Is the transfiguration story just a myth or is there a point here?

The gospels can be some of the clearest works in the Bible to read. They are narrative, there’s lot of talking and there’s a neat beginning, middle and end. But some bits of them are hard going. Are they mis-worded recordings of what Jesus said? Are they memories that have grown over time so by the time they are recorded in the gospels, they are not quite what happened? Is there a kernel of some truth that has been mythologised?

We get the miracles. We get the resurrection. There’s a reason for those, even evidence. We get those. But there are other sections that just seem more random which are harder to get our arms around. The Transfiguration is one of those. It’s in three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and involves the following:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” Matthew 17:1-8

I have so many questions.

For starters this seems so out of place among a narrative. Everything else is (comparatively) normal. This is whacky film-within-a-film stuff. On top of that, why did Elijah and Moses have to physically be there to talk? Jesus is fully God, he could have talked to them when and wherever. What did they have to talk about? They weren’t even there long – what could possibly have talked about? And what was the point? They go up the mountain, this happens and then they go down the mountain again. So going there was specifically for this. But what is this?

We could spend days talking about this episode, indeed people have written whole books about it. I just want to raise a couple of points that bring me great comfort.

First, there is a key theme that runs through the gospels regarding who Jesus is. The transfiguration is also about who Jesus is not. Just prior to this, Matthew records a conversation with the disciples:

“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Matthew 16:13-14

So at the transfiguration, we see Jesus with Moses and Elijah – we see clearly that he is neither of those people. The transfiguration shows us that Jesus is someone else.

Well, we know who he is, I can sense you thinking. But my question is, do we really? The full divinity and full humanity of Jesus can be a lot to take in and a lot to try and visualise. In my puny brain, I can reduce Jesus to the size of a Moses. But seeing Jesus next to Moses provides a clear comparison and illustrates how superior to a human prophet Jesus is.

So here’s my second comfort point: Jesus is huge. He is massive. When you imagine Moses, see Moses. Jesus is far and away so much greater than him. The allusions to Jesus’ greatness run throughout the passage and there are echoes of Sinai where God appeared to Moses. Jesus takes a select few of his disciples up a high mountain. High places are synonymous with holy places. At Sinai, Moses went up to God and God called him from the mountain (Exodus 19:3). Also, the skin of Moses’ face shone as a reflection of God’s presence – so much so that after speaking to God, the people were afraid to come near him. So Moses would put a veil over his face after he had been speaking to God (Exodus 35:29-35). At the Transfiguration, Jesus’ face shines but not as a reflection. His face shines like the sun. He is God. Except now there is no veil required because of fear. The disciples can look upon the face of God.

Matthew also records that Jesus’ clothes became as white as the light. Readers of Matthew will no doubt be familiar with Daniel’s prophecy in which he saw the Ancient of Days (that is, God) who’s “clothing was as white as snow” (Daniel 7:9). Again, this says that Jesus is God.

So is there a point? Absolutely! This episode communicates clearly who Jesus is not so there is no shadow of a doubt for those disciples who will become apostles. The apostles needed to communicate a clear message and God, in his mercy, gave them the events by which they could preach the truth. Jesus is definitely not Elijah or Moses – we know because we saw him walking and talking with those men.

So who is he? He is the Messiah. He is the Son of God. We know this because God’s voice is heard to proclaim the same words he spoke at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” The witness of those who heard these words at the baptism are now joined by those who witnessed this at the transfiguration. The Old Testament repeatedly says that more than one witness is required to confirm a charge against someone (Deut. 19:15, Numbers 35:30, Matthew 18:16 and 2 Corinthians 13:1). It also must stand that claims in the affirmative must also be established by more than one witness.

But more than being the Son of God. He is God. There are descriptors of Jesus that are only ascribed to God – the shining face, the nature of his clothes. All this points to him being God.

This is mind bending to be sure. But it is so important. Remembering how big Jesus is, helps us to truly go to him in our need and seek him with the depth of desperation and gratitude that his actions deserve. We need him to do what he did. We are so small – only he is big enough to have accomplished triumph over our sin. And knowing that my efforts are pointless, but his sacrifice and suffering was real, makes me so incredibly grateful. When I look again at this passage, I see Jesus as a man about to suffer, and as God – so big I can’t bend my mind around it. Bigger than Elijah. Bigger than Moses. And yet so present that I can look upon his face with no barrier.

I have felt moved to write a series of blogs on passages of the Bible that can be confusing or disquieting for people. Other blogs in this grouping include one on 1 Thessalonians where Paul gives glimpses of what happens when we die and one on Leviticus which appears to outline the value of women that is less than a man. If there is a passage that has always troubled you, feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look!