Genesis 50:22-26; Deut. 34:1-12; Malachi 4:4-6; Psalm 21; Matthew 17:1-13One of the last major encounters with his disciples before Jesus enters into Jerusalem for the Holy Week is called the Transfiguration on the Mount. It is found in Matthew 17. Significantly, it happens six days after Peter, the spokesperson for the disciples, declares Jesus to be the Divine Messiah (Matthew 16:16). In this text, Jesus leads Peter, James, and his brother John to a high mountain. There Jesus is “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah talking with him” (Matt. 17:2-3). Why Moses and Elijah? What is the relationship between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah?
It is significant to observe that reference to Moses and Elijah is found as the grand finale of three sections of the Hebrew Bible¾the Torah, the Pentateuch; the Prophets; and the Writings. Moses, the great Law Giver, is the one who spoke with God “face to face;” thus he was given the Torah. The ending of the Torah declares, “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do” (Deut. 34:10-11). The rest of the Hebrew Bible—the Historical prophets and the Classical Prophets—is a quest for this “Mosaic Prophet.” Many prophets come and go. Yet, there is none like this special Prophet. The ending of the Prophets therefore declares, “Remember, the Torah of Moses . . . Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” (Malachi 4:5). Elijah, the prophet par excellence of this second section of the Hebrew Bible, it is anticipated, will come to prepare the way of this special Prophet.
Interestingly, the ending of Genesis, the last part of the Joseph narrative which we have been studying, also declares the same thing. Joseph declares, “God will visit (Hebrew, paqad) you.” (Genesis 50:25). God, indeed, does “visit” the people during special times, during the course of the history of God’s people. One of those dramatic points of visitation is depicted in the last part of the Hebrew Writings, the last chapter of 2 Chronicles. (We must note that Chronicles is the last book of the Hebrew Bible). In this, a pagan king, Cyrus king of Persia, declares, “the LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged (literally, visited me, Hebrew, paqad) to build him a house in Jerusalem.” (2 Chronicles 36:23). God did indeed “visit” his people after Genesis, in the Exodus narrative. God also did “visit” his people during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. However, these “visitations” of God were nothing compared to this final visitation. In the light of these climactic texts, the Jewish people were anticipating a climactic “visitation, paqad” of God.
The Matthew account of transfiguration must be seen in the light of these crucial climactic passages of the Hebrew Bible. Significantly, while Peter was saying, “Let us build three shrines, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you,” the other two—Moses and Elijah—disappeared. The narrative says, “They saw no one but Jesus only,” (Matt. 17:7), “and a voice from the cloud said, ‘this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Matt. 17:5). This is the final “visitation” of God, which both the Torah and the Prophets anticipated.
The final and complete “visitation” of God, the human face of God, the Messiah, in the following days, goes to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He celebrates Passover with his disciples, and declares himself to be the Passover Lamb. Then on Good Friday, this Passover Lamb was sacrificed on the Cross. This is not the end of the story, thankfully. On the Day of Firstfruits, or Day of Resurrection, he rises from the dead. He forever becomes the Transfigured One, the glorious “Visitation of God.”
May we have a visitation of God during this Holy Week.
Dr. R. Boaz Johnson, Professor and Chair, Department of Biblical and Theological Studies; Director, Division of Christian Life and Thought