Summary: We face trying times. This is no time to be afraid or be ashamed. But we cannot do this in ourselves. We need to see a vision of God.
When We Really Need to See God
Transfiguration Sunday comes every year just before Ash Wednesday. There are only three Gospel texts which tell about the Transfiguration, so it becomes a challenge to repeat a story we have heard so many times. The accounts are quite similar. Luke adds that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about Jesus’ exodus which was about to happen in Jerusalem. This Greek word “exodus” is often translated “decease” or “departure.” However, the use of the word “exodus” in Greek rather than some other more common Greek word which Luke could have used would be apparent to any Jew. Jesus was going to Jerusalem to be the Passover Lamb. He would arise and then ascend back to glory. By doing so, he leads us on the new Exodus, this time from Jerusalem rather than Egypt. He leads us to the Promised Land. But He has to go to Jerusalem first to die. Luke also adds that He called Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. There they fall asleep. This is what they also did at the Garden of Gethsemane when they should have been awake. There is also the sense that they saw God the Son in all of His glory and heard the voice of the Father. Seeing the glory of God is a very unsettling and frightful experience. When others saw a vision of God in the Bible, they would cry out that they were undone or going to die. Others fell as dead. Sleep is often used as a metaphor for death. No one can see God and live.
The only detail that Matthew adds is that Jesus reassured the terrified disciples after the vision by touching them, something Jesus would do again for John after his initial vision on the Isle of Patmos. When God reveals Himself from behind the veil of His humanity, it is not to kill, but rather to assure. Manoah’s wife was discerning enough to assure her husband that although they had seen the LORD ascend in the sacrifice, that they were not going to die. Rather, they would be comforted by having a son, Samson, in their old age whom God had set apart for a special mission of deliverance.
The details of the story are familiar enough. Jesus in 9:1 as well as in Luke and Matthew had told that “some” of them would not taste death until they saw the Kingdom come in power. The Transfiguration of Jesus after six days was that fulfillment. The three got a glimpse of who Jesus really was. We must remember that it was just a few days earlier that Jesus had asked the disciples who people thought the Son of Man was, referring to Himself. Some said Jesus was John the Baptist, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. We must be reminded that after the Transfiguration, after they had seen Elijah, they asked Jesus about Elijah coming and restoring all things. Jesus answered that this role in prophecy was fulfilled by John the Baptist who had come in the spirit of Elijah. So in a few short verses, we see both Elijah as well as John who had come in the spirit of Elijah. Elijah was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Later Jesus would ascend to the Father in an even greater spectacle.
The other person who appears with Elijah was Moses. Together they represent the Law and the Prophets. Jesus said that the Scripture testifies about Him, everything that is written in the Law and the Prophets. Moses is the man God chose to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land during the first Exodus. Now the second who was greater than Moses was about to lead the Children of Israel out on the second Exodus, a theme which is drawn out in the Book of Hebrews. Moses could not lead the Children of Israel over Jordan. It was left for his protégé, Joshua, to do that. Joshua’s name translated into Greek is where we get “Jesus” from. Now the greater Joshua was there to lead them into the true Promised Land.
The fright the disciples felt did not start at the Transfiguration. They were all euphoric I would suppose when Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah and gets commended. I use the Hebrew “Messiah” here even though the Greek “Christ” is used because their concept of the Messiah had political tones to it. They were expecting an immediate deliverance from Rome. They had seen Jesus raise the dead, feed an enormous crowd of people with a few loaves and fish. They had seen Him silence and exorcise demons. All they felt was needed at this point was to go to Jerusalem and seize the prize. There Jesus, the Son of David, would claim the crown, overthrow the Romans, and give the disciples their well-deserved reward. So when Jesus immediately begins to tell them that He was going to Jerusalem to be rejected by the authorities there, there at first was no alarm as these leaders were corrupt anyway. They were going to be the new leaders. But then Jesus tells them that He is going to be put to death, the alarm bells started ringing. They probably did not even hear that Jesus would rise on the third day. Peter took Jesus aside and tried to straighten Jesus out. But it was Peter who had the wrong narrative, and he suffered one of the greatest rebukes in history, being called Satan.