A seminary colleague and friend of mine just posted a question on Facebook asking his friends what their understanding is of the Transfiguration. It is, I think, I helpful question: ideally, we hear the story of the Transfiguration twice a year (Last Epiphany and The Feast of the Transfiguration, a feast of precedence celebrated on August 6th). As a preacher, I tend to skip over the details of the Transfiguration itself, choosing instead to focus on Peter’s response, the deep fear of the disciples, the presence of Moses and Elijah, or the voice of God.
With all the focus on the periphery, it is easy to ignore the main event happening at center stage. Here’s Matthew’s account, “… [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The Greek word translated as “transfigured” is metamorphoo, the same root that gives us metamorphosis. Jesus is changed in a way that is not unlike Eric Carle’s famed Very Hungry Caterpillar.
From Robertson’s Word Pictures:
Mat 17:2 – He was transfigured before them (metemorphôthê emprosthen autôn). The word is the same as the metamorphoses (cf. Ovid) of pagan mythology. Luke does not use it. The idea is change (meta-) of form (morphê). It really presents the essence of a thing as separate from the schêma (fashion), the outward accident. So in Ro 12:2 Paul uses both verbs, sunschematizesthe (be not fashioned) and metamorphousthe (be ye transformed in your inner life). So in 1Co 7:31 schêma is used for the fashion of the world while in Mr 16:12 morphê is used of the form of Jesus after his resurrection. The false apostles are described by metaschêmatisomai in 2Co 11:13-15. In Php 2:6 we have en morphêi used of the Preincarnate state of Christ and morphên doulou of the Incarnate state (Php 2:7), while schêmati hôs anthrôpos emphasizes his being found “in fashion as a man.” But it will not do in Mt 17:2 to use the English transliteration metamorphôsis because of its pagan associations. So the Latin transfigured (Vulgate transfiguratus est) is better. “The deeper force of metamorphousthai is seen in 2Co 3:18 (with reference to the shining on Moses’ face), Ro 12:2” (McNeile). The word occurs in a second-century papyrus of the pagan gods who are invisible. Matthew guards against the pagan idea by adding and explaining about the face of Christ “as the sun” and his garments “as the light.”
Maybe I’m the only one guilty of this, but when I read the story of the Transfiguration, I assume that Jesus is back to normal by the time the cloud dissipates. The story seems to lend itself to this reading, with Jesus’ admonition to “tell no one,” but if he really is transfigured, really changed, then how is it possible for him to go back? I wonder if the disciples at the base of the mountain noticed? Were they too concerned with their own inability to heal the epileptic child to notice? Is Jesus’ transfigured form a part of your own holy imagination?
Something deeply profound happened on top of that mountain, something that didn’t need Peter, James, John, Elijah, Moses, or the cloud to happen. Jesus was transfigured, changed, shown to be the Son of God.