Luke and the Transfiguration


Luke 9:27-36

 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.  (Luke 9:27 NIV84)

Here is another incident that is found in all three Synoptics.   The exact meaning of verse 27 remains the subject of debate two millennia after Jesus spoke the words.  One thing, however, is certain, the Kingdom of God had arrived.

…and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.  (Luke 1:33 NIV84)

The key to understanding what Jesus meant might be found back in verse 23–

Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  (Luke 9:23 NIV84)

Jesus was speaking to a lot of people, not all of whom would turn out to be true followers.  Some would not “take up their cross daily to follow Jesus.”  Those people would never live to see the kingdom of God.   Those who were following Jesus but who hadn’t committed their lives to Him would not see the Kingdom.  The Resurrection would mean nothing to them.  The Day of Pentecost would not be a part of their lives.  But true followers of Jesus would experience the awe and wonder of the Resurrection.  They would be filled with power on the Day of Pentecost.  And some of those standing with Jesus would see the Transfiguration – they would see a glimpse of the glory that is the Kingdom of God.  That Kingdom is here now in the sense that it is within each believer.  The Kingdom of God is spiritual in nature right now.  But one day in the future, the Kingdom of God will visibly, literally, and physically come to Earth.  What it will be like was seen in Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

1.  A heavenly appearance, verse 29

As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.   (Luke 9:29 NIV84)

This event occurred about week after the events that preceded it.  The Transfiguration is one of the “crises” in the life of Christ, the others being His Baptism and His Temptation.  All three “crises” were events of great spiritual significance.  As far as the Transfiguration is concerned, it served a two-fold purpose.  (1)  It showed Jesus’ deity to all who witnessed it.  All who saw it caught the briefest glimpse of His eternal glory.  (2)  It showed the absolute necessity of the coming Passion, the climax of our Lord’s earthly ministry.

Jesus took three of His friends (Peter, James, and John) and went up to a mountain to pray, and it was while He praying that He was transfigured.  What happened to Jesus actually happened to His Person, they were not imagined or envisioned by the disciples with Him.  The word used in Matthew and Mark is metamorphoo, from which we get our word metamorphosis.  What these men saw as Jesus’ heavenly glory broke through forever changed them.  Years later Peter would write:

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.   (2 Peter 1:16 NIV84)

And John wrote:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14 NIV84)

Jesus was changed before their very eyes.  It didn’t last very long, but these men never forgot what they saw.  The glory of Christ changes those who experience it.

Everything about Jesus changed; His face and His even His clothing, which became bright (or “bright white”).  Clothing in Scripture is symbolic of the righteousness of the saints–

Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”  (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)  (Revelation 19:8 NIV84)

The thing about our righteousness apart from Christ is that it’s worthless.  All our good acts and good intentions don’t move the meter of righteousness in God’s sight–

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.  (Isaiah 64:6 TNIV)

When we come to Christ as our Lord and Savior, He takes our “filthy rags,” our useless righteousness, and gives us His righteousness.

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ  and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.  (Philippians 3:8-9 NIV84)

The Kingdom is within all believers; our new “robes of righteousness”  are dazzling in God’s sight, but they come from the merit of Christ.  We still struggle to live right.  We still sin and fall short.  But the glory (and the mystery) of the Kingdom is that it is NOW, and it is yet to come.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  (1 Corinthians 13:12 NIV84)

One day, we will be made whole and the struggle to live right will finally be won; it will be over and we will be in the eternal presence of God.

2.  A heavenly fellowship, verses 30, 31

Part of the glory of the Kingdom is a new dimension of fellowship.  We, as members of the Body of Christ, can have great fellowship with other believers in the here and now, and that’s one of the purposes of the Church.  But when the spiritual Kingdom becomes a literal one, our fellowship will take on an eternal dimension, even as Christ’s did.

Two men, Moses and Elijah,  appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.  (Luke 9:30-31 NIV84)

Can you imagine the day when we will enjoy fellowship with the likes of Moses and Elijah?  Or Peter and Paul?  Of course, we enjoy constant fellowship with the Father and Son through the Holy Spirit today, but it will be a singular experience to visit with the heroes of the faith.

All three accounts of this story include the visit of Moses and Elijah.  But why just these two?  Moses represents the Law, Elijah represents the prophets.  Many scholars observe that the entire Old Testament pointed toward Christ; Jesus had come to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets.  So who better to fellowship with Christ, our Great High Priest, than Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the prophet?

Of significance, though, is what the three heavenly Personages spoke about:  Jesus’ departure and what He was about to go through.   They weren’t talking about Jesus’ sinless life or His teachings.  They didn’t speak of His virgin birth.   They were discussing His “departure,” or His death and resurrection.  The most significant event in the history of Earth is also the most significant event in all eternity:  the death and resurrection of Christ.   Lenski comments:

All the saints in heaven looked forward to this accomplishment of Jesus. Redemption was intended for the universe of men, for the dead as well as for the living and those yet to live.

Peter, James, and John were witnesses of this once-in-a-lifetime event.  In spite of that, we read this:

Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.  (Luke 9:32 NIV84)

This prompts the question:  How in the world could these men fall asleep during this phenomenal scene?   The Greek actually suggests these men fell asleep during Jesus’ prayer, much like they did in the Garden of Gethsemane.  They were drowsy and just couldn’t keep their eyes open.  All the Gospels speak of the fear and sleepiness of the disciples often in connection to their spiritual dullness.  But clearly they did see much of the divine display in front of them:

As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters–one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)  (Luke 9:33 NIV84)

Only Luke mentions Moses and Elijah were leaving.  Peter wanted to build them shelters, presumably to keep them around.  It’s curious that Peter wanted to build three shelters, suggesting that in his mind all three Heavenly People were of equal stature.  It also suggests that he didn’t understand why Jesus came – to be crucified and to rise again.  He wanted to keep these three shining, glorious men right where they were.  He didn’t want them to leave.  Even more, Peter says, “It is good for us to be here.”  Many preachers like to use this as a way to motivate their listeners to “get out of the pew and into the streets,” to “come down from the mountain to the sinners in the valley.”  That’s not a bad application, but why did Peter say that?  Why did he think it was good for him to be there?  It was because Jesus was finally revealing His true self!  They had been hoping He was the Messiah, and so far Jesus had worked some miracles but He didn’t fit their bill of what the Messiah should look like.  But here, like this, as He appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration, this was what Peter longed to see and, in fact, what he though all Jews needed to see so they could accept this Jesus as their Messiah.  How spiritually dull was this man who had just confessed Christ as Messiah!  He was overwhelmed by what he saw – the glorious appearances of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – but he did not grasp the significance of what he heard – their discussion about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

3.  A heavenly perspective, verse 34

While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.   (Luke 9:34 NIV84)

Peter, completely caught up in the glorious scene he was witnessing, missed the point of it all.  It took a move of God wake him up – it took a cloud.  The cloud symbolizes a number of things:  the presence of God (Exodus 13:21-22); the future coming of the Messiah (Daniel 7:13); and a cloud is involved with the two prophets in Revelation 11:12.  Many Bible scholars like to point out the Shekinah glory appeared as a cloud.  Regardless of opinion, a cloud appeared, signaling to Peter and his friends that it was God, not Peter, was in in control and calling the shots.

Another question comes to mind.  Why were Peter, James, and John “afraid” when they saw Moses and Elijah taken up into the cloud?  They were afraid because it wasn’t just Moses and Elijah entering the cloud.  Jesus was being taken up, too.  This is not stated in the text, but it is suggested.  The cloud engulfed all three of them, taking all three of them.  To be suddenly separated from their Master would have surely scared them!

The message from heaven, then, was for the three men who accompanied Jesus:

A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”   (Luke 9:35 NIV84)

Jesus’ “inner circle” needed to hear this message from Heaven – from God the Father.  Furthermore, they were admonished to “listen to him.”  The 12 did not always pay attention to Jesus or take His teachings to heart.  Consider this incident:

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”  (Luke 8:45 NIV84)

Peter actually thought his knowledge was greater than that of Jesus!  Some of them actually argued about who would be first in the Kingdom.  The apostles were worldly minded men who needed to keep quiet and listen to Jesus.

The Heavenly Voice reminded them, as it should remind all believers, that a human tendency needs to be dealt with.  The human tendency is that we put our thoughts and opinions ahead of God’s.  We have a thought and we force God’s Word to fit our thought.  It ought to be the other way around!  The arrogance of human beings; to think they know something God does not!

This Voice from Heaven is also a fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18:15–

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.   (Deuteronomy 18:15 NIV84)

This whole scene was for one purpose.  Certainly Jesus didn’t need to be Transfigured.  Certainly Jesus didn’t need to have a discussion with Moses and Elijah.  This whole, glorious drama was played out for Peter, James, and John.  They needed a glimpse of the glory of the Kingdom.  They needed to have all the strands of God’s plan of redemption tied together.  They needed to see Jesus as the True Prophet, the Son and Servant of God, and the Messiah.  The Transfiguration  was designed to that end.

It worked:

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  (Matthew 17:6 NIV84)

They were frightened and they understood they were within the presence of God.

But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up, ” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”  When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.  (Matthew 17:7-8 NIV84)

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