More thoughts on the Transfiguration

(Matthew 17:1-9 – Mark 9:1-10 – Luke 9:27-36)

Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell many of the same stories, but not in the same ways. Like competing newspapers, their narratives complement each other and build up a colourful overall image. The gospels don’t all cover the same stories, but they all report on the “Transfiguration”[i]. This strange tale follows Jesus’ enigmatic prediction that “…some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”[ii], and that’s the point I want to focus on.  Years ago, I was taught that the Transfiguration was the fulfilment of this promise, but I felt dissatisfied with that explanation. The narrative comes to an anti-climactic end when, at the foot of the hill, they find some disciples trying to perform a healing – and failing. How could this be described as the Lord “coming into his kingdom”?

My previous blog on this event[iii] drew on all three versions of the story. On this question, however, Luke’s gospel provides the strongest clues. For a start, Luke’s account reports what Jesus discussed with Moses and Elijah:
“… they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.”[iv]
Or, in the older translation:
they “…spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.”[v]
Fulfil or accomplish? Either word implies a pivotal event. Clearly, they were talking about the crucifixion, but does that answer my question?

Luke alone reports what was discussed on that mountain, but how did he discover that extra nugget? He wasn’t on the mountain, but he may have heard it from Peter, who referred to the event in his second Letter[vi]. But there’s another story that’s exclusive to Luke’s gospel – the intimate post-resurrection tale of two men meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. One of them, Cleopas, is named in the story. The other isn’t named, but many people have suggested that it might have been Luke. If it was, he could have learned the details of the Transfiguration from Jesus himself.

This event was indeed pivotal to the gospel story. Up to this stage, the gospels tell us what kind of person Jesus was, what he taught, the nature of his character, and the range of his powers. The narratives build to this point as if to a summit – the Transfiguration. After that we start heading down to a new destination – the Cross. Jesus says little about his coming fate in the earlier chapters but, from here on, he predicts his destiny more graphically and more frequently. His first clear statement about it comes when Peter recognises that Jesus is the Messiah. Following that, the narrative moves to the Transfiguration story, where the certainty of that destiny seems to have become clear to Jesus.

Moses and Elijah represented the Law and the Prophets (our Old Testament) which predict the Messiah’s suffering and death. That’s established fact, but now I want to speculate – both Moses and Elijah finished their time on earth in mysterious circumstances. Moses climbed a mountain, from which he never returned[vii]. Elijah was suddenly taken from the earth by a “chariot of fire[viii]. As they talked on the Mount of Transfiguration all three men had a glorified appearance. When they “spoke about his decease” it was as something that Jesus needed to “accomplish”; in other words, he had a choice. Maybe, at this point, he could have returned to the heavenly realms with these two emissaries – but their encouragement strengthened him to accept the mission. I believe this was the point when he made up his mind to go through with the task.

Is it possible that Jesus could have turned away from the cross and escaped unscathed back to heaven? I think that is implied in a comment he made at the time of his arrest in Gethsemane:
Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?[ix]
There’s no doubt how deeply he felt the threat of the trials he was about to face. The price of salvation had to be paid by a human – a human for whom a shameful death by torture would be physically and mentally  agonising.
“He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.”[x]
As a human, he needed strength, and heaven responded to his need:
Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him.”[xi]

Back to our question – how does the Transfiguration story fit with “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”? The book of Hebrews provides an answer that resolves the question for me:
“… Jesus … for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. “[xii]
On the Mount of Transfiguration, he set his face to go through with the work that would lead him to the Cross and, eventually, to “the right hand of the throne of God”. By deciding to go ahead with his mission, Jesus passed through the portal that would lead to his “coming in his kingdom”.
Jesus did nothing to deserve death[xiii]. He had the means to ascend direct to heaven, and had a perfect right to do so – but he chose to go back down the mountain. Thank you, Jesus, for taking that decision.

© Derrick Phillips 2020


[i] John’s gospel doesn’t tell the full Transfiguration story, but John 1:14 is thought to be a reference to it.
[ii] Matthew 16:28 NIV
[iii] Five questions about the Transfiguration
[iv] Luke 9:31 NLT
[v] Luke 9:31 KJV
[vi] 2 Peter 1:16-18
[vii]So Moses, the servant of the Lord , died there in the land of Moab, just as the Lord had said. The Lord buried him in a valley near Beth-peor in Moab, but to this day no one knows the exact place.” Deuteronomy 34:5-6 (NLT)
[viii]As they were walking along and talking, suddenly a chariot of fire appeared, drawn by horses of fire. It drove between the two men, separating them, and Elijah was carried by a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father! My father! I see the chariots and charioteers of Israel!” And as they disappeared from sight, Elisha tore his clothes in distress.” 2 Kings 2:11-12 NLT)
[ix] Matthew 26:53 NIV
[x] Luke 22:44 NLT
[xi] Luke 22:43 NLT
[xii] Hebrews 12:2 KJV[xiii]For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Hebrews 4:15 NIV

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