A Brief Biblical Theology of the Transfiguration

by Patrick Schreiner February 27, 2024

The transfiguration story begins where all stories do: with Adam and Eve in the garden. Adam and Eve are made in God’s image and likeness on God’s mountain (Gen. 1:28). They are icons, or idols, of God. Though we typically view idols negatively, the sense from Genesis is that humanity has the Spirit of God breathed into it, indicating its participation in the divine. Adam and Eve’s vocation is to mirror and represent Yahweh. This is why Jewish literature outside of the Bible speaks of Adam and Eve having glory in the garden and why Paul speaks of sin as having “exchanged the glory of . . . God” (Rom. 1:23). The fall was therefore a descent from glory. Paul speaks of it in terms of having fallen “short of the glory of God” (3:23). Darkness ensues as humanity flees from its purpose.

Moses’s story previews the restoration of this “image.” He ascends the mountain of God, enters the glory cloud, and peers into heaven, seeing that the garden was a copy of the heavens. Moses is instructed to build another copy on the earth so that others might enter God’s presence. The result of him being with God is that his face now shines (Exod. 34:29).

In 2 Corinthians, Paul employs Moses as a prototype. Paul was not shy about using the verb metamorphoō to describe our spiritual pilgrimage to glory (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). Gregory of Nyssa mimics Paul and presents Moses as an example of seeking after God in his book Life of Moses. Moses is an archetype for those who seek God’s face. His life represents spiritual stages as he seeks God’s glory.

Moses first pursues solitude in the desert, where he sees divine light in the burning bush. Next comes Moses’s renunciation (purgation) of his past and his seeking of a new life in the wilderness. Moses then communes with God in fire and a cloud of darkness on Mount Sinai. He is illumined. His face shines as he comes down the mountain, demonstrating the weight of this moment. Moses is still not satisfied. The greater degree of glory awakens him. He wants more. He desires union. This union is not satisfied until he sees Jesus.

Israel’s priests reenact Moses’s ascent up Sinai as they meet with God in the temple and then come out of God’s dwelling on earth, blessing God’s people with the shining presence of God’s face (Num. 6:24–26). However, Israel is not able to live up to their vocation of being God’s light to the nations. Therefore, God sends his only begotten Son as the light of the world ( John 1). The Spirit rests on him, and he acts in the way that God has purposed for humanity all along. Yahweh will fix what has gone wrong. The disciples get a preview of this restoration on Mount Tabor. Jesus ascends the mountain, his face shines, his clothes turn dazzlingly white, and the glory cloud appears. Jesus is the true image of God (Col. 1:18).

The promise for the redeemed is that those who participate in Christ will also be changed. As Ephrem the Syrian said, “Christ came to find Adam who had gone astray. He came to return him to Eden in the garment of light. . . . Blessed is He who had pity on Adam’s leaves and sent a robe of glory to cover his naked state.” Paul says that we all now have unveiled faces like Moses and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18). However, that transformation will only occur in full on the last day. At that time, our earthly bodies will be made new and become heavenly bodies. We will be raised in glory (1 Cor. 15:40–43).

This glory is explicated in the rest of the New Testament. Paul says that God will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body (Phil. 3:20–21). He asserts that when Christ appears, we will also appear with him in glory (Col. 3:4). John says that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2). And Peter confirms that he will be a partaker of the glory to be revealed (1 Pet. 5:1).

Yet this will take place only through suffering. The transfiguration’s larger context is the looming cross. In Romans 8:18–25, Paul follows this “suffering then glory” pattern when he speaks of how the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to come. As Desmond Tutu writes, “The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is ‘untransfigurable,’ that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter but will be translucent with divine glory.” When the Lord returns, we will wear a crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8). The shining mountain is not only an event to study; it transfigures us as we behold the glorious Son and wait for his return.

Even all of creation waits for the revealing of the children of God when they will obtain the “the glorious freedom of God’s children” (Rom. 8:21). We groan while we wait for the redemption of our bodies (8:23; 2 Cor. 4:17). In the new heavens and new earth, God’s presence in the Son and through the Spirit will dwell with us on his mountain. Jesus’s divine rays will suffuse all creation. His transfiguration is not only about his transformation; it is about our transformation and the transfiguration of the cosmos. The earth will have no need for the sun or moon to shine, for the glory of God and the lamp of the Lamb will be its light. We will shine as the stars in the sky (Dan. 12:3; Matt. 13:43). At that time, the nations will walk by his light, and the kings will bring their glory to God’s city (Rev. 21:23–24). We still await that day, but we wait for it with hope.

Content taken from The Transfiguration of Christ by Patrick Schreiner, ©2024. Used by permission of Baker Academic.