The Transfiguration – a Sight of Jesus' Glory
Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this incident in Jesus' life.
Two of the three apostles who were present that day with Jesus referred to it in what they later wrote down. The third was martyred long before anyone began to put pen to paper to describe all that the Messiah had said or done.
John in his gospel account was probably making an allusion to it when he wrote:
Jn.1:14 "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
The apostle Peter writing decades after the event was evidently still deeply moved by what place that day:
2Pet.1:16-18 "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received 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 ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain."
What are we to make of it all? What is the significance of this unique event? Are there any lessons for us to learn and if so what are they?
How it all began
Jesus as ever took the lead. It was Jesus who wanted to go up on this particular mountain, at this particular moment in his ministry and he wanted to do so in order to pray. He it was who chose out three of his closest followers to go with him – why these three and not the others we simply don't know but surely it was an immense privilege for Peter, James and John to be invited to accompany Jesus.
These three men were about to have an experience of Jesus that no-one else had ever had. They were about to see what no-one else had ever seen. What a privilege!
I wonder whether you'd have liked to have been there. Ah, but would you have gone with Jesus had you known he had prayer in mind?
You see it all began with a prayer meeting.
I imagine Peter, James and John were so glad that they didn't refuse to go with Jesus to that prayer meeting!
And yet at this particular prayer meeting it seems that Jesus was the one doing the praying – his followers were soon dozing and finding it hard to keep their eyes open. That much is made clear to us as we read on:
v.32 "Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him."
It seems that the disciples woke up just in time, otherwise they would have missed everything that happened!
Sadly, these disciples did not learn their lesson well because when Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane taking them again to be with him, they again found that it was easier to sleep that it was to stay awake.
What did happen?
Jesus was praying. There are two things I want to say about this simple fact.
Firstly, Jesus had gone up the mountain to pray and he was doing just that. This is a worth a mention because even getting to pray is not something that comes easily to us. It's much easier to plan to pray than it is to pray. But Jesus not only planned, he prayed.
Secondly, true prayer is a mark of humility. If you are full of yourself and your own abilities then you won't pray, at least not much. And here is Jesus that man who has been drawing crowds in village after village where he has taught and performed a series of remarkable miracles and he is serious about prayer.
And as he prayed something astonishing took place!
A great change took place in his appearance as his face began to shine and his clothes sparkled and dazzled in a way that the Daz or Omo of the day could only dream about! The word used to describe this event is transfiguration. He underwent a metamorphosis and the change in his appearance would have been all the more dramatic and impressive if it took place in the twilight or the darkness (and there are some indications in the text that this did occur at night).
For a few moments Jesus was to be seen on that mountain clothed in glory. It was a glory more to be expected in heaven than on earth. It was as though the glory that he had enjoyed with the Father from before the creation of the world and which he had laid aside in taking human form was his again. It was a foretaste and an encouragement : he would soon be glorified again with a glory never to be hidden again as he successfully completed his earthly ministry on earth.
Jesus was on his way to being rejected by the leaders of his people, he was on the path that led through suffering to death and resurrection. It was a difficult, arduous path and he would have to tread it alone. But he was determined and the Father wanted to encourage his Son, his unique Son, his beloved Son.
Jesus, then, was for a brief moment given the encouragements of the Father's full approval openly declared. And in that moment of glory two other characters appeared with him and they too were endued with glory.
Moses the great law-giver was one of them and the other was Elijah representing the great company of OT prophets. These two men were amongst the most important of the entire OT. They appeared at this time for the purpose of talking with Jesus and they had just one subject that would dominate their conversation.
Their Conversation with Jesus
Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about his coming departure (or exodus) out of the world.
They had come and were revealed in order to talk with Jesus about his coming death!
Moses departure out of this world had been somewhat unusual. Moses life came to an end with the people of God ready at last to enter the Promised Land. The Lord God led Moses up a mountain so that he might see the goal from a distance and there on the mountain Moses died:
Deut.32:5-7 "So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigour unabated."
A few verses later we read:
Deut.32:10-12 "And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel."
For all this Moses remained a flawed leader. Another leader would have to take his place – Joshua – but Moses true successor would not be Joshua but the NT Jeshua or Jesus!
Now if Moses' departure had been unusual that of Elijah was even more so. Elijah never saw death but was swept up to heaven in a chariot of fire. You can read the account in 2Kings of how Elisha accompanied him on his final journey.
2Kings 2:11-12 "And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, "My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw him no more."
Elijah too was flawed, he had not secured a full and final deliverance and even though he was spared death he needed to be replaced by another leader who would take up his mantle.
These men Moses and Elijah knew about departures and they knew about successors. Jesus' departure would be awesome having the appearance of devastating failure but in reality being so triumphant that he would need no successor and indeed we never read of any – Jesus was central then and he remains central today, and he will always remain at the very centre.
Let me pause and ask you this question: Is he central to you? He deserves to be and you need him to be!
It is an amazing thing that at the moment of such wonderful exaltation as Jesus appeared for a few moments clothed in glory that he was ready and willing to discuss his suffering and his death. If Jesus' was ready and willing to discuss his death at such a time doesn't that underline the absolute importance and centrality of his death to his own understanding of who he was and why he had come? If he was so ready to focus upon his death surely we too must make sure that we understand not just the how of his departure out of this world but the why of it too.
Do you understand why Jesus' death is so important? Do you know why Paul could later declare that "we preach Christ crucified" even though he knew that this was a stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles?
Waking up and Making a response
We don't how long Jesus had been enjoying this transfigured state before his disciples shook themselves out of their slumbers.
We don't know for just how long and how detailed his conversation had lasted with Moses and Elijah before his disciples became fully awake.
But we do know that they catch a sight of the transfigured Jesus standing in his glory talking with the two others even though they seem to have caught only the tail end of it all.
But now they are awake and need to react.
I wonder: Have you yet woken up from your spiritual slumbers? Have you come to realise that you too must react to the truth that has become, and is becoming, ever clearer to you?
Peter is, as ever, the first to speak. He is overwhelmed by what he has seen and heard. He is aware that something wonderful has been taking place and he doesn't want the moment to end. He is keen and enthusiastic but still somewhat confused and in his confusion is ready to head off in wrong direction.
As Peter realises that Moses and Elijah are about to leave he suggests something that might help prolong the moment. He suggests making three shelters – one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
Men and women will often try to 'do something' when they confronted with spiritual realities that are yet beyond them. The desire to act is wholesome but Peter didn't know what he said! Oh what need we have of being instructed to do the right thing and not just any old thing!
Was it really the right way forward that Peter suggested? By acting as he suggested Peter would have put Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah. Was it right to treat Jesus that way?
At moments such as these we need to be told what to do. Praise God that he doesn't leave us to blunder around in the dark, he tells us what is necessary.
Peter's words are suddenly cut off as the scene on the mountain top suddenly changed. A cloud came and covered them. Peter and his companions were terrified.
Now why was that? Well you see it wasn't normal and it wasn't natural – there was something of God about this cloud!
Frequently in the OT the direct immediate presence of the LORD God was signified by the presence of a cloud. A cloud descended upon the tent of meeting when God came and met with Moses there. A cloud filled the Temple courts preventing the priests from ministering there as the Temple was inaugurated and God responded to Solomon's prayers.
Now here at this extraordinary event where Jesus has been encouraged and his glory revealed the divine cloud descends once more. A word will be spoken and that word will dispel any lingering doubts there might be.
Jesus is in a class of his own, he is in a category of one! Moses and Elijah were important in their day but they are totally eclipsed but the glorious incomparable grandeur of the Lord Jesus Christ.
He is not to be honoured simply as one amongst others – he is unique, utterly, gloriously unique. Indeed he is the Messiah, God's own and only Son, he is the chosen one and he is to be listened to above all others!
Peter had been on the verge of doing something totally inappropriate and God ahd intervened to show him the way he ought to behave. Has God spoken to you calling you to abandon inappropriate responses towards the Lord Jesus? Has God spoken to your heart about the importance of this man? You must heed God and trust in Jesus.
The divine voice had spoken and as the disciples look up and around there is no sign of anyone else at all. The only person there on the mountain with them is Jesus.
My friend, you need to understand that he is the only one who can help you spiritually, he is the only one who can save and satisfy your never-dying soul. But you must hear and heed him, you must repent of your sin and go to him pleading for his mercy and his forgiveness.
You don't need great spiritual experiences with which to try to impress others. But you do need to make your peace with the Son of God.
May God enable us all to do so.