Luke 9:28-36, The Transfiguration of Our Lord

[February 10, 2013] The vision that the disciples had, in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, of the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus is the closing meditation of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany began with the Parthian magi coming to honor the child King within the kingdom of Herod, who was a client king of the Roman emperor. Then, when Jesus was grown, He was manifested at His baptism when the heavens opened and the anointing Spirit came upon Him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven announced, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I have found My delight.” Epiphany now ends with Jesus on one of the slopes of Hermon when a cloud formed and overshadowed Him and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”

In Matthew the voice repeats what was said at His baptism, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I have found My delight,” with the same addition, “Listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:5). Mark has a shortened version: “This is My Son, the Beloved, listen to Him!” (Mark 9:7). The Byzantine text of Luke reads the same as Mark, though the Byzantine text-form is replete with evidence of polishing. “My Beloved, in Whom I have found My delight” and “My Chosen” are equivalent in Isaiah 42:1, though on the face of it they do not mean the same thing. In any case, “My Chosen” marks Jesus as God’s Elect One; His being God’s Beloved and the One in Whom God has found His delight is both the basis and the evidence of it. Both expressions identify Jesus as the Servant of the Lord in Second Isaiah: “Behold, My Servant, Whom I uphold; My chosen One in Whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the gentiles” (Isaiah 42:1).

This event marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From now on He sets His face to go to Jerusalem (9:51) for the last time. It therefore marks the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. The long teaching section of the Gospel according to Luke takes place as Jesus travels to Jerusalem. The Galilean ministry ended with Jesus taking the disciples out of Galilee (though not in Luke’s account) and Peter confessing that Jesus is the Messiah (the Anointed One) of God (Luke 9:20), after which Jesus revealed for the first time the suffering that He must go through in Jerusalem (9:22). He also revealed that the disciples too must “take up [their] cross daily and follow Me,” that they must “lose [their] soul for My sake” if they would save it (9:23-25). The transfiguration of Jesus takes place eight days (according to Luke) after this, when He said that some of those standing there would “see the kingdom of God” (9:27). The transfiguration was a vision of the kingdom of God.

Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus about His departure which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. The word for departure is exodos (Exodus). Perhaps this is a reference to His becoming the Passover, liberating the slaves from their bondage in Egypt, His giving the Law, and constructing the tabernacle as the dwelling place of God: atonement, deliverance from the world, the giving of the Spirit (the new creation and the law of the Spirit), and the birthing of the church.

The cloud that forms and overshadows Jesus and the three disciples brings us back to the Book of Exodus. There YHWH leads the people in a pillar of cloud by day (Exodus 13:21-22), a cloud that also protected them and lit up at night (14:19-20). The glory of YHWH appeared in a cloud (16:10); and His presence on Sinai was signified by smoke and a thick cloud that covered the mountain (19:16; 24:15, 16, 18). When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would stand at the entrance (33:9-10). When Moses ascended the mountain with the new stone tablets, YHWH descended in the cloud to him and stood there with him when he called on the Name of YHWH and YHWH passed by in front of him and proclaimed His Name (34:5). It was on this occasion that, when Moses descended, “the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with [God]” (34:29). The cloud also covered the tabernacle when the glory of YHWH filled it (Exodus 40:34; Numbers 9:15) and settled on it until it was time to move the tabernacle (Exodus 40:35-37; Numbers 9:16-22); and when they were en route, the cloud would be over the people leading them (Numbers 10:34). The cloud also appeared over the mercy-seat, the cover of the ark of the covenant housed in the Holy of Holies, the innermost room of the tabernacle (Leviticus 16:2).

The same cloud filled the Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem when its construction was completed, filling the house with the glory of YHWH (1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chronicles 5:13-14). In a vision Ezekiel also saw the cloud and the brightness of YHWH’s glory leave the Temple, riding the cherubim (Ezekiel 10).

It is this same cloud—the cloud of God’s glory—that formed and overshadowed Jesus and the disciples on the mountain, as if Jesus were Moses in the presence of YHWH, or a new Temple. The shema (“listen to Him”) spoke by the voice identifies Jesus with the oneness of God; He is not only the Temple, but that which the ark of YHWH signifies. He is the mercy-seat overshadowed by the wings of the cherubim and the cloud. Moreover, unlike Moses, His face shone before the voice spoke to Him out of the cloud.

Jesus was on the mountain praying when the appearance of His face became different and His clothing became white and gleaming. This took place before the cloud overshadowed them. Matthew says His face shone like the sun and His garments became as white as light; Mark says that His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. For a comparison, the resurrected Jesus appears to Saul in a light from heaven brighter than the sun (Acts 26:13). John also had a vision of Jesus in heaven, albeit a composite vision, but one in which “His face was like the sun shining in its strength” (Revelation 1:13-16). What all these accounts have in common is light. In the transfiguration His face and His clothing shine. His heavenly nature is “leaking out” into the earthly; what is normally invisible is becoming visible. The presence of Moses and Elijah, one of whom was assumed into heaven after death (Jude 9) and the other of whom was taken into heaven while still alive, indicate the heavenly place that was shining through in Jesus’ transfiguration; these two individuals were not in Hades where the rest of the dead are (excluding certain other individuals; for example, Enoch). Heaven is the angelic realm, present alongside us but normally invisible. What is the significance of this with respect to Jesus’ transfiguration?

For one thing, it indicates that the transfiguration that was to happen at His ascension, when He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, was the reality of the present moment, though hidden. He did not have to “ascend” into heaven; He was already there, even before the accomplishment of His death and the resurrection. The Jesus who normally appeared as any other man was also this other One; it was just that “normally” He emptied Himself of His inherent glory (Philippians 2:7). Normally He wore a veil, figuratively speaking, as Moses literally did when he spoke to the people (Exodus 34:33-35).

Was Jesus a heavenly being in human form? Is the Son of God merely a heavenly being, second in command perhaps? Was He human in appearance only, that is, not really human? This was the opinion of the Docetists, the Gnostics and the Arians. Or was it the other way around? The vision was merely symbolic of Jesus’ human significance? This is a typical modern view. The question cannot be answered from this passage alone. The church—expressed by the ecumenical decrees of the first millennium—does not accept either of these views.

Did Jesus physically shine—something measurable—or did He shine only in the vision of the disciples (Matthew 17:9)? This question is probably besides the point, for if He shone physically, it only symbolized a different kind of shining. According to the church, He shone with the uncreated light of God. It was, in fact, His own divinity, the divinity of the divine nature shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that shone through His humanity. This light cannot be seen by the eye; it is the light of Spirit, but not of created spirit, namely consciousness, but of the Spirit where there is no duality of consciousness and matter, the Spirit that is their source and ground. We see only matter and surmise consciousness; God “sees” both, without dualism. But the light of God is more than that; it is the shining forth of eternity and ubiquity and holiness and righteousness and mercy and wisdom and love and freedom and all the perfections that we attribute to the divine being; it is our becoming conscious of that to whatever degree we do—if we do, by the gift of God.

The humanity of Jesus was the humanity of God. The Son of God (who is God in all respects; in divinity the same as the Father) took on human nature as His own nature. If Jesus’ stomach growled from hunger, it was God’s stomach growling. And when He metabolized food, it was God doing so. When His mind struggled to understand something, it was God struggling. This was what “shone forth” for the three disciples. The humanity of Jesus, which was no different than our own, was nevertheless God’s own—that is, that of the Person of God in the Son.

The Apollinarian heresy is to say that Jesus was human in His body but His soul was not human; it was divine. His exterior was human but His interior was divine. One could also say His body and soul were human but His spirit was divine. Either way, it does not matter. The church’s teaching is that He was entirely human and that His human body was as divine as His human soul and spirit. This One was also entirely divine.

In the resurrection, however, a change came over His humanity. Not only was it the humanity of the Person of the Son of God; His humanity now participated—retroactively!—in the divine nature. There was complete “intercommunication of properties.” His human nature was still what human nature was before, but it became divinized, that is, while being limited, it was also unlimited. What is localized is at the same time ubiquitous; what is temporal is also eternal (simultaneous or present with all times, past and future). This became true not only with the humanity that rose from the dead, but it became true of the humanity of Jesus since His conception. This divinization, this mutual participation of His two natures in each other meant that His humanity is participated in by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—which means that the humanity of Jesus is communicable to us through the Holy Spirit. His divinized humanity “became” the Holy Spirit in the sense that the Holy Spirit communicates it to us when She communicates Herself. So not only do we know Jesus Person-to-person, but we share His divinized human nature through the Holy Spirit (made possible to us through His atoning death).

Rowan Williams put it this way, “When the crucified Son is raised from the dead, we understand that the sacrifice lived by Jesus and consummated in the cross is an abiding reality, an indestructible life and an inexhaustible gift” (H.R. McAdoo and Kenneth Stevenson’s The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Anglican Tradition, page ix—Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 1995).

But that takes us a step away from the transfiguration, which took place before the resurrection. Let’s return. In the transfiguration, the disciples became conscious of the divine Person who is the human being Jesus. The shining forth of His divinity was that, but it was also an anticipation of what was to come; the transfiguration of His humanity in resurrection. And insofar as it was an anticipation of His resurrection, it was an anticipation of our own transfiguration and therefore of the kingdom of God.

For, the point of our knowing about Jesus is not simply so that we may worship Him, as wonderful as that is. The point is that the Son of God became incarnate, and the created-ness of the Incarnate One became divinized in the resurrection, so that the creation itself may become divinized in Him. He became what we are (created) so that we (the creation) might become what He is (divine). The kingdom of God is this process. It takes place in Jesus; He is the kingdom of God. But then through the Holy Spirit we start to become what He is. After the open manifestation of the revelation of Jesus Christ (this who-He-is), the ages will roll in which the creation participates more and more in the divine nature, until in the end “all things are headed up in Christ,” and “He becomes all in all,” or the entire creation itself becomes conscious and becomes what He is. In the incarnation and resurrection, the divine Person of the Son takes on created-ness so that His divine nature and the nature of creation each share what they are with the other; in the end the persons of the creation take on the divine nature so that our created nature and the nature of divinity each share what they are—entirely—with the other.

In other words, what the disciples see in Jesus is their own future in the kingdom of God.

Let me take this one step further. If we, as creatures, are to one day be divinized, then, like in the case of Jesus, the divinization of our nature will take place retroactively. There is a mysterious way in which the creation is already divinized. If what we are will one day become eternal, then it is already so, though we cannot apprehend it. The disciples saw it when they saw Jesus, though He was not yet resurrected. It was given to them in a vision. It was as if they were seeing the past (their present) from the perspective of the future. If we could see ourselves in the same way, we would realize that our salvation is already realized (“realized eschatology”). We cannot see this in a straightforward way, but perhaps in a moment of mystical awareness we can see something from the point of view of the realized future. Then creation would shine for us with its true beauty; we would see through the veil of temporality and see its temporality (its temporality would not disappear) in the light of eternity. We would see the absolute goodness of creation; things that now we abhor would become precious.

I am not ignoring our sin. Between one and the other stands the cross. But this is the subject of Lent.

In the light of our salvation in Christ, I reject any Docetism that would disparage the human body or the wildness of nature in favor of some human ideal that does not even exist (except as a construct, an ideation of the mind), even if we give it the name “spirit.”

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