The Transfiguration

This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday in Lent. In yesterday’s post we considered the event of the Transfiguration itself. In today’s post we look at the theological elements of what Matthew likely intends in recounting the event: And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.  

The Transfiguration is a familiar account appearing in all three synoptic gospels. Perhaps it is  too familiar and thus we are tempted to accept it and not stop and consider the significance of it.  A limited number of modern scholars describe the narrative as a misplaced story of Jesus’ resurrection, his second coming, his heavenly enthronement, and/or his ascension. In other words, Matthew inserted/retrojected a story here for his own narrative purposes.  Under such a provision lies some misgivings about miraculous and extraordinary events.  But should we really have been surprised by the events of the Transfiguration and their location in the Matthean narrative?

The transfiguration of Jesus is an amazing event but not totally unexpected for Matthew’s readers. After all, Jesus had a miraculous birth, and his ministry began with the divine endorsement of his heavenly Father at the River Jordan baptismal scene (3:17). Jesus had done extraordinary works of compassion, demonstrated power over nature, and had taught the Law with an authority that was above and beyond any earthly authority. He had demonstrated supernatural power by feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread.  Thus, Jesus’ transfiguration seems consistent with all that has been revealed so far in the gospel.  Among the many things Matthew has narrated, we know this: Jesus is the Son of God, the fulfillment of Old Testament patterns and predictions, and he has promised a future Kingdom – a Kingdom whose proclamation and promotion will face continued conflict in Jesus’ remaining time as well as during the ministry of the disciples.

The account of Transfiguration echoes what has come before it in Matthew’s gospel and points to what is still to come.  Consider the following:

  • The transfiguration story recalls the baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven designates him both the powerful Son of God and the weak suffering Servant (cf. 3:17). This commission is reconfirmed as Jesus begins to instruct his disciples on the meaning and cost of discipleship (16:24–28). Thus it is important that the scene follows the first passion prediction, confirming from heaven what had been questioned by Peter (16:23).
  • The transfiguration story recalls and confirms Peter’s confession (16:16). Although Peter was divinely inspired to confess, he still did not seem to grasp the full significance of that revelation. The transfiguration is its own witness to the fullness of the revelation.
  • The transfiguration story connects the confession of Jesus as Son of God and Jesus’ self-identification as Son of Man who suffers, is killed, and is vindicated by God, and will appear as judge at the parousia
  • The transfiguration is a momentary uncovering of the Son of God’s own intrinsic glory, which has been temporarily veiled and will be revealed again at the resurrection and ascension (John 17:4–5, 24; Phil 2:5–11; Col 1:16–19; Heb 1:1–4).  The transfiguration story anticipates the events of the Resurrection.
  • The transfiguration is an integral part of Matthew’s high Christology and his eschatology. It authenticates both Jesus’ divine identity and God’s plan to occupy this world and rule it forever.

By the transfiguration, the disciples were given a glimpse of not only who Jesus is but also what he will one day bring to this world (see 2 Pet 1:16–18). Moses and Elijah are important figures, but they are not the main actors in the redemptive drama the disciples witness. As the scene ends, Moses and Elijah have exited, and only Jesus remains in the center of the stage. The “listen to him” of the transfiguration will become the “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” of the Great Commission (28:18-20)

And thus the transfiguration has significance for us. It gives us a glimpse into our destiny. Transformation begins already in this life. Seeing the glory of the Lord in the Spirit, the disciples are reminded that they were created in the image of him whose glory they see (2 Cor. 3:18). This is not mystical deification but a recovery/re-recognition of the divine likeness. It takes place in the ministry of the Spirit. It is not for an elite few but for all Christians. It is not just a hope for the future (cf. 1 Cor. 15:44ff.) but begins already with the Resurrection and the coming of the Spirit. It carries with it an imperative: “listen to him.”  A significance of the transfiguration is that we obtain a glimpse of what we are and are becoming.  As St Irenaeus famously said centuries ago:  “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Image credit: Sunrise, Simon Berger, Pexels, CC

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