Commentary on Luke 9:28-45
In last week’s story, Jesus’ identity was questioned.
This week’s passage focuses on Jesus’ identity as well. The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is one of only two instances in Luke’s Gospel in which the divine voice speaks; both cases concern Jesus’ identity.
The first is the scene of Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3.21-22. There, a “voice from heaven” speaks directly to Jesus, calling him, “my beloved Son” with whom “I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22). We do not know whether others hear the voice; neither does it much matter. The main focus at that moment is the divine voice confirming to Jesus his identity as God’s son.
In Luke 9, the Transfiguration story is directly preceded by a conversation about Jesus’ identity. When Jesus asks who others think he is, the disciples answer, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen” (Luke 9:19). Jesus responds with a follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “The Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20). This means that when Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray in Luke 9:28, the audience has very recently heard Peter’s Messianic confession. Jesus’ identity should be fresh in their minds.
What happens atop the mountain in Luke is a unique kind of miracle in Luke. Jesus’ face and clothes become bright like a flash of lightning — a description reminiscent of Moses’ face in Exodus 34:29-35. Suddenly, the three disciples see Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus in “glorious splendor” (Luke 9:31). Moses and Elijah (commonly considered representative of the Law and the Prophets) discuss with Jesus his “departure” (in Greek, exodus), which must be fulfilled in Jerusalem (a point confirmed throughout the second half of the narrative; Luke 9:51, 53; 13:33; 17:11; 18:31).
Peter reacts to this revelatory experience by declaring, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33). Perhaps Peter suggests this in an effort to be hospitable, perhaps in reference to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (see Zechariah 14:16-21), or perhaps out of an embarrassed sense that they are unworthy to witness such an event — whatever the reason, the narrator declares that Peter spoke, “not knowing what he was saying” (Luke 9:33).
Peter’s awkward response and Luke’s narratorial commentary on it suggest that this miraculous event far exceeds the practical concerns of having a roof over one’s head, or even religious ritual. Jesus’ Transfiguration is ineffable; Luke’s pithy point about Peter renders his offer to build tents almost laughable.
But this should not be too surprising to us; despite the one moment of insight when Peter declares that Jesus is the “Messiah of God” in Luke 9:20, the disciples misunderstand Jesus and his mission repeatedly in the Gospel of Luke. (See especially the rapid succession of misunderstandings and failures in Luke 9:10-17, 28-36, 37-42, 44-45, 49-50, 54-55, 57-62). It is appropriate that unlike the baptism scene, this time, the divine voice speaks directly to the disciples (not to Jesus himself) in something of a public endorsement: “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).
How should we understand Jesus’ identification as the “Son of God”? Many students of Luke consider this to be confirmation of Jesus’ unique Christological status. But in Luke’s context, the language of divine sonship is not unique. In the Hebrew Bible (with which Luke is intimately familiar), divine sonship language appears in reference to kings as God’s chosen representatives.
In the Roman Empire, the emperor was typically divinized after his death; he would not usually be called a god during his lifetime, but rather, a “son of a god.” In Luke’s context, then, Jesus being God’s son is a claim to legitimacy. It means he is chosen and commissioned to carry out God’s will, to enact God’s kingdom here on earth.
The final sentence of this story might strike us as odd: “The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen” (Luke 9:36). Why do the disciples not rush down the mountain and share with everyone what they have witnessed? Scholars have offered several proposals. Hans Conzelmann, for example, suggested that secrecy about Jesus’ identity ensures that Jesus will fulfill his divine purpose; if the people knew without a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, they would actively save him from the cross, interrupting the divine plan.1 This also would explain Jesus’ repeated commands during his public ministry to stay silent about his identity (as he does following Peter’s confession in Luke 9:22).
Another explanation would be that secrecy about Jesus’ identity allows for a well-paced fulfillment of an important Lukan theme: proclaiming salvation to the “ends of the earth.” Jesus begins as a relatively obscure hometown figure, but then becomes a powerful preacher and healer whose fame spreads rapidly into a wide range of social circles. Not only does Jesus’-news reach greater numbers of people — Jews and Gentiles alike — but it also reaches all socioeconomic levels of society, from social outcasts to elite rulers (shepherds in Luke 2.17-18, John the Baptist in prison in Luke 7.18, tax collectors and sinners in Luke 15.1). Higher up on the social pyramid, a centurion requests Jesus’ help (Luke 7:3), and news even reaches the royal court, as Herod hears “about it all” (Luke 9:7-9).
Finally, everyone is expected to know about Jesus, as evidenced by the disciple on the road to Emmaus asking the risen Jesus, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:18; see also Acts 10.37). The fact that the disciples stay silent about the Transfiguration makes it possible for Jesus to become, for a time, a secret hidden in plain sight. In the end, though, the whole Gospel narrative attests that, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known” (Luke 12:2).
1 Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 76-77.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
In blinding light you showed your disciples a hint of your power and purpose. Reveal yourself to us today. Show us what you desire of us and how to broadcast your love to the world, for the sake of the one who keeps company with the prophets Moses and Elijah, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Exaltation of Christ, Charles Forsberg