ONE OF THE GREAT FAILURES into which even believers sometimes fall is the tendency to underestimate Jesus (Matt. 17:1-8).
Jesus takes the inner three of his twelve disciples — Peter, James, and John — to a high mountain, just the four of them. “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (17:2). Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared, “talking with Jesus” (17:3). It is as if the ultimate identity of the eternal Son is allowed to peep through; the three disciples become “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). It is hard not to see here also a foretaste of the glory of the exalted Son (cf. Rev. 1:12-16), of the Jesus before whom every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, every tongue confessing “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).
But Peter misunderstands. He rightly recognizes that it is an enormous privilege to be present on this occasion: “Lord,” he says, “it is good for us to be here” (17:4). Then he puts his foot in his mouth: “If you wish, I will put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He entirely misunderstands the significance of the presence of Moses and Elijah. He thinks that Jesus is being elevated to their great stature, the stature of the mediator of the Sinai covenant and of the first of the great biblical prophets.
He is utterly mistaken. Their presence signified, rather, that the law and the prophets bore witness to him (cf. 5:17-18; 11:13). God himself sets the record straight. In a terrifying display, God thunders from an enveloping cloud, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (17:5). By the time the three disciples recover from their prostrate terror, it is all over: “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (17:8) — a pregnant conclusion to the account.
Jesus brooks no rivals. There have been, there are, many religious leaders. In an age of postmodern sensibilities and a deep cultural commitment to philosophical pluralism, it is desperately easy to relativize Jesus in countless ways. But there is only one Person of whom it can be said that he made us, and then became one of us; that he is the Lord of glory, and a human being; that he died in ignominy and shame on the odious cross, yet is now seated on the right hand of the Majesty on high, having returned to the glory he shared with the Father before the world began.