The story of Christ’s transfiguration would probably strike us as weird if it weren’t so familiar. I mean, think about it. Jesus goes up on a mountain with three friends and meets two dead prophets, all while glowing in the dark! Even the word “transfiguration” is a word we never use except when referring to this story.
Like every story in Matthew’s Gospel, this one focuses on Jesus and is meant to tell us something about him. So what does the transfiguration tell us about Jesus? I’d like to highlight three things.
1. He’s the Son of Man Who Will Come in Glory
Matthew places this story immediately after Jesus speaks of “the Son of Man” coming in judgment (Matt. 16:27). This is clearly a reference to the end of the age (cf. Matt. 13:39–43, 49)—which is why it’s so puzzling when Jesus immediately says, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28). Who could possibly live that long?
Apparently the answer is Peter, James, and John (Matt. 17:1). All three evangelists place this puzzling statement immediately before the transfiguration, and then frame the transfiguration in chronological reference to it (e.g., “And after six days,” Matt. 16:28–17:1; Mark 9:1–2; Luke 9:27–28).
Though scholars differ, I agree with R. T. France that this puzzling statement in Matthew 16:28 is a reference to the transfiguration six days later. This allows us to see the transfiguration as a foretaste of the end of the age when the Son of Man will come “in the glory of his Father” (Matt. 16:27). Not everyone standing there that day would see it, but Peter, James, and John would—and they would never forget it (2 Pet. 1:16–18; John 1:14).
The transfiguration [is] a foretaste of the end of the age when the Son of Man will come ‘in the glory of his Father’ (Matt. 16:27).
Of course, these references to “the Son of Man” are echoes of Daniel 7:13–14, where “one like a son of man” (Jesus) comes to “the Ancient of Days” (the Father) and is given an everlasting kingdom. Is it an accident that the Ancient of Days is there described as having “clothing . . . white as snow” (Dan. 7:9), just as Jesus is here described as having clothing “white as light” (Matt. 17:2)? I doubt it (compare Daniel 7:9 with Revelation 1:14).
The transfiguration is a preview of the future, when the Son of Man will come in glory to consummate his kingdom. But this future kingdom can only come through his death and resurrection, which is why Jesus warns the three disciples to “tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead” (Matt. 17:9). Sounds like they told Matthew.
2. He’s the Son of God Whose Glory Was Hidden
The presence of Moses and Elijah is one of the most fascinating features of this story. Where else in the New Testament do you find Old Testament heroes showing up in person?
But it’s not hard to see why Moses and Elijah would be summoned for such a glorious mountaintop event. After all, both men had famous mountaintop experiences with God (Ex. 24:9–34:35; 1 Kgs. 19:8–18). Moses’s was especially relevant, since it resulted in his own transfiguration, with his face shining so brightly they had to cover it with a veil (Ex. 34:29–35).
But Jesus wasn’t simply shining the way Moses had, or the way you and I one day will (Matt 13:43). His was more than a reflected glory; it was the glory of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). As Joseph Ratzinger observed, “Jesus [unlike Moses in Exodus 34] shines from within; he does not simply receive light, but he himself is light from light.”
Moses had asked God to show him his glory (Ex. 33:18)—and 1,500 years later his prayer was still being answered, as he gazed on the One who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). You might say that just as the Father has glory in himself, so also he has granted the Son to have glory in himself (cf. John 5:26).
Moses had asked God to show him his glory, and 1,500 years later his prayer was still being answered.
So the transfiguration wasn’t only a preview of the future; it was also a peek into eternity past at “the glory [Christ] had with [the Father] before the world existed” (John 17:5). It was a glimpse behind the veil at the glory that Christ continued to immutably possess, despite having hidden the glorious form of God beneath the humble form of a servant (Phil. 2:5–7).
3. He’s the Son (and Prophet) to Whom We Must Listen
Besides their previous mountaintop experiences, there was probably another reason Moses and Elijah were summoned to this mountain.
Moses and Elijah represented the Law and the Prophets, respectively, and their appearance continues Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17). Moses and Elijah could say “Thus says the LORD,” whereas the Son proclaims point blank “But I say to you” (Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). The Law and the Prophets had prophesied until John, but they had now reached their climax in Jesus, the One whose sandals even the greatest among women wasn’t worthy to carry (Matt. 3:11; 12:11, 13).
[The transfiguration] was a glimpse behind the veil at the glory that Christ continued to immutably possess, despite having hidden [it] beneath the humble form of a servant.
Moses didn’t just represent the Law, however. Moses was also a prophet. Indeed, no prophet had arisen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face (Deut. 34:10).
Moses was now standing face to face with the very prophet he himself had predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15. Indeed, the words “Listen to him” (Matt. 17:5)—which form the only addition to this otherwise verbatim repeat of what God had said at Jesus’s baptism (Matt. 3:17)—intentionally evoke the words of Moses, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you . . . it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). Matthew is telling us that Jesus is that prophet.
And more than a prophet. Elijah was good. Moses was great. But when Peter suggested building each of them a tent with Jesus, the Father would have none of it (Matt. 17:4). Those were his prophets, but this was his Son! And when the lights went down and the glory subsided, “they saw no one but Jesus only” (17:8).
His Multifaceted Glory
The transfiguration is like a prism through we which we can see the multifaceted glory of Jesus.
In it we see a picture of his unique authority.
In it we get a glimpse of the eternal glory he had veiled.
And in it we’re given a preview of what our lives will be like on that final mountain where we’ll all be transfigured (Matt. 13:43), where his glory will provide all the light we need (Rev. 21:23; 22:4–5), and where he will tabernacle not only with Moses and Elijah, but with all of his people (Rev. 21:3). That will be glory indeed.