Today many Protestant churches celebrate Transfiguration Sunday which falls between the last Sunday after Epiphany—a season that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come as Savior not only to the Jews but also to the whole world—and the first Sunday before Lent. The Transfiguration is a reference to the day in which Jesus was praying on a mountain and, as he prayed—as we’ve already heard in this morning’s Scripture reading—his face changes and even his clothes become dazzlingly bright. Further Moses and Elijah, two important Old Testament saints, appear with him. It’s an extraordinary event—but what does it mean?
Earlier in this chapter, Luke records how Jesus commissions his twelve disciples to minister to others as they proclaim the Kingdom of God. Earlier chapters in Luke record Jesus’ ministry of healing diseases and driving out demons and here he is sending out the twelve to do the same—and they do as he tells them. Luke 9:10–11 states that “10 When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, 11 but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.” In the life of both Jesus and his disciples it is increasingly evident that the Kingdom of God has come in word and deed by means of Jesus the King. Having healed their bodies and fed their minds with God’s teaching about his Kingdom, Jesus then goes on to feed their bodies by performing the miracle of multiplying five loaves and two fish to feed the crowds—about five thousand people all told (v. 14).
Some time after this, while praying in private with his disciples, Jesus asks them who the crowds say he is. Among the answers provided are John the Baptist, Elijah, and one of the prophets of old (v. 19). But when Peter correctly answers that Jesus is God’s Messiah (v. 20), he tells all his disciples not to tell anyone (v. 21) and then predicts his own death (v. 22).
It is at this point, or about eight days after this exchange with his disciples, that Jesus takes three of the twelve—Peter, John, and James—with him and goes up onto a mountain to pray (v. 28). Jesus’ transfiguration—his appearance in radiant glory—occurs as he is praying. What is striking is that not only did “the appearance of his face” change, but even his clothes “became as bright as a flash of lightning” (v. 29)—that’s pretty bright! What we have here is reminiscent of but differs from Moses’ face shining in the Old Testament for there the brightness came from without. In Exodus 24:29 it states that Moses “was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.” Jesus’ brightness comes from within for Jesus is God. Jesus’ radiance is a manifestation of his own glory—of the fact that he himself is God. He is transfigured not because he has been in God’s presence, as Moses was when he received the two tablets of the law, but because he himself is God in the flesh.
After Jesus is transfigured, Moses and Elijah—two men who lived and died centuries before the time of Christ—approximately 1500 and 800 years, respectively—also appear with Jesus “in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus” (30). Their appearance makes clear that when the crowds assumed that Jesus was Elijah or one of the prophets of old they were incorrect for here are the two key representatives of the Law, in Moses, and the Prophets, in Elijah. To Moses, God disclosed his word—his law—to his people. And Elijah was arguably the greatest of God’s prophets. Remember how he was taken from Elisha’s presence as recorded in 2 Kings 2:11: “11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” So the crowds were wrong: Jesus is neither Elijah nor one of the prophets of old but is, instead, the fulfillment of both. Listen to these words of Jesus from John 5:46: “46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” And, after Jesus had died and resurrected, in one of his post-resurrection appearances he stands among the disciples and tells them: “44 ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44–45). Wouldn’t you love to have been there to experience that?! Jesus is making clear that the entirety of the Old Testament, ultimately, pointed to his coming.
Well, returning to our passage, the topic of discussion between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is Jesus’ “departure”—literally his “exodus” in the Greek— “which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (v. 31). The departure or exodus that Jesus is discussing is his future death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. It’s important to consider that these are not simply Jesus’ way of leaving the world but point to what his life, death, resurrection, and ascension will accomplish. His future death, resurrection, and ascension are the means by which he will redeem his people. Just as God used Moses during the time of the Old Testament Exodus to deliver his people Israel from their slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt, so now God will use Jesus, his Son’s death, resurrection, and ascension to deliver all who come to him from their slavery to sin and death to eternal life starting now and continuing forever. So it’s appropriate that Jesus’ death is being discussed with Moses and Elijah in his Transfiguration, this manifestation of his glory because, ultimately, Jesus’ death becomes the means by which God’s glory—his own glory—is able to come upon and be given to those whom he dies and rises to redeem.
Now apparently—and unfortunately—Peter, James, and John had begun to doze off while some of this was taking place. Some suggest that it’s possible that the Transfiguration may have taken place at night since verse 37 refers to “the next day when they came down from the mountain.” And we know that Jesus sometimes prayed at night. For example in Luke 6:12 we read how “Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” Regardless we’re told that Peter, James, and John were “very sleepy”—but upon wakening—“when they became fully awake” they actually saw Jesus’ glory and Moses and Elijah standing with him (v. 32).
As Moses and Elijah began to leave, Peter, no doubt not knowing what else to say—we’re actually told he didn’t know what he was saying at the end of verse 33—sputters out “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters [or tents]—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” This comment goes unacknowledged by Jesus so I’m not going to acknowledge them either (!) but what happens next is even more striking than what has just taken place. In v. 34, we read: “34 While he [Peter] was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.” 35 Let me pause for a moment here to note the possible importance of a cloud being mentioned. If you recall your Old Testament history, then you may remember that after Pharaoh, at long last, let the people of Israel go under Moses’ leadership we read in Exodus 13:21 that “21 By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” So under Moses’ leadership, the cloud became a reminder to God’s people of his presence, guidance, and care over them.
We have in Luke a similar theophany—or manifestation of God—who speaks in an audible voice from a cloud. Verse 35 states “A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’” These words from God are a further indication that Jesus is God’s ultimate prophet. They echo the words given in Deuteronomy 18:15 where Moses states to the people that “15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.” As he did from the beginning, God is guiding his people. If they were to listen to the prophets he raised in ancient times to declare his will to them, how much more ought they listen to Jesus, his Son. But what is also important to note is that what has just happened is that God himself has answered the question Jesus earlier had posed to his disciples when he asked “Who do the crowds say I am?” Not only was Peter correct in stating that Jesus is God’s Messiah, but now God declares not only that Jesus is his Messiah but also his chosen Son. As God’s Son, Jesus is also God. And his disciples then—and we, his disciples now—are to listen to him. We are to follow and believe and obey him for he is God in the flesh.
If you’re having a sense of déjà vu in reading these words, there’s a reason. Namely that earlier in Luke, when Jesus is baptized, God also speaks. In Luke’s recounting of Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3:21–22, we read: “21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven:
‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”
In this account not only does God the Father confirm who Jesus is, but so does God the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. We have here a picture of the Trinity. And what is interesting to note as well is that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark indicate that the words God said at the Transfiguration are an even closer parallel to the words Luke records at Jesus’ baptism. Matthew states that what God said at the Transfiguration was
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5)
Similarly Mark states
“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7).
So according to Matthew and Mark, what the Father says at the time of Jesus’ Transfiguration is almost exactly the same as what he says at the time of Jesus’ baptisms. These slight variations needn’t worry us for they all agree upon the heart of what God says—namely that Jesus is his Son and is therefore to be listened to by us!
Also interesting is that this witness of Jesus’ Transfiguration is later referred two by two of the three disciples who witnessed it, namely Peter and John. In 2 Peter 1:16–18, Peter states “16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 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.’ 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” There’s no question that Peter is referring to the Transfiguration in what he states. And in John 1:14, he states “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
So what does the Transfiguration mean for us?
1) The Transfiguration is a revelation—a disclosure—of Jesus’ deity. It means that in the person of Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah, we have a revelation—a disclosure—of what God is like. It means that in Jesus God, who is Spirit, has taken on human form that we might know what God is like.
2) The Transfiguration reminds us as well that all of the Old Testament points to the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and all of the Old Testament is fulfilled in him. As the author of Hebrews reminds us: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:1–3). God’s Written Word points to the coming of his Living Word who is now the Risen Word who prays for us and indwell us by the Holy Spirit he has given us. Whereas Moses gave God’s Law, in Jesus Christ, all of the demands of God’s Law have been met once and for all. And now all who come to Christ are able to exchange our sins for his righteousness. Amazing Grace, indeed!
3) The Transfiguration further tells us that all who belong to God—all who have ever chosen to respond to God’s revelation of himself—not only belong to him at the time at which they live on earth, but also belong to him and live to him even after they die. As we’ve already noted, though Moses and Elijah lived 1500 and 800 years prior to the time of Jesus’ Transfiguration, nonetheless they continued to live. In Luke 20:37–38, Jesus makes this very point to some Sadduccees who tried to trick him by replying: “37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[Exodus 3:6] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” In other words if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had simply died, never to rise again, then the God who appeared to them would simply be a God of those who died—but he’s not. God gives his nature, his very life, to those who are his. He is the God of the living who, even though they physically die, continue to live in him.
Brothers and Sisters, as we turn now to a celebration of our Brother, Savior, and Lord Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for us, let us remember his love—let us remember his life—let us remember his teaching—let us live for him—let us listen to him, God’s chosen and beloved Son.
Let us pray.
 Luke 9:1–2, 6: 1When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick…. 6 So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.
 Exodus 34:29–35: 29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.