Explanation about scripture Orthodox Christians read on the Transfiguration

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Jesus had just finished discoursing with the Apostles about His upcoming passion, and had finished with the enigmatic words:

"Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. " (Matthew 17:28)

Jesus' Transfiguration was the fulfillment of this prophecy. "Some those standing here" would soon see Jesus as He really is, and will be, in His kingdom.


"Wherefore doth He take with Him these only? Because these were superior to the rest. And Peter indeed showed his superiority by exceedingly loving Him; but John by being exceedingly loved of Him; and James again by his answer which he answered with his brother, saying, "We are able to drink the cup; nor yet by his answer only, but also by his works; both by the rest of them, and by fulfilling, what he said. For so earnest was he, and grievous to the Jews, that Herod himself supposed that he had bestowed herein a very great favor on the Jews, I mean in slaying him." (St John Chrysostom, Homily LVI on Matthew)


Jesus wanted to be alone with his three chosen disciples, in a remote place, so that no other person would see His Transfiguration. The top of a mountain was a safe place to go.

A mountain has symbolized the elevation of our thoughts to spiritual things. It is also a remote place, away from worldly cares. We must ascend in our prayers and our way of life.

"He brings them unto a high mountain, showing that unless a man is raised on high, he does not become worthy of such divine visions." (Blessed Theophylact, commentary on Matthew 17)


Jesus Christ was illuminated by the "uncreated light", or energies of God, which proceeded from Himself.

Moses' face was also bright after he saw the "back parts" of God. When he descended the mountain, no one among the Israelites could bear to look upon his face. He had encountered the uncreated light, and even as a mortal, was changed.

"And Moses said unto the LORD, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight. {13} Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, show me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people. {14} And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest. {15} And he said unto him, If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence. {16} For wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? is it not in that thou goest with us? so shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth. {17} And the LORD said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name. {18} And he said, I beseech thee, show me thy glory. {19} And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. {20} And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. {21} And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: {22} And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: {23} And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

{34:1} And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest. {2} And be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning unto mount Sinai, and present thyself there to me in the top of the mount. {3} And no man shall come up with thee, neither let any man be seen throughout all the mount; neither let the flocks nor herds feed before that mount. {4} And he hewed two tables of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tables of stone. {5} And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. {6} And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, {7} Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin ...

{28} And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. {29} And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. {30} And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. {31} And Moses called unto them; and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him: and Moses talked with them. {32} And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in mount Sinai. {33} And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. " (Exodus 33:12-23,34:1-7,28-33)


God is the God of the living, not the dead. The dead in Christ are still aware and can pray to God, and know of things in the material world. We ask their intercessions precisely because they can hear us, and their intercessions on our behalf are bold.


Moses represented the law and Elijah the prophets. Both the law and the prophets spoke of and pointed to Christ, and were in complete agreement with Him, as their conversation on Mount Tabor shows. Their presence, together with the apostles also underscored that God is the God of the "living and the dead".

"Transfigured on the high mountain, / the Savior, having with Him His Elias-eminent disciples,/ shone forth most wondrously, / showing them forth as illumined by the loftiness of the virtues / and as ones vouchsafed divine glory. / Moses and Elijah, who spake with Christ, / showed that He hath authority over the living and the dead, / and that He is the God Who of old spake through the law and the prophets. / Of Him was the voice of the Father heard saying from the cloud of light: / "Him do ye obey, / Who through the Cross made hell captive // and granteth life everlasting to the dead!" (Lord I have cried, Tone 4)

"Moses the God-beholder and Elijah of the fiery chariot, / who traversed the heavens without being consumed,/ beholding Thee, O Christ, in the cloud at Thy Transfiguration, / bore witness to Thee / as the Creator and Fulfiller of the law and the prophets. / With them vouchsafe Thine enlightenment also unto us, O Master, // that we may hymn Thee forever." (Sticheron for "Now and Ever", Aposticha)

The Vespral OT readings provide further mystical illumination concerning the presence of Moses and Elijah. The former asked to see God face to face, and the latter heard Him in the "still small voice". Both intimately experienced the energies of God. Their experiences were a harbinger of things to come.


The Apostles were pious Jews, and also weak men who needed to be told by Jesus over and over about His upcoming passion. It was very difficult for them to believe that such a terrible thing would happen. As pious Jews, they believed in the scriptures, and revered Moses and Elias and reliable witnesses of the truth. Their prophesying about Jesus' upcoming passion must have had an effect on them, and helped prepare them for the eventual event. It also showed Jesus was in agreement with the law and the prophets.

"... Since many were thinking that Jesus, in seeming to put aside the Sabbath and transgress the law, was opposed to God, the Lord on the mountain appears with the prophets, one of whom was the lawgiver, and the other a Zealot. Such prophets as these would not have conversed with one who seemed to abolish the law, if what He said did not please them" (Blessed Theophylact, Commentary on Mark 9


Much of the meaning of a particular event is revealed in the holy services, especially Vespers and Matins. This is why it is absolutely necessary for a Christian to zealously attend the Vigil service. The services, and the commentaries of the holy fathers, which have entered into the mind of the church, explain that the apostles were prepared for the crucifixion by witnessing the Transfiguration, and the "splendor of the resurrection" that it prefigured. They would soon be subjected to terrible temptations and fears, and our Savior wanted to put the knowledge of His divinity indelibly in their minds, to help them in the terrible days of his trial and death.

Kontakion of the Feast, Tone 7

On the mountain wast Thou transfigured, / and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could bear it, O Christ God; / that when they would see Thee crucified, / they would comprehend that Thy suffering was voluntary, / and proclaim to the world that Thou art of a truth // the Effulgence of the Father.

Before Thy crucifixion, O Lord, / the mountain emulated the heavens, / and the cloud spread itself out like a tabernacle / when Thou wast transfigured and borne witness to by the Father. / There were Peter, James and John, / for they were to be with Thee also at the time of Thy betrayal, / that, beholding Thy wonders, / they might not be afraid of Thy sufferings, / which do Thou vouchsafe that we may venerate in peace, // for the sake of Thy great mercy. ( First Sticheron of the Feast for Lord I have cried, Tone 4)

Taking the disciples up upon the lofty mountain / before Thy crucifixion, O Lord, / Thou wast transfigured before them, / illumining them with effulgence of power, / desiring both in Thy love for mankind and in Thine authority / to show them the splendor of the resurrection, / which do thou vouchsafe unto us in peace, // in that Thou art merciful and lovest man-kind. (Third Sticheron of the Feast for Lord I have cried, Tone 4)


"Then to show that he was holden with great fear, both he and the rest, he saith, "They were heavy with sleep, and when they were awake they saw His glory;"25 meaning by deep sleep here, the deep stupor engendered in them by that vision. For as eyes are darkened by an excessive splendor, so at that time also did they feel. For it was not, I suppose, night, but day; and the exceeding greatness of the light weighed down the infirmity of their eyes." (St John Chrysostom)


Jesus ordered his three disciples to say nothing about His transfiguration:

" And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead." (Matthew 17:9)

The Lord told them to be quiet so that people would not be scandalized when they saw him on the cross. He saved this knowledge only for His three favorites, because He knew it would help them.

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