Jesus’ transfiguration was a dramatic demonstration of His significance and divinity, and a revelation of His glory. The Lord had taken Peter, James, and John to a mountain to pray. While they were praying, His face began to shine like the sun, and His clothes were like white light (Matthew 17:2)—and He received a visit from Moses and Elijah.
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen (Luke 9:28–36*).
Events leading up to the transfiguration
To really wrap our minds around the Transfiguration, it’s helpful to look at the build-up to this powerful moment. Some significant things were happening in the few weeks leading up to this event.
Religious leaders demand a sign
The Pharisees and Sadducees had come to Jesus demanding a sign proving He had come from heaven. Jesus replied,
“When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:2–4).
It’s interesting to recognize that the Pharisees and Sadducees had been asking for the very thing the disciples witnessed in the Transfiguration. But Jesus refused to indulge the religious leaders.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway because they wouldn’t have recognized the truth. As He explained to them, there had been plenty of signs indicating who He was. He had cast out unclean spirits, healed the sick, and taught with authority. Yet, they couldn’t recognize His sovereignty because they refused to.
Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah
When Jesus asks the disciples who people say He is, they reply, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:14). Then He follows this question up with, “Well, who do you say that I am?”
Peter responds with the correct answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
A couple of things should jump out at us at this point. The first thing we should notice is that the disciples don’t demand special signs for Jesus to prove His identity. They’ve seen enough to know. With this in mind, we shouldn’t think of the Transfiguration as a proof that Jesus was the Messiah. Instead, it was a confirmation of their growing faith.
The second interesting point is that people believed Jesus was one of the prophets, specifically Elijah. During the Transfiguration, Elijah will actually be present speaking to Jesus.
Jesus predicts His death and resurrection
Matthew tells us that “from that time on,” Jesus began to explain to the disciples that He needed to go to Jerusalem, where He would be killed and then raised on the third day. Peter, always the spokesman for the group, argued with the Lord that this shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
Jesus rebuked Peter and told the disciples that they needed to be willing to take up their crosses and follow Him (Matthew 16:21–28).
Both Matthew and Luke begin the transfiguration story by telling us how long it had been since this exchange about Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is kind of significant because the writers aren’t often the best at showing how much time has passed between events, but it’s almost as if they want us to link this discussion and the transfiguration event.
What the timeline tells us about the transfiguration
Together, these events help give us some insight into the Transfiguration. The disciples believed Jesus was the Messiah. However, they still held onto the first-century idea that Israel’s Messiah was coming to deliver Israel from Rome and future oppressive cultures. They weren’t ready for the idea that Jesus was coming to deliver humanity from its sin, which would require dying.
The Transfiguration helped bolster their faith and offered a touchstone they could look back on when things got dark. For the three days that Jesus’ body would lie in the tomb, the leaders of the disciples would need moments like this to help them not wholly abandon their faith in Jesus as Messiah.
What lessons can we learn from the Transfiguration of Jesus?
We can take away a few key things in this story, too. So here are four lessons from Jesus’ transfiguration.
1. We need to listen to Jesus
It’s not random that Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah. On some level, Moses represented the Law, and Elijah represented the prophets. At this moment, the three disciples would physically see Jesus elevated above the Law and the Prophets. This is why it’s so significant that God spoke from the clouds saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to Him.”
The disciples had spent their lifetimes following the Law and hearing interpretations of the prophets. As they sat at the feet of Jesus, the things He said were filtered through their understanding of the Old Testament and the coming Messiah.
Even after the crucifixion and resurrection, the disciples still expected Jesus to be the conquering Messiah they had been raised to expect. At the beginning of Acts, Luke tells us that the disciples asked Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6).
Here the Lord is basically telling them to lay aside their ideas and expectations and listen to Jesus. Their understanding of the Law and the prophets needs to come through Jesus instead of interpreting Jesus through their understanding of the Law and the prophets.
This is a word that we need to take seriously, too. We desperately need to listen to Jesus and interpret our world through His teachings. How we understand ourselves, each other, the kingdom of God, and our mission in the world needs to come from paying close attention to Jesus.
2. There is more to the world than what we see
The Transfiguration pulled a veil aside for Peter, James, and John. They got to see and understand the world in a way the other disciples didn’t yet. They witnessed that life was made up of more than what their eyes could see and their ears could hear. In fact, they likely walked away from this experience with more questions than answers.
Luke tells us that the disciples kept this to themselves and didn’t tell anyone what they had seen. We might assume that they were expected to keep this a secret. But it wouldn’t be surprising to know that they didn’t talk about it because they weren’t entirely sure how to talk about it. How would they explain to the others what happened in a way that did the experience any justice? How would they even answer the other disciples’ inevitable questions?
We inhabit a world of textures, tastes, sounds and appearances. And our faith may be built upon the belief that there’s more to the world, but we still fall back on what we can see, feel, and smell as our sole reality. So it can be hard to accept (or even imagine) things beyond our experience.
The disciples were constantly being stretched in this way. Every day with Jesus revealed that their world was much more than they understood it to be. The Transfiguration really changed everything. It was such an overwhelming experience that Peter didn’t even know how to respond. Instead of simply letting the moment play out, he attempted to craft a real-world scenario that would make more sense to him, suggesting that they build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.
It’s pretty humorous that Luke adds his own commentary here, “He did not know what he was saying.”
Following Jesus means accepting that the universe is a lot different than our senses may tell us. We don’t have to have an answer to every question or understand every experience. On some level, faith is about leaning into Jesus rather than relying on our understanding because what we experience is likely only a fraction of what’s actually happening.
3. Faith grows in stages
Have you ever sat in church and heard a truth that seemed to change everything for you? Maybe it answered a question that you had or caused you to think about God or yourself in a new way. At that moment, you thought, “From here on out, I’m a completely different person.”
Or maybe you’ve gone on a mission trip and watched God provide for your team in miraculous ways or profoundly move among the people you served. And over the course of that trip, you felt things shifting in your heart and thought, “I will never be the same.”
But by the end of the day, your life was the same. That profound revelation didn’t appear to have the impact you thought it would. When we look back over our recent history, it can be a little disheartening not to see clear, profound changes—even though we’ve had experiences we felt should have had a lasting impact.
Don’t be disheartened; the disciples had the same kind of experience. Throughout the Gospels, the disciples are actually with Jesus. They’re in His presence, listening to His words and watching His actions. They’ve heard His teachings. They’ve watched Him perform miracles. But they still found themselves rebuked for their disbelief (Matthew 8:26), reprimanded for keeping children away (Mark 10:14), and arguing about who was the greatest among them (Luke 22:24).
It’s hard to imagine what the Transfiguration was like—especially for the three apostles who were present. They spent their lives venerating Moses and Elijah. And suddenly, they see the lawgiver and prophet deferring to Jesus! On top of that, they heard the voice of the Father proclaiming Jesus’ uniqueness and authority. If any experience should have transformed their faith and perspective, you’d think it was this one.
But Peter still ended up denying Jesus out of fear. When the women come and tell the men that Jesus has risen from the dead, Peter, John, and James are among the disciples who don’t believe them.
Despite how otherworldly and fantastic it was, the Transfiguration didn’t instantly transform Peter, John, and James into disciples with super faith. And it might help us to think about how our faith grows as the impact of the cumulative exposure to God and truth and not often the result of specific events. This is why we must keep showing up and being present. It’s our daily exposure to Jesus and His people that transforms our lives.
4. Spiritual experiences should inform everyday life
If you’ve ever attended a Christian summer camp, you’ve had that inevitable moment at the end where everyone’s in an emotional state because this powerful and meaningful experience is drawing to an end and, once again, you have to “leave the mountaintop” and head back into real life.
When we have profound breakthrough experiences, it’s only natural that we want to stay in that place. It’s another element that makes sense of Peter’s desire to create permanent shelters for the Messiah, lawmaker and prophet. Of course, we want to live permanently in these significant spiritual moments. But we should allow these spiritual experiences to inform how we approach everyday life.
Immediately after this mountaintop experience, Jesus and the disciples found themselves dealing with a distraught father whose demon-possessed child was suffering from convulsions—this really is the perfect contrast of the “mountaintop experience” and real life. The disciples had seen Jesus deliver a number of people, but you can imagine that Peter, James, and John saw this one a little differently. They had a new perspective of the veil between the spiritual and physical realms. They recognized the closeness of God in a new way. And they had an entirely new view of Jesus.
Powerful, transformative spiritual experiences are essential to our faith, but their value isn’t as an end in itself. Their real value lies in how they empower and inspire us to serve and love others. It’s natural to experience life-changing, devotional moments and want them to go on forever, but their advantage lies in making them part of us, informing how we love God and love others.
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* All Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version.