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 honor 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. -Peter, “the Rock,” an apostle (2 Peter 1:16-18)
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. -John the Beloved, an apostle (John 1:14; cf. 1 John 1:1-3)
For most of his life, people saw Jesus as everything other than glorious. He was born in disgrace to an unwed mother and raised in the midst of a genocide (Matthew 2:16
) below the poverty line (Luke 2:24
, cf. Leviticus 12:8
) in a town known for its nobodies (John 1:46
) by his step-father. He surrounded himself with the outcasts of society, damaging his reputation by doing so (Luke 7:34
). He was the king no one saw coming because he came in carpenter’s clothes, riding on a donkey, on the way to his execution. Among all the gods and kings and lords and heroes worshiped by the human race, mine can’t be beat for proving the power of merciful humility to change the world.
There was a moment during his time on earth, however, when Jesus pulled back the curtain on his true identity. For one afternoon atop a local mountain, three of his closest friends caught a glimpse of who it was they were dealing with; for a moment they got an idea of who this Son of Man, as he called himself, really was. Christians have traditionally called this event the “transfiguration.” Matthew
, and Luke
record it and John alludes to it in the first part of his Gospel, quoted above.
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light… 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. Matthew 17:2, 5-6
Peter and John, eyewitnesses of the transfiguration and contributors to the New Testament, pointed to this event as the basis of their confidence in Jesus’ divine identity. They held on to that confidence to the point of martyrdom and exile, respectively. That is part of the beauty and simplicity of the Christian faith: eyewitness testimony of historical events is what grounds the whole thing. “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ,” said John (1 John 1:3).
So then what does the transfiguration say about this Jesus, this Christ?
One part of the answer comes from a totally different part of the Bible and from an event that occurred some fifteen hundred years earlier. At that time, Moses had also spoken with God on a mountaintop and had asked, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 34:18). Then, too, God had descended in a cloud and proclaimed his name and his identity, giving Moses a glimpse of his glory. Then, too, Moses had immediately bowed his head to the ground and worshiped. Read Exodus 33:17-34:8
for the details. The similarity between the two events is amazing.
In their choices of included information, the writers of the Gospels were careful to make sure we understand the point of the similarity: this Jesus is God Incarnate. He is the God of Moses, of Sinai, of Israel, standing in a body before the eyes of a few stunned men, putting a face on God. His life demonstrates in tangible detail the Exodus 34 character of God, the “I Am.”
All three accounts of the transfiguration record that Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain for a short amount of time with Jesus and the disciples. Moses and Elijah correspond to the Law and the Prophets (biblical shorthand for the two main parts of the Old Testament), Moses being the great lawgiver and Elijah the archetypal prophet. Moses and Elijah were also the two main miracle-workers of the Old Testament, another role in which they specifically foreshadowed Jesus’ ministry. Together they represent the entire sweep of the old covenant.
Their presence corroborates and compliments God’s announcement of Jesus’ identity. Jesus is the beloved, sole Son of God. He also fulfills every aspect of the old covenant as the true Israelite, the true Mediator, and the true Spokesman for God. He is the prophet of which Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 18:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen… And the LORD said to me… “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” Deuteronomy 18:15-18
“Listen to him,” the voice told the disciples, echoing this promise of Moses. Jesus himself said, “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49). Jesus not only spoke God’s words, he was
God’s Word (John 1:1
). He is the perfect expression of his character, and the precise thing God wanted to say to humanity.
He is the “messenger of the covenant” to be preceded by Elijah of which Malachi spoke in Malachi 3 and 4:
“And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly appear in his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap… Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” Malachi 3:1-2, 4:5
It was at the transfiguration that Jesus first identified John the Baptizer as the one who fulfilled this prophecy about Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah.
Jesus’ fulfillment of the old covenant is comprehensive, and worth a lifetime of study. Suffice it to say that Moses and Elijah “passing the torch” to him meant a confirmation of his ministry, a testimony to his worthiness to represent the people, and a testimony to his identity as the definitive revelation of God.
The apostle Paul had this to say about Jesus’ shining face, alluding again to the event on the mountaintop:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6
Did you catch that? “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God.” All in the face of Christ. Just before, Paul had said,
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18
Beholding the light in Jesus’ face, by the power of the Spirit, transforms our own “faces” into that same light and glory, in the same way that the moon reflects the light of the sun. Contemplating Christ changes hearts.
Therefore: let us come to the mountaintop, as it were; boldly, with all the confidence in the world, knowing that the Father’s announcement about the Son – “This is the one I love and with whom I am very pleased” – is true of us as faith inextricably joins us to Jesus. As amazing as that is. Let us pray with Moses, “Show me your glory.” Show me the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform me into that same image, from one degree of glory to another.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… Hebrews 1:1-3