Transfiguration is one of those big words that in Christianity has a rather specific meaning and reason behind it. When we speak of “The Transfiguration,” we mean, rather specifically, The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, and we tend to celebrate it a Sunday or two before Lent every year.
But what does it mean?
If we look “transfiguration” up in the dictionary, we’ll get an answer somewhere along the lines of “1. A change in form or appearance” or “2. A metamorphosis.”
So – in a nutshell – Jesus’s form or appearance changed somewhat drastically for a short amount of time to the point where it amazed those around him, and it was recorded in the Bible. Now, two thousand years later, we’re still talking about it, and one Sunday every year is devoted to this change of appearance (undoubtedly of divine origins).
Let’s Begin at the Beginning
We take our text from Mark, who situates us with the words “six days later” (specifically the acts of demon healing in Capernaum from last week). He goes with Peter and the brothers James and John and does what he does best—which is retreat from society at large.
This time he retreats up a mountain, but his purpose seems to be twofold. He’s not only getting away (the text doesn’t tell us specifically that this is his design in going there, but knowing Jesus as we do, we can imagine it wasn’t too far in the back of his mind), but he seems to have a rendezvous in mind.
Who is the rendezvous with? Well, that’s the funny thing with. It’s not with anyone of the earthly plane.
Before that Happens
As I said, Jesus has a rendezvous planned, but he hasn’t told his three companions and the author of Mark hasn’t even told us. But Jesus decides to put on his party clothes (so to speak).
Why do I call them that? Because, in modern terms, they are his party clothes.
In Biblical terms, they are the transfiguration. He changes. The text (in translation) says he “transfigures.” His clothes become a “dazzling white,” so white in fact that they’re beyond the earthly power to “bleach.”
It’s a powerful image.
The Greek is even more telling. The word used is “stilbein,” which directly translates as “radiant,” but it’s more than that. Stilbein is the word used for the glittering of burnished gold, or the gleam of gold in direct sunlight. Not only is Jesus bleached white, but he’s compared to the most precious of metals. He’s unearthly—heavenly, I would even dare to suggest.
He is no longer dressed as a man. He is dressed up—dressed as other—and we see in verse four that he is meeting someone, or someones. Those someones are none other than Moses and Elijah.
But They’re Dead
Yes and No. Moses climbed Mount Pisgah to die but no one witnessed it. Elijah got into a chariot and flew to heaven. These are men who were granted eternal life by God through other means (it’s debatable, but it’s there).
I’d also like to point out that Jesus climbed a mountain to see them.
However, these men are different and separate for another reason.
Moses is the supreme law giver.
Jesus came to replace the laws with God’s eternal love.
Elijah was the first and the greatest of prophets (after Moses).
Jesus will replace all prophets as the Son of God. There will be no need for a prophet ever again as he has come to the Lord’s people (and, thus, the entire world).
They are the trio of greatest hits, as it were, in Israel prophetic history, and they’re all standing on a mountaintop together. It’s the equivalent if the Beatles all got together next week on the top of Mount Katahdin and then multiply it by 1000. Forget that a few of them are dead, they have been resurrected for the occasion. This get-together would be the coolness factor of what was going on. John, Paul, George, and Ringo, however, had nothing on Moses, Elijah, and Jesus (no matter John Lennon’s early claims on their level of fame).
Peter Blunders—or does he?
Jesus, if you recall, brought three friends, who were obviously amazed at what they saw—but they were also terrified.
Peter recognized Moses and Elijah for who they were. They were no doubted transfigured like Jesus—glowing robes, glowing faces (remember, they would have recently have been in the presence of God so their faces would show it)—and it would so easy to be struck dumb in their collective presence.
Peter, though, managed to speak.
He offered to make three dwelling places (probably by putting up three tents) for the three men.
This is significant. It shows that he believes Jesus to be on the same level of importance as Moses (the supreme law giver) and Elijah (the first and greatest of prophets). He did not need to gush. He did not need to bow to Jesus and call him “Lord on High.” His offer was all that was required to show that he understood the situation.
If Peter had thought that their esteemed guests had a higher standing in prophetic tradition than Jesus, he would have only offered to make Elijah and Moses dwelling places, and never would have mentioned Jesus in the same breath.
At this moment, I would like to mention that the text says that Peter was terrified, and well he should be. Still, he manages to speak. He manages to speak intelligibly. Through his terror, he manages to be polite and make the offer of making the three dwelling places.
I think this shows great character on Peter’s part. I believe it shows great resolve. I also believe it shows us a hint as to why Jesus chose Peter as a companion and why Peter guards the gates of heaven.
But the Party’s Just Getting Started
Jesus’s rendezvous is not only with Moses and Elijah, but with his heavenly father, who appears in a physical cloud.
Now, God is known for appearing in cloud form, and has done at multiple times before in the Old Testament (most notably when leading the Congregation of Israel across the desert to the Promised Land). Here, on the top of a high mountain, the God of Abraham does so again, and he speaks.
God also appears in the form of a cloud because no one can look directly upon his majesty. He is too great for that. No one can look upon the face of God and live.—and, because f this, God often employs a cloud, so he might hide his face and still be in the presence of his human subjects.
From within the cloud, God calls Jesus his “Son” and his “Beloved” and commands all those present (that is, Peter, James, John, and Elijah and Moses) to “Listen to him!” At these words, Moses and Elijah disappear. Jesus remains (supposedly now un-transfigured) on the top of the mountain with his disciples.
This is an example of God’s majesty. With his words, the command is given, the meeting is ended. With the meeting adjourned, the prophets of old are gone.
The Messianic Secret
Jesus orders his disciples to once again tell no one of what they have seen and heard. This is the Messianic Secret again at work, and a literary point of the author of the Gospel of Mark. They come down off the mountain, and Jesus continues with his ministry, once again wearing human clothes made of human materials.
What we Can Take from This
First, Jesus is the Son of God. That is without question.
Second, Jesus is the successor to Moses, the supreme law giver
Third, Jesus is the successor also to Elijah, the greatest of prophets. He will replace both Moses and Elijah and remake the religion of the One True God—the God of Israel—into what it was meant to be, a religion of love and comfort and understanding.
Fourth, Jesus is something that had never before been seen. People have put many names to it. God the Son. Son of God. Messiah. Christ. Savior. Friend of my Heart. The only question is what name you will put to it.
There is no true correct answer.
Each name—each label—comes back to the same person, the same man who was also God Incarnate. They’re just different ways of saying the same exact thing.
The beauty of being a Congregationalist is that we only need answer to God. We need not answer to each other. We need not answer to our minister. We don’t have any creeds. We don’t profess any exact mode of belief. It’s between us and our savior, if we choose to use the word. The way in which we understand God—however that may be—is singular to each individual. We don’t do cookie cutter religion. We do individualist belief systems that only hold one basic tenant in common, a desire to be Jesus’s friend and to believe in God.
Now, to some of our readers it may sound nebulous, and it’s meant to, because we accept truth seekers among our ranks—and a conscience need only hold up to God’s scrutiny, not our fellow human being’s ideas.
In a world that so often expects absolutes, the sanctity of the mind may seem like a relief. But that, ultimately, is what we believe—a sanctity of belief, a sanctity of the mind, and a sanctity of the heart. All is bare before God, but apart from that, the individual is sacred.