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Every time I come to this passage a particular American commercial rings in my ears. It has various versions, but one of them is a scene of people sitting in the stands at a tennis match, their heads turning to and fro in unison, following the progress of the tennis ball during the point. Then a man in the stands turns to his friend and says, "My broker works for E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says . . ." Suddenly every head stops and everyone leans in to hear the financial advice. The closing line of the ad is "When E. F. Hutton talks, everybody listens."
That is very much the feel of the transfiguration, except that in this scene the call to listen comes at two levels. There is the divine voice, which stops all discussion between the disciples and Jesus, and there is the central instruction to listen to Jesus. The point in both cases is that instruction is needed, because the path Jesus walks is unexpected. If disciples are to understand that walk and follow in its footsteps, they will need to listen to him.
This event is so significant that 2 Peter 2:16-21 comments upon it. The disciples come to preview Jesus' majestic glory, but they also are told to be quiet for a time until they understand what God is doing through Jesus.
Luke locates this event about eight days after Peter's confession, which associates the event and its proclamation with Jesus' remarks about discipleship. When the call to listen to Jesus comes, the statements about discipleship are especially in view.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John along as he goes up onto a mountain to pray. We are not told why only this inner circle is present. But as Jesus prays, his appearance changes. Luke highlights two details: the changing of his face and of his garments. Luke does not use the Greek verb metamorphoo, "to transform," for he wishes to avoid confusion with the Hellenistic picture of the epiphany of a god and its suggestive polytheism. Nonetheless, this is a transformation, not a vision. By describing Jesus' clothes as bright, Luke makes associations with the glory of God's presence as in Exodus 34:29-35 (the Greek has no mention of lightning in this context, unlike the NIV). In fact, much in the account suggests imagery of the second Moses, such as the allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15 in the words of the heavenly voice, but the fact that booths for Elijah and Moses would be inadequate tells us that this connection does not exhaust the event's meaning. Jesus is the bearer of a new order and more.
The presence of Elijah and Moses has been much discussed (see Stein 1992:284). (1) Do they represent the different kinds of life endings (burial versus being taken up to God; Thrall 1970:305-17)? (2) Is their presence an indication of endorsement by great prophets and wonderworkers of old (L. T. Johnson 1991:153)? (3) Or is it a contrast between the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah; so Stein 1992:284)? (4) Or is it that Moses points to the prophet like Moses, while Elijah suggests the eschaton's arrival (as late Judaism also had the linkage, Deuteronomy Rabbah 3 [201c]; Schurmann 1968:557)? This last view is slightly more likely than the third approach. Luke makes the Moses connection explicit in various texts (Acts 3:18-22; 7:35-37), while Elijah is consistently a figure of eschatological hope (Lk 1:16-17, when John is pictured as such a figure). The event suggests two great periods of Israel's history, the exodus and the end-time hope of deliverance.
These great figures discuss the coming fulfillment of the "exodus" (Greek) or departure (NIV) in Jerusalem, an allusion to Jesus' death and journey to heaven. He will be gone awhile to return, though the stress is on the journey's launching, his death. The juxtaposition of exodus imagery and his glorious countenance suggests the imagery's broad sweep. Of course the disciples do not grasp this discussion's significance at the time, since they struggle with Jesus' predictions of his death later when they approach Jerusalem (18:31-34).
The disciples are trying to come to grips with what is happening. In their view Jesus is another great figure, like Moses and Elijah. He will found a people like Moses and sustain them through hope like Elijah. So Peter suggests they together celebrate Tabernacles, a feast that looked forward to the eschaton (also called the Feast of Ingathering, Ex 23:16; 34:22; Lev 23:34; Deut 16:13; Zech 14:16-21; Michaelis 1971:369-73; m. Sukka 1, 2:9; 3:9; 4:5; Josephus Antiquities 8.4.1 100). They should build three booths in honor of Jesus and his colleagues. The suggestion is eminently reasonable, except that it understates Jesus' relationship to his two witnesses. Peter wants to enjoy the moment and prolong it in celebration. He wants to stay on the mountaintop for as long as possible.
But Luke makes it clear that Peter has spoken because he did not know what he was saying. The voice from heaven explains: they need to listen to Jesus so they will understand his uniqueness, call and destiny to suffer. Also, their role is not merely to contemplate Jesus but to serve him. Celebration awaits in the future, but now is a time for instruction, response and action.
The voice from heaven speaks before Jesus responds. As was the case with the baptism, the voice describes who Jesus is. With the voice came the cloud that envelops them and leaves them fearful. The cloud symbolism is significant, though its meaning has engendered some controversy. The cloud could indicate God's presence as the heavens descend to the earth. But more likely is the suggestion of the new age's arrival, an age like that which founded the nation of Israel, when God's glory was present and overshadowed the people (especially Ex 40:35 LXX; also Ex 13:21-22; 16:10; 19:16; 24:16; 40:34-38; Oepke 1967:908-9).
The voice speaks of Jesus as my Son, language that recalls Psalm 2:7. Whom I have chosen highlights Jesus' unique, elect status. The wording seems to be a conceptual allusion to Isaiah 42:1: here is God's chosen instrument of deliverance. The third remark is crucial, because it adds to the remark made at the baptism. Listen to him recalls the language of Deuteronomy 18:15. Jesus is a second Moses who brings a new way for God's people. The disciples must listen to this Jesus. Their tendency is to assume they know who Jesus is and what he is about, but as his instruction shows, there are some surprises coming. He is greater than his extremely illustrious witnesses. The disciples need to sit at his feet and learn.
Instantly everything returns to normal. The disciples are so overwhelmed that they remain silent about this event for years. The testimony of 2 Peter 1:16-21 tells us why. Only in light of the resurrection did they come to understand Jesus' majesty and glory. The transfiguration was confirming testimony to the glory of Christ, and the resurrection was the crowning endorsement. Revealed in light, he is the light. With the "exodus" came understanding—but only after much listening. When we are with Jesus, we experience the cloud of glory, if we have ears to hear.