Many important things happen on mountains in the Bible, which means we are not wrong when we recall these events and speak of mountain-top experiences.
The most dramatic example is the appearance of God on Mount Sinai, first to Moses at the burning bush, then later to the nation when the law was given accompanied by such terrifying physical phenomena as fire, darkness, storms, and thunder. It was so frightening that even Moses said, “I am trembling with fear” On Mount Carmel on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea God answered Elijah’s prayer by sending fire to consume the sacrifice and even the altar, thereby defeating the claim of the false prophets of Baal. After that, God appeared to Elijah on Mount Sinai, as he had to Moses. Again, we can think of Satan’s blatant temptation of the Lord Jesus Christ when he took him to “a very high mountain” and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, saying, “All this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus overcame Satan by reminding him that it was written in Deuteronomy 6.13, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
We come to another important mountain in Matthew 17. It is called the Mount of the Transfiguration, and it was the location of what was undoubtedly a mountain-top experience for the disciples who were with the Lord on this occasion.
Three disciples were present – Peter, James, and John – and Peter was so impressed by what he had seen that he wrote years later, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.”
There are times in the lives of most of us when we wish we could have a mountain-top experience like that of these disciples.
There is much about this story we do not know. We do not know what mountain this was, for instance. The “high mountain” of verse 1 has been traditionally identified as Mount Tabor, which lies south of Galilee. It has an elevation of nineteen hundred feet. But Mount Tabor seems to be in the wrong place if Jesus was far to the north near Caesarea Philippi at this time. Besides, archaeologists tell us that in Jesus’ day Mount Tabor had a fortress on the top, which would have made it an unlikely place for the private nature of the transfiguration.
Others have focused on Mount Hermon because of its high elevation (9,232 feet) and because it is just beyond Caesarea Philippi to the north. But it was outside Palestine proper in Gentile territory, and since Jesus and the disciples ran into “teachers of the law” as soon as they had come down, it seems an improbable location. The Jewish teachers would not likely have been in Gentile lands.
The best identification may be Mount Meron, which is the highest mountain in Palestine proper (elevation 3,926 feet) and lies midway between Caesarea Philippi and Capernaum. Yet all we can say is that it is a likely site. We do not really know where the transfiguration took place.
What we know is that Jesus went up the mountain to pray, and while He was praying He was changed. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” The word for “transfigured” (v.2) is used in II Co.3.18 and Romans 12.2 to describe an inner transformation of the believer to Christ’s likeness. Here it seems to have to do more with Jesus’ outward, visible appearance. In Exodus 34.29-30, we find something similar. In that passage Moses’ face is said to have shone so brightly that the people were unable to look at it, and Moses had to cover his face with a veil when he was with them. Yet there is a major difference. Moses’ face shone because he was reflecting the glory of God, with whom he had been speaking. By contrast, Jesus’ face shone because He was transfigured, which means it was His own glory that was being made visible for the disciples’ benefit.
This difference also shows up in the appearance of Moses and Elijah. We are not told why Moses and Elijah were present rather than some other Old Testament figures. Since Moses was the great lawgiver and Elijah was the first of the great prophets, however, the two seem to represent the Law and the Prophets, the two chief divisions of the Old Testament, suggesting that what they stood for is now being fulfilled in Jesus.
Jesus had taught this Himself, of course. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Again, He said, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the Good News of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.” This does not mean that the Law and the Prophets were to be abrogated by Jesus. The very next verse says, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” But it does mean that Jesus is the culmination of the entire Old Testament revelation and the fulfillment of everything these two great figures taught and represented. “And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only” (Matthew 17.8).
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org