Transfiguration Sunday (The Last Sunday after Epiphany) February 15, 2015
Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25
536, 206(1-5), 148(1-4), 655
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”
I lived in northern California for fifteen years. During that time I always marveled at how a three-hour drive could whisk me away from the masses, messes, and twelve-lane freeways to the pristine slopes of the Sierra Mountains. Fresh, cold air. Vast sizes and spaces. Endless green tree-lines. Majestic landscapes. Spectacular views from various mountaintops, which invigorated me and remained with me long after I had returned to my everyday realities.
Have you ever driven through mountains? Have you ever stopped at a scenic view to admire the dizzying heights and distant landscapes? The view from a mountaintop gives one a different perspective. What Peter, James, and John viewed on the Mount of Transfiguration was meant to give them a different perspective—not a better view of the landscape, but a better view of the One whom they called Savior and Lord.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, let’s approach this familiar text and this familiar mountain—the Mount of Transfiguration—as we would approach any mountain climb: I. The Ascent, II. The Summit, and III. The Descent.
The ascent to our mountaintop is the circumstances that led to the transfiguration. Nothing about the transfiguration of Jesus was accidental or inconsequential. According to Matthew 17:1, “After six days, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” We’re not told which mountain Jesus and the disciples ascended. Some say Mount Tabor in Upper Galilee. Others say Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi. At 9,000 feet, Mount Hermon is the highest mountain in Israel and close to the areas where Jesus and his disciples were traveling in Matthew 16.
In the final analysis, however, the precise mountain doesn’t matter. What does matter is that everything about the Transfiguration was determined by Jesus. Jesus chose the place. Jesus chose the disciples. Jesus led the disciples up the mountain. Subsequently, Jesus led the disciples back down the mountain, and Jesus chose the timing.
Indeed, the timing of the Transfiguration is important to understanding its purpose. By the time Peter, James, and John climbed the Mount of Transfiguration, they had followed Jesus for nearly three-and-a-half years. Imagine the countless miracles they’d seen: Jesus healing the sick, Jesus restoring the crippled, Jesus releasing the demon-possessed, Jesus controlling the weather, Jesus feeding thousands from scraps, and even Jesus raising the dead.
As time wore on, a “typical” day in the lives of these disciples was undoubtedly like the day described in Matthew 15:30-31: “Great multitudes came to Him, having with them the lame, blind, mute, maimed, and many others; and they laid them down at Jesus’ feet, and He healed them. So the multitude marveled when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.” Growing popularity. Undeniable success. Exciting times. Amazing possibilities.
Not only had Peter, James, John, and the other original disciples witnessed the miracles of Jesus, they were empowered by Jesus to perform miracles of their own. As stated in Matthew 10:1, “…when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.”
Then, only six days before the Transfiguration, the disciples had accompanied Jesus to Caesarea Philippi. It was there that Jesus had asked the searching question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13ff). The disciples responded, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” And Jesus said, “But who do you say I am?” Speaking for all the others, Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Yes, the disciples had confessed their faith in Jesus before, but never so clearly and so convincingly as on that day in Caesarea Philippi.
It was precisely then, when things were going so well, that from the perspective of the disciples things began to go so wrong. We read in the same chapter of Matthew, on the heels of that great confession: “From that time Jesus began to show to 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 the third day” (Matthew 16:21). Notice the word must. The Greek word is, more literally, necessary. It was absolutely necessary for Jesus to go to Jerusalem. It was absolutely necessary for Jesus to suffer, die, and be raised to life; and you and I know the reason why these things were so necessary. It was necessary for Jesus to do these things in order to save us from our sins.
From this time forward—a type of mountaintop in the Gospel account of Matthew, and a type of mountaintop in the ministry of Jesus, and a type of mountaintop in the lives of His disciples—Jesus focused determinedly on going to the cross. As explained in Luke 9:51, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (NIV). Resolutely. Nothing forced Him to the cross. Nothing dissuaded Him from the cross. It was because of the cross; it was because the disciples were about to experience the worst, most devastating darkness and disappointments of their lives, that Jesus led Peter, James and John up the mountain to give them a close-up view of His glory.
Once the ascent is complete, the vista from the mountaintop is beautiful and grand. What did Peter, James, and John view on the Mount of Transfiguration? On that mountaintop Jesus “was transfigured before them.” [v. 2] The Greek word is μετεμορφωθη (mete-mor-pho-thay), the source of our English word metamorphosis. The word means, literally, “to change form,” hence to transform or transfigure. When that transfiguration of Jesus occurred, according to Matthew 17:2, the face of Jesus “shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”
Mark wrote: “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). And Luke wrote: “As He was praying, the appearance of His face changed, and His clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (Luke 9:29 NIV). Consider all these descriptions: Sun. White. Bleach. Bright. Lightning. Even imagining the brilliance of what the disciples saw leaves our retinas glowing with after-images.
Next, Moses and Elijah appeared, talking with Jesus—talking with Jesus, as Luke explained in his Gospel narrative, “about His departure, which He was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem,” (Luke 9:31).
Why Moses and Elijah? Moses was representative of God’s Law. Elijah was representative of God’s prophetic Word. Throughout the Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets announced the coming of Jesus Christ and His atoning death for the sins of the world. Now that Savior was here. Now that Savior was about to fulfill all God’s promises of salvation. Now that Savior was about to accomplish a greater exodus—a greater deliverance from slavery—than the one led by Moses in Egypt.
Simply remember what the risen Jesus told those two disciples who were shuffling along the road to Emmaus on the first Easter. They were sadly lamenting, “We thought Jesus was the one.” According to Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.”
Next, on the Mount of Transfiguration, reminiscent of the bright cloud that once covered Mount Sinai, a bright cloud enveloped Jesus, Peter, James, and John. From out of that cloud the voice of God the Father declared: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (Matthew 17:5). All of this proved to be too much for the disciples. They fell face down in terror until Jesus touched them and said “Get up” and “Don’t be afraid” (cf. Matthew 17:7). He was no longer the Jesus enveloped in the blinding glory of his deity but rather, the warmth and humility of His humanity.
What are the lessons of the Transfiguration? What view from the mountaintop did Jesus want His disciples to carry with them to the reality of the plain—into the darkness and seeming chaos of His passion and crucifixion? Said differently, what view did Jesus want His disciples to have of him as they moved from Epiphany into Lent? What lessons did Jesus intend for us to carry down from the mountaintop and into our own daily grinds and nightly worries?
The Transfiguration of Jesus was for our sakes too. This is why God the Holy Spirit caused this event to be recorded in three of the four Gospels: Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. This is why the Holy Spirit moved Peter to mention the transfiguration in his second epistle. This may be why the apostle John wrote in the Prologue of his Gospel account: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NIV).
Each time I preach on the Transfiguration I worry that listeners will find the message too doctrinal or ethereal, too far up in the clouds—like a mountaintop—to be of any practical value on earth. Yes, we all find the Transfiguration interesting. Yes, we all ask ourselves intriguing questions like: “How did the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah, when Jesus made no introductions?” “Was the transfiguration of Jesus visible only on the mountaintop or did it illuminate the night sky?” “What did the voice of God the Father sound like? Thunder? Waterfalls? A deep resonant bass like the voice of James Earl Jones?” Silly, I know. But you have asked yourself these things, haven’t you? Yet, as we close our Bibles and descend the mountain, perhaps the most nagging question is this one: “Does the transfiguration of Jesus have anything to do with me at all?”
The answer, of course, is a resounding: “Yes!” When Jesus led His disciples up the mountain and back down again, He was moving the lessons of the Transfiguration from the theoretical to the practical, from the cloudy mountaintop to the harsh realities of the plain. You and I may prefer to live on that mountaintop—basking in the heavenly glory of our Savior far above the headaches and heartbreaks, masses and messes and twelve-lane freeways of life.
Peter wanted the same. “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” [v. 4 NIV] But the mountaintop is not our home. Our home is in the plain. Our home is where bills are due, and relationships fail, and accidents happen, and people get sick and die, and things seem totally out of control.
Imagine how out of control the world must have seemed to those first disciples when they saw Jesus arrested and led to the High Priest, Caiaphas, where He was beaten, blind-folded, spit upon, and mocked. From there He was paraded before Herod and Pilate in a royal purple robe, then flogged with the dreaded Roman flagellum until the skin on his back was shredded. Then He was condemned to die, then forced to carry His cross, stumbling beneath the weight. Then Jesus was nailed to the cross. From the cross He cried out, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?’)” (Mark 15:34). Then, finally, Jesus said with a loud voice, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Imagine how out of control the world must have seemed to those first disciples.
It’s easy for us to condemn the disciples, easy for us to say: “How could they think such nonsense when they saw all of Christ’s miracles, when they were with Christ on the sacred mountaintop, when they saw His face shining like the sun and His clothes as white as the light, when they heard the voice of God the Father declaring from heaven: ‘This is my beloved Son.’? [v. 5] If I had been there at the Transfiguration, I would have never doubted. I would never call a sin unforgivable or a marriage irreconcilable or a ministry undoable. No sir. Not me.”
The reality is, we have all been on that sacred mountain. We were at the Transfiguration of Jesus just now, where we saw His glory and heard the testimony of God the Father. How? This Bible. According to Simon Peter, who was an eyewitness of the Transfiguration, the Bible is a more certain witness than even that which he saw with his own two eyes. Why? It is because the Bible is always here for us to read and reread and answer our questions and chase away our doubts. It is because the Bible is not, as even some churches claim, a collection of cleverly invented stories. It is, rather, the inerrant writings of eyewitnesses who wrote by inspiration of God the Holy Spirit. As Peter stated, “No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
What if we used Jesus’ Transfiguration as He intended? What if we carried the lessons of the transfiguration into the harsh realities of our lives? What lessons? The lesson that Jesus Christ is the One—He is the answer no matter what the problem, from daily bread to eternal life, from a chaotic world to a troubled marriage. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said in John 14:6. Isn’t that why He allowed His true glory to shine forth on the mountaintop? Isn’t that glory like a mega-watt beacon blazing forth the message: “JESUS SAVES?” Isn’t that why Moses and Elijah were talking with Him? Isn’t that why God the Father said of Him, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him?” [v. 5 NIV]
Or what of the lesson of Christ’s deity and humanity? We witnessed both on that mountaintop. “God is light,” John wrote in 1 John 1:5, and the momentary glimpse of Christ’s glory—when His face shone like the sun and His clothes radiated light—revealed the deity otherwise veiled by His humanity. What do we confess in the Nicene Creed? “I believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
When that Light of Light was again hidden, who remained? Did you not see the same gentle, loving Jesus? Did you not feel His touch? Did you not hear Him tell you to “get up” and to “not be afraid?” So tell me, then, what if you carried these lessons of the Transfiguration down the mountain and into your daily life just as Jesus meant for you to do? What if you left church today saying, “My Jesus is true God and there is nothing He cannot do. My Jesus is true Man and there is nothing He cannot understand?” How would these lessons from the mountaintop change your view of life?
When Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus, they were not only indicating that Jesus Christ is the sum and substance of all Scripture. They were also saying that God keeps all of His promises. This truth was evidenced not only by the presence of Christ on that mountaintop, but by the determination and love with which Christ left the mountaintop for the harsh reality of the cross. Why? Because God promised that He would. Yes, God keeps all of His promises. Yes, what God tells me in the Bible is always true and utterly reliable. If you marched down the mountainside with this type of confidence today, how would it change your view of life tomorrow?
The view from an ordinary mountaintop can change your perspective. But today, let the view from the Mount of Transfiguration—the view of the eternal Son of God who nevertheless chose to become our Servant and Savior—change your view of your life.
’Tis good, Lord, to be here,
Thy glory fills the night;
Thy face and garments like the sun,
Shine with unborrowed light.
’Tis good, Lord, to be here.
Yet we may not remain;
But since Thou bidst us leave the mount,
Come with us to the plain. [TLH 135:1,5]
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.