Why was Jesus transfigured?
Nestled in the gospels is a short passage that can easily be skipped over and Christians call it The Transfiguration. It is when Jesus invited three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John up a mountain, whereupon his face shone like the sun and his clothes became pure dazzling white. He was then joined by the prophet Elijah and Moses and spoke with them. Peter offered to build them three dwelling places but as he was speaking a cloud of light descended and a voice spoke, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Peter and the other disciples fell flat on their faces with fear but Jesus touched them and told them to get up. Elijah and Moses were gone, as was the cloud of light; the disciples were alone with Jesus who then told them to keep it a secret until he died and rose again.
Why did this experience happen? Why Elijah and Moses? Why the mountaintop? And why those three disciples? What was this Transfiguration event all about?
Jesus had many disciples, not just twelve, and he selected twelve of them to be special disciples that he called Apostles; and among these twelve there was an inner circle of three — Peter, and the two brothers James and John. These three were invited to be present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter. It was these three that were asked to keep watch with Jesus as he wept in the Garden of Gethsemane. And in this story we have these three being invited to witness this extraordinary mountaintop experience.
Jesus literally glowed like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white, and whiteness of cloth, at the time, represented purity. The whiter your clothes were then the less dirty they were. It is worth bearing in mind that back then no-one wore purely white clothes, and that today, we use bleach to whiten our clothes but such chemicals were not available in first century Palestine!
Jesus was joined by two other people: Elijah and Moses. Now, firstly, Jesus throughout his ministry, through his words and his actions, aligned himself with these two characters from Israel’s history. Jesus wanted people to make the connection between himself and them. For example, Jesus raised a widow’s son from the dead, just like Elijah, and he wandered in the wilderness for forty days reminiscent of Moses leading the people in the wilderness for forty years. In other words, there were intentional echoes of Elijah and Moses in Jesus’ own ministry.
Secondly, and interestingly, Elijah and Moses were thought of as being the two great undead. Elijah was swept up by a chariot of fire into heaven and we read in the book of Deuteronomy that no-one knows where Moses was buried. Therefore, in a sense, these two characters were connected because they were not considered to have died but to still be, in some way, living.
Thirdly, both Elijah and Moses had mountaintop experiences themselves. Moses’ face even shone with the reflected glory of God, yet in this instance it was the face of Jesus glowing with God’s glory. The glowing of Jesus’ face was not a reflected glory but the glory of God shining from within. In other words, it was a visible demonstration that Jesus was indeed God!
Fourthly, the idea had developed within the Jewish tradition that Elijah would come again before the Messiah appeared, and here he is!
However, fifthly, and most importantly, Moses and Elijah were considered the figureheads representing the Law and the Prophets. The Law being God’s rules for life, and the Prophets being the litmus test as to how the people of God were getting on with being God’s representatives in the world. The Law and the Prophets both pointed to the coming Messiah, the person that would fulfil both the Law and the Prophets, and here he was in the person of Jesus.
The next bit of the story gets interesting. Peter — who must have been ecstatic — asks if can build three dwellings, one for Elijah, one for Moses, and one for Jesus. I love that Peter does this. Remember, Peter was the one that threw himself off a boat to swim to Jesus, was first to run to the empty tomb, said to Jesus that if Jesus washed his feet he should wash his whole body too, and who said that Jesus would never die (resulting a firm rebuke). And here he was asking to build three dwellings.
Now, it was not that Peter was up a mountain, looked at the weather and thought it might rain. No! He was experiencing the most incredible worship event, and where did you worship God back then? In a temple, a tent, or a tabernacle. Peter was offering to build three tabernacles or tents of worship for these three incredibly important figures, however, while he was still speaking a cloud of light descended and a voice proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” The cloud of light was a manifestation of God the Holy Spirit, and the voice was from God the Father.
This incredible scene, for the benefit of those three disciples, was to bear witness to Jesus. Elijah and Moses were present, representing the Law and the Prophets and they bore witness to Jesus. The Father and the Holy Spirit from above came down and bore witness to Jesus. And the three disciples were there to bear witness to Jesus; these same disciples that would go on to establish the church of which we are now a part.
I do not know how the three disciples kept it a secret, especially knowing what Peter was like, but they did. Peter went on to write about his experience in one of his letters: “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
God has been revealing themselves – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – to humanity over time. The Bible is a collection of stories, poems, narratives, history, songs, and apocalyptic writings that chronicle the journey of humanity with God. Our understanding of what God is like has changed over time, and when Jesus Christ appeared, he was the full revelation of who God is. His disciples walked with him and talked with him, laughed with him, and ate with him, and in this story, his glory and majesty was revealed to them. Today, we get a glimpse of Jesus through our Bibles, but God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is still revealing their character, beauty, and glory in the world today. Our understanding of who God is, is still growing and developing, and we are learning new things about God’s nature, will, and character.
Peter, wanting to build three tabernacles on that mountain was cut off speaking by God who told them there was a new way, the way of the Beloved Son, and it is easy to get locked into ways of being: locked into our scriptures, locked into our traditions, and locked into trusting our own intellects.
The history of Christianity makes for some uncomfortable reading, as we reflect that we were pushed out of our comfort zones through new revelations of who God is and what God is like. For example, it was not so long ago that Christendom defended slavery or the subjugation of women on the basis of scripture, tradition, and reason, but as we encountered a new revelation of God’s love we came to a new understanding that could still be defended though scripture, reason, and tradition. In the same way, it was not so long ago that Christendom defended the wasteful usage of the world’s resources and the destruction of the environment, but as we encountered a new revelation of God’s love we came to a new understanding that could still be defended through scripture, reason, and tradition.
The question I want to ask is, what new revelation of God’s love are we encountering today? How will we understand the scriptures, tradition, and reason in the light of these new, Holy Spirit inspired revelations. Personally, I think the Spirit is showing us something about the wonderful diversity that exists within humanity — a diversity that should be embraced, included, and celebrated. The church, right now, is in discomfort over issues of human gender and sexuality, and perhaps, just perhaps, if history is anything to go by, God is at work, however one thing is for sure, and that is that the story is not yet over.