“transformed.” The event described in Matthew 17:1-9 (Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36) when Jesus was “transformed” before Peter, James, and John is referred to as “the Transfiguration” because early influential English versions used the word “transfigured” (cp. Tyndale’s New Testament, KJV). Today we would usually say “transformed,” or his “appearance changed” (GWN) or his “appearance was transformed” (NLT). The Transfiguration was a wonderful miracle of God’s grace, preparing Jesus for his torture and death by giving him a taste of his glorious future and by having him talk, via a revelation vision, with “Moses,” and “Elijah.” The Transfiguration shows how much God loved both Jesus and us, and it serves as a model and reminder that God is always at work behind the scenes to prepare people for the difficulties that they will face in life.
Many theologians do not believe Jesus could have been inaccurate in what he said about the timing of the coming of his kingdom in spite of the fact that many Old Testament prophets had been inaccurate about it, saying the Day of the Lord would come soon when it did not (cp. Joel 1:15; 2:1; 3:14; Isa. 13:6; 29:17; 46:13; 51:5; 56:1; Zeph. 1:7, 14; Ezek. 30:3; Obad. 1:15; Hag. 2:6-7). Therefore, some theologians say that the “Kingdom” that Christ was referring to in Matthew 16:28 came at the Transfiguration, but there are a number of reasons why this cannot be the case.
The first and foremost reason is that the Kingdom did not come at the Transfiguration; what Jesus said would happen in Matthew 16:27-28 did not happen at the Transfiguration and still has not happened. Jesus said he was going to come with his angels, and that did not happen, and he also said that when the kingdom came he would, “repay each person according to what he has done,” and that has not happened yet either. Furthermore, beyond what Christ said, the Old Testament prophecies make it clear that when Christ’s kingdom comes to earth, he will rule the earth from Jerusalem, the land and water will be healed, the animals will not be dangerous anymore, there will be plenty of food for everyone, wars will cease, and there will be other blessings as well. None of those things happened at the Transfiguration; for all those reasons and more, the Transfiguration simply does not fulfill the words of Christ, it was not the Kingdom coming in power (Mark 9:1).
People knew then, as they should know now, that when the Kingdom comes to earth, it will stay. No one would have ever thought, based on what the Old Testament, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself said about the Kingdom, that it would come in a short vision and be gone. In fact, if the disciples standing there with Jesus thought he was actually saying, “some who are standing here will not die before God gives a secret vision of the future Kingdom to three men,” no one would have been particularly excited. God had given visions of the Kingdom to prophets who lived before Jesus, such as Ezekiel (chapters 37-48), and also to people who lived after Jesus, such as Paul (2 Cor. 12:1-7). Jesus’ words were exciting to the disciples because they understood perfectly what he was saying: Jesus’ Kingdom on earth would come very soon.
Jesus had been teaching that the Kingdom was near since he started his ministry (Mark 1:15), and there is no theologian who says that Christ’s message, “the Kingdom is near,” is actually saying, “the Transfiguration is near.” Most scholars agree that the Kingdom was the central theme of Christ’s teaching ministry. Given that, it is important to point out that the one and only time when Jesus taught about the Kingdom that some scholars say he was speaking about the Transfiguration is the event recorded in Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, and Luke 9:27, and their only reason for saying that is what Jesus said about some disciples not dying did not come to pass. To say that in all of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, only that one time in Matthew 16:28 the “kingdom” meant “the Transfiguration” is just sophistry to make what Jesus said in that one place become historically correct. Furthermore, saying the kingdom somehow came at the Transfiguration introduces confusion into the Gospel record because Jesus prayed and taught about the Kingdom throughout his ministry, including after the Transfiguration. For example, although the Transfiguration is recorded in Luke 9, in Luke 11 Christ prayed in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.” If Christ prayed for the Kingdom to come soon after the Transfiguration, then it seems evident that the Transfiguration was not the Kingdom.
The purpose of the Transfiguration was to help prepare Jesus for his suffering and death, and in the vision at the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus and spoke with him about his death, his “departure” from life (Luke 9:30-31). The Kingdom could not come if the Messiah was an unacceptable sacrifice, and so his continuing to be without sin until his death was extremely important. Mankind could not be redeemed if Jesus “broke” and sinned while being tortured or while he was on the cross, so God, via a vision, prepared him for his suffering.
At the Transfiguration, Jesus was given a taste of what he would be like in the future; he was clothed in white and was glorious in appearance to help prepare him for “his departure.” Thus, the Transfiguration was not “the Kingdom of Heaven come in power,” and in fact it was not even a vision of “the Kingdom of Heaven” at all, it was a vision of the glorified Christ. This is confirmed by Peter, who wrote: “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty,” which referred at least in part to Peter seeing the glorified Christ at the Transfiguration. Peter saw the glorified Christ, but never claimed the kingdom came in any way. Matthew 17:9 calls the experience a “vision” (ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB. Many of the prophets of old, and certainly the apostles Paul and John, had visions of the future Kingdom, but it would be wrong to say that because Isaiah, Zechariah, Paul or John got a vision of the future Kingdom, then the Kingdom had actually come in some way. Similarly, it is wrong to say that the vision of the glorified Christ at the Transfiguration was what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of his Kingdom and the judgments associated with it.
It is important that we understand what Peter wrote about the vision, because the Transfiguration being mentioned in 2 Peter 1:16-17 is a major reason people say Jesus was speaking of his Transfiguration. In those verses, Peter spoke being an eyewitness of the majesty of Christ, and he was, but in a prophetic sense. Peter did not see the reality of Christ as the exalted Messianic King, he saw a prophetic image of it. But the vision that Peter, James, and John saw does not mean that the “kingdom” came at the Transfiguration any more than the kingdom came when Daniel, Ezekiel, Paul, or John had a vision of it.
One of the themes of 2 Peter is to convince his readers of the divine origin of the Scripture and that it is trustworthy. So he said the power and glory of the coming of Christ was not a “cleverly invented” story, but will really happen (cp. 2 Pet. 1:11; 1:16; 2:9; 3:7-14). As evidence of that fact, he speaks of being an eyewitness of the majesty of Christ in a prophetic sense. The whole context of the mention of the Transfiguration in 2 Peter is prophecy. In fact, the Transfiguration made “the word of the prophets more certain” (2 Pet. 1:19). To say that the Transfiguration is the fulfillment of what Jesus spoke of in Matthew 16 is to misunderstand both Jesus and Peter.
Another reason that the Transfiguration cannot be “the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” is that there is no evidence Jesus knew it was coming until shortly before it happened. It was a miracle done by God to help prepare Christ for his death. It was not foretold in prophecy nor anticipated in Scripture in any way. It certainly caught the only three witnesses by surprise. Jesus may have been given revelation that it was going to occur shortly before it happened, but none of the disciples knew anything about it. For Christ to tell his disciples that some of them would not die until he came in his Kingdom, and then somehow to expect them to realize that he was speaking about an unknown future event and not about the well-known Kingdom they and their ancestors had expected for years makes that interpretation unacceptable. There is simply no good reason to equate the well-known and expected “Kingdom” with an unknown and unexpected vision of the glorified Christ.
Theologians who make the Transfiguration the fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:28 create a few insurmountable problems. One of those problems is that Jesus’ words in Matthew 16 were not fulfilled at the Transfiguration: angels did not come and people were not repaid for their works.
Another problem is that in one way or another what Jesus said turned out to be inaccurate. If the Transfiguration was the fulfillment of what Jesus said in Matthew 16:28—that “some” of the disciples would not die until they saw Jesus coming in his kingdom—then that certainly did not come to pass. The Transfiguration was only about 8 days after Jesus spoke in Matthew 16:28 (Matt. 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28), and it is certain that not just “some” of Jesus’ disciples were still alive, but most or even all of them were still alive 8 days later.
The short 8-day period puts the people who say that Jesus could not be wrong about the timing of his coming kingdom into a vice. If Jesus was not wrong about the timing of the coming of his kingdom and it actually was the Transfiguration, then he was wrong about only “some” of the believers still being alive 8 days later—most or all of them would be alive. If what he said about only some of the disciples being alive when the kingdom came in power—and it has not come yet—then he was wrong because “some” of the disciples are not still alive, they are all dead now. So people who try to rescue Jesus from making a statement that is historically inaccurate do not succeed. The solution is easy and biblical: Jesus, like the prophets, said the Second Coming was near but God for His own purposes delayed the Second Coming.
The renowned scholar, F. F. Bruce saw the problem with the 8 days, and did not believe the Transfiguration was what Jesus was speaking about in Matthew 16:28. He wrote: “It cannot be said that the transfiguration was the event which Jesus said would come within the lifetime of some of his hearers: one does not normally use such language to refer to something that is to take place in a week’s time” (F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, InterVarsity Press, 1983. p. 155).
It should be pointed out that F. F. Bruce believed that the Kingdom came on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), but that date does not fulfill the words of Christ either. For one thing, even if Jesus’ ministry was over three years, it would still have been probable that almost all of the disciples Jesus addressed in Matthew 16 were still alive, not just “some” of them. Certainly all of the apostles were still alive. Besides that, on the Day of Pentecost no angels came and no one was judged and rewarded or punished. Pentecost and the Age of Grace are not the Kingdom and are not a fulfillment of what Christ said in Matthew 16:27-28. Jesus was speaking to his disciples about a kingdom, glory, angels, judgment, rewards, and repayment, all of which they understood, and none of which has occurred yet, but they will occur at the Second Coming of Christ. God has the power and authority to delay the Second Coming, and that is what He did.
Another way we know that the Transfiguration was not the fulfillment of what Jesus said in Matthew 28:16 is that Jesus foretold that “some” of his disciples would still be alive when the Kingdom came with power and those disciples would “see” it (Matt. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27). But by eight days later when the Transfiguration occurred, all of the apostles were at least to see the Kingdom, but only Peter, James and John were present at the Transfiguration, and they were strictly told to keep it a secret (Matt. 17:9). If the Transfiguration was a secret between Jesus and 3 disciples, it was not the fulfillment of Jesus’ public prophecy that “some” of his disciples (including at least all of his apostles) would be alive to see it.
Since the evidence is that the Transfiguration was not the coming of his kingdom, and since Jesus himself made it clear that he did not actually know when the kingdom would come (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32), the evidence is that it was God who delayed the coming kingdom of Christ, but Jesus did not know that was going to happen. We learn from reading the prophecies about the end times in the Old Testament that God had delayed it before, so delaying it again was not out of character for God, who in His great mercy keeps giving humankind more and more time to be saved.
[For more on Christ’s coming kingdom on earth, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more on the Resurrection of the Righteous and Resurrection of the Unrighteous, see commentary on Acts 24:15].