The Transfiguration

Luke 9.28-36

Jason Procopio

We’re back in the gospel of Luke after taking a break for Easter last Sunday. In case you’ve forgotten, Luke has gone to great lengths to show us that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah and Savior God had promised to his people. And we’ve seen that in Jesus’s own ministry, he’s letting more and more of that come out: just between chapters 8 and 9 (so far), he has calmed a storm with a word; he has cast out a legion of demons from a man; he has healed a woman from a chronic illness; he has raised a girl from the dead; and he has multiplied a small meal so that it feeds thousands of people. 

The closer we get to the cross, the more Jesus is proving himself to be the Son of God, who came to save us. But our temptation is to limit Jesus’s person and work to that: we say he came to save us. And he did…but that’s not all he came to do.

In this passage we’re going to see Jesus as we’ve never seen him before: we’re going to see him in what’s called “the transfiguration.”

We’re going to walk through the text quickly, and then we’ll take a step back and try to make sense of what we see here.

A Transfiguration (v. 28-29)

Let’s read the text together (Luke 9.28-36):

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 

We’ve all had those experiences where you’ve seen something a hundred times and then something changes…and it’s as if you’re looking at it for the first time. Loanne and I had been married for about eight years when we went back to Florida for my brother’s wedding; I was a groomsman and she was a bridesmaid. Before the wedding, she came out of the changing room and met me out front.

Obviously in a wedding, the groom gets to see his bride in a wedding dress; that day I felt like a groom all over again, just flabbergasted at this stunning beauty standing in front of me. And the crazy thing was that she didn’t look all that different. She wasn’t very made up; her hair was done up in understated curls with little white flowers. But even so, it was like I was seeing her for the first time—seeing her in that way made me remember just how beautiful she had always been.

Every once in a while the veneer of things we’ve grown used to gets peeled back ever so slightly, and we realize how great they really were all along.

That’s what’s happening here, but taken to a ridiculous extreme.

What happens in this text is called a theophany. (This word comes from the Greek word for “God”—theos—and the Greek verb “to appear”—phainein.) It is one of those instances in which God actually, visibly, shows something of himself to human beings.

They were rare occurrences: theophanies usually only happened to people who were central to God’s plan of salvation. God appeared to Abraham as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch (Gen. 15); he appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Ex. 3). The difference between those theophanies and this one, however, is striking: God appears to the disciples; but he doesn’t do it in the form of an object (a pot, a torch, a bush); he appears to the disciples through the person of Jesus. 

Luke says that the appearance of his face was altered; Mark says in his account (in Mark 9) that Jesus was “transfigured”—literally, metamorphosed—in front of them. Jesus is a fully human being, but he is also fully God. And for this moment in time, the veil of his humanity was lifted, and the disciples saw the other side of his dual nature shining through. He was a man, but for the first time the disciples were seeing him as more than just a man: they were seeing him in all his glory.

A Conversation (v. 30-31)

But Jesus, as it turns out, wasn’t alone. V. 30:

30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 

If you’ve read the Old Testament, you could probably think of a lot of men and women who would have qualified to appear there on the mountain with Jesus. Abraham; Joseph; Isaiah; Jeremiah; Ruth; Esther; Deborah; David… The Old Testament is filled with the stories of men and women who honored God well and whom God used in great ways.

But it’s not about who they were as people; it’s what God did for and through them that made Moses and Elijah the perfect candidates for a conversation with Jesus.

They had both spoken with God on a mountaintop (Exodus 31.18; 1 Kings 19.8); they had both seen God’s glory; they were both expected to be there when Christ comes back (Luke 1.17; 9.8, 19; Deuteronomy 18.15, 18). R. Kent Hughes writes, “Moses was the great lawgiver, and Elijah was the great prophet. Moses was the founder of Israel’s religious economy, and Elijah was the restorer of it. Together they were a powerful summary of the entire Old Testament economy.”

This was a telling reminder to the disciples that Jesus didn’t come out of context; he wasn’t separated from what God had done before. God wasn’t doing something new with Jesus; he was completing something he had previously started. Jesus was integrally connected with the disciples’ own story, the story of the people of Israel.

So Moses and Elijah come, and they’re speaking with Jesus. What were they talking about?

v. 31:

[They] spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 

They were speaking together about what we spoke about last week: Jesus’s impending death, resurrection and ascension. Every time I read this, I wish we knew more about what they said to one another. 

Were Moses and Elijah encouraging Jesus, leading into this trial which would be more terrible than anything we can imagine? 

Were they themselves encouraged, speaking to him? Jesus had said that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5.17); Moses and Elijah were representatives of the Law and the Prophets. And now they were speaking to the man who was the fulfillment of everything they had lived for!

We’ll never know exactly what was said, beyond this fact: they were speaking about what Jesus was about to do: about his impending death, resurrection and ascension.

An (Attempted) Formalization (v. 32-33)

This is where Luke gets real: I love how he reminds us that these amazing things were happening in the presence of very ordinary men.

Peter and James and John were falling asleep as Jesus was praying…but they didn’t stay asleep long. You can be sure the picture of Jesus shining in his glory and speaking with Moses and Elijah snapped them wide awake. V. 32:

32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.

I love that last: Luke’s making an aside, telling us, “Yeah: that’s a dumb idea.” Jesus shines in his glory, appearing with Moses and Elijah, these legendary patriarchs of the Jewish faith…and the disciples have no idea what to do. So the best Peter can come up with is, “Let’s make some tents! Let’s get these guys inside! Let’s build something!”

We can make fun, but this is exactly what men have always done. They think they understand God and they try to formalize what they’ve understood. Now, not all formalization is bad. Let me be really clear about this: organized religion, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. God’s revelation needed to be formalized it in some way, and God knew that: that’s why he gave the Law to the people of Israel; that’s why the apostles gave us commandments in the letters we find in the New Testament; that’s why they told us to appoint elders and deacons and to teach specific doctrines. There has to be order if we are to make sense of any of this.

But we often take this good desire for order too far. We move beyond clear doctrine and right commandments to buildings: let’s make sure that people know that God is really present at the Vatican, or at Mecca! Let’s make sure some objects are holier than others: like the Host during Holy Communion, or sacred relics that look like things Jesus may have touched. We take ordinary objects and make them talismanic, encouraging people to come thousands of miles just to see or touch them.

If we let ourselves go down that road, in the end the object begins to eclipse what the object was meant to represent. 

But you can’t keep God in a box, or in a wafer, or in a glass. You can’t keep God in a tent. Even the tabernacle, and then the temple—these places where God’s presence dwelt—were only meant to be pre-cursors to the real temple, to the real tabernacle, who was Jesus himself! They were not ends in themselves, but they were meant to help us see what God is like and who God is.

And so when Peter offers to build tents for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, notice that Jesus doesn’t answer him: he doesn’t need to.

A Proclamation (v. 34-36)

34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 

If you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ll recognize this image in a hurry. This was the way God most often appeared to his people. He appeared as a pillar of smoke guiding the people of Israel after the Exodus (Ex. 13.21). He appeared as a cloud when he passed by Moses in the cleft of the mountain (Ex. 33.18-23). He appeared as a cloud that covered and filled the Tabernacle (Ex. 40.35). He appeared as a cloud that filled Solomon’s temple on its dedication day (1 Kings 8.10, 2 Chr. 7.1). He appeared as a cloud to Ezekiel as it moved from place to place around and over the temple and finally disappeared from over the Mount of Olives (Ezek. 8.4; 9.3; 10.4, 18-19; 11.22-25). 

In each of these instances, when God’s presence came in the form of a cloud, the people were terrified. They could not enter the tabernacle or the temple, because that’s where the Holy God was, and they were sinful men and women.

But now, the cloud has come again, and because they are with Jesus, the disciples find themselves overshadowed by the cloud, and they are terrified.

And then, something both terrible and wonderful happens: they actually hear God’s voice, audibly, coming from inside the cloud. V. 35:

35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. 

If they ever needed any more proof of who Jesus was, this was it. They had seen him master nature; they had seen him master sickness and death; they had seen him provide for his people; they had seen him transfigured in glory before them. And now, they have heard divine approbation from the very voice of God, saying, “This man Jesus is no mere man: he is my Son. Pay careful attention to what he tells you.”

We Are Made to See His Glory.

This text is all about the glory of Jesus. Luke’s goal in writing it is to show us Jesus as he really is: the all-powerful, all-glorious Messiah of God.

But what does that even mean? What is “glory”? The Bible talks about the glory of God a lot…but it can be an idea that’s hard to pin down in our minds. John Piper gives this helpful definition based on everything the Bible says about the glory of God (I’m paraphrasing): The glory of God is everything he is—all of his goodness and power and wisdom and transcendency—made visible. God’s glory is what we see when we see God as he is.

When I was a kid, my father had a little wooden plaque on a shelf in his office; it looked like random rectangles set at right angles against a black background. For a long time, I never thought to look at it more closely, but one day Dad told me to give it another look. I looked for a long time, and saw nothing, because I was concentrating on the wood. But when I let my eyes relax and I looked at the black instead of the wood, I could see the name “JESUS” clearly spelled out.

Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. He still has that plaque, and to this day my eyes are instantly drawn to the big block letters spelling out “JESUS.”

If you read the Bible closely, and don’t miss the forest for the trees, you’ll see God’s passion for his glory riding high, from beginning to end. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. On nearly every page of the Bible is some mention of God doing something for his glory, or desiring something for his glory, or commanding something for his glory, or saving someone for his glory.

Jonathan Edwards wrote in the mid-18th century: 

“From the purest principles of reason, as well as from the fountain of revealed truth, [we see] that the chief and ultimate end of [God], in the works of creation and providence, was the manifestation of his own glory in the highest happiness of his creatures.”

He’s right. Scripture spells it out again and again: God does everything he does for his glory. We see this on practically every page of the Bible, if we’re paying attention. For example:

Isaiah 43.6-7:  

“6 I will say to the north, Give up, 

and to the south, Do not withhold; 

bring my sons from afar

and my daughters from the end of the earth, 

7 everyone who is called by my name, 

whom I created for my glory...”

Or, Romans 11.34-36:  

34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, 

or who has been his counselor?” 

35 “Or who has given a gift to him

that he might be repaid?” 

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. 

In the Old Testament, the prophet Habakkuk gives us one sentence which is perhaps the best summary statement of what heaven will be. We read in Habakkuk 2.14:  

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 

The earth will be filled not just with the glory of the Lord, but with the knowledge of his glory. And it will be filled with that knowledge so completely that the only fit comparison is the way the waters cover the seas, filling every square millimeter of space across endless miles of terrain. Every man, woman and child will see God’s glory, manifested in his Son, just as the disciples saw it on that wonderful night.

That’s what the earth was created for; that’s what we were created for. To see his glory.

The problem is that we’re not used to thinking in such terms. We want things to move quickly. We are pragmatic. We want to get things done. 

We look at the kind of people God expects us to be (as he’s stated in the Bible), and we think, OK, I’ll just DO THAT. 1 + 1 = 2. Do these things, don’t do these things, and I’ll be the right type of person. 

But it doesn’t work that way. Either we end up frustrated when we can’t meet that standard, or we judge other people who have a hard time adhering to our idea of what a “good Christian” should be (when our judging is actually proof that we can’t do it either). At least in terms of our holiness, 1 + 1 does not necessarily equal 2.

God tells us that in order to be the kinds of people he created us to be, it’s not enough to do the right thing; we must see the right thing and love the right thing. And that “right thing” we are meant to see and love is the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.

But in order to do that, we may need to stop for a moment and just open our eyes.

When Pragmatic Peter wants to get to work and build tents for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, no one directly responds to his suggestion. Jesus says nothing, and the Father, speaking from the cloud, says, “Look at my Son.” That’s why you guys are here on the mountain. You’re not here to do anything; you’re here to see something.

Seeing His Glory Will Sustain Us.

And the remarkable thing is that what they see there on the mountain is an absolute good, in and of itself…but God doesn’t simply leave them there with what they’ve seen. He uses what they saw for their good later on.

They saw his glory on the mountain, and that glory is how they would think of Christ; that glory is what they would testify of him.

As John said in the introduction to his gospel (John 1.14),  

…WE HAVE SEEN HIS GLORY, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Peter, James and John, seeing all of this unfolding before their eyes, must have been shocked and terrified…and later, probably bewildered and awestruck by the memory of it. And that memory would serve them well. They would face incredibly difficult things in the years to come—the death of their Master, persecution, and eventually death. And the vision of this glory would be an incredible comfort to them—they would remember who it is they were serving. 

Our view of God’s glory is what is meant to sustain us when we are suffering, and even more; it is what allows us to not simply survive difficulty, but actually grow from it. Paul says in Romans 5.1-5:  

5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 

Through Jesus we have peace with God; we have been declared just by the Father; and we rejoice. We don’t just rejoice in everything we have now; we rejoice in hope of the glory of God, the same glory the disciples saw on the mountain, the glory that we will see and enjoy and be surrounded by for all eternity. It is that hope that allows us to endure through suffering, to make our suffering build character in us, and to see that character produce even more hope of all the grace God still has for us.

When we see Christ’s glory, we have what we need to not just survive, but thrive—even in the most difficult of circumstances. Because we know, and we have the assured hope, that we will share in that glory with him, and enjoy it forever.

The question is, How do we do that? (The spirit of Pragmatic Peter is back!) That all sounds great, but what do we do? Give us a list! Give us some boxes to check! I want to do it, but I don’t know how

Thankfully, God is not unpragmatic. He doesn’t set unattainable goals before us and then expect us to figure it all out for ourselves. In this passage, he tells us how to see his glory.

How do we do it? We look at Jesus, and we listen to Jesus. 

Look at Jesus, Listen to Jesus. 

35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”

There are two categories into which most Christians fall naturally. There are those who will instinctively pay very close attention to the moral teachings of Jesus, but not think all that hard about what he did for us—because ethics are useful, and theology is too cerebral. And there are those who will be very well-versed in soteriology (the study of salvation) and know the ins and outs of how Christ saved us, but will tend to neglect his teaching—because theology is interesting, and ethics are boring.

When God speaks from the cloud, he gives two statements. The first is This is my Son, my Chosen One. 

When a magician holds out his hand and says, “This is an ordinary deck of cards,” what is he doing? He’s trying to get you to look at the cards. 

When God tells the disciples, “This is my Son,” he’s doing the same thing. He’s drawing their attention to Jesus, trying to make them really see him.

If we want to see his glory, we have to regularly consider who he is and what he did. We need to consider his divinity and his humanity; his severity and his kindness; his strength and his humility; this amazing conjunction of diverse excellencies that make him who he is. We need to consider his perfect life, his death for our sins, his resurrection, his ascension—all of which purchased for us salvation and reconciliation with God and eternal life with him.

These truths need to become the backdrop of all our thinking: we need to learn to see everything through the lens of the finished work of Christ.

But we mustn’t neglect the other part. The second thing God says from the cloud, after drawing attention to his Son, is “Listen to him!”

In the gospels, Jesus tells us how we are made. He teaches us what we are like. He teaches us how we are wired. He teaches us how sin creeps in and works on us. He teaches us how God responds to sin. He teaches us how the Father loves his children. He teaches us how to be like him.

If we want to see his glory, we must listen to his voice.

And we must recognize that listening to Christ’s voice doesn’t mean only reading the gospels (because that’s where we see Jesus’s direct teachings). In Romans 8, Paul calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of Christ”—we can’t imagine that Jesus tells us one thing and the Spirit tells us another. Jesus himself said in John 16.13-14 that: 

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Christ’s Spirit speaks to us through the words of Scripture; when we listen to the Spirit, we listen to Christ.

God has created us to see and enjoy and be fulfilled by his glory as it is manifested in his Son; the means he has given us to see Christ’s glory is to listen to what he says to us; and what he says to us has been given to us by the Spirit in the Scriptures.

I know it may be frustrating to hear me come back to the same thing again—I’ve heard the complaint before: Why can’t you tell us something NEW? 

Can I be honest? There’s a reason why organic food is coming back: you can’t do much better than nature. In his Word, which the Spirit of Christ uses to teach us, we have all we need (2 Timothy 3.16). There is nothing new you can add to a perfect tool

If God tells you what to do (Listen to my Son speaking through my Word), but you don’t do it, the problem isn’t with the Word, the problem is with you. 

If you’re not seeing Christ as you wish you would, listen to his voice. Don’t just read: listen. Take it to heart. Put it into practice.

If you are frustrated that you aren’t more amazed by Christ’s glory, listen to his voice.

If you are frustrated that you don’t have a better understanding of who Christ is, listen to his voice. 

If you are frustrated that you aren’t more satisfied in God, listen to his voice.

Read your Bible. Know your Bible. Pray the Bible. Love the Bible. Live the Bible.

See the glory of the Son as you listen to him.

You were made to see his glory just as the disciples saw it on the mountain; seeing his glory will sustain you in suffering, and will satisfy you for all eternity.

The Jesus whom the disciples saw on the mountain is the Jesus we will love and enjoy forever. So know him as he is; speak to him as he is; love him as he is.