The transfiguration of Jesus (recorded in Matthew 17 and its parallels) is a unique scene in the gospels. Unlike many other events, Jesus did not announce that it would happen, the disciples certainly did not expect it, and this event was never repeated. The word “transfiguration” comes from the Latin roots trans- (“across”) and figura (“form, shape”). It thus signifies a change of form or appearance. This is what happened to Jesus in the event known as the Transfiguration: His appearance changed and became glorious.
The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9)
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The Meaning of The Transfiguration of Jesus
What did this mean? First, it was a lesson for the disciples about who Jesus was. Recall the context here. The disciples (Peter speaking for them) had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah but they had a mistaken idea of what that meant, and Jesus’ speaking of his death had confused them. The transfiguration served to confirm Peter’s confession. It showed Peter, James, and John that Jesus was no ordinary man nor even a great prophet, but that he was indeed no less than the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel. God was confirming the disciples’ confession.
Second, this scene demanded that men hear Jesus as one who had authority to speak to them. Peter later came to understand this point. In 2 Peter 1:16-21 he acknowledges that the word of Jesus is sure and confirmed and that we must not move away from it. In that passage he tells us that the transfiguration, of which he was a witness, carried this significance. The transfiguration was a statement about the authority of Jesus. On that mountain it was demonstrated that it is now Jesus alone who has authority over men. Moses and Elijah served only a temporary purpose in the plan of God (cf. Rom. 3:21). I think that it is interesting that it was this very point (the passing away of the Law and Prophets) that caused so much trouble in the early church (cf. Acts 15, Galatians, etc.), yet God had already settled this question in the transfiguration of Jesus.
Third, the transfiguration confirmed that the kingdom of the Messiah would be characterized by glory. In the transfiguration the three selected disciples saw a foretaste of the glory and victory of Jesus. This posture of victory would be even clearer to them after Jesus’ resurrection, and it was really only then that the disciples began to put it all together. But for now this scene encouraged the disciples. It showed them that Jesus was indeed the glorified Son of God.
Fourth, this scene is the key to understanding the cross of Jesus and his commitment to it. In Luke’s version of the story he tells us that Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about his approaching death in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). This is an important piece of information, for it shows us the proper context in which to view this scene. The sequence of events in the narrative here in Matthew also shows us very plainly that the transfiguration was meant to be interpreted in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. References to Jesus’ death literally surround the transfiguration story (Matt.16:21; 17:12, 22f), and Jesus told his disciples not to discuss what they had seen until after his resurrection (Matt. 17:9). Clearly, he wanted them to view the transfiguration in that specific context.
Jesus wanted his disciples to know that he would, indeed, be glorified, but it would not at all be the kind of glory most people were expecting (a worldly kind of supremacy). Nor would he gain that glory in the way most people thought he would (by physical war with Rome). The glory that lay in store for Jesus, which the disciples previewed in the transfiguration, would come through his death and resurrection. The transfiguration was therefore meant to be a lesson on the cross, to show its necessity. It would only be through his death and resurrection that he would attain glory. That’s why Jesus committed himself to the cross: it was the path to glory (cf. John 12:24). The disciples needed to begin to learn this new, biblical but unheard-of idea of glory.
Thus with the transfiguration began phase two of the disciples’ training. The transfiguration was not a random event, but was a precisely timed and executed manifestation of glory that was to serve as a lesson to the disciples about what kind of Messiah Jesus was, and how he would attain his greatness. It was the first lesson in Jesus’ attempt to get them to understand his Messiahship and what it entailed. They had to unlearn the physical, worldly notions of their day and come to terms with the biblical concept of the Messiah that Jesus would fulfill in the days ahead of them.