From Glory to Anguish: Jesus on Two Mountains in Luke’s Gospel
An Easter Meditation by Ursula Weekes
The Transfiguration is a key moment in Jesus’ ministry, when his appearance changed to show how he looks in heaven, “the appearance of his face changed and became as bright as a flash of lightening” (Luke 9:29). Reading Luke’s account, I was struck by an unusual detail that he alone of the gospel writers include, “Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory” (9:32). Why were they sleepy? And why does Luke, the attentive historian, bother to include this detail?
In Luke 9, Jesus had taken Peter, James and John with him up the mountain so that they would be eye-witnesses of his glory. Had the climb up the mountain been too strenuous? Were the disciples exhausted from the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which preceded the Transfiguration? Or was this the kind of sleep that comes from an overwhelming experience? Reading Luke carefully it seems the sleep had only come upon them when Jesus began to be transfigured. Sleep is well-attested as one kind of response to stress or to a dramatic experience. Later in Luke’s gospel, the disciples were unable to stay awake on another occasion. It was the night of Jesus arrest, as he asked them to watch and pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. This time, Luke explicitly tells us that their sleepiness was connected to overpowering emotion, saying they were “exhausted from sorrow” (22:45).
The Gospel writers were very deliberate in their use of detail, not only for the sake of historical accuracy, but also to serve as clues undergirding relationships between events within their respective gospels. These two moments of the disciple sleeping in Luke alert us to a number of other parallels the author sets up between the Transfiguration and Gethsemane. First, both narratives take place on mountains. For the Transfiguration he says Jesus “took Peter James and John with him and went up a mountain to pray” (9:28). For Gethsemane we read, “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives and his disciples followed him” (22:39). Luke deliberately calls the place the Mount of Olives rather than Gethsemane in order to highlight that it is a ‘mount’ or ‘mountain’. This is because mountains are places throughout the Bible where God meets his people in person.
Both narratives include the same four people. Luke states that Peter, James and John were with Jesus at the Transfiguration, and we know from the accounts of Matthew and Mark that it was Peter, James and John who were with Jesus in the garden before his arrest. Luke simply says ‘disciples’ at this point. Both narratives also stress the relationship between Jesus as Son and God as Father. In the Transfiguration, the voice of the Father is heard saying, “This is my Son whom I love, listen to him” (9:35), while on the Mount of Olives, Jesus prays, “Father, if you are willing take this cup from me, but not my will but yours be done” (22.42) Then, of course, both narratives have the striking parallel of sleep that overwhelms the disciples.
So why the parallels? How might Luke intend us to interpret the relationship between the passages? In many ways, these two narratives signify central moments of revelation about Jesus relating to his true identity and to the chief purpose of his work. Luke thus apparently intends them to be understood in counterpoint to one another, as a kind of duet. The Transfiguration reveals Jesus’ heavenly glory. The appearance of Jesus at the Transfiguration is similar to John’s vision of Jesus in heaven in the first chapter of Revelation, “his face was like the shining sun in all its brilliance” (Rev 1:16). Not even in his resurrection appearances did Jesus reveal such manifest splendour, and thus the transfiguration gives a unique glimpse of the full heavenly glory of the Son. This is one reason it is included in all four Gospels. On the Mount of Olives, however, we see Jesus in his most profound moment of anguish, revealing the deepest purpose of his incarnation. For as Jesus prays, he knows that his purpose is to bear, in his body, God’s punishment for all the wrongdoing of those who find forgiveness at the cross. The cup is an Old Testament metaphor for the cup of God’s wrath, indicating that Jesus knew his ultimate purpose was to pay for sin as a substitute for all who turn to him.
So, through a distinctive historical detail twice repeated, namely the unusual sleepiness of three disciples when they should have stayed awake, we become aware of these two narratives in dialogue. In the counterpoint which Luke establishes, we get to the very heart of Jesus identity and his mission, fulfilled in the events of that first Easter day.