By Hazel Dinius
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS
Today’s Gospel lesson, from Mark 9, is about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. Although
worded slightly differently, the story is also found in Matthew and Luke. What
exactly does transfiguration mean and why is it so important that it is recorded by three
For 6 days, Jesus had been preaching in several towns around Caesarea Philippi.
Completing his mission in this area, Jesus asked Peter, James and John to go hiking with
him up a nearby mountain, likely Mt. Hermon according to Biblical scholars. They
were happy at the invitation but wondered what Jesus had in mind. Peter, who was
always outspoken, asked Jesus where they were going. Jesus did not give a specific
answer; but Peter assumed that Jesus wanted to pray on the mountain top. After several
hours they reached their destination. The disciples were tired and sat down to rest,
watching Jesus as he moved a short distance from them.
As the three disciples rested, they saw something very strange occurring. While they
watched, Jesus’ appearance changed; his face became as bright as the sun before their
eyes. As he stood there, even his very clothing became white, whiter than vigorous
scrubbing could make them. As the vision continues to change, it is as though a veil is
removed from Jesus’ human form, revealing his divinity. To the astonished disciples, it
is a wondrous but frightening, powerful and unexpected sight. Suddenly, there are two
figures standing with Jesus; the disciples recognize these men as the prophets Moses and
Elijah. They are talking with Jesus. The disciples are so terrified that they fear they will
be harmed. Even so, they cannot leave; they feel compelled to stay in the presence of
this glorious vision. The thought of running away does not enter their minds.
Peter, not really knowing what he was talking about because he was so frightened,
asked Jesus if he could build 3 booths, one for him, and one for each of the prophets. He
was likely thinking of the booths the Jewish people built to celebrate the three major
festivals of each year. Even as frightened as he was, the suggestion of booths indicated
Peter’s desire to stay on the Mountain in the presence of Jesus. Then a cloud covers
them, and they hear a voice speaking; the same voice from heaven that spoke to Jesus at
his baptism: “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased”. Here however,
this voice, speaking in the third person to the disciples, uses a commanding tone: “This
is my son – listen to him”.
When the disciples heard the voice from the cloud, they became even more frightened
so that they fell to the ground. Jesus went to them and touched them and said: “Stand
up. Don’t be afraid.” They looked up and saw that Jesus was alone now; he appeared to
be the same as always. They stood up, and with Jesus, started back down the mountain.
As they came down, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had heard and
seen on the mountain until the son of man had risen from the dead.
Jesus does not explain to the disciples why he wants them to remain quiet about what
they had witnessed on the mountain top. A similar thing happened a week earlier, when
Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answered: some
say you are John the Baptist, Elijah, and other prophets. Then Jesus asked: “But who do
you say that I am?” Immediately Peter answered: “You are the Christ.” Here again,
Jesus warned: “Don’t tell anyone who I am.”
I wondered why Jesus asked his disciples to remain quiet about these two happenings.
From a reading in our devotional booklet, Forward Day by Day, the author wrote this
about the Transfiguration; “How can these disciples keep such a transformative
experience bottled up? It seems that if this happened today, it would be best to make the
transfiguration story go viral to create new followers of Jesus. But God’s timing is
different – – Peter, James and John aren’t ready to tell the story yet because they haven’t
experienced the resurrection of Christ. They are not yet the seasoned disciples we see in
the book of Acts.” This explanation makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Although the words, Transfigure and transform, are sometimes used interchangeably,
they do not mean the same thing, especially in the story of the transfiguration of Christ.
To be transfigured is to be changed in outward form or appearance. The transfiguration
does not alter who Jesus is but gives those who see the change a new understanding of
him. Transformation would mean a complete or essential change; Jesus on the
mountain is not transformed; he is not changed inwardly.
Jesus’ transfiguration is not to be thought of with the assumption that we can understand
it. It draws us toward what is abnormal, perhaps even unnatural. Think of the fire that
did not consume Moses’ bush; or, the fire that did consume Elijah’s water drenched
sacrificial altar. These were miraculous occurrences. In his transfiguration Jesus is not
made to have a new essential self but an appearance that conveys his standing in the
company of Israel’s greatest prophets.
The purpose of the transfiguration of Jesus was to give his “inner circle” of disciples,
Peter, James and John, a greater understanding of who Jesus is. From the vision the
saw Jesus in all his divine glory; in him, they “saw” the face of God. As did Moses and
Elijah on their respective mountain top experiences. In 2 Corinthians, V. 6, St. Paul
clearly refers to the transfiguration of Jesus. Paul writes: “God once said, ‘Let the light
shine out of the darkness!’ This is the same God who made his light shine in our hearts
by letting us know the glory of God that is in the face of Christ.”
The transfiguration is a powerful lesson from God, not only for the three disciples who
followed Jesus up a mountain, but also for us. In dazzling light, God calls attention to
Jesus, revealing his divinity, his oneness with the Lord God. The presence of Moses and
Elijah, talking with Jesus, further confirms Jesus’ oneness with the Creator. After all of
this, in case there is any doubt whatever about who Jesus is, God declares in a
commanding voice: “This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
The scene on the mountain ends with the word “dead” (vs. 9, Mark 9). This is no small
matter: Jesus embraced his identity as one who will die and be raised, thus signaling the
journey ahead that will be coming when he and his disciples have left the mountain.
The disciples have a responsibility: to listen to God’ son. That listening does not result
in staying aloof where the air is pure and the view is stunning. They must leave the
mountain, hear and remember the words of Jesus, mix with the crowds surrounding him
and accompany him to the cross.
Jesus’ transfiguration transformed the disciples in the story, and transforms us, by
removing the veil which clouds our vision, our understanding. The reason for
identifying Jesus with Moses and Elijah is for the church, the disciples, and us . . . to
realize the crucial work in the world.
God commanded us to listen to his son. How do we do that? It is as simple as picking
up your Bible; read the stories and words of Jesus in the 4 Gospel books, the books of
Acts and I Corinthians. In worship, week after week, through the word of God, we are
enabled by God to see Jesus as our savior. He is much more than just a teacher of
morality and ethics; he is the son of God.
We “listen” and follow Jesus because his way leads to our salvation. Amen.