Commentary on Luke 9:28-36 [37-43]
Luke’s disciples need a revelatory experience in order to appreciate Jesus’ true identity and vocation.
Unfortunately, even a mini-apocalypse proves insufficient. What will it take for us preachers to come to know Jesus and share that experience with assembled congregations who long for an encounter with glory? A significant dimension of Luke’s transfiguration account also points toward the Gospel’s distinctive interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The transfiguration provides the apocalyptic component of a critical revelatory sequence. Having fortified himself with prayer, Jesus asks his disciples how they understand his identity. Likewise, the transfiguration will follow a moment of intimate prayer. The sequence moves through (a) Peter’s confession of Jesus as messiah through (b) Jesus’ teaching concerning the Son of Man and (c) Jesus’ forbidding invitation to would-be disciples on to (d) the transfiguration itself. The previous revelatory moments are mediated in words; the transfiguration bathes words in glory.
If Peter correctly identifies Jesus as God’s messiah (Luke 9:20), Jesus emphatically prohibits a promotional campaign. Luke’s literary crafting suggests the reason: If Peter rightly names Jesus’ role, it is left to Jesus to spell out what that role entails. The Son of Man “must suffer many things” before being raised from the dead. If Peter’s confession entails a revelation, all the more so for Jesus’ instruction. How could the disciples possibly anticipate Jesus’ words? They have no reason to imagine a messiah who suffers prior on the way to glory.
The messiah/Son of Man interaction staggers under the weight of its own significance, but congregations themselves will stagger under the burden of confusion. Listeners may assume that Son of Man functions as a near-opposite to Son of God, the human counterpart to divinity. That, of course, is a mistake. We should not lower the pulpit into a lecture podium, nor should we reduce Luke’s Christology to the interplay of technical terms. But it is significant that Jesus counters Peter’s messianic confession with teaching concerning the Son of Man.
The transfiguration mediates the glory that Peter, James, and John had perhaps anticipated. Whatever our comfort level, we find ourselves immersed in apocalyptic imagery: dazzling light, heroes from Israel’s history, glory, a cloud, a heavenly voice, and mortals who struggle in responding to the visionary moment. Peter, James, and John cannot overcome sleep’s alluring gravity.
Jesus’ disciples, it seems, long for glory. Soon they will debate which of them is the greatest (Luke 9:46-48). Here they receive the revelation they need — and the instruction too: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (9:35). They have been unable to receive Jesus’ teaching concerning the Son of Man’s fate and concerning what it means to follow him. Perhaps this revelation will equip them, and us, to integrate the glory of Jesus’ being with the rigors of his vocation.
To this point in Luke’s revelatory sequence, the disciples haven’t yet misunderstood — yet in the very next passage, their failure provokes Jesus to declare them “faithless and perverse” (9:41). He then repeats his teaching concerning his passion, yet they still do not understand. The disciples debate which of them is the greatest. Only three disciples have experienced Jesus’ transfiguration. At best, we may say the effect hasn’t proven contagious. More likely, its effect has yet to take hold at all.
We preachers do best not to show too much of our homework. Luke redacts this section of Mark in significant ways: Jesus’ disciples show only partial misunderstanding, but Luke softens the edges of their resistance. For example, Peter never scolds Jesus after identifying him as messiah. The disciples will still compete for status, but Luke reduces this scene to just three verses (9:46-48). And Luke completely skips by the request by James and John that they may receive the seats of authority when Jesus receives power.
Elijah and Moses discuss Jesus’ “exodus” (“departure” in the NRSV), a strong reflection of how Luke interprets Jesus’ death. Very soon Jesus will set out for Jerusalem, where his prediction will play out. At that point Luke refers to the time for Jesus to be “taken up” (9:51), as only Luke’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ ascension.
None of the Gospels provides a discursive explanation for the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but Luke’s language on these points indicates a unique sensitivity. Jesus’ death possesses no atoning power on its own; indeed, Luke tends to mute the significance of the crucifixion while amplifying that of the resurrection. The exodus imagery evokes liberation, a primary motif for Luke. As Moses led the people out of Egypt, so Jesus’ death and resurrection usher an era of salvation and blessing.
The presence of Moses and Elijah gives interpreters lots to chew on. The two figures comport themselves well with the scene’s apocalyptic imagery. Judaism’s great literary apocalypses tend to associate themselves with legendary figures of the past, notably ones with mystical credentials.
Elijah is said to have ascended into heaven in a whirlwind accompanied by a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11). Although Moses is supposed to have died and been buried, no one knows the place of his burial (Deuteronomy 34:6). Moreover, Moses is one of few to have experienced a visual encounter with YHWH (Exodus 34:6-9) — so intensely did his face glow afterward that the Israelites could not look upon it (2 Corinthians 3:13). More probably Moses and Elijah epitomize the law and the prophets, a shorthand for God’s revelation to Israel (Luke 16:29). According to Luke, one may proclaim the gospel by explaining Moses and the prophets correctly (Luke 24:27, 44; Acts 26:22; 28:23).
Soon after the transfiguration Jesus and his disciples will venture to Jerusalem, where Jesus will indeed come to his exodus. Luke stands out for its extended travel narrative, which runs from 9:51 through 19:27 and encompasses some of the Bible’s most beloved material, including the story of Zacchaeus and parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. At no point will the disciples demonstrate full comprehension of Jesus’ vocation or of his glory — nor will Jesus ever abandon them.