The Festival of Transfiguration/ Koodaara Perunnal
by Malcolm Maclean
Gospel: St. Luke 9: 27-36
A theologian called Brentius has commented on this event as follows: ‘No synod on earth was ever more gloriously attended than this. No assembly was ever more illustrious. Here is God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost. Here are Moses and Elijah, the chief of the prophets. Here are Peter, James and John, the chief of the apostles.’
The event described by Luke here is one that made a deep impression upon Peter. Undoubtedly we could say this about many of the experiences that Peter went through in the company of Jesus. Yet he does refer to this incident in 2 Peter 1:16-18: ‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.’ So years later, Peter wrote about what had taken place and did so in a way that makes very clear he had never lost his sense of wonder at what he had seen and heard.
Sometimes suggestions are given as how to divide up the three years of Jesus’ ministry. James Stalker, in his Life of Jesus, divides it into (a) the year of obscurity, (b) the year of popularity, and c) the year of opposition. It has also been suggested that it can be divided by the times the Father spoke from heaven. The first time occurred when Jesus was baptised, the second on this mountain, and the third on his last journey to Jerusalem (John 12:27-28). With this division, the first occasion begins the period when Jesus spoke to the nation, the second occasion when he began to teach his disciples about his death, and the third occasion was a direct assurance for Jesus as he neared the cross.
This incident follows on from the one where Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. His confession was a true one, although it is likely that he did not fully understand what he was saying. Connected to that incident was Peter’s refusal to accept that Jesus would voluntarily die; imagine his surprise when he heard Moses and Elijah speaking about that death and calling it an exodus, indicating that it would be a death that would result in deliverance from slavery, that it would be an achievement and not a disaster.
This incident can be approached from many angles. For example, it reminds us that we are not really aware of the glory of which the human body is capable. Connected to this is the splendour of the resurrection body displayed in the fact that Moses and Elijah appeared in glory, that their resurrected state is one of great glory. We are going to be glorified. And we are going to be glorified individually without losing our own identities, as is very clear from the way that Moses and Elijah were easily identified.
A detail that stands out in the story is the fact that only three disciples were invited by Jesus to observe his transfiguration. This was not the only occasion when these three were so privileged: they also were with him when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead and they were near to him physically during his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. It would be possible to suggest from this that Jesus sovereignly gives special privileges to particular disciples, and no doubt that is the case. Yet it may be the case that the reason for them having this privilege was that they showed greater desire to be near to Jesus. Although Peter’s responses to Jesus were often inappropriate, they did reveal an earnest desire to be with Jesus; although the request given by James and John on another occasion to sit beside Jesus in his kingdom was a wrong one, it did indicate that they wanted to be with him.
In a way, there is a parallel between the experience of the disciples on this mountain and our experience at public worship. Both are occasions of getting fresh understanding of who Jesus is and meeting with him in a special way. Perhaps there are lessons to learn from this incident that should mark all our gatherings in his presence. But it is encouraging to note that the experience of the disciples on the mountain followed their confession of Jesus as Lord, and so we having confessed him as Lord in our times of worship can anticipate receiving further insight from him as a consequence.
1. The Transfiguration and Jesus
Evidently, this occasion was one of great significance for Jesus. It was anticipated by him – he had previously informed his disciples that it would happen in a few days’ time. Further he prepared for it by prayer, which was how he reacted beforehand to all circumstances he faced. Although we have no way of understanding the nature of communion that the sinless Jesus, even in his human nature, had with his heavenly Father it is very striking that he prepared for this heavenly experience by prayer. This is a challenge to us as we prepare for what is ahead of us.
This event is known as the transfiguration. The Greek word is the one from which we get the term metamorphosis, that is, a great change such as happens when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. In order to appreciate something of the wonder of this event, we have to remember that Jesus did not look very different from others. There is no hint in the Gospels that he had a striking physical presence. In one way this would be a reason why many had no desire to follow him; his ordinariness was what marked him. On the other hand Moses, who had experienced something like a transfiguration after spending time in the presence of God, was a leader and a man with a striking appearance. Stephen in Acts 7:22 describes the impression that Moses gave before he rejoined the Israelites: ‘And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.’ Elijah, too, was also an imposing leader, one who was usually fearless and prominent in fulfilling his role.
This great change in the appearance of Jesus came from within. This was a marked difference from what had happened to Moses. The glory that Moses displayed at Mount Sinai was a reflection of the glory of God, but Moses was not the source of it. Jesus did not receive this glory from outside of himself, as it were. We can put it this way. The glory that Moses experienced was like the light of the moon, which comes from the sun; the glory that Jesus experienced was like that of the sun, belonging to himself.
It is not clear whether this display of glory was the outshining of the deity of Jesus or the outshining of the Holy Spirit who indwelt his humanity. The first view is often found in older writers and many of them suggest that his humanity was a veil that usually hid his divine glory from sight, except for this occasion. The difficulty with this suggestion is that the divine glory is invisible. In favour of the second view is the suggestion that here we have a foretaste of the glory that would be given to Jesus when he ascended to heaven, when the kingdom of God would come in power. The sight that these disciples had is the same as all believers will have when they see Jesus at his second coming, a sight that will transfigure them because when they shall see him they shall be like him (1 John 3:1-2).
The heavenly visitors were also prominent in the sense that they pictured what the Old Testament is about. Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets. They had been used by God to give divine revelation and instruction to his people. Yet they are here confessing before the three disciples, devout Jews, that Jesus was the One about whom they spoke. Peter was learning that Jesus was different in his authority.
Perhaps we can see another way by which these two men highlight the distinctiveness of Jesus when we consider their exoduses from the world. Moses had that beautiful demise on Mount Pisgah when the Lord kissed his breath away and took him to heaven. Elijah had a spectacular exit when he ascended in a chariot of fire to glory. But their exoduses did nothing for other people. In contrast, the exodus of Jesus was to bring great blessing to others because his death was going to be the means of delivering millions from their sins and his resurrection and ascension would be his going ahead of his people leading them through the wilderness to the promised land of heaven.
There is another way in which the heavenly visitors contrast with Jesus. Both of them had their moment of importance on a mountain. Moses had received the ten commandments and other matters from God on Mount Sinai, but when he came down the mountain he found the people, his disciples as it were, in rebellion and worshipping a golden calf. Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal and slew them, but when he came down the mountain his main enemy Jezebel was still on the throne and he fled miles away to the Sinai desert. Jesus, when he came down from this mountain, faced his enemy head on and in a sign of what he was yet to do in empowering his disciples and defeating the devil he cast the evil spirit out of the boy.
The fact that Jesus revealed his glory before he died shows that he could have become a glorified man at any stage in his earthly experience. But that he chose to go to glory via the cross shows the strength of his love for his people. He wanted to pay the price for their sins before he would enter into the permanency of glorification.
2. The Transfiguration and Peter
Likely it was night-time when this incident occurred, which adds extra significance to the comment that the face of Jesus shone as the sun. It also explains why the disciples were tired, especially after the climb up the mountainside.
In addition to their physical weakness, we can also note their spiritual failure. This failure is seen in Peter’s request that he build dwelling-places for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. In some ways, his request contains good elements: he obviously enjoyed the experience and he wanted it to continue, and he was offering to serve by making the three structures. At the same time his request suggested an unwillingness to leave the mountain despite the fact that his fellow-disciples were not with them and would need to be told, at some stage, of what they had seen.
There is also the problem that he was putting Moses and Elijah on the same level as Jesus. Perhaps this is the reason that the Shekinah glory enveloped them. Moses had entered the cloud on Mount Sinai but he could not guarantee the safety of anyone else that he might wish to take there. It was different with Jesus: he could safely take Peter and his friends into the very presence of God.
A third possible aspect of failure on Peter’s part is that he still seems determined that Jesus should not die. From listening to heaven’s representatives earnestly discussing the events of Calvary, he should have understood that the attention of heaven was focussed on the death of Jesus. This discussion was a rebuke to Peter of his previous insistence that Jesus could not die.
I suppose we can make similar mistakes. We can want a time of blessing to last and we forget that we have to move on from it and help others who were not privileged to share it. We can be in danger of giving to believers in heaven the position that should be only given to Jesus. We are not to demean them, but neither are we to deify them. In any case, Peter’s response illustrates that we can make inappropriate comments in the most profound of circumstances.
There is another lesson that Peter should have learned and this one is connected specifically to his leadership role. He had observed Moses and Elijah giving the superior place to Jesus. In a sense, they were leaders of God’s people like Peter was. Peter learned that Jesus was superior to all religious leaders. He himself was to be a leader in the church and he learned here that as leader he was to point others to the person and work of Jesus.
But I would suggest that the two best lessons that Peter learned were about Jesus. First, he learned that Jesus was the same after this experience as he was before. He came to them and touched them, telling them not to be afraid (Matt. 17:7). Many times he had told them not to be afraid. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. The apostle John, many years later, enjoyed another display of the glory of Jesus. In Revelation 1 he describes what he saw, and mentions the effect it had on him: he fell at his feet as dead. But Jesus came to him and repeated what he did here on the Mount of Transfiguration; he came and touched him and told him to fear not. And he says the same to us.
Second, the command of the Father to listen to Jesus and the fact that only Jesus was left after the experience told Peter and his friends that they should be marked by having a priority for Christ. They were to see Jesus only. It is easy to see how this is the case in our justification because his righteousness is our only standing in the presence of God and we are accepted in the Beloved. In fact, he is not merely our priority in our justification, he is the only One we look to for it.
Jesus is to be pre-eminent in our daily living as well. Peter himself had learned this lesson by the time he had written his second letter (and long before then). But referring to our sanctification in 2 Peter 1, he mentions how believers are to add various graces to their characters: ‘For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love’ (2 Pet. 1:5-7). The result is detailed in the next verse: ‘For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
Jesus is our goal. We are to live to please him. If we do that, ‘there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Pet. 1:11). It is our privilege to sit alongside Peter in the classroom of Christ and be taught such profound lessons.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the Feast of Transfiguration
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