My last post concluded our study of Ananias and Sapphira. At the end, I asked you to read Matthew’s account of the transfiguration five or six times, but also to read Mark’s and Luke’s accounts at least once. In addition, I suggested that you read at least a few verses before and after each of these passages to get the immediate context.
Today I will discuss my initial observations as I read through the transfiguration accounts, and then lay out a plan for our study.
First, What is a Transfiguration?
The first time I ever read about the transfiguration, I wondered what it was. Even after reading each of the accounts in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we have only an inkling of the character of the transfiguration.
It’s not the word “transfiguration” that we see in Scripture, but the word “transfigured.” We see this word in both Matthew (17:2) and Mark (9:2), but not in Luke. In fact, Luke does not use any term to label the experience.
For our study, we’ll look at the Greek word behind the English word “transfigure” so we can gain a better understanding of these passages. We’ll also see whether that word appears anywhere else in the New Testament. Any such usage might shed light on the meaning of the word as it appears in the accounts we’re considering.
People and the Transfiguration
Any time I study a portion of the Bible, I pay attention to the individuals named within it. In this case, there are several. These passages first mention Jesus Himself, followed immediately by Peter, James, and John. (Luke switches the order to John and James.)
During the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear, speaking with Jesus. Again, the order is not the same in all three accounts. Mark puts Elijah first, whereas Matthew and Luke both name Moses first.
At the end of the transfiguration, there is “voice from the cloud,” so it would be a good idea to identify the significance of this voice. And that brings us to our next series of observations.
One other element of interest is the care each of the gospel accounts takes to indicate that the three disciples were alone with Jesus. Matthew opens his account by telling us that Jesus took His three companions up the mountain “by themselves” (17:1). He ends his account by saying the disciples “saw no one except Jesus Himself alone” (17:8).
The Voice from the Cloud
In each of the three gospel accounts, the voice coming from the cloud takes center stage. Even though all three passages emphasize this voice, there is some variation in the words spoken.
Matthew records the words (17:5) as “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!” Mark, on the other hand, leaves out “with whom I am well pleased,” telling us that the voice simply said “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him!” (9:7)
Luke not only leaves out “with whom I am well pleased,” but also leaves out “beloved” in the first part of the statement. In addition, Luke adds “My Chosen One” in the middle, making the full statement “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” (9:35)
In our study, we’ll need to dissect these statements into their component parts so that we can fully understand what each meant.
The cloud itself undoubtedly holds significance, so we’ll need to look into any other pivotal moments of biblical history in which clouds have appeared.
The Nature of the Transfiguration
Each of the gospels provides details that hint at the nature of the transfiguration. Matthew tells us that the face of Jesus “shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (17:2).
Mark does not mention anything about the face of Jesus, instead adding more detail to his description of Christ’s clothing. Mark notes that “His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (9:3).
Luke’s description is closer to Matthew’s, though the precise wording is different. He wrote that “the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming” (9:29).
In all three accounts, Peter offers to build three tabernacles, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Why? What is the significance of these tabernacles. Why didn’t he speak of building them for himself and for James and John? These are questions we need to address.
The event / vision itself must have been spectacular. Matthew tells us that the disciples who had accompanied Christ “fell face down to the ground and were terrified” (17:6) as they heard the voice in the cloud. Why did they fall face down, and why were they terrified?
Mark and Luke describe the events differently. Neither mentions the disciples falling face down in terror. Rather, Mark connects the fear with Peter’s offer to construct tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (9:5-6). Luke doesn’t mention terror at all, but describes Peter’s offer to build tabernacles as something he did because of confusion (9:33).
In our study, we’ll want to explore all of these elements.
Geography, Chronology, and the Transfiguration
All three gospels report that the transfiguration occurred on a mountain. Matthew and Mark both call that mountain a “high mountain.” Luke does not mention the height of the mountain, but also differs from Matthew and Mark in using the definite article (the) rather than the indefinite article (a).
Prior to his account of the transfiguration, Mark mentions a city, Caesarea Philippi, and its villages. Combining this reference point with the timeframe provided (“six days later” in Matthew and Mark; “about eight days after” in Luke), we can establish limitations on where the mountain might be.
Was this just any mountain, or was there some significance to it? We’ll need to consider these questions as we progress through our study.
Before the Transfiguration
All three synoptic gospels report several key incidents prior to the transfiguration.
Of greatest importance is Christ’s seemingly enigmatic statement that “there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matthew 16:28; see similar statements in Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27).
Another important moment that each of the three gospels mentions is the exchange between Jesus and His disciples about His identity. When He asked them “who do you yourselves say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15; see also Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20), Peter correctly identified Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16; see also Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20).
Is there any connection between this exchange and the transfiguration? That is a question we need to consider.
One other incident common to all three synoptic gospels is the reference to Elijah (Matthew 16:13-14, Mark 8:27-28, and Luke 9:18-19). Just before Jesus asked His disciples who they thought Him to be, He had asked what the crowds thought, and Elijah was one of the answers. Since Elijah is connected to the transfiguration, we should examine his significance in these events.
After the Transfiguration
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that when Jesus descended from the mountain with Peter, James, and John, they found the rest of the disciples in some sort of dispute over their inability to exorcise a demon. This does not seem relevant to our study.
However, Matthew (17:9-13) and Mark (9:9-13) include an additional discussion of the significance of Elijah. Since Elijah’s name comes up in the narratives discussing what happened before, during, and after the transfiguration, we should pay attention. We should spend some time looking into his life and significance.
So what about you? What did you observe as you read through the account of the transfiguration? What are your thoughts and questions? Please feel free to post any of your thoughts and questions in the comments.
My Next Post and Your Assignment
I’ve made quite a number of observations and raised many questions in this post. We will start our in-depth study by concentrating on the Greek word for “transfigure.”
We’ll research the meaning of the word, and we’ll look at any other New Testament passages that use the same word, hoping to gain some insight into what the word represents. I’ll be using Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary for the meaning, and Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible to see other places where this word appears.
We’ll also look at the people mentioned in the transfiguration. We have to be judicious in this effort, however, because there is so much information about each. I like to use The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible when I research people, but if you don’t have a copy, you can use the online version. Bible Gateway’s Encyclopedia of the Bible is essentially the same, though it is missing a few entries.