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Luke 9:27-36

Lesson Focus Once again, Jesus reveals himself to us as the One who brings about God’s salvation for the world.

Lesson Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand the Old Testament allusions found in the Transfiguration story.

  2. Understand that our understanding of who Jesus is is often clouded by our ideas regarding what salvation should look like.

  3. Be encouraged to embrace the salvation that comes to us through Jesus’ suffering and death.

Catching up on the Story This week, we’re skipping ahead a few chapters to chapter 9 in Luke’s story. Jesus has been moving about the countryside preaching, healing, teaching, and even feeding large crowds. The Pharisees, who are the Jewish religious elite, don’t like Jesus one bit, and they often engage Jesus in arguments, seeking either to test Jesus or trap him in some way so that they might have cause to get rid of him. As any good teacher does, Jesus takes advantage of the conversations he has with the Pharisees, as well as the events of everyday life, to help his followers understand better who he is and what he’s doing.

For their part, the disciples are a bit slow on the uptake. It’s easy to be hard on these men, thinking they’re a little dense, but that’s probably not entirely the case. Just like everyone else that Jesus comes in contact with, they have a lot of unlearning to do about who they think Jesus is and what they think he’s come to do. And more often than not, I think we need to do the same thing.

The Mountain There’s nothing about today’s passage that isn’t strange. In fact, there’s a temptation for me, anyway, to try and explain every little detail to you so that you might fully understand and catch the significance of what’s happening here.But the world of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and Peter is just so far away from us. I’d almost venture to say that it’s virtually hopeless for us to understand what’s happening on this mountain with Jesus. After all, Peter, who has been with Jesus for so long, witnesses the event, and even he can’t truly comprehend the meaning of it all. No, perhaps the best approach to take is to sit with its foreignness awhile, to soak in the mystery of transfiguration, of dazzling white clothing, of the appearance of ancient men before our eyes. So, that’s what we’re going to do.

In Luke’s narrative, it’s been eight days since Jesus had a conversation with his followers about his identity. It’s been eight days since Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, albeit without truly knowing what that means. It’s been eight day since Jesus told his followers that he must suffer and die. I must tell you that absolutely no one, it doesn’t matter what year it is, or on what continent, no one wants to hear that their leader, the one in whom they have placed so much hope for the future, that he’s going to suffer and die. More than that, no one wants to hear that to truly follow this leader, they might be called to suffer and die, too. But that’s what Jesus says. It’s with that backdrop that Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, set out on a little journey by themselves.

Apart from the other disciples, Jesus, and these three men hike up a tall mountain. We could spend some time wondering about where the exact location of this mountain is, but that might be to miss the point. Though, it does bear mentioning that throughout Israel’s history, mountains have been significant. Instead, important things happen on mountains. World-changing things happen on mountains. So there they are the four of them up on the mountain. Luke tells us that the men are on the mountain to pray. If important things happen on mountains, and if, as we’ve learned, important things happen after Jesus’ prayers, well then, what follows must be super important. While Jesus was praying, something happened. Jesus’ face is changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. This is what the other accounts of this event in Matthew and Mark call the “transfiguration.”

Now that’s a funny word, maybe even a strange word. The Greek word that Mark uses is metemorphe, the word from which we get metamorphosis. It can mean either an external change or a complete internal change. We usually associate this word with the caterpillar/butterfly change. But that’s not what’s happening here. Jesus’ nature, his essence, isn’t changing, though his outside appearance is. While Luke doesn’t use this word specifically, the sentiment is the same.

At this moment, Luke wants us to think back to Genesis and the Moses story. After God brings Israel up from Egypt, out from slavery, Moses goes up on a tall mountain and meets with God. And afterward, his face begins to glow, dazzling white. He’s so radiant that he has to cover up his face. So, there we have Jesus, standing atop a high mountain, his appearance has changed, he’s glowing brightly, and his clothes are a bright white, whiter than any clothes refiner could make them. What in the world is going on?

Peter Interrupts It’s not long after Jesus and his follower arrive on the scene that Jesus beings to glow, and Moses and Elijah show up. Unlike Mark’s account, Luke tells us a little of the contents of their glowing conversation. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were speaking of Jesus’ immanent “departure.” Departure is the word we would use in English, but the Greek is telling and helps us understand what Luke believes will result from Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The word Luke uses is the Greek word for “exodus.” If the mountain imagery wasn’t enough, if Moses showing up wasn’t enough, then surely this kind of language is. Luke firmly believes that what Jesus is up to will rival and exceed God’s greatest act of salvation for God’s people, the Exodus from Egypt. Only this time, this new Exodus that Jesus is enacting is for all people, everywhere. It’s at this point that Peter interrupts the conversation. Now, I have no idea how it is that Peter knows it’s those two heroes of the faith, but he does. After all, there weren’t any photographs back then, so he wouldn’t have known what they looked like. Perhaps Peter overhears the three men in their conversation. Maybe he heard Jesus greet Moses and Elijah like they were long-time friends. Maybe Jesus calls them by name as he embraces each man. “Oh, Moses, it’s so good to see you! It’s been so long! How did you stand to live so long? I’ve only been fully God and fully human for 30 years! How do you deal with the smell!” Or maybe Peter just knew that it couldn’t be anyone other than these two. So much of Israel’s hopes dealt with what God had done in the past through Moses. After all, the Exodus was the defining moment of God’s salvation for Israel. Moses had to be included. Elijah had to be there too because Elijah was intimately connected with Israel’s hope for God’s future salvation. It could be no one else. Elijah had to be included. There, in one moment, God’s past salvation and Israel’s hope for future salvation collide.

Can you imagine interrupting a conversation like this?? Two of the most important characters in Israel are there, right before your eyes, along with the person you just confessed to being God’s anointed Messiah, and you decide that you’re going to insert yourself into the conversation? What guts!

Actually, our English translations miss what’s happening with Peter. Verse 5 begins with a boring and plain, “Then.” But the force of the original Greek is more like a verbal reaction rooted in shock and amazement. Peter is just reacting. Peter’s just like that one friend who says stuff without really thinking. We all have friends who don’t know what they’re saying; they just react and blurt things out, and more often than not, they’re either flat wrong or what they’re saying is wildly inappropriate. Unable to fully comprehend what he’s seeing and hearing, Peter says, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The first part of Peter’s statement is painfully obvious. Of course, it’s good that you are there! Jesus wouldn’t have brought you up on this high mountain if it weren’t for a good reason.

Now, the second part of Peter’s interruption isn’t so obvious. Why in the world would he want to make some dwellings? Did he think they’d stay there for a while? While we’ve given Peter a little bit of a hard time about his rash vocalizations, he’s not entirely off with his suggestion to build some small shelters. The Jewish festival of booths was a celebration that looked forward to the end time Sabbath rest. Peter’s put together a few pieces of the puzzle. The end of things is near. God is finally bringing this sabbath rest we’ve all longed for! And he’s excited to be a part of it. Peter’s fear and bewilderment at the sight of the dazzling white Jesus and the two heroes of the faith, Moses, and Elijah, begins to turn to excitement.

Echoing in his ears are the words that Jesus said just eight days ago, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” I can just see the cogs in Peter’s mind working. He’s putting two and two together, and he’s beginning to imagine what the world will look like for him and his fellow Jews now that God’s kingdom is coming. And indeed, this is what Jesus was talking about. Surely he’s one that won’t taste death until he sees God’s kingdom coming in power! It’s coming, and it’s here! Peter thinks to himself.

The Cloud and the Voice It’s funny that Jesus never says a word in this passage, not directly anyway. Though I suspect that if he had, he would have told Peter to sit down and be quiet because he has no idea what he’s talking about. “Oh, hush up!” Then, all of a sudden, a cloud descended upon the mountain and covered them all. Maybe that’s God’s way of telling Peter to be quiet! In reality, it’s another illusion to Moses on the mountain after the Exodus. For Israel, God is almost always present in the cloud. As the cloud surrounds them, a voice boom loud and clear, “This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him!”

We’ve already heard these words, at least some of them, once at Jesus’ baptism. Though then, we’re not sure anyone other than Jesus heard them. Now, though, Jesus hears them, and so do Peter, James, and John. They seem meant only for those three fellows. Of course, we get the revelation once again that Jesus is God’s son, his beloved and chosen son. There is no other. Jesus is it. Then comes the command, “Listen to him!” It’s not just a call to hear the words that Jesus says, but to follow and conform to what Jesus says. Hear and obey; that’s what God is saying to Peter, James, and John.

Certainly God knows how confused Peter and the others are. The last few years with Jesus have been hard to digest, let alone the last few moments. If Peter and the others are to truly follow Jesus, they’re going to need to pay relatively close attention to what it is that Jesus says to do.

Be Quiet As quickly as it all began, it ended. God’s voice booms loud and clear, proclaiming that Jesus is his beloved chosen son and that we should listen to him. Then, the cloud is gone, and so are Moses and Elijah. And Jesus has returned to his usual self.

I’m sure that Peter and the others sit there for a moment in stunned disbelief. What in the world just happened? James turns to Peter and scolds him for foolishly interrupting Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah.

After a bit, the four men leave the mountain top to rejoin the rest of the group. As they’re walking down the mountain, Peter, James, and John are shaking their heads in disbelief, trying to make sense of it all.

So What? I imagine that after this experience, there’s a lingering question in Peter’s mind, Who is Jesus? Every time Peter thinks he’s got a good handle on who Jesus is and what Jesus will do next, he finds out he’s wrong. He certainly knew that Jesus is the messiah, but then Jesus calls him satan because Peter urges Jesus to be God’s messiah in a way that would be unfaithful. Peter was right about Jesus in connecting him with the significance of Moses and Elijah, but clearly, he doesn’t understand what it means for God’s kingdom to come in power.Yes, I’m sure that Peter keeps asking himself, “Just who is this Jesus?” Why must he suffer and die? Messiahs don’t die.

I think that’s the key to understanding this strange event. Peter wants, we want, salvation that comes through power, not salvation that comes through suffering. Peter gets all excited because he thinks that God’s kingdom is coming in power the way that he understands power. God’s kingdom will not come about through the power of armies or violence but through the power of suffering love. But Jesus knows that the only way to understand the kind of power that Jesus talks about is by first experiencing Jesus’ suffering and death.

As long as we want to conquer life and our enemies through power, through the sheer force of will or coercion, we’ll never, ever be able to see who it is that Jesus is. It’s why we’re going to spend so much time preparing ourselves for Good Friday. It’s why we’re going to gather on Good Friday and narrate Jesus’ death because we can’t understand the resurrection; we can’t understand the power of God’s love until we first journey through Christ’s suffering.

Specific Discussion Questions Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Why do you think Jesus only takes Peter, James, and John with him on the mountain?

  2. What do you hope Jesus thought the three would learn from what was about to happen?

  3. How might what Jesus says in verses 18-27 shape how Jesus hoped his followers would perceive his transfiguration?

  4. What Old Testament allusion might we find in this story?

  5. Why would Moses and Elijah be the ones to appear at Jesus’ transfiguration?

  6. What do you think the conversation was like between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah?

  7. Why does Peter offer to make “dwellings” for the three men?

  8. In verse 34, Luke describes a cloud descending and engulfing the group. To what might this be an allusion?

  9. Where have we heard words from God that are similar to those spoken in verse 35?

  10. Why might this encounter have been important for Jesus’ followers? Why might it be important for us?

  11. How is this episode connected with Jesus’ insistence that he is going to suffer and die? What might that mean for us?