Have you ever thought about what makes the Transfiguration so significant? It is a christological event recorded by each of the Synoptic Gospels, thus it holds a “special” place in the index of “things” Jesus did prior to his passion, death, and ascension. Mark’s version of the event is especially trenchant because of Peter’s influence on that particular Gospel (as the tradition goes). That coupled with the fact that he comments on that moment in retrospect early on in his second New Testament epistle. There, Peter writes:
For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased!” We ourselves heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Pt 1:16–18)
What is most striking about this paragraph is how drastically different it is when compared to Peter’s initial experience of witnessing Jesus’s transfiguration. Watch:
Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves to be alone. He was transfigured in front of them, and his clothes became dazzling — extremely white as no launderer on earth could whiten them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here. Let’s set up three shelters: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — because he did not know what to say, since they were terrified. A cloud appeared, overshadowing them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. (Mk 9:2–8)
Some commentators spend much time talking about Jesus’s decision to have Peter, James, and John accompany him up the mount where they would soon be witnesses to his transfigured glory. (Mk 9:2–3) While some insist that Jesus was grooming them for more significant leadership roles, others claim they were chosen precisely because their faith was actually weakest among The Twelve. If I were forced to choose between the two, the latter definitely sounds more plausible — but in the end, it doesn’t matter much why Jesus chose them, because each of them comes to wrong conclusions about what they saw.
Peter stays very much in character during the whole occasion, speaking up even though “he did not know what to say.” (Mk 9:6) Seeing Jesus’s dazzling glory with his own eyes, he is immediately moved to proclaim that that spot is as good as any to establish the kingdom of God. “Let’s stay here and get on with it!” he says. “It’s good for us to be here.” (Mk 9:5) Perhaps you haven’t thought about it in this way, but Peter’s words are, as I take it, another attempt to subvert the cross. (Mk 8:31–33) Rather than proceed to Jerusalem and suffer death, Peter excitedly declares that the eschatological reign of the Messiah should start now, sans the Golgotha.
But, of course, such thinking is incongruous with the gospel of the kingdom. Such is why The Voice thunders from heaven: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” (Mk 9:7) The smoke clears and, suddenly, they are alone with Jesus once again (Mk 9:8), who proceeds to double-down on the idea of death and resurrection. (Mk 9:9–10, 30–32) By the time Peter wrote his first epistle, the Transfiguration had become proof-positive that Jesus was who he said he was — but it was only with the cross and empty tomb in hindsight that Peter came to that conclusion. Even still, the revelation of the Savior’s glory pre-Golgotha is intriguing to consider. What did it all mean? Well, for my own part, I like Rev. John Henry Jowett’s estimation of this moment. He comments:
I sometimes think that instead of calling it the Mount of Transfiguration we might call it the Mount of Renunciation. He would not claim the natural consummation. He would not claim the transfiguration. He takes up the cross even upon the mount; He takes the way of His brethren in sin; He came to do it; He leaves the glory, and He comes down the mount that by coming down the mount He might make for you and for me a new and living way by which we, too, can reach the consummation.1
Jesus’s resplendent “foretaste of glory divine” was intended to reveal the incandescent glory which was left behind in the Incarnation (Phil 2:5–11) — the same glory, by the way, which is covenanted to those who are “begotten again unto a lively hope.” (1 Pt 1:3–7) The common assumptions of glory are reversed by Christ’s own association of the the kingdom’s triumph with his own death. (Mk 9:30–37) The cross which awaited him would not be the penultimate failure of the Messianic assumption — rather, it would be the consummation of the conquest of holiness over sin and death. It was victory disguised as defeat, which is the epitome of Jesus’s entire earthly life. His unassuming demeanor veiled the fact that the infinite had become immanent. Such, too, is the archetypal portrait of the Christian faith.
“It is through our Lord’s renunciation of glory that we become glorified,” Jowett continues.2 “In order to raise us,” writes Presbyterian minister William James says, “God first condescends to us, to our lowest conditions.”3 The Transfiguration, therefore, dissolves the apostles’ fantasies of success by demonstrating that glorification only comes through renunciation. To win eternally, they’d have to lose temporally. To live eternally, they’d have to die daily. To gain heaven, they’d have give up the world. To prevail forever, they’d have to be defeated first. Jesus’s disclosure of the glory set aside in the assumption of death coupled with the assurance of his resurrection transfigures the devastation of Golgotha’s cross into the deathblow of death itself. In this, we have hope, our blessed assurance.
John Henry Jowett, The Epistles of St. Peter (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1906), 259–60.
William James, Grace for Grace: Letters of Rev. William James, edited by S. W. H. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1875), 226.