Aspects of Christianity can seem far-fetched to our 21st century minds. The miraculous elements can make it feel like the story of Santa Claus or fairies at the bottom of the garden. But before we dismiss the supernatural events of the Bible as fiction, it’s worth remembering GK Chesterton’s words about truth and fiction: ‘Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it’.
I make these comments because today we turn to an extraordinary event recorded in the writings of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
In Matthew chapter 17, verse 1 we read: Six days later,… Matthew wants us to be in no doubt that, just as the previous conversation had occurred when Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (16:15) so did the event that he now records.
Eyewitnesses. Matthew is specific. Jesus took three of his close followers, Peter and James and John, to a high mountain. Unlike what we find in other religions, there was more than one eyewitness to times of supernatural revelation. In this case there were three eyewitnesses to this significant moment in Jesus’ life.
And what an astonishing occasion it was. Jesus was transfigured, literally, metamorphosed before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light (17:2).
The dazzling white light of the sun is Matthew’s metaphor for the brilliance and purity of the bright light that emanated from Jesus. In both Luke and Acts the reference to clothes as white as light speaks of supernatural glory.
Furthermore, two of the great prophets, Moses and Elijah – representing the law and the prophets – were present and spoke with Jesus. (17:3).
In a conversation six days earlier, Jesus had asked the disciples who people thought he was. They had first responded, ‘John the Baptist or Elijah, or one of the prophets.’ And when Jesus had pressed them for their own view, Peter had replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16).
But here on the mountain it was obvious that Peter had not yet worked out what this meant for he said to Jesus: “Lord, if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (16:4). Peter had no idea what he was saying.
God’s voice. But before he could burble on with something else, a cloud enveloped them all and they heard a voice, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (17:5). God the Father was speaking! Overcome by the awesome scene before them and the words they heard, the disciples fell on their faces and were terrified (17:6).
But Jesus, seeing their fear, told them to get up and not to be afraid. Furthermore, walking down the mountain that day, he commanded Peter, James and John not to tell anyone what they had witnessed until after he had been raised from the dead (17:9).
God the Father’s words confirmed Jesus’ identity as his unique Son. That day Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus’ majestic glory – the glory that reveals the utter holiness and power of the eternal Son of God who had taken on human form.
Much later, Peter writes of the event in his Second Letter: 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 eye-witnesses of his majesty (1:16).
God’s words not only confirmed for the disciples the divine status of Jesus and his supreme power and authority, but also assured them of the authenticity of all he taught and promised.
Significantly, the scene also revealed that there are at least two persons in the Godhead. The event also unveiled the extraordinary humility of God in his willingness to serve us in our greatest need. God’s Son was willing to put aside his true glory and come amongst us as one of us.
And so we should heed God’s voice and listen to the Son. In the midst of the myriad of voices today it is so easy to get distracted and depressed because we neglect to read and meditate on God’s Word.
As we look at Jesus’ transfiguration through the lens of his death and resurrection and ascension, we begin to see its greater significance. Imagine if Jesus had just disappeared after his resurrection and ascension. The transfiguration is a preview of Jesus in his ascended and kingly glory. It also gives us a glimpse of his glory when he returns.
The transfiguration confirmed Jesus’ status as he prepared for his coming arrest and death. It also informed and inspired the disciples in their mission and their preaching and ultimately, in their writing.
The hope of glory. And there are further implications. The day will come when all of God’s people will share in the glory of Christ! In his Letter to the Romans, Paul the Apostle writes: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (8:18).
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it this way: ‘If we let Him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.
A prayer. Father in heaven, whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain, and spoke of his suffering in Jerusalem: give us strength so to hear his voice and follow him, that in the world to come we may see him as he is; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.