A miraculous event witnessed by Peter, James, and John, in which Jesus’ “face shone as the sun, and his outer garments became brilliant as the light.” (Mt 17:1-9; Mr 9:2-10; Lu 9:28-36) Mark says that on this occasion Jesus’ outer garments became “far whiter than any clothes cleaner on earth could whiten them,” and Luke states that “the appearance of his face became different.” The transfiguration occurred on a mountain sometime after Passover of 32 C.E., quite a while before Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem.
Just before the transfiguration, Jesus and his disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, the present-day village of Banyas. (Mr 8:27) It is unlikely that Christ and the apostles departed from this vicinity or region when going to the “lofty mountain.” (Mr 9:2) Mount Tabor has been viewed as the traditional site from about the fourth century C.E., but lying about 70 km (40 mi) SSW of Caesarea Philippi, it seems an improbable location.
Mount Hermon, on the other hand, is only about 25 km (15 mi) NE of Caesarea Philippi. It rises to a height of 2,814 m (9,232 ft) above sea level and would therefore be “a lofty mountain.” (Mt 17:1) Hence, the transfiguration may have taken place on some spur of Mount Hermon. This is the view of many modern scholars, though the Bible’s silence on the matter leaves the exact location uncertain.
The transfiguration probably took place at night, for the apostles “were weighed down with sleep.” (Lu 9:32) At night the event would be more vivid, and they did spend the night on the mountain, for it was not until the next day that they descended. (Lu 9:37) Just how long the transfiguration lasted, however, the Bible does not say.
Prior to ascending the mountain, Christ had asked all of his disciples: “Who are men saying that I am?” whereupon Peter replied: “You are the Christ.” At that Jesus told them that he would die and be resurrected (Mr 8:27-31), though he also promised that some of his disciples would “not taste death at all” until they had first seen “the Son of man coming in his kingdom,” or “the kingdom of God already come in power.” (Mt 16:28; Mr 9:1) This promise was fulfilled “six days later” (or “eight” according to Luke, who apparently includes the day of the promise and that of the fulfillment) when Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus into “a lofty mountain” (Mt 17:1; Mr 9:2; Lu 9:28) where, while praying, Jesus was transfigured before them.
During Jesus’ transfiguration, Moses and Elijah also appeared “with glory.” (Lu 9:30, 31; Mt 17:3; Mr 9:4) They talked about Christ’s “departure [a form of the Greek word eʹxo·dos] that he was destined to fulfill at Jerusalem.” (Lu 9:31) This eʹxo·dos, exodus or departure, evidently involved both Christ’s death and his subsequent resurrection to spirit life.
Some critics have endeavored to class the transfiguration as simply a dream. However, Peter, James, and John would not logically all have had exactly the same dream. Jesus himself called what took place a “vision” (Mt 17:9), but not a mere illusion. Christ was actually there, though Moses and Elijah, who were dead, were not literally present. They were represented in vision. The Greek word used for “vision” at Matthew 17:9 is hoʹra·ma, also rendered “sight.” (Ac 7:31) It does not imply unreality, as though the observers were laboring under a delusion. Nor were they insensible to what occurred, for they were fully awake when witnessing the transfiguration. With their literal eyes and ears they actually saw and heard what took place at that time.
As Moses and Elijah were being separated from Jesus, Peter, “not realizing what he was saying,” suggested the erecting of three tents, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. (Lu 9:33) But as the apostle spoke, a cloud formed (Lu 9:34), evidently (as at the tent of meeting in the wilderness) symbolizing Jehovah’s presence there on the mountain of the transfiguration. (Ex 40:34-38) From out of the cloud there came Jehovah’s voice, saying: “This is my Son, the one that has been chosen. Listen to him.” (Lu 9:35) Years later, with reference to the transfiguration, Peter identified the heavenly voice as that of “God the Father.” (2Pe 1:17, 18) Whereas in the past God had spoken through prophets, he now indicated that he would do so through his Son.
The apostle Peter viewed the transfiguration as a marvelous confirmation of the prophetic word, and by having been an eyewitness of Christ’s magnificence, he was able to acquaint his readers “with the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2Pe 1:16, 19) The apostle had experienced the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that some of his followers would “not taste death at all until first they see the kingdom of God already come in power.” (Mr 9:1) The apostle John may also have alluded to the transfiguration at John 1:14.
Jesus told his three apostles: “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of man is raised up from the dead.” (Mt 17:9) They did refrain from then reporting what they saw to anyone, apparently even to the other apostles. (Lu 9:36) While descending the mountain, the three apostles discussed among themselves what Jesus meant by “this rising from the dead.” (Mr 9:10) One current Jewish religious teaching was that Elijah must appear before the resurrection of the dead that would inaugurate the Messiah’s reign. So, the apostles inquired: “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus assured them that Elijah had come, and they perceived that he spoke of John the Baptizer.
The transfiguration, it seems, served to fortify Christ for his sufferings and death, while it also comforted his followers and strengthened their faith. It showed that Jesus had God’s approval, and it was a foreview of his future glory and Kingdom power. It presaged the presence of Christ, when his kingly authority would be complete.