History & Culture

The Spiritual and Political Lessons of the Transfiguration of Jesus

AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel


In our society afflicted with cultural amnesia, it’s imperative that we bring to consciousness our memory of things that still float on the surface but are not recognized or understood. We do this not out of antiquarian interest, but because hope for the future and light to act in that future are found in the blessings and examples of the past. For Christians this is even truer: calling to mind God’s action in the past is the means to strengthen faith, persevere, and guide faithful behavior. Thus, it is right and just to take a moment to learn from a feast officially important to Christians but practically ignored.  I refer to the Transfiguration of Jesus, which many Christians observed this weekend.

I say “many Christians” because though Roman Catholics, Eastern Rite Catholics, Anglicans, and many Eastern Orthodox believers marked this feast yesterday, August 6, Eastern Orthodox believers who use the old Julian calendar find August 6 falling on the Gregorian calendar’s August 19. Many Protestant groups dedicate the Sunday before Ash Wednesday to this biblical event, recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics in the Byzantine tradition, this feast is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church year. As well it should be, for it is a kind of summation of supernatural and natural lessons.

The story is told in Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; and Luke 9:28-36.  The story is this. Jesus and three disciples—Peter, James, and John—go up onto a mountain to pray. While there Jesus suddenly shines with a blazing white light and is seen by the disciples in the middle of Moses and Elijah, who speak with him. When Peter suggests building three booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, they are immediately enveloped in a cloud and hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35; quotations from the Revised Standard Version). After these words the disciples see Jesus alone.

It is a powerful story with its echoes of the Old Testament and its hints of what is to come. The name of the high mountain is not given in any of the Gospels, but an old tradition going back to the third-century Egyptian theologian Origen interprets this as Mount Tabor, a fitting place since in the Old Testament book of Judges, chapter four, this is where Israel defeats a number of Canaanite tribes—a precursor to Jesus’ own defeat of death and evil. Other scholars have proposed other mountains as the true site. One of the most intriguing suggestions is that it was Mount Nebo, the place where Moses viewed the Promised Land—and died. In any case, it is a mountain—and a mountain was the site of the giving of the Law in the Old Testament, the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the site of the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes in the Prophets—Mount Zion.

In short, wherever this particular mountain was, the very fact of the presence of Moses and Elijah surrounding Christ in light tells us what is important. Moses represents the Law or Torah while Elijah represents the Prophets. Luke tells us that these two “appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). This tells us that the Law and the Prophets were ultimately about what Jesus was to accomplish with his Passion, Death, and Resurrection—a new “going out” or Exodus that would bring freedom from slavery, sin, and death.

There’s more, however. Moses, whose life ended on Mount Nebo, represents the dead while Elijah, who was taken into Heaven in a fiery chariot, represents the living. The message this gives us is clear. Jesus fulfills the Law and Prophets and is Lord of the living and the dead. If the symbolism doesn’t do it for the reader, the voice of God saying to listen to Christ ought to do it.

Peter has gotten a lot of grief over the millennia for his suggestion of building three tents or booths upon seeing the vision. Yet the twentieth-century theologian Jean Daniélou observed that because the Transfiguration of Jesus occurred at the end of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, Peter’s suggestion was not so uncomprehending. “The manifestation of the glory of Jesus appears to Peter to be the sign that the times of the Messiah have arrived. And one of the qualities of these messianic times was to be the dwelling of the just in the tents signified by the huts of the Feast of Tabernacles.”

Peter was on to the truth—but he hadn’t put it all together yet. This gets to the heart of the lessons for us. Peter, like the rest of the disciples—and everybody else—was under the impression that glory was available instantly. Yet it is not so easy. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in the first volume of his classic trilogy Jesus of Nazareth that the lesson Peter had to learn again in this episode is “that the messianic age is first and foremost the age of the Cross and that the Transfiguration—the experience of becoming light from and with the Lord—requires us to be burned by the light of the Passion and so transformed.”

The very vision of the Transfiguration is a vision of what is to be—Christ in dazzling white, the disciples participating in that very brightness, the coming together of the pieces of the past in a future bright with promise. But it is a vision that is only accomplished through suffering and perseverance. All Christians should know this truth about their Christian walk. Becoming conformed to the image of Christ is not complicated; neither is it easy. It requires being forged in that burning light of the Passion and surrendering to God’s will in all aspects of life. It is no coincidence that the late Pope Saint John Paul II issued his encyclical on moral life, Veritatis splendor, or “On the Splendor of Truth,” on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1993.   

This spiritual lesson is one that should echo in political and social life. “No pain, no gain” is a lesson accessible even in our natural lives. Success in ordinary tasks is bought at the price of difficulty. How much more so the common life of citizens and friends. Never mind the life of the just in the age to come—the good society demands sacrifice and indeed, in a fallen world, suffering, because there is opposition to the good both in our society and in our very selves. Solzhenitsyn famously wrote that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and all human hearts.”

Christians and Americans have seen some tough times lately. It can be tempting to lose hope and even faith, especially if we believe (consciously or subconsciously) that glory is purchased on the cheap. The Transfiguration reminds us that we must keep our focus on the Truth and the Light,  following closely and sacrificing ourselves if we wish to enter the heavenly city or be an earthly city on a hill.   

David P. Deavel is an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas (Texas). A senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative, he is a winner of the Acton Institute’s Novak Award and a former Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. With Jessica Hooten Wilson, he edited Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West (Notre Dame, 2020). Besides his academic publications, his writing has appeared in many journals, including Catholic World Report, City Journal, First Things, Law & Liberty, and The Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Gettr @davidpdeavel.

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Gary Keller
1 month ago

As an Independent, Fundamental Baptist ( Not Southern Baptist ) and user of the King James Bible.
I would genuinely, be interested in knowing how a Catholic person would lead, show or invite someone to Jesus Christ, to be Saved from Sin and for that person to Know , 100%, that he or she will go to Heaven, when they die.
Personally, I would tell and show a person : that the Bible is Truth, I Timothy 3 ;16. That ALL people are Sinners, Romans 3; 23. That the wages for remaining in Sin is Death, Romans 6;23. That the Gift from God is Eternal Life thru Jesus Christ. That God Loves people, beyond measure, John 3 ;16. That people are Saved thru the Grace of God, Not by ANY kind of Work, Ephesians 2 ;8-9. That the Gospel is a Doctrine of Scripture, I Corinthians 15; 1- 5. That there is an Orderly ( procedure) path but in Our own Prayer, to Receive Eternal Life , Romans 10; 9-13 with verse 13 , ( Call upon the name of the Lord, Pray to Christ Jesus, ASK Jesus Christ to Forgive us Our Sin , come into Our Hearts and Save Our Soul ( which will live in Eternity in Heaven or Hell, Luke 16, forever )
God Bless….

1 month ago
  1. NO ONE knows what Jesus looked like.
  2. 2. We are told in His Word to NOT MAKE IMAGES of Him Leviticus-26-1 Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the LORD your God. Exodus 20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Deuteronomy 5:8 Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth)
  3. 3. Please go back to the Old Landmark scriptures in the KJV Bible. All other versions go against Revelation 22:18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.

Read the Bible for yourself and let the True Living God speak to you. God Bless!

1 month ago

Often in my young walk with the Lord, I was reminded that God proved Himself at creation and the cross, so this is our proving ground not His, which means trails and tribulation. Growing up we were warned never to help a chicken hatch from its shell as it would not survive because it either did not develop right or did not gain the strength to live. As I watch evolutionist help things in shells to be hatched, they wonder why it never seem to help the new creature and ultimately it died to their surprise after all their work. In nature survival of the fittest is the rule, but God made us above those creatures, therefore it is up to the strong to defend the weak in society. That is what Jesus did, defended our weak sinful nature with His strength at the Cross.

Julia Baser
1 month ago

I enjoyed your article very much, well written and to the point. I would have joined with Peter, wanting to build a hut for them to stay since this was the Feast of Tabernacles. That goes back to the OLD Jewish traditions.

1 month ago

OH MY! What a wonderful article full of wisdom! Thanks so much for this one! This uplifts me, even though we walk thru hard times! I needed this today!

Darius Dickison
1 month ago

Sorry people but this is establishment religious CR*P! Part of the reason so many under The Christ banner are SO CONFUSED! This type of misguided teaching from a “scholar” is exactly the same silly and frustrating sense FATHER expresses. “I gave them MY WORD why are they so stupid?” Please, anybody that buys this type of scripture dogma PLEASE look in a real Bible not a modern simplified sterilized version, but a real KJV Bible, and try to find an “apple that eve ate.” Will you be shocked when you cannot find it? HE is Real. religion, all of which are manmade, are false! Wolves, cons, and creeps acting like priests, etc.!

Brian Bowser
1 month ago

You are correct. Too bad if some are offended that their beliefs are not supported by the Scriptures. There are only 7 true major Feasts. Pesach (Passover), Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, Shavout (Pentecost), Rosh HaShanah (Feast of Trumpets), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). There are also weekly Sabbath Feasts, Sabbath Year Feasts, New Moon Feasts and Jubilee Feasts. There are two additional feasts which are man-made and not of Yah; Purim and Hanukkah. I suppose this Transfiguration Feast could be added to the man-made category?

1 month ago
Reply to  Brian Bowser

In John 10:22-24 Jesus was at the Hanukkah feast and did not deny it or said anything about not celebrating it and He could have, but did not. In John 5 the feast of Purim would have been taking place at this time and again Jesus had opportunity to admonish it’s celebration and He did not, He even healed a man at the pool. Paul admonishes us to celebrate in the name of the Lord or choose not to celebrate special days but be convinced and convicted of our faith in doing so, as unto the Lord.

1 month ago

Beautiful and special place to go and listen to what those Tour Guides, University Professors, and deep dive theologians of various denominations in Israel.God’s great grace and mercy open the eyes of the hearts of those who place their trust in His Son, Jesus Christ. When a group of us were there to work and tour, I went with the Dallas Baptist University for classes in archeological and historical studies. Others were going for other reasons, but I can promise that Israel is the best place of all my global traveling days. The biblical world opens up to reality way beyond what I could ever imagine. The Hand of the Lord Jesus is covering the place in ways each Christian believer should experience at least once, preferably before His Glorious Return!The professor from the Jerusalem University (I hope I remember correctly), believes the same Mt where Saul, Jonathan, and the others were beheaded and hung up for the Israeli people to see, and be terrified. This same Mt became a place of worship for pagan idols. These were placed in the side of the inclines with insets to keep them in place. Also, many were afraid of the alleged minotaur type of evil being that would throw rocks down on those below. Yes, this Mt has historic importance and implications for much more to the people who live there. I thank you for your Catholic inspiration of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Worship Him. Hear Him. Follow Him. For He alone is given the keys to heaven and hell. He alone is worthy to receive glory, honor, and our Praise and Worship. I’m from the Southern Baptist denomination, and love the fact that you published this article for us. Praise God for Y’all!

1 month ago

Thank you for writing this article

1 month ago

“Professor”, senior…, edited… should we also know where he ate his breakfast and went to toilet? this is ridiculous.

Kill your ego Mr. theologian.

With such individuals on our side, we will never get rid of the Left.

I am old, but I will never forget this by President Ronald Reagan The Great: ““There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

1 month ago

Beautifully written, takes thought!

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