Transfiguration and Jesus’ Baptism

The allusions to Mt. Sinai in the transfiguration story point to Jesus as a new Moses and even more as Yahweh, the God who met Moses and Elijah on the mountain. The fact that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah spoke of Jesus’ “exodus” suggests that the mountain of transfiguration was intended to point forward as well. Jesus would lead His people not merely out of slavery to Pharaoh, but out of slavery to Satan and also out of the entire old-covenant system. Jesus’ exodus would be an exodus into a new covenant world.

Where does the idea of a new covenant world come into the transfiguration story? Clearly, in the allusion to Jesus’ baptism. Before we consider any details, the striking clarity of the allusion should be noted. In the synoptic Gospels, there are only two times that the Father speaks to Jesus from heaven — at Jesus’ baptism and at His transfiguration.

What is even more remarkable is that the Father repeats the baptismal declaration on the mountain of transfiguration. At the baptism, Matthew has, “This is My Son, the beloved, with whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Now, even though Matthew’s language seems to address others, it is not clear in the narrative if anyone other than Jesus can understand the words, even if they heard a sound. In Mark and Luke, the Father addresses Jesus directly, “You are My Son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22).

At the transfiguration, the Father’s words are reported by Matthew as “This is My Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” Mark and Luke abbreviate the Father’s declaration, but clearly indicate that the Father repeated the words of the baptism. In all three synoptics, it is clear that the Father is addressing Peter, James, and John — though in the larger context, it is equally clear that they cannot begin to comprehend what was happening.

So, what was happening? The answer to this is complex. Let’s begin with Jesus’ baptism. The Son is praying to the Father (cf. Luke 9:29), the Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and the Father makes a declaration composed of three partial quotations of Old Testament passages. The baptism of Jesus is remarkable for being the only passage in the Bible in which we see all three Persons of the Trinity present and actively relating to one another. Equally profoundly, the Father’s words to the Son all come from Holy Scripture — Holy Spirit inspired prophesy of the Son as Messiah.

There are three partial quotations. The words “This is My Son” or “You are My Son,” come from Psalm 2:7, a Messianic Psalm from beginning to end. The Father identifies Jesus as His own Son and the Messiah in the context of predicting the Messiah’s conquest of the world. The ontological overtones would not have been obvious in David’s day, nor in Jesus’ until after Pentecost. By the time Matthew and others wrote the story, the fuller implications of “My Son” would have already had overwhelming impact.

The next word, “beloved” is often included with “My Son” as “My beloved Son.” I have discussed this at greater length in my book, The Baptism of Jesus the Christ,1but I believe this should be treated as a separate expression that alludes to Genesis 22:2. Isaac was “the beloved” of his father Abraham. His “sacrificial death” on Mt. Moriah actually established the meaning of the old testament sacrificial system and pointed forward to the death of Jesus, the beloved of His Father.

Though the allusion to Genesis 22:2 is somewhat controversial, no one doubts that the words “in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17) or “in You I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11; Luk 3:22) come from Isaiah 42:1, one of the Servant of Yahweh declarations. Again, this identifies Jesus as the victorious Messiah (Isaiah 42:1-3) and also, since it is linked with the larger picture of the suffering Servant of Yahweh, points forward to His cross.

The Father’s declaration occurs in conjunction with the gift of the Spirit, the anointing of the Messiah. Jesus is the first man in history to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which, after His ascension, He Himself will bestow on His church. The Spirit descends as a dove, the sacrificial animal for the poorest Israelite, because He is anointing Jesus unto the death of the cross.

How much did John the Baptizer understand about Jesus’ baptism? We really do not know, but he did see the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove — a sign that Jesus would be the one to baptize with the Spirit — and John announced Jesus as both “lamb of God” and “Son of God” (John 1:29-34), two titles directly related to the Father’s declaration.

Very briefly, these are the words and the story to which the Father’s declaration at the transfiguration alluded. One more word must be added. In addition to the Scriptural allusions of the baptism, at the transfiguration, the Father added, “Hear Him,” pointing to Deuteronomy 18:15 and it’s prophecy about the Messiah. Jesus was the prophet like Moses, though greater.

We are back, then, to where we started this essay. Jesus is the greater Moses, the one who fulfilled all that the law prophesied about the coming One. In the light of His baptism and the Father’s repetition of the baptismal blessing at the transfiguration, Jesus is the One who will fulfill the whole meaning of the sacrificial system. He is the lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world, the true Isaac, the true dove.

Though Peter, James, and John could not have imagined what was coming, Jesus Himself was being prepared for an exodus journey that would bring in a new covenant, a new world. For though the words of the Father are addressed to the three disciples, the repetition of the baptismal blessing and the conversation with Moses and Elijah were also for Jesus’ encouragement. He was setting His face to go to Jerusalem to be betrayed by a disciple, falsely accused by the Pharisees, and crucified by Rome — His baptism of death (Luke 12:50) for which the dove would strengthen Him.

Together with His baptism, therefore, the transfiguration of Jesus was one of the most important events in His earthly life, one worthy of devout study and meditation.

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.

References   [ + ]

1. Ralph Allan Smith, The Baptism of Jesus the Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010).