The Transfiguration: An Introduction

The Transfiguration: An Introduction

The Transfiguration: An Introduction 695 1024 Andrew Hicks

The Explicit Accounts

The Transfiguration is a key event in the life of Jesus Christ. The scene is recounted explicitly only in the Synoptic gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and NOT John). Biblically, there is also mention of the event in 2 Peter 1:16-18 and a gospel parallel synopsis that I have places John 12:28-30 as a possible Johnannine version of the story or at least a scene that is similar in theme. The primary explicit accounts of the event are here given in parallel columns. For a comparison between the three accounts for similarities and differences see the link to the document below.

Matthew 17:1-9  Mark 9:2-10 Luke 9:28-36
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

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, and his clothes became dazzling bright, such as no one on earth could brighten them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us set up three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray . And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking about his exodus, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. 

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but as they awoke they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us set up three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” not realizing what he was saying. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. 

And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.


All three Synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration place questioning about Jesus’s identity closely before the scene. All three include the following:

  • The ascent up the mountain with three (Peter, James, and John) chosen to accompany Jesus
  • Change in Jesus’s appearance
  • The appearance of Moses and Elijah
  • Peter’s proposition to build tents in honor of each of the three figures
  • A cloud enveloping the mountain in some way
  • A voice coming from the cloud declaring Jesus to be the son of God and a command to listen to him
  • The result of the disciples staying silent whether commanded or chosen.
  • The subsequent episode after the event is of the remaining disciples attempting to cast out a demon from a boy and can’t do it.

There are also some key differences that each of the Synoptic Gospel authors contribute to the overall portrait of the Transfiguration:

Commentary on the Markan Contributions

Mark is surely a source for both Matthew and Luke in the construction of their own gospel narratives. Thus areas where Mark’s portrayal is in agreement with Matthew and Luke will be assumed to be Markan in origin.

“Six days later” is an unusually precise indication of time given the rest of Mark’s narration style. It is probably a subtle allusion to Exodus 24:15-16: “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” Jesus takes with him Peter, James, and John who form a kind of inner circle for Jesus (Mark 3:16-17; 9:2; 14:33). That Jesus specifically takes three special individuals with him for this encounter is again reminiscent of Moses on Mount Sinai who took three special witnesses with him also: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu (Exod 24:1). The “high mountain” is probably Mount Hermon given the mention of Caesarea Philippi in 8:27. The special revelations of God to his key prophets Moses and Elijah on high mountains is also surely in view here (Exod 19:20; 24:9-18; 1 Kgs 19:8-18).

The word “transfiguration” is used only in Matthew and Mark’s account of the event. Luke says in similar, but slightly different fashion that Jesus’s face changed in appearance. The word is slippery and hard to define precisely, never used in the Septuagint (Greek translation of Hebrew Old Testament), and is used in Greco-Roman contexts of mythology and magic. It was a rather risky choice on Mark’s part to use such a word (and for Matthew to follow Mark’s lead). It seems that more than anything, Mark was seeking to communicate well to his presumed Greco-Roman audience who would hear resonances of Greek mythology. The image takes a word and concept from Greek myth and combines it with the theology of the revelation of the one true creator God, Yahweh, at mount Sinai to Moses. Together this creates an important portrait of a prophet like yet far greater than Moses (Deut 18:18-19).

Mark makes the specific and unique explanatory comment that Jesus’s clothes were so dazzlingly bright “such as no one on earth could brighten them.” Specifically, it is a “clothing specialist” (GK – gnapheus) who would be an expert in one or more aspects of the treatment of clothing, including fulling, carding, cleaning, and bleaching. The description is intended to show the nearly indescribable nature of what was being seen by these three apostles. Heavenly and other exalted figures have been elsewhere described as wearing white shining clothes (Dan 7:9; 12:3; 2 Esd 7:97; 1 En 14:20; 2 En 22:8-9; T. Job 46:7-9; Matt 28:3; Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4; John 20:12; Acts 1:10; Rev 1:12-16; 3:4-5; 4:4; 7:9, 13).

Some have made much of the point that Mark says “Elijah with Moses” instead of “Moses and Elijah” fronting Elijah and placing Moses only with Elijah. This is probably a way of Mark making the exact opposite point actually. The sense may very well be, “not only Elijah, but even Moses!” Peter’s address of Jesus as “Rabbi” may suggest to readers that Peter still is missing the significance of who Jesus really is. Peter’s intention in building three “tents” is uncertain – perhaps it is to build a shrine of some kind, prolong the experience, or maybe some connection between the event and the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:39-42; Deut 16; Neh 8:14-17; Luke 9:54). Regardless of his intention though he seems to be missing the point of the experience hence the explanatory statement by Mark (and Luke) that “he did not know what he was saying.” 

The cloud is resonant with divine revelation elsewhere in scripture (Exod 24:15-18; 40:34-38; Isa 4:5; Ezek 1:4; Rev 14:14). The voice speaking from the cloud is surely the voice of Yahweh who affirms the identity of Jesus as the Son, his belovedness, and commands the apostles to listen to him. All of the words spoken by Yahweh are rich in Biblical allusion (Gen 22:2, 12; Deut 18:15, 18; Psa 2:7; Isa 42:1; 2 Sam 7:14; Matt 16:16; Acts 3:22). The connection to the earlier baptism scene of Jesus are undeniable (Mark 1:9-11).

Commentary on the Matthean Contributions

The closest comparison to the “high mountain” elsewhere in Matthew is to the “very high mountain” that the devil takes Jesus up to during the temptation scene (Matt 4:8). This is an ironic connection where the devil shows the earthly glory of the kingdoms of man in one and Jesus shows the heavenly glory of the Kingdom of Heaven in another. Matthew’s language that Jesus’s face shone “like the sun” is again allusion to Moses, but also of the heavenly Son of Man (Dan. 10:6; Rev 1:16; 10:1). It is also surely significant that elsewhere Matthew records Jesus saying that, “… the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father…” (Matt 13:43). Matthew leaves out the explanatory comment of Mark that Jesus’s clothes were bright beyond the ability to be bleached that way. Rather, Matthew just says that Jesus’s clothes were as “bright as light.”

Matthew has Peter addressing Jesus as “Lord” instead of “Rabbi.” This lends credence to the idea that Mark intended for the readers to see Peter as missing the point by addressing Jesus as rabbi instead of Lord. By having Peter call Jesus “Lord” Matthew hints that perhaps the apostles are growing in their understanding of Jesus’s identity. It also points to an explanation of the Transfiguration: Jesus is LORD (i.e. Yahweh) in flesh. Matthew records Peter saying, he will build three tents rather than merely suggesting that he might. Matthew also leaves out the comment that Peter did not know what he was saying. Matthew alone gives readers the detail that the cloud which overshadows the mountain is itself “bright.”

The most substantial Matthean contribution to the portrait of the Transfiguration is the addition of a scene where the disciples fall to the ground as a response to their terror (Matt 17:6). In response to their fall to the ground Jesus comes and touches them telling them “Get up and do not be afraid” (Matt 17:7). This response is typical of a theophany or angelic vision (Exod 3:1-6; 34:30; Isa 6:1-5; Ezek 1:28; Dan 8:27; Jon 1:10, 16; Matt 8:24-25; 14:26; 28:8-10; Mark 4:41; 6:51; 16:8; Luke 2:9; 24:5; Rev 1:17). Matthew also alone calls the whole experience a “vision” (Matt 17:9). 

Matthew gives prominence to three aspects of the encounter with his tri-fold use of “look” (GK- idou). The first draws attention to the discussion between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The second draws attention to the cloud and the third to the voice speaking from the cloud.

Commentary on the Lukan Contributions

Luke places the event “eight days” after Jesus’s foretelling of his death rather than the “six days” of Matthew and Mark. This is, again, an unusually precise time indication and thus may be significant. Perhaps it is in some way a reference to the time allotted after birth for a male child to be circumcised (Gen 17:2; 21:4; Lev 12:3), But the connection – if any – is not precise or clear.

Luke says the purpose behind going up the mountain was specifically “to pray” (9:28) and further that it was “while he was praying…” that Jesus’s face was changed (9:29). Luke makes no mention of “transfiguration” as Matthew and Mark do, but rather says the Jesus’s face (specifically his face) was “changed” in appearance. Presuming Luke used Mark and perhaps also Matthew it is interesting that he chose to leave out the word “transfigure.” Perhaps, Luke wants to avoid any hint of Greek mythology in his description of what took place.

Jesus’s clothes being described as “bright as a flash of lightning.” is a particularly Lukan addition. I think the reference is primarily to Daniel’s vision of a strange figure before one of his visions (Dan 10:2-6) for this is one of only 4 places this word is used in the Septuagint. If this is true than this is a brilliant move on Luke’s part to narrow down the reference to specify  the nature of his interpretation of the experience of the Transfiguration. Luke is also the only author to specify that Elijah and Moses are “two men.” Perhaps this is to distinguish them from Jesus who would not fit easily into the category of man without qualifications and specifications.

The most substantial Lukan contribution to the portrait of the Transfiguration is the addition of the scene where we learn the content of the conversation between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus (Luke 9:31-32). The conversation is about Jesus’s “exodus, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.” The significance of this statement is not different than what Matthew and Mark have emphasized in their own ways, but is here explicitly said rather than implicitly narrated. We are also told that Moses and Elijah appear “in glory.” We are also told here that “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep…” This surely links to the sleepiness of these same disciples in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:45-46).

Peter here names Jesus as “master” instead of “Lord” (Matthew) or “rabbi” (Mark). Luke notes that their terror was specifically “as they entered the cloud.”

Luke also has Jesus named “the chosen” by the Father instead of “beloved” as in Matthew and Mark. This is probably to make the allusion crisper and clearer to Isa 42:1 for Luke and it also works with 22:35 in his gospel where Jesus is elaborated as “the messiah, the chosen one of God.”

The Implicit Accounts

Apart from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Transfiguration shows up in one other major place in scripture. Peter mentions it in his second epistle:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.  (2 Peter 1:16-18 NRSVue)

One could also argue that all of John’s gospel is written in the sense of the Transfiguration. Compare, for example, the introduction to John’s gospel (John 1:1-18) with the Transfiguration accounts in the Synoptics and you will see many parallels. Further, one can not read very far in John’s gospel without repeated references to light and glory (and even tents!) which are all major key words for the Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration and Our Transfiguration: The Theology and Practical Application of the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration has been largely neglected and forgotten in the Western tradition (Catholic and Protestant). In the Eastern tradition (Orthodox) the Transfiguration has been more centralin their theology. Indeed, the Orthodox do not call the transformation of the Eucharist “transubstantiation,” but rather “metamorphosis.” Their icons have remembered the Transfiguration and have communicated its deeply important theology. I don’t have time to go into all of it here, but I will focus on one aspect that I think is the most important of the theology of the Transfiguration: Theosis.

The church father Athenasisus made the bold and provocative statement, “God became man so that man might become god.” 

Now if you’re like me, upon first hearing that I got really nervous, but once I heard someone explain that to me I was more comfortable with it. It was explained to me like this: it is not that Athenasisus is saying we will become God in the full capital “G” sense, but that we will become gods in the lowercase “g” sense of “highly exalted spiritual beings.” When you read this in view of Psalm 8 our imaginations might perk up: 

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. (cf. Ps 8:4-5). 

It is just a few verses earlier than the passage about the Transfiguration in 2 Peter that I have already mentioned where Peter says that: 

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. (Cf. 2 Pet 1:3-4)

We are being divinized. That is, made to be partakes in the divine nature! Do you know what that means? We are agents of Transfiguration. We are being transfigured and we are bringing about a transfiguration of this world as we usher in the new creation through our daily lives. We are bringing about the new creation as agents of Transfiguration. What happens to Christ happens to us because we are in Christ! 

That beautiful and wonderful word we discussed – Transfiguration – Metamorphoo – is used only a handful of times elsewhere in our scriptures and in some important places too. 

It is used in the passage that my lovely wife read for us: 2 Corinthians 3: 

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit

What happens to Jesus happens to us. Jesus was transfigured. We are being transfigured from one degree of glory to another. And another passage that is surely familiar to all of us who have been in Church for any amount of time at all: 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Cf. Romans 12:2)

Jesus says of his followers just a few chapters earlier in Matthew: 

Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. (Cf. Matt 13:43)

What happens to Jesus happens to us because we are in Christ! We are in Christ and so we are being transfigured from one degree of glory to another. So you know what that means? Unveil your faces people! Behold the glory of the Lord as you become the glory of the Lord. 

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