The Transfiguration: A Preview of Coming Attractions2
How many times have you read the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus and understood it as a preview of the Second Coming of Christ? Probably not often, if at all. Continue reading . . .
How many times have you read the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus and understood it as a preview of the Second Coming of Christ? Probably not often, if at all.
The fact of the matter is, the transfiguration is primarily about the second coming of Jesus. It provides for us a brief, momentary glimpse at the glory of Jesus Christ that will be revealed when he returns. The transfiguration of Jesus is a sneak peek, as it were, not only of the true nature of Christ as Son of God but also of that majesty and power and glory that will be fully revealed for all to see on the day when he comes back for his bride, the church.
This, then, is an advance glance into the future. It is a momentary, but very real manifestation, of the glory and splendor and majesty and power that will envelop and surround and characterize Jesus when he comes back.
This was a singular event in biblical history. There is nothing else comparable to it. There are no parallels to which we may liken it. There is nothing like it in all the ancient literature outside the Bible.
My aim, then, is to explains some of the details of this event and close with four practical take-aways from the text. This isn’t just a story about a bizarre supernatural event in the life of Jesus. It has meaning for us today. We weren’t there to witness it ourselves, but three very reliable men were. One of them was Peter, who undoubtedly communicated the event to his young disciple Mark, who has preserved it for us in his gospel (as have also Matthew and Luke, but not John). Here is his record of the event:
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him” (Mark 9:1-13).
Mark 9:1 has baffled students of the Bible for years. In it Jesus declares that some of those standing with him will personally witness or see with their own eyes the arrival of the kingdom of God in power. To what does this refer? Those who mock the Christian faith and reject its supernatural character insist that Jesus was talking about his second coming in v. 1. Jesus fully expected to return to earth during the lifetime of his disciples, but didn’t. Since all those with him died before he returned, Jesus was obviously wrong and therefore Jesus is obviously not God. But there is no reason to think that he had in mind his second coming. What, then, did he mean?
Some believe he was referring to the cross and all the events associated with it. Others think the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is in view, while some point to the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost and the birth of the church? A few are persuaded that Jesus was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., when he was visibly vindicated as Lord and King. The fact is that all these events were truly manifestations of the kingdom of God coming in power. However, all of those standing with Jesus, not just “some” (with the exception of Judas Iscariot), were eye-witnesses of the resurrection and descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The key is found in the obvious connection between the statement of 9:1 and the events that follow immediately in 9:2-13. In fact, only six days transpire between Jesus’ declaration in 9:1 and the events of 9:2-13. Thus it would appear that the primary reference of v. 1 is to the transfiguration of Jesus described in vv. 2ff. This is confirmed by the fact that only three saw it: Peter, James, and John.
This is really odd language. None of us would speak this way. It is undeniably strange for Jesus to declare that “some standing here will by no means taste death until” they see something that in fact occurred a mere six days later. But this misses the significance of the word “some”. His point is that only “some” of the disciples would witness this event while the rest would indeed “taste death” without seeing anything comparable to it. So, whereas we can’t rule out that Jesus also had in mind the manifestation of the kingdom in his death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., the primary event in mind is the transfiguration.
Why does Jesus speak this way? After all, if Jesus means, “some of you will see” the kingdom, why does he use the cumbersome and awkward words, “some standing here will not taste death until they see the kingdom”? Most likely, the reference to “not dying until” harkens back to the end of Mark 8. There Jesus said that if you follow him you must be willing to take up your cross and perhaps even “die”. Following Jesus may well cost you everything. His point in Mark 9:1, then, is that for some of them there will be something to look forward to before that death comes. For some of them, the opportunity will be afforded to witness the kingdom of God with power before they suffer the ultimate sacrifice of death in the cause of Christ.
Note carefully the language of 9:1. Jesus does not say they will witness the “coming” of the kingdom. He says they will see the kingdom “after it has come with power”. The kingdom, we know from Mark’s gospel, is already a present reality. It has appeared in the person of Jesus. But some will behold its visible presence in great power. The contrast in view here is between the secret presence of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus and its open and powerful manifestation. Some will be privileged to see the latter.
Mark says this occurred “six days later” In Luke 9:28 it says “about eight days later.” Luke was most likely giving an approximate time reference. He also was including the day of Peter’s confession and the day of the transfiguration itself, whereas Matthew and Mark refer only to the days in between the two. Thus there’s no contradiction between the two accounts.
Note that “a cloud overshadowed them” (see Exod. 24:15-16; 40:35; 1 Kings 8:10-11). “The cloud is the impregnating presence of God, symbolizing that in Jesus, even more than in the tabernacle of old, God dwells bodily with humanity” (Edwards, 267).
The point is that this is symbolic of the presence of God. It is a highly charged revelatory moment when God himself speaks audibly. I can only conclude that they were instinctively made aware by the Spirit who these two other men were. It was a revelatory experience not unlike what Peter experienced in Mark 8 when God made known to him that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
But why Moses and Elijah? Without listing or responding to all the suggestions, let me simply say two things. First, these two men, together with Enoch, were thought of as the “deathless” ones of the OT. Elijah had been translated directly to heaven and Moses mysteriously disappeared on Mt. Nebo and had no known gravesite. In other words, they had disappeared from view rather than dying in the ordinary way. Stories developed about their being somehow spared physical death. Perhaps Mark is pointing to the fact that Jesus, although certainly not spared death, in his own unique way would overcome the power of death.
But more important still is the fact that Moses and Elijah were representative of the entire prophetic tradition in the OT that was designed to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah (see Deut. 18:15). Moses was himself the prototype of the eschatological prophet. Edwards explains:
“The presence of Moses and Elijah thus signifies that Jesus is not a ‘walk on’ in the divine economy, nor is his revelation as the Son of God (v. 7) an anomaly or arbitrary expression of the divine will. Rather, the presence of Moses and Elijah as forerunners attests to the culmination of a purposeful revelation of God’s Son with the history of Israel” (266).
However, although Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, they don’t remain with him. They vanish. Their presence points to Jesus. Their work is consummately fulfilled in him. The time has come for them to step aside and for all eyes and ears to be fixed on Jesus, the fulfillment of all OT hopes and prophetic promises.
What actually happened on the mountain? “He was transfigured before them” (v. 2). Matthew and Luke both say that “his face shone like the sun” (Mt. 17:2), whereas Mark emphasizes how this was reflected in his garments. “They became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” (v. 3).
This isn’t the same thing that happened to Moses on Mt. Sinai. You will recall that he is said to have descended the mountain with a radiant glow in his face. But the shining in Moses’ face as he descended the mountain was a reflection of the glory he beheld, whereas the shining of Jesus’ face was because of his own intrinsic majesty and deity.
The word “transfigured” occurs only 4 times in NT (Mark 9:2; Matt. 17:2; Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). There was no substantive change in the nature of Jesus. He didn’t become something other than what he truly and already was. Rather, there was an outward visible change or transformation in his appearance that reflected his true nature. It was a “revelation” as much as a transformation.
His true inner identity and character as Son of God incarnate suddenly burst forth for others to see. The divine glory within irradiated Christ’s whole being, affecting even his clothes!
What Peter, James, and John were privileged to see was the eternal, pre-incarnate glory of the Son that for the period of his earthly life had been deliberately obscured and hidden behind the veil of his human flesh. The veil of finite human nature is momentarily lifted to provide a glimpse of his infinite deity! There is a sense in which his human flesh became momentarily translucent and the light of his divine nature shone through. But as I said earlier, this glory on display was not only to remind them of Christ’s past but also to point them to his future. They were allowed to see in part what all of us will see in fullness at his return.
We’ve come to expect Peter’s verbal missteps, and he does it again when he said to Jesus, “’Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:5-6).
But I can understand why he put his foot in his mouth this time. According to v. 6, he was terrified, overcome with awe and stumbling for what to say. Perhaps he wanted to prolong the experience by having Jesus and his OT companions dwell there for a few days. Perhaps he felt that such dignified people as Moses, Elijah, and Jesus should be sheltered from the sun? Perhaps Peter overheard Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah about his impending death in Jerusalem and he once again is determined to put a stop to it, so he devises a way to keep Jesus on the mountain.
In any case, God the Father speaks from heaven and says, in effect,
“Peter, shut up! This is my beloved Son. Listen to him! He is all you need. He is the consummation of the revelation of who I am and what I want. If you want to know anything about me, look at him, listen to him. Peter, if he says he’s going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, don’t you dare stand in his way. Pay heed to his will and his words. If he tells you to deny yourself and take up your cross, do it! Peter, everything Moses has written and all Elijah has done, together with everyone else in the OT, only makes sense when seen in the light of who Jesus is and what he does and says.”
Given the supernatural and stunning nature of what they had just witnessed, it must have been incredibly difficult for them to keep their mouths shut about it. But Jesus didn’t want anyone attempting once again to come and make him king based on the report of his divine glory. Their confusion regarding the meaning of “resurrection” is understandable. Let’s not forget that they just witnessed an unprecedented display of divine power and glory and the coming of God’s kingdom. How in the world could “death” and crucifixion have factored into that? They simply couldn’t grasp how this one whom they’ve just seen in majestic display could ever die. What need would there be of a resurrection?
In the next article we’ll look at the reason for this event and what we are supposed to learn from it.