As Jesus went about teaching and healing, there came a time when He 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 on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21) This teaching was very confusing for the disciples. Peter [even] took [Jesus] aside and began to [scold] him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:22–23) The disciples simply did not yet understand that Jesus came to die on the cross and save them from their sins. They were very confused.
So it is that Jesus showed His true identity to some of the disciples in a very special way. Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. (Matthew 17:1–2) Jesus is both God and man. Up until this time, Jesus had hidden His Divine glory within His human body. Then, on this mountain … Jesus allowed Peter, James, and John to see a little bit of His glory as the Son of God. Jesus wanted Peter, James, John, and us, to have a clearer understanding of who He is.
As Jesus shone in glory, two new figures appeared. Behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with [Jesus]. (Matthew 17:3) Both Moses and Elijah had been dead for centuries. They were both heroes of the faith. God used Moses to establish Israel as a free nation by leading them out of Egypt and giving them the Law. Elijah did not die in the normal way, but went up by a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:11) With the appearance of these two men, Jesus clearly showed that He reigns in both earth and heaven.
It was then that Peter did his thing. Peter had this bad habit of burning off nervous energy by opening his mouth and babbling before he thought about what to say. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4) Peter believed that this mountain top experience was the goal of Christ’s mission to this earth. He wanted to build shelters for the threesome who appeared before him. He did not know what to say, for [the disciples] were terrified. (Mark 9:6) This is not the first or the last time that Peter’s mouth got him into trouble.
It was then that God the Father interrupted Peter. [Peter] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5) It is as if God the Father said, “Hey, Peter, you can’t learn a whole lot with all that noise coming out of your mouth. If you want to learn, here is my beloved Son; close your mouth and listen to Him.” The Father identified Jesus as His Son, the Eternal Word in the flesh. Pay attention to Him.
You see, when 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, (Matthew 16:21) the disciples refused to listen. They recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God,” (Matthew 16:16) but they could not comprehend the idea that the work of the Christ was to suffer and die to take away the sin of the world. If they could not understand Jesus’ work as their suffering savior, then they could not understand Jesus at all.
Jesus had to use this extreme demonstration of His glory to teach them that they must listen to Him. God the Father also spoke to them and told them to listen to Him. Jesus had to teach His disciples that He was indeed the Christ, the Son of God and that He came into the world to save sinners with His suffering, and death, and then rise from the dead on the third day. The way to eternal glory is through the cross. If the disciples were to learn this, then they must listen to Jesus.
Peter and the other disciples responded the way most people respond to the glory of God. When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. (Matthew 17:6) That is the way everyone responds when they encounter the God of glory. When you encounter the God of glory in all His holiness, the only response is terror. He is holy. I am sinful. He is powerful. I am powerless. He is everything. I am nothing. The Children of Israel encountered God in His glory. When all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18–19) The Children of Israel saw God from a distance … the base of the mountain and they were afraid. Peter, James, and John encountered the bright cloud of God … right there on the mountain. I can’t even imagine how terrified they were.
There is only one person who removes that kind of fear. Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. (Matthew 17:7–8) Jesus touched them. He spoke the word. He removed the fear. They looked up and only Jesus was there. Jesus was there with His mercy and comfort. Jesus is still the true Son of God, filled with splendor and glory, but that glory was hidden in His humanity. Jesus is the one and only savior and comfort from the terror of sin.
Sometimes we think about the times when God showed His glory in the Bible. It’s easy to get excited about mountain top experiences when we aren’t there. It is very exciting to think about God speaking to Moses from the burning bush. We imagine that it would be interesting to witness God smoking away at the top of Mount Sinai. We might fantasize about meeting God in all His glory. The thought of God pouring His glory out on us sounds very thrilling. We like the Jesus who lights up the mountain top in today’s Gospel. We like the Jesus whose Father thunders from the cloud and tells us that Jesus is His Son. We like a God who is large and in charge. We like that kind of power and majesty. We like an awesome God who has thunder in His footsteps and lightning in His fists. We like our sovereign God.
But before we get too excited about meeting God in all His glory, we should take time to read about the people who actually DID encounter the glory of God. Adam and Eve tried to run away and hide. Other people who encountered the glory of God fell on their faces. Others became as dead men. Others trembled and were not able to stand. Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) The common element in all these encounters with God is fear. Even angels who only reflect the glory of God must say, “Fear not,” before they can deliver their messages.
It is easy to forget the words that God said to Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) It is easy to forget that when God the Father spoke from the cloud, the disciples fell on their faces in fear. It is easy to forget that in order to stand before God without fear, we must be just as perfect … just as holy as He is. We must be blameless … innocent … sinless. Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We must be perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. In order to stand before God in His glory, we too must be glorious.
It is easy to think that we can be glorious when we stand before the false god of our own making, but when the true God reveals His law to us, we see that we are anything but glorious. Instead of being sinless, we are sinful. Instead of being innocent, we are guilty. Instead of being holy, we are profane. Our only response to God’s holy, almighty glory is to collapse in terror just as the disciples did.
We need the Jesus who came to the disciples and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” We need the Jesus who led these three disciples down from the Mount of Transfiguration. We need the Jesus who made His way to another mountain … Golgotha, the place of the skull. On that mountain, Jesus will express the inner most being of God in sweat and blood, pain and suffering, and, ultimately death and burial. It is through that suffering and death on the cross that Jesus earned our justification. It is through that suffering and death on the cross that Jesus took away our sin and replaced it with His righteousness. It is Jesus working through the cross who offers us forgiveness, life, and salvation. It is Jesus who takes away the burden of our sin and makes it possible for us to stand in the presence of God. It is the glory of Christ on the cross that gives the glory of eternal life to us.
Through the cross, Jesus became the death of death and the life of life. As the life of life, He rose from the dead. It was not until after that resurrection that the disciples finally understood the true mission of the Christ. Then Peter, James, and John could properly tell about their experience on the mountain when Jesus showed them a bit of heaven. Then it was that they could proclaim that they had seen the divine glory of Jesus Christ, but Jesus hid that glory in His human flesh and by means of that human flesh humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. They could point to the glory of His Transfiguration that terrified them and then they could point to the even greater glory of His death on the cross. In this way, they could proclaim the magnitude of His salvation.
God the Father proclaimed Jesus as His Son and commanded us to listen to Him. As we hear the proclamation of Jesus’ words, the Holy Spirit produces and sustains the true faith in us … the faith that receives Christ’s great salvation. That great salvation will carry us through not only the mountain top experiences, but also through the valleys in between until our last hour comes and our Father in heaven gives us a blessed end and carries us from this valley of sorrows to Himself in heaven. Amen
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