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Sermon on the Mount
#38. The Transfiguration (Luke 9:27-36)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God."
 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.  As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.  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.  Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.  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.)
 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.  A voice came from the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him."  When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.
If your world has ever spun around, jerked and restarted in confusion, then perhaps you can relate to how Jesus' disciples are feeling.
Within a period of a few days they have seen the storm-whipped waves of the Sea of Galilee calmed, a raving demoniac clothed and in his right mind, five thousand plus people fed from five loaves and two fish. Now, on retreat from active ministry, Peter has voiced their unanimous verdict: Jesus is God's Messiah, the One sent to deliver Israel. But a few minutes later, Jesus begins to unfold a troubling and dissonant future, one that they utterly to comprehend -- that the Son of Man will suffer, be rejected, be killed, and be raised. The Messiah suffer? If anything, the Messiah is the one who should be making Israel's enemies suffer!
Peter voices his objection aggressively -- "Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!" (Matthew 16:22) and receives a strong rebuke from Jesus. The disciples are confused, and don't know what to think.
You've been there; you know how it feels.
Seeing the Kingdom in Its Glory (9:27)
Jesus talks to them about their own need to take up their cross daily, mentions the coming of the Son of Man in glory (9:23-26), and then makes an amazing promise:
"I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God." (9:27)
What is he talking about? His second coming? If so, the disciples passed away two millennia ago without seeing Christ's return. So what is it? Within a few days, three of the disciples see his glory revealed as he is transfigured before them.
Praying on the Mountain (9:28)
It begins simply enough -- with Jesus' invitation to pray with him on a mountainside, perhaps on Mount Hermon above Ceasarea Philippi, though we aren't really sure where.
"About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray." (9:28)
What a privilege -- to be asked to join Jesus for a time of prayer! Little did they know what was in store for them.
Training the Three -- Peter, James, and John (9:28)
I want to pause for a moment and talk about Peter, James, and John. Three times Jesus takes only these three disciples with him, excluding the other nine:
- Into the room where Jairus' daughter is healed (8:51),
- Onto the mountain where Jesus is transfigured before them (9:28), and
- Farther into the Garden of Gethsemane where, in agony of prayer, Jesus sweats drops of blood (Matthew 26:37 and Mark 14:33).
If you are Thomas or Andrew or Bartholomew, how do you feel about this? How can Jesus play favorites? Isn't each disciple equally called to be an Apostle? You may be wondering (1) Is this fair? and (2) Why is Jesus doing this?
To answer the first question is: Jesus doesn't treat people equally, if that's what "fair" means. But he is treating people as having different gifts and aptitudes than others. Jesus' Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:15) teaches this. Too often our sense of fairness is the kind of childish stuff our children pull -- "That's not fair!" We soon recognize that each of our children is very different, and what one needs very much another may not need at all. Fairness for a leader doesn't require equality.
I answer the second question -- Why is Jesus doing this? -- with my hypothesis: Jesus is in the business of training men to follow him, and to lead the church after he has ascended. He looks for those who have the greatest spiritual maturity and leadership skills, and takes them aside for further instruction. Some are more ready than others to learn.
But it is also possible that Jesus needs people with whom he can share himself more openly. Pastors need that. Too often pastors don't open themselves to anyone in their congregations for fear of being accused of favoritism. Or weakness. But Jesus doesn't live that way, and neither can we. Pastors need to select leaders to disciple and train and share their lives with in order to further the kingdom. And be their friends, too.
Jesus has a difficult role, but one familiar to leaders, that sometimes he has to rebuke those closest to him. While he praises Peter for his God-given spiritual insight into Jesus being the Messiah (Matthew 16:17), he sharply rebukes him the next minute for presuming to correct his Master about something he didn't understand (Matthew 16:23). In the Garden of Gethsemane he gently chides the Three, especially Peter (Matthew 26:40). In the Garden, it seems as if Jesus asks the Three to join him because he really desires their presence and prayer support during this time of spiritual agony for him -- and they fail him.
If we are to learn the training methods of Jesus, we must include the importance of training an inner circle of leaders according to their degree of readiness and willingness, and then opening our lives to them as much as is wise in order to develop them.
This isn't about fairness but about fulfilling the mission of the Kingdom.
Jesus' Appearance Is Transfigured (9:29)
"As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning." (9:29)
The appearance of Jesus' face changes suddenly. In Luke's Gospel the Greek verb is missing but assumed. The text just says that his face "[became] different." The word translated "appearance" is Greek eidos, "visible form, shape, appearance, outward show.". In Matthew and Mark a different word is used: "he was transfigured before them" (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2). The verb here is metamorphoo, "to change, transfigure, transform," or, as teenagers might express it, "to morph." The Aorist tense indicates a single point in the past, so the change didn't take several minutes to complete (that would be the Imperfect tense perhaps), but took place rather quickly.
Matthew's account says, "his face shown like the sun" (Matthew 17:2). This is reminiscent of what happened to Moses when he talked to God on Mt. Sinai.
"When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him." (Exodus 34:29-30)
This Shekinah glory on Jesus makes a lasting impression upon John the Gospel-writer: "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). Late in his life John has a vision of the glorified Jesus:
"And among the lampstands was someone 'like a son of man,' dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance." (Rev. 1:13-16)
Paul, who had his own visions in the "third heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:1-2), describes the Father in this way: "... who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen" (1 Timothy 6:16).
It is this "unapproachable light" that Peter, James, and John see upon the face of Jesus this day of Transfiguration. Luke describes Jesus' clothing in a similar striking manner: "his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning" (9:29). How bright is a flash of lightning? Bright!
One minute Jesus seems normal enough, ruddy face, beard, dusty clothing from the trail. The next minute his face is shining like the sun and his clothing as bright as lightning! He is changed, transfigured in divine glory before their eyes.
Talking with Moses and Elijah (9:30-31)
"Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure (Greek exodus), which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem." (9:30-31)
Moses and Elijah appear in a similar display of heavenly glory, and speak with Jesus. What they speak about, however, is striking. "They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem" (9:31). The word translated "departure" (NIV) or "decease" (KJV) in Greek is exodus, and though it can mean both "going out, departure from a place" and "death," it is significantly the same Greek word used in the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) to refer to Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt to their salvation and freedom. I can't escape the fact that Luke is clearly pointing to Jesus as the New Savior of Israel, and that his ultimate saving act will take place, or be fulfilled in, Jerusalem, the Holy City of the Jews.
The phrase "which he was about to bring to fulfillment" is a pretty literal translation of the Greek. Jesus' salvation fulfills something the Father has planned long before, something that Jesus has been preparing for, and now will carry out.
Moses, who represents the Law, and Elijah, who represents the Prophets, are talking to the Messiah concerning what he is about to do to deliver his people. Wow! And the disciples are witnesses of this amazing conversation displaying the continuity of salvation history.
Peter's Plan for Three Shelters (9:32-33)
But they are very sleepy witnesses. It's as if they are spiritually dull or not quite tuned in -- spiritually sleepy, as they were in the Garden of Gethsemane.
"Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 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.)" (9:32-33)
How did Peter think of making shelters (or tabernacles or booths)? When I read this passage I can't help but chuckle. What is there to say on an occasion like this? But if there was ever an inappropriate thing to say, Peter voices it: "It is good that we're here. Let's construct three shelters, one for each of you, so that you can be comfortable and this can continue." I expect that later on, when the Transfiguration was fully known among the disciples, Peter was the brunt of a lot of jokes from his fellow apostles: "You sure put your foot in your mouth, Peter." But Luke says it much more nicely: "He did not know what he was saying."
The Cloud and the Voice (9:34-35)
"While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.' " (9:34-35)
Jesus doesn't answer Peter or rebuke him, but as Peter is speaking, a cloud moves onto the mountain where they are and surrounds them. Have you ever been driving in the mountains and suddenly drive into the fog? That's what a cloud really is, you know. The cloud blows around them and utterly blots out any ability to see. But out of the cloud comes the Father's clear Voice: "This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him" (9:35).
If there has been any question in Peter's or the other disciple's mind that Jesus knows what he is talking about concerning the suffering that will happen in Jerusalem, the Voice drives it out. Though they don't understand what in the world Jesus is talking about when he predicts his sufferings and death, or what Moses and Elijah mean by Jesus' "exodus," they no longer question it. They have seen Jesus in his glory and heard the Father's voice. They no longer doubt. Dazed, overwhelmed, uncomprehending, they just believe.
The Disciples Tell No One (9:36)
"When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen." (9:36)
Have you ever had a mystical or spiritual experience? Sometimes you just can't share it. It may seem too personal. Or it may seem so bizarre that no one would believe you. Paul described his own Third Heaven experience this way, that he "heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell" (2 Corinthians 12:4).
Sometimes our spiritual experiences even embarrass us. They are vivid and powerful. But we're afraid people may think us weird if we were to tell it, so we just keep quiet.
Have you ever had a spiritual experience? Perhaps you have, perhaps not. Some Jesus-loving believers go through their entire lives without any such "ecstatic" experiences, while other seem to have many. Don't let anyone measure your spiritual temperature by your experiences. They aren't intended to be a spiritual thermometer. Nor do spiritual experiences confer holiness of life -- that's the fruit of yielding to the Spirit, not a sudden gift. But neither should we discount the value of spiritual experiences just because we are embarrassed by them or haven't been the recipients of them. God is the dispenser of these things, and sometimes they are very needful. This was one of those times.
Why Was the Transfiguration Necessary?
I think that this "mountain top" experience was necessary for several reasons:
- Jesus' inner circle of disciples need to see his glory so they might be able to grasp better who he is. They have been confused by Jesus' teaching of suffering and death. They need to integrate the suffering with his glory.
- Jesus has made them witnesses who can later testify, as only eyewitnesses can, of who he really is. Two of the three wrote down their impressions (John 1:14; 2 Peter 1:16-18).
- Jesus himself may have needed this reassurance and confirmation of his role, as he begins the next phase of confrontation, suffering, and death.
The Mystery of Incarnation
Jesus' agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me -- yet not my will but yours be done" (22:42), is difficult for us. It's sometimes easier to see Jesus as God than it is to see him as Man, weak and dependent upon the Father (John 5:19). But Jesus, as Man, does struggle with the weakness of the human condition. He is tempted with real temptations (4:1-13), becomes physically exhausted (John 4:6), feels loss at the death of his friends (Matthew 14:13; John 11:35), and is discouraged with people's spiritual dullness and lack of faith (Luke 9:41; Matthew 17:20).
Jesus gets away to talk with his Father, not primarily as an example to his disciples, but because he absolutely MUST if he is to fulfill his terrible mission to redeem us by his own sacrifice of his own body.
No wonder it is hard for us to understand this! Paul describes Jesus' incarnation (becoming flesh) in this way:
"Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death --
even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:6-8)
Jesus IS God, shares spiritual equality with the Father, shared in full the Father's glory before his incarnation (John 17:5) and after. But for these thirty some years of life and three years of ministry he has laid that glory aside so that he might partake of our human condition. As the sinless Second Adam, he dies for the sins of all men, as once Adam's sin had led all men into separation from God (Romans 5:12-21). Though he is worthy of our obedient service, yet "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).
Jesus is fully God and yet he is also fully Man. It is a mystery, and yet the only way to understand what the New Testament clearly teaches. (See my recent article, "Four Reasons Why I Believe in the Trinity," The Joyful Heart, August 22, 2000. http://www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/trinity.htm )
Glimpses of Glory
Jesus is fully Man, yet here and there are glimpses of his glory as "the Only Begotten of the Father" (John 1:18):
- The glory of God and an angel choir on the night of his lowly birth in Bethlehem (Luke 2:8-20),
- A dove alighting on him and the Father's voice at his baptism (3:22),
- This Transfiguration upon the mountain (9:28-36),
- His resurrection from the dead (chapter 24),
- His ascension into heaven (24:50-51), being hidden by a cloud (Acts 1:9-11).
It's sometimes like that for us, too, dear friends. We, too, experience the ups and downs of life, the hardships and the struggles, the joys and warmth of love. But sometimes, just sometimes, we see a clear beam of light come down and are able to catch a glimpse of the Father's glory, the glory that we will some day experience with Jesus (John 17:22).
John, one of the Three on the mountain that day, had a clear revelation of what it will be like for us in the final day when we shall all dwell in his inexpressible glory:
"They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever." (Revelation 22:4-5)
Life sometimes seems pretty dark, but God intends us to look back at those times of his clear revelation, so we might look forward to his ultimate deliverance. Twenty or thirty years after seeing Jesus transfigured on the mountain, the Apostle Peter can still see it vividly, and in the face of persecution and struggle, and his own ultimate martyrdom, he can boldly declare:
"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. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain." (2 Peter 1:16-18)
He was a witness of these things. You are a witness, too, of how Jesus has met you and helped you, personally. Along with his unshakable Word, your experience of him is yours -- to meditate on, to help hold you steady when everything around seems to be collapsing, and perhaps to share when the time is right. "... Whom having not seen, you love; in whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory." (1 Peter 1:8, KJV)
Thanks you, Lord, for the moments of joy and glory and revelation that you give us. I pray that you will strengthen my brothers and sisters in their times of confusion and discouragement. Pour out upon them your Spirit and glimpses of your glory. And especially, I pray that you would give them the joy that is their birthright as your much-loved children. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"A voice came from the cloud, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.' " (Luke 9:35)
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- Why did Jesus show special attention to Peter, James, and John? Why do church members sometimes misunderstand when their pastor enjoys a special relationship with a few in the congregation?
- Why did the disciples need to see Jesus transfigured before them?
- Do you think Jesus needed the transfiguration himself?
- What is the place of eyewitness experience of God's glory alongside of the Word of God in our lives and witness as Christians? Which is more important to us? To others? What is the balance?
- How have your own spiritual experiences influenced your Christian life for good or ill?
- Alexander Souter, A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Clarendon Press, 1916), p. 72.
- Souter, p. 87.
Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastorjoyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.
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- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ