What does the Transfiguration mean in Luke 9?

The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for the last Sunday before Lent in this Year C 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 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), and this is 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. (It is also interesting to note the way that Paul connects issues of glory and suffering with Moses’ experience on Sinai and the language of being ‘transformed’, using the same verb metamorpheo that translated ‘transfigured’ in Matthew and Mark, in 1 2 Cor 3.18.)

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; we might translated the term ἰδοὺ as ‘take note!’ to capture its impact. 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; looking at the three passages in parallel very clearly shows the gap in Matthew and Mark where Luke includes his commentary on both the conversation of Jesus with Moses and Elijah and the sleep of the disciples. 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, and so once more confirms Luke’s focus on the importance of 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.

This leaves two major issues as a challenge for contemporary discipleship. The first arises from the juxtaposition of this episode with what immediately preceded it, and the links Luke makes by use of his ‘Behold, two men…!’. The transfiguration, the resurrection, and the ascension are linked together, but in every case the moment of glory follows from and arises out of a revelation or a moment of suffering. We find these two themes intertwined all through the Scriptures, including in the stories of Moses and Elijah themselves. John sums it up neatly in Revelation 1.9: ‘I, John, your brother and companion in suffering, kingdom, and patient endurance that are in Jesus…’ Some object to the idea that ‘suffering’ is ours ‘in Jesus’, but Luke leaves us in no doubt. Are we ready to embrace both suffering and glory? And in those hard and testing times will we continue to look to the exalted Jesus and allow our hardship to be take up in praise?

Secondly, 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? All too often we end up choosing which aspects of Jesus we like or find convivial, and ignore other aspects of who he is, thus making Jesus in our own image. But, just as with the first disciples, he will not allow us to pick and choose; if he is not Lord in all the ways he claims, he is not Lord at all.

Join us for our video conversation in which we explore all these issues and reflect on reading, preaching, and application:

(Published in earlier, shorter versions in 2017 and 2019.)

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49 thoughts on “What does the Transfiguration mean in Luke 9?”

  1. Thank you for this. While it may be an iteration of previous posts, it is a necessay one. Like the disciples we we just don’t get who Jesus is in one sitting.
    Three main ideas occur to me.
    1 Connectivity: the interconnectivity, longtitudinally of the whole of scripture, scripture interpreting scripture in themes, patterns, figures, types, echoes allusions. A phrase more usually employed in systematic theology – the whole counsel of God comes to mind.
    2 Transcendant, scripture fulfilling Christ, and an an upgrade, uplift of our understanding and knowing him.
    3 Deathless ones, Moses and Elijah, the ultimate exodus from death to life.
    This also has echoes of Enoch, who *walked with God and was no more* : an isolated exception ( but also part of God’s plan of redemption) in midst of generations that terminated in death, with the repeated refrain, *and he died*. Enoch who foreshadowed, Moses and the exodus, a prophetic figuring of Jesus. Hebrews 11: 5

  2. Given the central section 9.51-18.14 (shortly following 9.31 ‘exodus’) whose central OT features are a Moses sequence (Dt 1-26) and plenty of key Elijah details interspersed, the duoviri of ‘Transfiguration’ and Resurrection could be an inclusio round these. However this is not the only inclusio, as I believe that Luke already inserted the ‘lightning’ appearance into Mark at ‘Transfiguration’ and then recapitulates that in 24.4, the same verse as the ‘two men’. And if 24.12 is original then the solitary Peter together with his puzzlement becomes a third and fourth inclusio.

    But at this stage Luke seems not to have planned Acts, given that he puts the ascension in Lk 24. So to date there are just 2 appearances of the ‘2 men’, which bookend. Ascension for Elijah’s departure does however work nicely between all the Elijah material in Luke and the Elisha material in Acts 8 Ethiopian eunuch, and acts (with its ‘taken up’ language) as what TL Brodie called ‘The Crucial Bridge’ between Luke and Acts as between 3 and 4 Kingdoms. Resurrections and ascensions are both exoduses in their own way.

    As said, ‘two men’ is clearly a deliberate structural feature, being so redundant (and *yet* an addition) in the ‘transfiguration’ story.

  3. 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.

    One can accept that Matt 16:28 and the related saying in Luke refer to the ascension, but it does not follow that both are referring to Dan 7:13-14. There are differences as well as similarities. In Daniel he, Jesus, comes with ‘the clouds of heaven’, plural, and pointedly clouds not familiar to normal experience. Matt 24:30 and Rev 1:7 expressly indicate that these have yet to occur. So Jesus appears with the clouds of heaven, takes up those who belong to him, presents himself to his Father, and at that point receives the kingdom, the same moment as in Rev 11:15. All authority in heaven and on earth was given to him at the ascension; it does not follow that that authority was actualised at that point. We still pray, “Your kingdom come.”

    The use of erchomenos does not have the significance ascribed. The verb is used repeatedly in Revelation (e.g. Rev 1:7, 3:11) to refer to his coming in the future. If I recollect correctly, parousia does not appear in Revelation at all.

    • Dare I suggest that you have missed the point? Ian seems to me to be illustrating that the Gospels hold together the suffering and the glorification of the Son of Man, and the latter is anticipated in the transfiguration.

      Even to someone like me who has not been studying NT Greek for very long it is evident that erchomai and its cognates are extremely common in the NT, and it should be bourne in mind that it can mean both ‘come’ and ‘go’. However, the coming (erchomenos) of the Son of Man seems to be a particular phrase and it clearly alludes to Daniel 7, where the ‘coming’ is not to the Earth, but to the Ancient of Days.

      It is true that Revelation does not use perousia. However, there are two uses (Rev 1:13, 14:14) of the phrase ‘Son of Man’. In both cases, the associated imagery is that of glory. Indeed, in the second, this ‘Son of Man’ is seated (a position of honour and authority) on a cloud. If this is any reference to Daniel, then I would suggest that it is imagery of what follows the ‘coming’ of the Son of Man to the ancient of days to receive that honour and authority.

      • I fear it is you have missed the point(s), as regards my comment. To repeat, the differences have to be respected as well as the similarities. In Daniel the Messiah comes with ‘the clouds of heaven’, clouds (plural) not familiar to normal experience. Matt 24:30 and Rev 1:7 expressly indicate that these have yet to occur. Thus one needs to distinguish between the Messiah’s ascending to the father to sit at his right hand – which is not described in Daniel 7 terms, and which occurred in AD 30 – and his coming with the clouds of heaven at the end of the age, which has yet to occur.

        Rev 1:13 evokes Dan 7 by virtue of his being ‘like’ a son of man. He is indeed transfigured in 1:13, for when he comes in the future – the second event above – he will come in glory. Rev 14:14 evokes the phrase in 1:13 rather than Daniel per se, and the cloud is singular. The last mention of a cloud is at Rev 10:1. The context of 14:14 is not Christ coming to the Father and receiving the kingdom but the bloody banquet of God.

        “Is seated” – or “sits” (the English phrase “is seated” imparts a dignity that is not intrinsic to the Greek) – does not in itself denote a position of honour and authority. Compare Rev 17:1, Matt 4:16, 9:9.

        • Steven, you say ‘ Matt 24:30 and Rev 1:7 expressly indicate that these have yet to occur.’

          The first is clearly not true, since Jesus, just 4 verses later, says quite emphatically ‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’

          So Matthew, writing as that generation is passing away, appears completely confident that Jesus’ words were true, and that all those things had indeed happened, including ‘the Son of Man coming [to God] on the clouds of heaven’.

          And our reading of Rev 1.7 is entirely dependent on that, since these are the only two places in the NT where the citations from Dan 7 and Zech 12 occur together. I demonstrate that this verse is indeed about the Lordship of Jesus on the throne, and not his parousia, in this article as well as in my commentary:


          • I can accept your understanding of the clouds, but how has ‘every eye will see him even those who pierced him’ already occurred? Did the Roman leaders and soldiers, and Jewish leaders who wanted him dead see him? And how did ‘all peoples’ mourn?

            That is what I dont get.


          • Thanks Peter. Three things to note here:

            1. Is it true that, as Jesus says in Matt 24.2, ‘not one stone will be left upon another’? No—because it is hyperbole. We often say things that ‘EVERYONE knows who X is’ by which we mean ‘A lot…’ or ‘most…’ This is a normal use of human language.

            2. The quotation is from Zech 12, and the context there is very clearly Israel and the tribes of the land, not the ‘peoples of the earth’. In fact, phule really cannot mean ‘people’ despite the claims of the NIV and others; they are pushed into this wrong translation by a prior (wrong) conviction that this is about the parousia.

            3. The tribes of Israel did indeed mourn; in Acts 2.37 all those listening are ‘cut to the heart’ when they realise what they have done, and they repent and believe. Luke makes a point of showing that they are Jews from all over the known world. And the leaders of both Israel and Rome ‘see’ the power of the risen Jesus on the throne by means of the signs and wonders of the apostles and the rapid growth of the early church.

          • The first is clearly not true, since Jesus, just 4 verses later, says quite emphatically ‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’

            This is far from clear to me. The most natural reading of Matt 24:3-35 is that the events leading up to the parousia are given in chronological order (allowing for v. 14’s anticipation of the end described at more length in vv. 29-31), and that is how I read the passage. As we have discussed before, when Jesus says that this generation will not pass away until all these things take place, he is in my opinion referring to the generation that sees the rejuvenation of the fig tree, which symbolises the re-establishment of the state of Israel. That’s why I think the tribulation described in Rev 8-9 is imminent.

            ‘All these things’ includes meteoroids falling from heaven, all the peoples of the earth wailing because they know the Great Day of the Lord’s wrath has come and all the peoples of the earth seeing his glory. None of these things have yet happened.

          • ‘The most natural reading of Matt 24:3-35 is that the events leading up to the parousia are given in chronological order (allowing for v. 14’s anticipation of the end described at more length in vv. 29-31), and that is how I read the passage.’

            Well, I think you are mistaken. There is nothing natural about that reading at all, as I have explained elsewhere at length. There is no mention that this is the parousia; this language is only introduced at v 36.

            To read ‘this generation’ as something other than the generation Jesus is speaking to is to make words mean what you want, rather than what they mean. Jesus is emphatic that it will all happen with a lifetime.

            And the link with Dan 7 is quite explicit in the language.

            If you think that the only way to read this language is about literal meteors, I pity you if ever someone tells you ‘the earth moved’ or ‘it is raining cats and dogs’. You will find that all rather confusing!


          • Jesus is emphatic that it will all happen with a lifetime.
            That being your view, all you are doing is saying that Jesus got it wrong, since the events forecast did not happen.

            If you think that the only way to read this language is about literal meteors, I pity you.
            The text is: ‘the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’ Perhaps you are not aware that ‘star’ in the age before modern astronomy just means a luminous heavenly body, even in our own language, e.g. ‘shooting star’ (meaning a meteoroid that becomes luminous as it burns up in the atmosphere). Cats and dogs falling from heaven is not something I would ever recognise as a natural event, but scientists know about meteoroid showers and asteroid impacts. So does Scripture (Jos 10:11).

            Referring to the same event as Matt 24:29 (and Isa 34:4), Rev 6:13 and 16:21 both refer to stones raining down on God’s enemies; the latter verse even gives their weight. Rev 8:8 refers to a much bigger body crashing into the sea. If you think to neutralise this horrifying vision by substituting a harmless metaphor, as is the wont of theologians, that’s up to you, but the alleged metaphor has the effect of killing a third of oceanic animal life and wrecking a third of all ships.

            Of course, if everything in Matt 24:3-31 is metaphor without referents in the real physical and human world, it won’t trouble you that none of it happened in Jesus’s generation.

            ‘This generation’ is certainly not unambiguous, but it cannot be the same generation as ‘this generation’ in Matt 23:36, because this is precluded by the question addressed (Matt 24:3) and by the chronological markers at v. 6 and v. 8. Had I been the speaker and wished, for the sake of those dull of hearing, not to be ambiguous, I would have used a phrase such as ‘those standing here’ (as in Matt 16:28).

          • ‘Jesus is emphatic that it will all happen with a lifetime.
            That being your view, all you are doing is saying that Jesus got it wrong, since the events forecast did not happen.’

            No, I am pointing out that that is what *you* are doing. There is really no getting around the grammar of Matt 24.34. That is why C S Lewis called it ‘the most embarrassing verse in the Bible’. It is the reason why many scholars think that Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic prophet—because he clearly expected the world to end, and it didn’t.

            But what they and you are doing is misreading what it is that would happen in his lifetime. It all hinges on the ‘coming of the Son of man on the clouds’, which could just as well be translated ‘the going of the Son of Man on the clouds’. It is a quotation from Dan 7.13, and the direction of travel there is very clearly *from* the earth *to* the throne of God. There is no getting away from that too!

            In other words, this is *not* about Jesus’ return (the technical term ‘parousia’ does not occur anywhere here—but only after Matt 24.36) but about his ascension.

            And in the ancient world, stars were also powers, not merely physical objects. So ‘stars falling’ signified what we would now call social and political upheaval.

            Besides, Peter uses the same language at Pentecost, and he says that Joel’s prediction of such cosmic signs was fulfilled now, at Pentecost, since in ‘these last days’ the Spirit was outpoured and ‘all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved’, which Paul also cites in Romans 10.

            Do have a look at the whole article here: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/what-is-matthew-24-all-about/

  4. Ian Paul – many thanks – a very nice piece which was informative – but I can’t really comment on the first part – that should be left to experts such as you – and I enjoyed Christopher Shell’s comment.

    I’m a bit uneasy about the two conclusions, though. For the first one, well yes, we’d all like to think that we are ready to suffer for Christ if it is required of us, but – frankly – despite what we’re lead to believe about bravery in standing up for Christ, I get the impression that the current age is rather soft on that. For example, Christians may come under fire for stating the Christian position on marriage, but I haven’t seen any Christian in the Western world being fed to the lions for their views.

    For the second one – I’m not sure of the connection here. The disciples were ignorant, but searching for the truth – and when they were informed of the truth, they embraced it. The modern day situations of people picking and choosing actually represent a wilful blindness, a hostility to the basic gospel message, an endeavour to exchange the truth for a lie – which wasn’t true of the disciples.

    One thing that does worry me: it seems to me that atheists with a social conscience have a much more prominent track record than Christians about standing up for what they believe is right against injustice – and getting banged up in prison for it.

  5. I can’t resist a comment.
    Rev 1:7
    “Look,” The injunction is to us who read the prophecy.
    “He is coming with the clouds” ‘clouds’ represent the glory of God that is perceived in this age. It is the unction of the Spirit that says ‘yes, Jesus is God’. We the readers of Revelation see in our spirit the true nature of Jesus, his divinity etc. When He, Jesus has come there will be no clouds to shield us and obscure our view, we will see Him as He is. Until then, we see in our minds eye and in our spirit , Jesus, exhaled, sitting enthroned, coming with the clouds, the glory.
    “Every eye will see him” eventually everyone will see the true nature of Jesus as God even if at this time they only hear thunder and see effulgence.
    Daniel therefore could only see much cloud from his perspective because Jesus was yet to come.
    The transfiguration both revealed and obscured Jesus’ true nature.
    For Stephen the clouds were dissipating as he died and saw the reality clouds had hidden from his eyes.
    Revelation 1:7 is also an allusion to the moment Rebecca looked and saw Isaac coming. I throw that in as a poetic handle. We are the bride accompanied by the Holy Spirit on the long journey to Sarah’s tent, the New Jerusalem. Get it?

  6. Moses’ “transfiguration”? While there has been some consideration to this topic in the debate thus far, there has been little or no attention paid to (a) the reason for this transformation or to (b) the immediate context in which it is set.
    In Exodus 34:29 ,we are told that “his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord”. This statement underlines the context in which this occurred:
    First, *the renewal of the covenant with Israel* (after the debacle of the golden calf). In spite of what seems to be an ambiguous connection between the introduction to chapter 34:1 and 34:28b, there does appear to be a growing relationship between the Lord and Moses. And secondly, this is surely borne out by 34: 28; namely that Moses spent 40 days and nights without water or food on Mount Sinai. Are we saying that this has no real bearing on either the temptations of Jesus (and therefore his baptism) or even the possibility of establishing a stronger link with his transfiguration?
    Fast forward to Luke 9: 35! “This is my Son whom I have chosen” – a clear reference to Jesus’ baptism, but also to the testing/ temptations (“If you are the son of God”).
    However the quotation from [ 9:35] ends in the phrase ” listen to him”! This is an expression pertinent to Deuteronomy as a whole; based in many respects upon The Shema “*Hear*, O Israel , The Lord our God is one —-[Deut.6:4]” . In 18:15 Moses boldly declares: ” The Lord your God will raise up for you *a prophet like me* from among your own brothers – You must listen to Him”! In the context of the transfiguration, prophecy is much more than a form of ministry based upon spirit-filled individuals . Both Law and prophecy emanate from the one unified source.
    I quote these words from an evangelical commentary regarding the transfiguration:
    ” We may see it as a revelation of the glory of the other world (?) and perhaps this is meant as an encouragement to the disciples after the hard words about cross-bearing”.
    I see this statement as travesty of the meaning of this occasion . Not only does it emerge from a theological position which places little store on the profounder aspects of the OT background , it reduces the the Christian gospel to a dot – joining exercise and when the process is complete we start to tick the boxes – job done. To me the transfiguration is not “one more step along the way”. It represents a moment in glorious technicolour, a panoramic view of God’s salvation history from the beginning of creation, through God’s covenant promises to Israel extended to the wider world , the the end of the age; everything focussed in the “One who was alone” [ Luke 9:36].

  7. Hi Ian

    Thanks for your reply above. Regarding the temple, I would just say that I understood that there really wasnt much left of the Temple, so Id say Jesus’ words were 98% literally true. So Im not sure how much hyperbole was used by Him saying that! If He was using hyperbole, He was simply emphasising the complete destruction by the Romans, which we now know happened. Nevertheless I take your point. And I think you make valid points in the rest of your reply. So my next question (!) is:

    Given you believe that most of Jesus’ words which many have traditionally understood to relate to His return to earth in bodily form for judgement of all, in fact refer to the first century, and that again given your view that most of Revelation also refers to the first century, when it does come to Jesus’ bodily return to earth, do you think the NT gives any ‘clues’ to that return, or do you expect it to be completely unexpected by all?

    Appreciate your time in replying.


    • If you go to Jerusalem today, you will see many, large, very impressive stones standing on one another. So it is very far from true that ‘not one stone will be left on another’ in anything near a literal sense!

      As I point out in my articles and booklet on it, there is a very striking change in Matt 24.36. Prior to that, the disciples are to ‘look for signs’; once Jesus starts talking about the parousia, then all language of ‘signs’ disappears, to be replaced by an emphasis that his return will be completely unexpected.

      The only call is for us to be ‘alert’, and work each day as if our master might return tomorrow.

      • This too I consider false. In Matt 24:1 the disciples point out the buildings of the Temple complex (hieron) and Jesus says that not one stone will be left on top of another. I am not aware of any Temple buildings that survived Roman destruction, and would ask you to back up your assertion to the contrary with authoritative evidence.

        • It is precisely stones of the temple complex which still stand. If you consider it false, when you can literally go and look for yourself, I really don’t know how to engage any further.

          • I indicated how you might engage, by citing some authoritative evidence. If you can only engage by repeating the assertion and not indicating what Temple building survives to support the assertion, so be it. This is no basis for calling the fulfilment of Jesus’s words in Matt 24:2 into question.

      • Ok thanks I havent been, and always thought the so-called wailing wall was the only bit standing. Happy to be corrected.

        So His return will be a shock to all.

        I remember the late John White saying he had been given a vision of the time to come, and believed it involved nuclear war. I really wouldnt be surprised, particularly given current tensions, but I accept that is not necessarily referenced in the NT.

        Thanks for you time, Peter.

    • It is precisely some of the really large stones that occasioned the remark that are (not surprisingly, for who could shift them?) standing on top of one another, right along the Western Wall. So the 98% figure would have to be lowered.
      I doubt Mark had visited Jerusalem since 70 to see the lie of the land, though.

      • How do you know that it was some of the really large stones that occasioned the remark? The text does not say, and since the Western Wall is what survives of the wall supporting the platform, not part of any building, I do not see its relevance. The remark re Mark begs additional questions – the assumption that his gospel was written after the Roman destruction and that Matthew is later and depends on his testimony – and seems gratuitous. The text is not reporting what Mark saw but what Jesus said.

        • But this is quite wrong. (1) The text does say exactly that: that when the disciples understandably comment on the large stones, this occasions Jesus’s remark that they will not be there for long. (2) Relevance of the Western wall is that some stones were left on one another, including the large stones that were of the sort commented on – wherever that leads us. (3) The word assumption comes out of nowhere. For someone to state a position does not make that position an assumption any more or less than the positions stated by others! (4) The positions stated by students of this text whose area is NT will by their nature be less likely to be assumptions, not more. (5) But the large majority of those who have studied the question (for which there are thousands of data) the most agree that Matt is indeed using Mark. So why should those who have studied it less terrorise those who have studied it more or hold them to ransom? I don’t hold astrophysicists to ransom. (6) Your final sentence is an assertion, but you are certainly right that the text is not reporting what Mark saw. I doubt he saw anything relevant.

          • I suspect Mark was written well before AD 70 so would have been unable to check Jesus’ prediction against reality at the time of writing. And the same for Luke/Acts. But if Mark was largely based on Peter’s testimony, and the evidence seems to show that, then Mark had no reason to disbelieve Jesus’ words of warning and so recorded them, particularly as the Temple had been destroyed previously (so it’s not like it couldnt happen!).

            Matthew’s dating is more debateable (though they’re all debateable!).

            But I think Ian is right, Jesus was essentially saying the Temple was going to be completely destroyed within a generation, and noone can deny that’s what happened. Hence why many want to date Mark after it happened.


          • (1) ‘Large stones’ is not a phrase that occurs in any of the gospels, though one might reasonably infer it provided one was not thinking that the large stones of the Western Wall were the occasion of the disciples’ wonder.
            (2) The Western Wall is not relevant because Jesus was talking about the stones of the Temple buildings, not the platform wall. Ian Paul seems not to have realised this in suggesting it is enough to walk anywhere around Jerusalem and see 1st-century stones one on top of another. No in-situ stones of Temple buildings remain, large or otherwise. Hadrian ploughed the whole area up, in fulfilment of Micah 3:12.
            (3) The word ‘assumption’ does not come out of nowhere, it is an attempt to construe your ‘I doubt Mark had visited Jerusalem since 70 to see the lie of the land’ which was inapposite in relation to the question in hand except on the basis that you thought (a) Mark was the first gospel to be written (b) it was not written until after 70, and (c) you thought Mark was behind the prophecy.
            (4) There is a respectable body of opinion within theological academe that challenges both the view that Mark was the first gospel and that it was written after 70. It was not long ago that attention was drawn to a recent paper by David Secombe in Tyndale Bulletin illustrating the point.
            (5) The analogy between the above situation and a theologian challenging (‘terrorising’ is a strange way of putting it) the work of astrophysicists is therefore also inapt.

          • (1) Yes (potapoi, megalas do lead us to infer this as you said).
            (2) Yes though it is a moot point whether a platform wall can be excluded.
            (3) ‘Assumption’ is inaccurate, since the more studied people are the more and wider analysis they have put into conclusions. Conclusions (provisional or otherwise) are then made on the basis of a huge number of factors. Assumptions by contrast may be made on the basis of no factors at all! A large difference.
            (4) Your point 4 does not make sense as you would need an and/or, given that the two proposals (Mark’s date and Mark’s non-priority) have no logical connection to one another. A second reason it does not make sense is that because of this, we are not talking of one body of opinion at all, but of various opinions in those categories. And a third is that you have asserted that something is respectable when it is not even a unified thing at all. And (fourthly) even if it were, an assertion would prove nothing about its actual respectability – though I have no reason to doubt the said respectability.
            (5) Not the case, since you are presenting things in terms of conclusions rather than in terms of factors and arguments.

  8. Something has to be said to all those NT bible scholars. Firstly, taking up a discussion on a previous thread about John’s gospel, if the `John’ isn’t John bar Zebedee, then the title of the gospel is plainly dishonest. The gospels were written for remote posterity; when one sees `John’ in the title the *first* thing one thinks of is John bar Zebedee – and this is basically what any fisherman, sincere in his faith, with a good brain and going along to a fishermen’s Faith Mission meeting hall would think. If it turns out to be a more minor figure (someone else called John – for example John the Elder) then there is something dishonest here. They knew that the gospels were being written for remote posterity – and making no mention that it was a different John who should receive the Armitage Shanks award was dishonest.

    Of course, we don’t have to make assumptions that the `John’ mentioned in `The Gospel According to John’ was John bar Zeb., but if we don’t make that assumption then there is no basis for assuming that this is the Word of God.

    Similarly, if Scripture isn’t dishonest, then Matthew’s gospel isn’t `metaphorically’ by Matthew; it is by the disciple named Matthew. Also, Mark’s gospel is by the guy of the name of Mark who gets a mention in Acts; Luke is by the companion of Paul (with the clear corollary that he intended his gospel as a companion to and to be read along side the epistles of Paul).

    Furthermore, while Jesus did perform sign miracles, I find it much easier to accept that these gentlemen published the gospels that bear their name while they were still of an age where people usually write major works (i.e. they hadn’t reached the age of frailty and senility).

    Referring back to last week’s post, the gospels talk about Jesus calming a storm – basically because the disciples were in a boat when a terrible storm got up – and Jesus really did calm the storm. It isn’t a metaphor for something else.

    Also, Matthew was a man of faith who heard Jesus – and presumably wrote down the words of Jesus that had made an overwhelmingly strong impression on him when Jesus had said them and which he felt had to be recorded for remote posterity – regardless of whether the temple had actually been destroyed at the time.

    By the way – I agree with Ian Paul that `not one stone will be left on another’ is hyperbole for `the temple will be comprehensively trashed and rendered unusable for its intended purpose’ – which is what happened – it has basically been unusable for that purpose for the last 2000 years. I don’t see that Matthew’s gospel was necessarily written after this took place.

    My assumption (with reference to Christopher Shell) is that the authors of Scripture are sincere and honest. They may be sincerely wrong (I think that Ezra is fundamentally ugly and wrong), but they communicate the truth as they understand it – and this includes authorship.

    • Where to start?
      (1) The Gospels are all anonymous. You quote ‘The Gospel according to John’ as though it was part of Scripture, yet it is a title added slightly later.
      (2) The names that they were known by from a very early date stand a good chance of all 4 being right.
      (3) How is the name John inaccurate if it does not refer to the John of someone’s choosing 2000 years later? Other people are allowed to be called John. Ditto Matthew.
      (4) If you speak of ‘all those NT Bible scholars’ then you are lumping them together. Yet they are all different, independent, able to think for themselves and frequently disagree.
      (5) Given that you are working at that level of generalisation, then that is an indication of where you are so far; the thing to do next is read. If we are pontificating about subjects that so many others have read so much more about, then that is a bad show. Because, as said, it is like me pontificating about astrophysics. It insults the hard work put in by others, and requires no hard work of its own. For that reason, it is obvious that I would understand that I have no right to speak with assurance about astrophysics.
      (6) On your final point, authorship is precisely what the gospel writers do not communicate, since their books are all anonymous. John gives some clever little indications though.
      (7) Your core principle is broken by what you say about Ezra, and also what you say about Ezra is in tune with the mood of this particular age, but I would guess that unlike most you do not use that factor as a guiding principle.

      • But were they anonymous? Other scholars have pointed out that whilst the author names are not included in the actual text, that does not mean they were anonymous in that the early church did not know who wrote them. It also seems the non-inclusion of the author’s name occurred in other ancient writings.

        You will be aware of Simon Gathercole’s work on this but for others I post the following: https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1810/267312/Anonymity%20of%20the%20Gospels%20Gathercole.pdf?sequence=1

      • Christopher – well, like Peter (PC1), I don’t for one minute believe that the gospels were anonymous in any real sense; I don’t believe that the designations `gospel according to Matthew’, etc …. were assigned to texts with completely unknown authorship to help `sell the product’ and that these designations were then meekly accepted by people who had previously read them as anonymous texts.

        On this particular thread, I simply don’t see why the temple had to have been destroyed prior to Matthew 24:2 being written.

        There are several things about the ways in which normal human beings operate which simply don’t stand up. Firstly, when people are aware that something really important is going on, they take notes. I do not for one minute believe that the twelve disciples were not taking copious notes of the things that were happening and making these notes right after the event. This is basically what journalists do. And anybody with journalistic inclinations understands that the best time to compose the final work is – as soon as possible after the events reach their conclusion.

        If you go to Craig Murray’s blog, go back a few months to the time of the Julian Assange hearing, you will see that he made copious notes while he was in court – and then, after a few hours sleep, wrote them up as detailed accounts of the day in court before he went back to court for the next session. That is basically how people behave when they see that something really, really important is going on.

        So I’d be much more inclined to the view (uninformed and without the advantages of scholarship) that the authors put together their final versions shortly after Jesus had actually ascended.

        I don’t have any ideas of whether or not there existed a source Q, or if so where it came from, but I’d be very surprised if the disciples hadn’t taken copious notes, pooled them and discussed them with each other.

        In Matthew 24:2, Jesus said something that struck Matthew as very important – and it wasn’t actually necessary for the prophesy to have already been fulfilled for Matthew to think that this was important stuff that had to go in. What was average life expectancy back then? Matthew would have been approximately 70 in 70AD.

        For scholarship – well, Jesus used hyperbole in Matthew 24:2; you can therefore forgive me if I’m guilty of hyperbole too, but I think that pretty much everybody knows what I’m talking about and what has been going on in `scholarship’ where, for example, Rudolf Bultmann sometimes seems to take the view that every half sentence was written by somebody else and that the gospels came down to us in the form we have them as a result of some editing decisions which didn’t really join the dots. Raymond Brown is another one who thinks that the books were written by some sort of committees – after the person whom they were naming it after was deceased.

        I enjoyed Richard Baukham’s book – where he describes the accuracy with which eye witnesses who were actually deeply involved in an event will recall things with great accuracy. That clearly represented a *major* step forward over the likes of Bultmann and Brown. My only problem with it was that he gave the Armitage Shanks award to a different John. Whoever assigned the designation `the gospel according to John’ had one particular John in mind (which was John bar Zebedee) – or at least knew that that is how it would be taken by remote posterity.

        • Your binary approach keeps you from seeing what is actually being said. We are working with thousands of possibilities, so to reduce that to 2 means working at a level miles below what is both possible and necessary.

          I lost the train of thought in your final para. Your ‘clearly’ did not follow and would doubtless have received a red pen. Second, you are looking at conclusions not at factors and arguments (as already mentioned) which means you are still at the level of digesting the headlines only, so it is necessary to repeat that you should not be directing any debate but sitting down to read those who have devoted long hours to various questions.

          As mentioned above (my point (2)) I think that the chances of all 4 author names being right are high. And I agree that the names were attached very early and probably known from the beginning. (I was simply correcting your treating the titles as an original part of the texts.) Therefore you are not reading what I say, and are responding to a preconceived figment. Relinquishing the binary approach is a necessary start. Hundreds of scholars are published on this subject, all of whom show awareness of far more factors. Your proposal is essentially that we exalt awareness of few factors above awareness of many. That is firstly overweening and secondly crushing of the people who have devoted time.

          To you all of scholarship from multiple continents over 200 years+ can be summarised as ‘scholarship’? Why then is it at a higher level than what you write in terms of awareness of different factors? And added to that is the (surely) arrogance of such an approach – I return to my point about astrophysics.

          It doesn’t matter what view people are inclined to before they start studying. It matters what view they are inclined to on the basis of previous study.

          You don’t for a moment think the disciples were not taking notes? Evidence? Their leaders did not deny in Acts that they were illiterate.

          Merely on the question of John and the 4th gospel I have probably written hundreds of pages of notes (Drummond’s book is very thick etc etc) – there are just tons of factors. Either all conclusions are provisional at the end of such a process, or any conclusion there is is well founded because of the multiplicity of factors that are being held together.

          Everywhere in life there are secularists who think that reality can conform to their wishes. Which is what a child wants. It is ideology and that is the enemy and opposite of scholarship. It is highly disappointing that Christians should behave like secularists, saying I want X and therefore X is right. What reality conforms to is evidence.

          • Christopher – well, the idea that the disciples may have been taking notes of the events that were taking place does not seem to be one that many scholars have engaged with; the starting point is often the accuracy of recall from a memory that may be faulty.

            The `illiterate’ that you mention is translated in the NIV as `unschooled ordinary men’.

            For me, the important point is that these thousands of possibilities shouldn’t really contradict the basic understanding that an unschooled person would come to. After all, you shouldn’t have to be a biblical scholar in order to have a profound understanding of the Christian faith and, ultimately, to see the heavenly kingdom.

            In my `binary’ approach, I simply point out what would be obvious to an unschooled mind searching for the truth. Such an unschooled mind would assume that the disciples were making notes (if they couldn’t write they would have somebody on hand to write it down for them) – and such an unschooled mind would assume that they got the finished accounts (the gospels as we have them today) written shortly after the conclusion of the events while it was still fresh in the head.

            I would say that the onus is on biblical scholars who believe that the disciples were not either taking notes or ensuring that good copious notes were taken and who believe that the gospel authors did not try to get the finished account written soon after the events, while they were fresh in the head, to substantiate their counter-intuitive position.

            I like scholarship when it *enhances* the meaning that the unschooled person would draw from Scripture – and I see that this is what Ian Paul does in much of what he writes. He presents us with connections and ideas that are clearly good and very helpful – and which do not contradict the meaning that an unschooled person would take.

            I’m not so keen on scholarship which tells me that conclusions that an unschooled person (with a good brain and guided by the Holy Spirit) would draw are rubbish.

            Many years ago, I made a decision *not* to pursue biblical scholarship, because I deemed that it *should* be unnecessary and could lead to nit-picking over unessential points. And a cursory glance at what seemed to pass for biblical scholarship put me right off. I also made a decision *not* to go into the ministry, because I wanted to demonstrate, at least to myself in my own life, that it was possible to be a Christian while living an ordinary life and doing an ordinary job.

            And as far as biblical scholarship goes – I’m quite happy to be Jock Molesworth!

          • 1 But you would need to read scholarship in order to see whether or not it has occurred to scholars (Gerhardsson, Riesenfeld, Linnemann, Wenham, Bockmuehl, and the whole oral tradition movement of 10-20 years ago). You are both saying you have not read much and that you know what people have and have not said. Not possible to have it both ways – so which is it?

            2 When did I say the unschooled had nothing positive to contribute? I said that all thing being equal they will have less on average than the schooled. Either that or the education that we spend 20 years on is of zero value. If unschooled are to be elevated above schooled, then it has a minus amount of value.

            3 Having a profound understanding of the Christian faith and seeing the heavenly kingdom will not greatly help people solve historical questions, albeit these 2 things are something better.

            4 The reference to ‘rubbish’ has no relevance, because it was never said. ‘Comparatively less good’ was what was said, and in a short life we will often not have time to listen to the comparatively less good when the comparatively better is on offer.

            5 ‘which do not contradict the meaning that an unschooled person would take’ – It is obvious that this is not something that can be required, though it is often the case. There will always be times when the unschooled person will misunderstand the ‘all’ in ‘drink ye all of this’ or will say that the Holy Spirit told them the true meaning of something which is actually an exegetically impossible meaning. People who say the Holy Spirit told them things, some of them, are often saying something they do not know to be true (which is not admirable). Those who say that the HS told them the Scripture said what they wanted it to say are less admirable still.

          • Christopher – one question for you. Can you point me to good NT scholarship where the author interacts with the `plain man’s hypothesis’, which is that the disciples understood that something really important was happening and either made copious notes themselves, or else (if they really were completely illiterate) found someone to write it down for them – basically as it was going on?

            It’s OK for me if they interact with this hypothesis, consider it seriously – and then come to the conclusion that it is palpably false – I just want to see some serious scholarship where this hypothesis has been interacted with and taken seriously.

            I’m aware (of course) in serious differences between the gospels and, with this awareness, haven’t seen much that would contradict this, but I’m open to good arguments.

            I’d just like assurance that some scholars have interacted with this possibility, since it is the `plain man’s hypothesis’ and, to the uneducated mind, it would be exceedingly strange if the disciples weren’t aware that something extremely important was going on which should be recorded and weren’t taking measures to ensure that it was recorded in detail at the time.

          • Excellent point.
            Are you right to identify it as the plain man’s hypothesis?
            (a) We never hear of the disciples writing during Jesus’s ministry, unless the tax collector.
            (b) Where and when would they have learnt to write to the relevant standard?
            (c) In their culture, learning by rote and memory would have been more to the fore than notetaking. And as noted, there is plenty of scholarship on that visavis the gospels.
            (d) Why didn’t Jesus rather than the disciples write all these things down?
            He was brighter than they: he was their teacher. If he didn’t write, why on earth would they?
            (e) That was not their ministry. Their ministry (Mark 3) was threefold: ‘to be with him’, to preach, and to drive out evil spirits.
            Given the strength of (a)-(e), which are all factors that tend to exclude the possibility, maybe we can understand why this has not been an angle much emphasised. I have never read anything on it but you can be sure that things will have been written. I disagree that it is the plain man’s view, and am not sure whether there is such a thing as the plain man – amateurs will have different slants on things from each other.

          • It is Molesworth that all this reminded me of. Molesworth would sit down to a maths exam (sample question: A stupid old man goes 2 paces to the north, 8 paces to the east, then stands on his head. Where is he now?) and respond to the question: ‘Larfably easy’. Absence of supporting evidence total.

        • How interesting that leading NT scholars are so often RB in their initials. I cannot think of anyone whose chief conclusions have proven so spectacularly wrong as those of Bultmann. Brown is the quintessence of the proper scholar and analyst in his method, but not always in his judgment. You certainly cannot do better than Bauckham on this issue.

          • I’ve been trying to extricate myself commenting on this blog. I’m no skoller.
            Glad to see you are a fan of Nigel molesworth….. or are you his Latin mater?

          • Adrian Mole was originally going to be Nigel Mole. This was deemed too similar to Nigel Molesworth so Nigel became one character and Mole another. This in turn enabled Adrian Plass (Sacred/Secret) to get his foot in the door title-wise.

  9. I’m not a scholar, but I will challenge any scholar who takes issue with any of the following assertions:
    1) this discussion is no longer about the transfiguration of Christ;
    2) as compared to the transfiguration of Christ, what this discussion has been reduced to is beyond pathetic (in addition to this being an “assumption,” it is also a “fact”); and
    3) yes, I’m fully aware this thread is dead on the vine, and God is thrilled!

    Ps. Thank you for the original article, and all follow up posts prior to disintegration into meaningless dribble.


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