“Coming in His Kingdom” – The Transfiguration

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Mount Tabor is a notable mountain, rising 1,400 feet from the Plain of Jezreel, to 1,994 feet above sea level. It demarcated the boundary of three tribes: Zebulun on the west (Josh 19:12), Issachar on the south (v. 22), and Naphtali on the north (v. 34). 

Tabor is isolated from other mountains, standing majestic like a sentinel. It is the most prominent feature on the landscape for miles ongoing, dominating the region’s horizon. Mount Tabor is considered admirable in comparison with Mount Hermon, which is the highest summit in all the Promised Land, rising 9,230 feet above sea level. Psalm 89:12 declares of God, “The north and the south, You have created them; Tabor and Hermon shout for joy at Your name.”

Some believe Tabor was the holy mountain mentioned in the blessing of Moses, where an early sanctuary was to be located (Deut 33:19). Mount Tabor is first mentioned by name at the time when the Promised Land was divided among the twelve tribes (Josh 19:12-22). Mount Tabor was fortified by Israel under Barak, who gathered “ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun” to engage Sisera, captain of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, near Megiddo (Judg 4:6, 12, 14). The brothers of Gideon were slain by Zebah and Zalmunna at Tabor (Judg 8:18). In the time of the prophets (Hos 5:1-3), the priests were called to appear and defend themselves for ensnaring the Israelites and the house of the king to practice idolatry at Mount Tabor. The prophet Jeremiah (46:18) described Tabor as exceptional among mountains, comparing it to Mount Carmel by the sea.

Tabor was often fortified. In 218 BC, Antiochus III the Great lured the Ptolemaic garrison from its summit, captured a town there, and afterwards fortified it. As a Jewish general during the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66), Josephus encircled the summit with a wall, thereby adding a defensive rampart to the fortress. In AD 1113, Muslims from Damascus plundered the monastery and murdered the monks. The Islamic leader Saladin made an unsuccessful attack against Mount Tabor in 1183. However, four years later in 1187, he devastated Tabor following the rout of the Latin Crusaders at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin.

Although not mentioned by name, early church fathers believed Mount Tabor was the location for Jesus’ transfiguration, based upon the Synoptics (Matt 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28), which mention that Jesus took three of His disciples—Peter, James, and John—“up on a high mountain.” Origen (AD 184-253) was the first to identify Tabor as such. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 313-86) and Jerome (ca. 342-420) both agreed with his assertion.

Mount Tabor has been a popular pilgrimage site since the fourth century. By the sixth century, three churches were built on the mountain; and, by the eleventh century, another church was erected, in addition to a monastery. The Basilica of the Transfiguration, which Franciscans built on Mount Tabor’s summit in the 1920s, is one of the most popular visitor attractions. The fact that a town occupied the peak of Tabor in the first century, means it is unlikely to be the site of the Transfiguration. Additionally, the region of Caesarea Philippi, where Peter made his confession of Christ and Jesus prophesied He would build His church (Matt 16:13-20), is quite a distance from Mount Tabor. What is more likely is that Mount Hermon is the site of the Transfiguration, since it is much closer to Caesarea Philippi, where the previous events of Matthew 16 occurred.

Jesus previously hinted at His impending death (Matt 9:15; 10:38; 12:40). Opposition to the Lord began when He forgave sins (9:1-8), and increased when He associated with many tax collectors and sinners (vv. 9-13). Matthew 12 indicates that the religious leaders’ hostility toward Jesus intensified, because He did not observe their legalistic traditions. Sometimes the opposition was expressed directly against the Lord (cf. 12:9-14), and other times at His disciples (vv. 1-8). Matthew 12:14 indicates that the Pharisees conspired against Jesus “as to how they might destroy Him.” The official rejection of Jesus as Messiah reached its climax with their conspiracy. The leaders’ repudiation of Jesus would become unpardonable (vv. 30-32).

Jesus’ demeanor confirmed Him to be the Suffering Servant of the Lord (Isa 42:1-4). Isaiah prophesied that Messiah would “not cry out or raise His voice, nor make His voice heard in the street” (v. 2; Matt 12:19). In other words, He would be gentle and humble (cf. Matt 11:29), not presenting Himself in a boastful or impudent manner. He would be compassionate to accept those whom the world regarded with low expectations (Isa 42:3; Matt 11:28; 12:20). He would take His message of hope, not only to Israel but also to all nations. Nevertheless, the servant characteristics of Jesus resulted in the Jews concluding that He was not the Son of David (Matt 12:22-24). Considering the nation’s rejection, Matthew 12:17-21 proves how Jesus is the prophesied Suffering Servant.

Jesus needed to prepare His disciples for His death, as a result of Israel’s rejection and the disciples’ affirmation of Him as Messiah. “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matt 16:21). Jesus had to fulfill prophecy, so He prepared His disciples for that by foretelling His death, thereby declaring that God ordained for Him to suffer, be killed, and ultimately rise victoriously. In response to the Lord’s declaration, Peter unwittingly opposed Jesus by rebuking Him: “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You” (v. 22). “Never happen” is the same as saying, “No, Lord.”

An oxymoron is defined as a “figure of speech in which two ideas of opposite meaning are combined to form an expressive phrase or epithet.” If an oxymoron is combining two ideas (or words) that should not be combined, then the ultimate contradiction would be, “No, Lord.” Never do the words “no” and “Lord” belong together. The Holy Spirit sets His desire “against the flesh” (Gal 5:16-17), and thereby compels the believer to accomplish God’s will (Rom 8:4-11; Gal 5:16). Scripture commands the believer to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18-21), which means to be controlled or influenced by the Lord God. Therefore, whenever a child of God does not exhibit Christlike character (Rom 12:1-2), speaks impure words (Eph 4:29; Col 3:8) or demonstrates negative attitudes (Phil 2:3-4), it is the equivalent of saying, “No, Lord.”

Certainly, the unbeliever says “no” to the Lord God when he does not trust in Jesus Christ as the Savior and Redeemer of his soul. Those who are told that they are sinners and estranged from God (Ps 51:5; Rom 3:23; Eph 2:1-3), and that God calls all people everywhere to repent of their sins and trust in Christ Jesus to be saved (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21; Rom 10:9-10), yet ignore that message or persist in attempting to merit the favor of God . . . or even seek to help the Lord by supplementing the once-for-all sacrificial work of Christ Jesus, are essentially taking God aside and rebuking Him, saying, “Never, Lord.”

Jesus reprimanded Peter for not setting his “mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matt 16:23). He then proceeded to announce the coming of His kingdom, to strengthen the faith of His disciples in preparation for the trying events that lay ahead for Him and them. Jesus said that some of His disciples would “not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (v. 28). The Lord, of course, did not mean that He established the prophesied kingdom of the Old Testament during their lifetime, because that most certainly did not occur. Nor did it mean that it was already inaugurated, for this would be contrary to Jesus’ prediction of future events. Nor did Jesus speak of His kingdom in a heavenly sense, for that would contradict the earthly sense in which the single, unified, mediatorial kingdom existed historically under the Mosaic Covenant, which the Old Testament prophets promised would be restored in its former glory with the coming of Messiah.

There are other aspects of God’s kingdom revealed in Scripture. Scripture testifies to a universal kingdom of God, which is His all-encompassing, sovereign rule of history from creation throughout eternity (1 Chron 29:11; Ps 96:13; 103:19; 145:9-13; Dan 2:37). The universal kingdom cannot be equated with the millennial, earthly rule of God at Messiah’s second coming (nor is the millennium “already” heavenly but “not yet” earthly). That would not introduce anything new, since the former exists throughout eternity. Jesus also was not speaking in regard to the Day of Pentecost, because the Son of Man did not come then; rather, the Holy Spirit (John 16:7; Acts 2:1-4), which was the beginning of the church (cf. Matt 16:18; Acts 1:4-5; 2:32-33; 11:15-17; 1 Cor 12:13). The church is a new entity that came into existence at Pentecost, and is founded upon the New Testament apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Eph 2:20). The church is not the kingdom.

Jesus prophesied that He would grant a preview to Peter, James, and John of what it would be like when He comes “in His kingdom,” which is the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-8). Each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) includes the Transfiguration immediately after Jesus’ prophecy (cf. Mark 9:1-8; Luke 9:27-36). Matthew and Mark both used the Greek connective kai, translated “and” (which is not all that unusual for Mark, since immediacy in his gospel is emphasized frequently, as evident in 410 of his 678 verses in the original Greek beginning with kai, rendered ”and”). However, the fact that Luke wrote “and it came to pass” (9:28, KJV: Gk. egeneto de / lit. “it occurred”)—in comparison to the original Greek of Matthew and Mark having kai prior to the time reference of “six days later” (or “eight days after” in Luke)—indicates the relationship between Jesus’ prediction and its fulfillment in the Transfiguration. Peter indicated that the Transfiguration—to which he and the apostles bore witness—is reason to expect Jesus’ second coming (2 Pet 1:16-18).

Jesus’ prediction of His death and the witness of His majesty, seemed to be irreconcilable. Nevertheless, the Lord revealed both so that His Transfiguration would provide the needed strength for His self-sacrificial death. The certainty of the coming kingdom would fortify the faith of Jesus’ followers, to live sacrificially in following Christ as Lord God and Savior (cf. Matt 16:24-26). The harsh reality of self-sacrifice can be endured with the promise of glory (cf. 1 Pet 1:11), enabling Christ’s followers to persevere in faith and to deny selfish ambition. “Take up his cross and follow” Him today, knowing the coming glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, who first bore the cross for those who would believe in Him (cf. 1 Pet 2:24).

Midnight Call - 07/2023

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