Today, August 6, is the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ. This astounding story offers the Church many lessons, and here’s one of them: Expect more, and then expect more still.
Matthew’s account starts in chapter 17. Chapter 16 begins with Jesus’s interrogators demanding a sign from heaven to attest (again—how weary Jesus must have been by this point) his divine mandate.
Jesus replies, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
So that encounter must have left them . . . dissatisfied. The signs are there, Jesus says: you just can’t interpret them. And why? Because you are terribly bad, you religious leaders who pride yourselves on your piety. You’re more like Nineveh (hence the Jonah allusion) than like God’s chosen nation.
One chapter later, Jesus’ three closest disciples—Peter, James, and John—get a sign they didn’t even ask for. In fact, they get a whole constellation of signs.
They expect to see God at work in Jesus. Between the start of chapter 16 and the start of chapter 17 Peter declares Jesus’ Messiahship at Caesarea Philippi. The disciples are convinced of Jesus’ divine mandate.
So why the extraordinary event of the Transfiguration?
I think it’s because of the exceeding of expectations following Peter’s confession. Jesus immediately starts to connect his messiahship with elements shockingly unlike any his disciples would have associated with God’s Anointed: “He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Peter then doubtless speaks for all of them when he says he can’t believe it, he can’t take it in, it’s too much, it has to be wrong. The religious leaders, current appearances to the contrary (earlier in this very chapter!) surely will eventually recognize Jesus as Lord, commend him to all Israel, and stand with him when he defeats the Romans and takes the throne of David.
What is all this about the very experts who should affirm him instead hurting him, and then Jesus getting killed—and then rising again a few days later? This very bad news, as it seems, exceeds all Jewish expectations.
So Jesus takes his chosen three up a nearby mountain and exceeds their expectations again. Does he ever.
Jesus starts to glow—and “glow” is what God does: on Sinai and in the Shekinah of the tabernacle and temple. Moses’s face shone from time to time, but only after his conversations with God in the tabernacle, exposing himself to that glory.
Then that same Moses, symbolizing the Law, and Elijah, symbolizing the Prophets, appear beside Jesus. Normally a rabbi, upon recognizing these figures, would immediately bow to render them the deepest respect—but Jesus exceeds expectations. He starts talking with them. As a peer!
Peter once again pipes up as he tries to keep up with events. Maybe he and his buddies could erect shelters from the hot sun, one for each of these eminences?
Then God exceeds expectations again, as the Father’s own voice makes plain who is who and what is what: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
The disciples finally do the sensible thing: “they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.”
Jesus then exceeds expectations again. Rather than receive their worship, as was evidently his due, he tells them to get up, it’s fine, don’t be afraid—and he is left alone before them as the proper centre of their attention.
Well, surely now their little enterprise can really take off. Jesus is not just worthy to stand with Moses and Elijah, but is even greater than they! Surely indeed their cause must now triumph. The disciples could hardly wait to tell—
Then Jesus exceeds expectations again. “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’” Imagine requiring someone to keep that secret for a while. What an ask!
Jesus knew that such a sensational story would only inflame passions that would interfere with his project. But he wanted his intimates to know that he was all that they thought he was, and much more. The Transfiguration would anchor their faith more deeply—indeed, they would need to recall it during the dark days ahead, days Jesus had begun to prophesy to them against their expectations of successful messiahship.
For the faithless, like Jesus’ antagonists, God frequently seems to underperform. For the faithful, however? Call upon the name of the Lord. And prepare again to be astonished beyond all expectations.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).