Transfiguration: prophets and apostles

TransfigMoses and Elijah. 30 And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

The presence of Elijah and Moses has been much discussed by various scholars. (1) Do they represent the different kinds of life endings (burial versus being taken up to God)? (2) Is their presence an indication of endorsement by great prophets and wonderworkers of old? (3) Is Jesus the fulfillment of the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) – and so listen to him? (4) Or is it that Moses points to the expected great-prophet-like Moses, while Elijah suggests the eschaton’s (end days) arrival – roles fulfilled in Jesus.

One should be aware, that although Luke is not writing for a Jewish audience as is Matthew, 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 the Baptist is pictured as such a figure). When Luke does associate Elijah with Jesus, it is to cast Jesus as one who, like Elijah, engages in a prophetic ministry in which the power of God is active on behalf of those not normally regarded as the elect—that is, Gentiles, Samaritans, and the poor. Moses is also portrayed along dual lines—first in his identification with the law of God (e.g., 2:22), but more pervasively as the great prophet of God.

The two may also have christological significance in that Jesus has demonstrated his mastery over the sea and fed the multitude in the wilderness (fulfilling the pattern of Moses at the exodus) and has multiplied loaves, cleansed lepers, and raised the dead (fulfilling the prophetic works of Elijah and Elisha). It should be noted that Moses and Elijah also appear “in glory” seemingly indicating that they share a status of those who belong to the heavenly court – and, unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke gives us some indication of the topic of conversation: “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

Luke seems to draw specific reference to the Exodus story (esp. Exodus 24–34)—for example, the presence of companions, the setting on a mountain, the explicit mention of Moses, Jesus’ change of countenance, reference to tents (or tabernacles), the cloud, the motif of fear, the clear allusion to Dt 18:15 (“Listen to him”). I would suggest that the intent is to frame Jesus’ story as also an epic story of freedom from bondage; this time a new Exodus. Recall Jesus’ “mission statement”: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” The event suggests two great periods of Israel’s history, the exodus and the end-time hope of deliverance. (Luke 4:18-19). “Consequently, the transfiguration scene calls upon this choir of voices especially to stress the image of Jesus as liberator from bondage, his ministry as one of release from captivity in all its guises. How is this release accomplished? Clearly, release has already been available in Jesus’ itinerant ministry in Galilee and in the extension of that ministry in the missionary activity of the twelve. Luke’s account of the transfiguration does nothing to discount the effectiveness of Jesus’ powerful ministry of liberation heretofore, but does go on to intimate the redemptive power of his upcoming journey through death to exaltation.” [Green, 379]

Peter’s Response32 Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying.

As before, Peter again responds, again without a full understanding. Consider Peter’s proposal to make three tents (skēnḗ; also “booth” or “tabernacle”). What did he intend? It has been variously understood as traveler’s hut, the “tent of meeting” where God spoke with Moses outside the camp (Exod 33:7), a more formal tent used in the Festival of Booths (cf. Lev 23:42–43; Zech 14:16ff), and even as the Jerusalem Temple tabernacle. It is this last image that Luke may have in mind as background – notwithstanding Peter’s intention. It is the Temple tabernacle where the Shekinah, the fiery cloud that symbolized the continuing presence of God among the people, dwelt over the ark of the covenant. The response to Peter’s proposal is three-fold (Boring, 364)

  1. The heavenly cloud of God’s presence ap­pears, as on the tabernacle of Moses’ day and the later Temple. As of old, the heavenly voice comes from the cloud, and the God who had previously spoken on Mount Sinai only to Moses speaks directly to The heavenly voice speaks in exactly the same words as at the baptism (see 3:17), confirming the identity and mission of Jesus declared there, and confirming the confession Peter himself had made in the preceding scene (16:16).
  2. Although three transcendent figures are present, the heavenly voice charges the disciples to hear Jesus. As in the Shema (Deut 6:4), “hear” carries its OT connotation of “obey” and is the same command given with regard to the “prophet like Moses” whom God would send (Deut 18:15; cf. 13:57). The disciples are fearful in response to the theophany, as in Exod 34:30; Dan 10:9; and Hab 3:2 LXX.
  3. Jesus comes to them and they see no one but “Jesu… alone.” To focus all attention on Jesus and to distinguish him from Moses and Elijah, who have now disappeared, Luke has subtly rewritten Mark so that the word alone might stand here as the emphatic closing word of the scene. The heavenly visitors depart, but Jesus stays—Jesus alone. Without heavenly companions, without heavenly glory, he is the “tabernacle” (skene), the reality of God’s abiding presence with us (cf. 1:23; 28:20). The disciples descend from the mountain into the mundane world of suffering and mission, accom­panied by Jesus, God with us.

Peter has only partially grasped the significance of the event. He wants to freeze the moment and commemorate the place, but faithfulness will require following Jesus to the cross, not commemorating the place of the transfiguration, which—fittingly—is not named in any of the Gospels.

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