Everything in chapter 9 is in the other gospels (Matthew 17 and Mark 9), so I’ll just comment on a couple things. Luke’s account of the transfiguration has some details and ways of describing what happens that are fascinating. We may remember that in each of the gospel accounts, the transfiguration comes after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, and Jesus telling the disciples: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” Judas was among those disciples he told this to, so Jesus could be referring to his resurrection which the rest would see, but I think it’s more likely he was referring to his transfiguration. Luke’s next words are, “about eight days after Jesus said this,” so there is a clear connection to what comes next. He takes Peter, John, and James with him up onto a mountain to pray. Momentous things happen in Scripture on mountains. Matthew and Mark say the same thing (although it’s six days), so these three disciples are about to “see the kingdom of God.”
As Jesus was praying, Luke describes the transfiguration: “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” Luke doesn’t use the word “transfigure” (Matthew and Mark do), but it means complete change. We get our word metamorphosis. a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one. The three disciples are witnessing another world, and it’s a glorious one, a reality as real as the one we see every day, but hidden behind our sin. Remember, Jesus had just told them that he was going to suffer and be killed, so the disciples had to see that the cross wasn’t the end of the story, but that this glory they are witnessing is our ultimate destiny.
Luke says two men, whom he identifies as Moses and Elijah, show up, also “in glorious splendor,” and they have a conversation with Jesus. Moses, who died some 1400 years earlier, and Elijah who didn’t but lived 800 years earlier, are both very much alive at that moment. That’s why Jesus can tell the Sadducees that God is the God of the living, not the dead. These men are there with Jesus to talk about “his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” The word departure in Greek is exodus, so there is a clear reference back to Israel’s fleeing from Egypt, but the coming salvation prefigured in that one, shall come in Jesus’s death, which is another translation of the word exodus. Maybe this happened not only to reveal truth to the disciples, but to give Jesus the strength to go through with it. He had gone up the mountain to pray, and this was his answer.
As the three disciples are trying to take all this in, and not being able to do that, something else happens they haven’t experienced before with Jesus. A cloud envelopes them, and a voice comes out of the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” I heard a phrase last Sunday at church that I hadn’t quite considered before, although it’s truth is obvious. Jesus wasn’t “self-authenticating.” In other words, Jesus never said, “I say it, just believe it.” He never expected to be believed on his own authority. That is how other religions get founded, not Christianity. Rather Jesus says, for example, if you don’t believe me, believe my miracles. There was also the testimony of John the Baptist, a type of Elijah fulfilling a prophecy of Malachi the Jews had been expecting for 400(!) years. At his baptism, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove came down upon him, and people saw it, and they also heard a voice say something similar. Now this transfiguration experience. In my soon to be published book, I argue that our God is a God of evidence; we are not expected to be fideists.
Jesus obviously needed more than “faith” (i.e., trust) because we know from his struggle in the garden before his suffering and crucifixion he asked his Father if this cup could be taken from him. And Luke tells us in that passage that an angel came to strengthen him. The transfiguration obviously encouraged Jesus because Luke tells us this after the event:
51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.
The Greek for resolutely literally means strengthen your face. In modern parlance, he had his game face on. And in an interesting little tidbit we don’t find in the other gospels, Luke says, “and he sent messengers on ahead.” Maybe to get the colt and the room ready for his last days in Jerusalem? And what are the disciples doing? Completely missing it.
This is another criterion of embarrassment moment for them. They were in a Samaritan village, and because they knew he was headed for Jerusalem he was not welcomed there. What do the disciples do? This is almost funny. They ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Some manuscripts add, “just as Elijah did?” They want their own “prophets of Baal” moment. I imagine Jesus thinking, “What idiots!” And “he turned and rebuked them,” and they moved on to another village. Jesus isn’t about fireworks, but fulfilling his mission as The Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world!