The Glory of God in the
Face of Jesus Christ
The unparalleled event of the transfiguration of Jesus is recorded for us in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but its meaning is not explained in these gospels. The following is Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, followed by a brief excerpt from Luke’s account:
Matthew 17:1-12 1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. 9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” (ESV)
Luke 9:30-32 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. (ESV)
The transfiguration of Jesus is an event unprecedented in Israel despite its similarity to what took place when Moses came down from Mount Sinai after meeting with God: Moses’s face shone so brightly that the people could not bear to look at him, so a veil was put over his face (Ex.34:29-35). Yet a greater display of glory took place at the transfiguration, with Jesus’ face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming luminous. The glory shining through Jesus was far greater than that through Moses on Sinai, though in both cases it was undoubtedly Yahweh’s glory that was shining forth.
It is gratuitous and without scriptural basis for BDAG, under metamorphoō (be transfigured), to make the trinitarian comment that the transfigured Jesus was manifesting his own preexistent glory. The fact is that the “glory” (doxa, Lk.9:32) manifested in Jesus at the transfiguration was not his alleged preexistent glory, just as the “glory” (doxa, v.31) manifested in Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration was not a preexistent glory. Jesus repeatedly says that he has nothing except what has been given to him by the Father, and this would certainly include Jesus’ glory which had all along been Yahweh’s glory shining through him in his words and deeds.
Years later, Peter, an eyewitness of the transfiguration, explicitly says that Jesus’ glory at the transfiguration “came from God the Father”:
… we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (2 Peter 1:16-17, NIV)
At the transfiguration, Yahweh’s glory shone also through Moses and Elijah. Moses was the one through whom Yahweh had given His word as the Law, and Elijah was the one who raised the dead and thus revealed Yahweh’s glory as the Life-giver.
Although God’s glory shone more powerfully in Jesus than in Moses and Elijah, it did not occur to Peter to set up just one tent for Jesus only, but to set up three tents for the three. Though Jesus was his teacher and master, there was no “Jesusism” in Peter’s mind! Moses as the law giver and Elijah as the representative prophet of Israel were accorded the same honor as Jesus in terms of being offered tents. This is not to deny that God’s glory shining through Jesus was greater than that through the other two, but it is to deny that Jesus is to be exalted as the sole object of veneration by his disciples.
The brilliance of Jesus’ face, shining like the sun with God’s glory, left the disciples overwhelmed and prostrate on the mountain. If they ever had doubts about Yahweh’s indwelling presence in Jesus, these would have evaporated at the sight of the brilliance of God’s divine light.
The transfiguration was not the only time that Jesus’ face shone like the sun in John’s presence. Later on, in the Revelation, Jesus appeared to John in a manner similar to his transfiguration:
In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. (Rev.1:16, ESV)
In the Revelation, John saw a similar manifestation of glory in a mighty angel with his face shining with the intensity of the sun.
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. (Rev.10:1, ESV)
No one who reads this verse would for a moment think that this angel is a divine being coequal with God the Father. Hence there is no Scriptural basis for making Jesus divine on the basis of his transfigured appearance.
Jesus took only three disciples with him to the transfiguration. Why were the other nine excluded from this remarkable revelation? The gospels give no clues beyond the fact that the three formed Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. But we can consider one or two possibilities without arriving at any dogmatic conclusions.
One possible reason is that Judas, the one who was to betray Jesus, was one of the Twelve. So if the other eleven were included in the event of the transfiguration, there would be no way of excluding Judas without drawing attention to him. Moreover, since the transfiguration was a secret that Jesus instructed the three not to share with the others, it is clear that Judas, the disciple who was about to betray him, should hardly be given this secret revelation. Peter, James and John formed Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, so in this momentous event of the transfiguration, they were granted to witness an extraordinary revelation about him.
But even if we don’t take Judas into account, why restrict the number to three? One possible reason is that God’s revelations are granted to those who have an attitude of heart and mind that is rare even among the chosen ones. This is something that experienced teachers of the Scriptures, the word of God, would have firsthand knowledge of. In the course of my teaching and preaching ministry, I have not infrequently seen how some can understand a spiritual truth almost immediately upon hearing it, while others who hear the same truth at the same time and at same place either struggle for a long time to perceive it or never at all. From the gospel accounts, it would seem that John was exceptionally perceptive in spiritual matters. As for Peter, even if he was slightly slower than John, it would seem that his level of spiritual perception was well above average (e.g. Mt.16:15-17). As for James, we know little about him from the gospel accounts, but his inclusion in the inner circle would indicate that he was probably around the level of Peter.
Paul speaks of “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor.4:6). This profound statement says everything there is to be said about the person, life, and ministry of Jesus Christ. God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ is perfectly mirrored in the extraordinary event of the transfiguration.
What is the “secret” of the transfiguration that the three are to keep for a time? There is the significant reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection: “Tell no one the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead” (Mt.17:9), and “the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands” (v.12). In Lk.9:31, Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus’ “departure” (NIV) or “death” (HCSB).
Years later, Jesus appeared to John at the Revelation and said to him, “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forever” (Rev.1:18), a striking commentary on what he had said on the mount of transfiguration. The dual themes of Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection form the foundational message of “the gospel of God” (Mk.1:14; Rom.1:1; 15:16; 1Th.2:2,8,9; 1Pet.4:17), so called because through Jesus’ death and resurrection, Yahweh reconciled the world to Himself (2Cor.5:19-20). Jesus is the Lord of glory (1Cor.2:8) not because of his supposed preexistence but because by his blood at the cross, mankind was redeemed for God. It was because of his obedience unto death at the cross that he was exalted to receive the glory of God:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and
bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
— End —
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church