Luke’s account of the Transfiguration incorporates many themes found throughout his gospel Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
St Luke, in his portrayal of the Lords Transfiguration [9.28-36], displays certain features proper to his own story of Jesus. These begin right away, when he tells us, ‘Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that he took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray’ We recall that Matthew [17.1] and Mark [9.2] both placed the Transfiguration six days later, not eight. Luke doesn’t say ‘eight’ either; he says ‘about eight,’ but why the change?
It appears that the event of the Lord’s Transfiguration was early associated with the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth), an association prompted by Peter’s suggestion, ‘let us make three tabernacles’ Indeed, the luminous cloud of which the gospels speak in the Transfiguration is to be identified with the glorious cloud that filled the Tabernacle of the Lord’s presence in Numbers 9-10. The association of the Transfigured Lord with the Feast of Tabernacles suggests why Luke changed the ‘six days’ to ‘about eight days’ The Feast of Tabernacles does, in fact, last a week and another day [Lev. 23.34-6].
The experience of Jesus
A second feature of Luke’s account is also found in that same verse of the story; namely, the detail that Jesus ‘went up on the mountain to pray’. Only Luke mentions the prayer of Jesus in this place, and he goes on to describe the Transfiguration: ‘As he prayed, the appearance of his face was altered.’ Whereas Matthew and Mark portray the Transfiguration as a religious experience of its three apostolic witnesses, Luke begins with the experience of Jesus.
Thirdly, only Luke among the evangelists mentions a reference to the Lord’s suffering and death within the Transfiguration account itself. He writes, ‘And behold, two men talked with him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodos that he was going to fulfil (pleroun) at Jerusalem.’
Several features of this reference to the Passion are important to Luke’s theological message. First, he uses the technical theological expression exodos to speak of Jesus’ death. In his choice of this noun, Luke conveys the soteriological significance of the Lord’s death. Second, in his reference to the Lord’s exodos, Luke places it explicitly ‘at Jerusalem.’ This too corresponds to a theme in Luke’s Gospel, where the holy city is the culminating place of his narrative. Jerusalem is the city to which Jesus has steadfastly set his face to go [9.51, 53; 13.22, 33].
Third, by referring to the Lord’s Passion within the Transfiguration story, Luke sets up a scene to parallel the later account of the Lord’s Agony.
The fulfilment of scripture
Fourth, in his picture of Moses and Elijah – the Law and the Prophets – discussing Jesus’ exodos at Jerusalem, Luke touches a major theme of his theology: the fulfilment (pleroun) of Holy Scripture in what Jesus did at Jerusalem. We recall the later scene with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, of which Luke writes, ‘beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself [24.25-7]. Here in the Transfiguration, therefore, Luke portrays Moses and Elijah discussing with Jesus the deep meaning of Scripture, its fulfilment at Jerusalem.
Luke returns to this theme in the Lord’s final apparition, where he affirms, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled (plerothenai) which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me’ [24.44]. The great commission begins with this affirmation: ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’ [24.46].