes (my italics) that
‘Christ’s glory was His own: He was but reassuming that divine glory which was His with the Father before the world began...’
a bad choice of words, presumably, rather than a deliberate attempt to make the reader think that what Jesus now experiences is devoid of the will of the Father and implemented and brought about by Him. Even with this belief that Jesus was now shining with His own inner divine glory, there has to be the thought that this was being done in accordance with the will of the Father. Other commentators are certain that what takes place is a shining from within rather than something which comes about as an external work of God the Father upon Him. Therefore Lukgeld comments that
‘...His divine majesty shone so gloriously through His human nature...’
‘For a brief moment the veil of His humanity was lifted and Jesus’ body presented itself in the form of a tenuously material light...[the] revelation of the hidden quality of Jesus’ life...’
while Mattask compares the shining of Moses’ face in the wilderness with the radiance now being experienced and notes that Jesus
‘...shone not with a reflected glory but with an unborrowed glory similar to the rays of the sun’
This is particularly a strange statement, however, for it would appear that the light which shone through Moses’ face actually lasted longer than that one moment on the mountain! Matfran sees the event as being a revelation of Jesus
‘...whose true nature is revealed in divine glory’
while Zondervan (finishing off the quotes of this belief) begins one of their sentences with the phrases
‘Borrowing the light from within, His clothing became white as light...’
In each of these quotes, it can be seen that what is being put forward as the ‘mechanics’ of the event is that the divine glory which was concealed at the incarnation is now being allowed to shine through Jesus and to light up the mountain top.
If this is the case, then the transfiguration must have been primarily for the disciples to witness - but we find that Luke 9:32 reports that the only reason they eventually witnessed it was that they awoke during the event and almost unwittingly stumbled upon it - that is, it doesn’t appear to have been intentionally made known to them for their benefit. We may be going too far with this statement, however, and it may have been that, although the disciples were asleep, the light deliberately woke them up to witness what they needed to see.
Other commentators are a little less committed to this understanding of the transfiguration and write more general statements such as Luknol’s
‘In an anticipatory way, He here makes the trip to glory that lies beyond His suffering in Jerusalem’
where the light being made known is seen as an unveiling of what was shortly to be Jesus’ without speaking about whether it comes from within or without. Mathag also is careful with his words when he comments that the light is
‘...a glimpse of the true glory of Jesus...The disciples see Jesus as they had never seen Him before’
but stops short of giving specific details of what that actually meant. Their caution, however, is prudent for nowhere are we told in the Gospels that the light which is now being revealed to the disciples is either coming from within Jesus or from the Father and reflecting upon Him. Mattask is absolutely correct, then, when he writes that
‘The source of the sudden, extraordinary brightness is not indicated’
and goes on to conclude that
‘Since no explanations are given in the text, it is probably best to omit all speculation...’
Matmor similarly leaves the interpretation of the phenomenon well and truly alone when he comments simply that
‘...Jesus was transfigured...though it is not easy to see exactly what that means’
and discusses the matter no further. The reader may be wondering why I’ve extensively quoted sources here to arrive at a conclusion that we cannot know what actually took place and that mere speculation cannot be relied upon to give us the answers to our burning questions. And, further than this, that I might even be suggesting that the traditional interpretation is lacking sound reason and should consequently be rejected for a belief which is, actually, to believe nothing!
I can testify to the logic of the commentators who see the revealing of Jesus’ divinity as being the light which was now shining from Him, that the incarnation had concealed within His human body and which was now being drawn back like some curtain to let the light be displayed for a short period of time. This is incredibly logical and certainly isn’t based upon a wrong concept of the incarnation.
However, it is a wrong conclusion based upon Peter’s own commentary of the event in II Peter 1:16-18 where the apostle who was present on the mountain tells us exactly where the light came from and what it was! As Mattask states - and he is the only commentator of the eleven I’ve accessed who notes this
‘It was the Father who...clothed Him with glory...’
where the passage in Peter’s letter reads (my italics)
‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ [that is, His future Coming], but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honour 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 heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain’
The reader may raise the objection that I’ve deliberately equated the radiance of Jesus’ appearance with the concept of ‘glory’ and have so jumped in with an interpretation which isn’t necessarily proven. But Luke 9:32 states that the three disciples, Peter, John and James
‘...saw His glory...’
and it’s the same Greek word (Strongs Greek number 1391) which is being employed in both verses. Therefore, the connection appears to be fairly certain that the radiance was the glory being referred to in both cases and that it came from the Father Himself rather than as a revealing of what was within Him. Of course, commentators can still see Luke’s statement in the light of their own understanding of Jesus’ divinity being revealed and Lukgeld comments on this verse that
‘...His divine glory radiated from Him’
even though the verse doesn’t make the comment as to where it came from. What the commentator should be compelled to accept, I feel, is that the apostle Peter stated quite plainly that the glory made known to the disciples as shining from Jesus was that which came not from within His own nature but from without, a clear bestowal of glory upon Him from the Father which reflected outwards.
Petbaulk, although he denies the authenticity of Peter as being the author of this letter, is correct in his statement that
‘Jesus is here no Hellenistic...“divine man”...The transfiguration is no epiphany of Jesus’ hidden divine nature’
That is, as far as Peter is concerned, what took place on the mountain was not a revelation that Jesus was uniquely divine (this had already been revealed to Peter and probably to the other disciples as well - Mtw 16:16-17) but that He was being honoured and glorified by the radiance with which He was now being clothed directly by God the Father.
There is doubt thrown onto the interpretation by the phrase ‘honour and glory’ as to what it exactly refers to and various commentators cite different possibilities. However, Petbaulk summarises the decision to be not a choice of description for each of the two words but as a necessity of interpreting both words as either representing
‘...the abstract honour [or] the visible glorification’
and notes that the mention of Peter as being an ‘eyewitness’ (II Peter 1:16) is a clear indication that the latter of these is intended. What the three disciples are actually witnessing is the glorification of Jesus as He will appear upon His return after the crucifixion and resurrection (and, subsequently, the ascension). The revelation, therefore, is one which causes the end of all things to be visibly present even when the reality of the need to bring to a conclusion what is set before Jesus is at hand. But this glorification of Jesus also must be seen to begin with the resurrection and to continue throughout the Church age when Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, clothed with glory and honour which will be made known visibly to all the inhabitants of the earth upon His return.
The glorification of Jesus, therefore, is seen to be primarily for the benefit of Jesus and not the disciples who wake in the midst of the event taking place and shortly before it concludes.
This future ‘glorification’ is spoken of elsewhere in the first three Gospels in numerous places, one of which we’ve just encountered in Mtw 16:27 where Jesus stated that
‘...the Son of man is to come with His angels in the glory of his Father, and then He will repay every man for what he has done’
and which is repeated in this Gospel in 19:28, 24:30 and 25:31. The purpose of the transfiguration is, therefore, not to reveal the divine nature of Jesus Christ to the disciples but to demonstrate the conclusion of the obedience of God’s Servant when the time of His suffering is nearly at hand. In this way, the discussion which Jesus is having with both Moses and Elijah who appear also in glory (the same word is used for this as it is for the glory of Jesus in Luke 9:32 which also points towards the light being something external to Jesus rather than that which was radiating from within Him) concerning His imminent death (Luke 9:31) becomes particularly relevant and this experience becomes a reassurance to Jesus Himself that obedience to the demands of God the Father are vitally necessary for the glorification to be achieved. When Jesus prays on the final evening before the suffering of the arrest, trial and crucifixion, John 17:4-5 records Jesus’ words as
‘I glorified Thee on earth, having accomplished the work which Thou gavest Me to do; and now, Father, glorify Thou Me in Thy own presence with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was made’
a direct appeal to God to allow Him to be clothed with the splendour which is now being revealed to Jesus as the ultimate reward for His continued obedience. While there’s certainly the element of the glory being God’s presence, it is wrong, I believe, to see it as emanating from within Jesus - rather, it comes from God the Father to assure His Servant that the end of all things is at hand and that that which He came to do on earth must be finally completed before the glorification will be assured. Therefore Lukmor writes that
‘In the quietness, [Jesus] had doubtless thought long about the outworking of His vocation. He was about to go up to Jerusalem and die for men. This vision on the mountain set the seal of divine approval on the step He was about to take’
while Mathen sees the incident occurring at this point
‘...in order that this might sustain Him in His fast approaching agony’
Having said this, we may also interpret the scene in simpler terms by stating that what, in effect, has happened is that Heaven has come down to earth on the top of the mountain and that the heavenly presence of God is now with them. When Moses talked with God on Mount Sinai, the children of Israel witnessed the fading glory emanating from His face (Ex 34:29-30) and, in I Tim 6:16, Paul notes that God dwells in unapproachable light.
Although it’s quite correct to see the glory of Jesus’ brilliance as a reassurance of the ultimate prize which awaited Him, it’s also true to say that it’s indicative of the presence of God, not only because of the light but because the disciples were also afraid before the cloud enveloped them (Mark 9:6), a mark of what happens when humans find themselves in the presence of God (Ex 34:30, Is 6:1-5, Daniel 8:17) along with the need to fall down before Him (II Chr 5:13-14, Ezek 1:28, Daniel 8:17).
A ‘cloud’ is also used in the OT as a symbol of God’s presence (Ex 13:21, 19:9, 34:5, II Chr 5:13-14) and it’s best to take the mention of such a cloud on the mountain as a supernatural phenomenon, a symbol of God’s presence, arranged for the withdrawal of the two heavenly visitors back into Heaven. We would be able to interpret it simply as a natural phenomenon were it not for Matthew’s note that the cloud was ‘bright’ (17:5 - Strongs Greek number 5460), a description used of the body being ‘full of light’ in its other four uses in the NT (Mtw 6:22, Luke 11:34, Luke 11:36 [twice]), and one which we wouldn’t expect as a naturally occurring cloud would obscure what light sources there were and bring with it a dulling of visibility.
We noted above that the event could have taken place during the dark part of the day (the day beginning around sunset) and the note that the cloud was ‘full of light’ would, in that case, be a certain statement that God’s presence was being referred to.
That the voice spoke to them from out of the cloud (Mtw 17:5) is certainly not against the OT occurrence where God spoke to Moses from out of the cloud’s midst (Ex 24:16), an event which similarly took place after six days (Mtw 17:1) and there’s certainly an allusion in the text to Jesus being the greater Moses. However, it doesn’t appear as if this association should be pressed too far for Elijah is difficult to be included in the allegorical interpretation and he’s also present.
If the disciples were already frightened before the cloud descended upon the mountain (Mark 9:5-6), however, then it would appear as if the presence of God was already there with them in the radiance which is coming from the vision before them, even though the Father envelopes the event with an OT symbol of His Divine Presence as the two messengers depart - if the three disciples had been awake, they may even have seen the bright cloud arrive, bringing with it both Moses and Elijah but this is speculation and needn’t be pressed onto the text.
Finally, we should note a principle here which is equally applicable to the life of the believer as it was in the life of Jesus. As we’ve seen above, the radiance which the disciples witnessed should be understood as being from God the Father rather than as a self-revelation of Jesus in the situation and so ties in well with the question Jesus asked the Jewish religious leaders in John 5:44 which runs
‘How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?’
It’s the glory that’s from God, the honour which is bestowed upon us by the Father that is worth having - not the fickle and deceptive honour that comes from one’s fellow man from insincere or deceived hearts. Jesus sought neither glory nor justification from man (John 5:41), neither did He try to glorify Himself before mankind (John 8:54) but always desired to glorify the Father in all things (John 12:28, 14:13, 17:4), the end result being that the Father both glorified and justified the Son through the transfiguration (Mtw 17:5, II Peter 1:17) and, further, in the resurrection and ascension (Acts 3:13, I Peter 1:21, Rom 6:4).
Likewise, believers shouldn’t seek the earthly glory for themselves - neither ‘self-glory’ - but to glorify and honour the Father in all things out of their love for Him. As a result, the believer will find himself gloried and justified because of the sincerity and love of their hearts.
Moses and Elijah
Mtw 17:3, Mark 9:4, Luke 9:30-31
The early Church writers saw no difficulty, it would appear, in recording the events concerning Jesus and adding their own definite conclusions as to which OT passage of Scripture was being fulfilled by the event, even though some of the ones applied seem, at first glance, to be the most obscure.
For the commentator who believes in the inspiration of Scripture, one only has to come to terms with why the Scripture is a fulfilment and he needs to do no work in attempting to begin from scratch to determine which events are foreshadowed.
When modern day commentators come along and begin to assign OT passages to NT events, it’s unlikely that they would follow the logic of, for instance, Matthew who speaks of the murder of the babies in Bethlehem (Mtw 2:16) and then go on to claim that a Scripture is being fulfilled which bears no direct association with the event (Mtw 2:17-18) or to begin to think about the moving of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Nazareth and cite a Scripture which has perplexed commentators as to which specific one was being meant (Mtw 2:23).
When we come to the event of the transfiguration, it would have been better that Matthew had added the odd
‘And this took place that what was written by the prophet might be fulfilled...’
than to give the modern day commentator a free hand to interpret the Scriptures and allow Him to snatch at all sorts of theories and applications which may or may not directly apply. Such is the case when we approach the two figures of Moses and Elijah here and attempt to gain some understanding of why it was these two figures appeared speaking to Jesus concerning His imminent suffering and death (Luke 9:30-31) for, even though the two OT figures are neither obscure nor totally dominant within its pages, why it should be that it was these two who turned up on the mountain remains, largely, a puzzle.
Mathen even begins his discussion of the problem with a few questioning remarks about how it was that the three disciples even managed to recognise who they were - after all, it’s unlikely that each of them wore teeshirts stating, on one, ‘Moses’ and, on the other, ‘Elijah’ and a positive identification seems already apparent by the time they begin to descend the mountain (Mtw 17:10). Perhaps it’s best simply to say that ‘they knew’ in much the same way as a revelation given to a believer sometimes can’t be put into specific words when it’s ‘felt’ in the spirit and imparted to them by a direct move of God.
Nevertheless, for all the discussions concerning the reason for these two figures appearing, Mathen sums up the discussions with the statement that
‘...the simplest and best answer still seems to be that Moses and Elijah represented respectively the Law and the prophets, both of which Jesus came to fulfil (Mtw 5:17, Luke 24:27,44)’
I noted on my web page when we looked at the first occurrence of this phrase ‘the Law and the prophets’ (a phrase which doesn’t occur in the transfiguration passage) that it was a simple way of summarising the entire OT canon in three simple words and quoted Matmor as writing that
‘The Law strictly denotes the Pentateuch [Genesis to Deuteronomy] and that is its meaning here. With it Jesus joins the prophets. The Jews spoke of “the former prophets” under which heading they included the books from Joshua to II Kings and “the latter prophets” which were the books we speak of as prophecy’
If this is the correct interpretation of these two figures, then they arrive here to assure Jesus that what He’s about to do is founded upon the totality of the witness of the ancient writings and that He will fulfil them. However, the one thing which seems to be against such an interpretation is that I can nowhere find that the prophet Elijah was ever considered to be the representative figure of the prophets, even though His importance is without doubt. So, although the parallel with the ‘Law and the prophets’ is a good one, it’s uncertain whether the disciples would have taken it in this way - more important is whether this is the way in which Jesus would have understood it for, as I’ve noted above, the vision was primarily given for Him not them. Lukmor summarises their appearing as pointing
‘...towards the hour of fulfilment of all that the OT foreshadows’
and this would indeed be the required interpretation.
Alternatively, there may have been the common belief in Judaism at that time that both Moses and Elijah had to appear before the coming of the Messiah, Matmor quoting the only Rabbinic source (so he states) in a footnote which reads (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:17)
‘Moses, I swear to you, as you devoted your life to their service in this world, so too in the time to come when I bring Elijah the prophet unto them, the two of you shall come together’
but this is a late comment attached to an OT passage and we can’t be certain either that it was common in the land of Israel in Jesus’ day or that it was held as true amongst the ordinary people. Even more important, however, is whether Jesus ever believed its authenticity and that He now sees the appearance of both Moses and Elijah as being its fulfilment.
Besides, the Jewish commentary states that both figures would come before the coming of Messiah and Jesus is already aware that Elijah came in the shape of John the Baptist (Mtw 17:11-12), not as a literal figure but as one who came under the anointing and power of that prophet, with the same sort of ministry as the former prophet had of calling back the nation into the true service of God. Why would the disciples have been perplexed solely about the coming of Elijah but not of Moses had this belief been prevalent (Mtw 17:10)?
There’s little to commend this association with a later Rabbinic tradition, then, even though something along these lines may have been in the mind of Peter when he came out with his statement which inferred that he wished to make what was temporary permanent by the building of three shelters to house the characters.
Another interpretation of the figures is that they both represented OT men who never died. I know that the reader will immediately object that Moses is recorded as dying in Deut 34:1-8 and that there’s no other way of interpreting these words than that a normal physical death took place, but Rabbinic tradition (again!) failed to accept that such an event took place, Mathag citing two Jewish sources (Sota 13b in the Babylonian Talmud and The Assumption of Moses) which state that Moses was taken directly to Heaven in the same manner as both Enoch (Gen 5:24) and Elijah (II Kings 2:11).
The figures would then be seen to be the two figures who could have come from Heaven itself to meet with Jesus on the mountain. Unfortunately, the Rabbinic interpretation of the translation of Moses into Heaven is again a late record rather than one which can be proved to have been believed in first century Israel and, besides this, it directly contradicts the OT Scriptures which state that Moses died. Better it would have been had Elijah and Enoch appeared for they are the two definite translations in the OT and could have been taken not just to have been the only two human messengers from Heaven who could have logically come but who would have represented both Jew and Gentile, Enoch having lived before Abraham’s call.
One commentator notes that Moses’ translation into Heaven may have been after his death and he cites Jude 9 but this interpretation is far from certain. Rev 11:4-6 could also be taken as a reference to them but, as no names are given there, the allusions to the type of ministry they fulfil may be deceptive - it’s just impossible to be sure.
This interpretation, therefore, doesn’t appear to have a lot going for it if used as a reason for Moses and Elijah’s presence - again, that Jesus would have understood Moses as having been translated into Heaven is unlikely, if not impossible.
Morris CNT, along with other commentators, also sees the possibility that the two figures should be interpreted as being present because of the type of people they were and how this relates into what they are heard to discuss with Jesus (Luke 9:31). He observes that
‘...both these were men who agonised over the sins of their people, men who, while not personally sharing in the people’s sins, yet felt themselves very much one with the people’
Moses demonstrating this is recorded in such passages as Ex 32:11-13, 32:31-32, Num 14:4-5, 14:13-19 and Elijah in I Kings 19:10, 19:14. However, we may be reading too much into the characters of both Moses and Elijah, even though Morris CNT quotes Ryder Smith in the footnote as writing
‘With both there had been an agony of years...The chief element in the imperfect salvation that they wrought was the fact that they so loved their people that they must identify themselves with them, yet must all the time refuse to sin with them. This means that in their degree they shared both in Jehovah’s love for Israel and in His abhorrence of their sins, and that the two passions tore them in two. This is the very tension of salvation. When our Lord was about to set His face to go to Jerusalem, it helped Him to think of those who had won a smaller yet similar battle’
At the very least, we can say that it puts the transfiguration squarely back into an experience for Jesus rather than for the disciples but, if we look for similarities in any two people’s lives, we’re bound to find them. In the majority of prophets’ lives, however, especially those recorded in the last part of the NT, we would be hard pressed to find any who didn’t agonise over their people’s sins among those who were sent to their own nation (Jonah, therefore, being excluded). The point isn’t that Elijah didn’t feel the people’s sins against God but why was it that Elijah out of them all was chosen - and this doesn’t appear to be satisfactorily answered by this theory. It does however give a good indication of how they could associate themselves with Jesus in that, while they each could do nothing ultimately to turn the nation to God wholly, they are followers of YHWH who would have longed for the coming of the Christ and of the final solution to the ultimate problem of sin.
It’s Luknol alone who cites Mal 4:4-5, even though he doesn’t appear to treat the Scripture as being fulfilled in the incident of the transfiguration. I dealt with how difficult it is for the modern day commentator to categorically state that OT passages and verses are being fulfilled in the situations and events of the NT at the very beginning of this section with the specific intention of suggesting to the reader that this OT Scripture may be the reason for the appearance of both Moses and Elijah on the mountain.
It is only our hesitancy - or should I say, our lack of divine revelation! - that causes us to hold back from positively and decisively stating that a fulfilment took place when the allusion appears to be somewhat tenuous. But Malachi closes the prophetic words of his book with both a backward look to the beginning of the nation in Moses and, subsequently, with a forward look to the very end of all time and, presumably, to the end of the nation as it would be on earth.
In this way, Moses and Elijah represent the past and future dealings of God with the nation or, more simply, the past and future dealings of God with man. As such, we see in the three characters on the mountain both the past and the present in Moses and Elijah, but also the present in Jesus - and the event of the crucifixion which are shortly to take place in the present and about which they speak (Luke 9:31) is seen to be the move of God which both unites and gives purpose and reason to all things.
In this way, Jesus is seen as the centre of the ages, the pivot upon which the entire Creation turns and in whom all time is united - whether it be the promises of the past contained in the Law or of the future which is still to come.
This may sound a difficult interpretation to accept, especially as Jesus is immediately asked concerning Elijah and announces him as having already come in the person of John the Baptist (Mtw 17:10-13) but the passage in Malachi deals with the coming of Elijah before the ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’ which was an event which was future at the time of writing and which is, presumably, still to come even in our present age.
I would suggest, therefore, that the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountain of transfiguration was to fulfil Mal 4:4-5 and to show that all history is centred on the work of Christ on the cross, the resurrection and ascension.
Mtw 17:4, Mark 9:5, Luke 9:33
Poor old Peter - he seems to have had a bad week which had initially started out so well.
He’d publicly proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mtw 16:16) and received a great promise from God concerning himself and the Church (Mtw 16:18-19) before demonstrating that He actually had no idea as to what Messiahship actually meant (Mtw 16:22) and now, six days afterwards, is so frightened by the events that he wakes up and witnesses that he comes out with the most ridiculous of statements (Mark 9:5-6).
Some have seen in Peter’s statement a parallel with the Feast of Tabernacles (or ‘Booths’) - I guess simply because the same word for the temporary accommodation used at that feast is used in this passage - but the link is tenuous even if it does exist. But Ancient Sandals associates the festival here with Peter’s statement, asking the question as to whether Peter thought that the millennial rule of God had now come by the appearance of the two OT figures and was therefore wanting to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles by a misunderstanding of Zech 14:16-19.
The tabernacle is definitely a symbol of the Kingdom which is to come and there may be a hint of an eschatological reality in them which Peter sees as having come about. Although this could have been the case, it’s surely best to forget about any possible reference to the festival of Succoth and, instead, see the booths as what they are in the common day to day living of that time - that is, temporary accommodation that could be used for shelter and rest, used here because Peter thinks that the Kingdom has now come and that accommodation must be provided for the three important figures rather than seeing Peter’s wish to build them as a direct association of the structure with the Kingdom.
In seeing the two figures in glory, having returned from the presence of God beyond the grave, Peter assumes that the Kingdom of God has visibly come to earth permanently and so sets about trying to provide a dwelling place for each of the three figures (where did Peter propose to get the building materials for such a project, I wonder? Was the mountain top covered in trees and had he brought cutting tools with him?!). Marklane comments perceptively that Peter
‘...is anxious to find the fulfilment of the promised glory now, prior to the sufferings Jesus had announced as necessary. His comment reflects a failure to appreciate that the transfiguration was only a momentary anticipation of the glory of the consummated Kingdom’
and his reaction shows that he’s still not grasped the truth which Jesus has already stated previously that first must come the sufferings of the cross (Mtw 16:21). For Peter, if there’s a way round avoiding the necessity of the crucifixion, then he’s quite willing to take it with all eagerness - even though this is probably not a proposition which is being considered. Rather, he’s so caught up with the vision he’s now seeing, that he forgets all about Jesus’ words. Peter’s suggestion, therefore, is tantamount to saying
‘Let’s stay here and forget the cross’
and has a similar purpose to his
‘God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to You!’
of Mtw 16:22. Thinking that what is being witnessed is permanent, he tries to make provision for it - albeit temporarily - so that the glory of God’s presence might not depart from them and that, presumably, the Kingdom of Heaven might continue to exist in the splendour which is before them. As Luknol comments
‘He does not fully appreciate that he is here attempting to stand in the way of the Divine purpose’
where Luke’s record that Peter didn’t know what he was saying sums up the statement as something said on the spur of the moment, the implications of which have not fully been thought through.
Alternatively, the idea behind Peter’s words may just simply have been to attempt to make the experience last without any belief in the vision as being permanent and of the necessity to establish the three figures on the mountain top. Therefore, Luknol writes, in accordance with many other of the commentators, that
‘Peter wants to freeze the moment...would arrest the action at this point of anticipatory presence of the glory that is to be Jesus’ beyond death’
But this seems to assume that Peter thinks the experience is only intended as being temporary when there’s no indication that, when he woke from sleep, the solidity of the experience could have suggested transience to him. If this is so, however, then there’s no perception whatsoever in Peter’s mind that what is now transpiring is an indication that the Kingdom of God has come.
Matfran suggests that there may even have been the idea of extending some sort of adequate hospitality to the visitors and, although this suggestion may sound absurd, the fact that Peter speaks the words recorded because he doesn’t know what to say (Luke 9:33), it’s possible that he might just have said the first thing which came into his head without having any hidden agendas - or even said it as a response to his own, unknown, interpretation of the scene before him.
While this is possible, it’s best to take Peter’s reaction as at least thinking that the necessity of the cross has passed and that the glory of God’s presence has returned as would have been expected in the future establishing of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
The Father’s statement
Mtw 17:5, Mark 9:7, Luke 9:35
The apostle Peter was the only man recorded in the Bible who was interrupted by the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit on three successive and separate occasions. Here, in Mtw 17:5, Peter was still speaking when the cloud obscured the three figures and the voice came from its midst announcing the special relationship God had with Jesus. Previously, in Mtw 16:22-3, no sooner had the words come out from his mouth that he would that the cross should never happen, than Jesus turned and rebuked him for being against the purposes of God.
Finally, in Acts 10:44, while he was speaking to Cornelius the centurion and his gathered family, friends and servants, the Holy Spirit fell upon those listening and brought his speech to an untimely end.
In fact, so spiritual and insightful was Peter that, on one occasion, even a chicken interrupted him (Luke 22:60 - was it a fowl spirit? Only kidding). So Peter, although he’ll be used by God for great purposes, is always that sort of character who’ll find that God will use Him in spite of who he is on occasions rather than because of who he is!
The Father’s statement here as recorded in Matthew is identical both in the Greek and English with that which He speaks in Mtw 3:17 with the one exception that added is the phrase
‘Listen to Him’
also recorded by the other two writers (Mark 9:7, Luke 9:35) even though the first phrase appears with some variation, notably the second half which talks about Him being ‘well pleased’. This first phrase has been previously dealt with and the reader should turn there for an explanation. I concluded there by considering the allusions to the OT Scriptures which are indicated by the statement that
‘In the speech from God, coming from Heaven itself, we see an allusion both to the Servanthood and the Sovereignty of Jesus - the Servant in that He does for mankind what no other person can through His death and resurrection on the cross and the Sovereign in that, having been fully obedient to the will of the Father, He is exalted into a position of unequalled authority and power to begin to reign over the nations of the world (Mtw 28:18, Heb 2:8)...When God speaks of His Beloved in Mtw 3:17, then, we are seeing a proclamation of Jesus as being both the ultimate Servant and the ultimate King’
What we need to determine here, though, is why the additional words ‘listen to Him’ appear in the context in which they were spoken for, as a believer would no doubt assert, Jesus is the One who always needs to be listened to and the command is nothing less than that which would have been expected. Some commentators who see in the words nothing more than an altruism that Jesus should always be listened to have missed setting the words in the context in which they were spoken and their inclusion here serve a special purpose.
Peter had answered the situation in Mtw 17:4 (where the Greek has the verb ‘to answer’ even though the RSV obscures its inclusion) by suggesting that three booths be constructed to house the three figures bathed in glory, but now it’s the Father’s turn to answer Peter (17:5) and his suggestion that they might stay on the mountain and disregard the need for the cross (see above).
Out of this situation, therefore, the command to listen or pay attention to Jesus should be considered. That is, that paying attention to Jesus’ specific pronouncements concerning the imminent sufferings in Jerusalem is what should be foremost in their minds - not the attempt to cling on to what is currently transpiring as being the way forward. Therefore Luknol writes that
‘The glory they have seen is the glory to which Jesus is destined as chosen Son, but what they have glimpsed in this anticipatory scene comes to its fulfilment only by way of the cross’
while Mathag notes that
‘The idea of erecting three shrines [sic] reflected a misunderstanding of the uniqueness of Jesus and of His centrality to the whole sweep of salvation history’
The Father’s words, therefore, serve as a fitting answer to Peter’s response in the situation and focus attention once more on the need for the cross rather than on the need for the Messiah to be visibly installed and confirmed as King over the earth.
There may also be an allusion to Deut 18:15 where Moses speaks to the children of Israel about the Prophet who is to come and says
‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren - him you shall heed...’
but, although the parallel is clear in our own minds concerning this OT Scripture, it’s unlikely that it would be very clear in that of the disciples’. Rather, they would hear in God the Father’s words a direct response to the suggestion of Peter to build three temporary structures to house Jesus and the visitors.
This web page has already shown that the brightness seen by the disciples was not an unveiling of the divinity of Jesus and that the event wasn’t primarily intended for the disciples to witness but for Jesus to experience and so be strengthened in the coming journey towards Jerusalem. Neither are Moses and Elijah likely to be representative of the Law and the Prophets as is normally interpreted but are symbols of the past and the future in fulfilment of an OT Scripture in Malachi.
It appears, then, if the reader agrees, that we have misunderstood the transfiguration on a number of fundamental issues and need to rethink the passage. While it doesn’t alter the most basic of theologies that Christ had to die and be raised from the dead, it does change the way we consider Jesus to have operated while on earth and the intention of both Peter’s and the Father’s words in the context of the need for the cross before glorification.
That the disciples ‘fell on their faces’ as the cloud overshadowed them and as the voice was heard was a natural reaction of the Jew to something which was considered to be divine and, even if we take their reaction to be not a traditional response but a sudden, unmeditated one, it still gave opportunity for the vision to be suddenly ended that, when Jesus touched them on the shoulder and told them not to fear (one of the most common commands in the Scriptures), they see nothing of the vision except Jesus standing before them in the normal surroundings atop the mountain.
Little more needs to be said, therefore, except that Jesus and the disciples appear to have stayed very little time after the vision, descending to the crowds who were gathering in the valley below, receiving a direct command as they travelled but also being curious enough to question the significance of the prophet Elijah (Mtw 17:9-13).
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