“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mark 9:2–9)
There’s a lot going on here! Six days before, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter had proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus had responded by speaking of his coming suffering. For Peter that was too much, and he took Jesus to one side to put him straight. This earned the sharp rebuke “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mark 8:33). Peter was not seeing the bigger picture, and so after six days Jesus takes him up the mountain with James and John.
Now, when you read the passage it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the details which Mark piles into the account. If, as tradition has it, Mark has compiled the teachings of Peter then it is clear that the event had seared itself on the Apostle’s mind, which is hardly surprising! The six-day wait, the high mountain, the bright shining clothes — all of these crowd in on the senses. You wonder quite what the three disciples made of it all!
As if all that were not enough, we then see Elijah and Moses appearing and talking with Jesus. No wonder Peter “did not know what to say”! No wonder “they were terrified”! Finally, as a climax to the whole bewildering experience, a cloud envelops them all and a voice speaks: “this is my beloved Son: listen to him”.
And then, suddenly, everything stops, and it is back to normal.
What on earth do we make of all this? Well, an important place to start is back with the rebuke directed at Peter in the previous chapter: “you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man”. Peter had understood Jesus to be an all too human Messiah. Like most Jews of his time, he no doubt thought that the Messiah would be a political figure, overthrowing the Roman occupiers. Jesus, however, urged him to set his mind on things of God and the point of the Transfiguration is to show who Jesus is. With this in mind, we can return to the text itself and consider all the imagery which unfolded.
To a Jew at the time of Christ, it is very likely that today’s passage would bring to mind the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, which reads:
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. (Exodus 24:15-17)
When we compare this with the account of the Transfiguration, we can hear loud echoes. It is on the seventh day that the event happens (Mark tells us it was “after six days”), and it all takes place on a mountain. There is a voice calling out from a cloud, a radiance and Moses is present. All of this points to the Transfiguration as being a pivotal event which reveals who Jesus is. After all, the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai is a key, pivotal event in the Old Testament.
So, who is Jesus? Is he a new Moses, going up the mountain?
No, there is something greater in view. Moses does appear in the Transfiguration, but he does so with Elijah and they both speak with Jesus. That means we need to widen our view from simply looking at the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai and consider Elijah as well.
Elijah was fleeing from Queen Jezebel when he took refuge on mount Horeb (which is another name for Mount Sinai). There, like Moses, he experiences the awesome presence of God: “And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD” (1 Kings 19:11). God then speaks to Elijah on Mount Sinai, as he did to Moses.
Putting all this together, what do we get? How does the Transfiguration help to set “your mind on the things of God”? At the heart of the event, Jesus is transfigured such that his clothes are radiant, dazzling white. At that moment he reveals who he truly is: divine. To use the language of Sinai, he is “the appearance of the glory of the LORD”. He speaks with Moses and Elijah as they both encountered this glory on Sinai. Jesus is “the appearance of the glory of the LORD”. When the glory of God appears, that’s Jesus. He is the visible form of God.
Now if this sounds far-fetched, let me present you with witness statements from the the Apostles who were there. Reflecting later on the event, Peter writes:
For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:17–18)
“He received … glory”. That is what caused the radiance.
The Apostle John draws a similar conclusion: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). They saw his glory.
What about James? Well, there is a small chance that he is the James who wrote the Epistle of James and in that letter we find this: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” (James 2:1). Jesus is the “Lord of Glory”.
No wonder that the author of the Book of Hebrews could write: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3). No wonder the Apostle Paul could claim that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
The Transfiguration helps you to set “your mind on the things of God”. It gives us a brief glimpse of the unveiled nature of Christ, and demonstrates his divinity. It stops us having a merely human Jesus, but demonstrates a Christ who is both human and divine. It’s full of Old Testament imagery, but the conclusion is clear: behold your God!