Now about eight days after these sayings 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 him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now 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. Just 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. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When 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 (Luke 9:28-36 – NRSV).
All three synoptic Gospels record this event – see also Matthew 17:1-9 and Mark 9:2-10. All three of the synoptics begin the narrative by saying the Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, though Luke re-orders the list to read “Peter, John and James”.
Peter also makes reference to this event – see 2 Peter 1.16–18.
Luke follows Mark whilst adding his own variations – eg Mark has “six days” and Luke “about eight days”; Mark says Jesus went up the mountain “so they could be alone” and Luke says they went up the mountain “to pray”.
Like Mark – see 8:34-38 – Luke has this event follow the teaching on discipleship.
All three synoptics have the command: “Listen to him!”
Taken together with Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah with the first prediction of the passion (9:18–22), the sayings on the cost of discipleship (9:23–27) and the transfiguration (9:28–36), we join the listeners on a journey towards a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to be his disciple.
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James: Luke has already introduced us to this trio of Peter with James and John – see Luke 5:1-11. They also appear together in Luke 8:51. In Luke 22:8 – preparation of the Passover – it is Peter and John who are sent. In Luke 9:54 it is James and John who want to bring down fire on the Samaritan village. Luke is dependent on Mark in singling out this trio. When Jesus restored the young girl to life “he allowed no one to follow him (to the house) except Peter, James and John, the brother of James” (Mark 5:37). In Mark 3:17 we are told that Jesus gave these two the name “Boanerges” meaning “sons of thunder”. It is interesting to ponder that trio – what brought them together, what kind of relationships they had, perhaps the conflicts they experienced. For example, Mark also tells us of the time James and John – significantly without Peter – sought places in the kingdom at Jesus’ side (10:35-45. See also Matthew 20:20-28.). Was this some kind of power play? Mark gives it significant space in his Gospel, suggesting it was no small matter.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, we note that 2 Peter 1.16–18 makes no mention of James and John.
on the mountain: “Jesus leaves the sphere of ordinary events to go to a place of communion with God. In 2 Pet 1:18 it is called ‘a holy mountain’. It is not named here, as it is not in the other Gospels or in 2 Peter. The tradition that associates the transfiguration with Mount Tabor can only be traced back as far as Origen ….. Rightly, Conzelmann insists (Theology, 57) that the geographical identification of the mountain does not interest Luke, since it is for him ‘a place of manifestation’. But it would be more in line with the Lucan emphasis to view the mountain as a place of prayer, as it is in 6:12; cf. 19:29; 22:39. It is a place where Jesus puts himself in contact with the Father.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), Yale University Press, 2008, 798.)
they saw his glory: Johnston writes that, “by twice using this term in the story (9:31–32), Luke deliberately makes his version of the transfiguration the direct and immediate fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction in 9:26–27 that the Son of Man would come in ‘his glory’. The notions of ‘glory’ and ‘kingdom of God’ are closely tied by Luke to the person and words of Jesus. Jesus has already been identified (2:32) as the ‘glory of Israel’, and Luke will extensively develop the theme of Jesus as king at the end of the journey to Jerusalem (see 19:11ff)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 156).
his departure: The Greek word is exodon – from exodos – the same word that is used in the Septuagint to speak of the Exodus. Moses is present here with the great prophet Elijah. We are reminded of Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”. And so we hear the words of the Lord: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Jesus is the New Moses, the prophet who will lead the people in the New Exodus which will be accomplished in Jerusalem.
a cloud: Johnson writes: “The cloud (nephelē) recalls the one enveloping Moses on the mountain (Exod 24:15–18) as well as the one leading the people in the desert signalling God’s presence (Exod 13:21). Elijah, too, saw a cloud from Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs 18:44–45). So also did the ‘Son of Man’ come on the ‘clouds of heaven’ in Dan 7:13 when he received from the Ancient of Days ‘glory and kingdom’. The verb episkiazein (‘overshadow’) also recalls the tent of meeting in the wilderness (Exod 40:35) as well as the annunciation in Luke 1:35 (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 153-154).
they kept silent: Mark and Matthew both make a simple observation that Jesus asked them to tell no one. Luke seems to emphasize the silence of the three disciples. Jesus does not tell them to tell no one, they choose to tell no one “in those days”. This might relate to Jesus’ command in 9:21, following Peter’s profession of faith: “He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying”. This command is then followed by the prediction of his passion in Jerusalem – his exodon.
Johnson points out, further, “that it is only after the ‘exodus’ of the Prophet has been accomplished and these witnesses had been given the Spirit could they become ‘ministers of the word’ (1:2)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 156).
An account of the transfiguration is found in each of the synoptic Gospels – Luke 9:28-36 (today’s Gospel), Matthew 17:1-9 and Mark 9:2-10. All three accounts feature the command from God: “Listen to him!” This echoes the command of God to the people of old: “Hear O Israel!” – see Deuteronomy 6:4. It leads us into the heart of what the Bible understands by obedience.
The Greek verb used in the Gospels, and translated here as “listen”, is akouō. As used in the Gospels, it can mean both physical hearing and the apprehension of the mind. In Greek, the word for “obey” is hypakouō, literally meaning “hear under”. The word for “disobey” is parakouō, literally meaning “hear beside”. In the context of the transfiguration, God’s command, “Listen to him!”, invites us to be obedient. In and through that obedience, we enter a deep personal relationship with Jesus. That relationship then shapes all our other relationships – with ourselves, with other people and with the world at large.
The biblical understanding of obedience goes hand in hand with baptism, where we are immersed in the life of Christ – see Romans 6:3. We are a new creation – see 2 Corinthians 5:17. The heart of obedience is a deep listening so that we can hear the transforming word of love that God speaks to each of us through every person, event or thing. Obedience draws us into a growing intimacy with God.
In human societies generally, however, obedience does not have this profound, life-giving meaning. For the most part, obedience is taken to mean “doing as you are told” or “conforming to the rules”. This sort of obedience is fine for developing and maintaining merely human systems. However, recent history reminds us of just how dangerous this “do as you are told” understanding of obedience is. The perpetrators of the Holocaust, for example, claimed they were just “doing as they were told”. Where is the personal responsibility and accountability in that kind of obedience?
The obedience indicated in the command, “Listen to him!”, is not about a human system. It is about the Kingdom of God. God’s infinite love is the context and ground of this obedience. In God’s loving presence – which accompanies us all our days – we can expect mercy in owning our accountability and taking personal responsibility. This obedience would never lead us to say, “I was only doing as I was told”.
In practice, true obedience means listening for and facing the truth of experience and submitting to that truth. Truth comes to us constantly in the ordinary stuff of our days. Every moment of truth is potentially a moment of obedience. Every moment of obedience holds out the possibility of increasing freedom. Being obedient in this way might bring us into conflict with the commands – whether implicit or explicit – of the human system in which we find ourselves. And what might be the implications of this in our lives as individuals and as a Church?