There are seven great events in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ recorded in the Gospels: His birth, His baptism, His temptations, His transfiguration, His death, His resurrection and His ascension. The transfiguration is the middle one of the seven. It is recorded in Peter’s second epistle and in all three synoptic gospels, but not in John. Like all the great sevens of the Bible, these seven events split into four and three: the first four relate to earth and time; the latter three have far wider connotations. But what was the transfiguration and why is it recorded in Scripture? To answer these questions, we must first consider a couple of background truths from the Bible.
The first background truth is that the future presented in the OT prophecies for the nation of Israel was limited to the kingdom on earth in time. There is little thought of eternity presented in the OT. The whole future for the Jew and his nation was the kingdom under Messiah on earth. This kingdom was proclaimed as being imminent by John the Baptist, the Lord Himself and the twelve disciples (see Matt. 3: 1, 2; 4: 17; 10: 5–7) but its implementation was dependent on the repentance of the nation as a whole. Throughout Matthew, Mark and Luke the dominant subject is the kingdom on earth. But that kingdom and its King were rejected, and the history of that rejection is therefore traced out by all three synoptic evangelists. To confirm the faith of the believing remnant of the nation, the answer to that rejection is the certainty of the coming glory of the Christ (or Messiah) and His kingdom—and this was given in the transfiguration. That kingdom was still on offer on the day of Pentecost and shortly after (see Acts 3: 19, 20). However, when John penned his Gospel decades later, all hope of the imminent establishment of the kingdom in power on earth had gone. John, accordingly, begins his Gospel with the rejection of Christ (see John 1: 11) and so the public testimony to the kingdom and the teachings associated with it are not reported. In keeping with this, there is no account of the transfiguration in the fourth Gospel.
The second truth we must consider is the principle of suffering and glory, especially as applied to Christ. Scripture often speaks of His glories apart from His sufferings. For example, the glory without the sufferings is seen in Hab. 2: 14, Zech. 6: 12, 13, John 1: 14; 2: 11 and in 2 Cor. 8: 19, 23. In keeping with what has just been said, while you get the Lord’s glories in John, His sufferings are absent. However, you never get the sufferings without the glory. In Ps. 22: 1–21 in the OT we have the sufferings of the Lord, but the glories follow in vs 22–31. Again in Is. 53: 1–10 we have the sufferings, but the glories follow in v 11. In the NT we get confirmation of this: “Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24: 26) and “testifying before of the sufferings which [belonged to] Christ, and the glories after these” (1 Pet. 1: 11). See also such Scriptures as Rom. 8: 18; Heb. 2: 9, 10; 1 Pet. 4: 13; 5: 1. The principle is also seen in the fact that the Lord’s first coming was marked by suffering just as His second coming will be marked by glory.
Now the first mention by Christ of His sufferings in each of the synoptic records (see Matt. 16: 21; Mark 8: 31; Luke 9: 22) precedes the accounts of His transfiguration in Matt. 17: 1–9; Mark 9: 2–10 and Luke 9: 28–36. Thus, the transfiguration is the answering preview of His glory to His sufferings. It had to be given because once the sufferings are spoken of, the answering glories must follow. But His suffering death was not understood by the disciples and this prompted Peter’s outburst of Matthew 16: 22, 23 and Mark 8: 32, 33. Hence the Lord explains to them the principle of suffering before glory in Matt. 16: 24–27, Mark 8: 34–38, and Luke 9: 23–26. We then have the Lord’s promise in all three Synoptics, but given most emphatically in Mark: “Verily I say unto you, There are some of those standing here that shall not taste death until they shall have seen the kingdom of God come in power” (Mark 9: 1, my emphasis)—where the word come means ‘having come’ and not ‘coming’. That is, in the transfiguration, the kingdom is viewed as already come in power. It was thus the foretaste for the believing remnant in Israel of the coming glory of Christ and the kingdom and was given to help the disciples accept the sufferings of the present in view of the glories that will follow. Let us now look at some of the details of the transfiguration.
The Accounts of Matthew and Mark
A cursory reading of the three Gospel accounts tell us that Luke in his record is somewhat different to Matthew and Mark, which, although not identical, are similar to one another. Hence, we will look at the accounts of Matthew and Mark first, then Luke and finally Peter in his epistle. Now the three disciples chosen by the Lord to witness the transfiguration were Peter, James and John (see Matt. 17: 1; Mark 9: 2). We should remind ourselves that they were Jews, for the scene they were about to witness has nothing to do with Christianity as such. The event took place on a mountain and mountains are often identified with kingdoms (see Dan. 2: 35, etc.). Thus, even the principles of the kingdom were set out by the Lord on a mountain in Matt. 5–7 when He delivered the co–called Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew records of the Lord that “he was transfigured before them” (Matt. 17: 2)—that is, His outward appearance was transformed or radically changed. The verb used for transfigured (metamorjow) is a word from which we get the English noun metamorphism. It denotes an extreme change in outward appearance—in the case of the Lord a supernatural alternation in His bodily form such that “his face shone as the sun” (Matt. 17: 2). Now the sun was the great light made “to rule the day” (Gen. 1: 16) and the kingdom is expressed as “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1: 8). Again, prophetically the Lord is “the Sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4: 2). All this is language suited to the supreme place Christ will have in the kingdom. In keeping with his transfiguration, “his garments became white as the light” (Matt. 17: 2) and “shining, exceeding white [as snow], such as fuller on earth could not whiten [them]” (Mark 9: 3).
Matthew also tells us that “Moses and Elias appeared to them talking with him” (Matt. 17: 3) or as Mark puts it, “And there appeared to them Elias with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus” (Mark. 9: 4). We must take account of the precision of the language here. It does not say, ‘And Moses and Elijah were there with Him’. While the Lord was clearly there, it says no more than that they appeared with Him. The Lord’s transfiguration is presented first and is distinct. Then we have they “appeared to them”. There are about a dozen Greek verbs that can be translated appear but the one employed in all three Gospel accounts (optomai) carries with it the idea of perception. The word appeared thus suggests that, while seen by the three disciples, Moses and Elijah were not actually there—as the Lord said later it was a vision (see Matt. 17: 9), because the word itself does not guarantee literal presence (see Acts 2: 7; 16: 9). Optomai is often used of the perception of supernatural events such as the appearance of an angel in Luke 1: 11. Furthermore, the words appear (optomai) and vision sometimes occur in the same incident (see Acts 7: 30, 31; 16: 9, 10; 26: 16, 19). As for the word vision, this occurs about 80 times in the Bible and nearly always refers to a supernatural event. Visions can be given when the recipient is asleep (see Job 4: 13; Acts 16: 9) or wide awake (see Luke 1: 11, 22). It is important to keep all this in mind when we go on to consider Luke’s account. But why Moses and Elijah? Moses represented the law and Elijah the prophets (see Mal. 4: 4, 5). The phrase “the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7: 12; 22:40; Luke 16: 16; Rom. 3: 21) is used in Scripture to express the whole of the OT. Hence, in Moses and Elijah we have a representation of all the OT saints in the kingdom (the reader must remember that these events took place when the concept of the Assembly would have meant no more to the disciples than a called–out remnant from Israel).
Peter had already acted wrongly regarding the Lord’s sufferings (see Matt. 16: 22, 23; Mark 8: 32, 33), and now blunders regarding His glory by suggesting the construction of three tabernacles (see Matt. 17: 4; Mark 9: 5, 6). Yes, he would give the Lord the first place but at the same time it was putting the Lord on the same level as Moses and Elijah. However great they were, this could never be. A voice from heaven had been heard at the Lord’s baptism when He was presented to Israel at the commencement of His public pathway—a pathway indelibly marked by suffering. That same voice is now heard once again with the very same message: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight: hear him” (Matt. 17: 5; see also Mark 9: 7). After this, the two OT saints are no longer seen and the disciples saw no one “but Jesus alone” (Matt. 17: 8; Mark 9: 8). Finally, the Lord told the three disciples “Tell the vision to no one, until the Son of man be risen up from among [the] dead” (Matt. 17: 9)—that is until His sufferings were finished for ever.
Luke’s account differs from that of Matthew and Mark in the details he gives. The timing given by Luke is different, for while Matthew and Mark say that “after six days” Jesus takes His disciples up a high mountain (Matt. 17: 1; Mark 9: 2, my emphasis), Luke says “after these words, about eight days, that taking Peter and John and James he went up into a mountain to pray” (Luke 9: 28, my emphasis). Here the English word taking masks the fact that the tense in Greek is the aorist, a past tense. Accordingly, many translators give the English word as took—unlike Matthew and Mark who both use the present tense takes. This difference may account for the discrepancy in the number of days recorded between the writers.
Luke presents the Lord as the dependant man and hence he records the Lord as praying more than any other Gospel. His record of the transfiguration fits this pattern, and thus the Lord is recorded as praying when He was transfigured: “And as he prayed the fashion of his countenance became different and his raiment white [and] effulgent” (Luke 9: 29). Uniquely, we are then told that the disciples were heavy with sleep: “And lo, two men talked with him, who were Moses and Elias, who, appearing (optomai) in glory, spoke of his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him were oppressed with sleep: but having fully awoke up they saw his glory, and the two men who stood with him.” (Luke 9: 30–32). Luke alone of the Synoptics speaks of this glory in the transfiguration.
The first major point that must be taken account of is that twice Moses and Elijah are described as men. As they were seen by the three disciples, whether in a vision or actuality, they must be in their bodies to be seen. They could not be in the “unclothed” (2 Cor. 5: 4) state—that is, spirits without a body. As Elijah did not die (see 2 Kings 2: 11), he presents no difficulty. But Moses did die for “Moses the servant of Jehovah died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of Jehovah. And he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deut. 34: 5, 6). In response, some commentators say that Moses was raised from the dead in order to appear on the transfiguration mount. But if that was so then Christ could not be the first man free from death forever for it says of Him “he … who is [the] beginning, firstborn from among the dead, that he might have the first place in all things” (Col. 1: 18, my emphasis). Was Moses then raised in his natural body to return to the grave after this event? I do not think so, for while it does not actually say that Moses and Elijah had bodies of glory, the passage does describe them as “appearing in glory” (Luke 9: 31)—and the natural body would be inconsistent with this scene of glory. Furthermore, we must not forget that the whole event is a preview of the kingdom and the OT saints will be in bodies of glory in that kingdom, having been raised from among the dead.
When the kingdom is actually established on earth, it will be the same with Christian saints: “When the Christ is manifested who [is] our life, then shall ye also be manifested with him in glory” (Col. 3: 4, my emphasis). Christ’s manifestation is in the kingdom. What sort of bodies will we have? The Lord Jesus Christ “shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory, according to the working of [the] power which he has even to subdue all things to himself” (Phil. 3: 21). And John, who was on the mount of transfiguration, writes “Beloved, now are we children of God, and what we shall be has not yet been manifested; we know that if it is manifested we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3: 2). Thus, I conclude that as the scene on the mount of transfiguration was a display of the kingdom come in power, and as Moses and Elijah had to be in bodies to be seen by the three disciples, so Moses and Elijah both appeared in their bodies of glory.
As others have noted, we can also view all five men on the mountain with the Lord as representatives of those who will be in the kingdom: Elijah representing those who never pass through death, Moses those who have died and will be raised from the dead, and Peter, James and John representing those who will enter the kingdom in their natural bodies (such as those of the Jewish remnant who will pass through the tribulation without being martyred).
But what of the conversation that took place? It says they “spoke of his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 31). Greek has about a dozen words that can mean departure. The word employed for departure here is exodoς and is only used in two other places in the NT: in Heb. 11: 22 for the exit of Israel from Egypt, and in 2 Pet. 1: 15 by Peter for his death. Here it may be limited to the Lord’s death, but I rather think it includes also his resurrection and ascension, for those last two events were also involved in His departure. The Lord’s death would be one of suffering and it is Peter that reminds us “for Christ indeed has once suffered for sins, [the] just for [the] unjust, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in flesh, but made alive in [the] Spirit” (1 Pet. 3: 18). But “his departure” could also involve his resurrection and His ascension, both of which are associated with glory: “Christ has been raised up from among [the] dead by the glory of the Father” (Rom. 6: 4) and Christ “has been received up in glory” (1 Tim. 3: 16). Be all this as it may, this conversation between the Lord, Moses and Elijah clearly belonged to the present, that is before the Lord was crucified—“his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 31). Thus, the scene that Peter, James and John beheld belonged to the future, but the accompanying conversation (which they may have heard—it is not said so explicitly) took place in the present.
Some commentators argue that as Moses and Elijah were in conversation with the Lord while the three disciples were still asleep, this must mean that the whole scene was actual and not a vision. They then conclude that this proves that the saints who have died will be able to converse with the Lord in the “unclothed” state (2 Cor. 5: 4). This argument collapses because we are distinctly told that the transfiguration scene, whether real or a vision, was that of “the kingdom of God come in power” (Mark 9: 1). Hence, as Moses and Elijah are viewed as in that kingdom, they could not appear in their “unclothed” state and had to be in their bodies of glory (as I have already argued). The conversation therefore did not take place in the “unclothed” state.
Before turning to Peter’s account, we should note how the subject of suffering and glory is presented in his epistles. In the first epistle Peter speaks of himself as “witness of the sufferings of the Christ, who also [am] partaker of the glory about to be revealed” (1 Pet. 5: 1) and we have the words suffer and glory in their various forms occurring exactly 16 times each. In the second epistle we just have the glory—the word glory occurring four times. Significantly, it is in that epistle that we have Peter’s record of the transfiguration.
Touchingly, Peter introduces his recollection by referring to his own near departure (exodoς) or exodus, from this scene by death: “I will use diligence, that after my departure ye should have also, at any time, [in your power] to call to mind these things. For we have not made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, following cleverly imagined fables, but having been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God [the] Father honour and glory, such a voice being uttered to him by the excellent glory: This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight; and this voice we heard uttered from heaven, being with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word [made] surer, to which ye do well taking heed (as to a lamp shining in an obscure place) until [the] day dawn and [the] morning star arise in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1: 15–19).
We should note what his record includes and what it omits. He has learnt much since that occasion decades before when he was on the transfiguration mount with the Lord, although the event is still vividly fresh in his mind. There is no mention of his proposal for three tabernacles for the lesson of that mistake has been duly learnt. Again, the conversation involving Moses and Elijah is entirely absent—indeed, from Peter’s account we would not know that the two patriarchs had appeared at all. He does not speak of the kingdom as such, only of “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”, of the King and of “his majesty” (v16). The three disciples had seen Moses and Elijah “in glory” but this was nothing compared with “his majesty” (my emphasis). In speaking of the event, Peter uses a unique word for eyewitnesses (εποπτης), a word found nowhere else in the NT. We are told that this word was used by the Greeks for those admitted into the highest grade of the mysteries. Surely a fitting word in view of the magnitude of what the three disciples were admitted into, and a clear indication that the scene that they witnessed was not an ordinary one but supernatural!
The command from heaven to “hear him” recorded by all three Synoptic writers (see Matt. 17: 5; Mark 9: 7; Luke 9: 35) is also absent from Peter’s account for he no longer needed that command. From the synoptic gospels it is not clear whether or not the three disciples actually heard what was said in the conversation between the Lord and Moses and Elijah. This may be the reason that we have the emphatic we when Peter says, “this voice we heard uttered from heaven” (2 Pet. 1: 18). Yes, the two patriarchs had appeared “in glory” (Luke 9: 31), but it was Christ’s “honour and glory” (2 Pet. 1: 17) that engages the apostle now.
The transfiguration was a radical alteration in the outward appearance of Christ demonstrating the manner of His manifestation in glory in the future kingdom on earth. It also included Moses and Elijah representing all the OT saints. These appeared in their glorified bodies with Christ to be seen by the three disciples as a representative company of the remnant in Israel. While the Lord was actually there, the appearance of Moses and Elijah was in a vision. This foretaste of the coming glory of the kingdom was given to encourage the remnant to accept the suffering now in view of the compensating glory of the coming kingdom, and Peter reiterates this to the Jews of the dispersion to whom he wrote later.
But what is in the event for you and I? For Christ, the sufferings are forever over, but His glory is yet to be manifested in this scene. Thus, like the three disciples on the mount we need to accept that while the present time is one of suffering, the glories will surely follow. As Paul says, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy [to be compared] with the coming glory to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8: 18).