Background: Luke may have written “an orderly account” but this does not mean that it is simple in its structure, or that one can understand it with a cursory reading. The narrative/theological structure of the Gospel is rich and complex, and the Transfiguration is one of the most important elements in Luke’s structure. An attempt to adequately present the background here is both beyond my capabilities and my available time, and so I will merely note that the broader context of the Transfiguration is Luke 5:1-9:50, and point out some connections between the first several episodes of this context and then move on to present my notes on Luke 9:28b-36.
Luke 5:1-9:50 opens with an epiphany story which focuses on Simon (Peter), his response to Jesus’ word, the promise of his future mission, and the following of Jesus by Simon (Peter) James and John [see Luke 5:1-11]. This relates to the transfiguration [Luke 9:28-36] which is also an epiphany story, with the same four characters, and a focus on Jesus’ word [Luke 9:35]. This is immediately followed by the healing of a leper [Luke 5:12-16], an event that highlights Jesus fidelity to the Law given through Moses [Ex 19-20] and ardently defended by Elijah [1 Kings 18-19], both of whom will appear at the Transfiguration. There then follows a series of confrontations, and questions relating to Jesus authority [Luke 5:17-26], followed by events relating to the interpretation of the Law of Moses, and it’s practice/observance [Luke 5:27-6:11]. These confrontations foreshadow our Lord’s death, and the cross the disciples will have to bear as well. This also helps prepare for the Transfiguration, which is immediately preceded by the first passion prediction, and the demand that the disciples carry their cross daily [Luke 9:22-27].
These questions and confrontations regarding the Law and piety pit Jesus (and by implication) the disciples against the Jewish leaders. It is against this background that Jesus chooses twelve from among his disciples [Luke 6:12-16]. The significance of this is hinted at by the naming of Simon Peter first, who had been promised some sort of mission earlier in the Gospel [Luke 5:10], as we noted above. Here again preparation is being made for the immediate context of the transfiguration, for at the beginning of chapter 9 we see that the twelve are sent out on a mission [Luke 9:1-6].
Having established twelve men through whom he will continue to teach and act with authority [see Lk 9:1; Acts 1:1], Jesus begins to minister to a great multitude of people, both Jews and Pagans (Tyre and Sidon) [Lk 6:17-20], giving us some indication of what he meant when he defined his mission in reference to Elijah, who had been sent to a woman of Sidon, and in reference to Elisha’s healing of a Syrian [see Lk, 4:16-30]. It is against this backdrop that Jesus delivers his teaching on morality and piety [Lk 6:20-49]. Again, this relates to the Transfiguration and its command to “listen” to Jesus as Moses and Elijah recede out of sight. Jesus’ authority surpasses that of the Law’s mediator, Moses, and its greatest defender, Elijah. The teaching authority within Judaism pales in comparison, and it will be replaced [see Lk 20:9-19].
Jesus had demanded that we love our enemies [Lk 6:27-36], and it is against this background that he heals the Pagan Roman Centurion’s servant [Lk 7:1-10], recognizing his faith. This healing is immediately followed by an act of mercy towards a fellow Jew, emphasizing that earlier healing of a Roman “enemy” and again recalling the mention of Elijah and Elisha mentioned above. It is no accident then the the Transfiguration, with its command to “listen” to Jesus, is followed by the command that we are not to oppose those who are open to Jesus even though they are not a part of our company [Lk 9:49-50]. As the old adage has it: you attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
Hearing of Jesus’ sermon on the plain, his openness to Gentiles, and his ability to raise the dead produced some questions in the mind of the imprisoned Baptist. He had presented Jesus as a fiery Prophet (NOT THE MESSIAH) sent in judgment (Lk 3:15-18), but the reality turned out to be rather different. Jesus himself identifies John as fulfilling the Elijah prophecy of Malachi 3:1, 23-24 (Mal 3:1 & Mal 4:5 in some translations). The Baptist may have been the greatest of the prophets (Lk 7:26-28), but even his knowledge is not on a par with the Son we should listen to.
Concerning the Transfiguration in Luke the Catholic Commentary On Holy Scripture states: As Lagrange says, it is impossible to read the Gospel without seeing the relation of this scene to the parallel scene in Gethsemani: ‘they stand in opposition to one another like strophe and antistrophe, but the Transfiguration serves as a sure pledge of Christ’s future glory, while Gethsemani shows him to us in the lowest depths of human abasement’. The incident must be joined with the prediction of the Passion; these predictions always end (except in Lk_9:44b) with a promise of resurrection, and it is the glory of the risen Christ that is foreshadowed in the Transfiguration. The chief additions in Lk are characteristic: our Lord is again at prayer while the events begin to happen (cf. Lk 3:21); his Passion is the subject of his conversation with Moses and Elias, who like Jesus (Lk 9:32) appear in glory; the disciples are heavy with sleep as at Gethsemani; it is only when Moses and Elias are on the point of departure that Peter breaks in with his suggestion.
It’s no accident that the Transfiguration scene follows immediately upon the first Passion prediction and the teaching on discipleship which follows (Lk 9:18-27).
Luk 9:28 (H)e took Peter and James and John and went up into a mountain to pray.
Today’s reading is identified as beginning at Lk 9:28b, the “b” identifying the second half of the verse as the starting point. The verse actually begins: “It came to pass about eight days after these words…” which connects the transfiguration with what was narrated in Lk 9:10 and following. The non-appearance of the words in the lectionary reading is a reminder that the liturgical readings are designed to be seen in relation to one or more of the other readings of the day, and not as the basis for a formal study of the Gospel itself.
The reference to our Lord and the three Apostles recalls the narrative of Lk 5:1-11 where Peter is told he will be catching men and, as a result, he, along with James and John, follow Jesus. In the Second Epistle of Peter the Transfiguration is presented as a kind of Apostolic commissioning (2 Pet 1:16-21). In addition, these three are the first to be named Apostles (along with Andrew) in Lk 6:12-16; an event also associated with the prayer of Jesus on a mountain.
The same three disciples were privileged to see the raising of Jarius’ daughter (see Lk 8:40-56, especially vs 51), an event that comes right before the naming of the twelve Apostles.
Commenting on the Transfiguration taking place on a mountain Remigius, commenting on the text of Matthew writes: Remig.: When the Lord was about to shew His disciples the glory of His brightness, He led them into the mountain, as it follows, “And he took them up into a high mountain apart.” Herein teaching, that it is necessary for all who seek to contemplate God, that they should not grovel in weak pleasures, but by love of things above should be ever raising themselves towards heavenly things; and to shew His disciples that they should not look for the glory of the divine brightness in the gulph of the present world, but in the kingdom of the heavenly blessedness. He leads them apart, because the saints are separated from the wicked by their whole soul and devotion of their faith, and shall be utterly separated in the future; or because many are called, but few chosen. It follows, “And he was transfigured before them.”
Luk 9:29 And whilst he prayed, the shape of his countenance was altered and his raiment became white and glittering.
Important events in Luke often take place after or within the context of prayer. Jerome concerning the change in our Lord’s appearance: Such as He is to be in the time of the Judgment, such was He now seen of the Apostles.
Whereas Matthew speaks of the Lord’s μεταμορφώθη (metamorphoō = Transfigured), Luke uses the term ἐγένετο ἕτερον “was altered.” The Protestant reference work Vine’s Word Study gives a common reason for this difference: In classical Greek very indefinite as an expression of color; being used, not only of the whiteness of the snow, but of gray dust. Its original sense is clear. All three evangelists use the word, but combined with different terms. Thus, Matthew, as the light. Mark, στίλβοντα, glistering (see on Mark 9:3). Luke, ἐξαστράπτων (only here in New Testament), flashing as with the brilliance of lightning. Rev., dazzling. (“Rev” indicates the Revised Version.)
The Protestant Commentary Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown: Matthew says, “His face did shine as the sun” (Matt 17:2), and Mark says (Mark 9:3), “His raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller on earth can white them” (Mark 9:3). The light, then, it would seem, shone not upon Him from without, but out of Him from within; He was all irradiated, was in one blaze of celestial glory. What a contrast to that “visage more marred than men, and His form than the sons of men!” (Isa 52:14).
The glory of Christ on this occasion is often seen as a foreshadowing of the glory the saints will enjoy in heaven, as the Gloss states: (The) raiment of Christ shadows out the saints, of whom Esaias (Isaiah) says, “With all these shalt thou clothe thee as with a garment;” [Isa 49:18] and they are likened to snow because they shall be white with virtues, and all the heat of vices shall be put far away from them.
They spoke of his decrease. Vine’s Word Study: The Rev. retains the word of the A. V., though it has, to modern ears, a somewhat formal sound. No word, however, could more accurately represent the original, which is compounded of ἐξ, out of, and ὁδός, a journeying; and thus corresponds to the Latin decessus, a going away, whence the word decease. The Greek word is familiar to us as exodus, applied principally to the migration of the Hebrews from Egypt, and thus used at Heb_11:22, departing. In the mouth of Christ it covers the ideas both of death and ascension. Peter uses it of his own death (2 Pet 1:15, where see note).
Moses and Elias (Elijah) embodying the Law and the Prophets. The Haydock Commentary quoting St Cyril states: Moses and Elias, by ministering to our Lord in his glory, shewed him to be the Lord of both the Old and New Testament. The disciples also, upon seeing the glory of their fellow-creatures, would be filled with admiration at the condescension of their divine Master; and considering the delights of future happiness, be stirred up to a holy emulation of those who had laboured before them, and be fortified in their ensuing conflicts; for nothing so much lightens the present labour, as the consideration of the future recompense. (St. Cyril).
St John Chrysostom links the appearance of these two figures to the question of Jesus Identity which precedes and is closely related to the Transfiguration. See Luke 9:19; Matt16:14; Mark 8:28. There are inane reasons why these should appear. The first is this; because the multitudes said He was Elias, or Jeremias, or one of the Prophets, He here brings with Him the chief of the Prophets, that hence at least may be seen the difference between the servants and their Lord.
Luk 9:32 But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep. And waking, they saw his glory and the two men that stood with him.
Theophylact writes: While Christ is engaged in prayer, Peter is heavy with sleep, for he was weak, and did what was natural to man; as it is said, But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep. But when they awake, they behold His glory, and the two men with Him; as it follows, And when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him. It’s not hard to see an allusion to the scene in Gethsemane (Lk 22:39-46).
St Thomas Aquinas admirably summarizes a number of points concerning the theological context of the Transfiguration, linking it to the Lord’s suffering and the demands of disciplehip: Our Lord, after foretelling His Passion to His disciples, had exhorted them to follow the path of His sufferings (Mt 16:21-28; Mk 8:31-38; Lk 9:22-27 ). Now in order that anyone go straight along a road, he must have some knowledge of the end: thus an archer will not shoot the arrow straight unless he first see the target. Hence Thomas said (Jn 14:5): “Lord, we know not whither Thou goest; and how can we know the way?” Above all is this necessary when hard and rough is the road, heavy the going, but delightful the end. Now by His Passion Christ achieved glory, not only of His soul, which He had from the first moment of His conception, but also of His body; according to Luke (Lk 24:26): “Christ ought [Vulg.: ‘ought not Christ’] to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory (?).” To which glory He brings those who follow the footsteps of His Passion, according to Acts 14:21: “Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.” Therefore it was fitting that He should show His disciples the glory of His clarity (which is to be transfigured), to which He will configure those who are His; according to Philippians 3:21 “(Who) will reform the body of our lowness configured [Douay: ‘made like’] to the body of His glory.” Hence Bede says on Mark 8:39: “By His loving foresight He allowed them to taste for a short time the contemplation of eternal joy, so that they might bear persecution bravely.” (Summa Theologica III Qu.45 a.1)
Luk 9:33 And it came to pass that, as they were departing from him, Peter saith to Jesus: Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses; and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.
The Haydock Commentary quoting St John Damascene and Titus Bostrensis: It is good for us. It is not good, O Peter, for Christ to remain always. Should he have remained there, the promise he had made thee would never have been fulfilled. Thou wouldst never have obtained the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the reign of death would not have been destroyed. Seek not for joys before the time, as Adam sought to be made like God. The time will come, when thou shalt for eternity behold him, and reign with him who is life and light. (Damasus, Orat. de Transfigurat. Domini.) — Three tabernacles. The Lord does appoint thee the builder, not of tabernacles, but of his whole Church. Thy disciples, thy sheep, have fulfilled thy desire, by erecting tabernacles for Christ and his faithful servants. These words of St. Peter, let us make, &c. were not spoken of himself, but by the prophetic inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Therefore it is added, he knew not what he said. (Damasus, Orat. de Transfigurat. Domini.) — St. Peter knew not what he said, because by proposing to make three tabernacles for these three personages, he improperly ranked together, the servants and their Lord, the creature and the Creator. (Titus Bostrensis).
Peter, it appears, attempts to put our Blessed Lord on the same level as Moses and Elijah, a fine place for any other man to be, but Christ is the Father’s Son, His chosen One (Lk 9:35). His words come as they (Moses and Elijah) were departing. Does this imply that his suggestion regarding the three tabernacles was intended to make this situation of glory last? If so we see that Peter still has not yet grasped the fact that Christ must accomplish his decease (exodus) in Jerusalem (Lk 9:31). Peter is thus still thinking the thoughts of man rather than the thoughts of God (see Mt 16:23). As the next verses indicate, God has other thoughts.
Luk 9:34 And as he spoke these things, there came a cloud and overshadowed them. And they were afraid when they entered into the cloud.
Luk 9:35 And a voice came out of the cloud; saying: This is my beloved son. Hear him.
A Catholic Commentary On Holy Scripture: The cloud comes as if in answer to Peter’s words, here as elsewhere signifying the divine presence; he had suggested making shelters and the divine cloud covers them. God now enters on the scene and speaks as he spoke with Moses on Sinai about the Law, of which Christ is the end; Gal 3:24; cf.Ex 19.9:9 ff. 35. MS authority is divided between ‘beloved’ (only) and ‘elect’. The former looks like a borrowing from Mk and Mt or from Lk 3:22. ‘Elect’ is a traditional Jewish Messianic title; cf. Lk 23:35 and Isa 42:1. The relation between the Transfiguration and the Confession of Peter is emphasized here by the similar command of silence (implied in Lk, explicitly stated in Mk and Mt) with which they both conclude.
Theophylact: But while Peter spoke, our Lord builds a tabernacle not made with hands, and enters into it with the Prophets. Hence it is added, While he thus spoke there came a cloud and overshadowed them, to show that He was not inferior to the Father. For as in the Old Testament it was said, the Lord dwelt in the cloud, so now also a cloud received our Lord, not a dark cloud, but bright and shining.
Protestant Commentator Matthew Henry: It is here added, concerning the cloud that overshadowed them, that they feared as they entered into the cloud. This cloud was a token of God’s more peculiar presence. It was in a cloud that God of old took possession of the tabernacle and temple, and, when the cloud covered the tabernacle, Moses was not able to enter (Ex 40:34, Ex 40:35), and, when it filled the temple, the priests could not stand to minister by reason of it, 2 Chron5:14. Such a cloud was this, and then no wonder that the disciples were afraid to enter into it. But never let any be afraid to enter into a cloud with Jesus Christ; for he will be sure to bring them safely through it.
Luk 9:36 And whilst the voice was uttered Jesus was found alone. And they held their peace and told no man in those days any of these things which they had seen.
St Ambrose: They then departed, when our Lord’s manifestation had begun. There are three seen at the beginning, one at the end; for faith being made perfect, they are one. Therefore are they also received into the body of Christ, because we also shall be one in Christ Jesus; or perhaps, because the Law and the Prophets came out from the Word.
Theophylact: Now those things which began from the Word, end in the Word. For by this he implies that up to a certain time the Law and the Prophets appear, as here Moses and Elias; but afterwards, at their departure, Jesus is alone. For now abides the Gospel, legal things having passed away.