2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:2-7 NRSV emphasis mine)
The transfiguration of Jesus may seem strange to us, with dazzling clothes, and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, but as strange as it may seem, this is a very important moment with much to teach the follower of Jesus, both then, and today.
To understand it well we will want to notice the many references back to the Old Testament. The event occurs on a mountain, which reminds us of God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also we have the radiance of Jesus, reminding us of the radiance of Moses’ face when he had spent time in God’s presence (see Exodus 34:29,35). We also have Peter’s reaction, which though most translations have as a statement, some Biblical scholars think should be a question: “Is it right for us to be here?” The Israelites were not to go up Mount Sinai with Moses, for God is holy and they were not. Peter may be reflecting that same concern of getting too close to where God’s presence and glory is being made manifest. Then there is Peter’s suggestion of building shelters or “booths.” The word for shelter can also be translated as “tabernacle,” and part of the intent of the tabernacle was to shield the people from the glory of God while God’s presence was among them. And of course we have the presence of two key figures from the Old testament, Moses and Elijah. These are very key as Moses represents the Law, and Elijah represents the prophets. Both the law and the prophets are associated with God’s speaking to the people and His expectation of their obedience.
So what has this to do with my life today?
First, the transfiguration gives clarity to the identity of Jesus. The disciples knew that there was something special about Jesus. And many people today think there is something special about Jesus, but when asked what that is, they will talk about his great ethics, or his inspirational compassion and love of peace. But that does not capture it, for that quaint view of Jesus is not amazing enough. Consider how amazing it would have been for Peter, James, and John, to find themselves standing with Moses and Elijah. These were two key heroes of the people, representing the law and prophets. Yet God does not introduce Moses with “here is my servant, Moses. Listen to him,” nor Elijah with “here is my spokesperson Elijah, listen to him.” No, for there is one of even greater importance standing among them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7 NRSV). As amazing as standing in the presence of Moses or Elijah would be, it is not as amazing as standing in the presence of Jesus. Though Moses and Elijah could reflect the glory of God, Jesus is the source. Though Moses and Elijah could call people to repentance, Jesus is the One who redeems the one who repents. Far too many Christians today do not have an amazing enough understanding of who Jesus is. Let the transfiguration amaze us.
Second, the transfiguration gives clarity as to how to live as a Christian. Some people become Christians, but it is as if they are taking up religion. They want to know the rules, they want to fit into the denominational subculture, they want to be like everyone else in the religion. But Christianity is not taking up a religion, it is entering into relationship with God through a person, Jesus Christ, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Entering into relationship with Jesus is not taking up religion, but taking up the cross and following Jesus in the way of the cross. It is not being like other religious people, but becoming like Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus means: paying attention to the teaching of Jesus, paying attention to the example of Jesus, and paying attention to the example of the early Christians as they followed the teaching and example of Jesus. All this is recorded for us in God’s Word. In short, we are to “listen to him.”
Third, the transfiguration provides a response to certain accusations being made against Christianity. In our day we seem to be seeing a rise in violent militant Islam and many are saying that Christianity could be as likely to turn violent. People will point to passages from the Old Testament as proof. However, when people compare Christianity with Islam in this way they are really comparing apples and oranges with the conclusion of “we are all fruit after all.” Or comparing cashews with almonds and concluding “we are all nuts.” However, if you are allergic to cashews and not almonds, knowing the difference becomes very important. It is important to know the difference between Islam and Christianity on this point.
When a Christian turns to violence, he or she is not paying attention to the teaching of Jesus, the example of Jesus, or the example of the early Christians and how they follow the teaching and example of Jesus. He or she is not expressing the Christian faith, but rather a sinful heart. We are not thinking here of those times that violence may be a matter of national or personal security; that is a deep topic worth mining. That Christians have turned to violence is not in dispute. That the turning to violence is an expression of Christianity is. We are to “listen to him.” Rip out of context whatever passages you want from the Old Testament, we are to “listen to him.”
When a Muslim turns to violence, we are grateful that he or she (but typically he) is in the minority of Muslims. However, the militant Muslim can point to the teaching of Muhammed, the example of Muhammed, and the example of the early Muslims. Each has violence. Thankfully this is a minority view, but it is a possible view which the militant Muslim can defend theologically, and use to radicalize others. This is happening. The militant Christian cannot defend a violent expression of Christianity. We are to “listen to him.” When we do that we pick up a cross, not a sword.