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When modern readers read passages like Matthew 17:1-9, they can become skeptical. Never having seen anyone’s face “shone like the sun” or anyone’s clothes “became white as light,” and never having chatted up biblical luminaries like Moses and Elijah, moderns are quick to dismiss the whole thing and move on to something that resonates with their experience.
Reading the Bible according to our own experience seems to people today like the most obvious, true, and honest way to read it. After all, the basic philosophy of life today is to assume that what is obvious, true, and honest about the universe is what we can see, touch, or will, as well as what the instruments and sciences we create can see, touch, or will through their advanced technology. This philosophy of life has many different names. North Koreans refer to this way of thinking as “materialism.” Westerners call it “positivism,” “scientism,” or “reductionism.” Regardless of what we call it, it calls the Transfiguration an impossibility or a religious invention.
But the Lord of the Transfiguration is also the creator of human beings, not to mention everything they can see, touch, and will, along with everything they can’t. And it turns out that what they can’t see, touch, and will is…nearly everything!
Human beings see by processing light waves, also known as electromagnetic waves. However, human eyes are only capable of processing a small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum (a spectrum of light waves arranged by frequency). Most humans can see every color in the visible spectrum, from red to violet, but we can see nothing below or beyond this frequency. We cannot see infrared light, for example, which has a lower frequency than visible light, or ultraviolet light, which has a higher frequency than visible light.
In fact, we can only see 0.0035% of the electromagnetic spectrum.
“That may be true,” says the materialist/positivist/reductionist/scientism-ist, “but we can measure the electromagnetic waves that we cannot see. Through our measurements we humans can know everything that can be seen.”
Perhaps. But this does not account for the estimated 95% of the universe that is composed of dark matter (and a force called dark energy). Scientists know that dark matter exists. Dark matter is essential for many equations in physics. Without dark matter, these equations would fall apart. As of yet, however, no scientist has been able to develop a conclusive method of measuring dark matter, or of explaining what it is.
If human beings are only capable of seeing .0035% and detecting 5% of the known world, why should we assume that all there is, is what we can see, detect, measure, and prove?
This argument is not against science. It is against the claim that everything that cannot be observed or measured is nonsense. Science, itself, never makes this claim. At its best, science is humble enough to know that it cannot prove whether something is or is not. As Albert Einstein once said:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead—his eyes are closed.”
Science derives its good purpose and its humility from the mysterious. Scientism—or whatever name we might give the idea of elevating science out of that purpose and humility–closes our eyes rather than opening them.
So what do materialism, positivism, and scientism have to do with Matthew 17:1-9? Answer: More than meets the eye.
When we look at Matthew 17:1-9 and dismiss it because we have never seen a situation like this, never measured a phenomenon like this, or cannot will it to happen in human experience, we are missing the point exactly. This is what the passage is about.
In the verse right before this passage, Jesus tells his disciples, “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Jesus then takes Peter, James, and John to the mountain. There, they see the Son of Man—but how? Is it Jesus who changes? No. The Book of Revelation describes Jesus exactly the same. The Nicene Creed reminds us that Jesus is “light from light.” Christ is God, and God never changes.
But if Jesus stays the same, then what changed?
In Matthew 17:9, Jesus describes the Transfiguration as a vision. Jesus did not change; the disciples changed. For a moment, Peter, James, and John were permitted a glimpse into what always is, which human beings are incapable of seeing. For a moment they were able to see something outside of the 0.0035% that we human beings normally see, a matter pertaining to the other 95% of the universe that normally passes right in front of us without our notice. They were lifted above the limitations that we human beings do not even realize we have.
The Apostles’ Creed says at the core of our Christian faith is our belief in “the Communion of the Saints.” This means that even when believers die, they do not cease to exist. Even though we cannot see them, touch them, or will their communication with us, the Bible tells us that these Saints are always with us. Hebrews 12:1-2 describes them as the Great Cloud of Witnesses. They surround us at every moment and they urge us on.
Moses and Elijah do not simply appear and disappear during the Transfiguration. Because Moses and Elijah are part of the Communion of the Saints, they always surround Jesus and are in perfect communion with him. And because they are in perfect communion with the Christ with whom we are also in perfect communion, they are a part of our lives, too, regardless of what our eyes, measuring instruments, and will tell us.
In other words, it wasn’t that the world was mystically altered for a moment in the Transfiguration. As human beings, we are like Einstein’s dead man. Our eyes are closed. The more we know, the less we see.
But for a moment, Peter, James, and John were given vision to see the world as it actually was—and is—and always will be.