“After six days, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”
I was telling my students in one of my university classes last week that the best history is always a good story. And good stories need compelling, interesting and engaging characters. The evangelist and disciple, Matthew, told a great story in the seventeenth chapter of his gospel about the day that Jesus led the inner circle of his gang of disciples up a mountain so that they could get a good look at who He really was. These three men witnessed the unfiltered, overwhelming glory of the Lord, a vision that none of them would ever forget.
There is some dispute as to the setting of the story. Matthew does not specifically name which mountain hosted this transformative moment. The earliest church tradition points to Mount Tabor as the likely candidate; it is home to the Church of the Transfiguration built on the ruins of a 4th-century church. The problem is that Tabor is not a high mountain, only around 2000 feet in elevation, and it is not on the way from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum where Jesus and the guys were headed. Others believe that Matthew is referring to Mount Hermon. This mountain is definitely high, over 9000 feet, but perhaps too high and too cold on the summit where the disciples and Jesus seem to have spent the night. Also, it would not be close to any Jewish crowds whom Matthew tells us Jesus met on His descent. The best bet may be Mount Miron, a beautiful location pictured above, the highest mountain (3900 feet) in a Jewish area on the way from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum.
Regardless of the actual site for this miracle, the cast of participants is intriguing and instructive. Why did Jesus take just Peter, James and John with him to the top of this mountain? Was it because He loved them more than the rest? No. Was it because they needed more supervision than the other nine? Maybe. Peter was impulsive and impetuous while James and John, brothers by birth, were nicknamed the “sons of thunder” by Jesus because they could be hotheaded. They once wanted to incinerate a group of Samaritans for showing disrespect to their master.
The most likely explanation for their selection was that each man would need a recollection of Jesus’ glory to sustain them in their future service to the Lord. Peter will be the de facto leader of the early Church after denying loyalty to Christ, James will be one of the first Christian martyrs, and John will be an important gospel writer who outlived the rest of the disciples—the one to whom Jesus entrusted his own mother Mary while hanging from the cross. Each of the three will also be the ones Jesus invited to share the most intimate moments of his struggles in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest. Jesus did not need the affirmation this event provided of His identity, but, with what was up ahead for all three of them, Peter, James and John did. Likewise, the Lord will show each of us what we need to see as well. He knows where we are headed on our journey and the experiences we need with Him to navigate the road ahead.
Matthew explained in this story that Moses and Elijah met Jesus and the three disciples on that high mountain top. Why did these two men appear at this crucial moment? Moses had died 1400 years before and Elijah had been gone for 900 years. They represent the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). Jesus fulfills the Law and does what the Law can’t do; He solves the problem of sin. The Law cannot save; it can only identify the fact that we need saving. John himself wrote, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) This grace and truth were foretold by the prophets; Elijah’s presence symbolizes the fact that Jesus is fulfilling Old Testament prophecy as the Son of Man, the Messiah. Perhaps the presence of these two men also signified that Jesus would be crucified for those who have already died in faith (Moses) and those who, alive in faith, will not die (Elijah--supernaturally taken from earth by God without dying.) No doubt, on that mountain that day, Moses and Elijah discussed with Jesus the upcoming, pivotal moment of all history—His impending death on the cross.
What happened to Jesus on that mountain? The Greek word for transfiguration is the one that gives us the English word “metamorphosis.” Jesus’ glorification was more than just an outward transition in appearance. It was a revelation of His glory, His true nature made outwardly visible—like the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly. The transfiguration was not really a new miracle. Rather, it was the temporary cessation of an ongoing miracle. The ongoing miracle was that Jesus was able to suppress the display of His glory most of the time. Another example of when the veil was lifted and Jesus’ glory was fully exhibited may have been in the Garden of Gethsemane at the time of His arrest. John, who had seen this glory once before on the mountain, watched as the posse sent to lead Jesus away fell to the ground when Jesus identified Himself as Lord. (John 18:6)
Again, Jesus did not need the transfiguration to prove His divinity. But these three disciples needed the fire in their soul and the steel in their faith that this revelation would provide. This event was the fulfillment of Matthew’s words right before he told this story: “Truly I tell you, some of you who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (16:28) God spoke in the midst of this revelation and it was His words, not the actual sight of Jesus’ glory, which planted the disciples face down on the ground. The words that God the Father proclaimed were very similar to the ones He used at the time of Jesus’ baptism—a composite of Psalm 2:7 (“You are my Son”), Isaiah 42:1 (“The Son is the One in whom my soul delights”) and Deuteronomy 18:15 (courtesy Moses about the Messiah, “Him you shall hear”). “Listen to Him” was the addition not declared at the baptism, drawing attention and significance to the command to pay close attention to what Jesus would tell these three disciples on the way down the mountain.
What did Jesus tell them? First, he warned them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after His resurrection. Sometimes, our point of obedience is to wait on sharing what God shows us until the moment of His choosing, not our own. The events on that mountain top would deliver greater impact, clearer meaning and deeper comfort for Jesus’ disciples after the crucifixion, not before. And second, Jesus explained that the road before Him and His followers entailed suffering. Mountaintop experiences, when we really get a clear vision of Who Jesus is and an overwhelming sense of His glory, are meant to strengthen, encourage and embolden us. But we can’t live there—we can’t put up tents and stay there as Peter suggested. Rather, the path of service and ministry leads us through the valley of suffering.
The Christian life is a journey on uneven terrain—some ups, but mostly down below in the grind of ordinary days when no one notices us or praises us. On those days, we need to remember and reflect on the last time we were on the mountain top, the last time we saw Jesus clearly and listened to Him most intently. A life of discipleship and obedience flows out of the power of that spiritual topography.
Heavenly Father, Your glory overwhelms us. Witnessing Your glory also sustains, strengthens and propels us forward in our lives devoted to You. Show us Your glory, Lord!
Help us to listen to Your voice and obey what You are saying to us. No matter where You lead us or what suffering we might endure in this world, we want to follow You. Hold us closely to Your heart, our Lord, our Shepherd, our Sustainer and our Savior. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.