Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus of his departure. … Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory…
They thought they were simply following Jesus up a mountain … to pray. That was all. This was to be (they imagined) a welcome moment of quiet reflection, following a mentally and spiritually intense few weeks for Jesus and his rag-tag band of disciples. Much has happened in this one chapter of Luke’s gospel, and all of them are mentally and physically tired. It seems Luke very intentionally wants us to connect all these events with Jesus’ Transfiguration.
As the chapter opens, we learn that, only a few weeks ago, Jesus had sent the 12 nascent disciples out to preach (stunningly, with his singular authority to cast out demons and heal diseases – but specifically without food, money, or even a walking stick.) He’d sent them as physically ill-equipped vagabonds … delivering the very power of God to any who were willing to accept wonder from beggars.
There had been no time for rest on their return, however. The few dozen who had been following Jesus when they left their teacher … had grown to a pressing throng of thousands while they were away. Why, only a fortnight ago, 5,000 followers had needed food, so, under Jesus’ command: “You feed them” (with only five loaves of bread and two fishes) every single soul was filled… with 12 baskets of leftovers! It was becoming clear that this was no ordinary teacher! And so when – just a few days ago - Jesus had asked them “Who do people say I am?” (voicing perhaps their own puzzlement) they said “Well, some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other prophets.” “But who do you say I am?” he asked. And bungling Peter, easily the least discerning of the entire group, responds with what only the Holy Spirit could have given him: “You are the Messiah.”
Yet, oddly perhaps, in the verses immediately preceding today’s Transfiguration account, Jesus responds, not with an ‘at-a-boy, you’re finally getting it!’ but with the darkly ominous prophesy of his impending suffering, death and resurrection three days later. Jesus has just told the Disciples, in no uncertain terms, that His Discipleship will be costly for them all. He tells them that following God’s anointed path will involve suffering and shame and crosses to be borne and earthly lives lost.
This is where Luke has brought us in this one chapter. The One who had only weeks ago empowered and sent them out, with God’s joyous miracles shining forth from their words and touch, has now told his followers that this path of Life will cost them everything – just as it will cost Christ everything. The Lord must now prepare his budding disciples – and perhaps even himself - for the dark stumbling block of the cross.
…Just as it was for Peter, James and John - and yes, even for Jesus himself - there had been so much to take in, so many wonders, so many people … so much in flux, it was only natural that Jesus sought the company of His Father in prayer – to sort out all that has just happened, and prepare for all that He knows (and the Disciples now have been told) lies ahead. So while the other disciples were sleeping, these three, Jesus’ closest and most intimate friends, went with Him up the mountain… to pray, to reflect, to process the events of the last few weeks…and perhaps even to re-think Jesus’ solemn, sobering words.
Then suddenly, as Jesus prayed, his face changed and began to emanate light. This was no reflected light; Jesus’ flesh became light! And, that light burned from within and under his garments, turning his dusty carpenter’s clothes brilliant white. Only during Israel’s Exodus from slavery to freedom had anything like this happened before. No good Jew would have misunderstood this! Luke even uses the word “Exodus” here when he writes of Jesus’ “departure.” But what did this mean? And why now? And why did these two prophets appear to Jesus?
Moses and Elijah each had a vision of the glory of God on a mountain: Moses at Mt. Sinai, Elijah on Mt. Horeb. Each suffered greatly as God’s prophets and lawgivers, but both seem to have escaped natural death: Elijah was taken up to heaven, and since Moses burial place was not known, the legend had arisen that he too had ascended directly into heaven. According to the same tradition, both were expected to return, as the very last verses of the Hebrew Bible declare.
Likewise, three men accompanied Moses up Mt Sinai, just as the three disciples accompanied Jesus at his Transfiguration. In Exodus, we are told that a cloud covered Mt Sinai, that God spoke out of that cloud, and that each time Moses descended to the people, his face glowed as one reflecting God’s own intimate presence.
Yet here, with Jesus, God’s light is revealed from within; Jesus countenance changes. And then God speaks – not to Jesus alone, but over Jesus for all to hear directly, without filter or prophet. God is not only well pleased with His Son, but – in the added presence of Moses and Elijah - He speaks to his Son’s Disciples; God wants us to hear directly and clearly – with no middle-man – that the person, example and message of Jesus is God’s self-revelation to and for us – as the culmination of all time and history.
Certainly, this was a deeply meaningful event for Jesus himself. He was encouraged by the appearance of these two prophets of God, speaking with him of his Exodus from earthly life. They represented all the saints in heaven, who knew and understood Jesus’ mission. God’s Voice delivered Divine acceptance and delight in the Son’s work and ministry, and Jesus was strengthened to yield up – once again - his heart and life to the will of God.
The Transfiguration declared – to and for all of them - that the message the Son of God brings is God’s own Truth: that Glory and miracles …and pain and suffering cannot be separated for any who would follow Jesus. It’s all part of each believer’s Exodus to freedom and eternal life with God. At this stunning moment (the most dramatic and layered event of His entire earthly life) God Himself confirms - to Jesus and to all who would follow Him - the sacrificial – yet freeing - ministry Christ brings.
God declares: “Listen to Him!” … and, incredibly, these three Disciples were there to witness it! For the disciples (and all who’ve followed Jesus ever since) Christ’s Transfiguration confirmed the hard truth that there will be suffering. But it also shed light on the transformative nature of Christian suffering: suffering will come, yes; but (in His hands) suffering, becomes our Exodus into the arms of God …and is Holy.
Anguish and pain is certain in a broken world. Yet, the Transfiguration glistens with the assurance that the shame of Christ’s cross was really… His Glory. The Transfiguration declares that all suffering is ultimately radiant with heavenly beauty, when perfected in Christ. Peter’s suggestion of the three tents was dear, dim Peter’s attempt to materialize and make permanent the vision, to win the crown without the cross. The vision vanished, at that moment – leaving them with only a glimpse and foretaste of Real Life.
Finally, almost as an aside, there is perhaps another lesson for us in the Transfiguration. It involves one very simple act. Though all the Disciples were physically tired from all that they had already done and seen on their early journey with Christ … only Peter, James and John stayed awake and continued to follow Jesus that day. They continued on … beyond exhaustion, and in taking that …One. More. Step… they suddenly witnessed Christ’s Glory. They saw their Savior shine out – before and above the suffering that was to come. Going just that next step further, despite their fatigue, brought them into the very presence of Christ’s Glory. Theirs was a privileged lesson: that we are best able to see miracles when we stay “awake” with Christ, intentionally following wherever Jesus leads. Even in the suffering we will face – even as a result of that suffering … with Jesus we gain eyes to see miracles shining forth from His transfigured face on God’s holy mountain.
The miracles, the wonders, the feedings, the ministry of Hope that comes with Christ – and is blessed and anointed by God – is only made real, affecting and transformative through the aching sorrow and pain of the cross. Our ongoing conversion – like Christ’s Transfiguration – emerges through the wonder that Glory and suffering share in the same divine light. To seek one will require the other.
And there - where suffering reveals His Glory, and His Glory makes our suffering Holy - right there, we shall see the Risen, Transfigured Lord God – our Savior and Friend – shining His light into our darkness. And, miracle of miracles, the shadow of death and pain rolls back (like a fog before a mighty Wind) … and we discover that (Ahhh, Glory!) our faces begin to glow with the reflected light of our own True Home with Christ.
Thanks be to God!