Luke 9:28-36 – The Transfiguration of Jesus

It is difficult to find a way into Luke’s version of the Transfiguration. Luke has changed and expanded his Markan source, Mark 9, in significant and Christological ways. The narrative is not a unity, and there is no obvious center to hold it together.  A variety of phenomena is available for exploration: time, mountain, prayer, his  changed appearance, the light of  his clothing,  heavenly visitors, the appearance of glory, prophecy of departure (ex-odos), fulfillment of passion in Jerusalem, the sleep of the disciples, Peter’s suggestion for tabernacles,  his misunderstanding, the enveloping cloud, the voice with a message, the disciples’ silence. A combination of several of these items may indicate an apocalyptic vision, a theophany, a point that I will explore later. In order to uncover what the Evangelist wished to reveal to his readers I will need to cast a wide net and then filter my results through the lens of his own thinking. If I am successful, we will get a glimpse into the core of Luke’s Christology. “But who do you say that I am?”

Many interpreters were convinced that the story of the Transfiguration was originally a resurrection story that has been cast back into time for a special purpose, namely, to provide indelible proof that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead. (See I Cor.15:3-5). Certainly the writer of 2 Peter 1: 16-18 is of this opinion. The 8 days would then be 8 days after the resurrection, or the following Sunday. However, that the Transfiguration is thought by the Evangelist to be an actual historical event in the life of Jesus, 8 days after Peter’s confession at Caesarea-Philippi and the first prediction of the Passion, is worthy of examination.

Jesus and his friends ascend the mountain. Luke changes the traditional order of naming them, putting John before James. Since the Evangelist does not do anything by accident, there is a purpose for elevating John, which may have to do with the development of the early Church.

While he was praying, the “appearance of his countenance was altered.” His face changed. Mark and Matthew used the verb metamorphoo, suggesting his form had changed, undergone a metamorphosis. Luke uses eidos, appearance. Perhaps our contemporary understanding of metamorphosis is quite different from Luke’s. In Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up as a bug. While interpretations are as varied as interpreters, Gregor Samsa became something other than he is, something other than human, something less than human,  something that can never experience what it is to be human. The Transfiguration narrative in Luke points in the other direction, the human is proclaimed as the divine. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”  I am reminded of Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God….” Factually, on the point of change, Luke and Mark are basically in agreement, and not much must be made of linguistic choices. One further note. In Luke, the garment of Jesus became dazzling white, ex-astrapto, literally, “like flashes of lightning.” The revelation of the divine is usually accompanied by flashes of lightening.

At this point, Jesus receives heavenly visitors, Moses and Elijah. The scene is now quite different from Mark. (And from Exodus 33!).The heavenly visitors “appeared in glory,” which would indicate again a sense of blinding light shining upon all present, for Peter, John and James “saw his glory” that is, Jesus’ glory, “ and the two men who stood with him. Though the word “glory” is not mentioned in verse 29 with the appearance of Jesus, I believe that the conclusion can be drawn that it was during the prayer of Jesus that his glory was revealed, and in his glory the heavenly visitors were also revealed. The point here seems to be a proleptic presentation of the exaltation of Christ, that is, in the Transfiguration the exaltation of Christ is already present. More precisely, the Transfiguration is the exaltation. See also Acts 2:32-33; Acts 5:30-31, and the pre-Pauline hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, especially verse 9. The Evangelist is again pulling the future into the present. This is a common feature of his eschatology.  I have yet to show that the exaltation of Christ is a theophany, the breaking forth of a new creation through the ex-odos of Jesus.  Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus about his departure, his ex-odos, “which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.” It seems to be a fact that the Evangelist centralizes Jerusalem for Jesus. In Luke 2:49, there is already an indication of this. In Luke 9:51, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  The exodus of Jesus is not easily compared to the exodus of Moses. For Jesus, exodus is death, it is his Passion, it is the fulfillment of his mission. But materially comparisons do exist. Jesus has already conquered the desert (4:1-13). He has conquered the sea (8: 22-25). He has fed multitudes in the wilderness (9:10-17).

The revelation of Moses and Elijah is the revelation of a theophany.  This revelation is still hidden. The presence of Moses and Elijah indicates the Divinity of Christ, whereby he becomes really and completely other than he is, is about to be accomplished. Something new is about to dawn upon humanity. In the theophany given to Moses on Mount Sinai, Exodus 33: 20-23, it is made clear that Moses is not allowed to look upon the countenance (face) of the Divine. Instead, he is placed in the cleft of a rock, covered over by the hand of God, and sees the Divine only from behind. In Luke 9 the situation is completely changed. Moses is allowed now to behold the countenance of the exalted Jesus as his glory is revealed. The Divine can now be seen face to face by some, but not by all.  See Acts 10:30-31. The revelation is still reserved. This is something that cannot be witnessed by the disciples.  The story of the event on the road to Emmaus illustrates this. “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Luke 24:16. Later, in the house, in the act of breaking bread and prayer, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.” Luke 24:31. The Divine is now present in cultic activity. It is now the disciples who are covered over; it is not yet time for them to behold the countenance of the Divine. They cannot witness the birth of the new. So the disciples remain asleep. I am reminded of Genesis 2:21-23. The Lord God put Adam to sleep because he was going to bring about a new thing, and even Adam could not witness that event. The event caused Adam to become completely different from what he was. By revealing Eve, the Lord God has demonstrated that Adam contained much more than himself. Peter, John and James cannot witness what Jesus really is, and upon awakening they are stupefied. See Paul’s story in Acts 9:3-8 for a comparison.

When the disciples awoke, they were still enveloped in a cloud. This is another indication that the Evangelist is presenting a theophany. Out of the cloud comes the sound of a voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Here again, the Evangelist uses an element associated with theophany: a voice presenting a message. They can hear the word but not behold the countenance. Luke is the only Evangelist to refer to Jesus as the Chosen. The term occurs twice here, where Jesus is declared by the heavenly voice as the Chosen, and in Luke 23:35, where the people standing before the cross challenge this designation. This same pattern of affirmation and challenge was seen earlier in this chapter. At the end of the genealogy 3:38, Jesus is declared “the Son of God.” This is challenged almost immediately by the devil in 4:3. In the Transfiguration the Evangelist intends to say that henceforth the Divine will be revealed in the Word! Listen! Jesus is then found alone, as Moses was alone at the conclusion of the theophany on Mount Sinai. The disciples remain silent. This is the human response to the manifestation of the sacred. “Be silent before the Lord!” Zephaniah 1:7. “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.” Zechariah 2:13. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Habakkuk 2:20.

I said earlier that if we unlock the narrative of the Transfiguration we would get an insight into the core of Luke’s Christology. Christology is possible only after the resurrection. In the Hellenistic Church of Luke and Paul, there can be only an implicit Christology regarding Jesus of Nazareth. We do not follow Christ after the flesh (Paul in 2 Cor. 5), but Christ after the Spirit. In Luke, everything regarding Jesus is done by the power of the Spirit. The Transfiguration is an activity of the Spirit. It gives us the core of Luke’s Christology. Jesus has been revealed as the Divine who will take his people on a new exodus. This is an exodus Christology, a Passion Christology, Luke 24:26, that says the Church will find life only by passing through death, and that death as cultic activity is the place where resurrection conquers the existential anxiety that death poses for human beings, and sets us free to choose life.  Death is not the opposite of Life; it is the opposite of Birth. Between Birth and Death is Time, and in this Time, Life prevails as the work of the Spirit. Death as Passion unfolds Eternity, life in the Spirit and of the Spirit.

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