October 28, 2020

What Did the Transfiguration Mean to Jesus?

transfiguration abstract

Transfiguration (detail), Bowman. http://bowmangalleries.com

“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

– Luke 9:29, NRSV

What did the Transfiguration mean to Jesus?

Often, when we approach Bible stories like this we ask what the event being portrayed means to us, and for us. We would do well to remember that there is an Actor in the center of every scene in the Gospels, and it is not our place to steal the attention away from him. So with this story. It is about Jesus, not about us, and it offers one of the best opportunities to get over ourselves that I know.

When Lent begins this week, we might well remember that. Let’s get over ourselves, OK?

The Transfiguration story is told in the context of Peter confessing Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah and Jesus foretelling his death and the cruciform path both he and his followers must take (9:18-27). So we know that Jesus is now focused upon the Cross.

This must have weighed heavily on him, for both the confession and Transfiguration narratives begin with the observation that Jesus was engaged in prayer. As he turned toward Jerusalem and began making his way toward his gruesome destiny, we see him spending significant moments praying. The Transfiguration event, in fact, took place while Jesus was offering up petitions and supplications to God.

Luke alone tells us that Jesus was praying, and he is also the only author who tells us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discussed on the mountain that day. In 9:31 we read that they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” They were talking about his death. In Greek, Luke uses the word exodus here, with all its rich imagery of Passover, of lambs slain and blood spilt and wiped on door frames, of slaves freed from bondage and life preserved from the Angel of Death.

That is the main scene in this Transfiguration story: Jesus in prayer, being transfigured, and talking with Moses and Elijah about his coming Passion. The rest of the account highlights the disciples’ disorientation and incomprehension of what was taking place. But the momentary comedy of their fumbling attempts to take it all in is overwhelmed when God thunders from heaven for them to shut up and listen to Jesus.

Listen to him!

Listen to the One who is telling you about the Cross! the Exodus to come!

In other words, the story ends with what we said at the beginning of this lesson: It’s time to forget about ourselves and focus on Jesus. His glory. His heart. His prayers. His words. His place in history. His Cross.

Luke shows us that the Transfiguration was not simply about some great experience the disciples had, witnessing Jesus’ glory. That’s what we want to talk about because the scene so impresses us. But for Jesus it was about what was coming down the road. It was about a burden so heavy that it moved him to constant prayer. It was about an event that would bring ancient prophecies and promises to pass, that linked Moses and Elijah and the salvation of the world together in the sufferings he must endure in his own body.

Glory in the shape of a Cross.


  1. The transfiguration is one of my favorite “scenes” in the Gospel stories. This would have been so amazing to witness. And it likely gave strength to Jesus as he was about to face a horrible way of dying.

  2. For the Eastern Orthodox, this is one of the major scenes of Jesus’ life. It ranks for us as the third or fourth most important event, with only the Nativity and the Passion/Resurrection ranking ahead of it. The Baptism of Jesus would be of equal importance to the Transfiguration. It must have been important to the disciples as well, as it is recorded in three of the four Gospels.

    In Greek, the word is metamorphosis of Christ. It is a revelation of the divine glory that is in Jesus, a strengthening of him and the disciples for what is to come, and, just as important, a glimpse at the future when we shall all be changed and we shall all shine with the light of Mount Tabor, as did Moses and Elijah.

    I like your point about thinking about what the transfiguration/metamorphosis would have meant for Jesus. For the disciples it meant that they were on the right path and that they needed to hang on to that in the days to come. Even so, for Jesus the Garden of Gethsemane was yet to come, while the disciples were found hiding in the upper room after the Cross.

  3. What did the Transfiguration mean to Jesus?

    Yes, that’s the best question. Gets us out of ourselves.

    The Gospel is not the news that we can receive Jesus into our life. The Gospel is the news that Jesus has come and that the Father, the Spirit and the Son have received us into their life.

    Baxter Kruger

    • Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal,
      Alpha, Omega, Beginning and End;
      God-head, humanity, union supernal,
      O great Redeemer You come as our friend!

  4. CM,
    What is the artwork you chose for this post?

  5. Of the four major scenes in the life of Jesus mentioned by Fr. Ernesto, I would think that both his baptism and his transfiguration served as needed authorization and confirmation for the Son of Man at crucial points and crossroads. Both had the same affirmation from God the Father. Anyone today setting out to do what Jesus did would have their sanity questioned, That happened to Jesus too, even by his own family who had witnessed the first event of his miraculous birth. And let’s face it, setting out to end up crucified is a lot crazier than just leaving home to preach and teach for some years.

    If Jesus grew into the Oneness of Enlightenment as a human being, as we all are called to do, there must have been moments of doubt, even severe doubt questioning his own sanity. The experience of the transfiguration surely was a deciding factor in getting out the other end at Gethsemane.

  6. I no longer think of the cross as an event that punctuated the end of Jesus’ mortal life; rather, I’ve come to consider his cross an ongoing process that was coextensive with his entire life, something that he bore for as long as he lived, and something that wracked him throughout his life. A great part of the dolor of his cross was that his glory was continually bearing down on the fragile frame of his humanity, threatening to burst open the seams of creation in an apocalyptic instant, and he had continually to stagger under the weight not only of the world’s evil but the divine judgement that drove crushingly down on him because of that evil. In the Transfiguration Jesus stands in his glory, knowing himself, affirmed by his Father, feeling his own divine power in the very sinews of his humanity; then he willingly turns away from his that glory and continues along his cruciform path. For him the Transfiguration is yet another burden he will bear, another cross, until he is is raised upon the brow of Golgotha.