By this time in our story, the disciples had spent several years with Jesus. They had journeyed across the countryside with Him through the towns and villages of Israel, watching His breathtaking miracles and taking part in the proclamation of the Good News of God’s salvation plan for the world. In the midst of their daily lives, they had been eating and drinking together, walking long days on dusty roads, getting thirsty and needing rest. In the midst of it all the disciples had been getting to know Jesus as a man…and as The Man. They were watching how He responded to life, listening to the things He said, gathering memories of when He chose to show compassion, when He engaged an argument, and when He simply walked away. As time progressed, they were coming to a startling conclusion. Even though this Person they spent so much time with endured all the things that they experienced in the same way they experienced it…the heat of the sun, the shiver of cold, the weariness of a long day…He was more than just a man. And when Jesus asked them who they thought He was, Peter spoke for them by declaring that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. Instead of denying this rather epic description, Jesus responded by telling them, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom” (Matt. 16:26, NASB). Not only was Peter correct, but remarkable things were going to happen as a result.
Eight days after this discussion, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain, far from the crowds and the other disciples.
As they stood there, Jesus began to transform right in front of them. Suddenly the Man who they called Teacher was revealed in glory…the radiant Lord of all…the Son of the Most High God. Luke wrote, “As He was praying, the appearance of His face changed, and His clothes became bright as a flash of lightening” (Luke 9:29). Mark wrote, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). Matthew wrote, “His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matt. 17:2). Can you imagine? This was how the angels knew Him in eternity past. He must have been breathtaking!
The disciples were finally seeing Jesus for who He really was.
As they stood there, beholding the presence of Christ, Moses and Elijah, the mighty servants of God from the Old Testament, appeared “in glorious splendor” (Luke 9:30). Jesus held counsel with them there. Only the book of Luke tells us what they talked about. He wrote, “They spoke about His departure, which He was about to bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).
These saints, now in Heaven, knew what was coming. God the Father sent His greatest servants from the Old Testament to identify with what Jesus was about to do and to support Him. The life of Christ was the fulfillment of their work and sacrifice hundreds of years before, and they were among the few who could even begin to understand the task that Jesus was about to undertake.
When Jesus tried to explain His task to His disciples just a few days before, Peter rebuked Him. How foolish and blind Peter was to argue against what Heaven had in store! Now the greatest men of the Jewish faith were there, affirming Christ’s path, however terrible it would be.
Luke says that as Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus, the disciples were overcome with sleepiness. As they awakened, there stood the Lord with the Old Testament saints, the heroes they had grown up revering. Can you imagine what it was like for them?
Jesus might not have had the support of the religious leaders of His own time, but He certainly had the support of the great servants of God for all time! These men were the supreme Old Testament endorsement that Jesus was the Messiah. Moses represented the Law and Elijah the Prophets. This was an assurance that Peter, James, and John could hardly have hoped for…the first glimpse of the coming Kingdom…of the fullness of all God’s plan for all of history coming to fruition!
It is in this story that we see how horribly ironic it was that the teachers of the Law and the Prophets in Israel were rejecting the message of Christ. Here was Jesus communing with the very men that they presumed to teach their nation about. They dared challenge the very One that their revered heroes longed to serve. There was a much greater, wider, startlingly brighter eternal reality stretching out all around them, but they were choosing the limiting ignorance of this darkened, cursed world. The religious leaders and the crowds…and even the disciples…were missing the point. But now Peter, James, and John were getting a greater glimpse. What would they do with it?
The time was coming for the Moses and Elijah to go, but Peter burst out with an offer, “‘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.’” Always a man of action, Peter spoke without realizing what he was saying. Perhaps he thought that this was the moment…Christ had said He would come in glory…had the time come?
Before Peter finished speaking, a brilliant cloud descended on the men on the mountain, overshadowing them with the weighty presence of God’s glory. The disciples were filled with even greater awe and reverent fear. A mighty voice spoke, “‘This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!’”
Sit with that for a second. “‘This is My Son, whom I love.” Wow. Jesus is the One He loves. Imagine how great God’s capacity for love must be…there is no end to the height and depth and width and breadth of it…it is as infinite as God Himself…and yet He was willing to give up the Son upon whom that love rested for us. Imagine what it means about His love for us. He loves us so greatly that He offered up His Son…His only Son…the Son of His love…so that you and I can be saved. If there is any thought in our lives upon which we should dwell, this is it.
In the Bible, the coming of clouds often means the intense presence of God has come in a magnified way. The men on the mountain were shrouded by the nearness of God the Father, and the only proper response was humility and reverent fear. When the disciples heard the voice of the Magnificent One, they fell on their faces to the ground, utterly overcome with the proper terror of sinful men in the presence of Absolute Holiness.
Who knows how long they were there? The stories don’t make it clear, but at some point, Jesus came to them and touched each one. “‘Get up’ He said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’” When the disciples looked up, Jesus was the only one there. Everything was back to normal…though for the disciples, nothing would ever be the same.
One can sense that though Jesus was with them in the likeness of a man, the disciples were able to identify a different kind of strength than they had understood before. While they were completely undone by the nearness of God, Christ was quite at home in the weighty Presence of His Father’s holiness and glory…in fact He radiated it.
In this remarkable story, we see with the disciples who Christ truly was all along. We see the glory that He laid aside when He made Himself a servant and came to earth as an infant, choosing to live the life of a man so that He could offer Himself up for our sins. (See Phil. 2:5-10 and John 17:1-6). His Almighty Father declared His delight in Him…and His yearning for His Son’s followers to simply listen to Him.
Yet in the midst of that grand moment, the topic of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah was not all lightness and joy. In fact, the subject was about the darkest moment in history…the day in which Christ would endure the displeasure of God…that dark day when Jesus would bear wave after wave of the full fury of God’s wrath against the sins of humanity. It was the darkest moment, but the most beautiful as well, for on that day Jesus would win the victory for us all.
The next day. as they hiked back down the mountain together, Jesus warned His disciples not to tell anyone else what they had seen. They were not allowed to share the vision on the mountain until after He had risen from the dead.
As they walked, the disciples asked Jesus why the scribes of the Old Testament had taught that Elijah would come before the Messiah appeared on earth. This was their first time seeing Elijah…had they missed something?
Jesus said, “‘To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’”
This is a strange saying. It seems like Jesus was saying that Elijah is going to restore all things and yet he had already come. There is a reason for it to be confusing. In our lives on earth, we are bound by our place in time. We have a limited understanding of the past and no natural sight at all into the future. But God does not have those limitations. He can see the end from the beginning and is sovereignly at work in all of it. He ended Elijah’s life on earth by bringing him home to Heaven in a chariot of fire. He raised up John the Baptist to speak with the spirit of Elijah, paving the way for the Messiah. And one day, He will call upon Elijah again to take part in God’s work of transforming the heavens and the earth at the End of Days.
The disciples understood that when Jesus spoke of Elijah having come already, He was talking about John the Baptist. How disquieting to learn that their leader, their friend, was heading toward the same fate. And yet they followed Him still.
As the faithful disciples of Christ, Peter, James, and John remained obediently silent about the brilliant moments of transfiguration on the mountainside. These men would be called to surrender their lives on this earth, but they were already gaining a vision of the Eternal. Within a week of declaring that some of His disciples would see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom, that first prophecy of the Church was fulfilled.
Yet the three disciples kept talking to each other about what Jesus meant when He said that the Son of Man would rise from the dead. The plans of God were marching forward, even as the disciples wondered along the way.
How sweet it must have been for Peter to reflect on this memory in the years to come…to realize that in their time walking the earth, Moses and Elijah had also shown moments of tremendous weakness and lack of faith. Yet here they were…honored examples of God’s grace and capacity to transform humanity…standing with the Messiah as He prepared to complete the prophetic work that God had begun thousands of years before. Two thousand years have passed since these stories were written down. We now know that Peter became every bit the servant of God that we see in the stories of Moses and Elijah, but at the time of this story, Peter wasn’t quite there yet…and neither are we. We can take comfort with Peter that what Christ did on the cross ensures that some day we, too, will be transformed into radiant light…into glorified bodies that will be invulnerable to sin or suffering, and that will forever exist in the glorious goodness of God’s holiness and love.