11.01.02 Mt. 17:1-8; Lk. 9:28-36a (See also Mk. 9:2-8) Mount Hermon
JESUS IS TRANSFIGURED
Mt. 1After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. 2 He was transformed in front of them, and His face shone like the sun. Even His clothes became as white as the light. 3 Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.
Lk. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of His death, which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and those with him were in a deep sleep, and when they became fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who were standing with Him.
Mt. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here! If You want, I will make three tabernacles here: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said:
This is My beloved Son.
I take delight in Him.
Listen to Him!
6 When the disciples heard it, they fell facedown and were terrified.
7 Then Jesus came up, touched them, and said, “Get up; don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up they saw no one except Him – Jesus alone.
History seems to connect great men of God with great mountains. Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the Law (Ex. 31:18). Later he climbed Mount Nebo where he died and God buried him. Then Elijah climbed Mount Horeb to hear the still small voice of God (1 Kgs. 19:9-12). Now, Moses and Elijah came to another mountain, although its name is not mentioned, to meet with Jesus.
Following the Great Confession of Peter, Jesus went up a high mountain with Peter, James, and John. There He was transfigured (Gk. metamorphoo 3339)  and shone in brilliant white. As such, Jesus was mysteriously changed into another form that has often been associated with His heavenly body.  He then spoke with Moses and Elijah while the disciples were absolutely stunned. He told them of His coming sacrificial death (Lk. 9:31), that is, His coming “departure” (Lk. 9:30-31), which in the Greek word is exodus meaning, to liberate one from death, which was also a euphemism for death. All this, so mankind would have a way of escape from the world of sin and into the Kingdom of God. By that sacrifice, God was about to fulfill the promise of salvation (represented by Moses) and restoration of mankind (represented by Elijah). The Transfiguration was the dynamic presence of God in the affairs of man, but it also was an anticipation of His death, resurrection, and ascension.
11.01.02.Q1 Did the Transfiguration occur on Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon (Mt. 17:1-8; Mk. 9:2-8; Lk. 9:28-36)?
This issue is seldom a question of students unless they are trying to retrace the steps of Jesus in the land of the Bible or are studying historical geography. But they are not the only ones, as scholars and historians in recent years have debated the same issue. Matthew said they went up on “on a high mountain by themselves.” Mount Tabor was first identified as such by the Byzantines as early as the 4th century, for easy travel by the European pilgrims. North of the Sea of Galilee was the Hula Lake, a massive swampy area that made travel to Mount Hermon most unpleasant. Several centuries later the Crusaders affirmed the Byzantine tradition. But were they right? A discussion of each site is as follows:
- Mount Tabor. This mountain is only 1,800 feet above sea level and has an incredibly small crest. It has been described as being dome-shaped when viewed from the north or south, but from the east or west its appearance is incredibly narrow like the sharp edge of a knife. Therefore, the crest area is amazingly small – smaller than a football or soccer field.
Possibly the greatest argument against Mount Tabor is that the village of Atabyrion occupied the entire crest area. It had been continuously occupied for more than two centuries. The very narrow summit was a strategic lookout from which distant travelers and marching armies could be seen. Note the strategic importance over the previous three centuries.
- Josephus mentions its military importance three times.
- In 313 B.C., the Syrian Greek General, Antiochus the Great captured Mount Tabor and fortified the village of Atabyrion that was on its tiny crest.
- Later, it was conquered and fortified again by Antiochus III in 218 B.C.
- In 102 B.C. Alexander Jannaeus, captured a city on the mount and
- In 53 B.C., the Romans had another battle at this small mountain ridge.
- During the lifetime of Jesus, the village of Atabyrion was fully occupied. It was also captured in the early days of the First Revolt in A.D. 66, by none other than the historian Josephus. He was then commander of a Jewish brigade in that area. He would not have “captured” it, if it was not occupied.
Local tour guides are quick to point out the stone wall fortification uncovered by archaeologists that was built by Josephus and the military unit he commanded – fortification the historian mentions in his writings. Therefore, since the village of Atabyrion and a Roman garrison covered the entire top of this small narrow mountain ridge, Jesus could not possibly have been there to be alone in the presence of God.
11.01.02.A. FORTIFICATION RUINS BUILT BY JOSEPHUS ON MOUNT TABOR. Low walls are all that remain from the once mighty fortification built by Josephus when he was a commander of a Jewish military unit. Photographed in 2000 by the author.
11.01.02.B. RUINS OF THE VILLAGE OF ATABYRION ON MOUNT TABOR. The ruins of the village upon the narrow ridge of Mount Tabor and the eyewitness report by Josephus are evidence to the summit occupancy at the time of Jesus. The ridge itself is barely a hundred meters wide and three hundred meters long, meaning there would not have been a place where Jesus could have been alone with His two disciples. The Byzantines and Crusaders incorrectly identified it as the Mount of Transfiguration for the convenience of the visiting pilgrims. Photograph by the author.
- Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon is not a single mountain peak but a mountain range that is about 10,000 feet above sea level, and snow-capped for half of the year. For that reason it has never been inhabited. It would appear to be a rather unlikely place because it would have been a strenuous hike, in possibly cold weather. It takes about six hours for an ascent and four to return, hence, an entire day. Generally, one must carry his own food, water, and extra clothing. However, since Caesarea Philippi and its temple of Pan were located on its southern base, Jesus and His three disciples were close by to make the ascent. Since Jesus made His journey in the springtime, the mountain streams supplied plenty of refreshing water.
The argument for this mountain as being the site of the Transfiguration is that Matthew said that Jesus went up “a high mountain,” as opposed to have gone up “the mountain.” The high altitude of nearly 10,000 feet fully meets the demands of the Greek adjective hupselon. Literally, the Greek text reads a high mountain apart. In essence, the internal biblical evidence – the phrase “a high mountain by themselves” – is the clue that strongly argues for this mountain. Furthermore, the literal Greek reads simply “privately,” which could not have occurred upon Mount Tabor.
The multiple peaks of the Mount Hermon range, at the southern edge of the Lebanon Mountain range, are the perfect description because on one in the ancient world would ever have referred to it as “the mountain.”
11.01.02.C. SNOW-CAPPED MOUNT HERMON IN LATE SPRING. The Transfiguration most likely occurred somewhere on this distant mountain range. It has no distinctive peak and the highest point rises to more than 10,000 feet above sea level and is snow-covered about six months of the year. Photograph by the author.
Finally, in ancient times, high mountains were used by various cultures to worship their deities. For example, in Babylon, the Tower of Babel was an artificial mountain constructed for the worship of a pagan deity. In the Bible, Abraham offered Isaac on Mount Moriah, later known as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Moses met God on Mount Sinai. Jesus ascended to, and will return from heaven, upon the Mount of Olives. The concept of meeting God at a high place carries with it that His subjects ought to be always looking up toward Him. Hence, there is little question that the quiet, remote area to where Jesus retreated was upon mountain of grandeur, Mount Hermon. It should be noted, that a few scholars have suggested Mount Meron in upper Galilee as the possible site, only because the ruins of an ancient village and synagogue have been found there. However, the same argument against Mount Tabor applies for Mount Meron.
“He was transformed.” The language Luke and Matthew used in describing this event reflects the audiences to which they were writing. Matthew used the Greek word metamorphothe, meaning transfigured, while Luke stated that the face of Jesus “became different” or “was altered.” Luke, writing to Greeks may have feared that his readers would reflect how Jesus was similar to their gods who assumed different appearances. But the Jewish audience of Matthew had no problem with the word transfigured, although they were probably astounded by it.As such, Jesus was before the three disciples wearing a brilliant white garment, glistening like the sun. They saw a glorified Jesus they could never have imagined – an image they would not see again until their life’s work was finished. This preview of our Lord’s glorification was not just for them, but for all believers.
“I will make three tabernacles here.” The fact that Peter wanted to build three tabernacles suggests to some scholars that this event may have occurred during the Feast of Tabernacles.
“A bright cloud covered them.” This was the Shekinah Glory of God and was reflective of the Glory of God at the Tabernacle (Ex. 24:15-18), when the temple was dedicated (1 Kg. 1), to the shepherds when Jesus was born, to Stephen (Acts 7:55-56), to Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:3; 22:6, 11; 26:13), and to the Apostle John (Rev. 21:23). The “cloud” in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic writings has also been associated with eschatological expectations or with the Exodus. The Voice from the cloud united the Psalms (2:7), the prophets (Isa. 42:1), and the law (Deut. 18:15) in an authoritative testimony to His Sonship and Messiahship. The Transfiguration was a “down payment” or “deposit” of the physical glory that Jesus is going to possess when He reigns as the kingly Messiah.
It was an incredible event that Moses and Elijah appeared before them – and that they recognized the two historic figures. But that was not enough, for then a voice from the midst of the cloud said, “This is My beloved, I take delight in Him. Listen to him!” It must have been an incredible experience. Years later Peter said,
17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, a voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory:
This is My beloved Son.
I take delight in Him!
18 And we heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain.
2 Peter 1:17-18
Jesus brought His inner circle of disciples up the mountain to witness the heavenly Shekinah Glory envelope Jesus, the Son of Man. Then came a Voice from heaven, “This is my Son” followed by either “my beloved,” or “my chosen.” After this Jesus spoke openly of His coming death in terms of “his beloved son,” as found in Genesis 22 concerning the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Abraham – “take your son, your only son” who is Isaac. The word only also means “my beloved” or “my chosen.” Abraham took his beloved son and was willing to sacrifice him on the altar to honor God. These words, repeated in 2 Peter, were an echo of the divine approval of the baptism of Jesus earlier in the Jordan River. This was a moment that transformed their lives. In a similar manner, God did sacrifice his Son Jesus for the sins of humanity.
There are two points of interest in this passage.
- Jesus took Peter along, even though He certainly knew that His disciple was going to deny Him.
- It is noteworthy that there is nothing in rabbinic literature that parallels the Transfiguration or implies an expectation of such. Therefore, this event added to the list of difficulties the Jews had with Jesus.
Scholars have noted several more important aspects to this incredible event. Each one points directly to the passion and ministry of Jesus.
- The Transfiguration is the authentication of Jesus as the Messiah.
- The Transfiguration is the anticipation of the Kingdom of God that is to come.
- The Transfiguration is an illustration of the citizens or inhabitants of the kingdom that is to come.
- The Transfiguration is an illustration of the personal resurrection
- The Transfiguration is a confirmation of the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus
- The Transfiguration is a proclamation of the cost of His sacrifice for sin
- The Transfiguration is the evaluation of the strength of His passion for the souls of men.
11.01.02.Q2 What is the significance of Moses and Elijah coming to the mountain with Jesus (Mt. 17:3)?
This is a theological question, but is addressed here in a limited sense. Moses was the first of the great prophets. He received the Law personally from God on Mount Sinai, and his ministry included dramatic miracles as part of the exodus story. He has always represented “the Law” (although “Law” better translated as the Instruction) of the Old Covenant and promise of salvation. Elijah was an unusual miracle worker who represented “the prophets,” and his significance is that he was the restorer of all things (Mal. 4:5-6; Mk. 9:11-13). Neither Moses nor Elijah died a normal death. The former was buried by God and Elijah was personally taken away by God.
In Exodus 24:15-18, Moses went up the mountain and a cloud covered it. Now Jesus had taken his three closest disciples with Him up the mountain and again a cloud covered it. The cloud was the glory of God that appeared to His people in various times in their history. The cloud, a/k/a the Shekinah Glory, went before them to guide and protect them (Ex. 13:21). In Numbers 12:5, a cloud descended with the Lord, and the cloud appeared again above the tabernacle (Deut. 31:15). The Lord made His presence known in a cloud in Exodus 19:9, and again some four centuries later when King Solomon dedicated the temple and the cloud filled the temple. Most certainly, these historic events were in the minds of the disciples when they saw the cloud that enveloped Jesus, and the voice of God commanded them to obey Jesus.
The reason Peter may have suggested three shelters (one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah) was that they would observe the Feast of Tabernacles that commemorated Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt and also their desert experience. This was the tradition of a coming prophet that the Essenes held in Qumran. Furthermore, they felt that they were living in the last days when the messiah would come, judge the world and destroy their enemies. Then they would then live with him forever. The second tradition of a coming messenger is in Malachi 3:1: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.” In 4:5 we read, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”
Another significant point to the appearance of Moses and Elijah is that this entire event points to life beyond the grave. In this context, Moses who died and was buried by God Himself, is a “type and shadow” of the saints who have died and will one day be resurrected. On the other hand, Elijah never died, but was translated (or raptured) and is a “type and shadow” of future saints who will be raptured prior to the Tribulation Period.
“Peter and those with him were in a deep sleep.” It is only natural that they were extremely tired after climbing the highest mountain in Israel – approximately 10,000 feet high.
“Three tabernacles.” The abundantly enthusiastic and courteous Peter proposed a private tabernacle, or shelter of comfort, for each of the three heavenly beings. Obviously, he still had no understanding of the mission of Jesus or of the horrific event that was to occur in the near future. However, after the resurrection and when Jesus breathed on him (Jn. 20:22) his enthusiasm was propelled before the Holy Spirit fell on Pentecost, as he was boldly preaching as the Spirit came upon everyone.
Finally, there are two witnesses in Revelation whose names are not given. One will be given the power to shut the heavens to prevent the rains from falling, and the other will have the power to turn water into blood. These actions describe those miracles performed by Elijah and Moses. Consequently, their work on earth is far from over. The mystery that remains is how Peter and the other disciples recognized them.
11.01.02.Q3 Did the Transfiguration occur in six days or eight?
Matthew and Mark recorded that this event occurred “after about six days,” while Luke said it occurred “after about eight days.” As stated previously, the apparent difference can be simply explained in that there were two methods of counting days: exclusively and inclusively. “Inclusively” would count the six days between the events while “exclusively” count the six days plus the eventful days of travel at either end of the six day period. Luke counted time inclusively while Mark and Matthew counted time exclusively.
. Vine, “Transfigure.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:639.
. Vine, “Transfigure.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:639.
. Young, “The Meaning and Purpose of the Transfiguration.” 7:3, 11-15; Fruchtenbaum, The Jewish Foundation of the Life of Messiah: Instructor’s Manual. Class 14, page 11.
. Also known as the plain of El Huleh, or the Sea of Merom,
. Payne, “Tabor, Mount.” 3:1513; Barclay, “Mark.” 209-11.
. Josephus, Wars 2.20.6; 4.1.8 and Antiquities 13.15.4.
. Jung, “Mount Tabor.” 4:714.
. Jung, “Mount Tabor.” 4:714; Josephus, Antiquities 13.15.4.
. Josephus, Wars 2.20.6; 4.1.8 and Antiquities 13.15.4.
. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 539.
. Johnson Jr., “The Transfiguration of Christ.” 135 n3.
. Bookman, When God Wore Sandals. CD Trac 10. See also Green, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament; Berry, Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament.
. Green, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament. 56.
. The Hebrew word for Mount Moriah is har ha-bayit meaning mount of the house. See Mills and Michael, Messiah and His Hebrew Alphabet. 7.
. Gilbrant, “Matthew.” 363.
. Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 300-302.
. See Dan. 7:9; 12:3; 2 Baruch 51:3, 5, 10, 12; 1 Enoch 38:4; 62:15-16; 104.2; Rev. 3:5, 4:4, 7:9.
. See Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19-20; 33:9-10; Num. 9:15-23; Lev. 16:2; Isa. 6:4-5; 2 Macc. 2:8.
. The Shekinah Glory appeared four times in the life of Jesus: 1) to the shepherds (Lk. 2:8-9), 2) at His baptism (Mt. 3:16), 3) at the transfiguration (Mt. 17:5) and, 4) at His ascension (Acts 1:9).
. Ps. 97:2; Isa. 4:5; Ezek. 30:3; Dan. 7:13; Zeph 1:15; see also 2 Baruch 53:1-12; 4 Ezra 13:3; 2 Macc. 2:8; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a; Lk. 21:37; 1 Thess 4:17.
. Exodus 13:21-22; 16:16; 19:16; 24:15-18; 40:34-38; See also Carson, “Matthew” 8:386.
. Johnson Jr., “The Transfiguration of Christ.” 138.
. Johnson Jr., “The Transfiguration of Christ.” 139-43.
. Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. 259.
. See Appendix 2 as well as “Type and shadow” in Appendix 26.
. Hiebert, “Transfiguration.” 16:2-61; Stein, R. Jesus the Messiah. 167.