The transfiguration of Jesus
Following the discussions, Jesus takes three disciples up a mountain where he is transfigured. Moses and Elijah appear and God the Father speaks. This is an important event for Jesus and the disciples.
Following the discussions, Jesus takes three disciples up a mountain where he is transfigured. Moses and Elijah appear and God the Father speaks. This is an important event for Jesus and the disciples.
Hello and welcome to Series 7 and Episode 3 where we're going to discuss the ‘Transfiguration of Jesus’. We're going to use the account in Matthew's Gospel as our main text, although we'll refer to the accounts given in Mark and Luke as well. The account in Matthew's Gospel appears in Matthew 17: 1 - 13.
Introduction and Recap
We're now well on our way in Series 7. Series 6 saw the third tour of Galilee that Jesus made with his disciples, having sent them out to preach in the early part of that tour, and then travelling together with them in the latter part. We saw events reach somewhat of a climax in Galilee with tremendous support for him but also opposition rising from both the political establishment, King Herod Antipas, (potentially standing against him at some point in the future) and also from the religious establishment, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and their agents particularly the Pharisees, who challenge Jesus frequently. In Series 7, we follow a journey that Jesus has taken. We noticed at the end of Series 6, that in the rather complex circumstances of Galilee, Jesus decided to spend some time outside that particular province. First of all, he went to Phoenicia, where he met a Canaanite woman, whose daughter he healed miraculously, and then he went over to the Decapolis area, another Gentile region, over to the east of Galilee and there he fed 4000 and performed other miracles. It's interesting at the end of Series 6, Jesus is spending time outside Galilee. This is the third situation in which we see Jesus outside Galilee. He's been to Phoenicia, he's been to the Decapolis, and now he goes north-east to the territory of Herod Philip, the brother of Herod Antipas - a different jurisdiction, in a different territory. He's been through Bethsaida and now he's also been to one of their main cities, Caesarea Philippi. He's managed to avoid crowds and achieve some privacy with his disciples and in the last 2 episodes, he's been teaching them very significant things. These are recorded in Matthew 16 just before the passage we're looking at now. We have the question Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” Peter confesses that he is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Then Jesus teaches Peter and others about the foundational principles of the Church. He teaches them about discipleship, the cost of discipleship and particularly he emphasises the fact that he is going to suffer and die, go to Jerusalem and be raised again from the dead. We have the disciples taken away from public ministry and public life. They're now in private, a long way away from Galilee, and they've managed to get away from the crowds and become relatively anonymous, in the area of Caesarea Philippi. There's been a lot of teaching going on.
In this particular episode today, we'll see the decisive change of direction of Jesus' ministry and we'll find that he is now heading for Jerusalem. He's not going to spend time back in Galilee again. His three tours are over; his many months of ministry are now finished; and he is moving on to the next phase of his ministry. He's at Caesarea Philippi as this particular episode starts and nearby are quite a few hills and mountains. This is the area which we would describe as southern Lebanon, Northern Israel and the Golan Heights (in modern geography) and the southern westernmost parts of Syria. It's quite a mountainous area, in that situation, which is very significant because Jesus now is going to go up one of those mountains with three of his disciples. Let's follow the story. Let's go to Matthew 17: 1 - 13 verses.
‘After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don't be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.’Matthew 17:1-13, NIV
A High Mountain
This is truly a dramatic moment. This very high mountain is almost certainly a mountain that is quite near Caesarea Philippi, just a little bit further north. Maybe 10 or 15 kilometres away is a very high mountain called Mount Hermon, 2800 metres high. In the context of the nation of Israel, this is a very high mountain indeed, much higher than any of the hills in Galilee. Mount Hermon is the highest mountain in that area and it would have been a substantial walk for Jesus to go with his inner circle of disciples up this mountain. It's a suitable location for this remarkable experience.
An Inner Circle
He takes with him Peter, James and John. This is the inner circle within the Twelve, although Peter is the leader. Peter, James and John are the inner circle. They're mentioned a number of times in the Gospels as having privileged access to Jesus or being selected to spend time with him, for example: in an episode we've already covered when Jairus' daughter is healed only Peter, James and John are allowed in the room when Jesus heals this girl. Another example, from later on in Jesus' life, is the time he spent in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his betrayal, and he invited Peter James and John to go with him, separate from the others, and to stay awake with him during that incredibly difficult time. Peter, James and John represent the inner circle.
Verse 2 ‘There he was transfigured before them.’ What does this word transfigured mean? It means to be transformed, to take on a different appearance. You're the same person but you have a different appearance, an appearance of lights and an appearance of glory and an appearance of power. It's very hard to put exact words to describe what this might be if we haven't had this experience. Something similar is described in a number of parts of the Bible and particularly the book of Revelation 1 and John, the very same John who is here at the Mount of Transfiguration, has an experience and a revelation of the person of Jesus in Revelation 1: 12 - 18. If I just read verses 14 to 16, you'll get some feeling of what this actually meant. He was speaking of Jesus when he said,
“The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”Revelation 1:14-16, NIV
You get a very clear impression here of extraordinary brightness in the appearance of Jesus in this vision. That's very similar to what we see described here in Matthew 17.
Moses and Elijah
In verse 3, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. What's the significance of Moses and Elijah? They probably are representatives of the prophetic ministry in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. They are outstanding prophets. Moses, for example, who led the people out of Egypt, was described as having such a relationship with God that in Exodus 33: 11 it says, ‘The Lord would speak to Moses face-to-face as one speaks to a friend.’ Direct intimacy with God. In Deuteronomy 18: 18 he predicts that God says, “I'll raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites and I'll put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.” It is this particular prophet who then becomes described in the New Testament as ‘The Prophet’, the supreme prophet who the Israelites were expecting. For example, in John 7: 40 when some people in Jerusalem heard Jesus speaking, ‘some of the people said, “Surely this man is The Prophet”.’ That's a reference back to a prophet in the order, and of the calibre of, Moses. He was a truly great prophet. As indeed was Elijah - well known for his mighty acts and his astonishing revelation. We'll say a little bit more about Elijah a little later on.
The Subject of Discussion?
What were they discussing? Here we have the benefit of the different accounts. One of the beauties of studying the Gospels in the way we've chosen to do, is that we're always cross-referencing different accounts of the same events, believing that God has given us all these accounts to help us understand the events, and that each writer will give us something distinctive. A very good example appears here, where in Luke's account, in Luke 9: 30 - 31, Luke is very clear about what they're talking about.
‘Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.’Luke 9:30-31, NIV
It's a very interesting expression: the word ‘departure’ - meaning his death and his resurrection, in the sense, his departure from this world. Interestingly enough, he was about to bring it to fulfilment in Jerusalem. In other words, Jesus was going to initiate a series of events that would lead to his death, his resurrection and his departure. It becomes clear from this point, that Jesus must shortly travel south. Where he is, at that time on Mount Hermon, or somewhere near there, was about 180 kilometres north of Jerusalem so quite a long way to travel.
As they were talking, and Peter, James and John were listening, they decided that they wanted to honour the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter, James and John were completely out of their depth. This event happened to them completely unexpectedly and they haven't really any idea what was going on, or what the significance of it was. They offered to make shelters. What are these shelters and what's their significance? The tradition of the Jews was that, in the feast of Tabernacles, one of their main religious festivals, the people would live for a time, a few days during the feast, outside their homes or if they travelled to Jerusalem, outside any hostel or any place they were staying, in tents or shelters made of branches and leaves and wood that they could gather. These shelters symbolised the fact that they had been in the wilderness, in the period of Moses and the wandering years between being in Egypt and getting into the promised land. Also, interestingly enough, it was anticipated by the prophet Zechariah that in the age of the Messiah, the Messianic Age, the feast of Tabernacles would be resumed. In a Zechariah 14: 16,
‘The survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year by year to worship … the Lord Almighty to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles.’Zechariah 14:16, NIV
They're celebrating the feast of Tabernacles; they'll have these shelters. These shelters had a kind of spiritual significance and this was the first thought that came to the mind of Peter and others. They were to be a sign of respect and a sign of recognition that God was at work.
God, the Father, Speaks
In verse 5, we have another surprise. We hear the voice of God the Father audibly, “This is my Son whom I love. With him I'm well pleased. Listen to him.” This is very remarkable. The voice of God the Father is heard audibly three times in the Gospels. The first time is at Jesus' baptism. “This is my Son whom I love. With him I am well pleased.” A similar statement to the one that we have here, Matthew 3: 7. Then later on, during the final days of Jesus' life, as recorded in John 12: 28, speaking of God's name, God the Father says, “I have glorified my name and will glorify it again.” That is, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. On three occasions, the audible voice of God the Father is heard, in order to equip, challenge and encourage the people who were hearing that voice. The significance of the voice on this occasion is particularly in the expression, ‘Listen to him.’ Jesus was trying, at this point in his ministry, to tell them very important things. We've seen this in the last couple of episodes. He's been talking about the foundations of the Church; he's been talking about his death and suffering and resurrection; he's been talking about the cost of discipleship; and he's been talking about the possibility of going to Jerusalem. The voice of God the Father is speaking to Peter, James and John, saying, “Listen carefully to what my Son is saying” as his ministry changes, and he is preparing them for the future.
They come to a discussion about Elijah, verse 10 onwards,
‘The disciples asked him, “Why then do the Teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has come already, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.’Matthew 17:10-13, NIV
The reference here is, not only obviously to John the Baptist but to the prophecy of the book of Malachi, concerning God's messengers and Elijah. Elijah has appeared in person on this particular occasion and this provokes some discussion and thought amongst the disciples. As I've mentioned on several occasions in different episodes, as it is appropriate to mention, for context and for explanation, what the Jews had in mind, which Peter, James and John would have had in mind at this point, is the prophecies in Malachi. Malachi 3 verse 1 and Malachi 4 verse 5. One speaks about a messenger coming, before the Lord comes in power, and the second one speaks specifically about the prophet Elijah coming before ‘the great and dreadful day of Lord’. The first messenger ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ is John the Baptist, who was executed. Then another Elijah-type figure is going to come at Jesus' second coming. The first Elijah-type figure, John the Baptist, was executed.
All of this is a lot to take in for the 3 disciples, Peter, James and John. How are they going to manage to interpret this incredible experience? How would we manage to process it? It really took them by surprise. They'd had a remarkable experience talking to Jesus about the Church and Jesus' identity. They'd heard about him going to die on the cross and suffer and be raised again from the dead on the third day. They've got all that to think about. They'd got the feeling that they were going to be leaving Galilee permanently and travelling to Jerusalem. Suddenly, they get on the mountain and, without any warning, Moses and Elijah appear! Jesus is transformed into a kind of glorious person, reflecting much more of the heavenly glory, which he laid aside when he came to earth as a man. They hear the voice of God the Father speaking to them, speaking about his Son, and encouraging them to listen carefully to the things he was saying. They have an awful lot to process. Mark gives us an insight into their conversation as they were coming down the mountain. It takes quite a long time to go up and down such a high mountain, plenty of time for conversation. Mark's account of this event occurs in Mark 9: 9 and 10 give us an insight into the conversation that was going on.
‘As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.’Mark 9:9-10, NIV
They were sworn to secrecy and they were pondering what this resurrection was going to be. You see, Jews at the time, believed in the resurrection of righteous people, that they would physically rise again from the dead. It was the general belief, not everybody, but it was the general belief of religious Jews at the time. They believed that would all happen at the very end of the age - long, long, long time in the future. What Jesus was saying was, he was going to die and rise again 3 days later. It was going to be an immediate event. A future event was going to be brought back into the present. That puzzled them. They were struggling to understand everything that was going on.
We've had a look at this amazing event called the Transfiguration. We've tried to get into the shoes of the disciples as they were working out what on earth was going on and what the significance of the events was. I want to end with just a few final reflections on this magnificent event. First of all, it helps us to see Jesus, the Son of God, from an eternal perspective. You see, we tend to view him, if we're studying the Gospels, in purely human terms. We see him as a human being from his conception to his resurrection and his ascension. Everything about him we can describe in human terms because he is utterly human. His humanity is like your humanity and mine. What we can easily forget is that Jesus, as the Son of God, existed in eternity before he became a man. Jesus' identity did not start with his humanity; it started with his deity. He's existed from eternity with his Father and the Holy Spirit of God - 3 in 1 and 1 in 3 - before all of creation and existing eternally. His humanity was a subsequent event. He adopted human nature; he became a human being at the incarnation. This event suddenly helps us to see - he really is the divine Son of God. He's not just an ordinary human and he can connect with that divine and eternal world very easily.
This discussion that Jesus has, with Moses and Elijah, suggests that he is preparing now for a total change of his ministry. He's leaving Galilee; he's leaving his home area; and he is going to Jerusalem. He's not going to be returning. He's not going to be doing a fourth tour of Galilee. He's not going to be doing another tour of preaching. Jerusalem is going to be the place where the final events of Jesus ministry are going to be played out. He's instructing Peter, James and John so that they can help the rest of the disciples get used to the change of environment. They are going to go out of their home district. They're not going to be anywhere near their homes or their families. They're going to be experiencing more hostility, more complexity. They're going to be facing suffering and difficulty and they're ultimately going to be in the environment of Jesus' death and ultimately his resurrection. They're being prepared for this great change. God has a wonderful way of preparing us for change - giving us an indication of the things that are going to happen in the future. Maybe that happens to you from time to time.
Two out of the three people who experience Jesus' Transfiguration actually wrote about it; John and Peter. In very different ways, they reflected on the experience that they'd had here and indeed elsewhere. John's reflection comes in John 1, the passage we've studied already, but in John 1: 14 he says,
‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’John 1:14, NIV
When he says we've seen his glory he means it in a very literal sense. He, with his own eyes, saw the full glory of Jesus in his deity on the Mount of Transfiguration. Peter, likewise, in 2 Peter 1: 16 - 18, speaks very specifically about the Transfiguration. He writes many years later, but he remembers the event we just looked at very vividly. This is his interpretation.
‘For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.’2 Peter 1:16, NIV
An interesting expression, ‘eyewitnesses of his majesty’. That's what he's describing as the Transfiguration.
‘He received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.’2 Peter 1:17-18, NIV
Many years later, Peter remembers vividly the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration equipped Jesus to engage with the next and difficult phase of his ministry. He heard the voice of his Father. He had discussions with Moses and Elijah, who appeared miraculously. More particularly, it equipped Peter, James and John, who needed to be the backbone of the group of 12 disciples, as they headed south for a showdown in Jerusalem. We'll be following that story very thoroughly as we continue our studies. Thanks for joining me.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- How would you have acted if you had been there?
- Does this event in Jesus’ life help you to see him from an eternal perspective?
- Have you experienced God preparing you for something that happened later in your life - or is yet to happen?
- The Transfiguration is a difficult event to understand. What does ‘transfiguration’ mean?
- Why was it Moses and Elijah, in particular, who were speaking with Jesus?