The transfiguration of Jesus.

Mark 9.2-8, Matthew 17.1-8, Luke 9.28-36.

Jesus’s transfiguration refers to the day he took three of his students up a hill for prayer, and started glowing like a space alien, two Old Testament prophets showed up to chat with him, and the Father Almighty ordered the kids to listen to him—freaking them out, as it would pretty much anyone who saw such a thing.

It’s a story which confuses a lot of Christians. We teach Jesus is totally God, yet at the same time totally human. Problem is, Christians read this story and ditch all the ideas about him being totally human. I’ve even heard one pastor call this story “When Jesus took off his human suit”—as if his humanity is just a costume Jesus could unzip and climb out of, like aliens in certain Doctor Who episodes, or the devil in this one extremely stupid End Times movie.

Theologians call it “God incognito.” It’s not just a Latin word; we have incognito in English too. When you’re incognito, you’re going by a secret identity, like when Batman disguises himself as Bruce Wayne and pretends to be a silly billionaire so criminals won’t bother him in the daytime. (What, you thought Batman was the pretense?) And according to these Christians, Jesus was secretly God: He looked human, acted human, but underneath his human façade is the infinite Almighty God, whose face no one can see and live. Ex 33.20 They don’t believe Jesus really emptied himself to become human Pp 2.6-7 —because they certainly never would. He only feigned weakness, like a hypocrite, and kept his power secret.

Most of the reason they believe this, is because they wrongly equate divinity with power. If God’s no longer almighty, they figure he’s no longer God. They define him by his abilities. Which is a dangerous way to think. If God’s defined by his abilities, then of course we humans should be defined by our abilities… so what if we’re in any way disabled? What if we’re sick, infirm, born with birth defects, developmentally disabled? Well, that’d make us less than human… and make it easier for evil people to justify mistreating or euthanizing us.

God describes himself as almighty, but defines himself by his character. God is who he is, Ex 3.14 which reflects his personality, sinlessness, truth, love, joy, peace, patience, and so forth. His power is an optional trait, one he voluntarily set aside to become one of us. Still God though.

So no, Jesus’s transfiguration isn’t about taking a break from his human act. It means something very different—and its interpretation is based on Jesus’s statement right before the transfiguration story in each of the synoptic gospels:

Mark 9.1 KWL
Jesus told them, “Amen! I promise you some who stood here shouldn’t taste death
till they might see God’s kingdom has come in power.”
Matthew 16.28 KWL
“Amen! I promise you some who stood here shouldn’t taste death
till they might see the Son of Man come into his kingdom.”
Luke 9.27 KWL
“I truly tell you: Some of those standing here shouldn’t taste death
till they might see God’s kingdom.”

The authors of the gospels deliberately put this statement before the transfiguration story, because that’s what the transfiguration is about: Seeing a glimpse of God’s kingdom in power.

The story.

Mark 9.2-8 KWL
2 Six days later, Jesus took Simon Peter, James, and John,
and brought them up a high hill on their own—and transformed before them.
3 Jesus’s clothes became a brilliant, intense white, like no launderer on earth could whiten.
4 They perceived Elijah and Moses were with them, and they were speaking to Jesus.
5 In reply, Peter told Jesus, “Rabbi, how good it is we’re here!
We can make three tents! One for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…!”
6 For he didn’t know what else to say; they were terrified.
7 A cloud began to overshadow them, and a voice came from the cloud:
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
8 And unexpectedly, they saw nothing and no one as they looked around,
but Jesus alone with them.
Matthew 17.1-8 KWL
1 Six days later, Jesus took Simon Peter, James, and John his brother,
and brought them up a high hill on their own.
2 Jesus transformed before them, and his face shone like the sun.
His clothes became white like a light.
3 And look, they perceived Elijah and Moses were with them, speaking with Jesus.
4 In reply, Peter told Jesus, “Master, how good it is we’re here!
If you want, we’ll make three tents here! One for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…!”
5 As Peter was speaking, look: A bright cloud overshadowed them, and look: a voice from the cloud saying,
“This is my beloved Son. I rejoice at him. Listen to him.”
6 On hearing this, the students fell on their faces in violent fear.
7 Jesus came and, touching them, said, “Get up. No fear.”
8 Lifting up their eyes, the students saw nothing but him—Jesus alone.
Luke 9.28-36 KWL
28 It happened eight days after these sayings,
Jesus took Simon Peter, James, and John, and went up a hill to pray.
29 During his prayer, the form of Jesus’s face became another,
and his clothes became a radiant white.
30 Look, two men were speaking with Jesus
who were Moses and Elijah, 31 seen in glory,
speaking of Jesus’s departure, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.
32 Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep, but now they were awake,
and saw Jesus’s glory, and the two men standing with him.
33 It happened as the prophets were leaving Jesus,
Peter told Jesus, “General, how good it is we’re here!
We can make three tents! One for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah!”—not knowing what he said.
34 As Peter said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them.
The students were afraid as they entered the cloud.
35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my chosen Son. Listen to him.”
36 As the voice came, the students found Jesus alone.
They were silent, and in those days, reported nothing they saw to anyone.

Like most traumatic experiences (i.e. Easter), the stories don’t line up perfectly, and don’t have to. If you insist the bible has no errors, you can easily find commentators with complex explanations as to how these discrepancies aren’t real, but I won’t waste your time: Discrepancies aren’t relevant. This happened, and the gospels all agree about the basics: Jesus took his three best students up a hill, transformed, spoke with Moses and Elijah, and the Father told the students to listen to Jesus.

A revelation of the future.

Now, why’d Jesus show his students this? To show them the kingdom in its power. It’s not Jesus with his humanity burnt off; it’s a flash-forward.

In their near future, Jesus got killed. He warned ’em it was coming—and Simon Peter freaked out at the idea, and Jesus had to call him Satan to snap him out of it. Mk 8.33, Mt 16.23 But after killed, resurrected. Jesus’s previous human body was destroyed, and his new human body—which he still has, and each of us will likewise get a new body once we’re resurrected—sorta looks like our current human bodies, and sorta doesn’t.

Jesus, fr’instance, can glow. When he appeared to John in Revelation, his appearance there sounds a lot like his appearance at his transfiguration.

Revelation 1.12-16 KWL
12 I turned round to see the voice speaking with me,
and in so doing I saw seven gold lampstands;
13 in the middle of the lampstands, one like the Son of Man,
clad in a full-length robe with a gold belt wrapped round his chest.
14 His head and hair: White, like white wool, like snow. His eyes like fiery flames.
15 His feet the same: White bronze, refined in a furnace. His voice: Like the sound of many waters.
16 He had seven stars in his right hand. From his mouth came a sharp, double-edged saber.
His face: Like the sun, shining in its power.

John could identify this vision as Jesus because he’d seen him look like this before. Apparently he keeled over both times. Mt 17.6, Rv 1.17

Next we have Moses and Elijah. Interpreters are a little bit flummoxed by this: We understand Elijah never died, because God had him ascend to heaven in a whirlwind. 2Ki 2.11 Moses however did die, Dt 34.5-7 and if this isn’t a vision of the future, it means Jesus was talking to Moses’s ghost. Which is, as most Christians understand it, a really problematic idea: We’re not to consult the spirits of the dead. Lv 19.31 Even if you believe, as Roman Catholics do, that the saints are already resurrected and alive in heaven, they teach this resurrection of the saints didn’t happen till after Jesus died… which means Moses would still be a ghost. Elijah was still alive, so no problem there; Moses was dead, so big honking problem. Historically Christians have either tried to ignore this problem, or weasel around it by pointing out it’s Jesus, so this must be a special case. But if we’re to truly say Jesus never sinned, 2Co 5.21 we can’t go having him violate his own Law. Not even in “special cases.”

Back in the first century there was a popular Jewish novel called The Assumption of Moses. In it, God resurrected Moses before the End, just like he did Jesus. But Satan claimed Moses for its kingdom, pointing out how Moses had once murdered an Egyptian. Michael, the head angel, claimed Moses for God’s kingdom. Jesus’s brother Jude actually refers to this scene to make a point. Ju 9 And some Christians imagine Jude’s reference means The Assumption of Moses literally happened—Moses was raised from the dead, and was as alive as Elijah. So, problem solved! Except this defies common sense. When I refer to Doctor Who, as I did earlier in this article, I know the Doctor is a fictional character; in no way am I claiming he’s not. And I don’t presume to claim Jude believed Satan and Michael really did fight over Moses, and Moses really was resurrected.

But he will be resurrected. At the End, when we all are. And that’s what Jesus’s students saw: Moses, after the resurrection, in God’s kingdom. Moses of the future. Which is why Elijah and Moses, like Jesus, were also glorified. Lk 9.31 Elijah, though he hadn’t died, will be resurrected while still alive, same as we will be if we’re still alive when Jesus returns. 1Co 15.51-52 That’s why the three of them could talk about what Jesus was about to do in Jerusalem. For them, it had already happened.

Peter’s crazy reaction.

Let’s be kind to Simon Peter. Very few of us would have said anything reasonable when we’re suddenly confronted with a vision which seems to defy reason.

More than likely, Peter thought the End had come. (And about time, too!) He suddenly got to see Jesus come into his kingdom, and be glorified, and famous Old Testament prophets had come to hang out with him. And Peter got to hang out with all of them! What’ll we do first? Well, if you guys are gonna be here a while, we’ll need shelter. Let’s build tents!

Mark points out Peter didn’t know what to say, and Luke said he didn’t know what he was saying. The kids were all scared to death. After all, it looked like the End had come. And while plenty of Christians claim we’re totally ready for Jesus to return—we’re all prayed up, and trust Jesus to get us through it—the reality is when it happens, a lot of people, Christians included, will be soiling our shorts in fear. All this stuff we’ve only been talking about, discussing academically, discussing hypothetically, will be real. It’s one thing to talk about heavenly armies invading the earth. It’s another to find yourself in the middle of one.

Peter often gets mocked here for being foolhardy. I say he was being brave: He assumed whatever was gonna happen, even though he was on the verge of falling over in fear, he was gonna contribute to it. He, at least, was willing to build tents. Good for him. Totally wrong interpretation of what was happening, but right attitude. We need to adopt Peter’s attitude. We might want learn from Peter’s mistake, and sit on our interpretations a bit until God weighs in, but this willingness to help out in whatever God’s doing: Spot on.

But—unless we really are talking about the End—all good things must end, and God decided to end this vision. A cloud shadowed it, God told the students to listen to his Son, and when the cloud lifted there was no one but Jesus. And Jesus told them to be quiet about what they saw.

So. Why’d he show this to them? Encouragement, of course. He wanted them to see what they were working towards. Most of us have been working all our lives in one thing or another, and never yet got to see the fruits of our labor. I’ve worked with kids, and in some cases I got to see them grow up and make something of themselves. And in other cases, they made more of a mess than anything else. But that was years later. At the time I was working with them, it would’ve been nice to have a hint my hard work was gonna pay off. And sometimes, God was kind and gave me such hints. So that’s how I see Jesus’s transfiguration: Rough times were coming, but this would be the conclusion.

So how often did Peter, James, and John cling to this memory in order to get them through the rough times? Don’t know. Hopefully it was often. When God gives me hints, I cling to them a lot. I’ve known other Christians who were, so they claim, given similar hints—but I saw no evidence that they believed or trusted them, for they were still gloomy and pessimistic and joyless. That’s why I wonder whether they really did hear from God. You’d expect the fruit of such a vision to be joy and peace, right? Or perhaps they did hear from him, but don’t know how to trust him, and so their lack of spiritual fruit has turned God’s spiritual blessings into useless trivia. 1Co 13.1-3 How sad for us when that’s us.

Well, Jesus wanted things kept quiet until he was resurrected—until people could see one of the things in this vision had been fulfilled, and that Jesus could shine brighter than the best-bleached clothing. Nope, it’s not a vision of Jesus with his mask off. It’s of Jesus in the glory which he intends to share with his followers.