All three synoptic Gospels record the transfiguration scene, although none of the three authors was present. Matthew, the only apostle among them, was not one of the three apostles who accompanied Christ on the mount, for he remained with the other apostles at the foot of the mount. John was one of the three on the mount and he may briefly allude to the experience in the prologue of his Gospel, ‘we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father’, John 1. 14. Peter, who was also present, referred more fully to the scene, ‘we… were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount’, 2 Pet. 1. 16-18.
The three synoptic Gospels are so called because they readily admit of being brought under one combined view. Luke’s gospel, however, is distinctive because he recorded incidents and facts not recorded by Matthew and Mark, e.g. the angel’s appearance to Zacharias concerning the birth of John the Baptist; Gabriel’s appearance to Mary concerning the birth of Christ; Mary’s Magnificat; the manger-cradle of Jesus; the appearance of the angel to the shepherds announcing His birth; the stories of Simeon and Anna; the visit of Jesus at twelve years of age to Jerusalem with Joseph and Mary. Compatibly, Luke’s account of the transfiguration has information not given by Matthew and Mark. It is with such that this paper is concerned.
Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not use the word ‘transfigured’. He wrote, ‘the fashion of his countenance was altered’, 9. 29. Just how the alteration in His countenance took place we are left to ponder. It would seem that it was related to the glory He received, unlike that seen on Moses’ face which was reflected, Exod. 34. 29. The word ‘transfigured’ comes from the Greek word from which our English word metamorphosis is derived.
Luke alone states the purpose of Christ’s ascent of the mount, ‘he… went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered’, 9. 28, 29. We believe that ‘prayer changes things’. Did we not, we would be disinclined to pray. Prayer can also change the one who prays. Paul saw, in a thorn in the flesh, an impediment to service for the Lord, and thrice prayed that it might be removed, 2 Cor. 12. 7, 8. But it was not to be; the Lord said, ‘My grace is suflkient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness’. Paul’s attitude to the affliction was changed, ‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me’, 12. 10.
Matthew and Mark record that Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus. Luke alone records the subject of their conversation; they ‘spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem’, 9. 31. ‘Decease’, lit. exodus, is the same word that Peter used to describe his own departure, 2 Pet. 1. 15. Both Moses and Elijah had a remarkable exodus from the world. Moses was uniquely buried by God ‘in the land of Moab’, Deut. 34. 6; Elijah was raptured from earth ‘by a whirlwind into heaven’, 2 Kgs. 2. 11. But they had something more important than their own personal experiences to talk about:-'his (Christ’s) decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem’, for that would be a redemptive exodus on which their own salvation would depend, see Rom. 3.25.
Although both Matthew and Mark noted the presence of Moses and Elijah on the mount, only Luke says that ‘two men… Moses and Elijah… appeared in glory’, 9. 30, 31. The three apostles had not known Moses or Elijah after the flesh, yet they instantly recognized them, v. 33. It is sometimes asked, ‘Will we know one another in heaven?’ That Peter, James and John knew Moses and Elijah would indicate that we will.
Luke alone records that the apostles were ‘heavy with sleep; and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him’, v. 32. It was only when they were fully awake that the wonder of the scene burst upon them. It was not the only time, nor the last time, that they were to fall asleep in privileged circumstances, see Matt. 26. 45. But how different the circumstances! ‘Glory’ on the mount and ‘suffering’ in Gethsemane.
All three synoptic gospels record Peter’s saying ‘it is good for us to be here: let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias’, but only Luke records that it was said ‘as they (i.e. Moses and Elijah) departed from him (Christ)’, v. 33. Peter was too bemused to know what he said, but he wanted to make the scene permanent. It was too good to be dissolved. Earlier he had dismissed Christ’s prediction concerning His suffering and death at Jerusalem as not good. ‘Lord, this shall not be unto thee’, Matt. 16. 22. Yet the transfiguration scene, a preview of kingdom glory, was meant to complement and put the suffering of the cross into perspective, see 1 Pet. 1.11.
All three synoptic Gospels record the phenomenon of the overshadowing cloud., and the Father’s voice proceeding from it, but only Luke records that the apostles ‘feared as they entered into the cloud’, v. 34. The cloud, ‘a bright cloud’, Matt. 17. 5, not only overshadowed, but enveloped them. Peter was later to describe the bright cloud, from which came the Father’s voice, as ‘the excellent glory’, 2 Pet. 1. 17. It was doubtless the same glory cloud, symbolic of God’s presence, that accompanied the Israelites through their wilderness journeyings.
Despite Peter’s wish to fix the transfiguration scene, with Moses and Elijah present, at length ‘Jesus was found alone’, Luke 9. 36. Moses and Elijah could not be accorded equal honour with the Lord, as Peter had suggested. The representatives of the Law and the Prophets must pass from the scene. Only the Representative of grace and truth could remain, ‘Jesus only with themselves’, Mark, 9. 8.