“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
– Luke 9:29, NRSV
What did the Transfiguration mean to Jesus?
Often, when we approach Bible stories like this we ask what the event being portrayed means to us, and for us. We would do well to remember that there is an Actor in the center of every scene in the Gospels, and it is not our place to steal the attention away from him. So with this story. It is about Jesus, not about us, and it offers one of the best opportunities to get over ourselves that I know.
When Lent begins this week, we might well remember that. Let’s get over ourselves, OK?
The Transfiguration story is told in the context of Peter confessing Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah and Jesus foretelling his death and the cruciform path both he and his followers must take (9:18-27). So we know that Jesus is now focused upon the Cross.
This must have weighed heavily on him, for both the confession and Transfiguration narratives begin with the observation that Jesus was engaged in prayer. As he turned toward Jerusalem and began making his way toward his gruesome destiny, we see him spending significant moments praying. The Transfiguration event, in fact, took place while Jesus was offering up petitions and supplications to God.
Luke alone tells us that Jesus was praying, and he is also the only author who tells us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discussed on the mountain that day. In 9:31 we read that they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” They were talking about his death. In Greek, Luke uses the word exodus here, with all its rich imagery of Passover, of lambs slain and blood spilt and wiped on door frames, of slaves freed from bondage and life preserved from the Angel of Death.
That is the main scene in this Transfiguration story: Jesus in prayer, being transfigured, and talking with Moses and Elijah about his coming Passion. The rest of the account highlights the disciples’ disorientation and incomprehension of what was taking place. But the momentary comedy of their fumbling attempts to take it all in is overwhelmed when God thunders from heaven for them to shut up and listen to Jesus.
Listen to him!
Listen to the One who is telling you about the Cross! the Exodus to come!
In other words, the story ends with what we said at the beginning of this lesson: It’s time to forget about ourselves and focus on Jesus. His glory. His heart. His prayers. His words. His place in history. His Cross.
Luke shows us that the Transfiguration was not simply about some great experience the disciples had, witnessing Jesus’ glory. That’s what we want to talk about because the scene so impresses us. But for Jesus it was about what was coming down the road. It was about a burden so heavy that it moved him to constant prayer. It was about an event that would bring ancient prophecies and promises to pass, that linked Moses and Elijah and the salvation of the world together in the sufferings he must endure in his own body.
Glory in the shape of a Cross.