Summary: We all need a glimpse of Jesus' glory shining out in the mundaneness of life.
The Transfiguration: An Exposition of Matthew 17:1-9
We have come to Transfiguration Sunday, which is observed the Sunday before the season of Lent. It serves as a transition from the season of Epiphany which precedes it. Epiphany is a season in which we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus to the entire world. It translates a Greek word which means “shining” or “revealing.” Transfiguration represents the ultimate revelation of Jesus, as we shall see. If one looks at the Transfiguration accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, we see that it occurs at a transition point in Jesus’ ministry. Mark places this at the chiastic center of his Gospel, which serves as the central theme of the book in this form of construction. The gospel centers around this divine manifestation of Jesus Christ. Luke also holds this central idea, although there is more in the Gospel after the Transfiguration than before. Luke and Acts, according to Dr. Warren Gage are epic in form as well as being chiastically arranged. The repeated Ascension account serves the purpose that Mark uses the Transfiguration. It is about the Kingdom of God coming in glory with the return of King Jesus.
Matthew’s account, like Mark and Luke, occurs after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ at Caesarea Philippi. This confession was made in Gentile territory and not Israel. This was an epiphany to Peter, although He did not understand the implications of this confession. To Peter, this confession was more in tune with the Jewish Messianic expectation of a king who would immediately overthrow the Romans at set himself up as an earthly king in Jerusalem. As Caesarea Philippi is where Herod Philip had his palace, it might seem tempting to start cleaning house there. Jesus begins at this point to reveal that His kingdom was not at all according to Peter and the other disciple’s expectations. He told them that instead of being received as Messiah in Jerusalem, he was instead going to be rejected and crucified. Then, He would arise again on the third day. He also told them that in their ministry, they would also be rejected, like he was. This was not at all what they wanted to hear.
At the same time, Jesus told them that some of those standing there would not taste death until they had seen the Kingdom of God come in power. This has created much difficulty in the church since this time. Many theologians contend that the Apostles fully expected Jesus to return in their earthly lifetimes. Of course, the return of Jesus as prophesied at the ascension has obviously not occurred even to this day. We, too, hold unto the expectation of the Lord’s return. Peter later writes that some were growing discouraged at the delay of the Lord’s return. We are all impatient. So whatever Jesus meant by this statement was different.
Mark and Matthew follow up this statement with the Transfiguration. It becomes obvious that the Transfiguration is the demonstration of the Kingdom in power, and that only some of them, namely Peter, James and John saw this. They saw in the Transfiguration, the Kingdom of God come in power in a type of the final return of Jesus. So they saw this before all of them long ago tasted death in this world.
Matthew and Mark both place the Transfiguration at a high point within the context of suffering. Jesus had told them of His coming rejection as we have noted. But it is also seem in the disciples questions about John the Baptist’s relation to Elijah. Luke places the suffering motif in the Transfiguration account itself when it is mentioned that Moses and Elijah were talking about His “decease” (actually Exodus in Greek) that He would accomplish in Jerusalem.
Jesus took the three up the mountain for this revelation. It is similar to Moses going up to Sinai to receive the tablets of the Law. We remember that Moses saw the glory of the LORD passing by, after the LORD had covered Moses in the cleft of the rock. These three would now see a fuller picture of God’s glory than Moses was able to see. They saw the glory of God break forth from the veil of human flesh for just a moment. All of the sudden this veil was lifted, and Jesus’s countenance and clothing became glistening white. Moses and Elijah appeared also to them. This was too much for them. Luke mentions that they became heavy with sleep. What did they see that would make them heavy with sleep? One would think that such a spectacle would make them wide awake. To answer this, one must look at Scriptural passages of what happens when humans are confronted by the vision of God. We remember Isaiah 6 where Isaiah feels utterly undone when He saw the LORD high and lifted up in the Temple. Daniel falls as dead before the LORD. In the Book of Revelation, John falls as dead before the glorious vision of the LORD. So did the disciples see the LORD when they saw Jesus?