In the last essay we studied Luke 9:1-27. In this essay we study Luke 9:28-36. This is Luke’s account of the famous and mysterious Transfiguration of Jesus. In verses 28-29 we see that this event took place about a week after the confession of Peter, the first passion prediction, and the giving of the three conditions for discipleship.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that Jesus took his three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, up on a mountain. In the Bible mountains frequently are places of revelation, though we have no way of knowing if Jesus was thinking about revelation in his decision to go up there. Luke alone gives us a purpose for Jesus’ going up on the mountain. He tells us that Jesus went up to pray. And Jesus may have had no deeper motivation than that, because mountain settings inspire prayer.
There are two other occasions when Jesus chose to involve only these three disciples. One was at the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Lk. 8:51; Mk. 5:37) and the other was in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk. 14:33).
So Jesus, Peter, James and John were on the mountain. Luke tells us, without elaboration, that Jesus’ face changed and that his clothes became dazzling white. Matthew in his parallel says, “Jesus’ face shone like the sun.” Both Matthew and Mark use the Greek word from which we get our English word metamorphosis to describe the change in Jesus. Jesus, quote, “was transfigured before them,” that is, before the disciples. To be transfigured is to be changed or transformed. But we have here only a brief description of outshining light from Jesus’ face and clothing to help us understand what actually occurred. Ultimately the Transfiguration is a mystery that we cannot fathom. Whatever happened, it was some sort of supernatural transformation. It appears to have been a temporary glorification of Jesus. That is, his future resurrected glory was seen. But it was not a permanent change, because Jesus was not yet resurrected.
There are two incidents in scripture, which help us a little, because they tell of similar events. One involved Moses whose face shined in a mysterious way after he received the Law from God on Mt. Sinai. Indeed his face shined so brightly that he was compelled to veil himself, because the light off his face frightened the people.
The other incident involved Stephen, whose face during his trial, is described as the face of an angel. Though these cases do not really parallel the Transfiguration of Jesus, they do support the idea that inward illumination can shine outwardly from a person. In the instance of Jesus, his countenance and clothing shined with a supernatural light of glorious splendor, in such a way as to make a permanent wondrous impression on the three disciples who were present.
In verse thirty, Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, adding a further supernatural element to the scene. There may be a couple of reasons for the appearance of Moses and Elijah. It may be because in Jewish tradition both of them were expected to appear in the end-time. But it also may be because Moses represents the law, and Elijah the prophets. And their coming to Jesus at his transfiguration suggests that he is superior to both the law and the prophets.
Luke tells us that the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah concerned Jesus’ “departure.” The Greek word that is translated “departure” does mean “departure.” It is used in the Greek Old Testament for the departure of the people of Israel from Egypt. Indeed the name of the book of Exodus comes from this word (exodon).
But the word also means “death,” because death is the great departure from physical life. And I believe that is the way Luke is using it. The NRSV and NIV both translate the word here as “departure,” but in my opinion, they should have translated it as “death.” The Old Testament characters were discussing with Jesus his coming death at Jerusalem.
Luke also tells us that the three disciples either were asleep during the earlier part of the conversation, or were nearly so. But they awoke before it was over. Thus they had an opportunity to see the glory of the scene and to hear the conversation. The phrase in verse 32, which the NRSV translates “since they had stayed awake,” is confusing. It is a translation of two Greek words that literally mean, “having been burdened with sleep.” The NIV translates those two words, “were very sleepy.” I personally believe that the NIV ‘s translation is much better.
In addition, in verse 33, Luke tells us that Peter spoke up just as Moses and Elijah appeared to be leaving. Peter’s reaction to the appearance of Moses and Elijah seems a bit silly to us, but it probably is more important than it seems on the surface. All of us tend to be like Peter in this way, and we can learn from him. Peter was experiencing what we have come to call “a mountain top experience.” And he didn’t want it to end. So he offered to build little huts for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, thinking that the huts would encourage them to stay. But of course that was silly. We all must come down off the mountain top experience and live in the day-to-day valleys of life.
In verses 34-36 we see two additional phenomena: a cloud and a voice. The cloud is a classic symbol of God. In the Old Testament, after the Exodus the cloud led the people of Israel through the wilderness when they traveled by day; the cloud settled on Mount Sinai at the time the law was given; and the cloud filled the tabernacle after it was built. Later it did the same when the temple was dedicated. There also is a New Testament example in addition to this one we are studying. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he ascended into the cloud.
In this incident the voice of God spoke from the cloud. He said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” And then the experience ended as suddenly as it began.
Now then, I think we need to ask ourselves what the effects of the experience were on both Jesus and the disciples. It obviously had a deep and abiding effect on all of them. In the case of Jesus, the Transfiguration experience was as important to him as was the earlier Baptism experience. Indeed, the two events have some strong similarities.
At the Baptism Jesus had come to a major transition point in his life. He had just completed the first stage of his earthly life, namely, the approximately thirty-year period of growth and maturation in obscurity. And he was about to begin a new stage of life, which was a public ministry to the masses. In addition, Jesus identified with sinful humanity at his Baptism by symbolically taking man’s sinfulness upon his own sinless person.
At the Transfiguration Jesus again was at a major transition point. The public ministry stage of his life was over; and he was launching into a private ministry to his closest disciples, a ministry that would conclude with Jesus’ suffering and death. Once again, as at the Baptism, Jesus was concerned with humanity’s sinfulness; and he made a fresh commitment to the Father’s will, which was to bring redemption to humanity.
By the time of the Transfiguration (actually by the time of Peter’s confession) Jesus has finished all that the Father wanted him to do insofar as his public ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing was concerned. Now Jesus was prepared to take his life and pour it out in death to fulfill completely the Father’s perfect will. If we follow carefully the life of Jesus after the Transfiguration, the one thought that constantly is before him, insofar as his mission is concerned, is his coming death. And he never wavers from moving towards it.
The response of the Father to Jesus at the Transfiguration is very much like the one made at his Baptism (In Matthew, it is exactly the same.). God’s voice from heaven declares: “this is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him.” Thus Jesus’ fresh commitment to do the Father’s will is given fresh approval from the Father. So we can see that the event deeply affected Jesus.
Now turning to the effects on the three disciples who were privileged to observe the event, we note that they also were deeply affected by the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John saw the shining transfiguration of Jesus’ face and clothes. They saw and heard Moses and Elijah speaking to Jesus. And they heard the voice from heaven. As we consider what effect this must have had on them, we remember that the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi had taken place shortly before this Transfiguration. Therefore the Transfiguration became a powerful confirmation of Jesus’ messiahship for the disciples. God himself had spoken from heaven declaring Jesus to be his Son.
In addition, this event provided confirmation of Jesus’ passion prediction that had puzzled the disciples so. Jesus had told them he must go to Jerusalem and die, something that not only mystified them, it angered them, because that was not what they had been taught the Messiah was supposed to do. But here at the Transfiguration the disciples saw Moses and Elijah discussing with Jesus his coming death. That helped them to get Jesus’ teachings about his passion into proper perspective. They must indeed “listen to him.”