The most astounding event in Jesus’ ministry, apart from his resurrection, has to be his so-called “Transfiguration.” Both Mark and Matthew describe what happened to Jesus by using the verb metamorphoomai. As the NIV translates, Jesus “was transfigured (metemorphthē) before them” (Mark 9:2; Matthew 17:2). Luke records the incident, but uses different language – “the appearance of his face changed (heteron), and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning (exastraptōn)” (9:29). What Luke does add is the language of glory (doxa) to describe both Jesus and the two figures, Moses and Elijah, who appear and converse with Jesus (9:31-32). John’s Gospel has no explicit reference to the transfiguration of Jesus. 2 Peter 1:16-18 refers to an experience “on the holy mountain” which generally is taken as the Transfiguration. The author says those present were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ majesty (tēs megaloprepous doxēs). The emphasis on glory (doxa) reflects the Lukan focus.
The essential idea conveyed by this verb is transformation that affects the way something is perceived. Philo, for example, discusses how people can change and transform the nature (metamorphōsei to eidos) of piety, producing impiety.1 He comments on Moses’ actions to save the daughters of Jethro and remarks how Moses in his warning to the abusive shepherds “grew inspired and was transfigured into a prophet (metamorphoumenos eis prophētēn).”2 There was a transformation in his demeanour that caused these men to submit to him. In his description of the Emperor Gaius, Philo criticizes his pretensions to deity. Gaius would dress himself in the regalia associated with various Greek gods. Philo says that when he did this Gaius “changed his figure (metemorphouto).”3 Symmachus in translating Psalm 34(33):1 describes David’s change of demeanour (feigning insanity) in the presence of Abimelech, the Philistine ruler, with this verb. The nature of the transformation can vary significantly, extending from a very literal change to a metaphorical alteration.
In Greek mythology there are many legends told about gods assuming human or animal forms as they interact with humanity. Such stories abound in Hellenistic times with collections being made (e.g. Ovid’s Metamorphoses). Such abilities were also associated with magicians, who claimed to possess divine powers.
In the case of Jesus’ metamorphosis, however, there is no hint of magic nor is it a case of a god becoming human, because Jesus was already fully human. Rather, in this instance we need to discern the event more from the background of Jewish religious experience than Hellenistic mythology or magic. It is Luke’s account that provides us with a direct connection to the Old Testament context because he used the term doxa (glorious splendour) to describe Jesus’ transformation. First, he says that Moses and Elijah “appeared in glorious splendour (doxai)” (9:31) and secondly he notes that the three apostles “saw his [Jesus] glorious splendour (tēn doxan autou)” (9:32). The glory motif coupled with the appearance of Moses encourages comparison with Moses’ experience at Sinai with God. When he returns from the second inscribing of the law on two tables of stone by Yahweh, his face shines with Yahweh’s divine splendour. The Septuagint translated this as “the appearance of the skin of his face was charged with glory (dedoxastai) while Yahweh was speaking with him” (Exodus 34:29-30). It was so bright that he had to place a veil over it (cf. 2 Corinthians 3). Something of Yahweh’s glorious splendour transferred to Moses as he transmits Yahweh’s covenantal revelation to the people of Israel. God and glorious, majestic splendour go hand-in-hand.
Mark in his Gospel puts all of the focus on Jesus. “He was transfigured (metemorphōthē) before them” (Mark 9:2). He used the aorist passive formation which indicates that some other agent, presumably God, did this to Jesus and that this activity is viewed as a whole, i.e. this is what happened. Mark gives no suggestion that this took any amount of time. Right in the presence of the three apostles on the mountain Jesus is transformed. Mark then gives some additional information about what this looked like. His clothes became “radiant, very white,” a white so pristine that no laundry agent could produce. He radiated light like the sun radiates light.
Matthew adds further details to emphasize the brightness that Jesus displayed. “His face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2), similar to Mark’s idea of radiant. His garments became “white as the light.” Luke describes the whiteness as “flashing like lightning” (Luke 9:29). The dazzling light comes from Jesus and suffuses his garments so that they become iridescent.
So in the case of Jesus this transformation is not merely external, i.e. a change of clothes, nor is it metaphorical, i.e. a change of mind or attitude. The descriptions indicate that Jesus in his essence is transformed by some external power, i.e. this is something that happens to him. Further, this essential change becomes visible because it is marked by glistening, dazzling light that makes his face and his clothing irradiate blazing splendour.
But what does this dramatic and unexpected alteration signify? Why is Jesus changed and what does this reveal about him? Space does not allow a detailed response. However, we do note that God makes a declaration about Jesus. “This is my beloved son; with him I am well-pleased. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). God affirms that Jesus is directly, uniquely and specifically related to Him. The appearance of Moses and Elijah, two Old Testament figures whose deaths were unusual and who occupied special places in Jewish eschatological expectations, give witness to Jesus’ particular place in God’s Kingdom plans, plans that are in continuity with what God had done in Israel’s history. In an anticipatory act God reveals to the three apostles the post-resurrection glory of Jesus, his deity.
Paul twice used this verb, once in Romans 12:1-2 and once in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Both passages describe the change that followers of Jesus experience as God’s Spirit is working in their lives. In Romans 12 the change occurs at the decision-making and thinking centre of a human being – the renewing of the mind. As God is active in a person, their life demonstrates God’s will, not human notions and this generates a remarkable transformation. The old mold of this present evil age is shattered and followers of Jesus live in the promise of God’s good, pleasing, perfect will.
In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul is contrasting life for Jewish people under the framework of the old covenant. Moses gave Israel an indirect experience of God’s glory, but they could not tolerate this exposure. Moses had to veil his face. Paul compares Moses’ veil to the lack of response by Israel to Messiah Jesus. Their minds remain dull. But Jesus removes this veil. Followers of Jesus personally now “all reflect the Lord’s glory,…being transformed (metamorphoumetha)into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Every follower of Jesus enjoys an intimate relationship with God and God is pouring his glory into their lives through his Holy Spirit. Whether Paul here also is reflecting the transfiguration experience of Jesus is debated.
What is clear is that for Paul believers through their salvation experience also participate in a “transfiguration,” so that they reflect the very form of Jesus. What an awesome reality and prospect.
- the transfiguration of Jesus gives an incredible glimpse into his divine person. If as Paul describes Jesus had not “emptied himself” and become fully human, how could we have perceived God’s incredible love for us. In this event God assures us that Jesus is God and we can trust his words completely, despite what his imminent crucifixion might suggest. Do you need to reaffirm your belief that Jesus is God and commit to obeying his teachings?
- if you are a follower of Jesus, then already God is at work in your life transfiguring you so that you express aspects of his radiant splendour right now. The more we obey our Lord and Saviour, the more we reflect his glory. What do you need to do today to make sure that Jesus’ glory is shining through you as brightly as possible?