I’ve always had a little trouble connecting with the transfiguration story. It’s really neat that Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus. I, as a scholar, have been interested in the parallels among the lives of Moses, Elijah, Jesus and Peter. But that interest, if I’m honest, has been mostly intellectual and hasn’t really changed how I feel about Jesus. What difference does it make if he got shiny for a little bit? In rereading this passage to prepare for writing this article, it struck me that Jesus’ transfiguration makes all the difference to us.
The transfiguration is a strange event in the already quite unique life of Jesus. The Messiah took a break from teaching and healing to climb a mountain with his inner circle of disciples. Once there, he became radiant and had a conversation with the prophets of old. But then, the disciples heard the voice of God from heaven proclaim: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
Jesus could have snuck off by himself, as he frequently did, for this mystical experience. Instead, he chose to bring his disciples. Then, as if seeing a radiant Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah weren’t enough, God spoke to the disciples directly, affirming Jesus’ beloved sonship, and ordering the disciples to listen to him. God did not, that we know of, speak to Jesus here. Jesus and God the Father arranged this whole event on the mountaintop so Peter, James and John could witness it. Why? The language used gives us a big hint.
The Greek word that we translate as transfigured is familiar: μετεμορφώθη (from which we get “metamorph”). It carries a valence of being utterly transformed into something new. Think of a caterpillar metamorphizing into a butterfly. This word, with different conjugations, is used four times in the New Testament. Twice it is used (in Matthew and Mark) to describe Jesus at the transfiguration. The other two times, it’s applied to other humans. In Romans 12:2, Paul uses the word “metamorph” to describe a process that happens as our minds are made new and we no longer conform to the patterns of this world. To think differently is to undergo the sort of radical transformation that Jesus experienced.
“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” (Matthew 17:1-2).
Even more interesting to me is 2 Corinthians 3:18, which prophesies that we will be changed by the Spirit’s power into the same radiant image as we behold God’s glory. Transfiguration into a glorious, radiant body is not just for Jesus, but for us too—eventually.
But 2 Corinthians 3 is about Moses, not Jesus. Hundreds of years earlier, Moses had asked to see God’s glory, and God granted him at least a partial fulfillment of that request. Indeed, all the people gathered at Sinai saw the glory of the Lord (Exodus 24:17). But for Moses, to whom God’s presence was so powerfully intimate, transformation was unavoidable. When Moses returned to the people after conversing with God, his face was radiant, like Jesus’ would be on the mount of transfiguration (Exodus 34:29-35). And like Jesus on the mountain, the transfiguration was only temporary.
If the mountaintop experience was only temporary, what’s the point of Jesus’ transfiguration? I argue that Jesus and God the Father wanted the disciples to get a foretaste of what the kingdom of heaven and New Jerusalem would be like. Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10; I’ve always appreciated the New Revised Standard Version’s and New International Version’s translation of ἀρχηγὸν as “pioneer”). Literally, he is the one who goes first to show the way. And the end realization of the path that we follow Jesus on is to be in the company of God and all the saints who have gone on before us. We will all be transfigured into our heavenly, resurrected bodies, just as Jesus now is permanently transfigured.
And what God said of Jesus, God longs to say of all of us: “Behold, this is my beloved son, my beloved daughter.” Jesus’ transfiguration was meant to show the disciples, and us who come after, part of what awaits us when, at last, we enjoy God’s holy presence.