“Listen to Him”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
The transfiguration of Jesus is an episode in the Gospel that almost feels like a dream to us. Jesus performed a number of miracles, but the great majority of them fall into a couple of categories—healing, and demonstrating mastery over nature. On top of that, there are a handful of instances in the Gospels when the Father gets involved, speaking from heaven or altering natural phenomena, but it’s rare. We’ve perhaps gotten used to the miracles by this point—not to be irreverent, but Jesus does them so often that they become for us a bit commonplace.
And then there’s the transfiguration. Before that, he feeds people, teaches people, walks on water, heals people, teaches people, people, feeds people, and teaches people some more; then all of a sudden, he’s on a mountain somewhere, talking to two dead guys while shining like the sun and being shrouded by a shiny cloud that talks. Then he heals some more, teaches some more, sends his disciples out to teach, heals some more…Clearly, one of these things is not like the others, and we’re perhaps left feeling the way we do in a dream, when we can’t keep up and process all of the sensory input we’re receiving, and struggle to recall it later. In fact, although by all available evidence this happened in the physical world, Jesus even refers to it as a “vision” as he is telling “heavy with sleep” (Lk 9.32) Peter, James, and John to keep it quiet for the time being: “as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead’” (Mt 17.9). Yet, although it remains somewhat fuzzy, its immediate witnesses weren’t allowed to mention it, and we can’t explain or fully understand everything that occurred, there’s surely a reason this episode is shared with us.
We don’t know exactly where this took place. The authors of the Gospels tell us it happened on “a high mountain” (e.g. Mt 17.1), but that isn’t very specific. The most serious of the many proposed locations are Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon, but really, it isn’t all that important beyond what we’re told—it’s a mountain. Why? Because it juts into the sky, getting closer to heaven, in a manner of speaking. There’s a long history and tradition surrounding God and mountains, for example Moses’ several meetings with him on Mt. Sinai, as well as Mt. Nebo; the Temple Mount also fits in here going all the way back to Genesis 22, and of course the Israelites’ unauthorized use of “high places” to worship God, as wells as idols, subscribes to the same notion. So, when Jesus ascends a mountain and encounters these two heroes of the Old Testament, as well as the Father himself, it’s both symbolic of proximity to God, and a reference to the many other encounter like this one.
The transfiguration took place “after six days” (e.g. Mt 17.1), which is not particularly helpful without knowing the context, but what’s more important is knowing the overall story arc, and this incident’s place on that arc. It follows right after Peter confessed his belief that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (e.g. Mt 16.16), and Jesus’ pronouncements not only about the church he would institute, but about his own coming death and resurrection. After this point, while Jesus continued much of the same teaching and healing as before, he also foretold twice more that he would die and rise, and it was shortly after this that he “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9.51), setting off the cycle of events culminating in that death and resurrection. There’s much left to the story, but the transfiguration is a turning point, after which the story focuses on coming closer and closer to the purpose for which Jesus came to earth.
The usual members of the cast are standard equipment at this point, but the other two, Moses and Elijah, are quite surprising, not least because they’re dead—well, sort of. Moses had died before Israel entered the promised land, and God buried his body somewhere secret (De 34.5-6); but Elijah was taken up into heaven without experiencing death (2Ki 2.11). In fact these two events happened in the same area, just east of the Jordan River opposite Jericho. There are other similarities between Moses and Elijah, from their meetings with God on Mt. Sinai to their crossing bodies of water on dry land, to their relationship with Israel’s thirst. But perhaps most important to the transfiguration is their status as representatives. In broad terms, Moses stands for the Law, and Elijah stands for the Prophets—the whole of God’s word to Israel.
In this, the reason and purpose are made clear. Peter’s dumbfounded, cringe-inducing input at seeing all of this is to say, “let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mk 9.5). It’s obvious that he attaches some kind of religious significance to these proposed tents, perhaps in line with the Feast of Tabernacles. Since he proposes a tent for each one, it’s as if he’s exalting Jesus, implying that he holds him in the same regard as even Moses and Elijah—high praise, indeed! Yet, “He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Mt 17.5). And that’s pretty much the point of this whole thing, both for them and for us. We may hold Jesus in high esteem, but does he have any equals in our minds? The Father gave his endorsement of his Son’s teaching, the next step in fulfilling, superseding, and annulling the old way of doing things. For us, it’s probably now the Jewish Law and Prophets that need to be subordinated to Christ, but whatever else we might hold in high regard, whatever else we might consider authoritative. These things may still be good, but they are nothing in comparison to God’s own Son. Let’s make sure we are listening to him.