The Transfiguration in Luke

The apparent theology of glory of the Transfiguration in Luke is really a theology of the cross in disguise.

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And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” Luke 9:35

Luke 9:28-36 [37-43] – Exodus 34:29-35

Luke’s story of Jesus’ Transfiguration parallels that in Matthew 17:1-8 and Mark 9:2-8.

The Transfiguration story points us in several directions at once: to Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3, to Jesus’ instruction of his disciples in chapter 9 (which immediately precedes this passage), to the story of Moses at Sinai and to the story of Elijah.

9:29 “While he was praying.” Only Luke adds this detail.

9:29-30 “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.” In Exodus 34:29, Moses’ appearance is transformed causing his face to shine. Moses’ transfiguration occurs at Sinai and is associated with the the renewal of the covenant. Luke sees Jesus as establishing a new covenant:

And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:20 ESV)

Similarly, the original Mosaic covenant was sealed with the blood of a sacrifice (Exodus 24:9).

Israel’s Sinai experience is central to its self-understanding. To describe Jesus as if he were a new Moses at Sinai is to claim that Jesus has a similar function in the self-understanding of believers.

With regard to Elijah, Luke tells us that John the Baptist went forth in the spirit and power of Elijah (1:17), but otherwise Luke’s specific intent is unclear. Luke inherited a tradition that included Elijah’s appearance and perhaps he is just passing on the story he received.

9:31 “His departure” in Jerusalem. “Departure,” in Greek, is “exodos,” yet another allusion to the Moses story. Only Luke describes the topic of Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah. Luke sees the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as parallel in some way to the story of the Exodus.

9:32 ” Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep.” Only Luke adds this detail. This element anticipates the disciples sleeping in Gethsemane prior to Jesus’ arrest in 22:45-46. “Jesus prays; the disciples sleep” is a recurring pattern in Luke.

9:34 “A cloud came and overshadowed them.” Still another allusion to the Moses story. Multiple references in the book of Exodus (13:21-22; 14:19-20,24; 16:10; 19:9,6; 24:15- 16,18; 33:9-10; 34:5; 40:34-38) associate a cloud with the presence of God.

9:35 “This is my Son.” Echoes God’s pronouncement at Jesus’ baptism (3:22). In Luke, the baptismal voice is addressed to Jesus (“You are my beloved son … with you I am well pleased”) while the Transfiguration voice is addressed to all (“This is my son, the chosen one … listen to him.”)

Note the textual variants in 9:35: “beloved” (KJV, following the Textus Receptus) or “chosen” (most modern translations, following the oldest manuscripts [p45, Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, etc]). “Chosen” is most likely correct for two reasons: 1) The better manuscripts favor “chosen” and 2) it is easier to understand why a scribe would change “chosen” to “beloved” than the other way around. Both Luke’s baptismal story (3:22) and the parallel Transfiguration stories in Matthew 17:5 and Mark 9:7 quote God’s voice as calling Jesus, “my beloved son.”

9:36 “And Jesus was found alone.” Some have conjectured that Moses and Elijah represent the “Law” and the “Prophets,” with the point being that Jesus fulfilled and superseded them. Perhaps, but that is not clear from the text. Still, the superior position of Jesus is unmistakable. Both Moses and Elijah disappear from view leaving the disciples to see only Jesus only.

9:36 “And they kept silent and told no one.” Ties this passage back into Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ of God” in 9:20-21. Luke says that Jesus “strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one.” If 9:21 and 9:36 mark the beginning and end of a unit of thought, then the voice’s direction “Listen to him” (9:35) points back to Jesus’ words in 9:22-27:

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised … If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.

The apparent theologia gloriae (9:3) of the Transfiguration, then, is really a theologia crucis in disguise. The voice from heaven validates Jesus’ pronouncement of his coming death and resurrection (and eventual appearance in glory) and points to the cross as the model for true discipleship. Moses’ presence and the physical act of Transfiguration point us to the objective meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion: it establishes a new covenant for the people of God with the blood of Christ. The Transfiguration, then, leads us into Lent and the contemplation of the cross.