When Peter, James and John went with Jesus up the hillside of Mount Tabor (the traditionally accepted place of Christ’s transfiguration), they had no idea what was awaiting them (Mark 9:1-8). It is likely they expected to hear another teaching from Jesus, or perhaps to have occasion to ask him questions regarding the messianic kingdom they were anticipating. Or maybe they had hoped to eavesdrop on his prayer time and gain insight into the mysterious communion between the Father and Son. But the biblical account reveals none of the above. Not, at least, in the way one would expect.
The title “transfiguration” can be a little misleading, because Jesus was not transfigured into something other than himself – more beautiful or spiritual. It was simply a fuller revelation, the unveiling of Christ’s already-present, divine nature. His deity merely was cloaked in human flesh (Phil 2:6, Col 1:19) and “hidden” to all but the spiritually perceptive eye. Yet here, Jesus would give these three disciples a visual message that would speak volumes into their hearts and minds for the rest of their earthly lives, a message meant for all of us. It would prove to be a sight that they desperately needed to behold. Future persecution and challenges to their calling otherwise might have overwhelmed their impressionable hearts and paralyzed their global mission (Matt 28:18-20). The steeling of their confidence in Christ’s person began with this experience and concluded with the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. In time the disciples would need to fall back on the reality of Christ’s glory soon to be shared by them in the coming kingdom. Envisioning Christ in the glory of his coming indeed helps steady us in the hardest of times.
But what about Moses and Elijah? Why the appearance of these two with Jesus and why did the Lord want us to know about it? Often we Bible teachers like to point out that Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets (although Isaiah might be more representative of the prophetic canon than Elijah), and how together they point to Jesus as the fulfillment of both collective writings. Jesus satisfied the demands of the law and he is the center subject of prophecy. No scholar is likely to debate this point, for Jesus himself declared that the law, the prophets and even the Psalms speak of him (Luke 24:44). In fact, Jesus is the Word incarnate, the embodiment of Scripture; its author and content, its source and its subject (John 1:14, 2 Peter 1:11).
The transfiguration alone would have been sufficient to reveal the power of God’s coming kingdom and the glory of the Messiah that we shall one day enjoy with him. But there appears to be one more element in this visual message whose color adds to the overall portrait of Christ. That the Messiah would be both man and God was in fact prophesied (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23) but had nonetheless escaped the understanding of the most astute Rabbis of Christ’s day. Thus many of his statements were taken to be blasphemous (Matt 26:64-66; Mark 14:62-64; John 10:30-39) and punishable by death. I would submit that a significant part of the “transfiguration” message for us is found in the experiences of Moses and Elijah in the Old Testament (Exodus 19, 1 Kings 19). They both met with God, did so on a mountain, and while doing so received revelation from Him . Once again, here on a mountain Moses and Elijah (now also Peter, James and John) were meeting with God. They became the recipients of a most spectacular revelation, summarized and culminated in the very person and nature of Jesus – his deity and the Father’s audible affirmation of him as His beloved Son! Jesus is “Immanuel, God with us.”