Year A Sunday next before Lent Matthew 17:1-9 ( 2 Peter 1:16-21 )
Have you got a memory that sticks out in your mind that is as clear today as it was when it happened ? Can you think of something that happened, say over thirty years ago ? I can still remember being led into my Primary School by my mother for the first time and being aware of the seemingly huge corridors with polished wooden floors.
Peter clearly had a vivid recollection of the Transfiguration of Jesus when he wrote his second letter. This was probably about thirty to thirty five years later. He uses this to demonstrate that he, and the other disciples were 'eyewitnesses to the majesty of Jesus'. Perhaps he could still hear the words of God resounding in his ears, 'This is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'
This incident clearly had a profound effect upon Peter as it showed the true majesty and glory of Jesus that was hidden by his humanity. The memory of this would also have encouraged the disciples later when things were difficult. You can imagine Peter, James and John cheering one another when they were being persecuted, after the ascension, with their recollection of the transfiguration.
This incident happened shortly before Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. In Chapter 16:13-20 Peter had stated that he thought that Jesus was the Christ. From 16:21-28 Jesus tells his disciples that his Messiahship is to be one of rejection and suffering. This contrasted with the Messianic hopes of the Jews for a popular, triumphant Messiah who would defeat the Romans. This resulted in Peter rebuking Jesus ( 16:22 ) and Jesus, in turn correcting him. Jesus went on to say that everyone who wanted to follow him would have to take up his cross. Taking up a cross was a route that could only lead to humiliation, suffering and death. Quite a contrast with this 'mountain top' experience.
The Transfiguration followed the exchange between Peter and Jesus to reveal who Jesus is, and to verify the truth of his words about his forthcoming death and resurrection. God's command to 'listen to him' ,verse 5, are the most significant words in this passage.
Joshua had a toy called a Transformer. It looked like a rock, albeit a plastic one, and folded out to become a plastic monster. Although it changed it's appearance it didn't change it's substance. It was still plastic.
Jesus was transfigured. John Wesley wrote about this, 'The indwelling Deity darted out its rays through the veil of the flesh; and that with such transcendent splendour, that he no longer bore the form of a servant. His face shone with Divine majesty, like the sun in its strength; and all his body was so irradiated by it, that his clothes could not conceal its glory, but became white and glittering as the very light, with which he covered himself as with a garment.'
The Greek translated 'transfigured' is metamorphosis. It refers to a whole change of being. This was for the benefit of the disciples as it happened 'before them', verse 2. This was almost certainly a glimpse of Jesus as he had been before he became a man. This reminds us of his humility when we think of the glory that he voluntarily put to one side to become a man
His face shone, reminding us of the way that Moses face shone after he had been in the presence of God. The white garments suggested a heavenly being. This description of Jesus also gives a preview of what he will look like when he comes again in his heavenly glory.
Jesus was with Moses and Elijah. This could symbolize a number of things.
i) Jesus was like Moses and Elijah, but better ( typology ). Moses was the deliverer of God's people from slavery and a great prophet. Jesus was both these and more. He delivered people from the slavery of sin and spoke of God's ways like no-one else. Elijah was expected to come before the Messiah to bring in a new era in salvation history, the hope of God's deliverance. Jesus would make that hope a reality.
ii) Some say that Moses represented the law and Elijah the prophets. Jesus came to fulfil the law and the prophets, so their presence points to Jesus mission being the culmination of God's plan to save people.
iii) The ministries of Moses and Elijah both featured suffering and rejection, and Jesus would endure those things at a deeper level. He would bear the suffering of the cross, the rejection of the people who he had come to save, and alienation from God as he took upon himself the punishment for the sin of the world.
A young minister, newly graduated from
college, is serving in his very first church. He gets a call telling
him that a church member, elderly woman who has given her life in service
to the church, is in the hospital. She's so weak she can't even get
up out of bed, and the doctors don't hold much hope for her recovery.
Would he go up and visit? Well, of course he will and he does.
All the way to the hospital he's thinking about what he will say to this Christian lady, what words of comfort he can give her to prepare her for her eminent death. He arrives at the hospital, goes up to her room for the visit. He sits and talks with her a few minutes, just small talk really, nothing earth shattering. When he makes ready to leave, he asks if she would like him to have prayer with her. She answers, "Yes, of course. That's why I wanted you to come." He then asks politely, "And what exactly would you like me to pray for?"
"Why, I want you to pray that God will heal me," she answers in a surprised tone of voice. Haltingly, fumbling over the words, he prays just as she wanted, that God will heal her, even though he's not really sure that can happen. When he says the "Amen" at the end of the prayer, the woman says, "You know, I think it worked! I think I'm healed!" And she gets out of the bed and begins to run up and down the hallway of the hospital, shouting, "Praise God! I'm healed! Praise God! I'm healed!"
Meanwhile, the young minister, in a stupor, stumbles to the stairwell, walks down five flights of stairs, makes his way to the parking lot and somehow manages to find his car. As he fumbles to get his keys out of his pocket, he looks heavenward and says, "Lord, don't you ever do that to me again!" He had a mountaintop moment, but didn't know what to do with it!
Peter was like this. He didn't know what to do but was not lost for words. Impulsive as ever he offers to build a shelter to house each of these three great men. Perhaps he thought that this would be a permanent arrangement and that they could be visited on this mountain. Maybe he favoured staying on the mountain with these three great men of faith rather than going down and seeing his leader crucified. He is interrupted by God declaring to the disciples 'This is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him'. Both the Transfiguration and this voice were for the benefit of the disciples. The disciples had to listen to Jesus properly to have a full understanding of his person and his mission, which would include his suffering and death.
The voice focuses the attention upon Jesus and his role as the suffering Messiah.
It shows that Jesus was on the right track in steadfastly going to the cross. It underlines Jesus correction of Peter's refusal to let Jesus die.
This is also a reaffirmation the close, loving relationship that Jesus has with God the Father and that Jesus is continuing to do His will. It is an echo of the words spoken by God at Jesus' baptism as he started his public ministry.
The bright cloud suggests the glory and presence of God. It reminds us that God led the Israelites out of Egypt by a cloud. The three disciples are in terror when they are engulfed by this bright cloud and God speaks to them, but Jesus calms them by touching them. He had changed back into a man, and Moses, Elijah, and the cloud had gone.
Jesus told them not to tell anyone about this until after the resurrection. Why was
Firstly to avoid people thinking that he was a political messiah who had come to start a rebellion against the Romans.
Secondly because the resurrection provides the strongest evidence for the messiahship of Jesus. The words of a few followers of Jesus about a spectacular appearance would soon be dwarfed by over five hundred witnesses seeing the risen Jesus. It may also be that Jesus did not want the other disciples to be jealous of Peter, James and John.
What can we take from this account for ourselves today ?
This is a reminder that we have a God who reveals himself to us, principally through Jesus. Jesus chose to reveal himself in his glory to this inner circle of disciples. God chose to reveal who Jesus is through the words that he spoke to the disciples. There is no suggestion that the disciples sought, anticipated or deserved such a revelation. It was entirely at the instigation of God who reveals himself to people through his undeserved favour. We can have a meeting with the Lord Jesus because he is alive today. He may not appear to us in the way he did to the three disciples, but he still reveals himself to people today.
This story reveals the majesty of Jesus, the Messiah. He deserves our honour, praise worship and wholehearted dedication. Sometimes Christians focus too much on the humanity of Jesus at the expense of his divinity. Like the disciples we are to listen to him. To study, examine, understand and apply his teaching to our lives.
The message to this small band of disciples is that their leader would not guide them in the earthly victory they anticipated with all the attendant fame and riches. No, he would be executed and, although he would rise from the dead, they would also be rejected, persecuted and even lose their own lives. This 'mountain top' experience was, and is not, the normal Christian experience. Although there may be times when we are blessed and have a wonderful encounter with Jesus, we also have to bear our cross daily to follow him. We can expect rejection and suffering like our master. Like Moses, like Elijah, like Jesus. like the disciples and like Christians throughout history. The transfiguration should give us a new perspective on life and death. We can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that there is something more, and better to come. The appearance of Jesus in his glory reminds us that one day we will receive spiritual, glorified bodies and no longer be subject to pain, illness, suffering, and death, because the old order of things will have passed away. And we shall be in the presence of Jesus, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit for eternity.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the night before he was assassinated said, "Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any [man]. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Our eyes have seen the glory of the
coming of the Lord and we can hold on to that image and that certain
hope of being with the risen, ascended, glorified Jesus for ever.
Mehdi Dibaj, was imprisoned by the government of Iran in 1984 on charges of "apostasy," since he had converted from Islam to Christianity. The penalty for this crime according to Islamic law was death. Mehdi languished in prison for ten years before his case came to trial. When it did, his written statement of defence was a simple and straightforward affirmation of commitment to Jesus Christ. The last few lines of that defence contain this remarkable paragraph:
"[Jesus Christ] is our Saviour and he is the Son of God. To know him means to know eternal life. I, a useless sinner, have believed in him and all his words and miracles recorded in the gospel. I have committed my life into his hands. Life for me is an opportunity to serve him, and death is a better opportunity to be with Christ. Therefore, I am not only satisfied to be in prison for the honour of his holy name, but am ready to give my life for the sake of Jesus my Lord... "
On December 12, 1993, the court before whom this defence was made sentenced Mehdi to death. Then, under intense pressure from people in the West who knew of the case, the Iranians released him in January 1994. Seven months later, he was found dead "under suspicious circumstances" in a Teheran park. He was the third Christian murdered in Iran after his release from prison.
Our culture disregards death, and this has an impact on Christians. It causes us to clutch our possessions more tightly. We trust the security material things give us and avoid risking our lives for the service of God. Many Iranian believers, on the other hand, have learned Paul's perspective on death, and they, like him, provide an example for Western believers.)
Suggested songs :
At the name of Jesus; At your feet we fall; Christ triumphant; I give you all the honour; Jesus is Lord; Jesus name above all names; Jesus the name high over all; Lord I lift your name on high; Our/mine eyes have seen the glory of our Saviour Christ the Lord; There's no greater name than Jesus; You laid aside your majesty;