“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 verisons 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.
There are many aspects to the Transfiguration, and it raises many different questions, and these should be handled subject by subject. We will first consider whether the Transfiguration was the coming Kingdom. There are some theologians who say that the “Kingdom” Christ was referring to in Matthew 16:28 actually came in some form at the Transfiguration, because in verse 28 Jesus said that some of the disciples would not die until the Kingdom of God came.
There are several reasons why this cannot be correct. The first and foremost is that the Kingdom did not come at the Transfiguration. After all, none of the Kingdom promises were fulfilled and the angels that Jesus said would come did not come. Also, Christ did not sit on his throne and rule over the earth, lions do not eat straw like the oxen nor lie down with domestic animals, neither the deserts nor the people of earth have been healed, and no one has been rewarded at the Judgment. In fact, there is nothing about the Transfiguration that indicates it was the coming of the Kingdom in any sense.
Jesus had been teaching that the Kingdom was near since he first started teaching and preaching, and there is no theologian who says that Christ’s message, “the Kingdom is near,” is actually saying, “the Transfiguration is near.” Jesus started teaching about the Kingdom in Matthew 4:17, and mentioned it some 30 times between then and the Transfiguration. Not once did the “Kingdom” Jesus spoke of refer to the Transfiguration. The “Kingdom” in Christ’s preaching refers to the coming Messianic Kingdom on earth. There is no justification for changing the meaning of “Kingdom” in Matthew 16:28 to mean the Transfiguration, which was new, unexpected, and only seen by three men who were then told not to talk about it to anyone. The Transfiguration was not the “Kingdom.”
At the Transfiguration, Christ was given a taste of what he would be like in the future (he was clothed in white and he was glorious in appearance), but the subject being discussed was his death (Luke 9:31). 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. God gave Christ the vision to help prepare him for “his departure.” Many of the prophets of old, and certainly 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 that meant that the Kingdom had actually come in some way, and it is wrong to say that because Christ had a vision of the Kingdom it had come. Matthew 17:9 clearly calls the experience a “vision,” although the NIV translation makes that point a little less clearly, saying, “What you have seen.”
Another reason to believe that Scripture does not equate the Transfiguration with the coming Kingdom is that one place the Transfiguration is recorded in is Luke 9, but after that, 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 the Transfiguration was not the Kingdom. Also, other scriptures after the Transfiguration mention the coming Kingdom, for example, Luke 12:40 speaks of the Son of Man coming; Luke 13:29 speaks of the banquet in the coming Kingdom, etc.
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 that Kingdom.
Lastly, it needs to be stated that if Christ were speaking of the Transfiguration in Matthew 16:28, then what he actually said does not make sense and is not factual. He said, “There are some standing here which shall not taste death [i.e., die] before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.” However, the Transfiguration occurred shortly after Christ made the statement. Luke 9:28 says it was about 8 days. It is almost certain that all of Jesus’ disciples were still alive 8 days later. Even if one of them had died, that is no justification for Jesus to say that only “some” would be alive eight days later.
Furthermore, Jesus foretold that “some” of his disciples would still be alive 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, how could it be the fulfillment of Jesus’ public prophecy that only “some” of his disciples would be alive to see it?
It can be concluded that it makes no sense at all that Christ would say that only some of his disciples would see him come in his Kingdom if what he was actually talking about was his Transfiguration. However, Christ knew the Old Testament very well, and he knew that many people would die in the Tribulation and Battle of Armageddon (see commentary on Dan. 12:1), and thus they would not survive to see him set up his kingdom on earth; they would enter it by being in the Resurrection of the Righteous. Even if Jesus’ Second Coming was very soon, after only seven years of Tribulation, it was still probable that most of his disciples would be killed. Thus it makes perfect sense for Christ to say that after the Tribulation when the Son of Man came into his kingdom, only “some” would be alive to actually see it.
[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].