In the Bible mountains stand out prominently as places where important events occurred. Abraham was told by God to offer his son Isaac for a burnt offering on one of the mountains of Moriah, (Genesis 22:2). The Lord descended in fire upon the top of Mt. Sinai and proclaimed the law, (Exodus 1:18). Moses went up from the plains of Moab to the mountaintop of Nebo, where after viewing the Promise Land, he died (Deuteronomy 34: 1-5). It was upon Mt. Carmel that God sent down fire from heaven to “burn up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench,” (1 Kings 18:38). And, it was upon an exceedingly high mountain that Jesus was tempted by the devil, (Matthew 4:8).
Another miraculous event took place high in the mountains; the transfiguration of Jesus. The word transfigured comes from a Greek word that means “to change in form,” or “to be transformed.” Jesus took Peter, John and James and went up into a high mountain apart to pray. The mountain was most likely Mount Hermon which is about 9,200 feet above sea level, and the highest mountain in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi. These three disciples were in the inner circle closest to Jesus and were often the only disciples permitted to witness certain events. They witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:51), Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33) and Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:1).
Jesus who “had no place to lay His head,” was always able to find a place to pray. So as evening descends upon Him and the three disciples, Jesus finds refuge and strength in prayer with His Father. While He was praying, the fashion of His countenance changed and His clothing became white and glistening. Or, as Mark put it, “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Jesus underwent a dramatic change in His appearance that allowed His disciples to behold His glory. The divine glory emanating from Jesus made even His clothing radiate brilliant white light.
In the Bible, light is often associated with God’s visible presence. Jesus was transformed, not in shape, but in the glory of His appearance. Transfiguration implies that a transformation took place in the substance of His body. The glory of His Divinity could not be described. Jesus’ transfiguration was prophetic of His revelation, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began,” (John 17:5). It was deity showing through His glorified face and shining clothes; a radiance that was the revelation of His incarnate deity.
“His face did shine as the sun,” or as Luke expresses it, “the appearance of His face changed.” While in full communion with His Father, divine glory flowed from His face out into visible brightness. In much the same way, but at a lesser degree, the same kind of transcendent manifestation was experienced by Moses. As Moses was descending Mt. Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand,” he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord,” (Exodus 34:29). And as Steven was seized and brought before the council, “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel,” (Acts 6:15). Steven’s face exuded a pure and calm composure, reflecting the presence of God.
Two visitors from heaven
Another miracle takes place as two “heavenly” visitors, Moses and Elijah, stand talking with Jesus. They appeared in glorified form. Yet, Peter recognized them, even though he had never seen them in the flesh. Whether Peter recognized them by intuition or revelation, it does not alter the fact that these Old Testament saints kept their identity and were recognizable. The transfigured Jesus and the two glorified saints talked about Calvary and the Cross. They spoke of Jesus’ impending death as an atoning sacrifice and what He would accomplish in Jerusalem. Moses and Elijah came all the way from heaven to talk with Jesus about nothing else. Jesus did, after all, come into the world to die for sin; to forever put away sin by sacrificing Himself, (Hebrews 9:26). Mankind was born to live, Jesus was born to die.
There were many Old Testament Saints who could have come down from heaven to talk with Jesus; why these two? Moses and Elijah were the proper representatives of the old dispensation which was about to end with the death and resurrection of Christ. Moses carried supreme authority among the people of Israel. He represented the law given to him from God and which he carried down Mt. Sinai, to give to Israel. The Israelites lived under such law from Moses to Jesus Christ. Elijah was the fitting representative of the fellowship of the prophets and of prophecy. Elijah was the most zealous reformer and prophet of the Jewish Church. The appearance of Moses and Elijah at this time clearly attested to the fact that the ministry of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the law and of the prophets. For Jesus not to die “for sin” would debase the prophecies, result in the failure of the plan of salvation, and cast gloom and despair over all people. These two saints, Moses and Elijah, represent law and prophecy which are so wonderfully combined in Jesus.
Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory,” which means they were not in fleshly bodies, but glorified, spiritual bodies. Moses was commanded to go alone from the plains of Moab to the top of Mt. Nebo and that is where he died. “And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said,” (Deuteronomy 34:5). People diligently searched to find out where Moses was buried, “but to this day no one knows where his grave is,” (Deuteronomy 34: 6). Elijah went up in a whirlwind and chariot of fire to heaven. Since it is known that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, it is scriptural to believe that these two were translated and in the transition received their spiritual bodies. This is what the Bible says about the resurrection of the dead in Christ: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body there is also a spiritual body,” (1 Corinthians 15: 42-44). So it is written: “The first man, Adam, became a living being; the last Adam, (Jesus), a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven,” (1 Corinthians 15: 45-47).
Three amazed disciples
Jesus took Peter, James and John with Him so they would not lose faith because of his foretold suffering. (Matthew 16:21, 27, 28). The glory of the transfiguration was intended to confirm their faith in Christ’s divine sonship and to prepare them for the dark days ahead; days that had already begun to overshadow them.
Luke 9:32 says they were “very sleepy,” but when m“they became fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him.” Jesus never criticized them for sleeping. But being asleep, they did not see the beginning of the transfiguration, the change from the well-known aspect of Jesus’ human body to the dazzling brightness of His divine glory. They probably lost a part of the conversation between the Son of God, Moses and Elijah. They heard enough of the conversation, however, to know what the topic of discussion was about. As Moses and Elijah were leaving Jesus, Peter said, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He did not know what he was saying, (Luke 9:33). Had Peter heard the entire conversation, he would have understood the necessity of Jesus’ death at Jerusalem and would not have proposed setting up a more permanent abode for Him on Mount Hermon. Peter wanted to sacrifice the future for the present. He was not permitted to build three shelters or tabernacles because earth is not heaven. Because it was night, Peter probably thought the three men would like to retire following their conversation. But Heaven is now a much more desirable home to Moses and Elijah. And when it came to Jesus, such a roughly constructed dwelling place would not suffice for the One who inhabits eternity; yet desires to dwell in the contrite heart of man.
Then there was the bright cloud that overshadowed them. This was the ‘Shekinah enfolding them as in the very embrace of God; the very same Shekinah glory that appeared above the Tabernacle in the wilderness erected by Moses. Here we see a picture of God, now flesh, tabernacling with men in human form and His Tabernacle covered with the same glory. (Exodus 33:9, 1 Kings 8:10) To the Jews, the Shekinah represented the abiding presence of Jehovah. It was the symbol that God was with His people. The appearance during the transfiguration on the mount is witness to the fact that no tabernacle made by hands was now needed. Jesus Christ is now the true Tabernacle of God. In Him, the tabernacle of God is with men. “We beheld His glory,” says Peter, in his reference to the transfiguration. When Jesus turned away from His Father’s home in heaven and took upon Himself the likeness of our flesh, He did not leave His glory behind, but brought it with Him. Therefore, we have upon the mountain Jesus’ inherent glory blazing forth.
Adding even more to this supernatural occasion is the voice of the Father speaking out of the bright cloud. He says, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:5). These words were uttered as Moses and Elijah were leaving. It is a declaration that the promised Messiah, the Prophet like unto Moses and superior to Elijah, had come and that all men must listen to the Son of God. Jesus is the Prophet, the Priest and the King of the new dispensation. A similar commendation was heard at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17). Then the divine voice assured Christ, as the Son of Man, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. “ Now the same awesome Voice approves the Savior’s consecration in showing Himself obedient unto death. In the midst of his sufferings and the sacrifice on the cross yet to come, Jesus was “satisfying” His Father’s “good pleasure” as the one perfect sacrifice. The transfiguration of Jesus, Moses and Elijah demonstrate the grand, climatic witness direct from heaven that Jesus is the One in whom the Old Testament prophecies emerged and found their fulfillment. Such a manifestation of glory confirmed Peter’s previous confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
As we meditate on the Lord’s transfiguration we must not forget what it actually represents. It represents His great refusal….for if had He wished to, He could have stepped right into heaven from Mount Hermon. As Campbell Morgan expresses it in Crises of the Christ, “He was perfect in creation, perfect in probation and was now ready to be perfected in glory.” Yet He turned aside from the glory, came down to a valley of need. He set His face steadfastly toward Jerusalem where He died upon the cross so that countless sons and daughters might share in His glory, (Hebrews 2:10).
The disciples were awestruck. And in the days that followed, as they looked back on the scene, they were to say, “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” Such a supernatural vision confirmed their faith in the deity of Jesus. The privileged three never got over seeing that blaze of glory. It gave them a sense of security as they came to face their own martyrdom for His sake, (11 Peter 1:14-18). The disciples were blessed to have gotten a brief glimpse of the glory awaiting their Lord when His work on earth was completed.
Paul teaches believers that the experience of the transfiguration on the mount is for the saints of God as much as it is for the Lord Jesus. One joyous day the sons and daughters of God shall “behold His face in righteousness” and find themselves completely satisfied when they “awake with His likeness.”