"1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’"
Make no mistake, Matthew's story of the transfiguration of Jesus is not history but creative myth, told to and written for Matthew's community of Jesus followers five decades after the execution of Jesus.
Consider the context of Matthew's community. Probably it was a mixed Jew and Gentile community that loved and served one another and those who were yet to become its members. Probably it was based at that time in Caesarea Maritima, having relocated there in the 8th decade after its expulsion from the Jewish community at Yavneh. Yavneh, some 40 miles north west of Jerusalem, was the location of the religious Sanhedrin court that itself had been relocated from Jerusalem in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70C.E. Caesarea Maritima was itself some 30 miles north of Yavneh.
As I have reminded congregations for many years, Matthew's Gospel more than any of the other 3 in the canon of the Christian Testament, was concerned with demonstrating that Jesus of Nazareth was the New Moses.
It began with the story of Moses being saved from the killing of baby Hebrew boys by Pharaoh in Egypt as recorded in Exodus 1:20–2:10:
"So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’ Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’ "
Matthew's version had the baby Jesus being saved from the killing of the baby boys by Herod. And to where did Jesus supposedly escape? To Egypt! Matthew 2:7-18 says:
"Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’"
It is important to recognise that only Matthew's Gospel has any thing about wise men visiting Herod and the baby Jesus; only Matthew has this refugee story of Jesus. Neither Mark nor John have a birth story and although Luke has a story concerning the birth and early life of Jesus, it makes no mention of the wise men nor the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod and nothing of the flight of the family of Jesus into Egypt. In fact, Luke's Gospel has the Jesus family returning from Jerusalem after the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple as the Law required, to their own town of Nazareth in Galilee.
Why did Matthew create his version of the birth story of Jesus? I suggest that it was because the author of that Gospel wanted to make the clear parallel between Moses, the great early Hebrew leader who led the Children of Israel into freedom, and Jesus of Nazareth who was leading his followers into a new spiritual freedom and deliverance even though they were living under the iron fist of the Roman Empire (Exodus 3:1-10; Acts 7:30-37, and 3:19-23).
Notice also that the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke have the story of the transfiguration of Jesus in which Jesus took with him Peter, James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain. Surprise, surprise, especially for the story teller in Matthew's Gospel, Moses also experienced a transfiguration as recorded in Exodus 34:29-35:
"Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him."
But there is more! Although Deuteronomy 34:5-9 records the death of Moses, God buried him where no one would find him, at some point God must have resurrected him, otherwise could he have met with Jesus at his transfiguration? Elijah is said not to have experienced death because he had been taken to God in the fiery chariot before experiencing a physical death (2 Kings 1:1-2:18). As such, both Moses and Elijah continued to be very much alive. Therefore, for the Jesus followers in Matthew's community, the transfiguration of Jesus and the appearance of both Moses and Elijah pointed clearly and reassuringly that Jesus, half a century after his death, was also alive!
And still there are more parallels! Both Moses and Jesus went without food for 40 days (Exodus 24:18; 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:18, 25, and Matthew 4:1, 2). Both Moses and Jesus were born to mediate a covenant with the people of God (Exodus 24:3-8 and Hebrews 8:3-6; 9:15). Both Moses and Jesus led their people in magnifying God's name (Exodus 9:13-16 and John 12:28-30; 17:5, 6, 25, 26).
The synoptic Gospel writers also referenced Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah representing the Prophets, as signposting to Jesus as the Messiah. The symbolism of Jesus meeting with both Moses and Elijah at his own transfiguration demonstrated that Jesus not only fulfilled the Law and the Prophets but also everything that Moses and Elijah had represented in their own lives. Once again, the parallel of Jesus being the fulfilment of the Law as the New Moses is clearly made.
And the importance of all this today? It is that we should be careful not to read the scriptures literally. As I often repeat, we need to read within the context of the times and cultures of the writers and not approach what was written as mythology and story as though these are accurate history. Also we need to read what is on the line, behind the line and between the lines.
Secondly, that there is a contemporary message for us - we, too, can be transfigured if that means to be changed by the presence of the sacred within us and about us! It probably will not be shown through frightening shiny faces but it will show through our actions of compassion and service as we work for equality, justice and peace in this beautiful but broken world.
Copyright ©: 2014, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Anglicised ®, Copyright © 1989 American Bible Society. All rights reserved.