Transfiguration Sunday

This Sunday is a holy day called Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration Sunday marks the end of the season after Epiphany (ordinary time) and begins the change to the season of Lent which leads up to Easter. Of course, Lent doesn’t start until Ash Wednesday, but Transfiguration Sunday marks the beginning of the change in season.

Admittedly the story of the Transfiguration is a little strange. We as readers are left with lots of questions; what exactly happened? Did Jesus’ appearance change or just his clothes? And how did no one else notice this change when they came down off the mountain? The transfiguration is an odd little story. To help us make sense of the story and to help us see the story’s importance, I think we should start with the setting of the story, then talk about what the story says about Jesus, and then talk about the role of the disciples in the story.

The setting of the story: The wilderness

On the one hand, the setting of this story is simply a place that the disciples went with Jesus to, but on the other hand, I think that the setting of this story serves to provide more context to the meaning of the story. So in one sense the setting of the story is “up a high mountain.” But at the same time I think that the setting is bringing to mind an older story for Israel and creating a different symbolic context for the story. The setting that is being created for this story is the wilderness, the wilderness that Israel wandered in for years on their way from Egypt to the promised land. You may be wondering why do I think this? And why is it important?

The wilderness as the setting of this story is referenced in three ways. First, the mountain top that they are on. One of the central moments in the wilderness story was the revelation of the law, including the ten commandments, on Mt Sinai. During that time we also see an episode where Moses sees God, sort of, and his face shines and he has to wear a veil, which feels very similar to the story of the transfiguration. Second, during their time at Mt. Sinai, not only did the people live in tents, but the people, through Moses also received the instructions for the Tabernacle, a tent that would function as a temple while they were a nomadic people. This period was remembered during the festival of booths, Sukkoth. Peter’s eloquent speech in v. 5 was a suggestion that they build booths or tents for them to dwell in while they are up on the mountain. This could then be seen as a reference back to the living situation of the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. Lastly, the two figures that appear before the disciples and with Jesus are Moses and Elijah. Both of these figures are regarded as being “wilderness prophets.” Moses’ ministry was primarily conducted in the wilderness, between the Exodus and the promised land, indeed while he was the one who led the people in the Exodus he was never allowed to enter the promised land. Similarly, much of Elijah’s ministry was conducted out in the wilderness. So I think that in this Transfiguration episode, Mark is trying to get us as the readers to see the story within the context of the wilderness and Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.

The question that remains is why, what is the importance of seeing this story through the lens of a wilderness setting? The wilderness, for Israel, was more than just a place that they were traveling through, it also defined their relationship with God. While they journeyed through the wilderness they were both, beset by danger and uncertainty on all sides and also, completely dependent on God for their survival. Later as Israel became a settled people in the promised land, they were safe from their enemies and they had economic stability. But when they were in the wilderness, hunger followed them, thirst hounded them, Egyptians pursued them, and nations that could destroy them lay on either side. Their lives were unsettled, uncertain, and they had no choice but to rely on God for their very survival. If God had not parted the red sea, provided mana and quail, or water from the rock, they would not have made it to the promised land.

This setting, the wilderness, serves to remind the disciples and us that the uncertainty of the wilderness is never far away. We may feel as though we have life under control, that we need no one but ourselves, but this reminds us that we, like Israel wandering through the wilderness, are entirely dependent on God. Perhaps this last year makes it so that we can more easily identify with this feeling. Further, if we consider our lives in the context of sin and righteousness, we quickly recognize that we are more easily and more often surrounded by sin than we are righteousness, despite our best efforts, as feeble as they are. The setting of this story, serves not to just tell us where it took place, but also to reflect our own context in life.

What does the story say about Jesus?

Now that we have a handle on the setting of the story, what does the story say about Jesus? The essential message of the story, with regard to Jesus, is to reinforce his divinity. While we understand that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, a point highlighted on Epiphany, the transfiguration highlights the divinity of Jesus. The story does this in two ways. First, the appearance of Moses and Elijah. 

At a basic level both Moses and Elijah fill the same role for the people of Israel. In various ways they serve as the spokesperson for God. They were the ones who mediated the messages of God to the people. Further, both Moses and Elijah, while being characters in the Old Testament, come to be representative of different parts of the story of Israel. Moses comes to symbolize the “old” covenant that God made with the Israelites. In this is the law found in the Torah, the story of the exodus and the deliverance through the wilderness to the promised land. Elijah, for his part, comes to be representative of the prophets and their role of speaking the messages of God to the king and to the people. Further, Elijah is a symbol of the coming restoration of all things. There are references to Elijah returning as a precursor to the coming Messiah. While these two are held together here it is not the first time that there is a reference to Moses and Elijah together. Malachi 4 ends the book with a prophetic proclamation that says, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Mal. 4:4-5) Moses and Elijah are held together in other passages as the symbols of God’s coming restorative action (his eschatological action) and it is important to understand them in this way in the story of the transfiguration.

As the story of the transfiguration comes to an end and now that we have an understanding of Moses and Elijah’s symbolism in the story, they disappear leaving Jesus alone with the disciples. William Lane said, Moses and Elijah disappear and “Jesus alone remained as the sole bearer of God’s new revelation to be disclosed in the cross and resurrection.” The roles that Moses and Elijah occupied, being the spokesperson for God, the bringer of the law, the leader in the wilderness are all roles that Jesus now occupies. 

The second way that the story highlights the divinity of Jesus is simply through the speech of God the Father. In v.7 God speaks to the disciples out of the clouds and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!” God is confirming what the disciples should have understood from the presence of Moses and Elijah, Jesus is now God’s representative, but more than a human representative Jesus is the Son of God. He is not only the one who speaks for God but he is God. Jesus not only sets the standard for righteousness like the law did, but he also provides the grace that the law shows we all need. The story of the transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is not just a great moral teacher, he is the Son of God, the divine incarnate. While he is fully human he is also, certainly, fully God.

The attention of the gospel turns to the disciples

The last aspect of the story of the transfiguration that we are going to focus on this morning are the disciples who were on the mountain with Jesus. Joining Jesus for this event are Peter, James, and John. Those three are often considered to be Jesus’ closest friends and are the ones who are present in these secluded moments. Their role in this story in particular is to serve as witnesses to the event of the transfiguration. Jesus could have gone off by himself for this event, but Peter, James, and John need to be there to serve as witnesses who will later come to understand the transfiguration’s importance.

We get a lot of hints in the story that this event occurs for the disciples. The story begins with Jesus taking these specific disciples, he leads them up the mountain, he is transfigured before them, and Moses and Elijah appear to them. All of the action in the story happens for the benefit of the disciples. The God the Father speaks to them from the cloud. This moment in the story should remind us of a similar moment in an earlier story in Mark’s gospel. In Mark 1, Jesus goes to the Jordan river and is baptized by John the baptist. As he comes up out of the water the voice of God the father speaks to him from a cloud and says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” While the similarities are easily recognizable, there is one particular difference that is important. In Mark 1 God is speaking to Jesus and affirming that he is the Son of God, as if the act of baptism was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and God affirms it. In Mark 9, the transfiguration, God the Father speaks out of the clouds to the disciples. God is affirming the role of Jesus as the Son of God to the disciples so that they may have a clearer understanding of what is happening. Peter, James, and John are present so that they can be witnesses to the divinity of Jesus.

But they are not on that mountain just for their own benefit, their role as witnesses is so that others may come to know about Jesus, the Son of God. Clifton Black suggested that, if Peter had his way with the tents, then the revelation of Jesus as divine would have stayed up on the mountain. But instead they journeyed down the mountain back to the waiting people because the message of Jesus is for all people. But as they are coming down the mountain, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to wait before they tell anyone. They are to wait until after they see the Son of Man, Jesus, risen from the dead. The events of the transfiguration must be told within the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Right then the transfiguration was a miraculous event, but the crucifixion and resurrection add a deeper meaning to the transfiguration. The divinity of Jesus deepens the meaning of his death and resurrection, that is, the Son of God died for the salvation of humanity.. Fred Craddock said, “They are enjoined to be silent about the experience until after the resurrection. They are not ready to be witnesses to Jesus’ messianic role, nor [is their audience] ready to hear it. Apart from the cross, the full story cannot be told.” 

As we reach the end of the story we must wonder what does it mean for us? The meaning for us is the same as it was for the disciples up on the mountain. The wilderness that we are currently inhabiting may look different than the one that they knew, but there are times when we are no less lost. We may not be a nomadic people but our lives are often marked by uncertainty, danger, and loss which we are powerless to overcome. But in the midst of that wilderness we are reminded that the Son of God, the divine Jesus is the one we are to listen to. 

But we are also reminded to view this story within its context in the church year. The transfiguration is a profound moment that reminds us of the divinity of Jesus, but like the disciples we cannot separate this moment from Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The version of Jesus that is just a good teacher, the Son of God who says things that we like, without confronting our sin is a comfortable version of Jesus. We are eager for “what Reinhold Neihbur once described as a kingdom without judgement through a Christ without a cross.” But as we stand on the edge of this Lenten season we are reminded that Jesus lived his life, fully human and fully divine, with the cross and the empty tomb always in view and with grace for our sin as the end goal. This story is not one that we are meant to keep to ourselves. As Jesus instructed the disciples we are called to tell people of what Jesus has done, both in our actions and in our words.


  • Chris Landon

    Chris Landon is the Lead Pastor at Arbor House. He is also the Pastor of Missional Engagement at Northgate Free Methodist Church. He has served at Arbor House since 2016. Prior to that he was the Summer Camp Director of Covenant Acres Campground and Retreat Center, Assistant Pastor at Gowanda Free Methodist Church, and Youth Pastor at Ransomville Free Methodist Church. Chris has a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Roberts Wesleyan University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Northeastern Seminary, and is currently working on a PhD in Christian Theology (Old Testament) at McMaster Divinity College. His research interests include the books of Judges and Genesis, the narratives of the Old Testament and their application in the local church, and the intersection between Old Testament interpretation, contemporary politics, and Punk Rock. Chris and his wife Melissa have been married since 2014 and have three cats, Marcus, Minerva, and Nedjem. He enjoys playing paintball, video games, and listening to Punk.