Suffering, then Glory
Text: Luke 9:28-36
When Jesus took on the mantle of his messianic mission at his baptism, a voice “from heaven” declared: “You are my Son.” And then the Son was led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to be tested. Now, just after Jesus announced his future messianic suffering to his disciples, a voice “from the cloud” declared “This is my Son…listen to him.”
The transfiguration is a dense theological text. It is filled with allusions to significant events within Luke’s narrative as well as in the Hebrew Bible.
Luke anticipates the Garden of Gethsemane—1) he takes James, Peter and John with him; 2) he goes to pray with the prospect of suffering; 3) the disciples slept; and 4) Peter says/does something stupid indicating the disciples’ lack of understanding. Jesus finds a place to pray with his intimate friends, but they fall asleep. Analogous to Gethsemane, Jesus agonizes over the prospect of his future suffering in Jerusalem as he turns his face toward the city (9:51).
Luke anticipates the Resurrection/Ascension stories—1) two “men” appear with Jesus; 2) the eschatological nature of glory; 3) a cloud appears; and 4) revelatory speech (“listen to him”; “he is not here”; “coming again”). The glory of this “transfiguration” (metamorphosis) is eschatological. It anticipates not only his resurrection but his ascension to the right hand of God (“taken up into heaven,” 9:51). Suffering is not Jesus’ final destiny.
Luke remembers Theophanies in the Hebrew narrative: 1) mountain experiences; 2) glory of divine presence; 3) “listen to him” (cf. Deut 18:15); and 4) encouragement in the mist of despair (Moses in Ex. 34; Elijah in 2 Kings 18-19). Moses and Elijah both encountered God at Mt. Sinai at times of great disappointment and despair.
Jesus’ transfiguration from Adamic, fallen existence into eschatological glory was designed as an encouragement, not for his disciples, but for Jesus himself. The Father lifted his Son into the glorious experience of conversation with Moses and Elijah. They discussed his “exodus,” that is, his journey to Jerusalem. They discussed his future suffering.
This was a proleptic event in the life of the Son. It was the experience of his future glory—his resurrection glory, his ascension glory, the glory of the second coming (cf. 2 Peter 1). In answer to his prayer, the Father encouraged his Son to complete his mission. Divine presence and the presence of the future empower his mission. Jesus is assured that the cross is not the end game.
It would be a mistake to reduce this “mountain top” experience to our own “mountain top” experiences. We may have moments when we sense the presence of God in transcendent, even mystical ways. I often sense this in the assembly of God’s saints as we are lifted into the divine throne room, into the divine presence. But this moment in the life of Jesus was the in-breaking of the future—not just a taste, but a full experience of that future through the presence of “witnesses” (Moses and Elijah), the divine presence, and a transformed appearance.
And yet, our worship experiences are also an encounter with divine presence. They are the alreadiness of the future. We do not yet experience what Jesus did on that mountain, but we already experience a “taste” of it. Our assemblies gather in the presence of God, they are encounter with glory and witnesses (angels, the church universal, and our beloved departed) are present. Our worship is a taste of the future, and the future encourages us as we face the reality of death in this present world. Like Jesus, I need that divine encounter to encourage me to pursue my divine mission. Worship—because it is the in-breaking of the future though not yet the fullness of that future—empowers me to serve and it brings hope into the darkness.
The disciples were awed by this event. They fumbled for words. Peter speaks but he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. He misses the point—Jesus, Moses and Elijah are not equals. Jesus is not only Messiah, but Son of God. The cloud of divine presence descended among the disciples. God spoke. The disciples listened. They followed Jesus…they followed him down the mountain in awe and silence.
We, too, are awed by divine presence. We encounter God through worship and prayer. And we listen to Jesus. And we, too, follow him down the mountain into the world…on a mission, the mission of Jesus. We follow him to the cross and die to ourselves on our own cross. But his transfiguration is also for us, just as his resurrection and glory is ours. It empowers our mission. Suffering is not our final destiny either. His future is our future.