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The Transfiguration

Theological Interpretation of the Glorified Christ

Dale Allison has written, “Reducing the theological Jesus to the historical Jesus is no more plausible than reducing the mental world to the physical world, even if a lot of smart people have tried to do both.”[1]

There is hardly a pericope in the Synoptic Gospels that presents such a challenge to critical historical Jesus scholars than that of the transfiguration of Christ. It is no wonder why this bizarre epiphany is chalked up as yet another mythological fabrication of the historical Jesus—the sad divinizing of a failed would-be Messiah.

It is this post-enlightenment rationalism that refuses to believe in miracles of any sort. If there is a god, he most certainly does not become human flesh, make the lame walk and the blind see, or raise folks from the dead.

This is of course not an issue for those who believe that the theological Jesus is also the historical Jesus, and that the earliest testimony about Jesus is reliable and trustworthy. Those believers who affirm the creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon are open to God breaking forth from heaven with divine power into that realm in which human beings live, and move, and have their being. The transfiguration of Jesus is one of those breaking-in-moments where God visibly manifests his power and favor upon the one he claims to be his Son—the glorified Christ—the God-man.

Oddly enough, the transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most “neglected” stories in the entire New Testament.[2] Many widely acclaimed theology textbooks used in seminaries over the years say little to nothing about this magnificent display of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.[3]

What is the reason for so many pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars distancing themselves from the transfiguration narratives? To be truthful, not everyone is ignoring the transfiguration. Dorothy Lee states that the neglect is committed largely by the Western tradition.

Lee writes, “Christians in the East regard the transfiguration as central to the symbolism of the gospel, disclosing as much about themselves as about God.”[4] So, what is happening in the West?

In the West, contemporary scholarship has not given the transfiguration story as significant a place in the discussion on New Testament theology as might be expected. This is not to say that there has been a total absence of discussion, but the difficulties which the text itself poses to the modern exegete—literary, historical, and theological—have led scholars to give it relatively little attention.[5]

The purpose of this paper is to give a theological interpretation of the transfiguration of Jesus found within the Synoptic Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament by: (1) giving a brief critical examination of the more recent scholarship, (2) appreciating the slight nuances between the Synoptic redactors, (3) revealing a Christology from “above” with feet still on the ground of real history, (4) proving that multiple attestation of the event adds to its significance. This paper will move past the often-debated concerns of origin, genre, and nature of the Synoptic account.

The author makes an informed assumption that the biblical text is accurate in what it reports about Jesus of Nazareth and the mysterious happenings on the mount of transfiguration. This paper will conclude with a challenge for Western traditions of Christianity to rediscover the transfiguration of Jesus with its theological and Christological implications for faith and practice.

THE TRANSFIGURATION IN THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS

It is of first importance to notice that each of the Synoptic Gospels places the transfiguration within the same sequence of events:

(1) Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah; (2) Jesus commands the disciples not to tell anyone; (3) Jesus predicts his coming suffering, death, and resurrection from the dead; (4) Jesus calls his disciples to follow him sacrificially; (5) the transfiguration; (6) Jesus commands the disciples to keep quite until after his resurrection; (7) a discussion on the coming of Elijah (except in Luke); (8) the miraculous healing of a demonized boy; and (9) a second prediction of the passion of Christ.[6]

W. L. Liefeld declares, “The assumption is clearly that the event [transfiguration] took place at this juncture in the life and ministry of Jesus.”[7] This event must have taken place somewhere in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, and it stands alone as a one time occurrence. The transfiguration only finds meaning as a unique event occurring in the life and ministry of Jesus prior to his death, resurrection, and ascension. The case for a “misplaced resurrection account” has been laid to rest once and for all.[8]

The Gospel of Mark (9:2-10)

The vast majority of scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Marcan priority), and probably written in the mid to late 60’s to a predominately gentile audience.[9] Matthew and Luke are commonly thought to have borrowed from Mark—possibly using earlier source material and oral traditions to compose their biographies for their own purposes. Therefore, it is best to begin with the account in Mark.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.  (Mark 9:2-10 NRSV)

As an ancient literary genre, the transfiguration is known as an “epiphany” because of the sudden manifestation of a divine being where the witnesses are invited to participate in the plan of God.[10] Marks says that the transfiguration took place “six days” after Jesus’ words that “some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1). The “some” are Peter, James, and John—the power is seen in the glorification of Christ on the mountain.

Scholars are not certain on what mountain this occurred, but the most likely spot is Mount Meron located in Galilee about eight miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee. It is the highest peak in Palestine and close to Caesarea Philippi, the place of Peter’s great confession.[11] It comes as no surprise that this epiphany happens on a mountain. Mountains and other “high places” were viewed as the setting for divine experiences. For Jesus to lead Peter, James, and John up a “high mountain” prepares the audience for a forthcoming revelation.

Moses ascended the “mountain of God” (Exod 19:3) and had a divine encounter by way of a theophany on Sinai (Exod 19:16-20). After this encounter Moses took with him Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel (Exod 24:9-10). Mark sets his readers up for a similar event, but it turns out to be something much different—far more extraordinary than anyone could expect or imagine. Jesus gives three of his disciples more insight into the previous confession that he is Messiah (8:29).

Mark says that Jesus was temporarily “transfigured” or “transformed” (metamorphoo) externally before them, and that his clothes were dazzling white. He emphasizes this fact with “no one on earth could bleach them” (9:3) that white. The shining white clothing is characteristic of heavenly beings, thus it draws attention to the heavenly nature of Jesus. R. T. France writes, “The point is presumably that no naturalistic explanation can account for what the disciples witnessed.”[12]

The story continues with its bizarre happenings as the OT prophets Elijah and Moses appear, and then begin “talking with Jesus” (9:4). Mark does not tell his readers what they are discussing, but the mere appearance of these two prophets speak a great deal to those sensitive to the Jewish Scriptures. It is probably best the traditional idea that these two men represent the Law and the Prophets be rejected.[13] Elijah was not a writing prophet, and his name is mentioned ahead of Moses.

The presence of these prophets triggers the eschatological promise of the coming of Elijah (6:15; 8:28) who was taken to heaven without dying (2 Kgs 2:11) and was expected as a forerunner to the new age (Mal 3:23-24). Moses had an experience where his face was left radiant from the glory of God (Exod 34:35). He prophesied in eschatological hope that a prophet greater than himself would come (Deut 18:15-19). The appearance of these two prophets symbolizes the arrival of the messianic age. The suffering and rejection of these prophets prefigure the experiences of the passion of Christ.

The Messiah has indeed arrived in Jesus. But as the rest of the pericope will reveal, he’s not the Messiah they expected.

Mark says that Peter responds to this mysterious event with words that have been greatly debated: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (9:5). Mark tells us that Peter said this because he was terrified and did not know what to say (9:6).[14] It is worth noting that Peter may not have fully grasped the full meaning to his previous confession in Caesarea Philippi. Here he addresses Jesus as “Rabbi” (teacher), and appears to interpret this event as signifying the equality of Jesus and the prophets.[15] Then from the heavenly cloud—representing the divine presence—came a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (9:7)![16] Jesus is the glorified Christ—the Word of God.

In an instant things return to normal and Jesus tells the three disciples not to speak of what they have seen until after the “Son of Man had risen from the dead” (9:9). Mark reports that they did not understand what Jesus meant. The confusion of the disciples is common in Mark’s Gospel. Dorothy Lee writes, “Mark sees discipleship as flowing from Christology—that is, from his understanding of Jesus—so that the revealing of Jesus’ identity is bound up with the calling of the disciples.”[17]

Lee succinctly describes the symbolic significance of the prophets and the purpose for their appearing during the transfiguration:

Moses and Elijah are thus complex symbols, representing God’s ancient people, Israel, and associated with mountain epiphanies and the events of the end time. One thing is clear in the range of possible meanings. For Mark, the symbolic significance is unmistakably Christological: their presence acts as a dual pointer to the identity of Jesus himself. It is no coincidence that they appear at the very moment of Jesus’ metamorphosis, opening up past, present and future to the heavenly world, and giving a cosmic perspective on the human world embodied in Israel.[18]

The Gospel of Matthew (17:1-9)

Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, yet his Gospel is at the same time universal in its scope (13:38; 21:33-43; 28:18-20). The “Jewishness” of the Gospel can be seen in the extensive use of OT Scriptures and the substitution of “heaven” for God’s name. Matthew is intent on proving that Jesus is the new and greater Moses—the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.

Matthew is interested in the church and the needs of the growing Jewish community. His Gospel comes later than Mark’s Gospel, and he abridges Mark’s material to make it more easily remembered by the new Jewish believers.[19] Matthew also stresses the inevitability of God’s judgment, apocalyptic eschatology, and that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Matthew focuses on the significance of Jesus and the cost of following Christ for the sake of the kingdom.

Matthew uses Mark’s narrative of the transfiguration, but there are clear nuances and variations that Matthew has added to the story in order allude more clearly to the OT, as the true identity of Christ is revealed in a call to discipleship. Matthew also says that it is “six days” after Jesus told the disciples about seeing the Son of Man “coming in his kingdom” (16:28). The six days may be a literary device used to set up a glorious seventh day event.[20]

In Matthew’s account, it is not only his clothes that are transformed into a dazzling white, but he says that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun” (17:2). He undoubtedly intends to evoke remembrance of the radiant face of Moses after having been in the presence of God (Exod 34:29-35). Moses is of course mentioned before Elijah in their appearing. Moses and Elijah had important roles as precursors to Jesus, now Christ comes to be more than an eschatological prophet. Matthew presents Jesus as coming to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He himself is the fulfillment.

How did the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah? None of the Synoptic narratives tell us how they knew them, but it was most likely because of the conversation they overheard.[21] Matthew has Peter responding to Jesus with “Lord” instead of “Rabbi” (17:4). Where Peter’s folly in addressing Jesus as “Rabbi” is clear in Mark, Matthew may not want to use this title more as a literary avoidance of the words later to be spoken by Judas (26:25, 49).

Therefore, Matthew is able to keep Peter from speaking words that might sound like denial to readers, but maintain his clear confusion with what is happening. For Peter to suggest the building of three tents is in some manner to express that confusion (17:4). He may have suggested this for several reasons: (1) he wanted to honor each figure in a commemorative way; (2) he wanted them to stay on the mountain and continue communicating with them, like that of the Tent of Meeting; (3) he was simply being hospitable in seeking to provide habitations for them.[22]

Regardless of Peter’s true intentions (even if he himself knew what he meant), it was wrong to place Jesus on the same level with Moses and Elijah during this temporary event. The voice from heaven speaks (actually interrupting Peter), like the voice at Jesus’ baptism, testifying to the superiority of Christ over his predecessors. The enveloping cloud restrains Peter much like the cloud that kept Moses from entering the tabernacle (Exod 40:35).[23] The disciples fall down in fear after the hearing of the voice from heaven, indicating worship of the heavenly Christ.

Lee writes that the transfiguration “is the outward manifestation of the inner person, as revealed by God. Jesus is shown as he is in his true self, hidden from the eyes of the world…”[24]

The response of the church is to worship!

The Gospel of Luke (9:28-36)

The Gospel of Luke is the longest of all four gospels and is the first volume in his “orderly account” (Luke-Acts) of the life and teachings of Jesus. For those believing in the two-source theory with Marcan priority, both Matthew and Luke used Mark, as well as an unknown “Q” source.[25] Is Luke’s account of the transfiguration a simple redaction of Mark and Matthew? Maybe not.[26] There are similarities, but striking differences as well.

Luke begins his narrative with “eight days after” instead of the six days that both Mark and Matthew use. Is this a plain contradiction with what happened? Also, Luke will provide insight into the conversation that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were having, not found in Mark and Matthew. Luke mentions the disciples being “weighed down with sleep” during the event, and uses slight differences in vocabulary and sequence. How do scholars account for the differences, and what do they mean?

Luke may have been relying on an unknown source, but explanation can be given apart from knowing that source and what it actually contained. As a historian, Luke smoothes out the “six days” to an approximate week. For Luke’s Gentile audience, it is not necessary to maintain such a direct connection to the OT. Luke says that Jesus went up with his disciples to pray (9:28). Prayer is a major theme in Luke-Acts as the author draws attention to this act in order to reveal its relationship to heaven (e.g. Lk 3:21-22; Acts 1:14; 2:1). The prayer of Jesus brings about the transfiguration event.

It would appear that in order to speak with the heavenly prophets Jesus would need for himself to be transfigured into heavenly form. Luke says that Jesus and the prophets were “speaking about his departure” that was coming in Jerusalem (9:31)—an exodus which leads to the playing out of salvation history.

So why does Luke mention that the disciples were sleepy? Luke intends to prefigure the prayer scene in the Garden of Gethsemane (22:39-53). At the transfiguration there is glory, in the garden there is agony. Luke ties these two scenes together in order to emphasize the confusion and misunderstanding of the disciples.[27]

The glorified Jesus will overcome this agony in resurrection (24:5). And the confusion of the grief-stricken disciples will be transformed into a bold confession of the glorified and resurrected Christ (24:52-53). As Luke says, “in those days” they told no one about what they had seen. But they would not stay silent forever.

THE TRANSFIGURATION ELSEWHERE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

The Gospel of John

The Gospel of John is missing the transfiguration narrative. Why is that? George Ladd says, “John differs from the Synoptics in making the entire ministry of Jesus a manifestation of glory.”[28] It is clear that John seeks to portray the glory of Jesus throughout his Gospel, so why does he not include the narrative? It is hard to say. However, there is some evidence that John may have this event in mind in a couple of places.

John testifies to seeing the “glory of the one and only” (1:14). This could refer to the transfiguration, or he might be speaking of the entire life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Also, there is the Father’s voice from heaven, which proclaims that he had “glorified” the name of Jesus, and would do it again (12:27-33).

There is no way to be certain if John is referring to the transfiguration, but it does seem unlikely that such an event would not find its way into his Gospel, considering his theological emphasis and having experienced something as glorious as Jesus being transfigured before his very eyes.

Lee writes the following on the “absence” of the transfiguration:

If there is cross-fertilization between the two traditions, the Synoptic and the Johannine, the question of why John did not use the transfiguration story becomes more insistent. And here an answer can be suggested: that John did know something of the transfiguration and chose to use it, not as a single tale, but as a motif—a series of symbols—throughout his Gospel. If so, this would mean that, instead of re-telling the story with his own editorial changes, John has chosen to weave the threads of the transfiguration into the warp and woof of his tale, so that the main symbols are rehearsed again and again throughout the Johannine narrative. If so, the whole Gospel could be viewed as a ‘transfiguration’ story: ‘the glory which in the Synoptics flashes into the story on the mountain is perceived by Saint John to pervade all the words and works of Jesus.’[29]

Lee’s suggestion to view the entire Gospel as a transfiguration story is profound. This only further highlights the sheer beauty of John’s Gospel. John didn’t include the transfiguration narrative because it is not his style. He prefers to stretch such a grand event throughout his work.

The Second Epistle of 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 had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (NRSV)

In an effort to validate the “power and coming” of Christ, Peter reminds his audience that the disciples were eyewitnesses to the transfiguration. He actually uses a first-person-personal-pronoun to emphasize, “we ourselves heard” a voice that exalted Christ in the glorious event.[30]

This event is treated as a historical and spiritual reality which confirms the certainty of the future parousia of Christ.

The transfiguration actually happened and was observed. It is not legend or a mythical tale used much later to deify a crucified Messiah. In Peter’s mind, the disciples witnessed many mysterious things that present overwhelming evidence of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.

CONCLUSION—MOTIFS & MEANING

The many motifs within the transfiguration narrative can now be summarized before clarifying the theological interpretation of the glorified Christ. The first motif encountered is the “after six days”—used as a common literary pattern in Semitic literature.[31] This immediately parallels Exodus 24:16. The mountain ascension is the next feature reminiscent of Mount Sinai, as well as other events of divine revelation.

Also, the cloud on the mountain symbolizes the presence of the Lord on many occasions throughout the OT (Exod 19:16-19; Isa 4:5; Dan 7:13). The appearance of Moses and Elijah is significant for they are precursors to Christ and they represent eschatological prophets. This immediately identifies Jesus as eschatological prophet, but the unfolding of the vision reveals that he is much more than that—he is the Son of Man.

The voice from heaven is the climax of the experience. This “voice” alludes to Psalm 2:7. And it might even be possible that there is an allusion to Isaac, making Jesus the willing sacrifice.

Finally, what can be said and done for the recovery of the transfiguration in Christian faith and practice within the church? What difference does this make for the doctrine of Christ?

Western Christianity in many places is struggling for survival against a deadly secularism that smothers any sense of transcendence or mystery, too much of which has penetrated its own ranks. The Church needs to regain the vision of Christ on the mountain, the light in which we see light, the echo of the divine voice acclaiming Jesus the beloved Son—the biblical symbolism of a majestic, incarnate, crucified God as the only source of hope for the transfiguring of a disfigured world.[32]

The transfiguration affirms the church’s eschatological hope in the resurrected Christ, as the One who is greater than all the prophets—equal only to God—who reigns the universe supreme.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

[1] Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 79.

[2] Dorothy Lee, Transfiguration. New Century Theology Series. (New York: Continuum, 2004), 1.

[3] For example, Millard Erickson in his Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 1241, only gives passing mention to the pericope in order to speculate about heavenly bodies; Stanley Grenz doesn’t mention it at all in his Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); George Ladd briefly addresses the implications of the Matthean account in his A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 222.

[4] Lee, 1.

[5] A. D. A. Moses, Matthew’s Transfiguration Story and Jewish-Christian Controversy (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 13. For a bibliography of scholarship before 1981, see T. F. Best, “The Transfiguration: A Select Bibliography.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 24, no. 2 (June 1, 1981): 157-161. Also see Dale Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[6] W. L. Liefeld, “Transfiguration,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, 834-841 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 834.

[7] Ibid., 835. Something out of the ordinary occurred on that mountain prior to the resurrection!

[8] Wellhausen, Bultmann, Carlston, and other liberal scholars have promoted this view. See Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963), 259-260. The case for a misplaced resurrection appearance has been convincingly refuted. See Robert H. Stein, “Is the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a misplaced resurrection-account.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 95, no. 1 (March 1, 1976): 79-96.

[9] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1997), 111; 163; also Stanton’s The Gospels and Jesus, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 34.

[10] John Paul Heil, The Transfiguration of Jesus: Narrative Meaning and Function of Mark 9:2-8, Matthew 17:1-8 and Luke 9:28-36, (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2000), 38-39. The divine being remains invisible in a theophany. In the transfiguration, the disciples are being called to play a role in God’s salvific plan for the world.

[11] Liefeld, 835.

[12] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek New Testament, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 351.

[13] Ibid.

[14] This is very telling since it is believed that Mark was largely dependent upon the testimony of Peter.

[15] Heil, 161.

[16] The first time this heavenly voice is heard is at Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:11.

[17] Lee, 10.

[18] Ibid., 19.

[19] Robert H. Mounce, Matthew. New International Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 4.

[20] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 436. See Exodus 24:15-18. This and other features of the narrative are recalling the Sinai revelation.

[21] Ibid., 438.

[22] Heil, 127.

[23] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 704. The call to “listen to him” echoes that of Dt. 18:15.

[24] Lee, 47. See James A. Penner, “Revelation and Discipleship in Matthew’s Transfiguration Account.”

Bibliotheca Sacra 152, no. 606 (April 1, 1995): 201-210. He claims the event is about revelation and discipleship.

[25] Brown, 116-122. See R.E. Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament for an overview of “Q”.

[26] Barbara O. Reid, “Voices and Angels: What Were They Talking about at the Transfiguration? A redaction-critical study of Luke 9:28-36.” Biblical Research 34, (January 1, 1989): 19-31.

[27] Lee, 74.

[28] Ladd, 312.

[29] Lee, 101.

[30] Leifeld, 836.

[31] Liefeld, 839.

[32] Lee, 2.


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