Have you ever had a friendship with someone that you thought you knew well, but later found that you didn’t know that person as well as you thought? Well, Jesus’ disciples once had a similar experience with Jesus that demonstrated a side of Him that they had never seen before…
“After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:1-2 NIV).
This account tells us that Jesus’ physical appearance was dramatically changed or transformed. The original word that’s used to describe what took place here is a form of the word metamorphosis, a word that we use today to describe a complete change in form, structure, or appearance. It carries the idea of a transformation and not just a change in outward appearance. In other words, this overwhelming brightness wasn’t like a spotlight that illuminated Jesus from far away but instead came directly from Him.
“Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:3 NIV).
Now if Jesus’ transfiguration wasn’t enough, who suddenly then shows up but Moses and Elijah, two well-known leaders from the Old Testament. This unusual meeting naturally leads to two questions:
1.) Why were Moses and Elijah there?
2.) Why didn’t God allow someone like Daniel or Isaiah or David or any of the other great Old Testament men and women of God to meet with Jesus too?
Well, one possible way to answer these questions is to think about what Moses and Elijah each represent. For instance, Moses is probably best known as the person who received the law of God in the Old Testament. He was the man that God used to produce the first five books of the Old Testament, the books that are known to us today as “the Law.” Then there is Elijah, who is known as one of Israel’s most famous prophets. In fact, Elijah was the man that the Bible said would arrive before the Messiah (see Malachi 4:5 and Matthew 11:11-14).
So if we think about these two men in terms of what they stand for, we might say that we have Moses and Elijah -representing the Law and the Prophets- with Jesus, the Person that they had been pointing to in the Old Testament.
“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters– one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah'” (Matthew 17:4 NIV).
Another report of this event tells us that Peter didn’t know what he was saying when he said this (see Mark 9:6). Perhaps this was because Peter felt a little inferior while standing next to these great men of God. In fact, it almost sounds as if Peter is trying to convince Jesus that he’s capable of doing something that will make it worthwhile to let him hang around. In any event, Peter’s attempt to start a conversation didn’t last very long…
“While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!'” (Matthew 17:5 NIV).
So first, we have the representatives of the Law and the Prophets as Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus. Now we have the appearance of the highest authority- God the Father. When God says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him,” He confirms Jesus’ authority and commands His followers to give Jesus their ultimate attention: “Hear Him!” (NKJV). This puts Jesus above even the Law and the Prophets because Jesus is not just another lawgiver or prophet; He is God’s beloved Son.
Now check out how the disciples responded when they heard the voice of God…
“When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified” (Matthew 17:6 NIV).
People sometimes use superficial terms like “the man upstairs” or “the big guy” in speaking about God, but when someone has a real encounter with God, they don’t treat it in a casual or trivial way. If you don’t believe that, then just look at the way that Peter, James, and John reacted to the voice of God in these verses. Don’t forget that these disciples were all former sailors who had once made their living on the sea before they met Jesus. Yet these tough, rugged, ex-fishermen fell face down on the ground in terror when they heard the voice of God. This encounter with Peter, James, and John reminds us that God’s presence is awesome, powerful, and terrifying and He is certainly not to be treated in a casual or flippant manner.
“But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (Matthew 17:7-8 NIV).
It’s interesting to see that the Scripture specifically says that Jesus came and physically touched these men. This helps reinforce the fact that what the disciples saw was an actual event and not some illusion or hallucination. In fact, this whole experience must have left a powerful impression in the minds of these disciples as shown by something that Peter later wrote about this event…
“When we told you about the power and the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not telling clever stories that someone had made up. But with our own eyes we saw his true greatness. God, our great and wonderful Father, truly honored him by saying, ‘This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him.’ We were there with Jesus on the holy mountain and heard this voice speak from heaven” (2nd Peter 1:16-18 CEV).
So don’t be surprised if -like the disciples- you also find Jesus to be greater than you expected. Remember that the big miracle in these verses was not so much that Jesus was transfigured in front of His followers; the biggest miracle was that Jesus’ real power, holiness, and perfection remained unseen for so long.