Christ’s Epiphany in His Transfiguration
“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.” — Luke 9:30-31
When we Christians speak of the Epiphany of our Lord, we are using a word of Greek origin meaning “appearance” or “manifestation;” and we refer initially to the appearance of Jesus in His infancy already to the Magi, the Wise Men from the East. In fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 60:1-6), the Baby Jesus, at an age of no greater than two years — “according to the time which [Herod] had diligently inquired of the wise men” (Matthew 2:16) — “appeared” or “manifested Himself” to those strangers from afar as the “Light to lighten the Gentiles” (cf. Luke 2:32), the Savior of ALL mankind, not just the “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Thus we Christians celebrate that appearance on January 6th each year with special rejoicing because of its particular significance for us Gentiles, us non-Jews according to our descendancy from barbarian and heathen tribes in Europe and elsewhere. And, while most people take down their Christmas decorations and packed them away as early as a day or two after Christmas, many Christians deliberately keep the celebration going through January 6th, the “Gentiles’ Christmas,” or the nearest Sunday to it, in grateful recognition of Jesus’ “Epiphany” as the Savior of “all people” (Luke 2:10), including us Gentiles.
But the Epiphany of our Lord also has a wider significance, as we consider, for example, His appearance or manifestation to men in His public ministry, that is, when, at the age of thirty years (Luke 3:23), He first appeared on the scene to be publicly recognized as the long-promised Messiah and Savior of the world. He appeared first of all “unto His own” (John 1:11), to the people of Israel according to the flesh. It was that Epiphany which the Messiah’s “messenger” (Malachi 3:1), John the Baptist, had proclaimed in the wilderness of Judea, as he preached repentance and baptized the people in Jordan, and where the Savior was specially manifested at His own baptism by the voice of God the Father and by the appearance of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16-17); and John the Baptist personally pointed Him out to his own disciples, saying: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Shortly thereafter, Jesus “manifested forth His glory” (John 2:11) in His first miracle at Cana of Galilee, where He made the water wine; and subsequently, throughout the course of His public ministry, He manifested Himself as “the Christ, the Son of God” and the Savior of the world by His preaching and by His many miracles (John 20:30-31).
But one of the most striking manifestations of the Savior’s glory — and a poignant glimpse ahead of His vicarious suffering and death for the sins of the world — occurred on a high mountain, witnessed only by three of His disciples; and we celebrate that event on the last Sunday after Epiphany each year. What a privileged few were those three disciples, Peter, James, and John to have witnessed the magnificent transfiguration of the Lord Jesus recorded in Matthew 17:1-9, in Mark 9:2-9, and in Luke 9:28-36 from which our title-text is taken! Peter himself refers to their eye- and earwitness of that occasion in his second epistle, chapter one, verses 16 to 18.
Had the other disciples seen that vision —yea, had the many thousands to whom Jesus had preached during His public ministry here on earth seen that vision (including the scribes and Pharisees, who were always looking for “a sign” from Him, Matthew 16:1) —would perhaps the coming passion and death of Jesus have taken a different turn?? Would God’s chosen people have deliberately crucified the “Lord of Glory” and cursed themselves and their children with the guilt of His blood?? Our poor, fleshly minds may sometimes entertain such thoughts and speculations; but we should know that it is Satan’s aim and pleasure so to trouble our minds and to lead us to doubt God’s “determinate counsel and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23) according to which He ordained in eternity that His Son suffer and die for the sins of the world. Even a miraculous vision such as this would not have changed the minds of Jesus’ adversaries, would not have prevented Christ’s great Passion, and would not have blocked His vicarious atonement. The Means of Grace is and always has been the precious Gospel of Salvation, proclaimed to all men in the Word, NOT miracles, manifestations, and visions specially given by God to confirm the Word. For Jesus Himself says that if men “hear not Moses and the prophets (the Holy Scriptures), neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” And that is HIS OWN omniscient evaluation to put any speculation on our part to rest! Indeed, the Apostle Peter downplays his eyewitness of the transfiguration in favor of the witness of Holy Scripture, saying: “We have also a more sure Word of Prophecy, whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place” (II Peter 1:19).
Indeed, we have no reason to be at all envious of Peter, James and John, as to what they saw on the Mount of Transfiguration as privileged witnesses of the Savior’s glory; for in the Holy Scriptures of our God, in which “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (v. 21), we too are eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty! For, in the Holy Scriptures, we see, as surely as did His three disciples on that mountain-top, the brightness of His glory, the surety of His atonement, and the authority of His Word.
We read in Matthew’s account that “after six days” (17:1a) or about a week after Jesus had announced to His disciples the fact that He would soon have to suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and would be killed, and would be raised again the third day (16:21), “Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them” (17:1b-2a). He underwent a kind of transformation or change of appearance, not merely in the minds of the disciples, not in their imaginations or in their dreams, as many claim, but a real metamorphosis which they witnessed with their very own eyes, being fully awake (as Luke tells us in his parallel account).
“And His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). This was a rare and exceptional epiphany or manifestation of Jesus’ glory; for, although in His personal union as “God… manifest in the flesh” (I Timothy 3:16), Jesus’ divine attributes were fully communicated to or shared by His human nature, He did not always and fully USE them in His State of Humiliation. For He didn’t want to attract emotional and hysterical attention to Himself by means of spectacular display; but rather He appealed to the people by the preaching of His Word, confirming the Word with His miracles. And yet, as John reports in the prologue to his Gospel, in this instance “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). And the Apostle Peter, as noted before, says essentially the same thing: “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty…when we were with Him in the holy mount” (II Peter 1:16b and 18b).
As much as you and I might wish to have been included in that “eyewitness” opportunity, let us not at all feel sorry for ourselves, as if we were somehow left out! For we too are eyewitnesses of His majesty and of the brightness of His glory in the external, objective testimony of His precious Word, where these things “are written” for our eyes to see for themselves, John tells us at the end of his 20th chapter, “that [we] might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that, believing, [we] might have life through His Name” (v. 31). Indeed, the brilliance of the verbally-inspired Gospels is the radiance of His Word, “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105) to guide our souls to heaven.
Moreover, we are eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty and of the brightness of His glory by the operation of the Holy Spirit within us by means of the Word, St. Paul tells us, who “hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6b) as we by faith bask in the radiance of His gracious countenance, in the brightness of our Beautiful Savior, …Son of God and Son of Man (TLH 657, 1)!
But now we note in the narratives of the transfiguration that something else happened there on that mountain-top which impressed the disciples as eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty, which impressed them with the surety of His vicarious atonement for the sins of the world. We recall that Jesus had, just six days before this transfiguration, informed the disciples about His impending suffering, death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22) —a prospect that none of the disciples wanted to consider, especially Peter! “Surely Jesus wouldn’t have to go through anything like THAT!”—the view that Satan himself had planted in their minds, the view that Satan had gotten Peter to express out loud, and the view that Jesus condemned in no uncertain terms (Matthew 16:23)!
“And, behold, there talked with Him two men, which were Moses and Elias” (Luke 9:30). These two great Old Testament prophets, both of whom had suffered unmercifully for Jesus’ sake at the hands of God’s own chosen people, Moses and Elijah suddenly appeared with Jesus and held a conversation with Him, who Himself was about to suffer at the hands of His people in order to save them from their sins. This was no idle chat that they were having, for Luke tells us that they “spake of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem” (v. 31). How timely this was for the disciples, though they were sleepy and not completely attentive to the conversation, as Luke describes them, how timely to confirm what Jesus had told them, yea, to show them that these two prophets of the Lord knew and understood full well the plan of salvation and the necessity of the Messiah’s vicarious suffering and death for the sins of the world. For after His resurrection, Jesus Himself would remind the disciples of this, saying, “‘These are the words which I spake unto you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning Me.’ Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.” And here, even in before the fact, Peter, James, and John were “eyewitnesses,” as they saw Moses and Elijah “talking with Him” (Matthew 17:3) about the surety of the Messiah’s atoning sacrifice for the reconciliation of the world.
Such surety is also OURS, as “eyewitnesses of His majesty” with Peter, James and John; for we too have seen “Moses and Elias talking with Him” in these very God-inspired texts, in this “more sure Word of prophecy, whereunto (we) do well that (we) take heed as unto a light that shineth in a dark place” (II Peter 1:19). Moreover, when we embarked anew upon the holy Lenten season on Ash Wednesday and now have the glorious opportunity to hear and study again the Passion History of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we are again retrospective “eyewitnesses of His majesty” in His suffering and death, and see for ourselves how this majestic vicarious atonement of our Savior was fulfilled to the letter, that “Christ was delivered [because of] our offenses” (Romans 4:25), that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3). And then, when the Lenten season comes to a close after Good Friday, with the supreme advantage that the disciples of Jesus didn’t have at this point in time, we shall also review and celebrate with the assurance of hindsight the resurrection of the Savior —for which these three witnesses had to wait before they could even report this wonderful vision of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:9)! Thus again, as “eyewitnesses of His majesty,” we shall see in the Holy Record “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3) that, after having atoned for the sins of the world on Calvary’s cross, in “His decease” which He “accomplished,” as Moses and Elijah discussed it with Him, “Christ was raised again [because of] our justification,” because His vicarious atonement won for us reconciliation with God, the forgiveness of our sins, and the only righteousness that avails before His demanding justice.
But now yet, high on that mountain-top, we witness with Jesus’ disciples one other event which manifests and confirms to us the authority of His Word as that of our Divine Prophet. As Peter was considering how this precious moment might be prolonged with the erection of some temporary shelters for Jesus and the heavenly visitors (Matthew 17:4; Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33), “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’” (Matthew 17:5). Who but a Father can say, “This is my beloved Son”? Jesus’ own heavenly Father appeared on the scene to certify the Savior’s person and deity, to certify His office, and to certify the authority of His Word. Peter says in retrospect: “For He received from God the Father honor and glory when there came such a voice to Him from the excellent glory… and this voice which came from heaven we heard when we were with Him in the holy mount” (II Peter 1:17a-18). Moses had declared the same in prophecy about 1,500 years before, when he said of the coming Messiah, the Divine Prophet, “Unto Him ye shall hearken!” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Now the Father Himself says of Jesus, “Hear ye Him!” And we hear that voice with our very own ears in the narratives of the transfiguration.
Moreover, Jesus time and again reminds us and all who would know the truth: “Continue in My Word!” (John 8:31); “Hear My voice!” (John 10:27a); “Hearken unto Me, every one of you!” (Mark 7:14b). Listen up everyone: “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63b) —And we are eyewitnesses of His majesty and of His authority as our Divine Prophet manifested in these precious Gospel accounts, as well as in the other passages where He testifies about His preaching and about the importance of gladly hearing and learning His Word of life.
Furthermore, as Peter writes concerning this incident and of the voice of authority which he and the others heard: “We have also a MORE SURE Word of prophecy,” more sure even than earwitness testimony, namely, the prophecies of the Holy Scriptures, which are Jesus’ Word every bit as much as the verses printed in red type in most Bibles nowadays! “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” says Peter (II Peter 1:21). And you and I have advantages right here and right now as eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty that His own disciples didn’t have in spite of their day-in and day-out intimate contact with Him: We have His Word —Old and New Testaments, complete— in their truth and purity, the full, clear, authoritative, inerrant, infallible, and all-sufficient Word, “which is able to save [our] souls!” (James 1:21b). Hear the preaching of His Word! Hear your Savior! “Hear ye Him!” Then, indeed, “ye shall know the truth; and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32) — free from error, free from “cunningly devised fables” (II Peter 1:16a) or myths, free from those who “by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:18).
May God grant to each and every one of us, as the holy Epiphany season draws to a close, that we hold fast in humble, childlike faith to our dear Savior, manifested and “mirrored” to us in His Holy Word as “the Light of the world” (John 8:12a), the “Redeemer of Israel” (Isaiah 49:7a, the “Only-Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14b), whose perfect earned righteousness and vicarious atonement — all rendered to God in our place and in our stead — won forgiveness of sins, life and salvation for every sinner —yea, for you and for me. And let us never forget that His precious Word is the very means, the powerful, efficacious, and authoritative means, whereby His Holy Spirit creates, strengthens, and preserves in us the saving faith which lays hold on, confides in, and takes comfort in God’s objective justification of the world in eternity and His personal justification of US here in time by creating the light of faith in our sin-darkened, perverse hearts, —all for Jesus’ our Savior’s sake!
…And may Thy Word, that Light Divine,
shine on in splendor holy,
that we repentance show, in faith ever grow!
The power of sin destroy, and all that doth annoy!
Oh, make us faithful Christians!
(TLH, 477, 3)
— D. T. M.