28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Eli'jah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah" -- not knowing what he said. 34 As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. (Lk 9:28-36)
All three of the Synoptic gospels include this story with little difference, however we will use Luke’s version. Let’s immediately notice three items in this narrative. First, that Jesus went up on a mountain to pray; this event where the three privileged apostles saw God in His glory took place on a mountain. This seeing God happened twice before in the OT: when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to receive the Law, and when Elijah went up the same Mt. Sinai (aka, Horeb). Mountains symbolize the nearness of God; we go up to Him and He comes down to us. It is of interest that these two OT figures, who also saw God on a mountain, are the very ones who appeared to speak with Jesus. That is, they are once again on a mountain seeing God. Furthermore, Moses is the personified image of the Law, while Elijah is the personified image of the Prophets; they represent the old covenant, the Law and the Prophets, while Jesus is the image of the new covenant – it was on this mountain that the old and new covenants met and comingled in personified form.
Second, let’s notice the booths that Peter wanted to build for them. A booth was a tent or tabernacle. Peter was actually suggesting that God, Moses and Elijah stay and live among men. This comment of Peter was prophetic, as he would later lead the Apostles to build the Church, where God ‘tabernacles’ with us, but under a new covenant where the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled. It is said here that Peter did not know what he said, as if he were in an ecstasy – his reference to making tents for them reminds us of Moses:
7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; and he called it the tent of meeting. And every one who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose up, and every man stood at his tent door, and looked after Moses, until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. 10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the door of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, every man at his tent door. 11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend… 18 Moses said, "I pray thee, show me thy glory." 19 And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name `The LORD'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live." 21 And the LORD said, "Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen." (Ex 33:7-11, 18-23)
In this text we see several images from the transfiguration: the tent, the cloud, “show me thy glory,” and, interesting, how the Lord spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend: friendship with God is the goal of the new covenant. Furthermore, Moses could see God when he stood “upon the rock.” Connecting this passage in Exodus to Peter’s words is interesting, in that Peter is the rock of the new covenant.
Third, we should notice a main character: the cloud. This is the Shekinah or glory cloud – the visible presence of the Holy Spirit. During the Exodus out of Egypt, He appeared as “a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” When the tabernacle (i.e., tent or booth) was set up, He entered it, settled inside the holy of holies and rested on the Ark of the Covenant, where only Moses or the high priest could visit. Likewise He settled in the Temple, in the same way, after it was built by King Solomon. The same cloud of the Holy Spirit appeared here at the transfiguration, and then again at the Ascension (Acts 1:9). At the Transfiguration, the voice of the Father was heard, and so the Apostles witnessed the presence of the Holy Trinity. This happened once before at Jesus’ baptism, where the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove rather than the OT cloud.
Our actors in this narrative are three sets of three: (1) the Holy Trinity, (2) Jesus, Moses & Elijah, and (3) the three Apostles. This narrative has, therefore, a very Trinitarian character. Here, Jesus showed Himself as God; as such, He necessarily revealed the Holy Trinity, because God is a Trinity.
Now let’s compare this event with another event at Sinai. Three Apostles went with Jesus and were privy to see the Holy Trinity, and they are called by name in this passage. Compare this with the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, where Moses takes three men up a mountain to see God, and they are also called by name.
1 And he said to Moses, "Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abi'hu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship afar off… 9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abi'hu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Ex 24:1, 9-11)
At that time, Moses – who typified Jesus – took three men by name up Mt. Sinai. They saw God face to face, and ate and drank. It was believed by Israel that anyone who saw God would die, yet these men not only lived, but feasted in His presence. So did the three Apostles see Jesus in His divine glory – they saw God face to face and they did not die. This points us to a particular element of the first Mosaic Law: it inaugurated a new era where God and humankind could be together in a kind of friendship or communion. This new era ended soon, with the golden calf incident of Ex 32; but the first Sinai covenant was meant to restore a real friendship between God and Israel. It was later, with Jesus, that this communion was restored; the Transfiguration being a taste and reminding us of Sinai.
We see more similarities with Sinai when we read of the cloud that overshadowed them, which they entered into. This cloud appeared in the same Sinai story, with Moses entering into it:
15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Ex 24:15-18)
Here we see Moses ‘entering the cloud,’ as the Apostles did in our Lucan text. Moses experienced the ‘glory of the Lord,’ as did the Apostles. Note that on the seventh day the Lord calls Moses into the cloud; our Lucan text begins with the phrase, ‘about eight days after…’ As the seventh day was to the old covenant, so is the eighth day to the new covenant. As many exegetes note, Moses went up Sinai to receive the Law, that is, to listen to God’s voice. Under similar imagery, the three Apostles are told by the Father’s voice to “listen to him;” both narratives involve listening to the voice of the Lord.
A final comparison to Moses and Sinai is the subject of the conversation between Jesus and Moses & Elijah: Jesus’ departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. What departure? The original Greek text states they spoke of his exodus. Jesus, the new Moses, would lead a new Exodus. In Jerusalem, Jesus would accomplish His work of redemption via the cross, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, leading the way for us to follow. As Moses physically led Israel out of Egyptian slavery, Jesus spiritually leads the Church out of our slavery to the world, sin, and death.
Finally, we can also contrast this story with Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane. In chapter 22, Luke describes that event, noting that Jesus was again on a mountain (Mt. Olivet) to pray. Luke’s account does not mention Peter, James and John, but from the other Synoptics we know these same Apostles were with Jesus in Gethsemane, as they were with Him on the mount of Transfiguration. Based on Luke’s text, in both places they fell asleep while Jesus prayed. In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed three times, a Trinitarian reference as we also saw in the Transfiguration narrative. But there the similarities end and contrast begins; at the Transfiguration they saw Jesus in glory, while in Gethsemane they saw Jesus at His lowest – a criminal violently arrested. Also, notice that in Gethsemane, Peter cut off the ear of one Malchus (Jn 18:10) – this being an image of losing his ability to hear, so directly in contrast with the Father’s command to hear the voice of His Son. Jesus healed Malchus’ ear, restoring his ability to hear His voice. In this simple miracle, Jesus both revealed His divinity and revealed his salvific work: to heal us that we might hear the voice of God, so that He may talk to us as a man speaks to his friend – the primary themes of the Transfiguration.