The Transfiguration 

Isaiah said of the Messiah, that He would not be remarkable in appearance: "He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him." (Isaiah 53:2), and for most of His earthly ministry this proved true. The exception to the rule is one remarkable incident where His closest followers saw Him as He was, not with His glory hidden. This event is instructive in many ways, and it seems also to be relevant to a frequently-heard accusation of false prophecy:

  • "Thus in these discourses Jesus announces that shortly (ευθεως, xxiv. 29), after that calamity, which (especially according to the representation in Luke's  gospel) we must identify with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and within the term of the cotemporary generation (η γενεα αυτη, v. 34), he would visibly make his second advent in the clouds, and terminate the existing dispensation. Now as it will soon be eighteen centuries since the destruction of Jerusalem, and an equally long period since the generation cotemporary with Jesus disappeared from the earth, while his visible return and the end of the world which he associated with it, have not take place: the announcement of Jesus appears so far to have been erroneous."
  • (David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, p. 584).

False Prophecy?
Law and Prophets
Light of the World

False Prophecy?

John the apostle testified, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:15). When did the eyes of sinful men behold the glory of the living God? And when did John see this glory in the darkened face of the suffering servant, of whom Isaiah prophesied, "For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2)?

The three synoptic gospels present a prophecy of our Lord:

"Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16:28).

"And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power." (Mark 9:1).

"But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:27).

This prophecy is generally listed by atheists and 'Jesus Seminar' types as an obvious example of a failed prophecy, because they interpret it as a promise of the immediate Second Coming.

"Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one. I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing , he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. . .Then he says, 'There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom;' and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living." (Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian, Kindle location 172).

But the gospel authors plainly do not interpret the Lord's imminent promise of His kingdom glory as a failed prophecy, but as fulfilled, because they immediately follow up the prophecy with its fulfillment:

"And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid." (Matthew 17:1-7).
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"And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them. And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. For he wist not what to say; for they were sore afraid. And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves." (Mark 9:2-8).

"And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him. And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said. While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen." (Luke 9:28-36).

The Transfiguration, Icon

Inasmuch as one hundred per cent of instances of this prophecy being mentioned are followed immediately by the account of the transfiguration, it is hard to see how the connection between the two could be considered coincidental. The Messiah's kingdom was seen in its power and glory at the mount of transfiguration. Isaiah had promised the believers would see the King in His glory: "Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off." (Isaiah 33:17). The disciples had the privilege of seeing, with their own eyes, the King in His beauty:

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  • "Peter, looking back across the years, wrote that 'He received from God the Father honor and glory, when there came such a voice to Him from the excellent glory, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased' (2 Peter 1:17). Thus did the Father display His delight in that lowly One, and proclaim Him as the Man His fellow. . .His blessed face shone as the sun (Matthew 17:2). As the glowing orb in the skies gives to our earth its energy, warmth, and light, so Christ is the sun of the universe. In omnipotence He pours forth creative and upholding might, bringing all things into existence and maintaining the succession of the ages.  The voice that later aroused the amazed disciples with its word of peace, 'Arise,' was the voice that had spoken when the worlds had been framed. It still spoke and by it all things were upheld.
  • "In his vision in Patmos, John saw that 'His countenance was as the sun shineth in its strength (Revelation 1:16), so that the glorified Lord is the true sun in His church's sky, the source of all power for overcoming, and of all warmth of love and cheer amid the wintry winds of time.
  • "Seeing that the glory of the mount was peculiarly that of the coming kingdom, we recall God's message thorough the last of the Old Testament prophets: 'Unto you that fear My Name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in His wings' (Malachi 4:2). As the sun may be seen in the early morning, throwing from its fiery disc great shafts of light to the north and to the south as if extending a comforting embrace after the chill of night, so will the King appear to weary Israel and the nations, spreading His wings of love where once earth's darkest gloom held sway."
  • (H. C. Hewlett, The Glories of Our Lord, pp. 81-82).

The Good ShepherdJohn the BaptistTemple VisionI Am That I AmRock of Ages

The Kingdom of God is a reign, not a place. There is a paradoxical character to its presence in the present order of things, where it real, but hidden and unseen. But at the second coming, when all of humanity will see what the disciples saw at the mount of transfiguration, there will no longer be anything hidden or secret.

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End Times

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Kingship is a personal form of government. Where the King is, there is the kingdom. At present the kingdom has a voluntary character, though the time will come when, "I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear." (Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11). But before that day, it is both here and not here: "But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you." (Luke 11:20).

"And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:20-21).

This is not an 'either/or' proposition: the kingdom is both here, and is coming. To take an example from the history of violent and unrighteous men: when Fidel Castro's insurgency consisted of a handful of guerillas camped out in the mountains, then only a few recognized him as the legitimate governor of Cuba, and those few were volunteers. As the movement progressed, more and more of the populace came under his control. Finally, Havana was taken, the Bay of Pigs landing party repulsed, until ultimately there was no resistance left. Minus the violence and unrighteousness, we are in a similar situation of partial, incomplete and divided governance, still with pockets of rebellion not completely stamped out. Resolving the situation will await His return.

Government can seem distant at times, though we all feel Uncle Sam is present and real when he puts his hand in our pocket on April 15th. God's kingdom however is a kingdom whose king dwells within His folk: "Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." (John 14:23).

Some people say quite baldly, there is no Kingdom, only in the future: "The fact that the throne was not occupied during this period does not mean that there was no rightful candidate for it. Ultimately the gospel of Matthew answers this question by showing that Christ has a legal right to the throne. Christ will not occupy this role, however, until  His second coming to the earth." (John V. Walvoord, Every Prophecy of the Bible, p. 57-58). This however is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches He ascended and sits at the right hand of God. This session at the right hand is the current phase of the Kingdom. People have given their lives for this Kingdom, not for something that doesn't exist, but for something that does.

"Every believer receives Christ as his king. Those who receive Him in sincerity constitute his kingdom, in the sense in which the loyal subjects of an earthly sovereign constitute his kingdom. Those who profess allegiance to Christ as king constitute his visible kingdom upon earth. Nothing, therefore, can be more opposed to the plain teaching of the New Testament, than that the kingdom of Christ is yet future and is not to be inaugurated until his second coming. This is to confound its consummation with its commencement.

(Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 40200-40203). GLH Publishing.)

As a consequence, this author sees the transfiguration as a "prophetic vision:"

"Jesus further declared that some who are standing before Him would not taste death until they saw the kingdom of God (Luke 9:27). This must have been fulfilled by the transfiguration that immediately followed, when the disciples saw in prophetic vision the future glory of Christ and the coming of His kingdom." (John F. Walvoord, Every Prophecy of the Bible, p. 347).

But if it is merely a question of prophecy, rather than of seeing with one's own eyes, then those standing around were all similarly situated: surely they knew the prophecies! Rather it is promised that some would themselves see the kingdom come, as a present reality— at the transfiguration.

At the Right Hand

There is a distance between the inauguration of the Kingdom and its glorious consummation when Christ returns. That it has already been established, albeit in hidden and obscure form, is clear from Daniel 2:44,

"And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever." (Daniel 2:44).

"[I]n the days of these kings;" i.e., the Kingdom is "set up" while the Roman empire still stood.

It is the preference of some to interpret passages about the kingdom in such a way as to invalidate them: "Behind the attempts of Reimarus and others to suggest that the 'kingdom of God' in the teaching of Jesus referred either to a violent military revolution or to the 'end of the world' there lay the determination to make sure that God was kept out of real life." (N. T. Wright, How God Became King, p. 34). Listeners then and readers now may expect certain events to be bundled together, but a comparison with apostolic interpretation of, say, Isaiah, will show there is no such rubric as that all prophecy must be fulfilled at one and the same instant. Prophesied events unfold in sequence in much the same manner as a distant mountain range resolves itself into sequential ridge-lines rather than one ponderous mass, upon nearer approach.

Instead of taking great pains to interpret the passage so that if refers to something that did not happen, like an Israelite military victory over the Romans, we should interpret as do the gospel authors. It is understandable why the atheists desire to interpret so as to invalidate the Lord's promise, but not believers! This was certainly not the understanding of the evangelists, who repeated the prophecy. For some of these interpretations, that should put a period to this kind of speculation; 'Jesus the Armed Revolutionary,' who makes periodic come-backs via authors like Reza Aslan, was already known not to have ejected the Romans from the holy land when the gospels were written.

Reza Aslan

Why would the evangelists not cover the saying instead with silent embarrassment if they thought it had been exploded by events, or non-events?

"As I said earlier, it was axiomatic for early modern biblical scholars that the kingdom of God, as announced by Jesus, did not arrive. Those scholars who thought that when Jesus spoke about God's kingdom he was referring to the usual kind of armed revolution were able to point out that that hadn't happened. Those who supposed that Jesus was referring to the end of the world were able to point out that that hadn't happened either. Whichever way you went in the scholarly debates, it seemed that Jesus had promised something that hadn't arrived." (N. T. Wright, How God Became King, p. 160).
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Believers should not follow the atheists down these dead ends. Rather, they should ask, in what sense is the kingdom here, and in what sense is it not yet here? What happened in the world when Jesus, the Messiah, ascended to His session at the Father's right hand? What will happen in the future when He comes again? "It is undeniable that, in addition to viewing the Kingdom as present, Jesus also looked toward a future event. These two aspects are complementary." (Donald Guthrie, A Shorter Life of Christ, p. 148). Instead of adopting a reductionist protocol that requires the kingdom either to be here now or to be coming, accept the Bible's viewpoint that it is both a present reality also subject to a more glorious future unfolding. And some of those standing there did, in fact, see the King in His glory.

  • "This testimony of the law and the prophets was full of significance, but there still awaited the voice that would supremely attest the person of the transfigured Lord. The two visitors had gone, but there was One in whose bosom the only-begotten Son dwelt in the fullness of love and communion. He must speak, and His presence-cloud, His Shekinah, overshadowed all the place. It was no mountain mist which wrapped the scene — such held no terror for the three hardy fishermen — but a cloud which Matthew describes as bright, i.e., luminous, or full of light (Matthew 17:5). Such was its nature that the disciples feared as they entered it, as surely they must, had they reflected on its history. In ancient days this cloud had appeared in the tabernacle and temple (Ex. 40:34, 1 Ki. 8:10); afresh would it be seen when the King of glory should come to reign (Isa. 4:5, Ezek. 10:4 with 43:2-3; Rev. 10:1). But on the mount it descended in a foretaste of that time.
  • "It was identified by Peter in his second epistle as 'the excellent glory.' The voice which the writers of the Gospels speak of as coming from the cloud, he describes as being from that glory, or 'brought. . .by the majestic glory' (R.V. marg.). Moreover, he relates that the voice came from heaven (2 Pet. 1:17-18), as if in the cloud coming to the mount, heaven bent low to place its caress of welcome and joy on the beloved One, and to declare that He, the Son of Man, would be the ladder from earth to heaven, that this was the true fulfillment of the dream of Jacob and of the prophecy to Nathanael (Gen. 28:12; Jn. 1:51).
  • "Hushed be our hearts as this voice speaks."
  • (H. C. Hewlett, The Glories of Our Lord, pp. 85-86).

The preference for many today is to interpret the Lord's promise as the Second Coming, because this creates a 'Bible Contradiction,' a popular class of literary interpretation in some quarters: "Mark 8:38-9:1 has proven to be a difficult passage. While Mark 8:38 is a clear reference to the son of man in Daniel 7, the precise timing of the kingdom coming 'with power' has made this a crux interpretum. Does the kingdom come with power at the second coming, the ascension, Pentecost, the resurrection, the transfiguration, the cross?. . .The second coming of Christ has been a popular choice, but this requires the belief that Jesus was wrong about the timing." (Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King, p. 98).

The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, not a reliable source, takes an extreme position of realized eschatology: "His disciples said to him, 'When will the (Father's) imperial rule come?' 'It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, Look here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the Father's imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it.'" (Gospel of Thomas, 113). There is however something to be said for this idea of an extended, but invisible, kingdom. This is not a kingdom bereft of subjects: "In fact, he already rules and reigns as royal king over the lives of tens of millions of people from every nation under the sun. They give him their total allegiance and loyalty." (Michael Brown, quoted Kindle location 2095, Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus). This is a polity which dwarfs most of the nations of this world.

Interpreting the kingdom's coming with power as the second coming makes this a failed prophecy, which in and of itself takes this interpretation off the table for Christian readers. The proximity of the transfiguration suggests the evangelists' interpretation, which, following their lead, we should adopt. They saw the kingdom, which is present in the person of the King, and already working among us. Much of the Lord's preaching centers around the kingdom of God. This is no embarrassment, but a central concern of the Bible. Believers should delve into the kingdom in its various aspects and dimensions, realize that its present reality is great than commonly thought, and pray to see what Peter, John and James saw.

Law and Prophets

Why Moses and Elijah? Why not David and Solomon, or Joshua and Isaiah? Is it the law and prophets? These two great prophets nursed a secret frustration in common. While seeing God and talking with Him face to face, as a man speaks with his friend, it was yet through a veil: "And the Lord said, 'Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.'" (Exodus 33:21-22). Elijah had a similar experience: "And the Lord said, 'Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.' So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:21-23). No promise of God can fall to the ground, and so here, on the mount of transfiguration, they do indeed speak with the Lord, as a man speaks to his friend, not hiding in a cloak or a cleft in the rock, but as natural, unselfconscious and unafraid as in any other social encounter.

"But it seems to me that there is a better explanation for why Moses and Elijah appear, one more deeply rooted in the Old Testament. If you go back to the Jewish Scriptures, you will discover that both Moses and Elijah experience theophanies — that is, appears of God — in which God comes to them on a mountain and reveals his glory. Yet neither Moses nor Elijah is able to see God's face. . .On the mountain of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are finally allowed to see what they could not see during their earthly lives: the unveiled face of God. How is this possible? Because the God who appeared to them on Mount Sinai has now become man. In Jesus of Nazareth, the one God now has a human face." (Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus, pp. 132-133).
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Suffering Servant


On its face, the episode of the transfiguration argues against reincarnation, because in it, Moses and Elijah, two personages of old times, turn up in their own clothes and their own figures. The doctrine of reincarnation holds, rather, that human beings are recycled, or at least a spiritual or material residuum thereof, or at any rate the receipts for a karmic account, and turn up in a new guise or maybe even a different species. (There is no agreement between adherents to this theory as to what it is that persists from birth cycle to birth cycle: a subtle material essence, like an astral body, as the Hindus originally thought? Spirit not matter, as Plato thought? Or the punishment for bad deeds, which still hovers overhead, even as the agent who performed those bad deeds has departed?) This event shows that Moses and Elijah were still available to make a personal appearance as themselves; they have not been booked in another role. While one must agree with advocates for reincarnation that the transfiguration demonstrates that human life does not end with death, it offers no reason to believe that that persistence takes the form of transmigration. According to this theory, 'Moses' and 'Elijah' should have been rolled over into some contemporary persons, who need not have known their past journey themselves, much less could others perceive it. Nevertheless, advocates for this theory use this incident in its support. It's a good thing Moses and Elijah were not reincarnated as a dog and a chicken, with their conversation restricted to clucking and barking; that would be awkward!

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God's Glory

Why light? Why not a loud rumbling sound? Unbelieving critics point to luminous pagan deities, but that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all, is solid Old Testament teaching, as well as new. The transfiguration gives us Jesus' deity shining through:

Isaiah 60 Prologue to John
Light to the Gentiles The Lamb is the Lamp

Light of the World

Even after showing Himself to the disciples as God, Jesus continued in the way of a servant: "And this did Christ after his transfiguration, when he had appeared in his glory; he then showed acts of greatest humility; he then washed the disciples' feet, and made Peter as much wonder to see his humbleness, as he had done before to see his glory." (R. Baker, quoted in Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David, Psalm 102, Kindle location 53896). How can this be?:

Bigger Than a Boxcar