Why the story of the transfiguration? Why did Jesus show His disciples His glorified form? What biblical truths does the transfiguration reveal?
What is the transfiguration of Jesus?
Peter, James and John saw a vision of Jesus transformed in a glorified body, talking with Moses and Elijah. They heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” This fulfilled Jesus’ promise that some of His disciples would see Him “coming in His kingdom” before they died (Matthew 16:28). This vision is called the transfiguration.
Jesus’ transfiguration was a powerful testimony both to who He is and to what He will do in the years ahead.
Matthew’s account of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) reminds us about the real future for this present world—a future as sure as the rising and setting sun.
When Jesus was transfigured, He was giving Peter, James and John a preview—a small taste—of the day when He would return in glory and splendor as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
But was that all there was to the transfiguration? What do the details of Jesus’ transfiguration tell us about the future? What can the transfiguration teach us about the timing of Jesus Christ’s return and the reward of the saints?
What you need to know to understand the transfiguration
What really took place on that mountain 2,000 years ago?
First, we need to view the historical backdrop of first-century Judea.
The religious leaders at the time had access to Daniel’s 70-weeks prophecy, which foretold the timing of the coming of the Messiah. They believed His coming was imminent.
But their understanding of the Messiah—what He would do, accomplish and teach—was far from complete. Because they based their understanding on parts of Scripture instead of the whole thing, they had major gaps in their knowledge. Their preconceived ideas about what the Messiah would do proved to be their stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23).
For example, the religious authorities had the mistaken impression that the Messiah would be a human military leader who would immediately defeat the Romans and enable the Jews to get out from under Rome’s oppressive thumb.
Also, they were ignorant that the Messiah would come twice (first to die as a sacrifice for sin, and then again to establish the Kingdom). These factors explain why they failed to recognize Jesus as the One they were looking for. They knew He did not fit what they were anticipating.
The disciples were beginning to understand who Jesus was. When He asked who they thought He was, Peter boldly declared, “You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13-16).
Previous to the transfiguration, Jesus had begun to prepare the disciples for His impending death and resurrection. But clearly they didn’t yet understand what He meant (Matthew 16:21-23). When He repeated the prediction, the disciples were greatly distressed (17:22). And even on the afternoon of His death, Peter denied Christ, and the other apostles deserted Him. Their fear was evidence that their understanding and faith at that time were incomplete.
That is the basis for understanding what the transfiguration is all about.
What happened during the transfiguration?
“Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:1-2).
Note that this took place after Jesus told the disciples that some of them would see a vision of the Kingdom of God before they died (Matthew 16:28).
The word transfigured comes from the Greek metamorphoo, from which we get the English word metamorphosis. In other words, Jesus’ appearance was totally transformed, not just altered in some small way. Right before the disciples’ eyes, He appeared to change from physical to spiritual composition.
Accompanying that metamorphosis was a new face as bright and blinding as the sun and clothes that were white “like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3).
By studying the transfiguration, we are reminded of Jesus’ divinity, grounded in His unshakable vow to return to this earth, and filled with hope in the promised reward of the saints.Continuing the story, we read, “And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!’ And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Arise, and do not be afraid.’ When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only” (Matthew 17:3-8).
Peter later wrote that the voice from “the Excellent Glory” conveyed honor and glory from God the Father (2 Peter 1:16-18). By the time he wrote this epistle Peter fully understood what he had seen in the vision. It confirmed that Jesus is the Son of God, and also the One Moses prophesied as the Prophet to come (Deuteronomy 18:15; John 6:14; see “Jesus Christ, the Prophet?”).
The apostles clearly saw that Jesus is greater than even the greatest men of the Old Testament. We must all “hear Him!”
The account concludes with Jesus hiking down the mountain with His apostles, charging them not to tell anyone about what they had witnessed in vision (Matthew 17:9).
Were Peter, James and John in heaven?
Of course, Moses and Elijah had been dead for centuries, so how could Peter, James and John have seen them? Some mistakenly believe that the disciples were somehow transported to heaven.
That did not happen—and the rest of Scripture bears that out clearly.
Remember, the disciples traveled to a “high mountain,” not somewhere in heaven, and what they saw was a vision. Notice Jesus’ warning to Peter, James and John following the transfiguration: “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead” (Matthew 17:9, emphasis added throughout).
The fact that it was a vision means the disciples did not literally see “the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matthew 16:28) and Moses and Elijah were not literally present.
Like any person who has died down through the ages, they both are buried in their graves, with no capacity for conscious thought (Psalm 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:10). To argue that they are in heaven would directly contradict the plain words of John 3:13: “No one has ascended to heaven.”
(If you want to know what happens to someone when he or she dies, see our article “Do We Go to Heaven When We Die?”)
One theological truth we learn from the brief visual image given to the disciples is that when Christ returns in power and glory to set up His Kingdom (Matthew 24:30), He will resurrect Old Testament heroes (such as Moses and Elijah), who will also be present in that Kingdom.
Could you one day be transfigured?
But the awesome fact lost on most is that the story of the transfiguration reveals the ultimate destiny of the saints: their own personal transfiguration.
Luke’s version of the account holds the key.
He wrote, “As He [Jesus] prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory” (Luke 9:29-31).
Moses and Elijah are great leaders of the Old Testament. These two men were prophetic symbols relating to the coming of the Messiah (Deuteronomy 18:15; Malachi 4:5). But they also represent all of the resurrected servants of God who will reign alongside Jesus Christ when the Kingdom of God is established on earth. Therefore, glory, the same magnificence and splendor that described Jesus Christ’s transformation, will be given to Moses and Elijah and everyone else who is resurrected with them.
Paul referred to this when he wrote Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
Not the glory revealed “to” us, but “in” us. He was saying that we will one day have that same kind of glory.
And John, years removed from his experience on that high mountain, wrote, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed [in detail] what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2).
We can’t know what our glorified form will look like. But we may have a hint based on John’s vision of Jesus Christ: “His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace . . . and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength” (Revelation 1:14-16).
(To learn more about how you can ensure this future, see our article “How to Become a Saint.”)
Even up to the time when Jesus ascended to the Father, the disciples expected that Jesus would establish the Kingdom at that time. They didn’t understand the extent of the work that was yet to be done (Acts 1:4-8). But they were assured that Jesus would return in glory, as they had witnessed in the transfiguration vision (verses 9-11).
By studying the transfiguration, we are reminded of Jesus’ divinity, grounded in His unshakable vow to return to this earth, and filled with hope in the promised reward of the saints.
May God speed that day.
Study more in our article “Best News Ever: Jesus Returns!”