Transfiguration of Jesus

(Matthew 17:1-8)

There is an important symbolism in this section of scripture about the transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain, witnessed by the three disciples, Peter, James and John, is an important revelation of the New Covenant. There is an explanation of the New Covenant versus the Old Covenant contained in this event.

We see during the transfiguration of Jesus that his appearance was transformed. His face shone like the sun and his garments became white as light. (Verse 2) We see also that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and were talking to him. Needless to say the disciples were greatly astonished and did not know what to do. In his amazement, Peter offered to make three booths, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.

Now this is an interesting insight into the mind of Peter and the disciples. All of their lives they would have been taught about Moses and the prophets. The deeds of Moses and the prophets were part of their history, and were almost the stuff of legend. Through their works they received release from bondage in Egypt as well as the law that the Israelites cherished deeply. Seeing Moses and Elijah would have been even more profound for a Jew than it would for the average person today because of their learning and heritage.

Part of the symbolism of this event is in what each person represents. Moses was the giver of the law and represents the Old Covenant. Elijah was probably the greatest of the old prophets, and he was the only one of the prophets who never died but was taken by God. Elijah represents the prophets of old. And finally Jesus represents the New Covenant and the new way that was being introduced.

In Peter’s offer to make three booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus he treats them as equals. But the intervention of God the Father at the transfiguration of Jesus sets a different path. The Father’s words are crucial to understanding the transfiguration of Jesus for he gives a powerful message in a few words.

A bright cloud overshadowed Peter and the disciples as he was speaking and the voice of the Father came from the cloud. He said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Verse 5) There are three messages in this statement for the disciples and for us.

First, God the Father identifies who Jesus is. He is the Son of God. If ever there was any doubt that Jesus is the Son of God and the Christ or the Messiah, it is done away with by the testimony of the Father himself.

Second, we see that the Father is well pleased with what the Son is doing. It is a pleasure to the Father for the Son is obedient to the word of the Father and the work he has been given to do. In another version of the transfiguration of Jesus we see that Moses and Elijah are talking with Jesus about his impending death and resurrection in Jerusalem. (Luke 9:28-36) It is this that the Father is well pleased about in this instance for it is by Jesus death and resurrection that the New Covenant would be established and sin dealt with.

Finally, we see the Father give instruction to the disciples directly. He tells them to, “Listen to him,” speaking of Jesus. He does not say to listen to all three of them, but to listen to Jesus only. This point is emphasised even more when we see the disciples fall to the ground in awe, but when they arose they see Jesus alone. Moses and Elijah were gone and they were left only in the presence of Jesus.

The allegory in this teaching is that with the advent of the New Covenant, the Old Covenant, which is the law and prophets, as represented here by Moses and Elijah, is done away with. The Old Covenant has been made obsolete and is superseded by the New Covenant. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13) This does not mean there is no value in the Old Covenant. There is great wisdom in the Old Covenant. But for Christians, we are to listen to Jesus, as instructed by the Father himself in this section on the transfiguration of Jesus.

To mix the two covenants is like mixing oil and water. The Old Covenant identifies sin and puts man under laws to attempt to control sin. But the New Covenant offers freedom from sin, freedom from law and the ability to transform the nature of man to be like the nature of God, so that we do not sin. We do not sin not because the law says not to, but because we are transformed into the nature of Jesus Christ and of God who cannot sin. The Old Covenant was incapable of doing this transformation for it dealt only with the flesh of man, not the spirit of man. It is only when we “listen to Him”, that is, when we take in the words of Christ that we can achieve the freedom on offer in the New Covenant. That is why the teaching of the transfiguration of Jesus is so important and fundamental to Christianity today.

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