Who is this rabbi? Many biblical parallels link Jesus and Moses and the prophet Elijah but the Transfiguration, in particular, with awesome white light and the voice from above points to a divine being.
Savior. Healer. Teacher. Friend. Social activist. Prophet. All are common ways of identifying who Jesus was. But how often do we hear Jesus referred to as a mystic? Let us define a mystic as one who. . . regularly engages in prayer and worship and who has experienced communion with God.
That Jesus was a mystic is implied in the Gospels. John's presentation of Jesus' discourses and his account of Jesus' ministry, passion and resurrection are filled with the language of mystical union, or oneness with God. Gospel narratives report how, after intense periods of healing and teaching, Jesus went off by himself to pray. . . Nowhere is the suggestion that Jesus was a mystic stronger than in the story of the Transfiguration.
. . . The Transfiguration marks an occasion when he let others in on the experience. Why? Perhaps because Peter, James and John were his closest friends and confidantes. Or maybe because they needed encouragement. Or it could be that such an experience would give them authority after his death, as Peter reminds the early church in 2 Peter.
Signs and symbols of mystical experience are all here in Matthew, just as they are in Exodus: a high mountain, “his face shone like the sun” and a cloud. Still more spectacular in the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are present, God speaks the same words spoken at Jesus' baptism (Matthew 3:17), with the addition of the words “Listen to him,” and there are credible witnesses to see and hear. –– Diane Stephens
There are many biblical allusions in the passage to the theophany on Mount Sinai. First there is the setting itself—a mountain. Then there is the time notation, “after six days,” which may echo Exodus 24:8. Jesus' face “shone like the sun,” an echo of Moses' countenance after meeting God (Exodus 34:29). Jesus' garments also are transformed, becoming “dazzling white.” This may be an allusion to Psalm 104:1–2 and/or to the “white as snow” clothing of the Ancient One in Daniel 7:9. Moses is present on both mountains, as is the cloud. Matthew has changed Mark's name order (“Elijah with Moses”), so that the two Old Testament figures “Moses and Elijah” can more clearly represent the Law and the Prophets, whom Jesus fulfills. The heavenly voice speaks as at the baptism of Jesus, adding, “Listen to him.” –– Joseph McHugh
When Moses met God on Mount Sinai. . . the loftiness of mountains and the power of fire characterized God's distance from lowly people. God could not be seen, but God could be heard and God's voice thundered from a burning mountain. –– John Paul Salay
2 Peter 1:16-21
The introduction to 2 Peter in the New American Bible observes: “2 Peter . . . appeals to tradition against the twin threat of doctrinal error and moral laxity, which appear to reflect an early stage of what later developed into full-blown gnosticism. Thus [the writer] forms a link between the apostolic period and the church of subsequent ages.” The mention of the Transfiguration is part of this appeal to tradition. –– Joseph McHugh
Diane Stephens Hogue, an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), is a spiritual director, retreat leader, faculty member in the Credo program of the PCUSA, and affiliate faculty at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
Joseph McHugh is a freelance writer who writes on scripture and other religious topics.
John Paul Salay is Loyola University’s Minister of Liturgy and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
Homily Service 41, no. 1 (2007): 131-141.