If this isn't the strangest story in the gospels, it must come close. Apart from the unusual setting, the limited audience, the peculiar light, and the mysterious appearance of two long-dead men, Jesus capped the mystery by telling his companions not to tell anyone what they'd seen. This story immediately follows Peter's declaration that Jesus is "the Christ", and Jesus telling the disciples that some of them would see him coming in his glory "not many days hence". From the concurrence of these passages we can conclude that the Transfiguration was the fulfilment of that promise.
The Transfiguration story is told in all three synoptic gospels in almost identical words, and within the same context. But the event is never mentioned in the book of Acts, was never used as evidence to support any doctrines, and was eventually mentioned in just two late apostolic writings. The clearest of these is Peter's recollection (see 2 Peter 1:16-18). The less obvious, but probable alternative reference to it, is in the early verses of John's gospel ("…we beheld his glory…" John 1:14). In the face of such an extraordinary story the shortage of apostolic references to it is surprising and provokes several questions:
- How did Peter and Co know the identity of the figures they saw?
- Why Moses and Elijah?
- What were they discussing with Jesus?
- What does the Transfiguration mean?
- Who was it for?
Question 1 has an obvious answer. All three disciples were asleep when the transfiguration began, so they missed some of the story. But the two patriarchs would not have been labelled (!) Nor is it likely that their clothing or appearance would have identified them. The Old Testament accounts tell us a lot about their personalities, but not their physical appearance. So, the only way the disciples could have identified the visitors is if Jesus told them who they were.
In response to Question 2, many teachers have observed that Moses and Elijah were primary representatives of the twin sections of Hebrew scripture - the Law and the Prophets. The message, it has been said, is that the vision demonstrates that Jesus is superior to the Law and the Prophets. I have no quarrel with that explanation; but Jesus said the same thing clearly in words, and the person who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews taught the same in many more words - but neither saw the need to use the Transfiguration as a proof of those teachings.
As for the subject of this remarkable conversation (Question 3) Luke's account tells us that they were discussing Jesus' forthcoming trial and death (Luke 9:31). That gives a clue to the remaining two questions.
Regarding the meaning (Question 4) it has been taught that the Transfiguration proves the divinity of Jesus, and I don't dispute that. However, the event seems both too small and too big for that to be its sole meaning. It's too small, because it is outclassed by the Resurrection, which was central to the preaching of the apostles in Acts, and their teachings in the epistles, and was a powerful witness to Jesus' unique nature. By contrast, the Transfiguration is hardly mentioned in the later New Testament books - and was never used as a proof of Jesus' divinity.
Remaining with Question 4, the event is too big because such an extraordinary and memorable story, including a direct intervention from heaven, must have special meaning. But, if that meaning is different from, or more than, a proof of the divinity of Christ, what could it be? Question 5 points us to the answer. Who was the Transfiguration for?Beneficiary
Let's rephrase the question. Who was meant to benefit directly from this heavenly intervention? It couldn't be the crowds waiting at the foot of the mountain, nor the disciples who had been left behind in the valley. Those people were excluded, because Jesus told the privileged three not to tell anyone what they'd seen "until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead". As far as we know, James, who was martyred not long after the resurrection, never told the story. Peter and John seem to have kept it to themselves until many years afterwards, so they didn't use the story to benefit the early church. We can even rule out the three disciples who witnessed the event, because they slept through much of it. That leaves one other possible beneficiary - Jesus himself.
The Transfiguration came at the moment when the full force of his destiny hit Jesus, not as a distant possibility, but an immediate threat. He knew then, as a certainty, that he would face an excruciating test involving torture, humiliation, and a lingering, painful death. God could have spoken to Jesus in a dream, or in a waking vision. But Jesus needed the strongest reassurance. So, his Father sent him such a clear message that three other people witnessed it. Even Peter's bumbling response helped, by confirming immediately that the vision was no illusion.
The idea that Jesus might be scared might worry many Christians. He was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, divine through and through. But he was also completely human - subject to pain and, as the book of Hebrews puts it, "...one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are" (Hebrews 4:15 NIV). The humanity of Jesus is a central plank of our faith. If he was not truly human, his suffering on the cross would be a sham. If he was truly human, he would not only suffer in the experience, but in the anticipation of it.
The disciples never questioned the genuineness of Jesus' humanity - they knew him personally. It wasn't until the end of the Apostolic Age, when many of those who had known Jesus in the flesh as a day-by-day companion, had already died. It was then that some people started to question whether such an amazing person could really be human. Then John affirmed, "...Everyone who confesses openly his faith in Jesus Christ--the Son of God, who came as an actual flesh-and-blood person--comes from God and belongs to God." (1 John 4:2 The Message).
So, the answer to Question 5 is "Jesus", which takes us back to Question 4 and the meaning of the Transfiguration. This event teaches us about the unique relationship Jesus had with the Father, but it also shows his vulnerability. One amazing story demonstrates both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus, the Christ. It confirms his divinity because the Old Testament (the Law and the Prophets) foretold his coming and his life, and the voice of God confirmed it in the present. It confirms his humanity, because Jesus was human enough to need that reassurance to strengthen him for the last, dreadful stages of his mission.
The book of Hebrews says, "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame…" (Hebrews 12:2). It was the Transfiguration that placed that vision of joy before our Saviour. .