What Does the Transfiguration Mean to Us Today? - Part 2

Thomas Lieth

Luke records what the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah was about. They spoke of “his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). So it was about fulfillment, a fulfillment of the law and the prophets. It was about the mission of the Lord Jesus—what was yet to come: the struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane, the torture, the ridicule, the denial, the betrayal, the abandonment of God, and the crucifixion… Yes, it was literally a matter of life and death!

Jesus was facing a battle that required His Father’s unbroken support. On the one hand, the Transfiguration makes it clear that the unconditional will of God is for His Son to follow this path and finish what God had begun, in His grace and love toward man. On the other hand, God wants to strengthen and encourage His Son. Therefore, Jesus could also testify to His disciples, “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me” (John 16:32). Jesus knows: even if a Judas betrays me and a Peter denies, my Heavenly Father keeps the threads of salvation history in His hands, and He will not really leave me alone.

At this point, it is also said that Jesus will meet His earthly end in Jerusalem and not, for example, in Nazareth. Why is that important? I am thinking of the dramatic events on Mount Precipice in Nazareth (Luke 4:29-30). Jesus did not die there: not in that place, not at that time, not in that way. He was to die in Jerusalem during Passover, on the cross, according to the prophecies of the law and the prophets (Gal 3:13; Deut 21:23). Jesus knew this; He had already announced His death: “Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified” (Matt 26:2). Predicting death is not so difficult. But to say when, where, and how exactly, is much more so. Jesus knew where His way was leading Him, and the Transfiguration was a confirmation that this was the only possible and right way to reconciliation.

Onward in our text with Matthew 17, verse 4: “Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.” Typical Peter: he once again boldly takes the initiative and wants to redesign the entire mountain, contrary to the applicable building regulations. Peter does not fall into worship, as would be appropriate in this situation. There is nothing to hear from the other two disciples. Peter apparently wants to cling to the glory he experiences here. He wants a paradise on earth. But that has never gone well and was also not promised.

Peter and the other disciples did not really understand the way of the cross and the salvation of their Lord until the end. But that should not be a reproach, for I believe that even we who hold the completed Word of God in our hands, do not really understand what has happened and what is yet to happen. Here, as elsewhere in the Scriptures, we are confronted with the human weaknesses of Jesus’ followers. And, I’m even happy about that. It shows me that I’m not the only one in error. Above all, it shows us that it’s not all about being perfect in following, but being sincere, honest, and faithful. Above Peter was. His request to build three tabernacles is very reminiscent of religion. I have nothing against places of worship and places of pilgrimage, but when it comes to kissing a stone, stroking the cheeks of a statue, or cutting off an olive branch, then the gospel surpasses them by miles. Jesus does not want tabernacles, but our hearts. God does not want relic worship, but obedience. We do not have to go to Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity, or to Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, when God is so close. What God wants is a living Church, not a dead cathedral. To the Lord, 10 sincere, praying worshipers in a closet are dearer than 2,000 hectic pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It is also interesting that the disciples not only recognized the transfigured Lord Jesus, despite His transformation, but also Moses and Elijah, although of course they had never seen them. There were no pictures of them, and they certainly were not wearing name tags. But Peter did not ask who these strange figures were, but immediately identified them as Moses and Elijah. We could dig deeper and try to draw conclusions from it. Can it be that we will actually recognize each other in glory, even siblings whom we have never seen before? Will we also recognize Moses and Elijah? What about our faithful family members? Yes, I believe we will recognize each other, but that does not mean we necessarily know that this one was my father or my wife, or that that one was my annoying brother or unjust boss. In glory, we are all one big family. We are all in a relationship with each other, and above all we will miss nothing. It is a place of eternal bliss (Isa 65:17ff.).

In Matthew 17:5 it says, “While he yet spake [Peter with his construction project], behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them…” In this cloud, God is present. He puts an end to all human and religious thoughts and begins to speak. And, as in the baptism of the Lord Jesus, His authority and identity are here affirmed and approved by the Father Himself: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” That is exactly what God Almighty had already foreshadowed to the people of Israel through Moses: “The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken” (Deut 18:15). The Transfiguration confirms that Jesus Christ is this Prophet (see John 6:14). Peter was sorely mistaken in thinking that he could put Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the same footing by building tabernacles. God did not say from the cloud, “This is my special prophet,” but, “This is my beloved Son.” In fact, just a few days earlier, Peter himself had basically recognized this special status of the Lord Jesus: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).

In the end, Jesus is no less than God Himself! What God is clearly saying here is very reminiscent of His words in Isaiah concerning the Servant of God, who embodies the suffering and vicarious guilt offering (e.g. Isaiah 42). If you have this salvation path in mind, it is also understandable that Peter’s request, to build three tabernacles, is issued a clear rebuff. This shows us once again that God has no liking for religion. Peter certainly meant well, but his request is the way of religion. Jesus had to go to the cross. It was similar when Jesus spoke of His imminent death, and that very same Peter said, “This shall not be unto thee.” Jesus answered harshly, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matt 16:22-23). The way to the cross was absolutely necessary and urgent. Nothing was allowed to stop Jesus, not the devil or the disciples. As incredible as it sounds, it was God’s irrevocable will that His Son go to that cursed tree. And, in fact, for you and for me.

“Hear ye him.” This applies to all people at all times and in all places. You should listen to Jesus Christ, to Him alone! Moses and Elijah knew that their salvation also depended on the Passion of the Lord Jesus. As absurd as it seems, Elijah and Moses must have done everything to keep Jesus on the way to Calvary and to complete the work of His Father. It’s not just about salvation for you and me, but for the whole world. Without the crucifixion of the Lord, without His shed blood and the resurrection, Moses and Elijah would be trapped in their sins (cf. Job 4:17; Rom 3:10). Everyone needs an offering. And Jesus is this substitute, even for the people of the Old Covenant (see Heb 9:15; Rom 3:25-26). To atone for our guilt, God allowed His Son to die on the cross. In His patience, God had endured the sins of men until then, to forgive them now for Jesus’ sake and thus to render His righteousness. So, it is clear that God alone is righteous, and only the one who believes in Jesus Christ is absolved of guilt.

In the next verse, we read the disciples’ response: “And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid” (Matt 17:6). They froze because of the holiness of God. I believe that if we were directly confronted with God’s face or even with God’s voice, we too would shake with awe. How much more will the man who has no salvation in Jesus Christ be torn to pieces inside! The most hardened man will shrink away in the face of God and would rather crawl into hiding. What happened to the apostle John when God revealed the things to come? “I…heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet… And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw…in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man…and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead” (Rev 1:10-17). John had seen quite a lot in his life—the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, the risen Jesus, and His Ascension. What else could shake that man? And yet the holiness of God makes him fall in awe as if dead. How comforting are the words of the Lord that He speaks to John, “And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not” (Rev 1:17). Perhaps John remembered the Transfiguration of his Lord and Savior at that time, for even then Jesus had encouraged His disciples: “And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid” (Matt 17:7).

In Jesus, we need not be afraid of the God who is capable of destroying the soul and the body (Matt 10:28). In Jesus, we also need not fear the world because we have overcome the world in Him (1 John 5:4-5). The encouragement of Jesus is both a solemn comfort and a future hope: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31).

And with that, we come to the last verse of our text: “And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only” (Matt 17:8). The three disciples had gone up the mountain with the man Jesus and witnessed His divinity there. In addition, they met the highest representatives of the Jewish law and the prophets: Moses and Elijah. The disciples heard the awesome voice of God and the related testimony: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” They didn’t dare look up. But then they felt the hands of the Lord Jesus and His voice, saying, “Fear not!” It is the gracious hand of God that touches them, and it is His call to trust Him. Jesus allows us to get up and even to look into the face of the glory of God.

Here, at the Transfiguration, the disciples are literally reminded of what matters: they saw no one else but Jesus alone. What is our focus on? May the Lord grant that we too never lose sight of the essential thing—the grace in Jesus Christ alone! Amen.

Midnight Call - 06/2018

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