Just what happened on the mount of transfiguration?
The events themselves are simple enough to reconstruct with the inspired account of the beloved physician, Luke. In his gospel narrative, we learn that Christ led Peter, James and John up into the mountain to pray, where his appearance was transfigured into something glorious and majestic. Through drowsy eyes, the three apostles witnessed both this transformation and a subsequent conversation that Jesus had with Moses and Elijah, lawgiver and prophet respectively. Their discussion concerned our Lord's impending death in the city of Jerusalem.
Aroused and impetuous, Peter offered to construct three tabernacles for the Christ and his two Old Testament friends, indicating his notion that they were equally deserving of this special treatment. Just then a voice came out of the cloud and corrected the apostle, "saying, 'This is my beloved son. Hear him.'" The lawgiver and prophet had disappeared and Jesus alone remained before them.
The disciples who followed after Jesus during his earthly ministry lived in a time of transition. Still answerable to the law of Moses, they found it difficult to imagine a new order that would replace prophets and priests and lawgivers with a Messiah occupying all these seats himself. "When the voice had ceased, Jesus was found alone."
In each of the three gospel accounts of the transfiguration, the discussion which immediately precedes it is the same and about a week intervenes between the two. Luke, like Mark and Matthew, reports the words of Christ thus: "But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God" (9:27).
Mark's rendering clarifies that the kingdom of God would be "present with power" before the death of the last witness to this prophecy (9:1). Matthew's account adds that this would occur as Jesus is "coming in his kingdom" (16:28).
It is not absolutely necessary that there be a connection between these two events just because they occur successively and are reported thus in the gospel accounts. Today, I had lunch and then checked my electronic mail and now as I recount those events for the reader, they occur successively in my day but have no relation to one another. The kingdom prophecy and transfiguration, however, do have parallel points.
Again, the Lord predicted that his kingdom would come into existence before the total demise of his present generation. That means that it did not exist when he was born, nor even as he spoke these words to his disciples. The kingdom, however, would be established at some point between the period at the end of his sentence and the death of the last person alive as he spoke. For his prophecy to be fulfilled, the kingdom would have to be established sometime in the first century or no later than the early second century. We could not possibly be still waiting for it to be established today unless Jesus either lied or failed. Prophets cannot make predictions and then retreat to unforeseen circumstances as an excuse for failure. If the kingdom did not come during his generation, the Lord was a false prophet and deserves, not a second chance, but a second death (cf. Deuteronomy 18:22).
The connection between the kingdom prophecy and the transfiguration is that the latter illustrates the former. Many commentators and debaters, however, have exaggerated the connection and argued that the transfiguration actually fulfills the kingdom prophecy and is, in fact, the establishment of the kingdom of God. In a 1950 debate with brother Hoyt Houchen, Baptist pastor Ray Tatum argued that after Jesus issued the prediction, "He then led Peter, James and John on the mountain of transfiguration and there they saw the kingdom come with power .... The kingdom came with power then" (The Houchen-Tatum Debate, Dec. 26, 1950, page 54).
This exegesis, however, is riddled with difficulties that make it untenable.
The events upon the mount of transfiguration do indeed relate to the kingdom, but they do not fulfill the prophecy of its establishment. Instead, the episode with Moses and Elijah and the voice of God illustrates what would occur when the kingdom finally did arrive.
Moses represents the giving of law and Elijah represents the giving of prophecy, two facets of the Old Testament that were specifically listed by Jesus in his mission to fulfill (Matthew 5:17-18). When that moment came, the old law would be taken out of the way and a new covenant of Christ would replace it. The new covenant, however, could only take effect after the death of Christ, not before it. And so a chronology is developed of events that must precede or accompany the establishment of the kingdom. The transfiguration is just too soon since it does not allow for these events to pass first:
If the kingdom came on the mount of transfiguration, it came before the new covenant was in place and the law of Moses was its code. Under the law of Moses, however, Jesus could not be a priest, for he was a Jew, a tribe about which Moses had spoken nothing concerning the priesthood (Hebrews 7:12-13).
Truly, we can better correlate from scripture that the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ provide the proper time for the law of Moses to be removed, Jesus to be crowned, the kingdom to be established and the new covenant to take effect.
On the day of Pentecost, power came upon the apostles in Jerusalem as Jesus had predicted (Luke 24:49). The Holy Spirit descended upon them as tongues of fire and each man could speak in unstudied languages to proclaim the gospel to all nations. Peter began to preach that day a sermon which Luke saw fit to record. In it, Peter focused upon the death of Christ and his resurrection. See how much is accomplished by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus: "Jesus of Nazareth ... you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death, whom God raised up" (Acts 2:23-24). After quoting David's resurrection prophecy from Psalm 16, Peter preaches, "Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, he would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ" (Acts 2:30-31).
If the kingdom was established on the mount of transfiguration, its throne was empty for it took death and resurrection to fill it. No, Jesus was raised from the grave and into heaven in order to sit on the throne of David and that happened well after the temporary transfiguration of Luke 9.
What occurred on that mountain simply illustrated the prophecy Jesus had uttered a week earlier by suggesting its consequences. The law and prophets would be fulfilled and the covenant of Christ would take force. That is the significance of the two worthies disappearing and leaving Christ alone before the apostles' eyes. The appearance of the temporarily glorified Jesus foreshadowed the day of Pentecost when the permanently glorified master would be sitting upon David's throne with all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18-20), the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:15). His future resurrection body was on display that day, the figure he would take on forever when he shed his earthly tabernacle after death.
Finally, it is not wasted words that inform us that, on the mountain, Moses, Elijah and Jesus were discussing "his decease which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). His decease led him to the throne of the kingdom he was establishing. On the mount of transfiguration, the three were only discussing the kingdom yet to come.