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What is the transfiguration?
by Anna Aven Howard

Perhaps one of the more interesting occurrences in the life of Jesus is the transfiguration. In this event, Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray—that’s not unusual—and take his disciples with him—this is unusual. While he’s praying, “the appearance of his face changed and his clothing became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29)—that’s really unusual. And if that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus about “his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).

Let’s see: exodus, glowing face, Moses. . . . All three of these things have appeared together before in Scripture. If we look back to the book of Exodus, when Moses receives the Ten Commandments, we read that he comes down off the mountain with his face glowing (see Exodus 34:29-35). Exodus tells us his face “had become radiant because he had spoken to the LORD.” Moses’ face was literally reflecting the glory of God when he came off the mountain.

The setting of this is important for understanding Jesus’ transfiguration. Moses had just come down the mountain, having received the covenant. The covenant was laid out between God and man, and it functioned as both an extension of the covenant God made with Abraham (see Genesis 12:1-3) and a precursor of the covenant that would be extended to us through the death of Jesus. This covenant also existed as a teacher (Galatians 3:24-25) that would lead us until the coming of Christ who, through his death on the cross, would make it possible for us to come boldly before the throne of God (Hebrews 4:15-16) and who would be the perfect sacrifice offered once, for all.

This is what Jesus was “fulfilling” or accomplishing. The exodus at the time of Moses had brought the children of Israel out of slavery and bondage in Egypt to a place where they would be free to worship their God. Jesus’ death—his exodus—accomplished freedom from slavery and bondage to sin for whomever will accept it. The first exodus and covenant was a foreshadowing of the second. The first exodus pointed to the final exodus that would be accomplished by Jesus on the cross.

In taking the disciples with him, Jesus was trying to tell them what he had come to accomplish—his death. But they didn’t understand it; when it came time for him to be crucified in Jerusalem, we find them running away in fear and confusion, and then hiding in a locked room for days afterward. We know for sure they didn’t understand, because if they had understood they wouldn’t have been in hiding. They would have been down at the tomb, waiting for the resurrection.

Jesus is constantly in the business of revealing himself to people. The question is: what will we see? The disciples should have seen the clear parallel here because they would have grown up hearing the stories about Moses and the Exodus. And what Moses carried down from the mountain—the Ten Commandments and the covenant—were the very foundation of their faith. And when Moses himself showed up to discuss Jesus’ “exodus” with him in front of the disciples, it should have been clear. But they couldn’t see. Perhaps they had already formed too much of an opinion of who Jesus was and what that meant. Perhaps they were simply too sleepy to really grasp what it was they were seeing. Perhaps they wrote it off as some sort of half-awake dream. Whatever they did, they missed it. And we do the same all the time. We think we’ve got God figured out and we know what he will or will not do, but then we see something God is doing right in front of our eyes and we write it off. After all, we would know when it was God, wouldn’t we?

Well, wouldn’t we? Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s time to allow this God, this Jesus, to be transfigured in our minds. To let him show us who he is, instead of walking around with our preconceived notions of who he is. Perhaps it’s time for all of us—no matter how long we’ve been researching this Jesus-thing—to take another look.

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