The Transfiguration in Luke

This week’s lectionary gospel reading, the last Sunday before Lent, is Luke 9.28-36, this gospel’s account of the Transfiguration, with the option of continuing to read the episode that follows immediately on the descent from the mountain. There some important things to note in relation to this passage as we think about preaching on it.

All three Synoptic accounts place this immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus then starts to talk about his betrayal and death. They seem to want us to hold these two truths together: that the Son of Man is one who is humble and obedient even to death; and yet he is also the one spoken of in Daniel 7 where he comes to the Ancient of Days and receives a kingdom that will never end. Both of these are true about Jesus, and both must be held together. This is made clear by the final saying of Jesus in the previous pericope (section):

Amen I say to you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the the kingdom of God (Luke 9.27).

Note that Mark adds ‘with power’ in his parallel (Mark 9.1), and Matthew uses the phrase ‘the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt 16.28); this is the erchomenos language of Matt 24 referring to the Son of Man coming to the Ancient of Days, not the parousia language of Jesus’ return at the End, so we can see that all three understand Jesus’ comment as a reference to his exaltation and ascension, and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost followed by the preaching of the gospel.

All three gospels then follow this by specifying the short time period of about a week between that and the revelation on the mountain (the difference between Luke’s ‘eight days’ and Matthew and Mark’s ‘six days’ being the difference between inclusive and exclusive ways of counting), the only place in Matthew where he is so specific about a time period. The ‘some’ makes sense when we see Jesus taking with him only his inner circle of Peter, James and John, as he does later at Gethsemane. John then talks of having ‘seen [Jesus’] glory’ (John 1.14) and 2 Peter 1.17–18 also includes testimony to this incident. Mikeal Parsons describes this narrative as having the form of a ‘dream-vision’ (and notes that Matthew uses the term horama, vision or sight, in Matt 17.9) but there is no sense that any of the gospel writers think of it as something different in kind from the events before and after. Luke is alone in specifying that Jesus took the three with him ‘to pray’; prayer is one of the distinctive focusses of Luke’s narrative (notice the Lukan mention of prayer earlier in the chapter in Luke 9.18 and the later mention of Jesus’ praying as the context for teaching the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11.1).

The language of ‘transfiguration’ (which derives from the Latin of the Vulgate here), is rather unhelpful. There is a ‘transformation’, but in contrast to the other incident of divine revelation from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3, the perspective is that of the disciples, not of Jesus himself. So he is transformed ‘before them’ and Moses and Elijah appear ‘before them’. In fact, the whole emphasis is on the disciples (count how many times ‘they’ or ‘them’ occur). As is clear from the ending of the episode, where Jesus is alone, the point is not a change in Jesus, but a change in their understanding of who he is. The full truth will only come after his death and resurrection, but these privileged three have a foretaste, an anticipation ahead of time, which will only really make sense later.

The three Synoptics vary considerably in the exact language that they use to describe Jesus’ appearance; it is difficult to know what it would have looked like had we been there and filmed it on our iPhones, but what the gospel writers want us to know is its significance. The language Matthew uses focusses on divine presence, picking up Old Testament language of God as clothed in light, but Luke draws more parallels with Moses’ face shining (Ex 34.29) and this fits with Moses also taking three named persons up a mountain with him (along with 70 others, Ex 24.1, 9), and God’s voice coming from an overshadowing cloud (Ex 24.15–18).

The appearance of Moses and Elijah is introduced by Luke in a way that connects with other parts of his story. The phrase ‘And behold, two men’ (Luke 9.30) also occurs at the empty tomb (Luke 24.4) and at the ascension in Acts 1.10. This does not imply that the men at the same characters, but the phrase connects the three moments (transfiguration, resurrection and ascension) when Jesus’ divine identity is most clearly displayed. In popular readings, Moses and Elijah are often thought to represent the law and the prophets. But Elijah was not one of the writing prophets, and in Jewish tradition the mysterious circumstances of Moses’ death on Mount Nebo (Deut 34.5–6) and Elijah’s being taken up to God on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2.11) earned them the title of ‘the deathless ones’. Their presence with Jesus is an anticipation of Jesus’ own conquest of death. They also signify the rescuing of God’s people from slavery to freedom (Moses) and the call to faithfulness (Elijah); both encountered God on the mountain (Sinai/Horeb) and both experienced rejection by and suffering at the hands of God’s own people, which makes the connection between the suffering Jesus has just spoken of and the glory which he will receive.

The account of their conversation in Luke 9.31–33 is unique to the third gospel. The language of Jesus’ ‘departure’ uses the Greek term exodus which both connects Jesus with Moses once more, but also ties this episode into the wider narrative, both looking back to the hope of deliverance in the Benedictus in Luke 1, and anticipating everything Jesus is to ‘accomplish’ in Jerusalem. The sleepiness of Peter and his companions anticipates their sleepy failure in Gethsemane (Luke 22.45).

Peter’s clumsy interjection, offering to make shelters and capture the moment, is ameliorated by both Mark and Luke in their explanation that he didn’t know what to say in the context of such an unsettling experience. He appears to want the experience to persist, or perhaps to try and make his own contribution when he really should have been simply attending to what was before him. (There is a possibility that Peter’s action reflects a Jewish tradition arising from Ps 43.3: ‘Send your light and your truth; let them bring me to your holy mountain and your tents’; in a later Midrash, the ‘light’ is understood to be Elijah and the ‘truth’ to be the anticipated Messiah.) He has not yet understood that this is a momentary drawing back of the curtain, giving him and the other two a glimpse of the heavenly reality of who Jesus really is, but that this is not the end of the story—yet.

They are covered with a ‘cloud full of light’; all through the story of scripture, clouds signify the presence of God (which is more easy to understand if you live in a country where the sky is blue for much of the time) and this evokes fear as well as awe (compare Ezek 1.4). The voice of God here echoes what was said at Jesus baptism (Luke 3.22), and this time there is no ambiguity as to whether the words are addressed to Jesus or to those watching—the audience of the three disciples are commanded or invited to listen to him. Jesus is not simply one like Moses or Elijah; he far transcends them as the Son of the Living God, the one in whom we encounter God’s own presence and glory. The words also echo Is 42.1, making again the connection between suffering and glory.

Luke moves on to the next episode of Jesus’ ministry, but both Matthew and Mark fill out the details of the disciples’ puzzlement. They still do not understand the significance of this vision or insight—and indeed, they will not until they have begun to make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are slowly putting together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of Jesus’ identity and how he is fulfilling the purposes of God. We are like those who have been given the puzzle box, with the finished picture on the outside so that we can see with hindsight where the pieces fit together.

In any relationship, it takes time to understand and get to know someone, and even with people we know well, there are times when we gain particular insight into their character by something they do or say which gives us fresh insight into who they are. This seems to be how the Transfiguration functions for the three disciples, and offers key insight into who Jesus is. Is it an insight we have yet gained for ourselves?

(Parts of this post were first published in 2017.)

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15 thoughts on “The Transfiguration in Luke”

  1. Thanks Ian – from someone preaching this Sunday. I am grateful to be led through the passage afresh.
    Two borrowed thoughts always come to mind when this story comes round.
    Asked why the story is there at all the late Bishop Geoffrey Paul once said – ‘it’s a treat’.
    Second, is the profound reflection by, I think, Philip Seddon, that Gethsemane is the photographic negative of the Transfiguration.
    Thanks again

    • Thanks! Yes, it is a treat…though I suppose it might be there because a. it happened and b. the synoptic writers understood its central significance, albeit in slightly different ways (though it is striking how much of the triple tradition is shared verbatim in the three accounts).

      That’s a lovely phrase from Philip, and I think that is particularly true for Luke, with the connections backwards and forwards in his overall narrative. The addition of the comment about the disciples sleeping—presumably from Luke’s unique intro, whilst Jesus was praying—makes an especially strong connection.

  2. In favour of Ehrman’s identification of the similarly-described ‘2 men’ in white at the Ascension with the Moses and Elijah who appear here are:
    (a) new and striking reference to their joint planning with Jesus at transfiguration of an ‘exodus’ event (exodus from earth therefore, rather than harrowing of hell being referred to here);
    (b) ascension being an Elijah theme and not unMosaic;
    (c) other Elijah themes being covered by Luke, and this one being so major as to be unomittable (not that that requires Elijah’s actual presence).

      • That’s right. There are of course always plenty of cases where deduction is our only option, but my reason for classifying this text as one of them is that ‘exodus’ is intrinsically teasing. *Whatever* it implies, Luke makes no mention of that thing – so IMHO deduction is our only option here as sometimes elsewhere. But then it becomes a case of weighing the merits of different possible deductions.

      • Oh I see – you mean no mention of the identity of the 2 at the Ascension.

        That’s right too. My best point there is that there’s an inclusio:
        -(a) The Elijah piecemeal references are bookended by Transfiguration and Ascension.

        -(b) This also encloses a Moses cycle (9.51-18.14 // Dt 1-26).

        -(c) There are no other obvious cycles herein.

        -(d) The first piecemeal reference is 9.51-5 which is both Moses and Elijah.

        [The gospel’s larger-scale Elijah/Elisha references prefigured at Nazareth sermon – Nain and Lepers – belong to a separate system. Nazareth sermon combines Isa61 with Elijah/Elisha, and within the narrative we get 3 woman-then-man pairs: debtor woman+man; oppressed woman+man; Nain-widow+leper. These correspond exactly to Luke’s new narrative material.]

  3. Ian, I was rereading Richard Middleton’s ‘A New Heaven and a New Earth’ (recommended) and in it he says he is unconvinced by the traditional view that when one dies (if you’re ‘saved’) you go to be with God in heaven. Rather he tends to argue the bible teaches when you die, you’re really dead (!) until the final resurrection.

    Do you think the Transfiguration contradicts this, given the appearance of Moses and Elijah, though it appears their ‘deaths’ were not normal.


  4. I have been pondering the signficance of Jesus taking the three to pray. Their somnolence suggests that they were there for support, as in Gethsemene, rather than direct participation. This suggests to me that the whole event was not ‘laid on’ for the benefit of the disciples in order to give them more of an insight into Jesus. Rather, at this critical time Jesus goes up the mountain to pray, and needs the support of his close friends. Prior to this Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection. After this, Luke writes that Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (v51). This talking with Moses and Elijah about his ‘exodus’ seems to me part of Jesus prayerfully become more and more committed to his mission. The three were privileged to be witnesses of this, but that was not the main purpose.

    A more mischevious thought comes from Jesus’ prayer involving talking with Moses and Elijah. Does this teach us anything about praying to/with saints?

  5. Thanks Ian, After the transfiguration Jesus sets His face to Jerusalem (9:51) . It is almost as though this was a necessary part of the prepartion for Gethsemane and Calvary.

  6. As to whether Transfiguration and Ascension merit being called an inclusio:

    I would answer yes for the following reasons, while also allowing that Resurrection-Ascension may be seen as a unit (both have ‘idou andres duo’; each is an ‘exodus’ of sorts; exodus is a word that summarises what the 2 have in common, where they overlap):

    1. 2 larger events bookending all of the smaller references in Luke’s Elijah cycle (within which is also his Moses cycle);

    2. Both being [quasi-]theophanies, manifestations of glory (something rare);

    3. Both being not-dead scenarii (the fact that they are still alive is required by the Transfiguration);

    4.Both being ascension scenarii (they are at the Transfiguration because they ascended rather than died);

    5. Both being mountain scenarii (not too common);

    6. Both referencing a cloud (rare);

    7. All 3 (Transfiguration; Resurrection; Ascension) having the [likely, deliberate] new phrase ‘idou andres duo’, which may have the purpose of linking the 3 scenes;

    8. Both referencing ‘exodus’ of sorts;

    9. Symbiosis: the initial ‘exodus’ reference explicitly pointing forward to the actual exodus [prophecy and fulfilment];

    10. Luke’s ‘exodus’ addition is too (a) striking & (b) specific to be optional, and if its purpose were too vague then it would be optional. We can tell what counts as a comparatively striking addition by reference to the rest of Luke, and this is most definitely at the upper end of strikingness.

    11. There is purpose to their exodus-conversation if they were to meet again at the aforementioned exodus. Less purpose otherwise.

    12. The exodus is to be ‘at Jerusalem’ and the journey to Jerusalem commences very shortly after the Transfiguration.

    13. Luke-Acts’s structure, a conscious change from Mark and Matt (because of ‘remain in Jerusalem’), is centripetal in the ministry and centrifugal in Acts, so the suggested inclusio fits well with wider structural considerations.

    Brodie, ‘The Crucial Bridge’ explores the structural role of the Ascension within the Elijah material.
    It is also the case that if Luke is the gospel that majors on a prophet-Christology (and includes cycles for both Moses and Elijah), he is very likely to make a bit more of this Moses-Elijah incident (the Transfiguration) than the other gospels do, and to give it more of a structural role.

  7. Thank you, Ian, for the necessary movement from your scripture exegesis to your application:
    “This seems to be how the Transfiguration functions for the three disciples, and offers key insight into who Jesus is. Is it an insight we have yet gained for ourselves?”
    He is the fullness of the glory God revealed.
    And as you said, “he far transcends them as the Son of the Living God, the one in whom we encounter God’s own presence and glory. ” That is the presence and glory of God alluded to and revealed in the Old Testament.
    Have we, do we?
    Does it move us to enjoy him and worship him? To know him experientially?

  8. At New Year 2017 I experienced a Brocken Spectre on th Howgill Fells and wonder if Jesus had gone up Mt Hermon and not the tiny mt Tabor and it was a Brocken spectre and seen as significant. Th is may be heresy.

  9. There’s an interesting parallel in the final Harry Potter film (DH pt 2) where Harry has a vision of his parents (who have died sacrificial deaths) and others (his ‘godfather’ I think) who have given their lives for him, where they strengthen Harry’s resolve to go to his death. A rather nice contemporary echo of something similar to Moses and Elijah with Jesus here.


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