Summary: The transfiguration answers the question: "Who is Jesus?" It also helps us to see that the Kingdom of Heaven is not out there for when we die, but right here, right now for when we live.
I remember a time when I had misplaced my good pen and I was looking for it everywhere. I looked in drawers. I looked under things, behind things and in things. I looked on the floor, but it was nowhere. And then I found it. I was holding it in my mouth the whole time.
That is the way that life often is. We miss things that have been there the whole time. It is like when I was in college and my wife was on campus the whole year, but I never really saw her. Then one day, I SAW her. She had been there the whole time, but one day I actually saw her in my world. And she has been in my world ever since.
That is the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus showed his disciples a part of the world that had been there all along, but it had not really been a part of their world. They were bewildered, astonished and trembling with fear when they saw and understood that heaven was already here in their world and that Jesus was the King of heaven.
As I began to think about the story of the transfiguration, I realized that there is a connection between this event and Moses going up to receive the law on Mt. Sinai. The transfiguration was about a new covenant God was making with the human family.
Moses went up Mt. Sinai to speak with God and receive the laws of God. The Bible says, “When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud.” Exodus 24:15-16
So Matthew is tying the transfiguration to what happened with Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jesus is the new Moses. Moses came down the mountain with a covenant written on stone. Jesus comes down the mountain with a new covenant to be written on flesh — human hearts.
Both Moses and Jesus are surrounded by a cloud which represented the presence of God. It was the Shekina — a cloud of glory that made both of them shine like the sun.
Again Matthew makes a connection to the Old Testament as he reports that Moses appeared to Jesus. And along with Moses, Elijah the prophet appears. Moses represents the Old Testament Law, and Elijah represents the Old Testament Prophets. Jesus is not divorced from the Old Testament, but inextricably linked to it. He does not discard the Old Covenant, but transforms it and builds upon it.
But one of the interesting things is that at the transfiguration, although God affirms Jesus as his Son whom he loves, and with whom he is very pleased, and says that we are to listen to him; he says nothing to or about Moses or Elijah.
Peter, James and John are overcome with fear. They did not know what to do or say, but Peter blurts out: “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Matthew 17:4 But he is interrupted by the voice from the cloud of glory saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Matthew 17:5
Peter is impetuous and doesn’t realize what he is saying. Jesus is not among equals (as important as Moses and Elijah are). Three tents would not have been appropriate, because Jesus is not on par with Moses as another law-giver, and neither is he one of the prophets like Elijah. He is different — completely different. He is the Son of God. He is without equal.
The story of the Transfiguration actually starts in the previous chapter. It says, “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Matthew 16:13-18
Jesus is not another John the Baptist, he is not Elijah, Jeremiah or another one of the prophets, he is unique — without equal. And especially, in our generation, we need to understand that Jesus is not just another religious leader, he is unique. He stands alone. There is no one with whom he can be compared.