It is hard for us to imagine the emotional roller coaster Peter, James, and John had been on by the time they witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. It had been several years since Jesus called them to follow him, and the miracles and astounding moments that surrounded Jesus were never in short supply. Daily, Jesus spoke wisdom to them they had never known. He knew what they were thinking before they spoke it. He replied to their questions and concerns with answers they did not expect, and a depth of knowledge they did not always understand. He handled his opponents with ease, turning their assaults back on them, and demonstrating that no one could contend with his understanding. He spoke with a different authority than the prophets who had come before him. Where the prophets of old would declare, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” Jesus instead told them, “Truly, truly I say unto you.” Jesus spoke as though he was God in the first person. What sort of a man was this?
Then there was Jesus’ supernatural power. The disciples saw that the demons who tormented and inhabited men were terrified and defeated by the presence of Jesus. Peter, James, and John were eyewitnesses to the unspeakable joy of those who heard, and saw, and spoke for the first time as Jesus healed them. They watched newly cleansed lepers return to their families and faith communities, no longer shunned by society. They were there when Jesus rebuked a violent storm, and saw it humbly obey him. They looked on as Jesus rebuked death itself and returned once dead children to their once broken-hearted mothers, alive and well. Each day the apostles had a front row seat as Jesus moved among his people and demonstrated that he was not like anyone else who had ever been before.
Jesus stands before the disciples as the bridge between heaven and earth, and between Old Testament and New Testament.
Then came the day that Jesus led three of them up the mountain to pray. Prayer was certainly nothing out of the ordinary for Jesus and the apostles, but this particular session of prayer became a moment of messianic identity. As they spoke to God, Jesus’ appearance became shockingly different. St. Luke tells us that “...the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothes became a dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). Jesus had been transfigured before their eyes. They were astonished and overwhelmed. But what did it mean?
Peter, James, and John knew well of the stories recorded in Exodus of Moses going up on the mountain to be in the real presence of God, and coming down the mountain with a radiant and glowing face. His appearance was shocking to the people when he returned from being in God’s presence, and so he would often put a veil over his face when he came back to them. These events in the history of their people foreshadowed the things that Jesus was doing now, although they did not yet understand all this as they witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration.
To add to the drama of the moment, Moses and Elijah were suddenly standing before them, and St. Luke records that they “...appeared in glory, and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). It is extremely difficult to imagine the overwhelming excitement of the moment for Peter, James, and John. Moses and Eljah were towering figures in the history of the Old Testament people, and they were now here speaking to Jesus about his death and resurrection to come. The disciples’ instinct in the presence of all this impossible glory was to worship all three of them: Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. They proposed to set up a tent for each one of them individually, the tent being reminiscent of the tabernacle that their people had carried through the desert and set up as a place for God to dwell among them. They were lost in amazement, and unclear about what they were seeing and what it meant. They were still lacking in understanding about who Jesus was. It was at that moment that God gave them clarity.
A cloud appeared and enshrouded all six of them. “And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). When the cloud departed, they saw before them only Jesus. It is here we find the meaning of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Any confusion about who Jesus is must now fall away. Jesus stands before the disciples as the bridge between heaven and earth, and between Old Testament and New Testament. He has been proclaimed by his Father and the Holy Spirit as the Messiah who would save them. The law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) have testified that he is the Messiah, and Jesus stands between them and Peter, James, and John who will soon proclaim the greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ with their eyewitness testimony to generations yet unborn.
Modern life in this world is its own roller coaster, and we, like Peter, James, and John, are often swept away with the curves, rises, and drops of it all. It is all too easy for us to become confused about the meaning of things, and to become lost in the moment with emotion and sin. Let us remember the meaning of the Transfiguration. Let us listen to Jesus. He is loved by his Father, and to him was given dominion, and glory, and a kingdom that all peoples of all places and all languages would serve him. He delivered his people (including you) from death, hell, and the devil by atoning for their sins, by being crucified to death, and rising again to life. He was passionate to be your Savior, he died to be your God, and rose again to declare you innocent of all charges. When you lose yourself in the moment, and things are overwhelming, do what is wise. Listen to Jesus.
He was passionate to be your Savior, he died to be your God, and rose again to declare you innocent of all charges.