This section represents a significant turning point in the Gospel. Peter's confession of Jesus not only answers the question of Jesus' identity but also brings a shift in Jesus' teaching. From this point Jesus begins to prepare the disciples for his death and for the discipleship of bearing one's cross daily. In fact, six times Jesus notes his approaching suffering (9:22, 44; 12:50; 13:31-33; 17:25; 18:31). Three of these notes have parallels in Mark 8:31-32, 9:30-32 and 10:32-34, but three of them are unique to Luke.
While the crowds wrestle with the prophetic nature of Jesus' ministry, the disciples realize that Jesus is the promised one, the anointed ruler promised by the Old Testament. But despite Jesus' prominent and authoritative position, God's program is not a matter of the raw exercise of power. The disciples think that kingdom means immediate victory. Jesus must show them that before the glory comes the cross and a life of sacrificial service. This is what Jesus portrays as the "new way" (9:23-27). Other passages in this section show that the disciples have much to learn, so the voice from heaven at the transfiguration tells them to listen to Jesus. He offers instruction on the new and true way to God.
This passage begins to answer the "who is Jesus?" question posed throughout the Gospel, especially in chapters 7--9. After prayer Jesus checks the disciples for a "Gallup Poll" reading of the multitudes: "Who do the crowds say I am?" The answers exactly parallel verses 7-9: the crowds believe that Jesus is some kind of prophet. Many people today also have an elevated view of Jesus; they see him as a great teacher or someone in touch with God's will. But for them Jesus is hardly a unique religious figure. This is why Jesus' question and Peter's answer are so crucial. When Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?" he is trying to see if the disciples recognize his uniqueness. Prophets have abounded through the centuries, but only one is called the Christ, God's anointed. Peter's answer highlights Jesus' uniqueness.
In considering the uniqueness of Jesus in Peter's answer, it is easy to overstate Peter's meaning in this original context. The disciples eventually came to see that the Messiah is a divine-human figure, but Peter's confession did not have that full force when it was uttered here. The disciples had to learn about Jesus' divinity through his ministry as a whole. The confession of Jesus as Son of God in the Matthean parallel pushes toward this implication, but Peter's attempt to correct Jesus right after this confession in Matthew shows that he was not yet aware that Jesus possessed total divinity. Son could also be a regal title, as Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7:11-14 show.
What Peter is confessing is that Jesus is not merely a prophetic revealer of God's way, he is the deliverer who brings God's way, as Jesus has already proclaimed himself to be in 4:16-30. Jesus will stretch this foundational understanding of Peter's into new and higher categories as his own ministry proceeds, but the key step in getting there is to realize that Jesus' uniqueness goes beyond prophetic-teaching categories. Jesus is not the messenger; he is the message. The burden of the rest of Jesus' ministry is to show how that message will be delivered and who the message bearer is.
Divine logic sometimes surprises us. We can imagine being among the disciples as Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah and thinking, "Great! Now victory, power and authority are right around the corner. Surely God will vindicate the righteous now. We can sit next to the king. We will rule with him!" But immediately after the confession Jesus moves to reorient the disciples' thinking. They continue to wrestle with such questions even as late as Acts 1:6-11, but Jesus is always reminding them that the divine call involves service and witness, not the raw exercise of power. People are to be won over and served, not coerced.
The same truth endures for disciples today. The cross Jesus bore is the cross the church is to bear. Giving oneself on behalf of sinners is just as integral to the gospel today as it was in days of old. Ministry is not a matter of power and privilege, but of humility and service.
Jesus will have to make his point several times before the disciples get it. Divine logic requires a listening ear and an open heart.
This passage has two parts: the prediction of Jesus' suffering (vv. 21-22) and the announcement of the "new way" of suffering, bearing one's cross daily (vv. 23-27).
Jesus' command that the disciples keep his identity secret has provoked considerable discussion. Why would Jesus want to hide his messianic role? This problem is known as the "messianic secret" in New Testament studies. The command for silence has bothered some interpreters so much that they have argued (1) whether Jesus really ever presented himself as Messiah and (2) that a Gospel writer (generally said to be Mark) created this idea to explain why the church later preached Jesus as Messiah though he had not presented himself this way. I mention this view not because I think it is right but because its very existence shows how surprising Jesus' messianic presentation was. Jesus' command shows that he wanted to communicate certain facts about this title to the disciples before it was bandied about in public. There was much potential for misunderstanding about Jesus' task.
So Jesus discusses the approaching suffering of the Son of Man. This is the first "suffering Son of Man" saying in this Gospel. Later Luke will speak of the Christ's suffering (24:26, 46). Both here and in 24:26 this suffering is said to be necessary (dei). The plan is for Messiah to suffer and serve before receiving glory (19:10). Luke emphasizes this point from here on (9:44; 11:29-32; 12:50; 13:31-35; 17:25; 18:31-33; 20:9-18; 22:19-20, 28; 24:7, 46-47).
This passage's teaching is clear enough. Jesus will suffer, be rejected, be killed and on the third day rise again. Subsequent history and the church's continuing proclamation of this point make this message easy to comprehend today. But what strands of Old Testament hope served as the original basis for Jesus' saying that such things must be?
Probably various themes contributed to this portrait. (1) Psalm 118 (117:22 LXX) predicts the suffering of a regal figure. Some even link this imagery with Daniel 2 and 7, but there the presence of regal suffering is not so clear. However, the theme of rejection, as expressed in Luke, is reflected in Psalm 118. (2) The portrait of a suffering representative for the nation in Isaiah 52:13--53:12 easily suggests a representative role for Jesus that includes suffering. (3) The general biblical portrait of the righteous sufferer, as found in many psalms (18, 22, 32, 69), also supports this expectation. God's righteous ones often suffer at the hands of the world. Surely the One who is righteous and represents them would share in their journey. These three strands seem to be the biblical base for Jesus' remarks and his synthesis of Messiah's career. Since an emphasis on suffering was not a standard element of Jewish messianic hope (in fact, no Jewish messianic text found up to this time clearly refers to it), Jesus wanted to instruct his disciples about it and not use the title Messiah publicly to explain who he was until they understood all that was involved. They got the point eventually, as evidenced in Acts 2:24-33 by Peter's linking of the resurrection to Psalm 16, a psalm also about righteous suffering. Jesus will go the way of saints before him, and those who follow him must be ready to travel the same road.
Suffering is by nature hard, and it will take time for the disciples to understand that God's promised deliverer will indeed experience suffering, even death. In fact, the New Testament is clear that it took the events themselves to make the point acceptable to the disciples (24:13-36).
But Jesus' path also meant that these disciples lived in tension. They had access to many blessings through Jesus, but Jesus' departure meant that other blessings the Messiah would bring were yet to come. In addition, the world's harsh reaction to Jesus and those identified with him would continue until he returned.
So Jesus says that to follow him means walking in the path of the cross. Disciples are like their teacher. Whether that path involves "taking up the cross," "losing one's life" or "not being ashamed of the Son of Man," disciples need to understand that life in the world will not involve an easy, stressless trip into glory. The apostle Peter would write later that this road of trial to glory mirrors what Christ himself was predicted to experience--suffering and then glory (1 Pet 1:3-12).
The essence of discipleship is humility before God. That humility expresses itself as self-denial. Taking up the cross daily and following Jesus means approaching ministry in the world as he did. He served and gave of himself daily, even to the cultural ignominy of publicly bearing rejection on the cross (Acts 5:30; Gal 3:13). The Savior bore rejection and death for others, and the disciple must follow in the same path of service. We must be prepared to accept rejection as a given. Everything Jesus teaches his disciples in chapters 9--19 will underscore this point.
The tense sequence in verse 23 is important. Two aorist imperatives are followed by a present imperative. Two summary commands are issued: deny oneself and take up the cross (aorist imperatives). These are basic orientations of the disciple. Then the disciple can continually follow (present imperative) Jesus.
Jesus explains that to seek to preserve one's life will result in its loss, while giving one's life up will lead to its being saved. The remark's context is crucial. During Jesus' ministry, anyone concerned to maintain their reputation in Judaism would never come to Jesus, given the leadership's developing official rejection of him. Someone whose life and reputation in the public sphere were primary would never want to come to Jesus. But if they gave up a life of popular acclaim and acceptance to come to Jesus, they would gain deliverance. Jesus understood that trusting in God means nontrust in self and nonreliance on the security the world offers: Whoever loses his life for me will save it.
Jesus' explanation now goes a level deeper by probing the issue of gain and looking at the question spiritually. One can possess the world but lose one's soul and thus have nothing spiritually. By implication, it is far preferable to lose the world and gain one's soul. Such contrast between the world and a person's spiritual welfare is common in the New Testament (Jn 3:17, 19: 1 Cor 1:18-31; Gal 2:20; 2 Pet 1:4; 1 Jn 2:1516; Sasse 1965:888). Turn to God through Jesus and for his sake. Jesus made a similar commitment himself, when he turned down Satan's offer of all the power in the world (Lk 4:5-8).
So Jesus exhorts his disciples not to be ashamed of the Son of Man. The mention of shame reveals Jesus' concern about the persecution that will come to those who identify with him. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, personal shame was to be avoided at all costs. But to suffer shame while serving God can be a badge of honor, if one is in God's will (1 Cor 4:9-13).
Again Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. Only here it is the Son of Man of glory that is in view. One day he will render judgment. If some have not identified with Jesus, he will not identify with them in that day. So the stakes are high: the issue is one's soul. With Jesus, there is no doubt about one's fate.
In the midst of this warning Jesus offers a promise: some will not see death until they see the kingdom of God. Contextually this is a reference to the preview of glory some of the disciples get in the transfiguration, an event recorded in verses 28-36. Seen in light of Luke's development in the book, the arrival of the kingdom also is made visible in Jesus' current ministry (11:20; 17:20-21). In fact, the benefits of promise are distributed in Acts 2 (Lk 24:49 with Acts 2:30-36). So Jesus has in view both the preview of total glory and the initial arrival of promise as a result of his ministry. Those disciples who were present at the transfiguration, as well as those who shared in Pentecost, shared in the sneak preview of the kingdom's arrival before they "saw death."
The disciples are never to forget that they are associated with the Son of Man, the one who bears and comes with the glory of God. In suffering they imitate Christ. After the cross of suffering there is blessing and glory. Allegiance to Jesus in service to God and a needy world is worth the cost.
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.
The transfiguration called the disciples to listen to Jesus. The miracle that follows explains why this call was issued. The disciples' failure to heal a possessed boy indicates their failure to trust. The contrast between Jesus' glorious power and the disciples' impotence is significant. Jesus' authority can be trusted, but disciples acting on their own are useless.
This event is the first of several failures the disciples have at the end of this chapter. They will not understand Jesus' passion prediction (vv. 43-45), nor will they understand greatness and cooperation (vv. 46-50). Instincts fail the disciples; they must listen to Jesus.
There is another important lesson in this passage. Even as Jesus turns to face rejection and death, he still overcomes the forces of evil that attempt to bring people down. Listening to Jesus is worth it, because listening to him means triumphing over evil.
The juxtaposition of this event to the transfiguration has always caught the eye of artists. One of Raphael's most famous paintings, The Transfiguration, places these two scenes side by side. The mountaintop experience is followed by an everyday failure to trust. Such an up-and-down spiritual record is often the product of failing to trust God.
Jesus descends from the mountain and encounters a huge crowd. Mark 9:14 notes that there was an ongoing dispute between the disciples and the scribes. Luke lacks such detail and keeps the story simple. A man with an only son is in distress over his child's condition. So he asks for Jesus' aid: "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child." Only Luke notes that the boy is an only son. The note adds pathos to the scene, because in ancient culture boys were highly prized and only sons were especially precious. The man's family heritage is at stake here. Matthew 17:14-15 says the boy is "moonstruck" and describes symptoms of epilepsy, a disease that ancient Jews viewed with much apprehension (van der Loos 1965:401-5). The disease brought terror because of its associations with darkness. It was this condition that David feigned as having before Saul (1 Sam 21:13). The detailed description of the possession's effects underline the father's terror as he watches his son controlled by forces that seek to destroy the boy. There is hardly a better metaphor in the whole Bible for the effects of evil's presence in one's life. So for the child and the father, emotions run high and the need is great.
The father has sought relief once already: "I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not." We can almost hear the disappointment in his words. Jesus is the last chance for this father. The father's "begging" here recalls the earlier request of verse 38. The entreaty is filled with desperation.
Jesus' response makes it clear that something is awry: "O unbelieving and perverse generation, . . . how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?" The rebuke is broad and indicates the futility that imperils the creation because of lack of response to Jesus (Rom 8:18-25). Without him creation runs haywire, going its own way. The hope is that he will reverse its effects one day. Those who refuse to believe live in the same futility. Jesus wants the disciples to learn to trust him and find their way. His rebuke indicts all the disciples, since it is a response to their failure. The description of the generation as perverse has Old Testament roots. The language most closely resembles that of Deuteronomy 32:5, a passage on covenant unfaithfulness (Num 14:27; Deut 32:20; Prov 6:14; Is 59:8). This is a generation that strays due to lack of trust. Such straying calls for much patience on the part of the One who has come to turn humanity onto the path of true life.
Jesus asks that the child be brought to him. Immediately the demon takes hold of the child and tries to seize control, but Jesus issues a rebuke. So the boy returns to his father healed. Jesus' authority and the extent of the reversal of evil's presence emerge before all. They were all amazed at the greatness of God. God is gloriously present in Jesus' acts, but the implication, given Jesus' rebuke, is that such a glorious presence demands trust. Only Jesus has the power to reverse the effects of evil. Jesus may have to be patient with some people's unbelief, but when faith like that of this father appears, evil's defeat becomes possible.
The previous success should not be misunderstood. Rejection still awaits Jesus. So he again predicts his fate. The juxtaposition of success and rejection is important, highlighted as it is by the introduction to these remarks: while everyone was marveling all that Jesus did, he said to his disciples . . . Even though he is the Son of Man, Jesus will be handed over to others, betrayed and rejected. The betrayal's nearness is underscored by the term mellei. It is "about to come." The disciples do not understand the saying. In fact, its significance is concealed from them. And they do not dare to ask about it.
How can the disciples not understand? Matthew 17:23 notes their distress as they hear Jesus' words. That text indicates that the meaning is probably not that they fail to understand the content of what Jesus said. What they fail to grasp is its import. How can the promised one, the recently confessed Messiah, possibly accomplish God's will and be rejected? Is he not to be a glorious, victorious figure? Is he not to bring deliverance? The disciples fail to grasp the answers to questions like these. Their lack of understanding is why they must listen to him. The lessons are just beginning, and some expectations need revision.
Our world is consumed with issues of status. Titles, degrees, offices and positions affect one's image and self-esteem. We even speak of wearing power suits and power ties to give an official air of status and authority. The last unit of the Galilean ministry section of Luke addresses the issue of status. The synonym of "status" for most people is "power," and its antonym is "being a nothing." But Jesus calls us away from pursuing status and power. Viewed spiritually, the opposite of status is humility and a lack of concern about where one fits on the corporate ladder. Such an attitude is fundamental for the disciple.
Jesus' remarks emerge because of a debate among the disciples about who is at the "top of the table," as the British say. Who are the top dogs among the disciples? There is an intense irony here: as Jesus discusses the Son of Man's approaching rejection, the disciples are consumed by their own discipleship rankings. In response Jesus points to a child, a person with little status in the ancient world. In that world a child was barely seen and not heard at all. In Judaism, where children were held in more respect than in other ancient cultures, it still was often considered a waste of time to teach one under twelve the Torah. In fact, m. `Abot 3:10 reads, "Morning sleep, mid-day wine, chattering with children and tarrying in places where men of common people assemble, destroy a man." Here children and status issues appear side by side. Jesus does not view children as insignificant. For him every person counts. Mark 9:36 notes that this child is small enough for Jesus to take into his arms.
Bringing the child to his side, Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all--he is the greatest." Jesus' point is that everyone, even the lowest person on the ladder, is important. Receiving a child is like receiving God. Jesus speaks of people in these terms elsewhere (Mt 25:35-45).
In all likelihood the theology behind this statement involves a recognition that every person is made in the image of God and deserves respect for that reason alone. The effect of Jesus' words is to rule out debates over status. Greatness comes from one's status as a human being, as one created by God. Even little children are great. Disciples are to affirm the greatness of all persons; they all have dignity, even those who need to get right with God and deal honestly with sin. Every sinner deserves some respect. No persons are so low on the ladder that they are beyond the reach of divine compassion.
The danger of the pursuit of status is a destructive elitism. Like a cancer, elitism eats into the gospel invitation that is made to all humankind. Cliques and withdrawal into an air of superiority within the church often destroy its ability to draw in those who need Jesus the most. Those in the church who worry about where they rank are thinking too little about how to serve others who need God.
There is another point here. Jesus defines greatness without using explicit comparison to anyone else, as people often measure greatness. Greatness is found in an attitude, humility; it does not require someone else's lack of greatness. All relative scales are removed. Greatness has only one mirror, the reflective eyes of God. He sees greatness in those who do not need to be great to have stature.
The next event brings to the surface yet another error. Another destructive attempt to project greatness is the attempt to limit the right to share in ministry. When the disciples try to stop a man from performing exorcisms in Jesus' name, Jesus tells them they are wrong. The principle is that whoever is not against you is for you. Jesus' point is not that those who are neutral about Jesus are for him; in fact, the man invokes Jesus' name in doing his work. This exorcist is not neutral. Rather, the point is that all disciples are to minister and should be allowed to do so. The disciples who travel with Jesus are not to see themselves as professional ministers who must perform all the tasks of ministry. Rather, all can labor for Jesus and should be encouraged to do so. Ministry is a cooperative venture.