THE GLORY OF THE MOUNTAIN TOP
Six days after, Jesus took Peter and James and John along with him and brought them up into a high mountain, all by themselves, alone. And he was transfigured in their presence. His clothes became radiant, exceedingly white, such that no fuller on earth could have made them so white. And Elijah and Moses appeared to them, and they were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus. “Teacher, it is good for us to be here. So let us make three booths, one for you, and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He said this because he did not know what he was saying, for they were awe-struck. And there came a cloud overshadowing them. And there came a voice from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!” And immediately, when they had looked round, they saw no one any more except Jesus alone with them.
We are face to face with an incident in the life of Jesus that is cloaked in mystery. We can only try to understand. Mark says that this happened six days after the incidents near Caesarea Philippi. Luke says that it happened eight days afterwards. There is no discrepancy here. They both mean what we might express by saying, “About a week afterwards.” Both the Eastern and the Western Churches hold their remembrance of the transfiguration on 6th August. It does not matter whether or not that is the actual date, but it is a time we do well to remember.
Tradition says that the transfiguration took place on the top of Mount Tabor. The Eastern Church actually calls the Festival of the Transfiguration the Taborion. It may be that the choice is based on the mention of Mount Tabor in Ps.89:12, but it is unfortunate. Tabor is in the south of Galilee and Caesarea Philippi is away to the north. Tabor is no more than 1,000 feet high, and, in the time of Jesus, there was a fortress on the top. It is much more likely that this event took place amidst the eternal snows of Mount Hermon which is 9,200 feet high and much nearer Caesarea Philippi and where the solitude would be much more complete.
What happened we cannot tell. We can only bow in reverence as we try to understand. Mark tells us that the garments of Jesus became radiant. The word he uses (stilbein, GSN4744) is the word used for the glistening gleam of burnished brass or gold or of polished steel or of the golden glare of the sunlight. When the incident came to an end a cloud overshadowed them.
In Jewish thought the presence of God is regularly connected with the cloud. It was in the cloud that Moses met God. It was in the cloud that God came to the Tabernacle. It was the cloud which rifled the Temple when it was dedicated after Solomon had built it. And it was the dream of the Jews that when the Messiah came the cloud of God’s presence would return to the Temple. (Exo.16:10, Exo.19:9, Exo.33:9, 1Kgs.8:10, 2Macc.2:8.) The descent of the cloud is a way of saying that the Messiah had come, and any Jew would understand it like that.
The transfiguration has a double significance.
(i) It did something very precious for Jesus. Jesus had to take his own decisions. He had taken the decision to go to Jerusalem and that was the decision to face and accept the Cross. Obviously he had to be absolutely sure that was right before he could go on. On the mountain top he received a double approval of his decision.
(a) Moses and Elijah met with him. Now Moses was the supreme law-giver of Israel. To him the nation owed the laws of God. Elijah was the first and the greatest of the prophets. Always men looked back to him as the prophet who brought to men the very voice of God. When these two great figures met with Jesus it meant that the greatest of the law-givers and the greatest of the prophets said to him, “Go on!” It meant that they saw in Jesus the consummation of all that they had dreamed of in the past. It meant that they saw in him all that history had longed for and hoped for and looked forward to. It is as if at that moment Jesus was assured that he was on the right way because all history had been leading up to the Cross.
(b) God spoke with Jesus. As always, Jesus did not consult his own wishes. He went to God and said, “What wilt thou have me to do?” He put all his plans and intentions before God. And God said to him, “You are acting as my own beloved Son should act and must act. Go on!” On the mountain of the transfiguration Jesus was assured that he had not chosen the wrong way. He saw, not only the inevitability, but the essential rightness of the Cross.
(ii) It did something very precious for the disciples.
(a) They had been shattered by Jesus’ statement that he was going to Jerusalem to die. That seemed to them the complete negation of all that they understood of the Messiah. They were still bewildered and uncomprehending. Things were happening which not only baffled their minds but were also breaking their hearts. What they saw on the mountain of the transfiguration would give them something to hold on to, even when they could not understand. Cross or no Cross, they had heard God’s voice acknowledge Jesus as his Son.
(b) It made them in a special sense witnesses of the glory of Christ. A witness has been defined as a man who first sees and then shows. This time on the mountain had shown them the glory of Christ, and now they had the story of this glory to hide in their hearts and to tell to men, not at the moment, but when the time came.
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