READ : Matthew 17:1-8
Who is Jesus Christ, and what should we do about him? For one brief, shining moment during Jesus’ earthly life, the glory of his divine nature was clearly seen by his followers. It was a mountaintop experience.
Listen to one of the most mysterious and awe-inspiring episodes in the whole gospel:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
This is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration of Christ, one of the most intriguing events in Jesus’ entire ministry. All three of the synoptic gospels record it, with only minor differences. All three gospels also locate this experience at a watershed point in the narrative, shortly after Peter’s Great Confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.
Immediately after this Jesus began to prepare his disciples by speaking about his coming suffering and death (Matthew 16:21-28). He was indeed the long-awaited Messiah, but he would not be the kind of Messiah most were expecting. His kingdom, as he would tell Pontius Pilate at his trial, was not of this world. Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He would ascend his royal throne by way of a cross. These were all difficult truths for the disciples to understand and accept. Even more difficult was Christ’s word to them that if they wanted to be his disciples, they too would have to take up their cross and follow him.
All these conversations come just before the transfiguration, and they offer a clue to the meaning of that event. The disciples were only just beginning to understand who Jesus was when he started to stretch their minds by redefining their notion of Messiahship. Just as they were realizing that this man whom they had chosen to follow was more than merely another rabbi, more even than a prophet, Christ began to turn their thinking upside down with his talk of going to Jerusalem to be tortured and crucified. How could that be?
The Messiah was supposed to be a glorious king who would restore Israel to her greatness. If Jesus is expecting to suffer and die, might the disciples possibly be wrong about who he is? The transfiguration event serves to settle the issue once and for all. It confirms Jesus’ true identity. It reveals his natural – we might say, his habitual – glory. For one brief moment during his earthly life the veil of Jesus’ human nature is drawn aside, and his divine glory is made clear and visible. Writing to the early church many years later, Peter recalled this amazing revelation:
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor 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 1:16-18
The Glory of the Son
So the timing of the transfiguration, coming at a crucial point in Jesus’ ministry, is significant. And the details of this experience are pregnant with meaning. As on a number of other occasions, Christ took only his “inner circle” of disciples up the Mount of Transfiguration: Peter, and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John. These three, as Jesus’ closest friends, were privileged to witness things the other disciples only heard about later.
As they are together on the mountain, a sudden change sweeps over Jesus. His face and clothes begin to shine with a dazzling whiteness. “Like the sun, white as the light,” says Matthew; “whiter than anyone could bleach them,” according to Mark; “Like lightning,” adds Luke.
Then the disciples saw two figures conversing with the Lord – Moses and Elijah – the great Lawgiver and the greatest of the prophets. Moses and Elijah represent the best of the Old Testament, and their appearance with Jesus on the mountain underscores the truth of his statement that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. But at the same time, the story shows clearly that Jesus is superior to all other religious figures, even the greatest of them. When the voice from heaven bears witness to the Beloved Son, God says, “Listen to him“; not, “Listen to them.” And at the end, Jesus stands alone.
As they witnessed this extraordinary scene Peter, James, and John were unsure what they should do. Peter blurted out the suggestion that he build three shelters there on the mountain, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Mark’s gospel says Peter didn’t really know what he was saying. But his offer becomes a bit more clear when we realize that the Transfiguration probably took place during the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, when the people built shelters and lived in them for a week to commemorate the wilderness years of the Exodus. Those shelters also pointed forward to the eternal dwelling places that would come in the kingdom of God.
But whatever Peter was thinking God himself cut him off. A bright cloud suddenly descended upon the mountain enveloping all of them – the same cloud of divine glory that had once filled the tabernacle in the wilderness and later Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Then a voice from the cloud declared majestically: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (v. 5). The disciples at this point fell to the earth in utter terror, and when at Jesus’ touch they looked up, it was all over.
“This Is My Beloved Son”
These words echoing over the mountain from out of the cloud of glory confirm in the most direct way possible both the identity and the authority of Jesus. Consider with me two basic questions. First, Who is Jesus Christ? Listen to the testimony of the voice of God himself. In the first three gospels God the Father only speaks twice: here at the Transfiguration and earlier at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17). But both times he says exactly the same thing: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”
What people say about Jesus is interesting, but what God says about him is decisive. It’s important for you to decide who Jesus is and what he means to you, but it’s infinitely more important for you to understand what he means to God.
Jesus is not merely one more in the long list of human prophets and gurus. He’s not just a religious teacher who had some interesting things to say about life and God. He is the one and only Son of God, the best-beloved, well-pleasing to the Father. Jesus is God’s real Son, his true Son; as one Bible scholar translates, his priceless Son.
We can be God’s children too, but at one remove. When we are united with Christ by faith, we are adopted into the family of God. Christ is the Son of God by nature. So don’t be fooled by his humility. Don’t be misled by the shameful death he will undergo. He is the only-begotten Son of God, utterly and absolutely unique.
Here’s a second question: What should we do? The answer: “Listen to him!” God has spoken, and now things are different. From now on, anyone who wants to know God must turn to Christ. From now on, anyone who wants to please God must believe in Christ and obey Christ. That’s what it means to listen to him. From now on, anyone who wants to follow God must treasure Christ and love Christ. Blessed are those who see Jesus as God sees him, who honor him as the Father does, who listen to his words with delight and who practice them with diligence. If you ask me to explain the meaning of the transfiguration, I would answer as I have done—that it confirms the true identity of Jesus as the divine Son of God and underscores his absolute authority over us.
If you ask me the purpose of the story, I would answer in one word: encouragement. This great event is meant to encourage us in our life of discipleship just as it did Peter and James and John. Are you struggling with pain or sorrow? Does the way seem hard? Look up! There’s glory to come. As the apostle says, We are heirs with Christ of the glory of God, provided first we suffer with him (see Romans 8:17).
Are you tempted to doubt the love of God or perhaps your acceptance with him? Remember this: all those who trust in Christ are accepted in the Beloved. When we are in Christ God is as well pleased with us as he is with his own dear Son.
Are you worried about the future? Everything Christ said is the Word of God. So listen to him! Every promise is firm and unshakable, every statement true, every command fitting like an easy yoke. Listen to him. Feed on his words, take them with you wherever you go, live by them, and don’t be afraid.