Christ’s preparation for the end is already beginning.
Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. The disciples are figuring out who he really is. Jesus is telling them what’s coming too – that he must go up to Jerusalem, and the religious leaders will put him to death, and he will be resurrected. He’s challenged them and their level of commitment with talk of them being willing to give up their lives.
That’s what leads up to the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain to be witnesses to a secret. Right before them, Jesus is completely changed – his face shines like the sun, and his clothes become as white as light. Suddenly there’s two other people present – Moses the law-giver, and Elijah the prophet. They begin to talk – and it’s not just a friendly chat; Luke says that they were discussing what would happen in Jerusalem, and about Jesus’ “departure” that would happen there. They’re talking about his death.
True to form, Peter inserts his foot in his mouth. I don’t know exactly why he offers to build tents for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, but it’s clear he wants to do something. There must be some reason Jesus has brought them here. Peter says, “it is good that we are here”, as he offers to make the three tents (from what?).
Then they are witnesses to something even greater than seeing Moses and Elijah. God interrupts Peter (“while he was still speaking…”) and stops him mid-sentence. Similar to the scene at Jesus’ baptism, a bright cloud moves in overhead, and God speaks from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Terrified, the disciples fall on their faces. Jesus comes to them though, touches them, and tells them to get up, and not be afraid. Once again, it is just the four of them.
There are reasons for them being there. I can only guess at why Jesus was having this conversation with Moses and Elijah, beyond the topic of conversation: his death. I can only guess why Jesus wanted Peter, James, and John to witness it. There’s several things that we can see about what they witnessed, though, and it had a profound effect on them – if you want proof of that, spend a minute reading 2 Peter 1.
They saw Jesus less like the poor preacher with no place to lay his head, and more like he really was; holy and glorified. That day, they saw the Law, the Prophets, and the Salvation of Man all incarnate on the mountain, three people who represented God’s plan for man through time. They saw that the talk of Jesus’ death was real, and they also saw that life after death was real, as Moses who died and Elijah who had been taken up centuries ago where there with them. They heard God himself acknowledge Jesus as Son, and his pleasure in His son. They truly became his inner circle that day.
Just as the event of Jesus’ baptism was a scene in which God acknowledged and approved his son as he embarked on his ministry, this is the event in which God acknowledged and approved of his son as he begins the path to the end of that ministry – to his death in Jerusalem.
As they come down the mountainside, Jesus tells his inner circle that this event must remain a secret till after his death happens. They discuss “Elijah”, and the role that John the Baptist played. That he would suffer as John suffered.
Immediately after this mountaintop experience, Jesus is quickly immersed back into healing, dealing with disciples without enough faith to do what he’d given them the authority to do, even paying temple taxes to those he owes nothing to, simply to avoid offense. He’s really the Savior on the mountaintop. He’s also the healer, the teacher, and the man too.
What takeaways are there for me in this chapter?
One is to share the awe at who Jesus really is. It’s sometimes hard, reading familiar stories, to really stop and put myself into the scene; to imagine what the disciples saw and heard, and what it means about what he is. This is definitely a story that’s worth some quiet meditative time.
Another is realizing how much like Peter I am. He wanted to serve and didn’t know what to do. He wanted to do, do something, do anything… when what was really required was for him to listen to the Son.
Another is to recognize what applies to me in what Jesus said to the disciples when he came down from the mountain. So little faith was required for them to do incredible things, but even that amount of faith was lacking. Given who he is and what he is capable of, just a little faith on my part is all that is needed to do what he wants me to do, what he’s asked me to do, and what he’ll empower me to do.
Listen. Have faith. Then do.