28About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30Two men, Moses and Elijah, 31appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, "Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." (He did not know what he was saying.)
34While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35A voice came from the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him." 36When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.
As a former history teacher, there are so many things that have taken place in the history of the world that I would love to be able to somehow go back and see the event happen. There are conversations that I would love to hear and things that I just want to see so badly. I would love, as the old saying goes, “be a fly on the wall” during those times. There are certain things that just sound so incredible as you study them out that, no matter how many eyewitness accounts you hear or how many books you read, it just doesn’t quite do the scene justice. It’s one thing, for instance, to study out battles of the Civil War and learn about them, but it’s an entirely different thing to have actually been there. There would be sights, sounds, smells, and just over-all experiences that you simply cannot fully duplicate in written accounts. All I can think of when I read about things like that is how wonderful it would be if I could have been there.
The Bible is full of moments like that. What must it have looked like to have been present when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea? What did it sound like when the walls of Jericho crashed down around the city. What would it have been like to see David defeat Goliath and watch the great Philistine warrior fall before the eyes of his horrified fellow-soldiers? Oh to be present the night that Jesus was born and see everything for myself, and then to be able to see just one miracle that Jesus performed during his ministry. Of all the biblical moments that would be beyond words to actually see and experience, I’m not sure if any of them would be more stunning and more incredible than the scene that Luke describes here. This is truly one of the most incredible, puzzling, and stunning moments in Jesus’ entire ministry. Yet to just be there for a moment. Now that would be incredible.
Once again Luke informs us that before an important even takes place in Jesus’ life that he went to pray. This time he took the inner circle of three from within the Twelve up on the mountain with him. Some have speculated about which mountain this was but since Luke and the other Gospel writers make no attempt to tell us, we can safely conclude that there is no significance in that detail. Luke has already depicted Jesus as one who operated in the manner of Moses and Elijah but who surpassed them as well. This event will only cement that reality.
As we read about this event, there seems to be obvious echoes of Exodus 24 and 33-34, passages in which Moses’ goes up into the mountain to meet God and comes down with a shining face after having been in his presence. In both accounts we find a cloud that covers the mountain (Lk. 9:34; Ex. 24:16). God’s voice is present in both accounts (Lk. 9:35; Ex. 24:16). Both accounts single out three companions that accompany Jesus and Moses respectively (Lk. 9:28; Ex. 24:1, 9). And a Transformed appearance is important to both events (Lk. 9:29, 31; Ex. 34:30).
As Jesus was praying, Luke tells us that a dramatic change took place in the appearance of his face and clothes. Suddenly Jesus became “as bright as a flash of lightning.” We can only imagine what that would have looked like and it certainly recalls and surpasses the description of Moses in Exodus 34:29-34. But what is even more amazing is the revelation that Jesus is not alone. Moses and Elijah appear in glorious splendor with him. Imagine the shock of dozing off while Jesus was praying, to be shaken awake by the sight of the man who had just climbed up the mountain with you, appearing as normal as as anyone else, only to see him bright and splendorous as lightning and standing with the equally glorious Moses and Elijah. It was no mistake that these are two great figures of the Old Testament, who typified the two major divisions of God’s word, that appeared. Moses was the representative of the Law, while Elijah represented the prophets of the Old Testament.
As they stood there, the three men began to discuss his departure which he would “bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem.” The word translated “departure” is the Greek word “exodos,” which is literally the word “exodus.” It is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) to refer to Moses’ Exodus. It could also refer simply to one’s death but it seems almost certain that it is used here to refer to Jesus’ Exodus. He is about to begin a journey (see Lk. 9:51) that will certainly end in his rejection and death but through which the New Exodus will begin. This would be the New Exodus when God would finally bring about the freedom of his people from their slavery, the thing that he had always promised. It would entail the march to Jerusalem and ultimately, his death on the Cross which would be the culminating point of that exodus. If ever I had wanted to be a fly on the wall to hear a conversation or to be present at an historical event, it would be this moment. That is simply a conversation that I would love to have witnessed.
Peter and the others were still shaking the sleep from the skulls when the moment appeared about to end as quickly as it began. Peter, in a mixture of excitement and confusion, asks if he should build three shelters for the three glorious figures. That he even had the presence of mind to speak at all outweighs, in my mind, any of the criticism that Peter gets for his somewhat amusing statement. But his question wasn’t as random as it might seem. This event likely took place during the Feast of Tabernacles (Feast of Harvest), an event which recalled God’s provision of Israel in the desert during the Exodus and which looked forward to the arrival of the age to come when God would finally return to be with his people (see Ex. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:34; Deut. 16:13). Did the return of Moses and Elijah during this very festival signal that the time of fulfillment had come? He doesn’t want this moment to slip away. As much as he thinks this may be the time of fulfillment, he probably was hoping that it was. Yet, he wanted to build three booths as though these three figures were equal in rank. He didn’t know what he way saying.
While Peter was still speaking, the glory cloud of the Shekinah presence of YHWH enveloped them. The glory cloud in the Old Testament was a symbol of the divine presence of YHWH himself and now it was here. During Jesus’ baptism the divine voice signaled that Jesus was in fact the unique Son of God, but it is quite likely that only Jesus heard the confirmation of his identity as the Messiah, as God’s special Son. Luke has made much of the fact that Jesus knew his identity but that was still something that those around him must discover for themselves.
Now that Peter and the others had come to the realization that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, God confirmed it for them in a stunning way. This is God’s Son. That he is the chosen one comes from Isaiah 42:1. He would be God’s chosen servant to represent God’s people, but that also means that he would be the one to be rejected, suffer, despised, and be put to shame and death (Isa. 53). The exhortation to “listen to him” comes from Deuteronomy 18:15. Jesus was the unique prophet that was prophesied about. He was the culmination of all of the prophets; the one who should be listened to above all others. The disciples needed to listen to Jesus carefully as he led them into the new family that God had always promised. They didn’t need to build booths, they needed to listen to the word of Jesus. When God’s word goes out from his mouth, “it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). If they would listen to God’s chosen and unique son, his words would bear fruit in their lives. We shouldn’t think that the call to listen to Jesus only stretched to the men present on that mountain. Those words are as true for us today as it was for them on the mountain. We must decide whether or not we will listen to God’s Son.
Just as surely as God’s glory had appeared on Mt. Sinai and caused the face of Moses to shine, now God’s Son had appeared on this mountain in all of his glory and his entire body was transfigured. He didn’t just reflect God’s glory as Moses had, he was the very embodiment of it. Herod had asked in 9:9 who this man was, and here was the dramatic and definitive answer to Peter and the others. He is the Son of God appearing in his glory. They weren’t able to fully understand the glory of God on that day. Years later Peter was still reflecting on it (2 Pet. 1:16-18). Neither, though, would they be able to immediately grasp that the fullness of Jesus’ glory would soon enough be displayed in Jerusalem on a very different hill in a very different way.
This passage is so instructive for us today in that we will probably never have an experience quite like this but there will be many times we will have no clue what God is doing in our lives. We will stand their completely bewildered and unsure of what action to take next, completely unaware of the full implications of our situation and what God can do through it. Yet, the same word of God that comes to through the Scriptures beckons us to the same humility and the same call to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. This is God’s Son, “Listen to him.”
Are you struggling with something confusing in your life right now, or do you know someone else who is? How does God’s exhortation to listen to his son challenge or comfort you? How can you use those words to challenge or comfort someone else today?