Matthew 17:1-3 (NIV) After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
This was an event that always stayed in the minds of the disciples. In fact, Peter referred pointedly to it near the end of his life in 2 Peter 1:16-18. Peter, James, and John had been with Jesus may times while He prayed, so they had no reason to think that this time would be any different. But it was.
As Jesus was praying, He suddenly started to shine brightly, with a radiance so piercing that they could barely stand to look at Him. Years later, when John was exiled on Patmos and saw the glorified Jesus (Revelation 1:12-16), he recognized what it was that he had seen back then: the glorious Son of God that was embodied in the man, Jesus.
Before they could even react, they saw that Jesus was speaking with two other men. One of them Jesus addressed as Moses, and the other as Elijah. Some have taught that these men were chosen for this “story” because they symbolized the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah), and the gospel writers wanted to show that Jesus’ life and ministry were in line with those two key sections of the Old Testament. But the writers of the Scriptures were merely reporting what actually happened as related to them by the three witness who were with Jesus when it happened.
Luke included the detail that the subject of their conversation was Jesus’ upcoming departure (Greek: exodus), which He was about to bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem (Luke 12:30-31). Jesus was headed south, and these two men were sent to Him to encourage Him on His mission. Moses surrender Himself entirely to God as he gave the last 40 years of his life to an earlier exodus, one that led a reluctant and recalcitrant mass of Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Jesus, too, was surrendering Himself entirely to the Father, and to the task of making a way out of slavery for God’s people, slavery to sin and death, and paving the way into a new Promised Land, the kingdom of God made real.
Elijah had long been foretold as the forerunner for the Messiah (Malachi 4:5-6), so his appearance was entirely appropriate to encourage Jesus. But the prophesies did not refer to this event, but rather to the work of John the Baptist, who had come in the spirit and power of Elijah (cf. Luke 1:17) to prepare the people’s hearts for the Messiah (Matthew 17:11-13).
Of course, none of the disciples understood this at the time. All they took away from the event at that time was the witness of Jesus’ astounding glory, demonstrating to them that there was far more to Him than they imagined, and the shock of seeing face to face these men who had done such powerful things in God’s economy.
But this encounter was not primarily for them; it was for Jesus. And He took away from it the assurance that He was still on the right path, and the calm determination to see His mission through, no matter how intimidating the way seemed from here.
Father, it’s interesting to note that even Jesus benefitted from the encouragement of those who had been faithful before Him. As the writer of Hebrews pointed out (Hebrews 11:1-12:3), there is no shortage of faithful role models for us as we follow You. In fact, that list is even greater for us, because we also get to include the leaders of the first century Church, as well as the martyrs, leaders, and heroes of the faith in the almost 2,000 years since then. Help me to take encouragement from all of those for my own journey so that I will be true, steadfast, and faithful in everything, and so that my walk may encourage someone else in the future. Amen.