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The Transfiguration

Luke 9:28 -- 36

Lesson audio

This passage is at once one of the most clear and yet the most distant. It is clear because its symbolism and meaning have been easily interpreted from the beginning days of the church. Leo the Great, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, have all written on it; in our own times it was a favorite of C. H. Spurgeon. Yet today it is seldom mentioned from the pulpit. Perhaps we are so intent on things of the here and now that we cannot take the time for eternity.

Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming. And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him. And as these were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not realizing what he was saying. While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!" And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen.

(Luke 9:28-36 NASB)


A very necessary background to this passage is found just slightly before this: Peter’s confession of the Christ.

And it happened that while He was praying alone, the disciples were with Him, and He questioned them, saying, "Who do the people say that I am?" They answered and said, "John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; but others, that one of the prophets of old has risen again." And He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answered and said, "The Christ of God." But He warned them and instructed them not to tell this to anyone, saying, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day." And He was saying to them all, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. "For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. "But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God."

(Luke 9:18-27 NASB)

It is first to be noted: God reveals himself only to the faithful. This is exceedingly inconvenient for the evangelist. It would be so wonderful if we could conjure up miracles on demand. But do you not see what that would mean? It would mean that we, the conjurors, had God under our control. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. It is a contradiction; if we could control him, he would not be God. If we are to see God, it is on his terms, and his terms alone.

Christ tells the disciples that some of them will see the kingdom in power. A week later, three of them do. We might ask, why only three?

  • First, under Jewish law, a thing was established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. So three would be the minimum for such a powerful display.
  • But no more than three; this is so great a power that it must be kept secret until after the Crucifixion.

We might well ask, why did they see it at all? What was the use of this display of Christ’s heavenly glory?

  • First, Christ is about to go to a shameful, dishonorable death – crucified as if he were a criminal worthy of death. So that the disciples will not remain discouraged, he gives them a glimpse at his glory. They will know that he is indeed the Messiah; the rest can be set right at the Resurrection.
  • Second, to give them the hope of the glory of the resurrection of the dead. It is told that we shall rise; little is known about what we will be like. But these disciples were given a glimpse.

The disciples were told not to speak of it – until after the Resurrection. One reason for this is to avoid jealousy among the disciples (remember, these folks argued over who would be the greatest.) They needed to see his glory before the Crucifixion – but the lessons learned would only be useful afterwards.

Moses and Elijah

OK, but why are Moses and Elijah there?

  • First, Elijah is there at least for this: they now know for certain that Jesus is not the Elijah to come.
  • More important, they are there to refute any idea that Jesus did not follow the Law of God. “Moses and Elijah” was often used as a way of saying, “The Law and the Prophets.” If these two honor him, then there can be no such problem.
  • This also shows his complete power and authority; power over the dead (Moses) and the living – Elijah, who never died. It also shows them the difference between the servants of God and their Lord.

These come to him and speak of his departure – the Crucifixion. Perhaps this is just assurance that all will happen as prophesied – and how they longed to see it.

“It is good for us to be here”

Here indeed is a mountain top experience, as we would put it. Yes, it is good for us to be here – scared out of our minds, in raw terror at the glory of God, knowing full well that no one looks upon God and lives. Yes it is; it is profitable to us in what we learned about Jesus of Nazareth – the fullness of his Deity. It is profitable for us in how we grew – just being close to the Living God.

But it is equally true that this experience must end. The mountain top is a glimpse of things to come, when our Lord returns. In the meanwhile, there is work to be done.

Three shelters

Your translation may have the word, “tabernacles.” It means a booth, a shelter, a tent – a temporary housing framed in wood, covered with cloth. Each year, at the feast of the Tabernacles, the devout Jew moved out of his house for seven days and lived in a tent. It was to remind him of how his ancestors wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Jews of this time would be quite familiar with this.

So Peter, his mouth opening before engaging his brain (which by now is out of commission), comes up with the only thing he can think of. It’s good to be here; let’s stay a while. We’ll put up the tents and build the campfire for you.

It’s not a bad idea. God does not rebuke Peter for this. But God has other plans. So he doesn’t say anything to Peter. Has God ever done that with you? No response but his own plan? It’s the same thing; it’s not wrong to plan on God’s behalf. It’s just that sometimes he has something else in mind.

Peter’s idea is “Old Testament.” We’ll put up tents here; blending the old and the new. God’s idea is different: the new will complete and therefore replace the old. The Law and the Prophets give way to the reign of grace. The servants are not greater than the Master, nor even equal to him.

The cloud

The cloud would have been familiar to the Jews of the time – for they were very familiar with the story of the Exodus. Recall that the presence of God was indicated by the cloud in the day and the pillar of fire in the night. Only Moses went into that cloud to converse with God. Now that same cloud envelops them; can you imagine the feeling in their hearts?

But this cloud is even greater; the one for Moses was a thick darkness. This cloud is brilliant light. God is light, we are told. Here, it is literally so. In the days of Moses God threatened the people to keep them holy; hence the darkness of the cloud. Now the cloud is light; the reign of grace is about to begin.

The voice

The voice of God speaks; it is always good to listen to it.

  • This is my son. If ever there was doubt as to who and what Jesus truly is, this eliminates it. God himself specifically tells us that this Jesus is his only son. He is not just another man; he is God in the flesh.
  • He is the chosen one. To the Jew this could only mean one thing: this is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ.
  • Hear him. If God has taken the trouble to prepare his way, to prophesy him for thousands of years, to prepare one people to receive him – then when he comes you had best listen to him.

It is a moment of awe. Matthew’s account tells us that the disciples fell face down on the ground. God has removed any doubt. The reaction they gave is the right one; bow down and worship.

When He returns

All this may seem of “historical interest only.” Our doctrine clearly teaches that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. But is there anything specific to this passage which applies to us today?

Indeed, there is. This transfiguration is a sample – of what we will be like when our Lord returns. It’s just a sample, but it was as much as the disciples could handle. So it is written that no one has seen just how we will be that day. We are told that the righteous will shine like the sun.[1] Perhaps we might take this more literally.

One thing is certain: we will be transformed at the resurrection of the dead. Somehow, by the word of Him who spoke and the worlds began, this earthly body of ours will be transformed. The church has always taught the resurrection of the body. We need to be ready for this.

What shall we do?

OK, just what should we be doing to prepare for this? Peter himself gives us an answer:

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven--things into which angels long to look. Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

(1 Peter 1:10-13 NASB)

Three things, then, we need to do:

  • Prepare our minds for action. It is not sufficient that your faith be a warm feeling inside. You must know what you believe and why, ready to give the reason for your faith at any time.
  • Be sober in spirit. Don’t be one of those who go from spiritual high to low to high again; settle down and grow as a Christian should. Let the good ship grace ride on an even keel.
  • Fix your hope completely on grace. Do not depend upon the works you have done for Christ, nor your position in the church, nor the words of any teacher – long only for the grace that Christ gives. Upon him, and upon him alone, rests our salvation.

[1] Matthew 13:43

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