“He must have lit up the sky that day on the mountain, what we call the transfiguration. Jesus on the mountaintop unveiled a foretaste of heaven and glory. Light filled him so that the witnesses remarked on a hue of white that was whiter than any shade possible.
It was a sci-fi transportation to another dimension and while Peter, James, and John were still reeling, Moses and Elijah showed up.
It broke the barrier between heaven and earth for Jesus was the one who could belong to both at the same time. A citizen of heaven, a citizen of earth.”- Sara Lowe, Healing, Finding Truth Among the Mysteries
Today, we are celebrating the feast of the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ. The transfiguration tells us about a witnessed change in the personal appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ into a glorified form. From our premise above, it was not an accidental change but a highly resplendent substantial change with a rapid succession of dramatic events.
The transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ on the mountain has regrettably suffered comparative neglect in relation to other events of his life like the miracles. However, it stands at the midpoint of his ministry and as such very central. In the words of Michael Ramsey: “It represents a height from which the reader looks down on one side upon the Galilean ministry and on the other side upon the via crucis“.
- Background to the Transfiguration.
The event of the transfiguration was reported by the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 17:1-3; Mk.9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36) as well as the apostle Peter (2 Pet. 1:16-18). In the Synoptic Gospels, following the succession of major events, the transfiguration took place about one week after the event at Caesarea-Philippi (Matt.16:13-17; Mk.8:27; Lk.9:18) where our Lord Jesus Christ asked the epoch-making and inter-related questions: “who do people say I am?” And “who do you say I am?” We could recall that the people said he was John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. And the apostles, through Peter, declared that he is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. It is important to note here that Peter spoke from divine inspiration as our Lord pointed out.
The Next major event after the aforementioned event at Caesarea-Philippi was the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ on the mountain. The event of the transfiguration has a lot do to with the Messianic question and declaration at Caesarea-Philippi. At Caesarea-Philippi our Lord asked the question “who do people say I AM” and at the mountain site of transfiguration the voice of God the Father gave the ultimate answer which confirmed the answer given by Simon Peter: “…My beloved Son in whom I AM well pleased”. Note that “I AM” is God’s name and “God” can actually replace I AM in the sentences above.
There is yet another event that suggested the occurrence of the transfiguration. In the Gospel of Luke (9:27) the verse before the narration of the transfiguration our Lord said that there are some here who will not taste before they SEE (not enter) the Kingdom of God. Now, what happened during the transfiguration was for the three disciples nothing less than a peep into the Kingdom of God. Pope Benedict would argue that there is a reason for placing this instruction just before the transfiguration.
The transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ was a very significant event that would leave us with a lot of didactic lessons. Firstly, It serves as a salutary encounter between humanity and divinity. In this encounter, the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ which was purposely veiled by his humanity was unveiled for the three privileged disciples: Peter, James, and John to see and to confirm their faith.
The transfiguration further raises our hearts and minds to the glory of heaven our eternal home. From the transfiguration, we have a confirmatory note showing that beyond the changes and chances of this world, there is an eternal home for us which, according to Simon Peter, is very pleasant to behold and to stay in.
We shall be paying attention to some salient resonances in the transfiguration event in what follows:
- Ascent to the Mountain
Mountain is a very symbolic site in biblical imagery. They are mostly seen as places of extraordinary divine encounters. The two biblical figures that appeared during the transfiguration event had vivid and remarkable mountain experiences we can relate to.
Moses encountered God countless times on various mountains and actually received the Ten Commandment on mount Sinai (Ex.19:20-20:1ff; Ex.24:9). It was also from a mountain (Abarim) that he saw the Promised Land which he could not enter (Numbers 27:12-13). Elijah, on the other hand, had some power packed mountain experiences. It was on mount Carmel that he had a battle of superiority with the prophets of Baal (1 kgs. 18:1-40). Furthermore, God invited him for an encounter with Him at mount Horeb through the gentle wind (1 Kgs.19:11-13).
Mountain is not only a place of refuge (Psalm 125:1), it is also a place of divine presence, provision, and protection (Isaiah 25:6-8). Furthermore, our Lord Jesus Christ did most of his important teachings on various mountains like the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). He climbed the mountains to pray most of the time (Matt. 14:23; Lk.6:12; Lk.9:28). He was later crucified on mount Calvary and ascended from mount Olives. Considering the foregoing, the transfiguration could not have taken place in any other place than on a mountain.
Most scholars are divided about the name of the mountain where the transfiguration took place; Tabor or Hermon. However, there is a high probability that it could be Hermon because of its proximity to Caesarea-Philippi which is about fourteen miles. Furthermore, mount Hermon which the highest mountain in Israel (9,400 feet above sea level), is very easy to climb. They could have spent almost the whole day climbing and reached towards nightfall when the event could have taken place. We were told by Luke that Peter and the two others were feeling sleepy. Of course, they came down from the mountain the next day.
- The Three Disciples
The number “three” is strategic in biblical symbolism. Apart from its relation to the Trinity, it gives us the idea of completeness. In “three” we have the beginning, the middle, and the end. In fact, most things have a tripartite representation for instance the human person (body, soul, and mind), matter (solid, gaseous, and liquid states), the universe (land, air and water).
It was from the Twelve that our Lord singled out the three namely, Peter, James, and John to accompany him to the mountain. This will not be the first time he would take them along for some private encounter. It was the case during the raising of the Jarius’ daughter (Luke 8:51) and at Gethsemane during the agony (Matt.26:36-37).
Our Lord took the three disciples not only because of their active roles in his ministry (as key holder and sons of thunder respectively) but also for the certification that requires two to three witnesses for any fact to be adjudged genuine (Deut.19:15; Matt.18:16). Later on in his epistle, St. John will tell us that there are three witnesses: the Spirit, Water, and Blood.
- Moses and Elijah
Moses and Elijah are very important figures in the Old Testament. Moses received the Ten Commandment that forms the basis of our Christian morals and spiritual life till date. Elijah could be said to be the most highly rated Old Testament prophet on account of his amazing prophetic exploits and his unusual exit from the world with a celestial chariot.
In the narrative, our Lord Jesus Christ was having a dialogue with Moses who represents the law and Elijah who represents the prophets. Here we notice a palpable and dramatic confirmation of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ that he came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them (Matt.5:17). If he could engage in a discussion on his mission with the law and the prophet then there is every reason to say that there was no conflict.
The two Old Testament figures were there at the transfiguration to further strengthen the authenticity of the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ before the three human witnesses namely Peter, James, and John. The vision was so beautiful and exciting that Simon Peter could not but ask for an extension which was unfortunately not granted.
- The Voice of God the Father.
From the beginning of creation, God the father has always being heard but not seen. The voice of God the Father came as the ultimate confirmation of the Messianic ministry and mission. This was not the first time God the father broke “protocols” to speak about the Son whom he loves so much. We saw this happening immediately after our Lord was baptized by John (Matt. 3:17).
This voice of God the Father was also heard the third time when our Lord Jesus Christ was praying in public before his passion (John 12:28). Here our Lord Jesus Christ asked God the Father to glorify His name and He responded saying that he has glorified it and would glorify it again.
At the site of the transfiguration, the voice of God the father directed that His beloved Son is listened to. We could ask by who? He was referring to us through the three disciples as well as also directing the law and the prophets to give way to our Lord Jesus Christ who ultimately fulfils them.
- Learning from the Transfiguration.
The transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ makes a direct and continual call for our own transfiguration. Our lives need on-going transfiguration from the disfiguration of sin and disobedience. We need the resplendent light of the transfiguration to dispel the dark corners of our lives. We all ultimately need some transfiguration experience.
There is a general clamour for change. Parents demand it, teachers suggest it, preachers preach it, politicians promise it but often no dependable platforms are created for the change. Change cannot be effective if we do not have the facility to accommodate it. Transfiguration change will help us to transit from mundane concerns to heavenly preoccupation. To effect this, we must like our Lord Jesus Christ and the three disciples, leave the crowd at the foot of the mountain and advance to the clouds atop the mountain, the site of our transfiguration. There is thus need for us to make that move. There is the need for us to change our awful positions to some awesome ones.
May the power of transfiguration bring lasting and desirable changes in our lives. Have a rewarding celebration.