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The Transfiguration

There is something breathtakingly wonderful when we stand at the top of a peak of a mountain and overlook the valleys and rivers below. We feel as though we are able to take in more of the glory of God in creation when we behold such grandiose scenes. As a boy, I distinctly remember hearing people speak of having “mountaintop experiences.” Whether we realize it or not, the feeling of having some significant elevated religious experience is in some sense owing to the role that mountains played in the revelation of God in redemptive history. Whether it was the Garden of Eden—which God set atop a mountain to be a temple-dwelling place (Ezekiel 28:13-14)—, the Ark (a prototypical Temple with the typical new creation within) settling on Mount Ararat, Abraham offering up Isaac on Mount Moriah, God calling Moses at Mt. Horeb, God preparing Moses at Mt. Sinai, Solomon building the Temple on the Mount in Jerusalem, Elijah contending with the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel or God revealing Himself to Elijah in the sound of silence on Mt. Horeb, mountain themes permeate the great revelations of God in the Old Covenant era.

A significant number of mountaintop experiences also structure the life and ministry of Jesus. At the outset of His ministry, the Savior went up on the Mount of Olives in order to give the divinely inspired exposition of the law of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 5-7). As he prepared to draw near to Jerusalem, Jesus revealed His own divine glory to his disciples in his transfiguration on the mount (Luke 9:23-34); and, finally, in his death on the cross, Christ fulfilled all the eternal purposes of God in redemptive history on Mount Calvary. In all of these instances, the Holy Spirit intended to direct our minds back to previous mountaintop experiences throughout redemptive history.

In his epistles, the Apostle Paul explains the intricacies of God’s covenantal dealings by means of an overarching biblical theology of the mountain motif. In both Galatians 4:21-31 and Hebrews 12:18-29, the Apostle drew out a series of significant contrasts between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion. In Hebrews, he explained that believers have come to “what may not be touched” (Heb. 12:18)—to “Mount Zion…the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). That final contrast between the earthly, temporal mountain, Sinai, and the heavenly, eternal mountain, Zion, is one to which we must constantly turn our attention. It is a contrast between the Law and the Gospel. There is something towering about these two mountains in redemptive history. To grasp their symbolic significance is to grasp the greatest mysteries in theology.

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul focuses his readers minds on the experience of Moses at Sinai and the experience of believers through the ministry of the Gospel in the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-8). There, he contrasts glory that shone on the face of Moses with the glory of God manifest in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). Geerhardus Vos explained this when he wrote:

“This excellence of the Old Covenant found a symbolic expression in the light upon the face of Moses after his tarrying with God upon the mount, a light so intense that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look upon its radiance. Paul’s purpose, however, is not to emphasize what the two dispensations have in common, but that in which the New surpasses the Old.”

No one can read 2 Corinthians 3-4 without catching the contrast between the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai and the revelation of the glory of Jesus in the New Covenant. The experience of the Savior at the Mount of Transfiguration is perhaps the most instructive in this regard, since it is replete with echoes of Sinai. The similarities are striking—a glory cloud (Exodus 24:15-16; Luke 9:34); a voice from heaven (Exodus 24:16; Luke 9:35), a manifestation of glory in the face of a mediator (Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:29, 32) and references to the tabernacle (Exodus 26; 33:7-11; Luke 9:33). Yet, the transfiguration of Jesus carries with it a strong contrast with the experience that Moses had when he came down the Mount after having been in the presence of God.

The Transfiguration cannot be understood fully until we consider it against the background of the revelation of God to Moses at Sinai. Both the comparisons and the contrasts between the two mediators on these two mountains instantly grab our attention. Moses was called by God to be the typical mediator of the Old Covenant. He stood between God and the people. When God called him up on the mountain in order to give him the law, the Lord set him apart to be the mediator of his revelation in His law. Jesus is, of course, the second Moses. Jesus is the Mediator of the New and better Covenant. As Moses led God’s people out of the bondage of physical and spiritual oppression in Egypt, Jesus leads God’s people out of the bondage to Satan, sin and death.

The exodus motif rises to the foreground in Luke’s account of the transfiguration. Luke tells us that “two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). The Greek word Luke uses, to which our English translators generally give the translation “departure” is the word εξοδον (lit.Exodus). When Moses appeared with Jesus in glory, he did so to bear witness to the glory of the Person and work of Jesus. It was the same witness he bore to Jesus in his writing of Scripture during his earthly ministry (Luke 24:27; John 5:46). Now, however, Moses bore witness to him in person. He spoke with Jesus about the work of redemption that Jesus was about to accomplish in his death and resurrection. In this, the glory of Christ’s person met the glory of His work. Jesus is the greater Moses, the ultimate Redeemer come to deliver his people by a supernatural redemption wrought through his own death as the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7).

Although the work of Jesus is the center of the transfiguration account, the glory of Christ’s person is the first thing upon which God focuses our attention. No sooner had Christ ascended the mountain that Luke tells us, “the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). Matthew gives us even greater detail when he writes, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light (Matt. 17:2). Here, the divine glory of Jesus broke through the veil of his humanity. For a brief moment, the flesh of the Son of God, in which he came to tabernacle among us (John 1:14), was insufficient to stop the manifestation of the eternal glory that is his by virtue of the fact that he is God. The manifestation of this display of the glory of the Son of God was meant to prepare the minds of those disciples he had brought with him on the mountain for the sufferings that he was going to endure on the cross.
When we come to consider the contrasted experience of Moses of Sinai, we read,

“When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (Ex 34:29-35).

What are we to make of the veiling of Moses’ face? In short, he knew that it represented the passing glory of the Old Covenant—a glory that had to pass away in order to make room for the greater glory of Christ and the New Covenant. Again, Vos explained, “Moses was aware of it, for we are told that he put the veil on his face for the purpose of hiding the disappearance of the glory.”

The revelation of the glory of God, reflecting off the face of Moses, was an accompanying sign of the divine source of the message that God gave him on the mountain. The emanating glory from the face of the Lord Jesus Christ was not a reflected glory. Jesus is the very revelation of the glory of God in the flesh. The glory reflecting off the face of Moses served as a marker of the authority of God, but the glory shining from the face of Jesus served as a verifying sign of his own divine glory.

The contrast is further strengthened by what Luke tells us about Peter’s response to the experience on the mountain. When he was fully awake, Peter mistakenly put Jesus on the same level as that of Moses of Elijah. He wanted to honor all three, religious leaders (Luke 9:32-33). High commendation though it was if he had put any other person on the mountain in that place of honor, it was infinitely short of the glory that belongs to Jesus. In order to prove the infinite greatness of the revelation of the Son of God on the mountain, God the Father appeared in the cloud of glory—out of which His voice came saying, “This is My Son, listen to Him” (Luke 9:43-45). Luke tells us that when the Father’s voice ceased, “Jesus was found alone” (Luke 9:36). There is an exclusivity to the person and work of Jesus Christ. No one can hold the place that he holds as the Savior of the world. Moses merely served in the house of God as a testimony to the coming Redeemer. Jesus is the Son over the house of God (Heb. 3:1-6). He is nothing less than the glorious God over all manifest in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16).

When we read the account of the Transfiguration, we are overlooking the majestic work of God in redemptive history. It is from this lofty peak that we begin to behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. As we do, we are transformed from one degree of glory to another. Just as everyone on the mountain with Jesus was shrouded in glory, so everyone in Christ by faith is being transformed from one degree of glory to another, as by the Spirit of the Lord.

*This article originally appeared on Modern Reformation Magazine Online.