The Transfiguration of the Lord

Lent 2C

Luke 9: 28 36

Introduction

We are about to meditate on one of the most remarkable events in the history of the Lord's earthly ministry. We are encouraged to read it always with profound thankfulness. "It lifts a corner of the veil which hangs over the world to come, and throws light on some of the deepest truths of our religion" (Ryle)

Notes on Our Text:

Verse 28

A week before this event, Peter was asked by Jesus to state openly who he believed Jesus to be. He declared him to be the Messiah. The Lord was deeply moved and responded with some unique and very powerful teaching (Luke 9: 23 — 27).

Our reading therefore opens with, "About eight days later," signifying the first day of the week, which was soon to become the Day of the Resurrection. On this very day, our Lord took Peter, John and James up THE mountain (not 'a' mountain) to pray. We do not know which mountain, but it was known to them. What is more important is why they went up the mountain to pray!

Verse 29

"As he was praying (i.e. when he began to pray), the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightening." Two great scholars help us understand the grandeur of this moment.

Bishop Ryle (AD 1830) wrote:

Let it be noted that we are specially told that it was when our Lord was "praying" at His baptism the Holy Ghost descended and the Father's voice was heard. So also prayer ushers in the great vision of glory in this place.

Bishop Hall remarks, "Behold how Christ entered upon all His great works, with prayers in His mouth. When He was to enter into that great work of His humiliation in His passion, He went into the garden to pray. When He is to enter into this great work of His exaltation in His transfiguring, He went up into the mountain to pray. He was taken up from His knees to both. Oh, noble example of piety and devotion to us!"

Dr Sadler (AD 1896) wrote:

"The Transfiguration was not a miracle of superadded glory, but the removal of a veil which hid His state of natural glory from the eyes of His fellows — the real miracle was in the humiliation — the emptying of Himself, the shrouding and restraining of what was ever ready to shine forth."

St Luke, clearly, is reflecting in his account, (which he wrote between AD 60 and 70), the infant Church's attitude towards the event. Our forebears treasured the unique revelation of the Lord as he really is, in eternity. The miracle was not that he was revealed in such magnificence — but rather that such a One chose to spend his time among them as "one of them", and that his real appearance was masked.

Verses 30 and 31

The account continues with Luke writing, "And behold (sometimes omitted in modern versions) an expression which focuses the attention strongly on what follows. Two men, Moses and Elijah appeared in glorious splendour, and they were talking to Jesus.

Godet (C 1800) comments:

"Luke does not name them at first. He says "two men." This mode of describing them reflects the impression, which must have been experienced by the eyewitnesses of the scene. They perceived first of all the presence of two persons unknown; it was only afterwards that they knew their names. "Behold" seems to express the suddenness of the apparition. The imperfect, 'they were talking', proves that the conversation had lasted some time when the Apostles first perceived the presence of these strangers".

They spoke about his "departure" for which Luke chooses the Greek word 'exodos'. A new Moses and a new Exodus are coming into vision.

Verse 32

Despite the incredible event occurring before their eyes, Peter, John and James "were very sleepy". Sadler has a helpful comment on the untimely sleepiness.

This was the effect of the vision, or rather of its beginning. There are several other instances of this sleep, or absence of distinct consciousness in the presence of some super-natural manifestation. Thus, it is said of Abraham when he received the remarkable revelation of God immediately after his justification, that "a deep sleep fell upon Abraham, and lo, a horror of great darkness fell upon him". (Gen 15: 12.) And of Daniel, "When I heard the voice of his words, then was I in a deep sleep on my face, and my face toward the ground". (Dan.10: 9.)

When the Lord caused the sleepiness to lift, they quickly became fully awake and saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.

Verse 33

But by this time the two great leaders are about to leave. In a flash Peter speaks up: "Lord this is a great blessing to be present in this company. In keeping with the rich spiritual significance, why don't we erect a booth for each of you. Perhaps then we could continue this wonderful dialogue."

It is commonplace to hear people today judge Peter's remark as that of someone who blurts out before they think. One scholar challenges us: "And should we, who despise his words, have said anything more to the point, if we were fainting with fear at the immediate presence of these glorified denizens of the eternal world?" Ryle goes to some length here to keep us on the track:

(It is good for us to be here.) There is doubtless much to be blamed in this expression of Peter's, partly because he placed Moses and Elijah on a level with his divine Master, and partly because he would fain have tarried in the mount, and kept his Master there when there was work to be done in the world. The comment of St Luke, "not knowing what he said," is a gentle hint that his wish was not commendable, but blame-worthy. Nevertheless we cannot but admire the outburst of Peter's delight when he saw his Master surrounded with such glory, and with such glorified companions. It was the outburst, of a truly burning heart. Archbishop Usher remarks, "When Peter saw Moses and Elias with Christ in His transfiguration, though he had but a glimpse of glory, yet he says, 'It is good for us to be here' But oh, how infinitely good will it be to be in heaven! How shall we then be rapt up with glory, when we shall be for ever with the Lord!"

It is clear, Peter, more than the other two (yet again) is very profoundly stirred by the awe of the occasion. Those who ridicule Peter's response have yet to experience anything similar in their lives.

Verse 34

While Peter was making his response from the depths of his being, a dense cloud surrounds them. This alarms them, but they do not panic. There could be no doubt in their minds, this was the Schekinah, the cloud of God's presence, recorded in the Holy Books of the Torah — the first five books of the Old Testament. 

Verse 35

At a chosen moment a voice came from the cloud proclaiming; "This is my beloved Son: listen to him".

The words of Moses were well known to these disciples: as recorded in Deuteronomy 18: 15 "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you own brothers. You must listen to him."

This is one of the great affirmations of Jesus by his Father. It is one of the cornerstones of our understanding of Jesus as the WORD of God. It is the basis of our approach to meditation — to which we constantly refer.

Verse 36

"When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone". You can imagine the transition from being immersed in a timeless yet momentary vision of God's presence, to suddenly realising all is silent, and there are only the four gathered, just as they were before Jesus began to pray. It is suddenly all over. But the lesson has been learnt; the new Moses and new Prophet would lead them to the fullness of God's presence. Interestingly, the three disciples kept the experience to themselves - at least till after the Resurrection.

Conclusion

As a contemporary writer (Charles Erdman) has put it:

"It is not strange that Peter longed to linger in such heavenly companionship, and in bewilderment absurdly proposed the erection on the mountain of three booths for the comfort of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. "While he said these things, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them. . . And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, my chosen: hear ye him." There was no need of detaining Moses and Elijah; if the Master remained with his disciples that was enough. Henceforth all that the Law and the Prophets had foreshadowed would be completely revealed and embodied in Jesus Christ. Part of that revelation was made in his death; the full revelation will come when he returns in that glory of which the Mount of Transfiguration gave a foregleam.

(The Gospel of Luke, Westminster Press. Philadelphia)

Meanwhile, we continue to reflect as best we are able on all his teaching. To obey God's instruction; "Listen to him" requires that we read the Gospel accounts in a reflective way, allowing the Divine Word to feed our soul and form in us the mind of Christ. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in us as we listen to the Word within the words — the Word behind the words. And we listen to obey. This is what we call meditation — or to use the ancient Latin name from the first century of Church Life: Lectio Divina, which we can freely translate as: reading the Divine Word in a way that we truly hear the One speaking.

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