Summary of the Text
Summary of the text
Intro: The Transfiguration stands out like, well, a bright light on a dark mountainside in the Gospel of Luke. The customary earthiness of the rest of the gospel falls away as heaven invades earth for a brief and glorious moment. Anything that stands out like this (especially in the place it falls in the gospel’s progression) should command our immediate and close attention.
The place of the Transfiguration in Luke’s gospel: Luke’s gospel is constantly raising the question of Jesus’ identity. His miraculous birth narrative, his baptism, his triumph over temptation, his miracles and exorcisms, not to mention his willingness to be with the sick and sinners, all raise the question of who he is.
Hints give way to open confession in Luke 9:19 with Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ of God.” Peter gets it. Jesus is the Messiah.
This is a critical moment, a high point, in the narrative. It is followed by a narrative low point: Jesus’ prediction of his and his disciples’ deaths. For many (though the notion of the Messiah was by no means monolithic or universal), a crucified Messiah was no Messiah at all. Jesus is reworking the very notion of Messiah-hood.
This is the context of the Transfiguration.
The timing and location of the Transfiguration: Luke says it comes eight days later. A week plus a Sunday. The other synoptics say six days. This may just be a different way of counting in the other gospels, perhaps leaving off partial days.
The gospels give us no location other than “a mountain.” Origen says that it was Mount Tabor and that is the current location where it is commemorated.
Jesus’ light in the Transfiguration: Luke tells us that Jesus’ face “changed” and his clothes become dazzlingly white (exastraptōn). Matthew tells us that his face shone as well (Matt 17:2). Jesus didn’t just glow. He was bright “like lightning.”
While light has a few different functions in the Old Testament, the relevant one here is the glory of God. God displays his unapproachable holiness and glory with light in the Old Testament: in the pillar of cloud, in his presence in the tabernacle and temple, his presence as described in the Psalms (e.g., 18), in Isaiah 4 with the renewal of Israel and God’s presence in it, and in visions like Daniel’s of the Ancient of Days.
The most obvious connection is that which the Old Testament reading highlights: Moses’ appearance after meeting with God in Exodus 34:29-35. Jesus is the second Moses. Indeed, he is greater than Moses, who comes to him on the mountain. Jesus shines before entering the cloud. Moses, only after leaving it.
As Peter later writes (2 Peter 1:16-18), the Father is giving Jesus “honor and glory” on the mountain. And John, who speaks of Jesus as “the Light” (John 1:4-9), says “we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Eschatology and the Transfiguration: The Transfiguration is eschatological. The glory of God emanating from Jesus (and later covering him in a cloud) is the return of God’s visible presence to Israel. It left Israel in the heartbreaking story of Ezekiel 10. It never returned, even with the rebuilding of the second Temple, and the people of Israel hoped for its return (see Greene, 2016). Jesus’ appearance and the cloud were unmistakable signs of God’s return to Israel in Jesus. The glory of God would return to the Temple in the bodily form of Jesus, only to be rejected.
Moses, Elijah, and the Disciples: There are a whole cloud of associations that are at work here. They are representatives of the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament. Both are eschatological figures. Moses foretells a prophet like himself from among the Israelites in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. Elijah was widely expected to come before the Messiah — a function fulfilled by John the Baptist. They also filled important roles that Jesus stands in. Moses was a teacher and leader of Israel — so is Jesus. Elijah was a prophet who called the people to repentance and stood up to the political authorities — so is Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus and Elijah faced adversity and even deep anguish due to the jobs God had for them to do — Jesus would too at Gethsemane.
Perhaps most fundamentally, it is the unity of the people of God that is being revealed by the appearance of Moses and Elijah. They stand together with Jesus while the future apostles gawk in amazement. Jesus stands between them, uniting them. Moses and Elijah have run their race, and faced down incredible opposition and trials in the service of God. Peter, James, and John have only begun. Their role in the drama is to come, and Jesus is the pivot on which past and future turn.
They have an almost comic role to play. They almost miss the whole thing, having almost fallen asleep while Jesus was praying (they will fall asleep during a critical moment of prayer in Jesus’s life at Gethsemane). They may be the rising stars of the new kingdom to come, but they are not ready for prime time yet. There is a lot of discipleship left to go. Luke likely highlights their flaws for the sake of his readers who are themselves on the road of discipleship too, and can see themselves in the disciples.
Peter’s untimely declaration stands in contrast to his confession a few verses earlier. As Luke says, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Why is he talking about building booths or tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah? Booths or tabernacles would speak of a kind of permanence of inhabitation on the mountain (also a potential connection to Sukkot). Perhaps he thinks this is it, this is the coming of the kingdom. Perhaps he wants to plant the standard here and let Jesus hold court with the greats of the Old Testament together. Maybe he thinks that the deadly consequences of Messiah-hood won’t come to pass if they stay there together.
The cloud and the voice: No sooner does Peter speak than a cloud descends and a voice speaks out of it. If the light was a sign of the divine presence, the cloud is unmistakably one. The cloud before Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 13:21), the clouds on Sinai (Exodus 24:15-18), the cloud of presence in the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35) and Temple (2 Chronicles 5:13-14) were all clear signs of God’s presence. As mentioned above, this manifestation of God’s presence had never again occurred after the destruction of the first Temple and the exile. There was no room for mistake for the disciples. No wonder they were terrified: God was present and they were not priests, they were not prepared by ritual and sacrifice, they were not even washed.
The voice is critical. God testifies to the identity of his Son and endorses his message: and that message is critical in Luke, who gives us a unique trove of his teaching in the passages intervening between here and the triumphal entry.
And then, it’s over. Just like that, Jesus is alone with them on the mountaintop.
An interesting detail: Luke tells us in 9:37 that they don’t come down from the mountain until “the next day.” So, that means they spent the night on the mountain. What must that have been like? Did they pepper Jesus with questions? Or was it all stunned silence?
Reconceiving Messiah-hood: As pointed out toward the beginning, Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah (a high point in the narrative), Jesus tells them that he will die and so will they (a low point), and then comes the Transfiguration (a still higher point in the narrative).
If the three disciples had doubts, they have discovered that, whatever may come, Jesus really is the Messiah. He shined with the glory of God, spoke with Moses and Elijah about his coming “exodus,” and was given the imprimatur of the cloud of presence. No matter how bad things were going to look (both for the disciples and Luke’s readers), somehow this was God’s plan for his Messiah. He might die. They might die. And yet, the truth remained. God has spoken.
Who is Jesus? The transfiguration is a powerful attestation to who Jesus of Nazareth is. He is the Messiah. He is the culmination of the promises of the Old Testament to Israel and the initiator of the new covenant by which we have been ingrafted into the family of God. He is exactly who Peter said he was a few days before, though Peter himself did not fully understand what that meant. And the divine presence descended onto that mountain in a way that his disciples could not fail to recognize and spoke to them and us: Jesus is the Son of God. We are to listen to him.
To say that Jesus is the messiah is to recognize that all of the Old Testament promises are realized in him. Jesus is the son of man, the son of David, the messianic king, the king of Israel and of the world. No other king can have our full allegiance.
Looking back through the lens of the rest of Scripture and Nicea, we can unpack this in ways Luke probably couldn’t appreciate, that Jesus is equal with his Father because he is himself God.
We must obey Jesus: Jesus is vested with divine authority by the very voice of God. When Jesus speaks, we must listen. It must change our lives if we, too, are to be his disciples. We are to read the rest of Luke’s gospel and the rest of the gospels in light of this command.
How well do we listen? How deeply have his words penetrated into our hearts? I know that they have not gone deeply enough in my case. I sometimes forget his lessons. I sometimes treat them as optional. They are not. This reminder calls us all to repentance and entering the future with new resolution to live out the lessons of Jesus. Of course we will fall short — but trusting in the Spirit to move us closer and closer to the image of Jesus, we will go deeper and deeper into God.
We should let the Transfiguration act on our hearts: This is harder. How do we get a congregation to see what happened as something real? To put themselves in the place of the disciples and try to go through the experience?
I asked the congregation to imagine the story along with me and tried to tell it in vivid, experiential terms. The gospel is a narrative for exactly this reason. It is offered for us to live through second-hand. Where possible, use short, punchy sentences to get this across.
Here are some points I emphasized in telling the story:
- The familiar Jesus became unfamiliar in an instant. He shone with light like a sustained flash of lightning.
- They were almost asleep. Imagine the confusion. The shock and struggle to make sense of what they were seeing.
- This was not like the miracles, which Jesus did for others. This was Jesus himself shining like the sun.
- They would have been in awe, but swinging toward terror.
- How did they know who Moses and Elijah were? But recognizing them, can you imagine how starstruck they must have been?
- Some sympathy for Peter: no wonder Peter had no idea what he was saying. How could anyone under the circumstances?
- The sudden descent of the cloud cut off their vision. They went from confusion and awe to the unmistakable witnesses of God’s glory itself, right in front of them. They were unready for it and unworthy. Of course they were terrified.
- Was the voice loud? Quiet? The words would have had the weight of mountains.
- Then the suddenness of Jesus’ reappearance, just normal, extraordinary Jesus. Their beloved rabbi. And they were suddenly safe. They had survived.
- How did they not weep in wonder, fear, relief?
If we can see the Transfiguration as Luke (and the other evangelists) wrote it, it is like a tuning fork to set the tone of our hearts. In it, we see Jesus’s glory, his majesty. The honor and glory of the Father being bestowed on the Son. It should not only work on our minds and wills, telling us that Jesus should be believed and obeyed — of course his should. But it should form our hearts, taking us with the disciples through awe, fear, worship, love, and trust.
Bill Rowley (PhD, University of Rochester) is an executive assistant for The Pastor’s Workshop and an occasional lay preacher. An epistemologist and philosopher of religion, he has taught courses in philosophy and college-level writing and worked as an editor. He lives in Hamden, Connecticut with his wife and two dogs.
The Earthiness of the Gospels
The gospels are earthy. At least that’s how they read to me. People are close to the earth. They travel here and there by foot. They eat the live heads of grain growing from the soil as they walk through the fields. They get grubby and have to have their feet washed. A baby is placed with the livestock to sleep. Rural Galilee is, after all, an earthy place: dirty, probably a bit smelly, but bursting with life.
Even the miracles are earthy. Jesus touches lepers. Paralytics are lowered through the thatch and mud debris from tearing up the roof. Hands tear fish and bread into pieces to share on the mountainside. Jesus makes mud to put on the blind man’s eyes.
And all this makes sense. Incarnation is earthy business. To be one of us, the Son of God had to get dirty. The gospel writers anticipate the earliest heresies to beset the Church: Docetists, Gnostics, Arians, they all wanted to deny that true God of true God got down in the dirt with us.
Christ did not enchant men; He demanded that they believe in Him: except on one occasion, the Transfiguration. For a brief while, Peter, James, and John were permitted to see Him in His glory. For that brief while they had no need of faith. The vision vanished, and the memory of it did not prevent them from all forsaking Him when He was arrested, or Peter from denying that he had ever known Him.
– W. H. Auden, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden, Vol 6 (Princeton, 2015)