I believe the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most important, and yet most misunderstood passages in the New Testament. (Matthew 17:1-13)
Growing up in Evangelical and Charismatic churches, the Transfiguration was something of a curiosity. Jesus took Peter, James and John up to Mount Tabor. He then was transfigured and was seen speaking with Moses and Elijah. Peter offers to build three tabernacles; one for each of them. A voice from a cloud speaks; validating that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Moses and Elijah disappear into the mist and Jesus tells them not to tell anybody what they just experienced until after he is raised from the dead. In my experience, I don’t remember any pastor offering much of an explanation, let alone an exegesis of this story beyond perhaps that it proved that Jesus was divine.
But there is a depth of revelation in this story! This Orthodox Icon can help.
In the Icon, Moses and Elijah are seen standing on separate mountain peaks. This is an indication that Moses and Elijah represent more than just themselves as individuals. Moses indeed represents the Law (Torah), the pinnacle of Old Covenant justice. Elijah is representative of the Old Covenant prophets. Jesus now appears as a central figure between the law and the prophets.
I can’t stress how important the law and the prophets were to first century Jews. The law and the prophets were the authoritative sources of their religion. But when Peter offered to build three tabernacles, in essence elevating Jesus to the level of the law and the prophets, God interrupts and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” and the law and the prophets dissolve into the mist.
This is so unsettling that the disciples fall to the ground in fear, covering their eyes. The implications are almost too much to bear. They’re not yet willing to see what God is telling them. Peter was ready to give Jesus a place of equal standing with the law and the prophets, but God would not have it. “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him!” In this vision, Moses and Elijah have disappeared. This is where Peter, James and John have to let go of the law and the prophets. We need to let them go too. The types and shadows of the law and the prophets lead us to Jesus, but they don’t accompany Jesus from here on.
When I suggest that we must give more weight to what Jesus says than we do other voices in the Bible, some people get all kinds of squirrelly and defensive. The most common response I hear is, “But we need the whole counsel of God!” by which they mean, we must give equal weight to voices other than Jesus. It seems to me that the Transfiguration defeats that argument once and for all.
If this leaves you a little shaken and disoriented, make note of what Jesus did next.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
If you’ve been taught to give all scriptural voices equal weight, it can be a fearful thing to let some of them go, but Jesus says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
When I say we should “let other scriptural voices go”, I don’t mean that we should ignore them. They all have something important to teach us, but the message of the Transfiguration is that Jesus is more authoritative than all others, meaning Jesus is the “Rosetta Stone” if you will.
We must take Jesus with us when reading the law and the prophets- interpreting the law and the prophets according to the teachings of Jesus. If we don’t do this, we will be willingly reverting to a pre-Jesus way of understanding the Scriptures.
This “pre-Jesus” way of understanding the Bible is rampant in the churches of America today. I am encouraged, though that there are people around the world that are having a Transfiguration Awakening. I am excited and hopeful for where Jesus is leading us!
After comforting his terrified disciples Jesus then says a peculiar thing:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)
Peter, James and John had just been given an astounding revelation, but Jesus forbids them from telling anyone else about it until after he has been raised from the dead! Why would Jesus do this? That’s the topic of part two of this blog entitled, “The Earth, Wind and Fire of the Resurrection”.