The Implicit Grammar of the Transfiguration—Luke 9:28–43a

The Politics of Scripture

The transfiguration reveals the implicit grammar of Jesus’ politics and political identity. This identity did not require a retreat to heaven, but confrontation and crucifixion in Jerusalem.

Luke 9:28–43a

28 Now 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.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’41Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

While this reading does not deal with any large political themes, such as rulers, nations, or justice, it arguably contains an implicit grammar of Jesus’ politics and political identity. Overall, his mission was a political merger of heaven and earth. He did not, therefore, retreat to heaven, nor did he try to establish a perfect community on earth; his politics required a prophetic confrontation with the political powers in Jerusalem and being crucified there.

Our narrative begins with Jesus withdrawing to pray. This was a common feature of Jesus’ ministry, which was nothing unusual. There is no indication that such actions were ever a physical retreat from the world. He does not reject the world, he embraces the world by praying for it and by being its light.

The transfiguration event is a reminder that Jesus could have completed his teaching and he could have gone up in the cloud with Moses and Elijah. He did not. His mission was not simply to do some teaching and healing and then to disappear in a puff of smoke. As important as his whole earthly mission was, Jesus still had a mission to fulfill on the cross.

You know someone by the company they keep. In this case, we learn something about Jesus by his companions, Moses and Elijah. Jesus appearing with Moses and Elijah signals that Jesus is related to the law and the prophets. Moses represents the law which he received on Mt Sinai (Exodus 19). Elijah represents the prophets and his own experience on the same mountain (1 Kings 19). He gets a prophetic ministry and the first thing he does when coming down the mountain is to anoint Kings. Perhaps this passage shows that he is anointing Jesus as King of the Jews and all creation.

There is another feature of these two men worth noting. Moses and Elijah had both challenged tyrants. Moses famously confronted Pharaoh, calling for the release of his people from bondage (Exodus 5–12). Elijah confronts King Ahab at least twice (1 Kings 18:17), when he predicts a drought (1 Kings 17:1), and over King Ahab’s killing of Naboth (1 Kings, 21). Perhaps this highlights the coming confrontation of Jesus and authorities of Jerusalem, as well as Jesus defeating the principalities and powers (1 Peter 3:22; Colossians 1:16).

Only Luke’s account of the transfiguration has Jesus appearing with Moses and Elijah “in glory” (Luke 9:31). What does this mean? It may refer to the glory of kingship. To be fully understood, it is useful to read some other passages about Jesus, such as the vision of the final city of God, which is illuminated by the glory of God:

Revelation 21:23-24
23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.

The nations of the world will (finally) walk by the glory of God. The kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, but their glory is always subordinate to the light of Christ, the only guiding light.

This is not an isolated teaching. From the prophet Isaiah (60:1–3) we see a similar motif of God’s glory illuminating the nations and kings of the earth:

1 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
   and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
   and his glory will appear over you. 
3 Nations shall come to your light,
   and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 

Seeing the glory of God, the awakened Peter immediately suggests building three Tabernacles or dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter clearly wants to stay on the mountain and not go down again. Maybe he was so enraptured with heavenly things that he wanted to remain there forever and not return to the worldly matters below. By wishing to build three houses and remain with Jesus, Moses, Elijah and the other two apostles, Peter wished to form a community, an ideal holy community, on the mountain top. In a sense he wished to have God create a perfect community directly, one which was a merger of heaven and earth.

This plan is rejected, with the text saying that Peter did not know what he was talking about. Rather than listen to Peter, Jesus should be listed to directly. Peter’s mistake was that the time for Christ’s kingdom on earth had not yet arrived. Jesus’s earthly teaching and healing ministries were not yet finished. At worst, Peter’s proposal was the first denial of Jesus’ fulfillment of his mission in Jerusalem (compare to the three traditionally understood denials of Peter: Luke 22:33–34; 22:54–57; 22:59–62).

Reflecting on Jesus transfiguration we might ponder our hope for our own transfiguration. What do we wish to be transformed into? To be transfigured is to be transformed in appearance or into a higher spiritual state. Some early Christians wished to participate in the transfiguration of Christ into a more holy state. Is this still the desire of Christians today? What do people want to become in this day and age? Do they wish to be transformed into famous and rich and beautiful persons? They might admire a Gandhi or Mother Teresa, but would they want to be transformed into one?

When we listen to the surrounding culture, we have examples of what we may desire to be transformed into. If we wish to be famous, rich, admired, the world will also offer ways to be transformed into these things, along with pathways to achieve this transformation through one’s own disciplined action. Our most meaningful transformation, however, will not come from our own efforts. God is the one who transforms Christ and God can transform us. How does this happen? The answer is in verse 35: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Another answer is to encounter God (as Moses did in Exodus 34) and be transformed by the Spirit.

Finally, Jesus comes down the mountain. This is an important aspect of the story; we do not ascend to God, God comes down to us. This links the incarnation with the transfiguration. Jesus immediately comes to heal the possessed son. Jesus’s transfiguration, as ours, cannot be complete without being connected to care for the neighbor and their transformation through our loving care.

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