Transfiguration

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In all three synoptic gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk), the story of the Transfiguration is preceded by:

  1. The recognition that Jesus is "the Christ" (the Messiah, the one anointed to be King of Israel (King of Judah, King of the Jews).
  2. Jesus' prophesy that He would have to suffer and die in Jerusalem.

So the Transfiguration takes place "six days" (Mt & Mk) or "eight days" (Lk) after the apostles accept that "Jesus is the Christ, the King." It is clear by the questions they ask as they descend from the Mount of Transfiguration that this is still uppermost in their minds. Many Jews believed that Elijah would be sent from Heaven to anoint the next Christ-King in the line of King David.

In hindsight, looking at this story after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and using the gifts of the Spirit Who was poured out upon the apostles at Pentecost, we can see that the Transfiguration is a foreshadowing of Jesus' resurrection from the dead and a revelation of His glory as God the Son. From the standpoint of the fully developed dogma of the Trinity, "Son of God" necessarily means "God the Son." The text of the Transfiguration, if taken in isolation from the other Scriptures that assert the divinity of Jesus, does not go beyond the exaltation of a human being--just as Moses face was filled with radiance after seeing God face-to-face.

We see things in the event that Peter, James, and John did not see on that day. We know things about Jesus that they did not know at that time. We know the "deeper meaning" (Latin: sensus plenior) of the text.

v. Matthew 17 v. Mark 9 v. Luke 9
1 After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. 28 About eight days after he said this, he took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.
2 And he was transfigured before them; 1 And he was transfigured before them,
2 his face shone like the sun 29 While he was praying his face changed in appearance
2 and his clothes became white as light. 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. 29 and his clothing became dazzling white.
3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. 4 Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. 30 And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
32 Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
4 Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 5 Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 33 As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
6 He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. 33 But he did not know what he was saying.
5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, 7 Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; 34 While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
5 then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." 7 then from the cloud came a voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my chosen Son; listen to him."
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.
7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and do not be afraid."
8 And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. 8 Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them. 36 After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, "Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." 9 As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant. 36 They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.
10 Then the disciples asked him, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" 11 Then they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"
11 He said in reply, "Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; 12 He told them, "Elijah will indeed come first and restore all things, yet how is it written regarding the Son of Man that he must suffer greatly and be treated with contempt?
12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands." 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him."
13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Disagree

  • Six (Mt and Mk) or eight days (Lk) after the dialogue about "Who do people say I am?"

Mild disagreement

  • "A high mountain" (Mt and Mk) vs "the mountain" (Lk).
  • Mt and Mk: "beloved" Son; Lk: "chosen" Son.

All agree

  • Moses and Elijah appeared and had a conversation with Jesus.
  • Peter offered to build three tents (Latin: tabernacles) for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Exodus; "Feast of Booths").
  • A bright cloud came over them (Exodus).
  • The disciples were frightened and/or terrified at some point in the story.
    • Mt: The disciples fell face-down on the ground and became "very much afraid" when they heard the voice (6).
    • Mk: The disciples were terrified by the appearance of Moses and Elijah (v. 6-- before the cloud and the voice).
    • Lk: "They became frightened when they entered the cloud" (34).
  • "This is my ... Son; listen to him." Variations:
    • Mt: "beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
    • Mk: "beloved Son."
    • Lk: "chosen Son."
  • At the end, Jesus was alone with the disciples.
  • They did not tell others what they had seen.

Matthew alone

  • "He was transfigured before them" (17:1). Greek: metemorphothe, which became “metamorphosis” in English. "Transfiguration" is from the Latin translation of the Greek.
  • "His clothes became white as light" (17:2).
  • Only Matthew records that the Father said "I am well pleased" with the Son (17:5). The same words were used in the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:17. According to the footnote in the New American Bible, that phrase, in turn, is an echo of Isaiah 42:1, Psalm 2:7, and Genesis 22:2.
  • "When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, 'Rise, and do not be afraid'" (17:6).
  • "Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist" (17:13).

Mark alone

  • His clothes were "such as no fuller on earth could bleach them" (9:3).
  • The disciples are not perplexed by the question of how Jesus is "Son of God" (an ambiguous term in the Israelite tradition); they leave the mountain "questioning what rising from the dead meant" (9:10).
  • "How is it written regarding the Son of Man that he must suffer greatly and be treated with contempt?" (9:12). That is The Big Question of Mark's gospel. The Big Answer is in 10:45: "For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
  • Only Mark claims that the maltreatment of John the Baptist was a fulfillment of prophecy: "they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him" (9:13).

Luke alone

  • Jesus took the three disciples up the mountain "to pray" (9:28).
  • "While he was praying his face changed in appearance" (9:29).
  • Moses and Elijah "appeared in glory" (9:31). Two accidental morals to draw from this aspect of the story:
    • Moses and Elijah seem not to be trapped in Hell, waiting for the death of Jesus to set them free; they are alive and well and "in glory."
    • Their glorification anticipates the glory of all of the saints. God designed us to be aglow with His love. "By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: [We are judged by our WORKS!] eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness. Yes, affliction and distress will come upon every human being who does evil, Jew first and then Greek. But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good, Jew first and then Greek" (Rom 2:5-10).
  • Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus about "his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem" (9:31).
  • "Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him" (9:32). It's not clear to me exactly when the disciples fell asleep. The disciples (not just Peter, James, and John) also fall asleep in Luke's version of the Agony in the Garden: "When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief" (22:45).
  • The group was covered by the cloud (9:34).

Matthew and Mark

  • "They saw no one else but Jesus alone."
  • Jesus explicitly told the disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after He rose from the dead.
  • The disciples ask Jesus, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"

Mark and Luke

  • Peter didn't know what he was saying (Mk 9:6; Lk 9:33).

Historical questions

  • Why doesn't John tell this story in his gospel? "And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (literally, 'pitched his tent among us'), and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14).
  • "We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, 'This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain" (2 Pet 1:16-19).
  • How did the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah? Did they introduce themselves? Spiritual intuition? Did Jesus call them by name when He spoke with them?

Scriptural and Theological issues

Peter's Account

2 Peter 1:16-18

16 We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.

Peter says that the "unique declaration" came to Jesus, but, as with the gospels, the sentence is actually addressed to Peter, James, and John.

The Transfiguration does not say Jesus is God, the Son

  • This scene does not assert the divinity of Jesus directly and unequivocally.
  • All by itself, it shows Jesus as the summit toward which the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) lead. The logic of the story (not the text itself) asserts that the Jewish Scriptures (TNK) point to Jesus: Moses represents “Torah” and Elijah represents “Nebi'im.”
  • The phrase "Son of God" was used of the Kings (Messiahs, Christs) in the Old Testament (2 Sam 7:16, Ps 2, Ps 89). Those who do not accept the full divinity of Jesus, one-in-being (homoousios with the Father; Council of Nicea, 325 AD) could give these passages a Jewish interpretation. On this view, Jesus would just be identified as the human being who was expected to re-start David's dynasty (Ps. 89).
  • John's gospel is unequivocal. The mention of the Transfiguration in 1:14 (if it is a mention of the Transfiguration!) comes after the opening verses, in which there is no doubt that the logos (Greek, "word") is God.

Baptismal theophany vs. Transfiguration

[X] Needs work!

The Transfiguration confirms that Jesus is the Christ, the King

In all three gospels, the evangelist links the time of the Transfiguration to Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ, the human being anointed by God to be the King of the Jews (they are all that is left of the Kingdom of Israel). Matthew and Mark say that the Transfiguration took place six days after Peter identified Jesus as the Christ; Luke says it was eight days afterward.

What this suggests to me is that the Transfiguration is confirmation from Heaven that Jesus is the Christ (Greek), the Messiah (Hebrew), the one Anointed to restore the Kingship that was destroyed by the Babylonian Captivity (586 BC). The Jews knew that God had a covenant with David (discussed at length in Psalm 89) that was supposed to last "forever" (vv. 2, 3, 5, 29, 30, 37). The content of the covenant (bargain, deal, agreement, contract, promises, personal committed relationship) was that "His dynasty will continue forever, his throne, like the sun before me. Like the moon it will stand eternal, forever firm like the sky!" (37-38).

The dynasty (royal family) of David did not last forever. David was anointed (messiahed, christened) King of Israel, which consisted of twelve tribes, around 1010 BC. Ten of the twelve tribes of the Kingdom of Israel were destroyed by the Assyrians around 722-721 BC; the eleventh tribe was swallowed up by Judah; and the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Four hundred and twenty-six years is a good run for a royal family, but it is not "forever." The Jews knew that God had not fulfilled his covenant with David and said so in no uncertain terms (Ps 89:39-46).

When Peter said that the disciples believed Jesus was "the Messiah, the son of the living God" (Mt 16:16), he was saying, in effect, "You are the man who has been chosen by God to re-found the House of David--and we twelve apostles are going to be the fathers of twelve new tribes. We'll each have our own harem and our own tribal land. You are going to lead us in battle against our enemies, the Romans. With your miracle-working power, we can't lose! You who calmed the storm can summon storms to defeat them. You will heal all who are wounded on the battlefield and even raise them from dead. Our job is going to be to eat, drink, be merry, and beget lots and lots of children of Abraham with our harems in order to fulfill God's covenant with him. Oh, happy days are here again!"

This way of looking at Peter's confession of faith is confirmed by the versions of the story in Matthew and Mark. The disciples' first question to Jesus is not about his Divine and unique Sonship, but about the coming of the Kingdom: "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" (Mt 17:10; Mk 9:11). They have been confirmed in their belief that Jesus is the Christ, the King, Son of David, who is about to re-create the twelve tribes of Israel through them; their only anxiety is about the sequence of events that will lead up to their own enthronement as patriarchs under King Jesus.

Spiritual meanings

There are many lessons we can learn from meditating on the mystery of the Transfiguration. In offering a few thoughts here, I am not in any way limiting the "glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21) to find other meanings in the text.

  • The radiance of Jesus' human body and the glory surrounding Moses and Elijah (Lk 9:30) is a preview of our own transfiguration in glory. From our ordinary experience of our human bodies, we would not predict that they can glow with the glory of God Himself.
  • Our pilgrimage with Jesus contains both consolation and desolation. We can't stay on the mount of Transfiguration (a time of great consolation for Jesus and for his disciples); we must follow Jesus to Mount Calvary (desolation). We are on a journey with King Jesus. Our pilgrimage will not end until we reach the Kingdom of Heaven. Suffering and death are sure to come to us on this journey, but joy has the last word (Fr. Jake Randall).

For Nicene Christians, "Christ" means "Jesus" who is "God, the Son"

  • The declaration that "Jesus is the Christ" was such a prominent feature of the preaching of the apostles and disciples that it became the name of the religion: "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26).
  • Passages other than the Transfiguration in both the synoptic gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk) and John affirmed that Jesus is God, the Son. The meaning of these passages was solemnly affirmed and carefully defined by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The Nicene Creed (edited by subsequent councils) tells us every Sunday that Jesus is "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten, not made, one in being [Greek: homoousios] with the Father."
  • Because of this firm belief that Jesus is "God, the Son," the Nicene Christian reading (interpretation) of the Transfiguration takes on a whole new depth that is not accessible to those who do not believe in the full divinity of Jesus. We can see and appreciate much more than the disciples could on the day of the Transfiguration.

Some other observations

  • Transfiguration is an extremely popular image in science fiction: Transformers, Alien, Men in Black, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, etc., etc. Cf. also Franz Kafka's novel, The Metamorphosis. One of the great themes of literature is that “Things are not always as they seem.”
  • The Transfiguration provides a scriptural justification--if any is needed--for the use of halos in paintings. I don't know whether any painters, in fact, appealed to this source for their inspiration to do so.
  • The Transfiguration is literally an "epiphany" (Greek, "shining on"), with the light of Christ shining forth from within Him and shining on the disciples. It is also an “epiphany” (in the sense of a sudden and unexpected revelation) for the three witnesses.
  • Compare this story to that of Moses' shining face when he came down from Mt. Sinai. "When he finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses entered the presence of the LORD to converse with him, he removed the veil until he came out again. On coming out, he would tell the Israelites all that had been commanded. Then the Israelites would see that the skin of Moses' face was radiant; so he would again put the veil over his face until he went in to converse with the LORD" (Ex 34:33-35).
  • According to two gospels, Peter, James, and John were also special witnesses of Jesus' Agony in the Garden (Mt 26:37; Mk 14:33). The texts do not say why Jesus chose them to be close to Him in either event; it is a fact that we may ponder and, perhaps, from which we may perhaps draw some personal insights.