Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Transfiguration: Redemption Foretold and Resurrection Foreshadowed

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The incident of the Transfiguration is one of the major incidents in the Holy Bible which bears a lot of significance to the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ: who He is, the nature of His mission, and His relation to God the Father. This incident was related by three of the four evangelists: Mathew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, and Luke 9:28-36. The Coptic Orthodox Church values this incident and counts it as one of the seven minor feasts of our Lord. The Feast of Transfiguration is celebrated in August of every year. The Gospel on the Transfiguration is read on the first Saturday after the Feast of Resurrection. The fact that two dates were used (six days and the eighth day) by the evangelists is not an indication of discrepancy or lack of credibility. The matter of fact is that each of the two had looked at the incident date and thus calculated it differently in relation to including or excluding the Transfiguration day and the first day. Spiritually, number six symbolizes the Crucifixion; whereas eight symbolizes the Resurrection.

Before the Transfiguration

Eight days before the Transfiguration, our Lord Jesus Christ, talking to His disciples, established four very important truths about himself.

•Assertion of His Deity: "You are Christ the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16) was the answer the Holy Spirit had put on Peters tongue after our Lord had asked His three disciples "...and who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15). The Lord commended Peter not for his person, but for his faith upon which he promised to build His church. "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed [this] to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:17-19). The words "Petros" and "Petra" are two different words. "Petros" is a small stone whereas "Petra" is a big rock.

•Proclamation of His Death on the Cross: Following the assertion of His Deity, our Lord Jesus Christ told them that this Messiah that Peter had just proclaimed the Son of God came to the world to be handed over to the Jews, who would also deliver Him to the hands of the gentiles. "From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day" (Matthew 16:20). Satan tried to hinder this proclamation by the same Peter who had proclaimed Him Son of God. "Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men" (Matthew 16:23). These were the Lords rebuking words in response to Peters who did not want him to suffer saying, "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!" (Matthew 16:22)

•Conditions of Discipleship to Christ: Following that the Lord laid it down explicitly that if anyone wanted to be a disciple of this Messiah, they had to follow his steps by denying themselves, carrying their cross and following him. "For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26) and "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 16:25).

•His Second Coming: "Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom" (Matthew 16:28). That is how our Lord ended his conversation by declaring His second coming.

During the Transfiguration

Eight days later, the Lord took Peter, John and James and went up on Mount Tabor. These three disciples were usually the ones that went with Christ on special events; for example, to Gethsemane and at the miraculous raising of Jairus daughter. On the mountain something very strange happened. His face started to shine like the sun; not only his face but also his robe. Then two Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Moses appeared with him in glory. These two prophets were immediately recognized by the disciples, confirming the fact that in paradise saints will recognize each other just as the rich man recognized Abraham calling him by name. Then the Lord spoke with them about His decease (crucifixion and death) which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem in a weeks time.

The beauty of the scene of Christ in His glory was irresistible and conducive to a yearning for a long lasting duration. Forgetting about himself, and his family, Peter confessed ecstatically, "It is good to be here" suggesting upholding three tabernacles; for the Lord and the two guest prophets in order to ensure longer enjoyment of that irresistible magnificence and grandeur. That is how the saints in Paradise feel in the presence of the Lord and the saints. Then a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voiced was heard saying "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear him" (Matthew 17:5). A cloud is a sign of Gods presence. The Old Testament registers many incidents whereby God showed His presence through a cloud.

Implications of the Transfiguration

Is there a link between the events of Transfiguration and what happened eight days before it? Of course there is a link; and it was by no means accidental; rather orchestrated by the Holy Trinity for vital reasons to the human race. St. Peters confirmation and declaration that Jesus is Christ the Son of the living God was followed, a week later, at Transfiguration, by yet other confirmations that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate. These were:

1.The voice of the Father from heaven saying "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear him" (Matthew 17:5).

2.The appearance of Moses and Elijah who spoke about his suffering and crucifixion outside Jerusalem. "And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts" (2 Peter 1:19). This was necessary in order to keep the faith of St. Peter and all the disciples intact when they see their Master being beaten and abandoned. It was because of all these details that St. Peter could boldly write in his second epistle, "For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty" (2 Peter 1:16). Such words of eye witnessing stand defiantly before any doubt against the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. For He is not a man who was made God; but God Who became man. Professing the first is blasphemy, whereas believing the second is a noble act of love. St. Athanasius eloquently expressed this seeming paradox by saying that God became the Son of man to make man the son of God. Moses and Elijah covered almost all of the Old Testament, the era of the Law and the prophets with the former representing the first and the latter representing the second. Thus, the presence of the two men proves that both the Law and the prophets witnessed to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

3.According to the Jewish law, the verification of any incident requires the presence of three witnesses. The three disciples were those eye witnesses for Christs glory and majesty which He had received from the Father while on the Mount of Transfiguration. Although St. John did not write about the incident of Transfiguration in detail, he writes about "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14) referring to the incident by "and we beheld His glory" (John 1:14). The glory he had seen Christ in during the Transfiguration.

4.The Lord Jesus Christ concluded His conversation by saying, "Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom" (Matthew 16:28), as a confirmation to them that He Himself is the Son of the Living God. The Transfiguration was a very powerful happening, which was needed to manifest Christs Divinity and His Glory to them on the eighth day. From these events, it can be deduced, that prior to talking to the disciples about His Cross and Passion, the Lord Jesus, wanted to confirm their faith in Him as the Son of the Living God. This was necessary in order that they would not be shaken seeing Him upon the Holy Cross. That is why He rebuked St. Peter: "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!" (Matthew 16:22) declaring that the main condition of following Him was carrying the Cross. He again confirmed to them that He was the Son of the Living God who shall come in His Father's Glory to reward each according to his works.

When Heaven Speaks, Earth Listens

"This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" This expression was repeated several times in the Holy Bible by:

1.The Father, at Baptism when a voice was heard from heaven declaring "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17).

2.The Son, Three times by our Lord, "He, who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Matthew 11:15; 13:9; 13:43).

3.The Holy Spirit, in the Holy Book of Revelation "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 2:7)

There are three messages in this verse:

•My Beloved Son

God the Father is confirming the revelation declared by St. Peter eight days before. On the day of Baptism, God the Father confirmed to the whole world that the Lamb of God is the only begotten Son. So, when Peter, James, and John heard the same voice again repeating the same words, it was a confirmation that Jesus, transfigured before them, is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole world.

•In Whom I am well pleased

The Son had offered himself as an acceptable sweet-smelling burning offering. That is the reason behind the Fathers satisfaction. In Leviticus 1:9 "And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord." This is the hymn that we chant on Covenant Thursday, Good Friday, and the feasts of the Cross "He, Who offered Himself as an accepted sacrifice on the Cross, for the salvation of our race. His Good Father smelled His aroma at the Evening on Golgotha." So, when the Father said those words, He was referring to the same offering as an acceptable offering and pleasing to Him. The first Adam disobeyed and displeased God, whereas the second Adam (Christ) came in order to please God on our behalf. Consequently when we are united with the Son, we become pleasing to the Father. This unity became possible only after the Sons death outside Jerusalem, the death Moses and Elijah had spoken of.

•Hear Him

This is an order from the Father to listen to the Son. The emphasis on "hearing" is worth examining. The Holy Bible identifies two types of listeners.

1.Dull of Hearing: These are the people whose ears have become so heavy that they do not internalize what their ears hear. Our Lord Jesus Christ mentioned it after the parable of the Sewer, saying "And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive. For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them" (Matthew 13:14,15). St. Paul sensed this problem in Rome, and also among the Hebrews. So, he wrote to them saying, "Of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing" (Hebrews 5:11). He is telling them that this is hard to explain not because the subject is difficult nor the speaker is ineloquent, but because they have become dull of hearing. The problem is neither in the subject nor the speaker; but in the listener. The problem of dull hearing starts first and foremost in the heart manifesting itself in the shutting off of the ears from listening. Biblical examples of people "dull of hearing".

1.Cain, who after his offering had been rejected by God, got angry. God explained to him his mistake; showing him His readiness to forgive him, "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door and its desire is for you" (Genesis 4:7). But Cain was dull of hearing. Had he listened, he would not have perished. God is saying the same thing to us today. Sin is at our door. She has a desire for us; but we should rule over it.

2.Pharaoh was another example of a man, dull of hearing. Ten times God sent Moses and Aaron to him in order for him to free the people to worship God in the desert. The result was a punishment in the form of ten plagues. After each plague, pharaoh would forget and return back to his old pattern.

3.Judas the Iscariot listened to all the teachings and all the warnings coming from the Lord; "It is one of the twelve, who dips with Me in the dish" (Mark 14:20). "Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had never been born" (Mark 14:21). But his love for money had dulled his ears to the truth.

Nowadays, there are many people who are living totally for their materialistic desires, love for fame and money; and who have developed a dull waxed ear as a consequence of leading such a life. Coming to church and attending services do not help them that much spiritually because of their dull hearing.

2.Those with itching ears: These are people who have no tolerance for rebuke or chastisement. Therefore in order to avoid what they do not like to hear, they change churches, spiritual fathers, and seek other worship groups in the hope of finding who would tell them what they would like to hear. Words of praise, false pretences and false fables appeal to them. "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 4:3,4). Examples of people with itching ears are youth who leave home in order to avoid hearing their parents, or Sunday school to avoid hearing their teachers. Also, those who leave their original church seeking another that would grant them a divorce, exempt them from fasting, or offer short services. A Biblical example is during Jeremiahs time when God sent him with a very clear message to either submit to the king of the Babylon since the city would be delivered to the Babylonians anyway; or be killed with the sword, epidemics or famine. But they did not like this message and put Jeremiah in jail (Jeremiah 27:12).


Comprised of different Divine instruments, each playing a different purposeful, heavenly melody; the incident of the Transfiguration is the most perfect symphony orchestrated by the Holy Trinity; producing the most harmonious symphony that had announced to humanity the very good news about the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and His second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. On Mount Tabor, our Lord Jesus has been revealed as the Son of God, the sweet-smelling Burning Offering of God and the Redeemer of the world from Satans captivity. In order for us to benefit from all these revelations, we need to become followers of Jesus Christ; ready to carry our cross and be good listeners. To develop sharp ears we need firstly to pray that the Lord may open our ears like Lydia who "the Lord opened her heart to hear the things said by Paul" (Acts 16:14). Secondly, we need to listen with the fear of God; for the fear of God sharpens our ears through the wisdom we receive. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). May the Lord grant us sharp ears and eyes that we may hearken to His word, and be ready to carry our cross and follow him that we may be changed from glory to glory and become like Him when we see Him face to face.

Bishop Youssef,

Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

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