Transfiguration: change

TransfigThe Transfiguration. 29 While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.

Both Matthew and Mark starkly report: “And he was transfigured (metamorphōth) before them.” The underlying Greek word means to “transform, change completely.” Luke uses the more mundane heteron (change) and limits the description to his face. All the accounts agree that the clothing became a brilliant white; Luke using the word that sometimes describes the white flash of lightning.

What are to make of the Transfiguration? It is a familiar pericope of all three synoptic gospels that is perhaps too familiar and thus we are tempted to accept it and not stop and consider the significance of it. A limited number of modern scholars describe the narrative as a misplaced story of Jesus’ resurrection, his second coming, his heavenly enthronement, and/or his ascension. In other words, the gospel writers inserted/retrojected a story here for their own narrative purposes. Under such an assumption lays the scholar’s own misgivings about miraculous and extraordinary events. But should we really have been surprised by the events of the Transfiguration?

The transfiguration of Jesus is an amazing event but not totally unexpected for Luke’s readers. After all, Jesus had a miraculous birth, and his ministry began with the divine endorsement of his heavenly Father (3:22). Jesus had done extraordinary works of compassion and had taught the Law with an authority not inherited by any earthly authority. He had demonstrated supernatural control of natural processes by calming storms and feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread. Thus, Jesus’ transfiguration seems consistent with all that has been revealed so far in the gospel. Among the many things Luke has narrated, we know this: Jesus is the Son of God, the fulfillment of Old Testament patterns and predictions, and he has promised a future Kingdom.

Consider the following:

  • The transfiguration story recalls the baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven designates him both the powerful Son of God and the weak suffering Servant (cf. 3:22). This commission is reconfirmed as Jesus begins to instruct his disciples on the meaning and cost of discipleship (9:23-27). Thus it is important that the scene follows the first passion prediction (9:22).
  • The transfiguration story recalls and confirms Peter’s confession (9:19-21). Although Peter was divinely inspired to confess, he still did not seem to grasp the full significance of that revelation. The transfiguration is its own witness to the fullness of the revelation.
  • The transfiguration story connects the confession of Jesus as Son of God and Jesus’ self-identification as Son of Man who suffers, is killed, and is vindicated by God, and will appear as judge at the parousia
  • The transfiguration should not be viewed as the illumination of the man Jesus with an extrinsic glory but as the momentary uncovering of the Son of God’s own intrinsic glory, which has been temporarily veiled and will be reassumed at the resurrection and ascension (John 17:4–5, 24; Phil 2:5–11; Col 1:16–19; Heb 1:1–4). In this the transfiguration story anticipates the eschatological events of the Resurrection.
  • The transfiguration authenticates both Jesus’ divine identity and God’s plan to occupy this world and rule it forever. By the transfiguration, the disciples were given a glimpse of not only who Jesus is but also what he will one day bring to this world (see 2 Pet 1:16–18). Moses and Elijah are worthy figures, but they are only supporting actors in the redemptive drama the disciples witness. As the scene ends, Moses and Elijah have exited, and only Jesus remains in the center of the stage. The “listen to him” of the transfiguration will become the great commission of the church to proclaim the good news.

And thus the transfiguration has significance for us. It gives us a glimpse into our destiny. Transformation begins already in this life. Seeing the glory of the Lord in the Spirit, the disciples are reminded that they were created in the image of him whose glory they see (2 Cor. 3:18). This is not mystical deification but a recovery/re-recognition of the divine likeness. It takes place in the ministry of the Spirit. It is not for an elite few but for all Christians. It is not just a hope for the future (cf. 1 Cor. 15:44ff.) but begins already with the Resurrection and the coming of the Spirit. It carries with it an imperative: “listen to him.” A significance of the transfiguration is that we obtain a glimpse of what we are and are becoming. As St Irenaeus famously said centuries ago: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

As well “listen to him” points to the teaching just prior to the transfiguration, providing key content of what we are to listen to: Peter’s confession (vv. 18-20), Jesus’ prediction of the passion (vv. 21-22), and the demands of discipleship (vv. 23-27). Could it also be that the saying: “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (v. 27) was fulfilled when some of them saw Jesus in all of his glory on the mountain?

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