God’s Kingdom and Christ’s Transfiguration
Why did the transfiguration miracle take place? What meaning has it for us today?
MANY are the forms of government that man has tried and is trying. Though some of these have represented the good intentions of men, impartial judgment must admit that each form of human government has its serious shortcomings. But let men take hope; the Creator, Jehovah God, has purposed a righteous government for humankind. That government is the kingdom for which Christians have been praying for some nineteen centuries.—Matt. 6:10.
When on earth Jesus Christ, the Son of God, began his ministry by preaching, “The kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” After training his twelve apostles for a time he sent them forth with this identical message and later he sent forth the seventy evangelizers to preach the same thing. In fact, Jesus made that government or kingdom the theme of his ministry.—Matt. 4:17; 10:7; 13:24; Luke 10:9.
Just how far superior to human governments Jesus’ government or kingdom would be, he illustrated repeatedly. It would eliminate all physical disease, for Jesus, the one anointed as king, went about “curing every sort of disease and every sort of infirmity among the people.” That in his kingdom mankind would never suffer from a shortage of food he indicated by miraculously feeding thousands with a mere handful of loaves and fishes on at least two occasions. And that, among many other blessings, even the dead would be raised so as to be able to benefit from his kingdom Jesus showed by raising persons from the dead.—Matt. 4:23; 14:14-20; John 11:43, 44.
After more than two years of preaching the kingdom of God and of performing miracles illustrating its blessings, “Jesus Christ commenced showing his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the older men and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised up.” This was indeed something unexpected. No wonder Peter raised strenuous objections. He and the rest of Jesus’ disciples were looking forward to an earthly, visible government to be established in the immediate future.—Matt. 16:21-23; Acts 1:6.
In this connection Jesus further told his disciples: “Truly I say to you that there are some of those standing here that will not taste death at all until first they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Doubtless here was to be something that would reassure those who saw it as to the reality of the kingdom that Jesus and they had been preaching. How were those words of his fulfilled?—Matt. 16:28.
THE TRANSFIGURATION SCENE
Without doubt Jesus had reference to the transfiguration scene that took place about a week later, for Matthew, Mark and Luke all record it in detail immediately after those words of Jesus. More than that, the apostle Peter indicates the same in his reference to it. (2 Pet. 1:16-19) Matthew’s account of it reads:
“Six days later Jesus took Peter and James and John his brother along and brought them up into a lofty mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured* before them, and his face shone as the sun, and his outer garments became brilliant as the light. And, look! there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, conversing with him. Responsively Peter said to Jesus: ‘Lord, it is fine for us to be here. If you wish, I will erect three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ While he was yet speaking, look! a bright cloud overshadowed them, and, look! a voice out of the cloud, saying: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, whom I have approved; listen to him.’ At hearing this the disciples fell upon their faces and became very much afraid. Then Jesus came near and, touching them, said: ‘Get up and have no fear.’ When they raised their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus himself only.”—Matt. 17:1-8.
Truly this was an unusual incident; but was not the ministry of Jesus filled with unusual incidents? It was no mere dream, as is shown by the fact that three men witnessed it at the same time. This account fits in perfectly with the context, both as to what is recorded before it and what is recorded after. Its various detailed features also stamp it as truth. And we have the inspired record of it by three Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, as well as the apostle Peter’s reference to it.—Mark 9:1-8; Luke 9:28-36; 2 Pet. 1:16-19.
Where did the transfiguration take place? While the accounts do not name the place, it most likely was on a ridge of Mount Hermon, it being a lofty mountain and in the vicinity where Jesus and his apostles were at the time. Also, it appears that the transfiguration took place at night—a reasonable deduction in view of what the Gospel writer Luke tells us: “Now Peter and those with him were weighed down with sleep,” and that they came down from the mountain on the succeeding day. This would make the transfiguration of Christ so much more striking and memorable, for it was intended to be something truly outstanding.—Luke 9:32, 37.
Were Moses and Elijah actually there in person, as some in Christendom teach?* How could they have been there when the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is “the first-born from the dead”? And did not Peter tell the Jews that even God-fearing David had not been raised from the dead but “his tomb is among us to this day”? If David was still sleeping in death, so were Moses and Elijah.—Rev. 1:5; Acts 2:29.
Then how are we to account for the appearance of Moses and Elijah on that mountain? Jesus explains by his words to his three apostles: “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of man is raised up from the dead.” There we have it: it was a “vision” as far as the presence of Moses and Elijah was concerned. And what was the purpose of it?—Matt. 17:9.
Clearly the purpose of the transfiguration scene was to strengthen the faith of those who witnessed it, that Jesus Christ was indeed God’s Son and the King of God’s kingdom and that that Kingdom would truly be a glorious one. It also served to strengthen their faith in all that the Scriptures had said regarding these men and to make the inspired Word of prophecy more firm. As the apostle Peter well noted:
“No, it was not by following artfully contrived false stories that we acquainted you with the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but it was by having become eyewitnesses of his magnificence. For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when words such as these were borne to him by the magnificent glory: ‘This is my son, my beloved, whom I myself have approved.’ Yes, these words we heard borne from heaven while we were with him in the holy mountain. Consequently we have the prophetic word made more sure; and you are doing well in paying attention to it as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and a daystar rises, in your hearts.”—2 Pet. 1:16-19.
Jehovah God himself had borne similar testimony when Jesus was baptized, but this time there were three witnesses instead of only one (John the Baptist), and they were given the instruction: “Listen to him.” Unquestionably this glorious transfiguration scene, with Jesus’ face shining as the very sun and his garments glistening white, “far whiter than any clothes cleaner on earth could whiten them,” and with the very sound of Jehovah’s voice bearing testimony to his Son—with what power it must have spoken!—greatly strengthened the faith of those three apostles.—Mark 9:3.
WHY MOSES AND ELIJAH?
But why were Moses and Elijah shown with Jesus? Moses was the greatest prophet Israel ever had; he was also their deliverer, their lawgiver, their mediator or go-between in the Law covenant made between Jehovah God and the nation of Israel, their military commander (for the Israelites fought battles under his command) and their leader for forty years, all through the wilderness. Moses was also greatly used by Jehovah to make a name for Him before Israel, before Pharaoh and his Egyptians as well as before others.—Ex. 9:16, 17; 1 Sam. 6:6.
By having Moses appear in a vision with Jesus Christ, Jehovah God was calling attention to the fact that Jesus in his heavenly kingdom would be serving in all these capacities, even as God had foretold by his prophet Moses; but it would be on a far larger and grander scale, as indicated by Jesus’ being transfigured. Through Moses, Jehovah had foretold: “A prophet I shall raise up for them from the midst of their brothers, like you; and I shall indeed put my words in his mouth, and he will certainly speak to them all that I shall command him.” Leaving no doubt that this prophecy referred to Jesus Christ are the words of the apostle Peter to that effect.—Deut. 18:18; Acts 3:20-23.
Among other similarities that might be mentioned between Moses and the Prophet greater than Moses are: The lives of both were put in jeopardy while they were infants, theirs being uniquely or singularly spared; both spent forty days fasting at the beginning of careers as Jehovah’s special servants; both were strongly opposed by leaders of false religion; both were used by Jehovah to feed his people miraculously, and both appeared with supernatural glory.
Why did the prophet Elijah appear in the transfiguration vision? For one thing, he did a great work of restoring pure worship and vindicating Jehovah’s name among his people Israel, even as Jesus Christ did while on earth and will yet do by means of his kingdom. More than that, Elijah’s work foreshadowed work to be done in the future, as indicated by the prophet Malachi: “Look! I am sending to you people Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah. And he must turn the heart of fathers back toward sons, and the heart of sons back toward fathers; in order that I may not come and actually strike the earth with a devoting of it to destruction.”—Mal. 4:5, 6.
This prophecy had fulfillment in the work that John the Baptist did, even as Jesus showed right after the transfiguration scene; for in answer to his disciples’ question as to why the scribes said that Elijah must first come, Jesus answered: “‘Elijah, indeed, is coming and will restore all things. However, I say to you that Elijah has already come and they did not recognize him but did with him the things they wanted. In this way also the Son of man is destined to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples perceived that he spoke to them about John the Baptist.”—Matt. 17:10-13.
Since an Elijahlike work by means of John the Baptist was done to introduce Jesus Christ, it was fitting that in the transfiguration vision Elijah should appear with Jesus. However, what John the Baptist did was merely a small-scale, miniature fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi. How can that be said? Because that prophecy said that such a work would be done preceding “the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah,” which day is rapidly approaching and which includes “the war of the great day of God the Almighty,” Armageddon. Besides, the fact that Elijah was shown speaking with Jesus after the death of John the Baptist would imply that there would be an Elijahlike work to be done in the future. It meant that the then future establishment of God’s kingdom in Christ’s hand would be preceded by a forerunner like Elijah and that in connection with the kingdom of the Son of God a work would be carried on that would correspond with the work of Elijah and his successor Elisha. The facts show that for the past eighty years the Christian witnesses of Jehovah have indeed been carrying on a work of restoring pure worship and exalting the name of Jehovah.—Matt. 24:14; Rev. 16:14, 16.
The transfiguration scene, by showing Jesus in such a dazzling way, represented his presence in Kingdom power and showed that he would do a work like that of both Moses and Elijah. It powerfully reinforced in the minds of those that witnessed it the testimony that Jesus gave as to his kingdom and kingship by means of his preaching and his miracles. It might also be said to have been perfectly timed; so as to strengthen their faith right after Jesus had commenced telling them that he was destined to suffer and die, whereas they were expecting the immediate establishment of God’s kingdom upon earth. Certainly Jesus’ being transfigured so that his face shone as the very sun and his garments glistened exceedingly white and the direct testimony of Jehovah himself that Jesus was his beloved Son to whom they should listen most effectively served its purpose.
Since, as the apostle Peter wrote, the transfiguration vision made the prophetic Word of God more sure, it is indeed the course of wisdom to pay attention to that Word as to a lamp shining in the darkness of this world. What it says about Christ’s kingdom government and the blessings it will bring is certain to come to pass. It is therefore the course of wisdom for you to learn more about Christ the King and his kingdom and give your allegiance to his kingdom, letting it come first in your life. Heed the admonition of Jesus Christ to ‘keep on seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.’ Then the shortcomings of human governments will not unduly disturb you, but you will see in the worsening world conditions evidence of the nearness of God’s kingdom government.—Matt. 6:33; Luke 21:25-28.
The Greek word here translated “transfigured” is metamorphóo, and means “to change into another form (metá, implying change, and morphé, form).” It is the same word used at Romans 12:2 where Christians are counseled to “be transformed by making your mind over.” The Greek word has been carried over into the English with metamorphosis.—Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (1940) Vine, Vol. 4, pp. 148, 149.
See Dr. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on Matthew 17:3.