The Narrative Meaning and Function of the Transfiguration of Jesus

From

John Paul Heil

The Transfiguration of Jesus:

Narrative Meaning and Function of Mark 9:2-8, Matt 17:1-8 and Luke 9:28-36

  Analecta Biblica 144.  Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000

 

            Central to a proper understanding of the transfiguration narrative is the recognition that in all three of its Gospel versions it has the literary genre of an “epiphany” rather than of a “theophany” or “vision.”  Understood as a technical designation for a biblical literary genre, “theophany” refers to a disposition of literary motifs which describes a coming of God recognized by the terrifying circumstances that accompany it, such as earthquakes or storm phenomena, rather than by seeing the actual figure of God.  A “vision” is a disposition of literary motifs which narrates the seeing by a privileged individual or group of supernatural phenomena located mainly in the heavenly realm.  A vision employs a verb of seeing or its equivalent and centers upon a seeing of heavenly realities reserved to the viewer.  An “epiphany” as a modern, technical designation for an ancient literary genre is a disposition of literary motifs which narrates a sudden and unexpected manifestation of a divine or heavenly being experienced by certain selected persons as an event independent of their seeing, in which the divine being reveals a divine attribute, action, or message. 

            Like the literary genre of theophany, an epiphany narrates a coming of a divine being.  In a theophany the divine being remains invisible and his coming is recognized only by its effects on nature, such as earthquakes or storm phenomena.  But in an epiphany the divine being assumes visible form and appears before the eyes of human beings.  Like the literary genre of vision, an epiphany narrates the viewing of heavenly realities.  In a vision the viewing is of heavenly realities or phenomena seen only through the eyes of a selected viewer mainly within a heavenly location or context.  But in an epiphany the heavenly phenomena take place on earth as an event visible to anyone privileged to witness it. 

            Although the transfiguration epiphany centers upon the recognition of the transfigured Jesus’ true identity, the climactic accent of the divine voice from the epiphanic cloud falls on the command:  “Listen to him!”  This command creates the final dramatic tension of the epiphany and leaves the Gospel audiences in suspense as to whether the disciples will listen to Jesus as God’s beloved Son.  Since the entire transfiguration epiphany is oriented to and issues in this climactic, authoritative command or mandate from the epiphanic voice, we may label it as a “mandatory epiphany.” 

            The mandatory epiphanies to Balaam in Num 22:31-35, to Joshua in Josh 5:13-15, and to Heliodorus in 2 Macc 3:22-34 provide literary precedents for the Gospel audiences to recognize and understand the literary genre of the transfiguration narrative as that of a similar “pivotal mandatory epiphany,” in which the climactic mandate serves as a pivotal focus.  These are all examples of a special kind of mandatory epiphany.  The climactic commands that represent the whole point and purpose of the epiphanies closely relate to and clarify the meaning of the epiphanic appearances.  The climactic commands also enunciate and refer the audience to key recurring themes that play pivotal roles in the broader narrative contexts in which these mandatory epiphanies are located. 

            In the case of the transfiguration mandatory epiphany the pivotal mandate not only points out that Jesus, rather than Moses or Elijah, is God’s beloved Son, but also directs the disciples and the audience to listen to Jesus in order to understand the significance of the epiphanic appearance of the transfigured Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah.  The words of Jesus that the disciples and the audience are to heed are the words predicting his passion, death and resurrection, a recurring theme of pivotal significance in each of the Gospel narratives in which the transfiguration occurs. 

Jesus’ Transfiguration as an Epiphanic Motif

            We now turn our attention to the meaning and significance of the remarkable external change in Jesus’ face and clothing, the actual transformation or “transfiguration” of Jesus as an epiphanic motif.  Our investigation of the meaning and background of the literary motif of the “transfiguration” of Jesus leads us to conclude that it describes his external, proleptic, and temporary transformation by God into a heavenly being while still on earth.  It points the Gospel audiences to Jesus’ future and permanent attainment of glory in heaven as promised to the righteous after their death. 

            This result rules out several other suggested interpretations.  Jesus’ transfiguration is not an internal self-transformation, but an external transformation effected by God.  It is not a “revelation” or “disclosure” of his otherwise hidden eternal glory, but a temporary “transfiguration” or “transformation” of his external appearance.  Although Jesus ascends a mountain, which is close to the heavenly realm, to be transfigured, he does not ascend into heaven itself but remains on earth. 

            Jesus’ transfiguration does not mean that he is a new, second, or greater Moses.  The “glorification” of Moses on Mount Sinai did not occur in an epiphany; it involved only his face; and it followed his speaking with God.  Jesus’ transfiguration, on the other hand, occurred as an epiphanic appearance; it involved not only his face but his clothing; and it preceded his conversation with the heavenly figures of Moses and Elijah. 

            Although the literary background to Jesus’ transfiguration involves similarities to the heavenly figures of God and angels, his transfiguration does not mean that he has become an actual angel or God, only that his appearance has become temporarily angel-like or God-like.  Nor does his white clothing mean he has become a heavenly priestly figure.  Rather, the background most relevant for the Gospel audiences to understand the motif of the transfigured Jesus, a human being still on earth, is that involving the heavenly glory promised to the righteous in general after their death. 

The Epiphanic Appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus

            Perhaps the most popular interpretation of Moses and Elijah in the transfiguration account has been that together they represent the Jewish scriptures, the Law and the Prophets, now fulfilled and surpassed by Jesus.  Although “Moses” can and often does stand for the Jewish Torah, Elijah by himself does not normally represent all of the prophets to complement Moses in this way.  Indeed, the scriptures consider both Moses and Elijah to be notable prophets, who together can represent the entire prophetic tradition.

            The prophets Moses and Elijah appear from heaven in conversation with the transfigured Jesus to contrast the way that he will ultimately attain the same heavenly glory they enjoy.  According to the biblical account and later Jewish traditions familiar to the Gospel audiences Elijah, although he suffered persecution as a prophet, attained heavenly glory by ascending directly into heaven without dying the death of a rejected prophet. 

            According to the biblical account Moses, although he suffered rebellion and opposition from his people, was never put to death as a rejected prophet.  He died and was buried in a very extraordinary way, honored and revered by his people.  Later Jewish traditions indicate that the great prophet Moses attained heavenly glory either at the time of his mysterious death and burial or, like the prophet Elijah, without dying at all. 

            The Gospel audiences know that Jesus, unlike Moses and Elijah, will suffer the destiny of the disgraceful death of a rejected prophet.  The Gospel audiences know that Jesus, unlike Moses and Elijah, will attain heavenly glory only after being unjustly put to death by his people and raised from the dead by his heavenly Father. 

The Three Tents

            Since Peter himself appears rather uncertain as to the appropriateness of making a tent for each of the three heavenly visitors, the audiences of the transfiguration narratives cannot be sure what exactly Peter has in mind for the tents.  After all, “tents” and “dwelling places” play various and yet very important roles in the biblical traditions.  From their knowledge and familiarity with these various “tent” traditions the audience may think that Peter wants to make three tents as temporary dwelling places (1) to honor each individual heavenly figure and commemorate what God has done in bringing about this marvelous manifestation of each of the three heavenly figures, analogous to the commemorative role of the tents at the Feast of Tabernacles; (2) to provide fitting locations for each of the heavenly, prophetic figures to continue his glorious appearance and communicate divine instructions to the disciples on earth, analogous to the role of the tent as a place for divine communication in the Tent of Meeting; (3) to furnish on earth appropriate hospitable habitations for their sojourn similar to the habitations that Abraham, the patriarchs, and all the righteous enjoy in heaven. 

            But the audience soon realizes that whatever Peter meant by the making of three tents, his offer was inappropriate for two main reasons.  First, although Peter mentions Jesus in the most important first position in his offer to make three tents, he nevertheless places Jesus on the same level and in the same category as Moses and Elijah.  That this is wrong becomes evident as God’s voice from the overshadowing cloud directs the disciples and the audience to listen only to Jesus, God’s own Son. 

            Secondly, although tents are temporary dwellings, the epiphanic manifestation of the three heavenly figures turns out to be an extremely ephemeral event, negating any need for even the temporary dwelling of a tent.  The appearance of the transfigured Jesus is but a momentary anticipation of the permanent heavenly glory he will attain only after the suffering, death and resurrection that he has predicted for himself.  It is this prophetic prediction by God’s own beloved Son that the heavenly voice from the cloud commands the disciples and audience to heed.  We now turn to the significance and background of the divine voice from the overshadowing cloud, as a second epiphanic action which interrupts Peter’s offer to make three tents. 

The Epiphanic Appearance of the Overshadowing Cloud

            By the end of each transfiguration narrative the audience realizes that the epiphanic cloud has overshadowed only Moses and Elijah.  The cloud, representative of God’s presence, has not only concealed Moses and Elijah from the eyes of the disciples but has also separated them from Jesus, so that the disciples no longer see Moses and Elijah, but only Jesus.  This is confirmed by the oracular function of the cloud, in which the voice of God speaks “from the cloud” to the disciples, who are thus outside the cloud, and directs them to listen to Jesus, the only one left standing there, who is also thus outside of the cloud. 

            Although a cloud is not necessary as a medium for the voice of God, the overshadowing cloud and the voice work together as an ironic interruption of Peter’s uncertain offer to make a tent each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  By way of analogy with the Tent of Meeting, Peter plausibly wants to make a tent in honor of each heavenly figure at which each can continue to deliver divine communication, thus prolonging and extending to the disciples the conversation they see but do not hear taking place among the three heavenly figures.  By making a tent for each, Peter would thus place each on the same level, honoring each with an equal opportunity to speak and thus prolong the epiphanic event.  But the overshadowing cloud ironically interrupts Peter’s offer to make a “tent,” “dwelling place,” or “covering” for each as it “covers over” or “tents over” Moses and Elijah.  Then, adding to the irony, the voice of God himself utters a dramatic divine communication to the disciples, the mandate of this pivotal mandatory epiphany, directing them and the audiences to listen not to Moses and Elijah at tents but to Jesus left standing there alone, authorized as God’s Son. 

            The vehicular function of the overshadowing cloud complements its oracular function.  Since the disciples see only Jesus after the voice of God speaks from the overshadowing cloud, the audience, from their knowledge of the vehicular function of clouds, is naturally to deduce that the overshadowing cloud has not only concealed Moses and Elijah but is in the process of or has already transported these figures back to heaven from which they appeared in conversation with the transfigured Jesus.  By enveloping and transporting Moses and Elijah back to heaven, the epiphanic overshadowing cloud has brought this entire epiphanic event to an abrupt conclusion, as the disciples see Jesus left there alone, restored to his pre-transfigured, earthly state. 

The Markan Transfiguration and the Antecedent Narrative

            When the audience hears that “Jesus took along Peter and James and John, and led them up to a high mountain privately, alone” (Mark 9:2), they are prepared for the possibility of a dramatic revelatory encounter with God.  The initial epiphanic action of this pivotal mandatory epiphany occurs as Jesus was suddenly and unexpectedly “transfigured” by God into a heavenly figure before the three disciples (9:2).  That no bleacher on the earth could thus whiten his clothes that became very radiantly white (9:3) confirms for the audience the heavenly nature of Jesus’ transformed clothing.  Jesus’ transfiguration, his external, proleptic, and temporary transformation by God into a heavenly being while still on earth, indicates to the audience his future and permanent attainment of glory in heaven as promised to the righteous after their death. 

            The epiphanic transfiguration of Jesus is immediately followed by an additional epiphanic appearance of the heavenly figures of Elijah with Moses in conversation with Jesus before the eyes of the three disciples (9:4).  The audience knows that neither Moses nor Elijah, although great prophets who experienced opposition, were put to death by their people.  Does the appearance of the heavenly Moses and Elijah in close association with the transfigured Jesus mean that he also will attain heavenly glory like them, without dying the death of a rejected prophet?

            That the three disciples became terrifed at the epiphany of the transfigured Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah was the reason Peter did not know what to reply (9:6), when he responded to the revelation of the more profound identity of Jesus in relation to Moses and Elijah by suggesting the making of a tent for each (9:5).  Peter would place each heavenly figure on the same level by making a tent for each to prolong his glorious epiphanic appearance and to continue the divine communication for the benefit of the disciples. 

            But Peter is interrupted by yet another sudden and unexpected epiphanic appearance as a cloud overshadowed Moses and Elijah, implicitly transporting them back to heaven.  After Jesus’ baptism God’s voice from the heavens told Jesus, “You are by beloved Son, with you I am well pleased!” (1:11).  But now God’s voice from the cloud tells the three disciples, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” (9:7).  What the audience (1:, 11) and the demonic world have already known (3:11; 5:7) God now reveals directly to the three disciples (9:7). 

            God’s voice from the cloud (9:7) serves as the pivotal mandate that distinguishes Jesus from Moses and Elijah as God’s beloved Son and commands the disciples and the audience to listen to Jesus.  The mandate thus “pivots” them back to the previous teaching of Jesus (4:2-3, 9, 23-24; 7:14; 8:18), especially his teaching about the necessity for him and his followers to suffer and to lose their lives (8:31-38) before entering into the heavenly glory of God’s kingdom anticipated by Jesus’ transfiguration.  As the pivotal mandatory epiphany concludes with Jesus again alone with the disciples (9:8), the burning question remains:  Will the disciples and the audience heed the pivotal epiphanic mandate and listen to Jesus in order to understand the way that he and they will attain the heavenly glory anticipated by his transfiguration?

The Markan Transfiguration and the Subsequent Narrative 

            The mandate of the Markan transfiguration epiphany, “Listen to him!” (9:7), has pivoted the disciples and the audience back to Jesus’ first pronouncement for them to follow him on his way to suffering and death before being resurrected to heavenly glory (8:31-38).  It has also pivoted them forward to the subsequent predictions of the necessity for him (9:12, 31-32; 10:32-34; 12:1-12; 14:8, 22-25, 27-31, 32-42) as well as them (10:35-45) to give their lives in humble, suffering service for others with the assurance of being raised from the dead (9:9; 12:18-27; 16:5-8) and seeing his final coming in the heavenly glory (13:26; 14:62) prefigured by his transfiguration. 

            Elijah has already come in the person of John the Baptist (1:2-6), and “they did to him whatever they wished” (9:13), that is, put him to death (6:19), as Jesus will be put to death.  Therefore, the audience is to realize that Elijah has not come (9:11) as the heavenly figure the disciples witnessed in the transfiguration epiphany (9:4).  And Elijah will not come to take Jesus down from the cross (15:35-36), because unlike the Elijah in the transfiguration epiphany, who attained heavenly glory without being put to death, Jesus must suffer death before attaining the heavenly glory foreshadowed by his transfiguration. 

            The audience experienced a shocking irony when the Roman centurion who witnessed Jesus’ death is the only human being to confess his divine sonship:  “Truly this man was Son of God!” (15:39).  Because he listened to how Jesus revealed himself to be Son of God by dying on the cross with a loud voice of total trust in God’s plan that he suffer and die (cf. 12:6; 14:36), the centurion confirmed for the audience God’s own voice from the overshadowing cloud at the transfiguration:  “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” (9:7; cf. 1:11). 

            Only with a humble, faith-filled prayer for God’s powerful help will the disciples and the audience be healed of their metaphorical deafness and muteness (9:14-29) to the divine necessity of following Jesus’ way of suffering and death.  The powerful Gethsemane prayer of Jesus empowers the audience to play their role in God’s plan by watching and praying.  By praying in imitation and on the strength of Jesus’ prayer, they can submit their wills to God’s will and follow Jesus’ way of suffering and death, as they await Jesus’ final coming in the glory prefigured by his tranfiguration (14:32-42, 62). 

            The Markan narrative challenges the audience to tell others of the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration (9:9) as the assurance that resurrection to heavenly glory follows suffering and death for the gospel of Jesus (16:5-8). 

The Matthean Transfiguration and the Antecedent Narrative

            In Matt 17:1 when the audience hears that “Jesus took along Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up to a high mountain privately,” they are prepared for the possibility of some sort of a dramatic revelatory encounter with God.  The initial epiphanic action of this pivotal mandatory epiphany occurs as Jesus was suddenly and unexpectedly “transfigured” by God into a heavenly figure before the three disciples.  That “his face shone as the sun, while his clothes became white as the light” (17:2) confirms for the audience the heavenly nature of Jesus’ transformed face and clothing.  Jesus’ metamorphosis, his external, proleptic, and temporary transformation by God into a heavenly being while still on earth, indicates to the audience his future and permanent attainment of glory in heaven as promised to the righteous after their death. 

            The epiphanic transfiguration of Jesus is immediately followed by an additional epiphanic appearance of the heavenly figures of Moses and Elijah in conversation with Jesus before the eyes of the three disciples (17:3).  The audience knows that although Moses and Elijah were great prophets who experienced opposition and rejection, they were never put to death by their own people.  Does the appearance of the heavenly Moses and Elijah in close association with the transfigured Jesus mean that he also will attain heavenly glory like them, without dying the death of a rejected prophet? 

            Peter would place each heavenly figure in the same category by offering to make a tent for each to prolong his glorious epiphanic appearance and to continue the divine communication for the benefit of the disciples (17:4).  But Peter is interrupted by yet another sudden and unexpected epiphanic appearance as a bright cloud overshadowed the heavenly Moses and Elijah, implicitly taking them back to heaven.  God’s voice from the cloud not only confirms the disciples’ and Peter’s previous confessions of Jesus’ divine sonship (14:33; 16:16), it also reinforces God’s declaration from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism in 3:17 and God’s voice from a fulfillment quote in 12:17-18 that Jesus, now on his way to suffering and death (16:21), is still “my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (17:5). 

            God’s voice from the cloud (17:5) serves as the pivotal mandate that distinguishes Jesus from Moses and Elijah as God’s beloved, favored Son and commands the disciples and the audience to listen to Jesus.  The mandate thus “pivots” them back to Jesus’ previous teaching about the kingdom of heaven, especially his teaching about the necessity for him and his followers to suffer and be put to death in 16:21-27 before entering into the glory of the kingdom of heaven anticipated by Jesus’ transfiguration. 

            Upon hearing God’s voice from the bright, overshadowing cloud, the disciples react in a way typical in epiphanies.  They fell upon their face and were greatly frightened, overwhelmed into a fearful submission (17:6).  After Jesus, restored to his pre-transfiguration, earthly status, approached the disciples and compassionately touched them, he strengthened and reassured them with a formula common to epiphanies, “Arise and do not be afraid” (17:7).  Only in Matthew does Jesus utter words that complement the voice of God from the cloud by encouraging the disciples and the audience to heed the divine mandate. 

            The pivotal mandatory epiphany concludes with the earthly Jesus as the only one of the epiphanic figures remaining with the disciples (17:8).  A dramatic suspense has been established for the remainder of the narrative:  Will the disciples and the audience heed the pivotal epiphanic mandate and listen to Jesus in order to understand the way that he and they will attain the heavenly glory anticipated by his transfiguration? 

The Matthean Transfiguration and the Subsequent Narrative

            The transfiguration’s mandate in Matthew, “Listen to him!” (17:5), has pivoted the disciples and the audience back to Jesus’ previous pronouncements for them to follow him on his way to suffering and death before being raised to heavenly glory (10:38-39; 16:21-27).  It has also pivoted them forward to the subsequent predictions of the necessity for him (17:12, 22-23; 20:18-19; 21:33-46; 26:2, 12, 26-29, 31-35, 36-46) as well as them (20:20-28) to spend their lives in selfless, suffering service for others with the assurance of being raised from the dead (17:9; 22:23-33; 27:50-53) and seeing his final coming in the heavenly glory (24:30; 25:31; 26:64) prefigured by his transfiguration. 

            In the person of John the Baptist Elijah has already come (17:13), yet they put him to death (14:5; 17:12), as Jesus will be put to death.  The audience realizes then that Elijah has not “come first” (17:10) as the heavenly figure the disciples witnessed in the transfiguration epiphany (17:3).  Furthermore, Elijah will not come to save Jesus from death on the cross (27:46-49), because unlike the Elijah in the transfiguration epiphany, who attained heavenly glory without being put to death, Jesus must suffer death before attaining the heavenly glory foreshadowed by his transfiguration. 

            The disciples’ great sadness at Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection in 17:23 further illustrates their “little faith” (17:20), their failure to share the firm faith of Jesus himself in God’s power to heal the possessed boy (17:14-20) and to raise Jesus from the dead to the heavenly glory indicated by his transfiguration. 

            The dramatic Gethsemane prayer of Jesus in 26:36-46 empowers the audience to play their role in God’s plan by watching and praying.  By praying in imitation and on the strength of Jesus’ prayer, they can submit their wills to God’s will (26:39, 42) and follow Jesus’ way of suffering and death, as they await Jesus’ final coming in the glory prefigured by his transfiguration (16:27; 24:30; 25:31; 26:64). 

            The triumphant appearing of the “holy ones,” who were raised from the dead when Jesus died in 27:50-52, to the many in the holy city of Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection (27:53) encourages the audience that they also will share in the resurrection of Jesus prefigured by his transfiguration, if they are willing to take up the cross and lose their lives for the sake of Jesus (10:38-39; 16:24-27). 

            The gentile soldiers’ climactic confession at the death of Jesus, “Truly this was the Son of God!” in 27:54, confirms not only that of Jesus himself before the high priest in 26:63-64, that of Peter in 16:16 and the disciples in 14:33, but also that of God himself at the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus--“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased!” (3:17; 17:5).  The trustful submission to God’s will (26:39, 42) that Jesus demonstrates in dying on the cross provides the audience with a model for their own obedient submission to God’s will that they take up the cross and follow Jesus.  The transfiguration’s pivotal mandate has been urging the disciples and the audience to heed the challenge of Jesus’ passion predictions in order to understand that Jesus is truly God’s beloved and favored Son by dying on the cross (unlike Moses and Elijah) with faith that God will vindicate him by raising him from death to the heavenly glory foreshadowed by his transfiguration. 

            The angel’s message that Jesus, the crucified one, has been raised from the dead “just as he said” in 28:6 emphatically confirms the fulfillment of Jesus’ predictions that he would indeed be raised from the dead (16:21; 17:9, 22; 20:19; 26:32), which the transfiguration’s pivotal mandate has urged the disciples and audience to heed (17:5).  The disciples and audience can now tell others of the transfiguration (17:9), because Jesus’ resurrection from the dead makes clear that his transfiguration was a temporary anticipation of the heavenly glory he would attain only after suffering death at the hands of his people--unlike Moses and Elijah--and being raised by God.  Now that Jesus has become the glorified, heavenly figure that was prefigured by his temporary transfiguration while on earth, he is able to remain permanently with his disciples and the audience, so that they can fulfill the risen Jesus’ mandate that they make disciples of all nations by baptizing them and teaching all that Jesus commanded (28:19-20). 

The Lukan Transfiguration and the Antecedent Narrative

            Since Jesus has prayed before very significant events in his ministry (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18), that he took along Peter and John and James when he went up to the mountain to pray (9:28) prepares the audience for yet another very significant event.  While Jesus was praying on the mountain, there suddenly occurs a spectacular epiphany of his transfiguration into a heavenly figure, as “the appearance of his face became different and his clothing dazzling white” (9:29).  This dramatic change in the face and clothing of Jesus signals to the audience that he has been externally and temporarily transformed by God into a heavenly being while still on earth.  It anticipates his future and permanent attainment of glory in heaven as promised to the righteous after their death. 

            The initial epiphanic transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of the three disciples is immediately followed by an additional epiphanic appearance of two men, Moses and Elijah, who appear in glory and talk with Jesus about his “exodus,” which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem (9:30-31).  Jesus’ “exodus” or “departure” refers to the way that he will leave this earthly life by the death and resurrection he has just predicted (9:22).  Unlike Moses and Elijah, who have attained heavenly glory without being put to death by their people, Jesus will attain the glory prefigured by his temporary transformation into a heavenly figure only after being rejected and killed by the Jewish leaders (9:22).  That Jesus “was about to accomplish” his exodus in Jerusalem expresses its divine inevitability, further linking it to the divine necessity of his death and resurrection.  That Jesus will accomplish his exodus from the earthly to the heavenly realm “in Jerusalem” prepares the audience for his journey to the city where the elders, chief priests, and scribes will play their role in his exodus that will lead to his ultimate coming in glory (9:26). 

            Although the three disciples had been overcome with sleep so that they did not hear the conversation about Jesus’ approaching “exodus,” they became wide awake in time to see the glory of the transfigured Jesus and that of Moses and Elijah standing with him (9:32).  That upon awakening they only saw the two men standing with him underlines for the audience that while the three disciples were asleep they failed to hear these same two men talking with him.  That Moses and Elijah were standing with the transfigured Jesus associates his glory with that of these two men, who were likewise appearing in glory (9:31). 

            The narrator tells the audience that Peter did not know what he was saying when he offered that they make a tent for each epiphanic figure.  Peter wants to prepare a dwelling place for each heavenly figure to prolong his epiphanic appearance on earth, and thus to halt and render unnecessary the separation of Moses and Elijah from Jesus that has already begun (9:33).  On analogy with the Tent of Meeting each tent would also provide a place for each heavenly figure to offer divine communication.  But the audience experiences the irony that a heavenly communication, the conversation about Jesus’ “exodus” in Jerusalem (9:31), has already taken place while the three disciples were asleep (9:32). 

            Placing the transfigured Jesus on the same level and in the same category as the heavenly figures of Moses and Elijah implies that perhaps Jesus, despite his previous prediction about the necessity of his suffering and death before resurrection on the third day (9:22), has already or will attain heavenly glory like Moses and Elijah, that is, without being put to death by his people.  Peter does not seem to realize that Jesus will attain the same heavenly glory he now momentarily shares with Moses and Elijah only after he has been put to death as a rejected prophet in Jerusalem. 

            But Peter is interrupted by yet another sudden and unexpected epiphanic appearance as a cloud overshadowed Moses and Elijah, implicitly transporting them back to heaven.  The disciples responded with fear as Moses and Elijah entered into the cloud (9:34).  After Jesus’ baptism God’s voice from heaven told Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased!” (3:22).  But now God tells the three disciples, “This is my chosen Son; to him listen!” (9:35).  This confirms for the audience that the Jesus to whom God gave the holy Spirit at his baptism will also play the role of the Isaianic suffering servant of God. 

            God’s voice from the cloud (9:35) serves as the pivotal mandate that distinguishes Jesus from Moses and Elijah as God’s chosen Son and commands the disciples and the audience to listen to Jesus.  The mandate thus “pivots” them back to the previous teaching of Jesus (8:8, 18), especially his teaching about the necessity for him and his followers to suffer and be put to death (9:21-27) before entering into the heavenly glory of God’s kingdom anticipated by Jesus’ transfiguration.  The pivotal mandatory epiphany concludes with Jesus again alone with the disciples, who kept silent and reported to no one in those days any of the things they had seen (9:36).  Will the disciples and the audience heed the pivotal epiphanic mandate and listen to Jesus in order to understand the way that he and they will attain the heavenly glory anticipated by his transfiguration?  Only by truly listening to Jesus will they be able to break their silence and report in the days to come what they have experienced in the transfiguration epiphany. 

The Lukan Transfiguration and the Subsequent Narrative

The transfiguration’s mandate in Luke, “To him listen!” (9:35), has pivoted the disciples and the audience back to Jesus’ previous pronouncement for them to appropriate into their lives the suffering and death he will undergo before being raised to heavenly glory (9:22-26).  It has also pivoted them forward to the subsequent predictions of the necessity for him to suffer and be put to death as a rejected prophet in Jerusalem (9:44, 51-56; 13:33-35; 18:31-33; 20:9-19; 22:14-23, 39-46; 24:4-7, 25-27, 44-46) as well as for them to spend their lives in selfless, suffering service for others (9:41; 10:39; 22:24-27; 23:35) with the assurance of being raised from the dead (20:27-39) and sharing in the heavenly glory (21:27; 22:69-70; 23:11; 24:26, 51) prefigured by his transfiguration.  Obeying the transfiguration’s mandate to listen especially to Jesus’ passion predictions was necessary so that the risen Jesus could explain to the non-understanding disciples (9:45, 54-55; 18:34; 22:24-27; 24:8-11) the necessity for his suffering and death before entering into the glory (24:25-27, 44-46) anticipated by his transfiguration. 

            The eventual absence of Jesus with his extraordinary healing power, anticipated at his transfiguration, challenges the audience to have the faith to continue the healing mission of Jesus (9:41; cf. 9:1-6; 10:1-9).  That Jesus resolutely set his “face” for the accomplishment of his “exodus” (9:31) in Jerusalem (9:51-53), the same “face” that was temporarily transfigured into glory (9:29), models for the audience the determination they need to undergo suffering and death before attaining heavenly glory (9:22-26).  By attentively listening to the word of Jesus (10:39), Mary is a model of obedience to the transfiguration’s mandate to listen to Jesus (9:35).  By following her example the audience will realize that the words of Jesus call disciples to a selfless service that follows Jesus on the divinely necessary way of his suffering and death (9:21), in order to share in the resurrection to glory (9:22-26) anticipated by his transfiguration. 

            Unlike the rejected prophets Moses and Elijah, the prophet Jesus will not only be rejected but killed by the people of Jerusalem (13:33-34), although he is God’s beloved and chosen Son (20:13; 9:35).  But his transfiguration into heavenly glory (9:29-32) assures the audience that Jesus’ death as a rejected prophet will be vindicated by God raising him (9:22; 20:17), so that he will come again in glory (9:26; 13:35). 

            Jesus’ transfiguration into an angel-like heavenly figure (9:29), which foreshadows his future resurrection from the dead, reinforces for the audience his assertion that those who attain the resurrection of the dead enter into a heavenly existence that transcends earthly categories (20:34-36).  If the audience heeds the transfiguration’s mandate to listen to Jesus (9:35), they will hear that although Jesus, unlike Moses and Elijah, will be put to death, he will surely be raised from the dead like the patriarchs, since God is “not the God of the dead but of the living” (20:38). 

            The transfiguration’s pivotal mandate to listen to Jesus (9:35) directs the audience backward (9:26) and forward (21:27) to pronouncements about Jesus’ future coming in glory, so that they will realize that the transfigured glory of Jesus before his suffering and death is only a preliminary glimpse of his final coming in glory after his suffering, death and resurrection.  It enjoins the audience to listen to the words of Jesus at his last supper in order to understand that his transfiguration into a heavenly figure portends his future partaking of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God that will occur only after his sacrificial death (22:14-20). 

            By following Jesus’ example of prayer (22:39-46) the audience can overcome the temptation not to submit their wills to God’s will that they participate in Jesus’ way of suffering and death before sharing in heavenly glory.  The audience can now pray not only in imitation of but on the strength of Jesus’ prayer.  Just as Jesus gained courage by his prayer and by faith in his ultimate triumph over death (22:69), so the disciples and the audience can gain courage to endure possible suffering and death (21:12-19), in order to share in the heavenly glory presaged by the transfiguration of Jesus. 

            That Herod clothes Jesus in a bright shining garment (23:11) fit for a heavenly being further assures the audience that Jesus will attain the heavenly glory signaled by the dazzling white clothing of his transfiguration (9:29).  By dying on the cross as God’s “chosen one” (23:35; cf. 9:35), Jesus models for the audience his provocative challenge, which the transfiguration’s mandate urged them to heed--”whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (9:24; cf. 23:35). 

            Even after two angelic men revealed Jesus’ resurrection to the women at the tomb, the disciples did not believe the women (24:4-11).  But the risen Jesus himself enabled first the Emmaus disciples (24:25-27, 32) and then the whole group of disciples in Jerusalem (24:44-46) and thus the audience to understand that, now that he has been put to death and accomplished “his exodus” in Jerusalem (9:31), he has entered into the glory (24:26) anticipated by his transfiguration (9:32).  By continuing to heed the transfiguration’s pivotal mandate (9:35) to listen to Jesus’ exhortation to appropriate his suffering and death into their lives (9:22-25), the audience can look forward to sharing in the heavenly glory (24:26) of the risen Jesus when he comes again as the exalted Son of Man (9:26; 21:27).  Indeed, now that Jesus has ascended to heaven (24:51) and rejoined the heavenly Moses and Elijah, the audience no longer needs to keep silent about the things the disciples saw in the transfiguration epiphany (9:36).