v.28 The traditional “Mount of Transfiguration” is Mt. Tabor, southwest of the Sea of Galilee. That identification is traditional only and very likely incorrect. It is a long ways from Caesarea Philippi and there is evidence that it was occupied in Jesus’ day. Which mountain he ascended we do not know, but it was characteristic of Jesus both that he sought solitude for prayer and that he took Peter, James, and John with him. Given what was about to happen there was need of witnesses, and while two would be enough, three would be even better. But, so far as Jesus was concerned, he felt the need of the company of his three closest friends.
v.29 Luke tells us that the appearance of his face was altered. Matthew says that his face “shone like the sun.” [17:2] The point is that Jesus became a radiant figure, whose radiance extended even to his clothing. You may remember that Moses’ face, after coming out of the tent of meeting, reflected the glory of God. But here the glory is greater and emanates from Jesus’ entire figure.
v.31 Moses and Elijah also had a glorious appearance. This is a point of some importance. It suggests that the radiance is not here to be understood as a demonstration of Christ’s divine nature — a pulling back of the veil, as it were. More on that later.
The word translated “departure” in your ESV is the word exodus, which is an unusual word for someone’s death and obviously is used with the with the intention of making us think of the link between the Passover lamb and the work that Jesus was about to do. Jesus was about to deliver his people from a far greater bondage than slavery in Egypt! Luke does not include the fact that in predicting his suffering and death a few days before this — we have that prediction earlier in the chapter in v. 22 — Jesus mentioned that this would take place in Jerusalem. Matthew includes that piece of information. But that point is confirmed here. The Lord’s death would take place in the capital.
There has been much discussion as to why these two men were sent to speak with Jesus. Do they represent the Law and the Prophets as many have thought, or something else? It is perhaps impossible to say with certainty. [cf. Bock, i, 868]
v.32 An eyewitness touch this: the fact that the three men were roused out of sleep by the bright light and the sound of the conversation. They awakened to this extraordinary scene and perhaps as a result of their sleeping missed most of the conversation. [Bock, i, 870]
v.33 Peter, typically audacious, attempted to prolong the visit of Moses and Elijah by offering to build them shelters.
v.34 It is not entirely clear from Luke’s Greek which individuals on the scene were enveloped by the cloud, was it Jesus, Moses, and Elijah or was it the three disciples. But the cloud, remember, was often a sign of God’s presence in the Old Testament. In any case the three disciples were aware that something supernatural was happening and were appropriately terrified. Just as had happened after the first exodus, the cloud of glory that indicated the presence of the Yahweh descended, now in anticipation of a second exodus.
v.35 The significance of the divine voice is, of course, tremendous. This has happened only very, very rarely in human history. God identified Jesus as his son, his chosen one with his own voice, and by so doing set him above Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ words were therefore to be heeded by men, by his disciples in particular. God himself had descended to that mountain top and had spoken directly to the three disciples about the preeminence of Jesus, his Son.
v.36 We read in v. 33 that Moses and Elijah were “leaving.” We are not told how they departed from the scene, only that they had departed and Jesus was left alone with his disciples. The implication is that by this time his appearance had returned to normal.
It is only implied in Luke, but it is explicitly stated in Mark and Matthew that Jesus commanded the silence of the three disciples. They were not to speak of what they had seen, at least not yet. And they would not for another year. The reason seems to be that in their present state of understanding their interpretation of the event was almost certainly to be wrong. After the Lord’s death and resurrection they would be able to communicate this experience with understanding and appreciation.
Throughout the Gospels the interested and attentive reader is left wondering what Jesus himself thought about what was happening and how he himself felt about his ministry as it developed, about his disciples as he grew to know them better, and about the crowds of people who flocked to see him. We see Jesus as a man in the Gospels. We have had reason to note that fact on a number of occasions so far as we have made our way through the Gospel of Luke. The Christian reader, of course, knows that Jesus was, at one and the same time, God the Son, the second Person of the Triune Majesty, the infinite, eternal, unchangeable God, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, the maker of heaven and earth, and a true and authentic human being who lived in the integrity of his humanity, with all of its limitations.
This is, of course, the doctrine of the incarnation: God the Son taking to himself an authentic human nature. But while we can state the doctrine, we cannot begin to understand it and in particular understand it in terms of Jesus’ own experience and the self-consciousness of his interior life. Taking all the biblical data together, the Council of Chalcedon, meeting in A.D. 451, gave definitive expression to both the fact and the mystery of the incarnation. It said of Jesus that he is “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood” — that is the fact of the incarnation, two natures, one person — and that he is to be
“acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person…”
That is the great mystery! Those four adverbs — “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably — are perhaps the four most important adverbs in Christian theology. They require us to believe that Jesus was at one and the same time fully God and fully man and that by the incarnation he did not become a third thing, some kind of superman, neither fully God nor any longer a genuine human being. In my experience, most Christians reading the Gospels think of Jesus as more God than man, as a kind of superman, but in that they are wrong and, however unwittingly, they are denying the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.
In the Gospels we are given to see a man, living a man’s life, with all the limitations of that life. He grows tired; at times he is afraid. There are many things he does not know, just as there are many things we do not know. He does not know what will happen the next day, just as we do not. He knows things as he learns them, as is the case with us. He can be in but one place at a time and has to walk from place to place. How he is able to live the life of a true man without his divine nature coming in to transform that life into something very different, we cannot say. That is the mystery of the incarnation. His was a genuinely human life in everything but sin. He never sinned in thought, word, or deed. But in every other way as a man he was as much a human being as and no more than a human being than you or I.
True enough, he worked great miracles and he predicted the future, but Moses and Elijah had done that. Divine power and knowledge was given to him by which to do such things, as they had been given to the prophets of God before him. We’ve noted that already. The crowds wondered if he were Elijah returned because he did the same things Elijah had done. He performed miracles on a greater scale and in greater number than Elijah, but the miracles were similar in type and some of them weren’t as grand as what Moses had done – for example, think of Moses’ parting the waters of the Sea of Reeds. The miracles did not make Jesus God and did not prove him to be God! Jesus was on that mountaintop to pray. There is no indication that he knew what was about to happen. I take it that what happened was an answer to his prayer. He had sought time alone with God, as any righteous man must often do.
How his deity and his manhood cohered in his one person is the greatest mystery of our faith. There is only one other like it, the triple personality of the one living and true God. How the two natures in his one person worked themselves out in the psychology, in the self-consciousness of Jesus is utterly beyond our understanding. How could he be omniscient and ignorant at the same time: really omniscient and really ignorant? How would he be omnipotent and weary at the same time? No one can say. The Gospels draw a veil over such questions and give us no data with which to propose a possible answer to that question. What the Gospels show us is Jesus living a man’s life.
And it is that authentic manhood that is the secret of our salvation. It is what made it possible for Jesus to be the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is his manhood that makes his achievement for us so eternally valuable. His was the achievement of a man, not a superman, not a man who at the point of any crisis was lifted above the normal limitations of his humanity by his deity. There is no deus ex machina in the Gospel history, no divine nature coming to the rescue of the human nature. It was as a man he conquered his temptations; as a man he obeyed and served; and as a man he suffered and died. His life was the life of a human being, even as he was the eternal Son of God, the maker of heaven and earth. God the Son, strange to say, could not save us from our sins; only God the Son as now a man could do that!
And it is that fact that helps us to understand this remarkable moment in the career of the Lord Jesus, what the Christian church has long called “the transfiguration.” We are inclined to think that the transfiguration was for us, a revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ, proof that he was the Son of God. And, to be sure it is all of that. Nothing quite like this had ever happened before. Even Moses was never transfigured as Jesus was on the mountain. And God had never spoken such words directly to men as he spoke that night about Jesus to Peter, James, and John.
The indelible impression that this tremendous experience made on these three men and how they carried it with them for the rest of their lives is demonstrated by the fact that the two of them who survived long enough to write books of the New Testament both referred to it in their writings, John in the first chapter of his Gospel and Peter in the first chapter of his second letter. And ever since the Christian church has read the account of the transfiguration with reverence and awe and has had her faith in Jesus stirred and strengthened by the knowledge of what transpired on that never to be forgotten night on the mountain. It is a revelation of Jesus that completes the picture of him drawn in the four Gospels.
But, the fact is though the three disciples saw what transpired — they saw the glory of God shining from Jesus, saw Moses and Elijah speaking with him, and saw the cloud descend upon them — and heard at least something of the conversation of the three men and then heard God himself speaking from the cloud (do you realize of how few men in the history of the world such a thing could be said!), they said nothing of any of this until a year had passed. They were told to keep silent and they did so. When tempted to say something — and there must have been many such temptations; what a secret to keep, after all (Can’t you hear Peter begin to say, “Now you can’t tell anybody this, but….”) — they were kept from sharing the secret perhaps by the very nature of the secret. How serious a sin must it be to violate the sanctity of that revelation and that commandment?
So whatever the purpose of the transfiguration it wasn’t for the immediate education of the disciples. They were not allowed to speak of it. It wasn’t to further the interests of the Lord’s public ministry or to prove to the crowds that Jesus was the Messiah that the glory of God came upon him that night on the mountain.
No, it is clear that this event was more for Jesus himself than it was for his disciples; more for Jesus at that moment in his life as a man than it was for the Christian church ever since. Again on the mountain we have Jesus the man, and the experience his heavenly Father gave him in answer to prayer that night was for Jesus the man.
Recall the situation. Jesus had just, for the first time, announced to his disciples that his ministry was to end in his rejection by the Jews and his execution in Jerusalem. The cross was now before him. Precisely when and how he came to understand what was to come and how it was to come to pass, we cannot say. The Bible does not tell us. But he knew by now, somehow, by some revelation of his heavenly Father to him, when it would happen, where it would happen, and how it would happen. He, as any man, must have enjoyed to some degree the ministry up to this point. Wearying as it was, incessant as were the demands of the crowds, he was a sensation! The people came in huge numbers, they fawned over him, they hailed him. His miracles were unparalleled in number and scope and it must have been tremendously satisfying for him to heal the sick, to deliver the demon possessed, and to control nature itself. To do such good deeds as these, to bring joy to so many would satisfy and gratify any righteous man.
But the peak of his popularity had now been reached and the Lord knew that it was going to be a steady descent from this point to the cross itself. We know that this fact occupied his mind because he began to speak frequently to his disciples about the terrible things that were to come. The cup of his coming suffering for sin was already been poured out into his soul when, a year before his crucifixion, he sought solitude for prayer on the mountain that night. As he would later at Gethsemane, he took his three closest friends with him so that he would not be entirely alone as he sought strength for himself to bear up under the burden of the prospect of things to come, a burden that was becoming heavier by the day. Like other men, he needed the encouragement of the company of his friends. Just imagine. Suppose you somehow knew that your life was going to end in six months, nine months, a year, and it was going to end very badly. Your death was going to be torment, as exquisite pain as you could conceivably imagine and much more and you are going to die rejected and spurned by everybody. Everyone will think not only that you weren’t a good person, but you were actually a very bad person. This was what to come. Are you telling me you would not think of that until it came to pass? Of course not, you would think of it every hour of every day that you lived until it took place. Anybody would, any true human being would.
But his heavenly Father answered his prayers better than he could have imagined. This was encouragement indeed.
- First, the glory that shone upon him and from with him was a foretaste of his reward
upon the completion of his work.
Remember, we are speaking of Jesus the man. Jesus as God the Son had always shared in the divine glory. It was his by nature. But here Jesus was given to see what glory would be his as a man when he had endured the humiliation and suffering that were his errand in this world. You remember reading in Hebrews that Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before him. [12:2] Well, here was some of that joy set visibly before him. Here was the glory that would be his when his work was done. After all, Moses and Elijah also appeared in glory. They had died centuries before, but here they were again in dazzling light!
Day by day the savior lived with the certainty that his own people were going to turn on him. He could see the hatred in the faces of the religious leadership. He could detect the disgust on the edge of a remark, the envy dripping from their words. He knew, far better than his disciples, that the enthusiasm of the crowds could disappear in an instant.
As a man he lived everyday with the fear of what was to come. To have done otherwise would have been not to be a man at all. His anguished prayer to be released from his duty, that night a year later in the Garden of Gethsemane, was only a final outbreak of the fear that had tortured him through the days and nights of the last year of his ministry. Luther said of Jesus that “no man ever feared death as much as this man.” And no wonder. No death was ever so terrible, the whole weight of the divine wrath against human sin falling upon this one man. And Jesus was now facing that prospect all the time. How terrible would it be? Would he hold up under the strain? These were the questions that Jesus the man was asking himself and could not help but ask.
What an immense encouragement it must have been for him to have seen and felt the divine glory upon him and to see with his own eyes, to feel it in his own body, the glory that would be his when he exchanged his humiliation for his exaltation. Just think for a moment, brothers and sisters, how it would lift your spirits, how it would encourage you in the trials that you bear, and change your life if for just ten or twenty minutes — for however long the glory shone from Jesus and he spoke with Moses and Elijah — God permitted you to look into heaven and see what was happening there, to see some of your loved ones there, to see the holy city and the angels of God with their six wings, and the happiness on everyone’s face. Such was the help given the man who had to suffer and die to save the world!
- Second, the Lord was encouraged by the knowledge that heaven was watching with sympathy as he finished his work.
One of the great burdens our savior bore throughout that last year of his ministry was the failure of his disciples, no matter how many times he talked to them about this, to understand and appreciate what was about to happen and why. It is one thing to face terrible odds if you have support and encouragement from those who love you and if they are cheering you on, but these twelve men, for all their loyalty, were worse than useless in that respect. They not only didn’t understand, they had little sympathy with Jesus in the prospect of his death whenever he brought the subject up. They weren’t interested in talk about his suffering and death; they thought it morbid, depressing; they preferred a different outcome and continued to expect it no matter how much Jesus spoke about his coming death in Jerusalem. The Lord Jesus was left to tread the winepress of the wrath of God entirely alone.
It is no accident that in both of the critical moments at the beginning of the third and last year of the Lord’s ministry — the conversation at Caesarea Philippi and here on the mountain — a point is made of the complete failure of the disciples to embrace the Lord’s impending suffering and death as the price of their salvation and the salvation of the world. In the Gospel of Matthew we read that Peter actually rebuked the Lord for his declaration of his coming passion, if you remember, when he first announced it. And here on the mountain it is the same.
Peter proposed to build three shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He was taken with the glory, the splendor of it all. He wanted to perpetuate the bliss. He had no interest in the subject of the Lord’s conversation with the two great men: his exodus, his departure or death. You might have thought Peter’s first question would be, “What do you mean your exodus? Who’s departure? What are we talking about here?” But Peter wanted more of the frisson, the shiverof the dazzling glory. Moses and Elijah had been in a deep conversation with Jesus about the coming passion. Peter was only interested in the magnificent phenomena, like the miracles and the exorcisms he had seen time and time again. [cf. Schilder, Christ in his Suffering, 29]
And so it would continue month after month: the Lord agonizing over what was to come and his friends making matters worse by their utter failure to understand or sympathize. But what an encouragement for him at the time and for him to remember later: that conversation with Moses and Elijah about what was to come. They understood; heaven understood. Peter, James, and John might be worse than useless, but the great lawgiver and the great prophet knew what he was facing and had come to talk with him about it and encourage him in the face of the great trial that was about to engulf him.
We know how the Lord reasoned to himself about such things. When arrogant Pharisees complained about his receiving sinners, he took his comfort from the fact that however little there may be on earth there was joy in heaven over just one sinner who repents. And when it broke his heart to see how the “little ones,” the weak and helpless among the saints, were trampled underfoot in this heartless world, he took comfort from the fact that their angels were always beholding the face of their heavenly father. And so with regard to his own suffering. His disciples may not know or care about the agony he was about to endure, but Moses knew; Elijah knew; heaven knew how terrible it will be, how absolutely necessary it is, and what will be the issue of it all. They knew and they cared!
- Finally, the transfiguration was encouragement to the Lord Jesus as a man because it was the occasion of his heavenly Father communicating his love and approval.
Obviously magnificent, breathtaking as must have been the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the descent of the cloud and the voice of God from it was encouragement of an entirely different order. And the words spoken even more so:
“This is my Son, my chosen one, listen to him.”
And what do you suppose “listen to him” refers to in the context. Surely it means first and foremost, “listen to what he tells you about the cross, about what he has come to do, about the way of salvation” It was precisely concerning this that they were not listening. And God himself was correcting that error, that very great error on their part.
In the moment it was as if his Father were saying to Jesus, “Go on your way to Jerusalem and to the cross. Do not shrink from it, terrible as it is. Do not let the soft minds and hard hearts of these disciples distract or discourage you. I am pleased with you. This is my will for you. I am pleased with you my Son precisely because you are living not for yourself but for me and for the people I have given to you. I am delighted with you because it is your unalterable purpose to save others and not yourself!
Can you not imagine how time and time again the recollection of the sound of those words came back to encourage and lift up the Son of Man? When he woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night he would go back to that scene, that moment on the mountain, and recall what he had seen and heard. That is what the transfiguration did for Jesus Christ: it helped him get to the end and that is what made it such a gift to our savior.
Well, you say, I can understand that. But what is there for me in this text? Where is my encouragement? Well, it is good for every Christian from time to time to stop thinking about himself and herself and to think deep thoughts about Jesus Christ and what our salvation cost him and how much it took from him and how it was achieved, true man that he was. High and grateful and reverent thoughts of the Lord Jesus can bring encouragement to our hearts in ways we could never have predicted. He in his greatness as our Savior is all the encouragement we will ever need, not matter our troubles or trials.
But, then, it is worth our noticing that the encouragements the heavenly Father provided his Son that night are the very encouragements he gives us time and time again. We too face difficulties in life and supreme trials. All of them are summed up in the fact that death is written over this world and over human life and all of us must die.
Do you remember that famous passage in Augustine’s The City of God? [XIII, x]:
“For no sooner do we begin to live…than we begin to move ceaselessly towards death. Certainly there is no one who is not nearer it this year than last year, and tomorrow than today, and today than yesterday, and a short while hence than now, and now than a short while ago. For whatever time we live is deducted from our whole term of life, and that which remains is daily becoming less and less; so that our whole life is nothing but a race towards death…”
And there is, of course, a great deal of death along the way: the sights and smells of it, physical death and spiritual death and the sin that has brought these thousand forms of death upon us. But remember these events on the mountain top, just as our Lord Jesus remembered them every day after that night on the mountain top.
He traveled this road before you, and a darker and more difficult road by far. And along the way he was encouraged by these facts: 1) however dark the road there is glory — mesmerizing, thrilling, indescribable glory — at its end; 2) the saints in heaven are cheering you on your way; and 3) your heavenly Father’s love will accompany you through every difficulty until you are safely home.
See yourself on that sacred mountain. Nothing was said or done for the Lord Jesus that, in his name and for his sake, is not said to and done for every believer in Jesus Christ. So no matter what lies ahead, set your face toward the goal and go on, difficulties, obstacles, temptations notwithstanding. “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved!”