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What Did Jesus and Moses Talk About at the Transfiguration?

The apostles had an idea of the kind of conversation they were eavesdropping on at the Transfiguration, but Moses knew better

Rod Bennett

Yesterday, we heard about how “Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28)—intentionally excluding nine of the twelve from witnessing the astonishing transfiguration that Jesus knew was about to take place there.

John was taken to the mountaintop, the natural-born mystic, traditional author of the profoundest Gospel; the greater James was taken, probably a cousin and lifelong friend to our Lord; and Peter, keeper of the keys. “And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white”—as white as light, according to St. Matthew’s version, and his face shone like the sun.

This change, the apostles would later realize, was not Jesus advancing to some new state of perfection or donning some new garment . . . but dropping an old one: “Rather,” as we have already read, “he [had previously] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness . . . found in human appearance, he [had] humbled himself.” It was a look that John would recognize when he saw it a second time many years later—a vision he records in the book of Revelation: “In his right hand he held seven stars . . . and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (1:16).

“And behold, two men talked with [Jesus], Moses, and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). These two men, whose lives on earth had been separated by as much as 700 years, are here to stand in symbolically for the Law and the Prophets: the Old Covenant giving its stamp of approval to the New. If John felt a sense of déjà vu when he saw the glorified Christ again during the events of the Apocalypse, Moses must have undergone a similar experience here at the Transfiguration. Moses, recall, had once climbed to an awesome mountaintop, taken three trusted companions with him, and—as we shall see in a moment—heard God speaking through a heavenly voice (Exod. 24). “Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep but kept awake, and they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him” (Luke 9:32).

What does it mean that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus “about his departure”? The Greek word translated here as “departure” (exodos) is the same term that the Septuagint uses for the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt, the Exodus. In other words, Moses learned (along with Elijah) that Jesus would soon lead an exodus from bondage at the Holy City, just as Moses himself once led the Israelites in an exodus from their servitude in Egypt. Not unnaturally, the eavesdropping apostles likely interpreted this news of an exodus solely in terms of literal liberation from the yoke of Rome. Moses knew, however—perhaps better than anyone—that Israel’s real troubles began after their release from pagan captivity.

Whether in Egypt or in the Promised Land, the Israelites were still sinners, and Moses, for all his inspired leadership, had never been able to break that spiritual yoke. By this point, he would certainly have agreed with the author of Hebrews that “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. . . . For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (10:1,4). The Great Jubilee of the Essenes promised a better liberation, from the debt of sin and bondage to the devil . . . but the concept was still, even at this late hour, being confounded with the mere political freedom with which most Israelites might have been content. Moses knew better.

Nine of the twelve, remember, had not made the cut, were not allowed to be present at the Transfiguration. And worse than that, our Lord did not even permit those who had been present to tell anyone about it—not even, it would seem, the other apostles! “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:10). Luke’s version doubles down on this, making it clear that this temporary embargo really was strictly observed for the entirety of the prescribed period: “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” (Luke 9:36). What was the thinking behind this?

Several of the early Fathers ventured to guess that our Lord was concerned that his less mature disciples might take the Transfiguration as a sign that the kingdom had already come, or that his victory was now such a foregone conclusion that further work and prayers on their part would be superfluous. We are never, at any rate, told the reason outright in Scripture. We can only assume that master Teacher, in his infinite wisdom, simply knew that these others needed to grasp the Great Mystery in some other way.

It is perfectly certain, however, that the tone of Jesus’ teaching changes from about the Transfiguration forward; the “minor key” kicks in now, and it becomes the dominant tenor until the embargo is lifted—“until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” And Peter, James, and John, God bless them, move smoothly on to their next task at hand: “questioning,” that is, “what this rising from the dead could mean.”

This article is adapted from Rod Bennett’s new book These Twelve, available now at the Catholic Answers shop.


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