We sometimes forget how strange Jesus was. He did a lot of odd things during his time on earth—he cursed trees, ordered his followers not to tell anyone who he was, associated with gluttons and drunkards, told parables to deliberately confuse people, and claimed to be equal with God the Father while also claiming not to know certain things the Father knows.
And then there was this moment on a mountain: Jesus’ face and clothes start shining for no apparent reason, and two dead guys show up and have a conversation with him. After Peter’s intrusion into that conversation is cut short by a heavenly voice, Jesus and company head back down the mountain and go on with their day as if nothing happened. No big deal.
Maybe it doesn’t strike us as crazy because we’ve got a name for it—the Transfiguration—as though labeling it suddenly helps it make sense. We also suppress the absurdity of this moment if we assume that its sole aim is to prove Jesus’ divinity. If the point of a story is to show Jesus is God, of course crazy stuff is going to happen, so it doesn’t surprise us, doesn’t grab our attention, and doesn’t merit further thought.
But what if that’s not the whole picture? In fact, what if the point of the Transfiguration isn’t just to show how Jesus is different from us (he’s divine) but also to show something about how he’s like us (he’s human)? What if the glory that burst from Jesus on the mountain wasn’t just divine glory but human glory as well—the kind of glory that all those united with Jesus will one day share? Put another way, what if what Peter, James, and John saw that day in the face of Jesus was a mirror image of their future selves?
Facing the glory of God
The three Gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; Luke 9:28–36) clearly picture this bizarre moment as offering special insight into Jesus’ uniqueness—if these stories don’t show you that Jesus is unlike anyone else, you’re not paying attention. But Matthew, having told us that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun” (17:2), describes what righteous people will look like when God fully establishes the kingdom of heaven on earth in exactly the same way (13:43). So there’s a connection between what Jesus looked like on the mountain and what we may look like when he returns. But what, exactly, is that connection? Surely Matthew isn’t merely envisioning a bunch of human torches walking around in the new creation!
The apostle Paul sheds a bit more light on the situation. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, he says all who receive the Spirit are enabled not only to see the glory of the Lord but also to receive that glory as we are “transfigured” into the image of Christ (your Bible might say “transformed,” which works too, but it is the same word that Matthew and Mark use to describe what happened to Jesus on the mountain). How does this happen, exactly? First, Paul says, getting the Spirit means getting a new heart and having the Spirit breathe new life into us—it’s what Paul calls the “new creation” (5:17). Second, there’s no participating in the new creation without also becoming a minister of the “new covenant” (3:6). If the light of the gospel has shone in our hearts, we are responsible to make that light as visible as possible to those around us. Paul gives a couple of ways we do this.
First, we preach the same gospel that brought us into the light, and do so boldly and openly. To preach the gospel cunningly or selfishly or insincerely is to hide its glory and prevent that glory from penetrating the hearts of those who remain in darkness (3:12–13; 4:1–2). Paul compares such preaching to the time Moses wore a veil to hide the glory emanating from his face after his remarkable encounter with God on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:29–35; 2 Cor. 3:7–15). Preventing others from seeing the glory of God, as Moses did (2 Cor. 3:13), denies them access to the transforming power of the Spirit.
Additionally, our “tents” (2 Cor. 5:1) must be destroyed—that is, our earthly bodies (which Paul calls “clay jars”), in which the glory of Christ is contained (4:7). This is no mere theory for Paul; when he says “we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (4:11), he means that the real, physical challenges of his ministry (like beatings and imprisonments—see 2 Cor. 11:23–29 for the list) are tearing away his mortal life so that immortality can shine through. “Though outwardly we are wasting away,” he says, “yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (4:16–17). The suffering that Paul endured was essential to his being transfigured because it destroyed any inclination on Paul’s part to glory in himself instead of in Christ. And as human strength dimmed, divine strength brightened; in Jesus’ own words to Paul, “my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).
We need to pause here for a moment and be sure that we do not misunderstand Paul. He is not saying that our physical bodies are the problem, and that the sooner we are rid of them, the sooner our glorious immortal souls can constitute the whole of our being. This is clear from 2 Corinthians in at least two ways. First, the hope of glory is the hope of (bodily) resurrection: Paul is willing to “carry around in [his] body the death of Jesus” (4:10) because “the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus” (4:14). Jesus’ physical body was raised, not left behind in favor of some superior disembodied mode of existence. So it will be with us. Second, Paul later states that “while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (5:4).
In other words, the destruction of our mortal bodies leads not to disembodiment but to renewed embodiment: being clothed with a heavenly body, a “spiritual body,” as Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 15:44. In that context he highlights the continuity between the two: “the body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory” (15:42–43). In other words, our bodies are transformed—transfigured!—rather than being done away with. As with Jesus, the revelation of our glory comes not through the removal of our humanity but by the transformation of it.
Transfiguration through suffering
The transfiguration that Paul envisioned in his own life and in ours happens from the inside out—our hearts are made new, our spirits breathe new life, and that new life bursts through our outer veneer of self-reliance and self-centeredness. But that veneer is pretty resilient, so God uses challenges of various kinds to break it down. Whether physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual, real-life circumstances tear away our façade of autonomy and unveil the power of God at work to make us more like Jesus.
Speaking of Jesus, we ought not miss the fact that our path to glory through suffering, on which Paul has placed such great emphasis in 2 Corinthians, is precisely the path laid out for Jesus at the transfiguration. Just prior to that scene, we find Jesus’ first announcement to the disciples that he is headed to Jerusalem to be arrested and crucified (Matt. 16:21; Mark 9:31; Luke 9:22). Peter, of course, thinks this is a dumb idea: “This shall never happen to you!” (Matt. 16:22). And when Peter (again) sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong by interrupting Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah, it is to suggest that they build some shelters (Matt. 17:4; Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33). Peter wants to set up shop. Get comfortable. Enjoy the glory and not be in too much of a hurry to go back to the difficulties awaiting them at the bottom of the mountain. But the conversation he interrupted was about Jesus’ “departure” (i.e., his death, resurrection, and ascension), soon to take place in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). Peter’s suggestion that they settle down on the mountain is entirely out of step with what Jesus clearly intends to do next.
Not only that, but as they descend the mountain, Jesus instructs the disciples not to tell anyone what has just happened until after his resurrection (Matt. 17:9, Mark 9:9). The glory that awaits Jesus is the glory of the resurrection, which means that he won’t get that glory apart from enduring the cross. Sound familiar? As with the Son, so with the sons and daughters—transfiguration happens through suffering. The glory that shone in Jesus’ face on the mountain was a foretaste of things to come, not only for him but for us as well. This is why Jesus is called the firstfruits of the new creation (1 Cor. 15:20) and the firstborn from among the dead (Col. 1:18).
When we see Jesus’ face burst with light on the mountain, we are invited not only to recognize how utterly different from us he is as the divine Son of God, but also how like him we may be, if we follow him down the mountain to the cross. The Transfiguration calls us to reject Peter’s attempt to stay safe and comfortable, enjoying the glory without enduring the suffering. Instead, it calls us to embrace the pain that inevitably accompanies following Jesus, who first endured the cross and then sat down at the right hand of God in glory (Heb. 12:2). St. Augustine’s challenge to Peter is for us as well: “Come down, Peter! You were eager to go on resting on the mountain; come down! Toil away, sweat it out, suffer some tortures, so that by means of the brightness and beauty of right and good activity, you may come to possess in charity what is to be understood by the Lord’s white garments” (Homily 78.6).
Michael Kibbe is assistant professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, Washington. His most recent book is Godly Fear or Ungodly Failure? Hebrews 12 and the Sinai Theophanies (De Gruyter, 2016).
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