Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.
How did they know? As readers of Luke’s account of the transfiguration, one of the questions that must surely occur to is: how did they know? How did Peter and James and John know that it was Moses and Elijah that appeared and were talking with Jesus? Of all the people who might have turned up on the top of that mountain at that particular moment, how was it that they recognised them? Moses had lived more than 1200 years earlier. Elijah had lived more than 800 years earlier. It is almost as if Alfred the Great and Richard the Lionheart showed up here this morning and we all knew, right away, who they were. And we would have a considerable advantage over Peter and James and John in those circumstances, because we have all seen pictorial representations of those great English kings, which whilst they might not be accurate have left us with a least a few visual clues as to who we would be looking at. Judaism’s resistance to the pictorial portrayal of the human form, especially of religiously significant individuals, would have left the disciples without visual hints as to who these two might be. Except they knew. Probably they knew in a way that would have been quite impossible for them to explain, they knew that this was Moses and Elijah.
Sometimes God, what God does, and what God wants to reveal of himself is like that. We get an inexplicable certainty. It is just the way it is. “I don’t know how but I’m sure.” The question that I always ask families when they approach me to have their children baptised is: “Why do you want your baby baptised?” The answer that I get, in a smaller way is similar to the disciples’ recognition of Moses and Elijah. Parents most often say in answer to my question: We don’t know but it just feels right. There does seem to be something in the experience of God that is both unknown and certain.
Of course who else would the disciples have seen? Peter and James and John were Jews, both religiously and culturally, everything they knew, everything that shaped who they were was shaped by being members of the people of Israel. Their vision of the world was focused through what we call the Old Testament, and by the traditions of interpretation and the myths and folklore that grew up around it. When they had the kind of encounter that they had on the top of that mountain how else were their minds going to piece together what they were seeing? This was the only for them to make sense of what they were seeing, given the kind of shape which their religion and culture provided and expected. Moses and Elijah are two of the most prominent figures of the Old Testament. In many ways their lives and their ministries define what Judaism is. Moses is “rabbenu” our teacher, who was the giver of the law. Elijah is the great prophet, whose mantle was passed from generation to generation of seers in Israel. They together represent the sources of authority and meaning that guarantees Israel’s religious and cultural identity. Both of them of course had mountaintop encounters with God themselves: Moses received the law on Mount Sinai. Elijah was allowed to see God after he had passed by on Mount Horeb (which may indeed be this very same mountain). And neither of them died
Moses, having been allowed to see the promised land over the Jordan from a mountain top, was lifted directly into heaven. And Elijah crossed the Jordan in the opposite direction where God’s chariot swung low and swept him away from Elisha’s sight. Who else, on an occasion such as this, in an encounter with the glory of God, were the disciples going to see but the pillars of Jewishness, Moses and Elijah?
All experience of God is culturally informed. There is no way to encounter God separate from the religious and cultural packaging we have to wrap it in. Indeed such experiences arrive with us pre-formed and pre-wrapped by the time and place we find ourselves living in. Of course when people raised in Church, or even just in the culture that has been so heavily influenced by Christianity as ours has, when people like us experience God we more often than not they/we are going to see Jesus. But the specifics of the encounter do very much depend in the circumstances of the individual having the experience. One of the most striking descriptions of such an experience I have come across was that of man named Freddie Lemon. It was in his memoirs which I read when I was a teenager (which probably tells you how striking his story seemed to me at the time). Freddie was a violent criminal. He was a south London gangster, who had a conversion experience. One night in prison he was visited in his cell be three men. On either side were two men dressed in suits. The third man in the centre was Jesus. Freddie just knew that it was Jesus. After that point Freddie’s life was transformed. As striking as the encounter with Jesus is, what interests me just now is the men in suits. It is interesting that a man in prison should meet Jesus accompanied by men who looked like the lawyers who had such a prominent role in his life. God can only make himself known to us in ways that we can understand and accept. The experience whether on a mountaintop or in a prison cell will be shaped by the religion and the culture that has already been shaping us
People still long for and still have those, what we might call, “spiritual experiences.” Those moments when they experience something that they can’t quite explain but has given them a moment of clarity and certainty about something “other” that has some kind of life changing effect upon them. People might still talk about a mountaintop. They might even go up a real mountain looking for that kind of experience (though in that case I suspect that Wordsworth is more influential on English spiritual searching than anything else). They might even talk about a “Damascus Road” experience or an “epiphany.” But they do so without any recognition that those manners of speech are entirely Christian in origin. We do still live in a spiritual age. Perhaps every age is spiritual, because human beings are inevitably spiritual beings. But as time goes on here people are less and less likely to frame that experience in consciously Christian language. And it is becoming ever more clear that the one place people aren’t looking and aren’t expecting to have that kind of experience is in Church! Perhaps our challenge is to be open to the spiritual experiences of people who are no longer Christian. Perhaps we need to take them seriously. And help them and us to see that if they are genuine they are not essentially different from seeing Moses and Elijah. But also to help people realise that if such experiences are genuine, like the one which Peter and James and John did have, if they are genuine then Christ is at the centre of them.
What the disciples experienced on that mountain praying with Jesus was not a revelation of God in general. What they experienced was something very specific with a definite message. Jesus is placed alongside Moses and Elijah. Then the voice of God declares:
This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.
Moses and Elijah are the voices which up to now Israel has listened to. Their voices are the source of the religion and culture. everything that make Israel what it is and everything that makes Peter and James and John who they are. Jesus doesn’t quite replace Moses and Elijah. What they said and what they stand for remains true. But all of it needs to be seen through Jesus. And it needs to be seen through Jesus as Jesus really is, which for a moment is what the disciples have glimpsed in the transformation of his appearance into the dazzling glow of the glory of God. Jesus is the standard against which all the pillars of religion and culture must be tested. Whether that is Moses and Elijah or Alfred the Great and Richard the Lionheart or whatever other sources of authority and meaning people might have. And that includes our understanding of Jesus himself. The test of our faith is the degree to which the Jesus we see is the Jesus which is really there, rather than the Jesus that our wishfulness might want. The claim which the Gospel makes, the claim which the transfiguration points to, is that Jesus is the key to interpreting and evaluating all experience of God, all our religion and all our culture, whether we acknowledge it or not. Jesus is God’s chosen one. It is his voice we should listen to in order to make sense of all the other voices which we might hear.
How Did They Know? by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0