The story of the Transfiguration stands out for a number of reasons. Here are four that I find of interest.
The story contains a unique, dramatic visual effect—a changed facial appearance, dazzling white clothes, and the appearance of two long-dead figures. This is certainly designed to cause people hearing the story to pay attention.
The word Transfiguration is a strange word. It is not often found in common English usage. It’s one of those peculiar church words, that seems to be used only in church circles. Like thee and thy, holy and righteous, sanctification and atonement … and trinity. These words don’t usually pop up in regular usage!
I looked for some helpful synonyms for the word transfiguration, and found these: change, alter, modify, vary, redo, reshape, remodel, transform, convert, renew … and transmogrify. I am not sure whether that last one gets us anywhere nearer to a better understanding, but some of the others are helpful. Transfiguration is about change, adaptation, and taking on a new shape or size or appearance.
One of the other words offered as a synonym was metamorphose; and that caught my eye, because that word comes directly from the Greek word, metamorphidzo, which is used by Mark in his Gospel, when he tells his account of this incident. “After six days, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone; and he was metamorphosed before them” (Mark 9:2). Mark then explains that this metamorphosis was evident in that “his clothes became dazzling white”.
Unfortunately, in the version we have heard today, from Luke’s Gospel, this gets rewritten as “about eight days later, Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a high mountain to pray; and as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed” (Luke 9:28-29). So Luke simplifies the description and adds an explicit mention of the change in appearance of Jesus, before going on to note that his clothes became dazzlingly bright.
Unfortunately, the fancy Greek word has gone from Luke’s account; but the basic story remains exactly the same, and the details about the glowing face and shining clothes are there. This was, indeed, a moment of metamorphosis.
TWO: Son of God
The story also contains a voice, booming forth from the clouds, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”. These words seem, at first hearing, to be quoting Hebrew scripture: perhaps the second Psalm, which praises the King of ancient Israel as the one whom God has begotten; perhaps the song in Isaiah 42, which extols the servant as the one whom God has chosen, or anointed; perhaps the oracle in Deuteronomy 18, which instructs the people to listen carefully to the words of the prophet.
Whatever scripture, or scriptures, are here spoken by the divine voice, making this bold declaration from the cloud, it is clear that God has a special task, a special role, and a special place for Jesus. The words of this heavenly voice link this story back to the opening scenes of the story of the adult period in the life of Jesus, and also to a moment towards the end of that adult life.
At the baptism of Jesus, there is a heavenly voice making this declaration that Jesus was chosen by God to be his son (Luke 3:22). And bookmarking the story of the adult Jesus, towards the end of this time, there is another clear reference to Jesus as Son of God, when he is brought before the Sanhedrin and questioned by the chief priests and scribes (Luke 22:70).
So the voice that is heard on the mountaintop (in Luke 9) actually resonates throughout the whole storyline. Jesus occupies a distinct and special place; an understanding of this characterises the whole of his time as an itinerant prophetic figure in Galilee and then Jerusalem.
THREE: Moses, Elijah, and the Covenant
In Luke’s report, this scene on the mountain top becomes a pointer to the Exodus journey and the new Covenant which Jesus undertakes and effects in Jerusalem. We can see this in the middle of the scene, when Jesus is deep in conversation with his two key conversation partners from the past of Israel, Moses and Elijah.
Moses was the one to whom God gave the Law, as the foundation and guide for the covenant relationship which was established between the Lord God and the chosen people of Israel. Elijah was the one through whose prophetic words God addressed the people of Israel, recalling them from their disobedience and challenging them to recommit to the covenant that God had established with them.
So at the centre of this story, there sits the Covenant: that bonding relationship that contracted God to be the God of Israel, committed to guide and instruct and sustain them; and the people of Israel, throughout the centuries, committed to obedience and trusting fidelity to God throughout all the changes and challenges of their history.
The Covenant which is at the heart of this story is a story about how we relate to God. That is why it is told and retold by the Gospel writers; that is why we recall and repeat the story, each year, in fact, in the pattern of seasons that we follow through the year. It’s as much a story about Jesus, as it is a story about how we are to follow Jesus.
FOUR: a new Exodus
There is another key word in this story that comes from the history of the Covenant that was forged between the people of Israel, and their God. It may have escaped your notice. In fact, the translators of our modern English versions have, quite unhelpfully, done a fine job of obscuring this word. Verse 31 of Luke’s account reads, “they spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem “.
The Greek word which is here translated as “departure” is a word that you will know, even if you know absolutely nothing about Ancient Greek. It is the word exodos. Now that’s a word that resonates with each one of us, surely. Because we know from hearing the stories of the Old Testament, just how important the Exodus was, for the people of Israel. Because it was through the story of the Exodus, that the Covenant between God and Israel emerged.
Indeed, right through into Judaism of the present time, the story of the Exodus has remained central. Every year, at Passover, Jewish people gather, to retell the story and remember the exodus of the people of old, out of Egypt, across the desert, into the land which they believe had been promised to them.
So the conversation between these great figures of Israelite history—Moses the Teacher, Elijah the Tishbite, and Jesus of Nazareth—revolved around the fate that was in store for Jesus when he went to Jerusalem. The end point of the cross is in view, even from this early stage of ministry.
The term which Luke uses to describe the aim of Jesus, in taking leave for his journey to Jerusalem, is far deeper and more significant than what the translators offer us, in the word “departure”. Luke makes it clear that it is the Exodus which is to be effected by Jesus himself, in what takes place in Jerusalem. His entry into Jerusalem will set the fate in store for Jesus. There, his departure from his followers will be his Exodus moment, where the New Covenant, made with all his followers to come, will be sealed.
So this story of Transfiguration is grounded in the covenant relationship between God and humanity, and is expressed by Jesus through his resolute commitment to walking the journey which leads to his death, on the cross, in the capital city, in the shadow of the great temple of the people of Israel. And elsewhere in scripture, that death then becomes interpreted as the means by which a new covenant relationship is established.