The Purpose of the Transfiguration
DO YOU believe that Christ will actually rule the earth as King? If so, will he rule from an earthly throne or a heavenly one? Or do you think that he was merely an outstanding man, a teacher?
It was to provide a sure, reliable answer to these questions, and to have eyewitnesses with accurate and unshakable testimony to the reality of his heavenly rulership, that the transfiguration vision was given to three of the apostles, and the account thereof preserved in writing.
To understand the purpose of the transfiguration, we need to go back to a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples only a few days previously. They were present when the Pharisees and Sadducees unbelievingly demanded a sign—likely that Jesus come visibly on the clouds of heaven. But Jesus told those selfish, wicked men that they would receive only an earthly sign—the sign of the prophet Jonah.—Matt. 16:4.
A little later Jesus asked his disciples about the opinion of the people in general: “Who are men saying the Son of man is?” They replied: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”—Matt. 16:13, 14.
Having ascertained the opinion of the people, Jesus asked: “You, though, who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered: “You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God.” God had revealed this to the apostles because of their faith; but they yet needed to know much more about the Messiah, what he had to do and the glory he would be given by God. Accordingly, Jesus began explaining that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed. Peter tried to dissuade him, saying: “Be kind to yourself, Lord; you will not have this destiny at all.” Peter’s response showed that he did not fully grasp that Jesus had to die a sacrificial death, and that he would be resurrected to heavenly life. Neither did Peter see that the Kingdom would rule from heaven, beginning long after the apostles’ death, at the time of Christ’s parousia, or invisible presence in glory and power. Jesus immediately corrected Peter, saying: “You think, not God’s thoughts, but those of men.”—Matt. 16:15-23.
Jesus realized that his apostles viewed his kingdom from a human viewpoint, thinking he would rule from an earthly throne. But it was essential for these men, who would be pillars in the Christian congregation, to be witnesses to the truth of his future heavenly presence in Kingdom power. (Gal. 2:9) Not at that time, but after his death and resurrection, they would have to establish this great truth, this important doctrine, firmly in the congregation. So he made this remarkable statement to them:
“The Son of man is destined to come in the glory of his Father with his angels . . . 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.”—Matt. 16:24-28.
A few days later Christ’s words were fulfilled. He took Peter, James and John into a lofty mountain. He did not need to take all his apostles. Three witnesses were sufficient, as the Law required. (Deut. 19:15; 2 Cor. 13:1) Luke’s account of the transfiguration scene reads:
“As [Jesus] was praying the appearance of his face became different and his apparel became glitteringly white. Also, look! two men were conversing with him, who were Moses and Elijah. These appeared with glory and began talking about his departure [Greek, exodos] that he was destined to fulfill at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those with him were weighed down with sleep; but when they got fully awake they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. And as these were being separated from him, Peter said to Jesus: ‘Instructor, it is fine for us to be here, so let us erect three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah,’ he not realizing what he was saying. But as he was saying these things a cloud formed and began to overshadow them. As they entered into the cloud, they became fearful. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying: ‘This is my Son, the one that has been chosen. Listen to him.’ And as the voice occurred Jesus was found alone.”—Luke 9:29-36.
The vision must have occurred at night, for they were sleepy, and they did not come down from the mountain until the next day. But they were awake when they saw the transfiguration. Imagine the apostles’ amazement as they saw Jesus’ face shining as the sun, and his clothing glitteringly white! Long previously Moses, after returning from the mountain where God spoke with him, could hide the brilliance of his face by a veil, but the far greater glory of Christ made even his entire apparel brilliant, glistening.—Ex. 34:29-35; compare 2 Corinthians 3:7-11.
EVIDENCE OF CHRIST’S COMING GLORY
Here, before the apostles’ eyes, was evidence that Jesus’ presence in Kingdom power would be a glorious heavenly one. Also, the conversation of the visionary Moses and Elijah about Jesus’ exodus was proof that his humiliating death was not something to avoid, as Peter had desired. In this tableau, Moses, who was used by God to give the Law to Israel, represented that Law covenant. Elijah represented the other prophets. Both the Law and the prophets had foretold Christ, his life, his suffering, his sacrifice, his glory. All pointed to Christ. As the apostle Paul said: “The Law has become our tutor leading to Christ.” (Gal. 3:24; Rom. 10:4) And, as to the other prophets, an angel later told the apostle John: “The bearing witness to Jesus is what inspires prophesying.”—Rev. 19:10.
Also, Christ is a Leader and Deliverer, as was Moses. He is Mediator of the new covenant, as Moses was of the Law covenant. (Gal. 3:19; Heb. 9:15) Jehovah had said to Moses: “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. And it must occur that the man who will not listen to my words that he will speak in my name, I shall myself require an account from him.”—Deut. 18:18, 19; Acts 3:22, 23, 26.
Christ would conduct a work like Elijah. The prophet Malachi had recorded Jehovah’s promise: “Look! I am sending to you people Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah.” Elijah had done a great work toward restoring pure worship. (1 Ki. 18:25-29, 40) John the Baptist did this toward Israel. (Luke 1:17; Matt. 17:12, 13) But, at the time of the transfiguration, this John was dead. Elijah appearing in the vision would therefore indicate that Christ would conduct a greater work, restoring pure worship permanently. This had to take place “before the coming of the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah,” that will take place when God executes judgment on false worshipers and this present wicked system of things.—Mal. 4:5, 6.
The vision was so real that Peter began to participate in the scene, evidently overwhelmed with awe and appreciation. When he observed the two visionary men “being separated from [Jesus],” he apparently did not want them to leave. So he spoke about erecting tents, “not realizing what he was saying.”
However, the occurrence was a vision, Moses and Elijah being only visionary. (Matt. 17:9) For Moses had died and was still in his grave. (Deut. 34:5, 6; compare Acts 2:29.) Elijah was carried up in a fiery chariot into the sky, but not into the heaven of God. Actually, he was transferred or transported to another assignment on earth. In fact, years afterward Elijah, still alive, wrote a prophetic letter to Jehoram, king of Judah. (2 Chron. 21:12) Later Elijah died, just as do all mankind. Neither he nor Moses was resurrected to everlasting life ahead of Christ, who is “the firstborn from the dead.” Jesus himself, while on earth, said: “No man has ascended into heaven.”—Rev. 1:5; John 3:13.
While Peter was speaking, a cloud formed and overshadowed them. This was a symbol of Jehovah’s invisible presence. (Ex. 16:10; 1 Ki. 8:10) Then, in one of the three instances where Jehovah’s own voice was heard, He gave his own testimony to Jesus’ Messiahship, saying: “This is my Son, the one that has been chosen. Listen to him.”—Luke 9:35.
“THE PROPHETIC WORD MADE MORE SURE”
What conclusive and awe-inspiring proof was given to these three apostles on that occasion! How powerful and convincing their witness to Christ’s Messiahship would now be! They had, indeed, ‘not tasted death’ before seeing this dramatic demonstration of Christ’s future presence in Kingdom glory. More than thirty years afterward the apostle Peter wrote:
“No, it was not by following artfully contrived false stories that we acquainted you with the power and presence [parousia, the invisible presence in Kingdom power] 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
The apostle John, about sixty-six years after the transfiguration vision, apparently had this scene still vividly in mind when he wrote: “The Word became flesh and resided among us, and we had a view of his glory, a glory such as belongs to an only-begotten son from a father; and he was full of undeserved kindness and truth.”—John 1:14.
Today the “daystar” that Peter spoke of has risen. Jesus Christ has been enthroned in Kingdom glory at the end of the Gentile Times in 1914 C.E.! If we have ‘paid attention, in our hearts, to the prophecy,’ we have the prophetic word yet more strongly confirmed than it was to the apostles. Christ has fulfilled what was written prophetically about him in the Law and in the Prophets. He is now leading his people as did Moses, with a righteous paradise earth just ahead for those now accepting him and following his leading. Do you take seriously the prophetic word and the word of the truthful eyewitnesses of his majesty? Do you discern his invisible presence in Kingdom power? If so, you are highly favored now, and have a wonderful prospect yet before you.