Transfiguration

TRANSFIGURATION. The name given to that singular event recorded in all the Synoptic Gospels (Matt.17.1-Matt.17.8; Mark.9.2-Mark.9.8; Luke.9.28-Luke.9.36), when Jesus was visibly glorified in the presence of three select disciples. The name is derived from the Latin term used to translate the Greek metamorphoō, meaning “to change into another form.” The accounts portray the transformation as outwardly visible and consisting in an actual physical change in the body of Jesus: “The appearance of his face changed” (Luke.9.29), “his face shone like the sun” (Matt.17.2), while “his clothes became dazzling white” (Mark.9.3). The glory was not caused by the falling of a heavenly light on him from without but by the flashing forth of the radiant splendor within. He had passed into a higher state of existence, his body assuming properties of the resurrection body.

The place is simply identified as “a high mountain” (Mark.9.2). Tradition has identified it with Mount Tabor, but because of its distance from Caesarea Philippi and the fortification on it at that time, a spur of Mount Hermon seems more probable. Jebel Jermuk has also been suggested. Witnessed by Peter, James, and John, the Transfiguration occurred while Jesus “was praying” (Luke.9.29). The natural simplicity of the accounts and their sober insistence on its details powerfully testify to the reality of the event. Its historical reality is also attested by the apostle Peter (2Pet.1.16-2Pet.1.18).

While recorded without interpretation, the uniform dating (“after six days,” Matthew and Mark, or inclusively “about eight days after these sayings,” Luke) clearly sets the Transfiguration in the context of the crucial events at Caesarea Philippi, Peter’s confession, and Christ’s announcement of his coming death. The experience gave encouragement to Jesus, who was setting his face to the cross. To the shocked disciples it confirmed the necessity of the cross through the conversation of the heavenly visitors about Christ’s coming “departure” (Gr. exodus, Luke.9.31) as well as the divine endorsement on Christ’s teaching. It inseparably linked the suffering with the glory. It was the crowning with glory of the perfect human life of Jesus, God’s stamp of approval on his sinless humanity. The divine approval established his fitness to be our sinbearer on the cross. It was also an entry for Jesus into the glory in which he would reign, thus constituting a typical manifestation of the king coming into his kingdom (Matt.16.28).

Bibliography: G. H. Boobyer, St. Mark and the Transfiguration Story, 1942; A. M. Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, 1949; C. Carlston, “Transfiguration and Resurrection,” JBL, 80 (1961): 233-40.——DEH


The event in the life of Jesus when His appearance became radiant in the presence of Peter, James, and John (Matt. 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36; 2 Peter 1:16- 21). Three wonders accompanied the event: the transformation of Jesus' face and garments, the appearance of Elijah and Moses, and the voice of God speaking from a cloud. Tradition associates the event with Mt. Tabor, but a location in the foothills of Mt. Hermon provides a more likely setting. The gospel accounts of the event are laden with symbolic overtones: the revelation of Jesus' true nature (light), the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus' ministry (Moses and Elijah), the presence of God in the life of Jesus, and the divine commendation of His mission (cloud and voice).


TRANSFIGURATION (μεταμορφόομαι, transfigure or transform). The Gr. word is used twice of the transfiguration of Jesus (Matt 17:2; Mark 9:2) and twice of the transformation of the lives of believers (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18).

Transfiguration of Jesus.

All three synoptists report the event (Matt 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). Peter also refers to it (2 Pet 1:16-18). John’s allusions to the glory of Jesus may be reminiscent of it (John 1:14; 2:11; 17:24).

Place.

A tradition from the 4th cent. named Tabor, in Galilee, as the mountain. By the 6th cent., three churches were built there. In the 19th cent., opinion changed in view of the fact that Tabor’s summit was occupied by a fortified city at the time of the event. There is no evidence of a departure from the region of nodetitle except to “pass through Galilee” later (Mark 9:30). Most scholars now think of Mt. Hermon, Pal’s. only snow-capped peak, as the “high mountain.” Rising N of Caesarea Philippi, it dominates the area. However, W. Ewing (ISBE, V, 3006) objects that the mountain must be in Jewish territory, where scribes were nearby (Mark 9:14). He suggests Jebel Jermuk, the highest mountain in Pal. proper, which dominated northern Galilee. Still others spiritualize the “high” and “holy” mountain, but these tend to deny the historicity of the event or the accuracy of the reporting.

Time.

Early autumn of the year prior to the crucifixion appears to be the time. Matthew and Mark say it was six days after Peter’s confession. Luke says “about eight,” perhaps including the terminal days or allowing for an evening ascent and return on another day. Others, rejecting the time references, imagine that the account was transferred from a real or mythical resurrection appearance (see C. Carlston, “Transfiguration and Resurrection,” JBL, LXXX [1961], 233-240). Resemblances must be granted between the transfigured and the glorified Christ, but it is a bold criticism that deletes an event that is so persistently reported in historical context and substitutes another for subjective reasons. No such necessity exists for those who accept the NT picture of Jesus as the supernatural and divine Christ.

Event.

In a context of prayer, the threefold event transpired. Jesus was transfigured, Moses and Elijah talked with Him, and a voice spoke from heaven.

Jesus, according to Matthew and Mark, was transfigured (μετεμορφύθη). The form (μορφή, G3671) includes those distinguishing characteristics by which one is recognized (see J. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [1913], 127, 128). Jesus appeared to be quite a different person than had been generally evident. Luke says, “The appearance of his countenance was altered” (Luke 9:29). Some MSS use the word ἕτερον (different) to indicate another class or kind. Matthew adds, “and his face shone like the sun” (Matt 17:2). All first mention the apparent change in Jesus Himself before referring to His clothing. Borrowing the light from within, His clothing became “white as the light” (Matthew), “glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3), “dazzling white” (Luke).

In the atmosphere of this transcendent glory, two persons, long glorified, became plainly visible, talking with Jesus. According to all the synoptists, Moses and Elijah were addressing Jesus. Luke adds that the subject was Jesus’ impending death in Jerusalem. This glory and free intercourse with the spirit world appealed to Peter. He sought to seize and retain it, but a bright cloud settled upon them all, obscuring the scene and perhaps dazing the disciples. From this cloud came the voice, “This is my beloved (or chosen) Son, listen to him.” When Jesus roused them (Matthew), they looked about and saw only Jesus (all three synoptists). The display was over.

Significance.

The significance is firmly based upon the facts of the event. Every mention in the NT assumes that this was a deliberate self-revelation of Jesus to meet specific needs. No doubt Jesus Himself received benefit from the heavenly event, but the need of the disciples was apparently primary. They must be prepared for the dark days ahead and for the bright outcome. They must see that Jesus was already what He would eventually demonstrate Himself to be. To His supernatural birth, the earlier divine attestations, the miracles, the signs, and the lesser manifestations must be added this supreme assurance of His origin and mission. His glory had been but thinly veiled in human flesh. In this revelation, it was allowed to shine forth. His supremacy was freely admitted by the lawgiver (Moses) and the prophet (Elijah), who may indeed have come for the express purpose of a formal resignation from their mediatorship before the one true Mediator (M. Dods, editor’s footnote to J. Lange, The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ [1958 ed.], II, 327). The voice from heaven assured the disciples that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, as it had once assured John at the River Jordan (Matt 3:17) and would again assure the multitude in Jerusalem (John 12:28). The evangelists saw in this preview of the Resurrection glory, the God Incarnate—man’s only hope of glory.

Transformation of believers.

Twice also metamorphoomai is used of the moral and spiritual transformation by which the believer is made like His Lord. A full commitment that issues in a continual renewing in the divine image is the basic enablement for Christian ethics (Rom 12:2). The work of the Spirit of God in the life of a believer is a constant transformation from one level of glory to another as one catches fresh visions of the divine glory (2 Cor 3:18).

Bibliography

J. Lange, The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ (1872), II, 324-334; A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883), II, 91-101; S. Andrews, The Life of Our Lord Upon the Earth (1891), 356-359; W. Moulton, “The Significance of the Transfiguration,” Biblical and Semitic Studies (1901), 159-210; J. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (1913), 122-128; A. Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (1949), 101-151; H. Baltensweiler, Die Verklärung Jesu (1959), 151; C. Carlston, “Transfiguration and Resurrection,” JBL, LXXX (1961), 233-240.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(1) About midway of His active ministry Jesus, accompanied by Peter, James and John, withdrew to a high mountain apart (probably Mt. Hermon; see next article) for prayer. While praying Jesus was "transfigured," "his face did shine as the sun," "and his garments became glistering, exceeding white, so as no fuller on earth can whiten them." It was night and it was cold. The disciples were drowsy and at first but dimly conscious of the wonder in progress before their eyes. From the brightness came the sound of voices. Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah, the subject of the discourse, as the disciples probably learned later, being of the decease (exodus) which Jesus was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. As the disciples came to themselves, the figures of Moses and Elijah seemed to withdraw, whereupon Peter impetuously demanded tents to be set up for Jesus and His heavenly visitants that the stay might be prolonged and, if possible, made permanent. Just then a cloud swept over them, and out of the cloud a voice came, saying, "This is my beloved Son: hear ye him." In awe the disciples prostrated themselves and in silence waited. Suddenly, lifting up their eyes they saw no one, save Jesus only (Mt 17:1-13; Mr 9:2-13; Lu 9:28-36).

Such is the simple record. What is its significance? The Scripture narrative offers no explanation, and indeed the event is afterward referred to only in the most general way by Peter (2Pe 1:16-18) and, perhaps, by John (Joh 1:14). That it marked a crisis in the career of Jesus there can be no doubt. From this time He walked consciously under the shadow of the cross. A strict silence on the subject was enjoined upon the three witnesses of His transfiguration until after "the Son of man should have risen again from the dead." This means that, as not before, Jesus was made to realize the sacrificial character of His mission; was made to know for a certainty that death, soon and cruel, was to be His portion; was made to know also that His mission as the fulfillment of Law (Moses) and prophecy (Elijah) was not to be frustrated by death. In His heart now would sound forever the Father’s approval, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." The scene, therefore, wrought out in Jesus a new fervor, a new boldness, a new confidence of ultimate victory which, as a source of holy joy, enabled Him to endure the cross and to despise the shame (Heb 12:2). In the disciples the scene must have wrought a new faith in the heavensent leadership of Jesus. In the dark days which were soon to come upon them the memory of the brightness of that unforgettable night would be a stay and strength. There might be opposition, but there could be no permanent defeat of one whose work was ratified by Moses, by Elijah, by God Himself. Indeed, was not the presence of Moses and Elijah a pledge of immortality for all? How in the face of such evidence, real to them, however it might be to others, could they ever again doubt the triumph of life and of Him who was the Lord of life? The abiding lesson of the Transfiguration is that of the reality of the unseen world, of its nearness to us, and of the comforting and inspiring fact that "spirit with spirit may meet."

The transfigured appearance of Jesus may have owed something to the moonlight on the snow and to the drowsiness of the disciples; but no one who has ever seen the face of a saint fresh from communion with God, as in the case of Moses (Ex 34:29-35) and of Stephen (Ac 6:15), will have any difficulty in believing that the figure of Jesus was irradiated with a "light that never was on sea or land." See Comms. and Lives of Christ; also a suggestive treatment in Westcott’s Introduction to the Study of the Gospels. (2) The transfiguration of Christians is accomplished by the renewing of the mind whereby, in utter abandonment to the will of God, the disciple displays the mind of Christ (Ro 12:2); and by that intimate fellowship with God, through which, as with unveiled face he beholds the glory of the Lord, he is "transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit" (2Co 3:18).

Charles M. Stuart