Luke9v28to36: The Transfiguration

(A) Introduction. Read: Luke9v18to27 See also Mt17vk1to13 and Mk9v2to10.

Leon Morris expresses the opinion in his commentary on Luke: It is not easy to see what happened at the transfiguration or why it occurred. This is a view I share. The transfiguration seems a rather bizarre and unnecessary episode in the ministry of Jesus. It is not at all clear what the three disciples who were sworn to secrecy until after the resurrection learned from the event. See Mt17v9.

(B) Intensity.

Christ's transfiguration was an intense religious experience. There are three aspects to it:

(1) Christ's communion. Jesus .... went up onto a mountain to pray. v28.

I think it possible that as Jesus prayed to God about his saving work he became aware of God's great love for him. So intense was the experience that it transformed his presence. This happens in a small way whenever we become aware of someone's love for us. I can remember receiving a message in the lunch hour during my teaching days that an old pupil had arrived at school and was waiting in reception for me. So I trotted along to see Stephanie. She threw her arms around me and said, "I couldn't leave without giving you a hug Mr Reed." When I went to register my form one of the children said, "Mr Reed why are you so happy?" I had a kind of radiance. This is, of course, even more marked when two people are in love.

G.B. Caird mentions in the Penguin New Testament Commentary on Saint Luke that the intense devotions of saints and mystics are often accompanied by physical transformation and luminous glow. When Stephen was arrested and appeared before the Sanhedrin they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Acts6v15.

(2) Christ's companions.

The transfiguration occurred at a watershed in Christ's ministry - between the rise in his popularity and the decline in support that led eventually to his crucifixion. It was a time of crisis and Jesus prayed for confirmation of the way ahead and the strength to bear it.

Christ's burden was so great that, as in Gethsemane, he felt the need for human companionship and support. So he took with him up the mountain his three most trusted disciples. He took Peter, John and James with him. v28.

Sadly the watchmen fell asleep on the job! We all know what can happen in such circumstances. This year - 2009 - the bank watchmen fell asleep with disastrous consequences. In the London borough of Islington the social services watchmen fell asleep and a small child was physical abused and done to death.

Christ's followers sometimes sleep when they should be watching and praying. Many Christians are self-indulgent and complacent and as such totally unprepared for crises in the church. We can let down those in need of help - those desperate for our prayers.

(3) Christ's conversation.

This is the aspect of Christ's transfiguration that is especially difficult to comprehend. It is not something that has ever happened since. It would be perfectly understandable if Jesus had been visited by angels in this time of crisis as happened both after his temptation in the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane where an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. Luke22v43.

Perhaps Jesus had been thinking about incidents in the lives of Moses and Elijah that were relevant to the work God intended for him. There were two ways open to him:

    (a) The way of Moses. The Israelites escaped death and were released from slavery because the Passover lamb was slain and they took shelter beneath the blood. Did Jesus need to become the Passover lamb to set his people free?

    (b) The way of Elijah. Elijah confronted evil and unbelief. He used God's power - the fire from heaven - to bring the Israelites to their senses. The enemies within the camp - the prophets of Baal - were put death.

    Talking with Jesus the ancient prophet might well have recalled the salutary lesson he learned, namely, that God was not in the fire, the earthquake or the might rushing wind but in the small, still voice.

Death on a cross was a strange way to bring in the Kingdom. But God's plan of redemption did not depend upon might or awesome power. Instead it was to be accomplished by silent suffering and shed blood. As Paul affirmed: For Christ, our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. 1Cor5v7. Jesus' communion with God and conversation with Moses and Elijah stiffened his resolve to be the ultimate sacrificial Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.

We do not get visits from the likes of Moses and Elijah but the Holy Spirit still uses incidents from Old Testament to good effect. I can never read the story of Abraham without being moved by his reply to Isaac's question about the lack of a sacrificial offering. "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering my Son." Gen22v8. Moses words to Pharaoh have given hope to Christian slaves through the ages: "Let my people go." Ex10v3. God's wonderful providential provision is summed up by Mordecai's words to Queen Esther when the Jews faced annihilation: "And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this." Es4v14.

(C) Idiocy.

Peter makes an embarrassing contribution to proceedings:

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.)

There are two questions to answer:

(1) Why did Peter make his silly remark?

There are three possible explanations:

    (a) He thought some response was called for. Peter wanted to get in on the act. We all need to learn that there are times to keep quiet:

  • When we haven't prepared anything to say. Very rarely are remarks made 'off the cuff' of much worth.
  • When we haven't been invited to say anything.
  • When what we say will be very much an anticlimax
  • When our only motivation is to get noticed.

    (b) He wanted to preserve the moment. There are experiences we never want to end - a wedding, anniversary celebrations, Christian holiday or retreat, a festival of praise, a convention... . However, mountain top experiences are transitory and often preparatory for grim, dark days that lie ahead. Jesus came down from the mountain and began the long road to Calvary.

    (c) Peter wanted others to see what he had seen. The transfiguration of Jesus in the company of Moses and Elijah was the very sign that the Jews demanded. If Jesus, Moses and Elijah dwelt in shrines on the mountain people would flock to pay homage. There was no better way for Jesus to demonstrate that he was indeed God's Messiah.

    There is a type of Christian who longs to impress the sceptical with signs and wonders. This is not the way of Jesus. He came to seek and to save the lost. Salvation depends simply on believing in him. The great apostle Paul in Corinth preached nothing but Christ and him crucified. (See exposition on 1Cor1v18to25.)

(2) Why was Peter's suggestion foolishness?

    (a) Jesus knew he could not stop on the mountain because there were needs to be met on the plain. Down there a desperate father was waiting with his only son who was possessed by an evil spirit the disciples were powerless to do anything about.

    We cannot be on the mountaintop all the time. The Christian life is not predominantly a matter of holidays, festivals or celebrations. There are people with needs in the valley - the old, lonely, sick and suffering.

    (b) Jesus had a duty to teach his disciples further. He had much more to say to them.

    Christians have duties to fulfil. Some who are almost addicted to ecstatic experiences are inclined to neglect their duties. I can remember many years ago attending a far from happy Christian camp where a group of workers heard heavenly choirs sing. They were so intent on hearing the supernatural music again or talking about what they had experienced that meals were late and the camp program thrown into disarray. I think it highly significant that the team of men who emptied the latrines never heard the angels sing on this or any other occasion.

    (c) Jesus had a saving work to do at Calvary. We are called to follow Jesus. It is not going to be one long mountain top experience. Jesus finished up on another hill - one called Golgotha. Christians, too, are expected to make sacrifices and experience sorrow and pain before sharing in Christ's resurrection. Paul wrote: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 1Phil3v10..

(D) Instruction

Peter's nonsense was ended by God. 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." v34and35.

Do you long for mountain top experiences, supernatural visitations and voices from heaven? Are you like some charismatics who have a hot line to Jesus and seem to know unerringly what he wants? Are you in the mystic tradition? Do you desire to be like Frederick Faber of whom A.W. Tozer wrote these words: The measure in which God revealed himself to his seeking heart set the good man's whole life afire with a burning adoration rivalling the seraphim before the throne.

God's words out of the cloud brought the disciples back to earth! What did God say? He gave the very best advice: "Listen to him." v35.

We should pay attention to the words of Jesus which we have a plenty in the gospels because:

(1) He is God's Son.

Jesus said: "For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it." John12v49. (See my exposition on John12v37to50)

The writer to the Hebrews affirms: In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.... . Heb1v1and2. (See exposition on God's Spokesman.)

Jesus has supreme authority over everything to do with God and man - he is the way, the truth and the life and no man can come to the Father but by him.

One of the things Jesus said was: If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. John14v23. Obedience is a much better test of our love for God than rapturous feelings.

(2) He is the Son of Man.

It is much easier to pay attention to someone who can empathise with us because he or she has experienced what we experience. I sometimes talk with people who are caring for a mentally disturbed relative. Such advice as I give carries authority because I looked after my poor demented father.

Jesus, unlike the angels, knows all about the human condition. He knows all about our weaknesses, needs and potential. When I was a boy in Sunday school I used to find the chorous below strangely comforting:

            Jesus knows all about our struggles;
            He will guide till the day is done:
            There's not a friend like the lowly Jesus,
            No, not one! No not one!

Jesus gives us the very best advice - to love one another, to forgive, to be generous, to help those in distress and to be faithful and true.

(3) His words give life.

Peter said of Jesus: "You have the words of eternal life." John6v68.

Jesus himself said: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." John10v10.

Jesus words:

    (a) Cheer and uplift. "Are not 5 sparrows sold for 2 pennies. Yet not one of them is forgotten by God ..... . Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." Lk12v6and7. One sparrow was of such little consequence that it was thrown in free - but it was still of significance to God!

    (b) Reassure and convince. "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom." Lk12v32. Many Christians belong to a little flock and probably do not think that they amount to much but Jesus assures the few that it is the Father's good pleasure to give them the kingdom.

    (c) Guide and direct. There is absolutely no better guide to living in the will of God than the Beatitudes. (See me series of expositions on the Beatitudes.)

    (d) Bear fruit. If we live by Christ's precepts we shall be fruitful. See my cheerful little exposition on fruitfulness.

(4) His word's abide.

Spiritual experiences are transitory. The heavenly choirs stop singing and the memory of the music fades. Christ's words are always with us. So long as we possess a Bible we have the teaching of Jesus. He said: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." Lk21v33.

(E) Intimacy.

I very much like how Matthew's account of the transfiguration ends: And when the disciples heard it (the voice out of the cloud) they fell on their faces, and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them and said, "Arise, and be not afraid." And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man save Jesus only. Mt17v6to8. AV.

The disciples felt his touch, heard his voice and saw Jesus only. Jesus is the best person to:

(1) Be left with.

He will support us:

          When other helpers fail and comforts flee
          Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

(2) Go down into the valley with.

There will be many difficulties and problems on the plain but Jesus is the solution to our problems. That is why Christians sing:

          I need Thy presence every passing hour:
          What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?
          Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?
          Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me!

(3) Sustain us to life's end.

He is the living water and the bread of heaven.

          Bless Thou the Bread of life
          To me, to me,
          As Thou didst bless the loaves
          By Galilee;
          Then shall all bondage cease,
          All fetters fall,
          And I shall find my peace,
          My All in all.