MATTHEW 17: WHAT DOES TRANSFIGURATION MEAN?
Photo of traditional site of Transfiguration of Jesus Christ (Mount Tabor). The village on the plain in the background is Kfar Kish. On the site is the Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration. Taken in Israel 2005 by Bantosh.
AFTER YOU READ MATTHEW 17
I've attended my own high school reunions twice. But I attended a high school reunion that may have impacted me more than my own. I went to my Dad's high school reunion in Bluejacket, Oklahoma. What I want to say about that experience was that I saw my dad transformed that day. I've seen him cut up and joke a lot, and I've even seen him act sort of child-like and goofy, but I'd never seen my Dad become a child right before my eyes. I did that day at the Bluejacket High School reunion.
As Dad and his classmates told stories and laughed, I saw my Dad's countenance change. He was a child again. No cares or concerns seemed to cross his mind, no far away looks. He was in that moment, and he was a child, a teen again. He was transfigured before my eyes. I saw my Dad as someone very different than before. His background and childhood came alive. I believed those stories were real now.
I believe the transfiguration of Jesus was like this kind of deeper knowing. It seems after the three disciples who accompanied Jesus saw Him changed in his likeness, they started to get it. Whether or not they could get up their courage to really follow through on the path the Messiah was taking, from here on Peter, James, and John seem resolute with Jesus to go to Jerusalem. The problem is, they didn't want or imagine the extent of what was going to happen there.
Jesus takes what appears to be a kind of inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, and John, to a mountain. We think it's either Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon. The preferred site to see on tours is Tabor, because it's easier to get to. Enough about the place, what happened there and why is it important.
Several details are important to note. Jesus shines, brightly. Does this confirm the divinity of Jesus to the disciples? Not really. Why not? Another detail is the appearance of Elijah and Moses. As N.T. Wright points out, Elijah and Moses shine, and they are not God. Why do they appear? To confirm what has been happening that the prophet Malachi predicted, that Elijah -- Jesus points to John the Baptist as this figure -- would return and prepare the way. The disciples missed it! Now Jesus was the New Moses, and his appearance with Elijah and Moses confirms the gravity of the new age, that a New Exodus was coming not only for Israel but for all nations.
So you've got the shining, Elijah and Moses, and the last detail and most important detail to pay attention to is the voice of God. This is the center of the story, the affirmation repeated from the baptism of Jesus: "This is my son, and I am very pleased with Him. Listen to Him."
Shining affirmations that Jesus is God, connecting to Elijah and Moses and the Old Testament prophecies are very important but what's most important for disciples is that if you are going to be on the right side of history, of this new age of the Kingdom of God and follow this one changed right before their very eyes, the big take away is this: listen to Him. Do what He says.
N.T. Wright compares and contrasts the transfiguration and the cross.
In fact, the scene at the transfiguration (as it’s normally called) offers a strange parallel and contrast to the crucifixion (Matthew 27.33–54). If you’re going to meditate on the one, you might like to hold the other in your mind as well, as a sort of backdrop. Here, on a mountain, is Jesus, revealed in glory; there, on a hill outside Jerusalem, is Jesus, revealed in shame. Here his clothes are shining white; there, they have been stripped off, and soldiers have gambled for them. Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes, representing the law and the prophets; there, he is flanked by two brigands, representing the level to which Israel had sunk in rebellion against God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness comes upon the land. Here Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; there, he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows Jesus. Here a voice from God himself declares that this is his wonderful son; there, a pagan soldier declares, in surprise, that this really was God’s son. The mountain-top explains the hill-top – and vice versa. Perhaps we only really understand either of them when we see it side by side with the other. Learn to see the glory in the cross; learn to see the cross in the glory; and you will have begun to bring together the laughter and the tears of the God who hides in the cloud, the God who is to be known in the strange person of Jesus himself. This story is, of course, about being surprised by the power, love and beauty of God. But the point of it is that we should learn to recognize that same power, love and beauty within Jesus, and to listen for it in his voice – not least when he tells us to take up the cross and follow him . . . The word to the disciples then is just as much a word to us today. If you want to find the way – the way to God, the way to the promised land – you must listen to him.
Wright, N.T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 15). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.