Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Matthew 17:1-8 (NRSV)
Six days after Jesus affirms to his disciples that he is the Son of God, their hoped for Messiah, and that this entails his suffering, death, and resurrection, he takes a few of them to the top of a mountain (perhaps the few that seem to be struggling with this idea, if Peter is any indicator).
Mountains, of course, have significance in many religions, including Judaism. Mountains are where gods live, and if you want to commune with them, that’s where you go. They are a point of earth that ascends into heaven.
It is here that what we call the Transfiguration occurs: Jesus’ face and clothes become dazzling, Moses and Elijah appear and converse with Jesus, and God speaks from heaven announcing that Jesus is His beloved son.
This is all kind of weird, and better theologians than I have unpacked what it could all mean.
It was perhaps Origen (who should have been sainted, not declared a heretic) who firstly connected the Transfiguration with resurrection. The glorification of Jesus, the conversation with saints who have died – these things present a picture to the disciples of the resurrection awaiting Jesus and, ultimately, all of his followers.
I think this train of thought is generally correct, but I’d like to look at how this ties back to history, the Old Testament, and how that meaning will help us understand what this event is trying to communicate to the disciples (and Matthew’s readers).
The idea that resurrected saints will be gloriously dazzling goes back to an important book for Jesus: Daniel.
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.”
Daniel 12:1-4 (NRSV)
This is part of a prophecy about Antiochus Epiphanes – a Selucid king who ruled their empire, including Judea. Although the rulers prior to Antiochus had been generally tolerant of Judean practices, Antiochus would have none of this. He declared himself to be a god, ordered the Jews to worship Zeus, and exercised all kinds of tyrannical predations against the Jewish people. His persecutions sparked the Maccabean Revolt and led to his destruction of Jerusalem.
Interestingly, Antiochus was not without Jewish support – specifically, he reached out to groups of non-observant Hellenized Jews to solidify his power base. So, we see in Antiochus’ reign a sort of dividing line between the Jews in Judea, with some who do not care much about observing the Jewish faith getting in bed with whoever is in power and others whose faith leads them to a collision course with Antiochus, resulting in their persecution and martyrdom.
Daniel describes these things, and at the peak, offers the vision we see in Daniel 12:1-4. These things will come to an end, and when they do, some will be raised from the dead to be held in shame and contempt, but others who were wise and led people into righteousness will shine like stars.
It is possible that the prophetic imagination, here, is simply describing the people who survive the calamitous events around the persecution and eventual downfall of Antiochus Epiphanes into the next age. Once God brings an end to this tribulation, the people who supported it will be objects of scorn while the people who maintained their faith and encouraged others to do so will be heroes.
I do think, though, it is likely that Daniel is contemplating an actual, future resurrection, especially given how closely tied the idea of resurrection is to the Jewish idea of justice for the faithful and the oppressors as well as the restoration of Israel.
But in either case, the meaning is clear. Currently, Israel is under the thumb of a tyrannical oppressor who considers themselves to be a deity and demands that Israel acknowledge this. Some in Israel are getting behind this power, while others faithfully refuse to be complicit even if it means being imprisoned or killed. At the end of this will come a resurrection where there will be a clear, eschatological division between these groups, and one will be held up to scorn while the others will radiantly shine.
It is, in fact, this same idea and image that Jesus uses in his parable about the wheat and the tares. Currently, wheat and tares grow together in the kingdom because destroying the tares would also cause damage to the wheat. But there is coming a day when God and His angels will do some harvesting, and those who belong to the enemy will be destroyed, but the righteous will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matt. 13:43)
So, yes, the Transfiguration does give us a picture of resurrection, but not resurrection as a theological abstraction or a generic statement on what happens when we die.
The Transfiguration puts Jesus and his disciples on the eschatological map.
They, too, live under an oppressive regime whose leader declares themselves to be a god. They, too, are pressured to conform to Rome’s religious and political structures, and they struggle to faithfully maintain a Jewish identity in the midst of this – sometimes suffering imprisonment or death for it (and this will only get worse as time goes on).
Furthermore, some in Israel have allied with this oppressive structure, hoping that they will be protected and comfortable, even at the expense of their own people.
But Jesus and his followers are on the cusp of God intervening in this situation in a powerful way. The day is soon coming when the oppressor will come against Jerusalem for her rebellion and destroy her. On that day, some will live through it, and others will fall – but either through survival or resurrection, it will be revealed whose side God was on. One group will be objects of scorn and derision; another group will be held up as faithful and righteous heroes – shining in the kingdom of their Father. The resurrection will justify them and, in turn, glorify them.
And this wheat and tare gathering will not simply be limited to Israel, but will in time roll out to cover the entire Empire. The Caesar who today is declared a living god by Herod will give way to a Caesar who will declare Jesus Christ as lord of the Roman Empire. Oppressors will be removed from office and put in prison, while the faithful will be exalted to positions of power. Pagan temples will give way to churches. The faithful who currently suffer under Rome will one day rule it under the authority of King Jesus.
Later in this same chapter, Jesus will tell the disciples not to share the vision until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” thus taking the apocalyptic title that Daniel uses for the individual in his vision who represents faithful Israel.
I’ll address the appearance of Elijah a little later, but this connection is, perhaps, why Moses is one of the people who shows up. Moses, who confronted the pagan oppressors who ruled Israel in his day, led his people out from under them, and destroyed the pursuing armies.
Luke makes this connection explicit in his account of the Transfiguration:
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his exodon, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Luke 9:30-31 (NRSV, emphasis and Greek insertion mine)
This brings us to good ol’ Peter. Is there any disciple that people relate to more than Peter? Full of good intentions, lacking much understanding, possessed of zeal, and giving in to weakness at critical moments.
Here, Peter wants to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.
We aren’t told why, but most theologians believe Peter is trying to make this moment last longer. As if this moment is an end unto itself.
It’s not hard to imagine what Peter might be thinking. How different would Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem be if he came in this dazzling, glorified state with Moses and Elijah by his side? Surely all of Israel would throw their support behind this figure, and probably a decent amount of Rome as well! There could be no confusion who the chosen ruler of the gods are when one of them is literally shining radiance and he is accompanied by the risen bodies of two of some of the most noted prophets in Israel’s history.
But, as he often does, Jesus points out this is not how the kingdom will come. It will come through the faithful suffering and death of the Messiah, not a glorious enthronement of the god-king by earthly powers.
See, that’s the thing. To get to the resurrection, you have to die.
It is the resurrection from the dead that will justify Jesus, and it is his exaltation from God that will establish him as Lord and Christ. The road to this is faithfulness unto death, not using his rights and powers and political machinations to avoid it. The latter is the wide road much of the powerful in Israel have taken, but that road leads to destruction. The narrow road – the road of faithful suffering – the road Jesus calls faithful Israel to follow him on – this is the road that leads to justification and glorification. This is the road that will see you safely to the other side of this present evil age.
God has to forgive Israel to deliver her. God has to move in an unmistakable way to overthrow a very entrenched power structure. God has to do all this. Anything that happens by way of the help of the earthly powers that be simply extends the cycle. More curse under new rulers.
The thing that will move God’s heart, though – the thing that will ignite the supernova – is the obedient death of His faithful, beloved Son. And so His Son will stand for all Israel. And, by the power of the Spirit, so he stands for all of us.
If the Transfiguration is only a picture of these things, though, why bother? Why even create this display for the disciples? What is the point of seeing an initial foretaste of what is to come if that foretaste is fleeting, soon to pass under the layers of history?
My guess is the most vital and elusive of all reasons – to give hope.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20-26 (NRSV)
- Now that we are on the other side of the political situations described in the Old Testament and the book of Matthew, what hope does the Transfiguration give you as a follower of Jesus? What truths does it communicate about God, His people, and their future?
- The Bible presents resurrection not as a generic answer to the question, “What happens to us after we die?” but rather, “What will happen to God’s people?” Have you ever thought about your journey with God in the context of being part of the story of a larger group of people? What other parts of your individual spirituality could be informed by thinking of them as part of the experience of God’s people as a whole?