The Transfiguration of our Lord

Transfiguration Sunday celebrates the occasion on which Christ, as He was beginning to teach His disciples that He must die and rise again, revealed Himself in shining splendor to Peter, James, and John.  Luke’s account (Lk 9:29) tells us that, “As He was praying, the appearance of his face changed,” literally it, “was transformed.” To use the language of Philippians chapter 2, the form of God shone through the form of a servant. Matthew wrote (Mt 17:2), “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” His entire figure seemed bathed in light, even lighting up his garments.

What could the marvelous display of brilliant light possibly mean? To the disciples, familiar with the Old Testament, it was very clear. Throughout redemption history, God manifested his glory in supernatural ways, often characterized by a brilliant light which the Rabbi’s called the Shekinah Glory. The glory of Jehovah accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud, which glowed with a fiery brilliance at night (Ex 16:7). Moses was granted permission to see God’s glory, the very reflection of which caused his face to glow (Ex 34:5-8). At the dedication of Solomon’s temple, this Shekinah glory filled the temple courts.

John describes his face in the same terms Matthew used in describing the Transfiguration, “His face was like the sun, shining in all its brilliance.” Whom did John see in his vision, was it an angel? God the Father himself? The answer is found in the next verse “Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!'” This glorious One whom John beheld was none other than the Risen Christ. This glorious one was seen by Ezekiel and Daniel in his pre-Incarnate glory. It is this same glorious one who was transformed on the mountain that night, of whom the disciples caught a glimpse.

During the Transfiguration, two men, whom the disciples immediately recognized as Moses and Elijah, spoke with Jesus.  They spoke of his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.  Note how this is worded in Luke 9:31, “They were speaking about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment.” The actual word for departure is “EXODUS,” the same word we use for the second book of the Old Testament, and it means literally a way out or exit. It undoubtedly refers here to Christ’s death, which he had predicted the week before in Caesarea Philippi, and which was no doubt weighing heavily upon him. But it also carries the idea of salvation, harking back to the Israelite’s exodus out of Egypt and into the promised land. This additional meaning is emphasized by the very presence of Moses himself, who led the Israelites out of Egypt. So we see that Christ’s death, together with his resurrection, and ascension into heaven, are a glorious exodus, not just his departure. This exodus is a prophetic fulfillment, the very means by which God’s people are lead out of the bondage of sin and into the promised land of God’s eternal presence.

Then, something even more wonderful happened! Suddenly, a cloud enveloped them, not an ordinary cloud such as you would find on mountain tops. Matthew calls it a bright cloud, a cloud lit up with glory, reminiscent of the fiery cloud before the tabernacle that marked and symbolized the presence of God: a luminous cloud, both revealing and concealing. Heaven’s awe was upon them.  Peter, in the confusion of holy terror, and in an expression of ecstatic longing, cries out “Lord, its good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He wanted to capture that moment, and to secure it somehow. Perhaps he had not learned his lesson from the week before, when he chided Jesus for prophesying his own death. As glorious as this moment is, Peter, it cannot last. Jesus must descend this mountain, recall his words, “I must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and I must be killed….,” if the Exodus is to be fulfilled. While Peter was speaking these words, suddenly, a voice came out of the cloud saying, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Here was the voice and testimony of One greater than Moses, or Elijah, the voice of him who thundered from Mount Sinai, in the giving of the Law, God himself, proclaiming Jesus as the beloved Son, the only-begotten One, the Righteous one who met all the requirements of the law, and pleases the Father in all things. The expression “Listen to him!” is also proclaiming Jesus as the Prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15, “The Lord will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers, Listen to him!” He is to be heard, because he speaks exactly what the Father tells him.

As his baptism marked the beginning of his earthly ministry, so his transfiguration marked the end. In both cases, his death and resurrection, and the redemption of mankind were in view. In both cases, the voice of the Heavenly Father is heard, commending Jesus to us, confirming and establishing our faith in him. In reflecting on the transfiguration, Peter wrote these words many years later in his second epistle:

“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

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