Apostle Barbara Childress
The Son affirms the cross: the transfiguration
Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36
Our word 'transfiguration' comes from the Greek word 'metamorphoomai'', from which we get the word 'metamorphosis'. When something 'metamorphoses' it undergoes a striking change in appearance or character.
The transfiguration and the person of Christ
Scripture tells us the Lord Jesus Christ was transfigured before three of his disciples. R. C. Sproul gets at the essence of what happened with these words: 'The prefix trans- means literally "across". In the transfiguration a limit or barrier is crossed. We might call it a crossing of the line between the natural and the supernatural, between the human and the divine. It crosses a boundary of dimensions into the realm of God.'
In the presence of Peter, James and John, the Lord Jesus crossed that barrier between the human and the divine. He was substantially changed. While he was still very much a part of earth, he took on a heavenly appearance.
Charles Eerdman sums it up in this way: 'It is as if the monarch had been walking in disguise; only occasionally beneath his humble garment has been revealed a glimpse of the purple and the gold. Here, for an hour, the disguise is withdrawn and the King appears in his real majesty and in the regal splendour of his divine glory.
When the Second Person of the Trinity took our humanity, he did not cease to be God. The deity was still there, but it was veiled. In the transfiguration, the veil was, as it were, drawn back so that the deity that was always there could be clearly seen.
It was an amazing sight. Matthew says Jesus' face 'shone like the sun, and his clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them' (Mark 9:3). Luke adds this word: 'the appearance of his face was altered, and his robe became white and glistening' (Luke 9:29). R.C. Sproul sums it up in this terse comment: 'The glory of Christ perhaps never became more evident than at his transfiguration.'
The sight of the transfigured Christ was astounding enough in and of itself, but the Scriptures include another astounding thing. They tell us Moses and Elijah also appeared as glorified beings and talked with him.
Why Moses and Elijah? Kent Hughes answers, 'Both these men had previously conversed with God on mountaintops - Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 31:18) and Elijah on Mt. Horeb (I Kings 19:9ff.). These both had been shown God's glory. Both also had famous departures from this earth. Moses died on Mt. Nebo, and God had buried him in a grave known only to himself. Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire. Moses was the great lawgiver, and Elijah was the great prophet. Moses was the founder of Israel's religious economy, and Elijah was the restorer of it. Together they were an ultimate summary of the Old Testament economy' (italics are his).
Christ transfigured and appearing with the glorified Moses and Elijah - what was it all about?
The transfiguration and the work of Christ
Scripture does not leave us to our own speculations. It should not escape our attention that each of the three Gospel accounts contains a distinct reference to the timing of it. Matthew and Mark are very precise: it was six days after Jesus had predicted - and Peter contradicted - his death (Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:2). Luke, on the other hand, is content to approximate the time: 'about eight days' (Luke 9:28).
The fact that each of the Gospel writers relates the transfiguration to what had taken place at Caesarea Philippi indicates that we are to interpret it in the light of what transpired there. And the fact that the discussion at Caesarea Philippi centered on Jesus' death on the cross means the transfiguration must be related to that cross. Luke makes this connection clear by saying the transfigured Christ discussed with Moses and Elijah 'his decease which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem' (Luke 9:31).
It is striking that Jesus' death is spoken of as something that he was going to 'accomplish' rather than suffer. Jesus was not just a passive victim when he died there on Calvary's cross. He was actively pursuing the plan that he and the Father had agreed upon. He knew in advance that this was going to happen. He went up that mountain with the awareness that he was going to be transfigured and that he would meet Moses and Elijah. By going there he was again affirming the cross upon which he and the Father had agreed in eternity past.
The whole episode came to a conclusion with the Father again speaking from heaven: 'This is my beloved Son. Hear him!' (Luke 9:35). By his presence there on the mount, the Son was affirming the cross, and by speaking from heaven, the Father was affirming his Son. Father and Son were still together on the matter of the cross.
But the words of the Father must also be related to Caesarea Philippi. There the Lord Jesus clearly predicted for his disciples in a very explicit manner that his Messiahship meant execution at the hands of the religious leaders. And there Peter, after confessing in a sterling manner the deity of the Lord Jesus, took it upon himself to contradict his Lord.
We can imagine Simon Peter going over and over in his mind the scene at Caesarea Philippi during the days that followed. Had he been right to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God? How could the Son of God die at the hands of wicked men? How could such a Messiah possibly fulfil the Old Testament prophecies?
Six days after the events which plunged him into mental turmoil, Peter had his answer. The fact that Jesus took on a heavenly appearance proved indisputably that he was the Son of God from heaven. And his appearing there with Moses and Elijah to talk specifically about his death indicated that a dying Messiah was exactly what the Law and the Prophets had foretold.
At Caesarea Philippi Simon Peter gives evidence of eroded faith. He had by this time been associated with Jesus for so long and on such an intimate basis that he no longer felt the sense of awe and wonder he once did. Prolonged association with Christ had eroded the awe he felt back in the days when the Lord first called him to be a disciple (Luke 5:8). There was, therefore, a readiness on his part to lecture Jesus and to dispute with him.
There was to be yet another faltering step for Peter. While he was basking in the glow of transfigured glory, he blurted out, 'Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah' (Luke 9:33). That was definitely a faltering step. It not only placed the Lord Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah, but it also sought to perpetuate the experience. And that, of course, meant stopping short of the cross.
Such was Peter's ill-considered response to the transfiguration, but it is safe to say the transfiguration forcefully brought the awe of Christ back to Simon Peter. There he and the others were made to realize afresh that Jesus was not just a mere man who could be mistaken and needed to be corrected, but was God in flesh. And, therefore, what he had to say about his approaching death must be accepted.
Glyn Owen says the transfiguration changed Peter's mind about the cross. 'He learned that God knows better. He learned that Moses and Elijah know better. He learned that heaven knows better than earth.' Then Owen adds this word of application: 'Blessed is the man who can change his mind like that, in accordance with heavenly understanding.'
JOURNEY TO THE CROSS, by Robert Ellsworth, Copyright 1997, EVANGELICAL PRESS.