Matthew 17: 1-9


Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”


As with any scripture, context is important.  To really understand this scripture, we need to know what has happened prior.  The reference to six days later, is to an event in the previous chapter in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am.’  Peter answers “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This must have been very gratifying to Jesus because he answers:  “.. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock,  I will build my church…” Unfortunately, Peter keeps talking and reveals that he doesn’t have the faintest idea who Jesus really is.  Jesus has gone on to say that the Messiah must suffer and die. To which Peter says: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”  Then Jesus, almost immediately after offering such praise to Peter, tells him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…” 

Now six days later, Jesus takes three of his disciples up the mountain so they might see who he really is.  It was obvious to Jesus that his closest followers still could not imagine the kind of messiah that he was. This is the event, recorded in the three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in which Jesus is seen in a brand-new light!   

The radiant Jesus is in conversation with the long dead Moses, the greatest law giver, and Elijah, the greatest prophet of the tradition.  This vision of Jesus places him on par with the most honored of the faith. This is a considerable step up from knowing Jesus as a particularly insightful Rabbi.  It is roughly akin to suddenly discovering one of the teachers you’ve admired is also a world-famous authority in her field. Or as the television series, “Undercover Boss”, portrays, you discover your new office mate is really the owner of the company. When you have known someone in ordinary life and then see them as they ‘really’ are, perceptions and relationships change.  In that context, Peter’s response was quite ordinary. It was commonplace to erect alters and/or memorials in the high places to commemorate special events and special revelations. 

But ultimately, Peter, and the disciples have once again missed the point.  There is no record of great fear when the disciples saw Jesus, even a dazzling Jesus, talking with dead men.  As peculiar as that may seem, it fit their conception of Jesus as a ‘good man’ and/or their ‘rabboni’ {’a Jewish title of respect applied especially to spiritual instructors and learned persons’ (Merriam-Webster)}.  The only thing different is that it heightened Jesus’ status. Their teacher belonged in the big leagues. 

But Jesus wanted them to know something far more important.  As the story continues, in the midst of announcing his plan to honor Jesus, Peter is dramatically interrupted:  “… suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  Jesus had been telling the disciples over and over again what it meant to be the messiah, and in turn, what it meant to follow him but over and over again, the disciples could only see and hear what they expected.  Once again, God had to break through human conventional wisdom to teach us. Listen to him.  

The trouble is that if you listen to Jesus—even as we yearn for him, it is very scary!  As much as we want God’s love, we are afraid of being deeply known. We are afraid of our limitations.  We are afraid to be radically dependent upon his grace. We hesitate to follow him, and we are afraid he asks too much. It is one thing to have an inspired teacher and quite another to be travelling with the Son of God—especially one who keeps talking about how he must suffer and die. 

In our Faith and Real Life groups I asked how, or if, the members had had an experience in which they made the leap from Jesus as Rabboni, to Jesus, the only Begotten Son.  At least in our small sample the responses fit three broad categories. Several people found God in the painful experience of great loss. In the midst of losses they could not imagine surviving, slowly they found that life and love could go on.  That visceral discovery led them to a new life that did not seem possible. They had been poor in spirit and deeply mourning. And they discovered God in those desolate places.

Others described a sense of something greater than themselves that called them forward.  It wasn’t particularly explainable, but it was transforming. One man, who had never felt called in his life, spent several months helping Katrina survivors.  A woman spoke of her stroke. As she recovered, she recognized her frailty and listened to a sermon on our Threshold ministry. She felt as if she were being addressed personally. At a visceral level, she realized that ‘those’ people were really just like her.  She’s been volunteering ever since. Another woman said she had walked the streets of Decatur for years before she realized the homeless, she had been passing by were people just like her. Another spoke of being sent to care for the rural poor. Even the drinking water was unsafe.  How could she help? Why was she there? The answer she received was: ”I’m sending you here, not because of you. I am sending you to be a servant?”

In all of these cases, understanding in any academic sense came second. Each time a heart was touched—life was redirected—what we thought was true or important was changed.  Understanding Jesus is a visceral experience. It leads to a reorienting of life. For some it was solace and a newfound peace and confidence. In others it was a newfound solidarity with others that led to service and care. Even though every one of them had been Christians most of their lives, they ‘understood’ Jesus in a new way.  Jesus did not choose the top 5% of the local rabbinical school. He chose ordinary people like you and me. We, too, can be followers of Jesus and still not quite get what Jesus promises nor quite get what Jesus is calling us to. I’m pretty sure the disciples did not really understand what they were getting into but I am sure they saw Jesus in a new way. That new way gave them new confidence and new purpose. 

That said, there is a third group of responders who cannot point to such a reorienting experience.  When people start talking about their ‘mountain top’ experiences, many feel somehow inadequate and/or envious. In my own case the bending toward worshiping Jesus as opposed to following his precepts (which is hard enough, thank you) has been slow.  Only in retrospect do I see some of the milestones that have shaped me. It may well be that those of us in this category are so caught up in other people’s definitions, it is hard to see what applies to us. The formative experiences felt too ordinary at the time to ‘count’ as new ways to see God. It is very difficult to escape ranking and comparing ourselves—including what qualifies as God activity in our lives. 

When I was fresh out of seminary, I encountered a cancer riddled woman In considerable pain, she assured me: “The Lord don’t put more on us than we can bear.”  In my first encounters, I neatly categorized and diagnosed her as denying her circumstances. Only after a time did I realize her words were helping her engage her suffering. She was not denying her suffering or her death.   She was facing her death with a courage I could only admire and respect. My education very nearly had me completely missing her. I would like to think I am a better listener because of her. The experience was not dazzling but in retrospect I can see how it has been part of molding me.

The same can be said of our weekly discussions in Faith in Real Life.  As far as I know, there have been very few dramatic experiences but layer by thin layer, a new foundation of faith has been poured.  It might even add up to a mountain top. This is probably a far more common form of transformation than most of us give credit for.

One of the mysteries of this passage, and our faith, is that the Jesus who goes up the mountain is the same Jesus that comes down the mountain.  The same Jesus who walked and talked with the disciples, dazzled them and put them on their knees, reassured them as an ordinary man. It was the ordinary Jesus that comforted them.  “Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”  

Jesus is more than precepts of good living.  The dictionary definition of transfiguration is: “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” And this Jesus, this holy and ordinary Jesus is the way to God. Jesus is in the face of every single person we meet.  Jesus offers God’s care in every human circumstance and Jesus asks us to do likewise. That is what it means to have life and have it abundantly.  All else withers like the grass.

May you be dazzled by such love.  May you be awed by its ordinariness.  And may you be reassured as you walk down the mountain into service.  Let it be so.

Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.