28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. – Luke 9:28-36 ESV
Verse 27 of chapter 9 provides a link or bridge between Jesus’ teachings regarding the cost of discipleship and Luke’s account of the transfiguration.
But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God. – Luke 9:27 ESV
Jesus made this rather cryptic statement immediately after declaring, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26 ESV). And this had followed close behind Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for refusing to accept God’s will concerning Jesus suffering, death, and resurrection. Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ but then had balked at the idea of Jesus dire pronouncement that “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22 ESV). He had actually rebuked Jesus for saying such things.
The discussions recorded in chapter 9 reveal the growing tension among Jesus’ disciples as they try to reconcile their understanding of His identity as the Messiah with His speech and actions. They were confused by all His talk of suffering and death because it made no sense. When they heard Him tell the crowd, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 ESV), they had been stunned.
Jesus knew His disciples well, so He was fully aware of their apprehensions and fears. It’s likely that some of them were having second thoughts about their decision to follow Him. His arguments with the religious leaders had become embarrassing. There were all kinds of rumors circulating about Jesus and His followers. People pointed fingers at them. The disciples must have cringed every time someone said Jesus was crazy or possessed of a demon. His habit of speaking in parables left many confused, including them. So, when Jesus said, “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38 ESV), it was a not-so-subtle reference to their doubts and fears.
And that is why Jesus quickly added, “I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God arrive in great power!” (Mark 9:1 NLT). He was not done providing His disciples with further proof of His identity and mission. He was about to confirm Peter’s earlier confession with incontrovertible evidence that He truly was the Messiah. A handful of His disciples were going to get a glimpse behind the curtain, providing them with front-row seats to a spectacular display of Jesus’ glory. Rather than the plainly-clad, thoroughly-human Rabbi they saw every day, they were going to see the glorified Son of God.
Luke’s buildup to this remarkable event is somewhat disappointing. He simply states that about eight days later, Jesus took three of His disciples “and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white” (Luke 9:28-29 ESV). Not exactly a riveting description of what must have been a momentous and life-changing experience for Peter, James, and John. Mark simply states that Jesus was transfigured before them. The Greek word is metamorphoō, and it means “to change into another form, to transform.”
Jesus’ appearance was suddenly and radically changed. We’re not told how it happened, or long it took for the transformation to take place. But Mark does give us a brief description of the final result: “his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3 ESV). This imagery brings to mind John’s description of Jesus in the opening of his gospel.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. – John 1:9-10 ESV
The fact that John was one of the three disciples who were privileged to experience the transfiguration of Jesus helps to explain the nature of his description of Jesus as light.
And both Luke and Mark’s accounts of the transfiguration seem to provide a subtle link to another spectacular event where God’s glory was put on full display. It is recorded in the book of Exodus.
Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire. Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. – Exodus 24:15-18 NLT
The gospel authors seem to be tying the manifestation of God’s glory to Moses on Mount Sinai to the manifestation of Jesus’ glory to His disciples. Jesus, the Son of God, appeared to them like a dazzling light, like a consuming fire. And accompanying Jesus was Moses himself along with the prophet Elijah.
Just imagine this spectacular scene. The three disciples are looking on in stunned silence as they witness Jesus, ablaze with glory, talking with two of the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people. We’re not told how the disciples recognized these two men, whom they had never seen before. It could be that as the disciples overheard the discussion between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, their names were mentioned, or some clue was given as to their identity. Luke provides a bit more detail concerning the content of their discussion with Jesus.
Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. – Luke 9:30-31 NLT
Peter, James, and John were given the privilege of listening in as Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discussed His “exodus.” The Greek word Luke used is exodos, and it means “departing.” There were no two people better qualified to discuss the topic of departing than Moses and Elijah. Moses had led the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. But He also had “departed” this life in a rather extraordinary manner.
Then Moses went up to Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab and climbed Pisgah Peak, which is across from Jericho…So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, just as the Lord had said. The Lord buried him in a valley near Beth-peor in Moab, but to this day no one knows the exact place. Moses was 120 years old when he died, yet his eyesight was clear, and he was as strong as ever. – Deuteronomy 34:1, 5-7 NLT
When Moses’ work was done and his life’s days were finished, his burial service was conducted by God Himself.
And the account of Elijah’s “exodus” from this life is no less spectacular. The book of 2 Kings records that Elijah was walking along with his successor, Elisha, when something remarkable took place.
As they were walking along and talking, suddenly a chariot of fire appeared, drawn by horses of fire. It drove between the two men, separating them, and Elijah was carried by a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father! My father! I see the chariots and charioteers of Israel!” And as they disappeared from sight, Elisha tore his clothes in distress. – 2 Kings 2:11-12 NLT
These two “experts” had personal “exodus” experience and were sharing their insights with Jesus. They discussed with Him the events that would surround His coming exodus from this world. And their words would have supported all that Jesus had told the disciples. They discussed the very events Jesus had predicted would happen in Jerusalem and that Peter had rebuked Him for sharing. And that’s when Peter spoke up. He couldn’t remain silent any longer.
As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” – Luke 9:33 NLT
Nervous excitement got the better of him. And whether he realized it or not, Peter stuck his foot in his mouth yet again. In a desire to prolong the moment, Peter suggested that he, James, and John build three small shelters for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses to live in. The Greek word he used is skēnē, which translates into “tabernacle.” It was almost as if Peter wanted to set up three little temples or holy structures to house these three extraordinary individuals. We can only speculate what was going through Peter’s mind, but it could be that he viewed the appearance of Elijah and Moses as the sign that Jesus was about to set up His Kingdom on earth.
The prophet Malachi had recorded the following promise of God:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” – Malachi 4:5 ESV
And Moses had predicted that God would raise up another prophet like him.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him…” – Deuteronomy 18:15 NLT
And God gave Moses further insight into the role of this coming prophet.
“I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.” – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NLT
The final words in God’s prophecy are particularly pertinent to what happens next. Peter had expressed his misguided desire to prolong this holy convocation on the mountain top. But God interrupts his little speech and declares, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35 ESV).
In essence, God was telling Peter to shut up and listen to what Jesus was trying to tell him. He had no business rebuking Jesus. There was no need for Peter to build tabernacles. He simply needed to listen.
And just as quickly as it had all started, it was suddenly over. The glory diminished, Elijah and Moses vanished, and the three disciples found themselves standing alone with Jesus. The two Old Testament prophets had made their exodus from the scene. Now, all that was left was for Jesus to face His own exodus from this world. He still had to face the reality of the cross. In a very short period of time, Jesus would find Himself alone. There would be no Elijah or Moses to comfort Him. His disciples would abandon Him. And rather than being cloaked in glory, Jesus would be mockingly draped in a purple robe and a crown of thorns. He would be ridiculed, beaten, and nailed to a wooden cross. And later, He would make His exodus from this life. All according to the sovereign will of His Heavenly Father.
God would have Peter remember: “I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf” (Deuteronomy 18:19 NLT). And it seems that Peter and his companions took God seriously because “they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen” (Luke 9:36 ESV). This once-in-a-lifetime experience had improved their hearing and increased their receptivity. From that moment forward they couldn’t help but see Jesus in a different light.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.