28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Translation: And it happened, after these words, eight days, and he took Peter and John and James, he went up into the mountain to pray. And it happened, as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothing flashing white.
And behold! two men were talking with him, who were Moses and Elijah, being seen in glory, they were speaking of his exodus, which he would make full in Jerusalem. But Peter and the ones together with him were being weighed down with sleep, but when they were fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men, the ones standing with him.
And it happened, as they were departing from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here, and we might make three tabernacles, one to you, one to Moses, and one to Elijah," not knowing what he said.
As he was saying this, a cloud happened and was overshadowing them and they were afraid as they entered into the cloud. And a voice happened out of the cloud, saying, "This is my son, the one having been chosen. Hear him." And when the voice had happened, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and they told no one in those days anything which they had seen.
Background and situation: The primary source is Mark (9:2-8). In Mark, Jesus makes his first passion statement in 8:27, followed by a call to take up one's cross, followed by transfiguration.
The Lukan context is similar. Luke also moves from first passion statement to sayings about taking up one's cross (9:18-27). In fact, Luke introduces the transfiguration by inserting the phrase "after these words" (meta tous logous toutous), thus linking the transfiguration even more directly to Jesus' sayings about suffering.
Luke changes Mark's "six days" to "eight days." This identifies transfiguration even more strongly with resurrection. The "eighth day" was known as the Day of the New Creation in the early church. The transfiguration is a proleptic sign of that New Creation.
In Luke, Jesus leads Peter, James and John "into the mountain." (Mark has "a high mountain apart by themselves.") In Luke, Jesus then prays. This is a familiar theme of Luke's. Jesus is often praying in Luke's gospel (3:21, 5:16, 6:12, 9:18, 9:28, 11:1, 18:10, 22:44). Indeed, Jesus is said to be praying twice in this short lection, and it was while he was praying that his appearance was changed.
Transfiguration: In regard to Jesus changed appearance, Mark uses metamorphothe, but Luke uses heteron. The two words are quite similar in meaning. Metamorphothe is a verb that means "changed, metamorphosized"; heteron is an adjective that means "changed, different, other, altered."
Where Mark has "he was transfigured (metamorphothe) before them," Luke has "the appearance of his face (was) changed." Luke may have made the change because he will accent "seeing" in his account. Joel Green:
Luke's transfiguration scene places a premium on the motif of sight. The "appearance" of Jesus' face changed, Luke's audience is invited (along with the apostles) to "behold" Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus, these two OT figures "appeared" in glory, and the apostles "saw" Jesus' glory.
The Moses connection: Another major Lukan emphasis will be to link the story with themes from Moses and the exodus. When Moses and Elijah appear, they are said to be "speaking of his exodus, which he would make full in Jerusalem." NRSV translates as exodon as "departure," which is a legitimate translation, but misses the force of the word and its connection to several other exodus themes in Luke's portrayal.
One connection with the exodus is, of course, the presence of Moses. Another is the changed face of Jesus which recalls Moses' changed appearance in Exodus 34:35. (The Revised Common Lectionary acknowledges the link with the selection of Exodus 34 as the Old Testament reading for the day.) Similarly, "tabernacles," another exodus connection, will be mentioned by Peter.
For Luke, the mission of Jesus is a type of exodus. As Moses led the people from slavery into freedom, so Jesus would do likewise. (Another more subtle indicator is that Mark lists Elijah first, but Luke mentions Moses first.)
Jerusalem: This "exodus" would be "made full" in Jerusalem. Jesus would be killed in Jerusalem, but he would be resurrected there also. The transfiguration thus gives fresh imperative to Jesus' association with Jerusalem. Not long after, in verse 51, he will "set his face" to go there. That the "exodus" would be fulfilled is another reminder that Jesus will liberate his people, and, for Luke, will do so in an even greater way than had Moses.
The three disciples are then said to be "weighed down with sleep." (This anticipates the coming scene in the Garden of Gethsemene (22:45-46) where the disciples are also said to be sleeping.) In this instance, as then, sleep seems incomprehensible. Because incomprehensible, it is a sign of mystery. We do not know why the three disciples were "weighed down with sleep."
Whatever the case, the disciples' sleeping stands in sharp contrast to when the three disciples become "fully awake." Sleeping, they see nothing, but when "fully awake," they "saw his glory."
Sleeping might be said to be the natural condition of human beings in the every day world. Our senses are dulled. Our apprehension is difficult. Now we see through a glass darkly, said St. Paul. But, when "fully awake"--that is, when visited with an experience of the divine--we may become able to see "his glory."
Again, "it happened" (egeneto) that just as Moses and Elijah were departing from Jesus, Peter wanted to preserve the moment (before they get away?) by erecting three "tabernacles," one for each of the men seen in "glory."
Peter wants to build something he thinks is permanent. He wants to preserve the glorious epiphanic moment by creating religious shrines. By visiting the shrines as a religious act, one might be able to glimpse again the divine glory.
Luke is quick to add, as Mark had done, that Peter didn't know what he was saying. The mission of Jesus is not about worshipping at shrines or even the practice of religion. The mission of Jesus is about death and resurrection. (Besides, this is a Jesus movement--no shrines to Moses and Elijah for them!)
Moreover, Peter is getting ahead of events. He apparently believes that this theophanic moment is the goal and that Jesus' "glory" is the end of the story. Peter wants a deliverance from bondage--he wants an "exodus"--but without the suffering and death which will be a necessary part of it. As Jesus will soon say in 9:51, "it is necessary" (dei) for him to go to Jerusalem.
At that moment, a cloud "happened" (egeneto). This, too, is reminiscent of the exodus. Moses had entered a cloud on top of a mountain (Ex 24:18). The cloud represents the presence of God. Luke will use the word "cloud" three times in two verses! The cloud "was overshadowing" the disciples and, not surprisingly, they were afraid "as they entered into" it.
A voice "happened" (egeneto) out of the cloud, "This is my son, the one having been chosen." The voice recalls the voice at Jesus' baptism. Then, it had said, "This is my beloved son" (3:22).
This time, the voice identifies Jesus as "the one having been chosen." We already knew that God loved Jesus. Now, God tells us that Jesus is "chosen" for the specific mission of deliverance which, through his coming death and resurrection, would be "made full."
Having already highlighted the visual aspect of seeing, now Luke emphasizes the aural sense of hearing. "Hear him!" God says. Having seen "his glory" (9:32), they are now to hear not only what the Chosen One has to say in the future, but also what he has just said about the costs of discipleship. As Luke had explicitly connected the transfiguration story to Jesus' words about suffering, he now intends the disciples to hear the necessity of taking up their cross (9:23-26).
After the voice, the epiphanic moment now passed, the disciples see only Jesus alone. After all is seen and heard, Jesus is the only one left standing.
Mystical signs: Throughout scripture, mountains and clouds are "windows into heaven," as someone has put it. They signal the divine, the heavenly realm, the presence of God. The other major "mystical indicator" is mention of angels. Angels are not needed in this story, however. Instead, we have a voice directly from God.
The transfiguration is punctuated with these mystical signs--the mountain is mentioned twice, clouds three times, the voice of God twice. We are definitely removed from the world of every day human experience and are in the presence of the divine.
It will not last. We know this from our own experience. Some time or other, we all, I believe, have some numinous encounter. We are all mystics. We all get glimpses of the heavenly realm. In this world, however, the experience of the divine is fleeting. The every day world cannot hold all of God's potentialities for long. Nor can you bottle it up and save it for later, as Peter tried to do.
The transfiguration was a mystical experience for the disciples. It prepared them for the inevitable sufferings which they would soon encounter on the way to Jerusalem. They are assured, however, that suffering and death will not be the final word. They have been given a vision of Christ's ultimate victory to sustain them.
The transfiguration, then, is a sign of God's grace and compassion. When times are difficult, as when the disciples head toward Jerusalem with Jesus, the memory of their encounter with God, and God's own witness to Jesus, will help them follow on the way. It does the same for us.