The Transfiguration account occurs in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and here in Luke. In each of these gospels it comes at the end of a sequence of events starting with the feeding of the 5,000, then the trip to Caesarea Philippi and Peter’s confession, the revelation of Jesus that he was going to Jerusalem to be rejected, killed, and raised, a call to costly discipleship, and then a promise that some of the disciples would not die until they saw the Kingdom of God come in power. These events mark a turning point in the ministry of Jesus, whereas Luke notes, that from this time, He set His sights on Jerusalem.
Let us look into the account in Luke 9 and see what the Lord is teaching us in this passage.
Exposition of the Text
Luke tells us that the Transfiguration happened on the eighth day after he had promised some of them would not taste death until they saw the Kingdom come in power. This little detail links the statement to the Transfiguration and serves as the fulfillment of the promise He had made them. Jesus took three of His disciples up into a mountain to join Him in prayer. James, John, and Peter would be the same three disciples who would later be asked to pray with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in which they fell asleep.
Luke goes on to tell us that while Jesus was praying that his face was transformed before them, and His clothing became a dazzling white. Then is says that Moses and Elijah appeared beside Him and started conversing with Jesus. Most of your Bibles say that the topic of their conversation was Jesus’ departure, death, or decease that was going to happen to Him at Jerusalem. Each of these translations are trying to translate the Greek word "exodus”, which as we shall see is superior to all the other translations.
The next scene also reminds us of what would happen to them at Gethsemane. While Jesus was praying in agony, they kept falling asleep. So this is why the text said “while Jesus was praying” and not “while they were praying”. But the brightness of the change in Jesus and the appearance of Moses and Elijah had awakened them. When they would be awakened at Gethsemane, it would be by the approach of Roman soldiers and the Temple police with Judas.
The scene the disciples saw was overwhelming. And as usual, Peter is the only one that opens his mouth. And Peter also shows himself to be unaware of the significance of the event. He suggested that they make three booths, one for Jesus and one each for Moses and Elijah. The problem with Peter’s thinking was that he was making Jesus the equal to Moses and Elijah.
The text goes on to say that after Moses and Elijah left and Jesus was left alone that a cloud of glory came down and covered Jesus and the disciples, something which frightened them. Then they heard the voice of God call out to them and say: “This is My Son, the Chosen One. Obey Him!” After this, things returned to normal and they only saw Jesus who commanded them to tell no one.
Meaning of the Text
This text has often been preached along with what was going on at the bottom of the mountain. There the other disciples were struggling in vain to cast a devil out of a boy. When Jesus came down, He had to do this himself. When they asked Him why they couldn’t, He answered that that kind of demon could only come out by prayer and fasting. So the connection that it made is that we come to church to be spiritually lifted and then go out to serve in the valley.
Although there is some practical value in this approach, I feel that this text makes a better connection to the suffering of Jesus. We have already seen this by the similarities between this account and the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. The fact that Jesus’ face shone her which reminds us of how Moses’ face shone after He had met with the LORD so brightly that Moses had to wear a veil. Here in this passage, the face of Jesus shines. The comparison to Gethsemane is that there Jesus’ face was contorted in agony with sweat drops of blood coming from it.
Exodus 34 contains the account of Moses’ shiny face in the wilderness. Luke uses several terms to remind us of the connection between Moses and His day and that of Jesus. The first is of course that Moses was one of the people who appeared with Him. Another was Peter’s statement of the three booths. The word here is the same as the booths the people of Israel erected at the Feast of Tabernacles as temporary shelters to remind them of the experience of their ancestors in the wilderness.
The clinching comparison is Luke’s use of “exodus” to describe the death or departure of Jesus that would soon happen in Jerusalem. The Book of Exodus describes the circumstances that led to the first Passover and the release of Israel from Egyptian Captivity. The book also describes their journey to Sinai and the receiving of the Law and instructions on how to build the Tabernacle. It also talks about Israel’s rebellions against the LORD. By using the word “exodus” Luke wants us to link and compare Jesus’ suffering and death to the Exodus.
By the way, this is why it is so vitally important to study the Old Testament. The New Testament be properly understood without it. If you will take the time to study it, it will help your understanding of the person and work of Jesus.
Application of the Text
This passage does give us a picture of what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like. Jesus taught elsewhere that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the God of the living and not of the dead. Some have missed the point being made by saying that Elijah was carried to heaven in a fiery chariot alive. But the book of Deuteronomy clearly says that Moses died and God buried him. This clearly shows that Moses was alive, present, and able to converse with Jesus. Whether this was the soul of Moses or his soul and body is a subject of debate, but the Bible makes clear that in the Kingdom of God when it comes, we will have a glorified but also physical body.
This passage also reminds us that we are pilgrims and strangers in this world. Sometimes we get too comfortable in our houses, and it would do us some good to get out of them and make some time in a solitary place for prayer and to refocus on who we are. Christ is our Passover Lamb who died to set us free from the slavery to sin and our total inability to please God. Here the Father is pleased to see us in His son Jesus Christ with whom He is completely pleased.
The call to the disciples on the mountain was one to hear and obey the One that God had chosen. Their first chance to obey for Peter, James, and John when Jesus told them to tell no one until after His resurrection. If we had had such an experience and were told by the Lord to keep quiet about it, would we?
We also learn that there is a cost to follow Jesus. It isn’t all glory. The passages before this one includes a call that if anyone is going to follow Jesus that they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him. This does not mean coming down from a spiritual high to serve in difficult circumstances. It is true that life in the wilderness can be difficult, but it is not the same as a cross. Bearing the cross is not the same as having to put up with a difficult person or any such like. It is the surrender of your life to follow Jesus. And where Jesus has gone, His true disciples will follow.
The Transfiguration is preached on the Sunday before Lent on our Christian calendar. This coming Wednesday, we will mark the beginning of a forty day period in which we give extra emphasis to our spiritual conditions. These things may include prayer and fasting as well as time for Bible study. It reminds us of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. It is a time for us to consider well what Jesus has done for us as well as what He expects from us.
Paul reminds us that we will be raised with Him. This part of the promise we are all to eager to hear. We all want to see the Kingdom of God come in power. But we all too often forget what goes with this promise: “If we suffer with Him,” There is not glory without first going to the cross. It was true for Jesus, and it is true for us also. Another “promise” of Scripture is that all who will live godly in Christ Jesus SHALL suffer persecution.” Jesus says a servant is not above his Lord. If they persecuted Him, they will also persecute, you His servants. We would do well to remember this.
The path to glory can be excruciating at times. Yes the word “cross” is in the word excruciating. But like Jesus, endure the cross you are called to bear and run that race with patience. Look unto Jesus who has finished the race in our behalf and is now set down at the right hand of the Majesty on High, Jesus endured that cross and treated it with contempt. God has promised the glory. He gave a peek to three of His disciples, and through them to us. He promises in Hebrews 13:5 that He will never leave us or forsake us. This verse is so strong a promise in Greek that it is impossible to render its full power in English. If you are His, you will make it. God has promised.