Article for the August edition of The Hillside Messenger
“Reflections on the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ”
On Sunday August 6th, the Church celebrates the Festival of the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this article, I offer some reflections on the meaning of this Festival for Christians today.
Though it is one of the major festivals of the Eastern Churches, and was first celebrated in the fourth century, it was adopted in the West only after the ninth century, and only officially instituted as a universal festival of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Callistus III in 1457, after a victory of the Western armies over the Turks at Belgrade (p. 247, Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr.: The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950. 5th Printing, 1955).
The English Reformers omitted this as a Festival of our Lord, and in the 1662 Prayer Book, it is only a Black Letter day festival (minor festival). The Episcopal Church in its 1892 Prayer Book restored the Festival of the Transfiguration as a Red Letter day (a major Festival with its own Collect, Epistle and Gospel), and this was mainly through the efforts of the Rev. Dr. William Reed Huntington, who wrote the Collect for the Transfiguration, which we still have in the 1928 Prayer Book (p. 247, Massey H. Shepherd, Jr.: op. cit.). The restoration of this Festival by The Episcopal Church shows its importance for Anglican Christianity, as other Provinces of the Anglican Communion have followed the American example in this.
The Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ on a mountain, witnessed only by the Apostles Peter, James and John, was a vision, a spiritual revelation to those Apostles of who Jesus really is, the Son of God, as well as a human being. The Transfiguration account in St. Luke 9:28-36, indicates that this revelation to those three Apostles occurred while our Lord was praying. The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became white and glistening with the glory of God. Moses and Elijah appeared in glory with Him, speaking to him of his imminent death in Jerusalem. Peter, James and John were weighed down by sleep; yet they witnessed our Lord’s glory. But as Moses and Elijah were departing, Peter spoke rashly about making three shelters, or tabernacles, for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Just then, a cloud overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. The voice of God came from the cloud affirming that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and commanding them to listen to him. Once the voice had spoken, they found Jesus alone, and did not tell anyone what they had seen until after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah with the transfigured Jesus was a prophetic sign of our Lord’s role in the salvation of mankind. God had given Israel the Law through Moses, and had called Israel to live as a righteous and holy nation. God, through Moses, had led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and had made known to them His commandments intending to lead them to life and bring them many blessings. Elijah, in the power of God’s Spirit, had prophesied to King Ahab and recalled Israel to an undivided loyalty to God. In the power of God’s Spirit, he had worked miracles and healings, and had even raised the widow of Sidon’s son to life. The appearance of Moses and Elijah in glory with Christ meant that they were to share in His eternal kingdom, and it signified that they were prophesying to Him of his great destiny that had to be accomplished by an ignominious death on a cross at Jerusalem. Their appearance with Jesus was to encourage Him to stand firm in His resolution to perform God’s will by dying on the cross outside Jerusalem to accomplish the salvation of the world. His “exodus” (Luke 9:31 – referring to his death) would lead all the people of God who would believe in Him, out of the bondage of their sin into the joyful and glorious freedom of eternal life in God’s kingdom.
The transfigured, radiantly white appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ clearly demonstrated His righteousness, holiness and perfection as God’s beloved or elect, Son. It was a visual demonstration of His divinity, a memorable sign to these three Apostles of who Jesus is, Son of God and a human being. It was a lesson to them that Jesus was not a misguided man conscious of his own impending crucifixion and expecting his followers to take up their cross and follow him for no apparent reason. Because this way of the cross was God’s will for the Lord Jesus Christ, it is the way that the Lord ordained for His followers, a way of self-denial and obedience. As the Transfiguration showed Jesus and the three Apostles that the way of the cross is the way of entering God’s glory, so we must learn the same lesson with respect to our own lives as lived in Christ.
It is not time now for us to speak rashly of things we would do in our own strength for the Lord Jesus, as St. Peter did. St. Peter’s experience was to learn that God rather wanted him to listen to and obey His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The test of a true vision given by God, a genuine insight or revelation, is the test that God the Father himself provided at the Transfiguration: it is the test of whether such revelation, vision, or experience leads to obedience to the Son, or not.
Clearly, the Church must learn from the Transfiguration, not that Jesus is unreal, or imaginary, but that He has received from God the authentication of his identity as God’s beloved Son. The Church owes a love-debt of obedience to the Son, in view both of who He is, and what He accomplished by dying on a cross at Jerusalem for the sins of the whole world, to redeem the world from the curse of sin.
We do not listen or pay attention to the Lord Jesus Christ simply by wanting to extend a visionary experience of Him, as St. Peter did. Living a holy life is not simply living an unbalanced life which is all prayer, and no work, for example. But the tendency of the world today is in the opposite direction—too much activity, too little prayer. If we do not pray, we shall find ourselves straying more and more into disobedience of God’s will.
Every day we must spend time in the kind of Christian prayer called meditation, which begins with the consideration of a passage of Scripture, or verse, prayerfully reflects on it, and allows the Holy Spirit to illuminate certain aspects of it for our good. In this way, the Bible becomes God’s written guide to remedy various sins and maladies in our life, and when we read or hear passages of the Bible read, we see the living and active word of God penetrating to the depths of our lives and commanding our full obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some have called this meditation on Scripture “contemplation,” but traditionally contemplation refers to a more passive waiting on God and a wordless longing for Him. For contemplation in this sense to be effective, it needs to be fueled by a healthy discipline of meditation, since we can really only love God fully if we love His word and his will fully. To do these things, we must daily let His Spirit fill us with his word, the written word of the Holy Bible.
Today some Christians have a tendency to set too much store by dreams and revelations to which they sometimes give more importance than to the Bible itself. The Transfiguration does not teach us this, but rather to obey the Son. We can best obey Him by paying close attention to his teachings in the Gospels and the teaching of the Apostles in the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles. We must return to these as well as to the Ten Commandments and the essence of the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. We must remember that our Lord said to his disciples, “You are my friends, if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). In the same chapter of St. John’s Gospel, our Lord tells his disciples to remain in His love by keeping His commandments, as He has remained in his Father’s love by keeping His commandments.
I believe that the most important lesson the three Apostles’ witness to the Transfiguration teaches us is to hear and obey the Lord Jesus Christ. This we do through a growing study of and obedience to the written word of God as well as to the direction of the Holy Spirit as he speaks through the pages of the Bible in the quiet of the soul as we wait on God in silence. Jesus is God’s beloved Son: Let us all hear and heed His word.