[Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lu 9:28-36]
Our journey into the mystery of Christ and His unsearchable riches has brought us to a much more multi-dimensional understanding of Who this King of Glory really is. We have touched on how Jesus eternally lives beyond time and space and how He repeatedly appears throughout the Old Testament. In the Incarnation, God became man and will be forever, in the joyful, self-giving, Other-celebrating, infinite creativity of the Trinity.
In all three synoptic Gospels, we read a vivid account of what is known as The Transfiguration where Jesus took His three closest disciples up a mountain where they first saw a glimpse of Who He really is. A close look at this episode gives us a number of insights regarding the mystery of Christ.
The Transfiguration is known as a theophany, a manifestation of the divinity of Christ; here we see Him in a display of who He really is, in His full glory. It is interesting that this episode begins with Jesus taking the disciples to be with Him when He prays. They are witnessing what happens when God the Son talks with God the Father. We are reminded of how John fell to the ground as though dead when He saw the unveiled Son in Revelation. (Rev 1:12-17)
Scripture states that God is light (1 Jn 1:5). Jesus is clearly revealed as God, His face shining like the sun (Mt 17:2) and His clothes became “dazzling white”, whiter than anything in the natural realm. This passage is shouting the consistent testimony of the NT: Jesus is God. The dazzling light comes from within; it is the Divine energy and purity of God that comes from the Son. This is in contrast to the reflected glory that shone for a time upon Moses’ face, but eventually faded. The Bible often uses the image of a white robe (and this robe is whiter than any) to indicate future glory, the glory that awaits all of His children whose robes are washed by the cleansing of Christ’s blood (Rev 7:14).
Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. There are several levels of meaning here. Moses represents the Law, Elijah the Prophets. In one sense, Moses reminds us to look back at the faithfulness of God and His promise throughout history; Elijah represents the future promise of total restoration. (In Jesus’ time there was a great anticipation that Elijah would soon return to usher in the Messiah.) In Lu 9:31 we are told that they spoke with Jesus about His departure; the word literally means exodus and is unique in all of the Gospels. They were speaking about Jesus’ soon coming journey to the Cross, but in the context of God’s great plan to bring ultimate freedom––eternal life––to His people. Thus, the Transfiguration shows us the continuity of God’s story and plan for His creation.
Note that it is only Jesus from whom dazzling light emits. Moses and Elijah are with Jesus, but not as equals; He is their Lord. The Transfiguration shouts to us the truth that we understand the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament) through relationship with Jesus. He is the key to rightly interpreting the truths of the Bible.
There was a time when I was confused by Peter’s outburst. Why suggest putting up three tabernacles? The clue is found in where all three Gospel writers place this event: it is at the end of the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles. For Israel, there were three dimensions to this feast: It celebrated the relationship between the Creator and His creation. It was a formal time of remembering God’s faithful work in history with His people. Finally, the Feast looked forward in hope to the coming of the Messiah. The Gospel writers are recognizing something very important––the Feast of Tabernacles is fulfilled in the Transfiguration. Peter knew that the Feast is the celebration of the coming Kingdom of God. This is why he asks to build the three shelters. There is another interesting parallel: in Exodus, the cloud of God’s glory covered the tabernacle; on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus is the tabernacle, the place of meeting with God. (Note that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is more accurately translated, “tabernacled among us”.)
For the second time in the Gospels, the Father’s voice is heard: “This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” The climax, the center of the Transfiguration is this Voice. It is the Father’s declaration of who Jesus really is. This takes us straight back to John’s prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is the word of revelation. Clearly Jesus is the Word Himself. This command to “listen to Him!” calls us to read the Old Testament, to understand and interpret it, in light of the words and deeds of Jesus. The Voice of the Father did not say, “listen to them” or even, “listen to Me”. There is only one Son of God. There will not be three tabernacles built. God the Son is the eternal tabernacle.
Like Jesus’ baptism, in this episode we clearly see the presence of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit descends upon them all; the Father speaks so that they all may hear; and He speaks of the Son, once again reflecting the “given-ness”, the Other-focus of the Trinity.
The Transfiguration is the inauguration of the Messianic Age. That is why, only a week earlier, Jesus said to His friends, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God come in power.” Jesus was speaking of Peter, James and John, predicting what they would very soon be seeing.
At this central event of the Gospel narrative, on a mountaintop, the true glory of God the Son breaks through. The complete Word has come. The true and final Tabernacle now dwells among us. The power of God’s Kingdom has been made manifest in the transfigured Jesus. The Age to Come has broken in, and nothing will ever be the same.
The Glory of God has been revealed.