The Transfiguration is one of the more remarkable of the wondrous events in the Gospels, but also among the more puzzling. In the story, Jesus suddenly appears to shine like the sun and is accompanied by Elijah and Moses. At first read, this seems fascinating but bizarre. Why did these two Old Testament figures appear with Jesus? Why did He suddenly light up? What is this trying to tell us?
Like many other stories in the book of Matthew, the Transfiguration makes more sense the more we know about the history of Israel and the culture that Jesus’ disciples grew up in. In this article, I’ll try to pull back the veil a bit so that we can see the events of the story the way Peter, James and John did - and the way Jesus intended.
Typically when I discuss the books of Genesis through Malachi on this blog, I use the term “Old Testament.” That is the term my readers are most familiar with, but it isn’t how Peter, John or James would have referred to that collection of texts. Instead, they would have called it the Torah and Nevi’im - the Law and the Prophets. The Torah - what we call the Penteteuch - is the first five books of the Bible that were given by God to Moses. The Prophets is a catch all term for what we now call the Histories, Major Prophets and Minor Prophets.
So when the disciples beheld Jesus standing conversing with Moses - whose hand wrote down the Law - and Elijah - the greatest of the prophets - they didn’t just see two Old Testament heroes. They saw the embodiment of their entire faith - and the scriptures themselves - standing next to Jesus. It was as if the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson showed up at a President’s inauguration, or St. Peter and St. Paul appeared beside the Pope during Mass - it was a clear, unequivocal statement that Jesus was the fulfillment of everything that came before. The great tradition of the past was looking upon this new leader and nodding its approval.
And then, as quickly as it came it was gone again. The disciples were not - as Peter suspected - receiving allies to fight beside nor additional masters under whom to learn. They had received a vision, in the truest sense of the word. As modern readers, we rarely talk about “visions” or put much stock in them. Most of us, if asked to define the term, would probably consider it a synonym of “dream” or “fantasy.” But in scripture, a true “vision” is not a mere dream, but a revelation of spiritual Truth sent by God to open our eyes. For a brief moment, the disciples really “saw” Jesus for the first time. For one shining moment, they beheld their master, not in threadbare clothes, covered in dirt and calluses, but as the God He is, clothed in majesty and attended by the saints.
And just as they saw Jesus for the first time, they also - unknowingly - saw a glimpse of themselves - or what they would one day become. They saw Moses and Elijah reflecting the glory of the Lord they had worshipped their whole lives, though they did not know His name. In that light these men were elevated, sanctified. They had become the perfected creatures God had always meant them to be. Moses no longer needed to hide behind a rock to glimpse God’s back as He passed by - that burning holiness was now a cool, clear light to him. The disciples on that day saw what the future holds for all God’s faithful - what He has in store for them, and, perhaps for you.