The Transfiguration of Our Lord
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves (Mt 17:1). Six days after what? What happened six days earlier that was so important? Two things, actually – both involving Peter. First, Peter made his great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:16-17). Second, immediately after this great confession, 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 on the third day be raised (Mt 16:21). Peter liked the idea of Jesus being the all-powerful Son of God, but when Jesus began to talk about suffering and death Peter wanted nothing to do with it. So Peter took the Christ, the Son of the living God, aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt 16:22). Who would dare to rebuke God? Apparently, Peter would. But [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” (Mt 16:23). In Peter’s defense, no one could have ever guessed God’s plan to defeat Satan. Conquer death by dying? That’s absurd! And this was the first time Jesus had ever spoken like this to his disciples. All the prophets spoke of the coming king who would defeat the enemies of God’s people and rule forever and ever. The disciples were looking forward to this reign of glory. But Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, his enemies were not the Romans, and his crown was not made of gold and jewels, but of thorns. So Peter went from speaking the greatest truth about Jesus in one moment to being the mouthpiece of Satan the next.
Six days after this came the Transfiguration. Jesus unveiled the glory that had always been his, and the disciples saw him metamorphosize before their eyes. They saw their Lord as we shall one day see him – revealed in all power and glory. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light (Mt 17:2b). This is the Christ that all nations shall see on the last day, the day that every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10-11). Peter, James, and John saw this glorified Christ speaking with Moses and Elijah. And 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” (Mt 17:4). Peter’s words make perfect, human sense. Never mind that crazy stuff that Jesus said about dying a few days before. Whatever he meant, it seems that now Jesus is back to the original plan: glory, bright lights, recognition, fame, and power! Yes! These are all the things we want to see in our Savior. This is why we left all to follow Jesus. Perhaps there’s a place for trusty disciples to sit on thrones at Jesus’ right and left. James and John make a mental note to ask about that later. (Sorry, Peter – there’s only room for two.)
[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” (Mt 17:5). Peter’s plan to bask in glory on the mountaintop is abruptly interrupted. God the Father speaks from heaven and says basically, “Peter, shut up! Stop your babbling. Forget your plan to avoid suffering and the cross. Jesus rebuked you once already. Listen to him!” Mark tells us that Peter didn’t know what he was saying (Mk 9:6). Peter didn’t know that without suffering there could be no glory – at least no glory for him. Jesus certainly could have stayed on that mountain forever. In fact, he could simply have remained in the eternal glory of heaven. Being born as a man a choosing to veil his glory was a humiliation for the Son of God. And as a man, Jesus had come to earth for one purpose, to suffer and die for Peter’s sake, for your sake, for the sake of the whole world. Had Jesus listened to Peter and avoided the cross, every member of the human race would have been consigned to hell for eternity.
“Listen to him!” And what was Jesus saying? Luke records that Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah “about his upcoming exodus, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). Moses was regarded as the greatest man of the Old Testament. He had led God’s people on their exodus from bondage and slavery. Through Moses, God had destroyed the power of Pharaoh and the hosts of Egypt. But this exodus, great as it was, was but a foreshadowing of the true Exodus. Jesus was about to lead his people out of the bondage of sin and death. Through his suffering on the cross, God would destroy the power of Satan and the hosts of hell.
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These are the same words that God the Father spoke from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, where the sin of the world was laid upon Jesus’ shoulders. John saw him and cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). And bearing your sin, Jesus could not be turned aside from his cross, not by the tempting of Satan, not by the rebuking of Peter, and not even by his own will. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus fell on his face in anguish crying out, “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39). It was the will of his Father that Jesus would lay aside his glory to suffer and die. It was the will of God that he would be beaten and spat upon, that he would wear a crown of thorns, be stripped naked, and be nailed to a cross in shame. It was the will of God to crush him beyond all recognition in order to redeem you, to purchase you back out of the hand of Satan. It was the will of God that you would share in his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14).
But in order to share in Christ’s glory, you must also share in his suffering. The glory that belonged to Christ from eternity, the glory that he revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration, he laid aside, teaching us that suffering must come before glory. Jesus gives us a glimpse, a promise, of what awaits every Christian. For if we have been united with him in a death like his through baptism (see previous verse), we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Ro 6:5). Your sinful nature doesn’t like suffering any more than Peter’s did. But you are no longer a slave to your sinful passions, for the Holy Spirit has given you a new nature in Christ. Listen to Peter’s words according to this new nature, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (1 Pet 4:12-13).
After the Transfiguration, the disciples followed Jesus back down into the valley where a demon-possessed boy and an arguing crowd were waiting for him. Back to reality, it would seem. In this life, the mountaintop experience is the exception. Yes, God gives us moments where we see a glimpse of his glory, where we feel his power and are filled with joy, but more often than not life looks like the valley, full of arguing and bickering and the assaults of Satan. This is the life of a Christian in a broken and dying world. But don’t despair. Don’t lose heart. God has given us this taste of heaven to remind that this world is not, in fact, the final reality. Suffering comes first, but it will not have the last word. This present world is but a shadow of the things to come (Col 2:16).
Jesus gave Peter, James, and John this experience because he knew how sorely their faith would be tested at his Crucifixion. Later, Peter would write, “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty… for we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Pet 1:16b, 18b). But we have, as Peter tells us, something even more certain and trustworthy than this amazing experience on the mountaintop. “We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention” (2 Pet 1:19a). Our eyes and ears often deceive us. Our emotions will lead us astray. But the Word of God is sure and certain. It is a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Pet 1:19b). In his Word, God promises that your sins are forgiven. He promises you that the suffering of this life will be remembered no more. He promises that even though you die, Jesus will touch you, saying “Rise, and have no fear.” (Mt 17:7). And then we will share in the unfading glory of Christ for all eternity. Amen.