Jesus Reveals His Glory
In this series, we are exploring what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus didn’t recruit members for an organization; he invited people to follow him. The risen Jesus issues the same invitation to us today.
“If I follow Jesus, what will he ask me to do? What lessons will he want me to learn? What provisions will he make for me? Will it be worth it in the end?” We learn answers to questions like these by studying Lk.8-12, in which Jesus focuses on training his disciples. Today we learn some important lessons from a very dramatic event. Let’s begin by reading it (9:28-36). Before we can learn the lessons, we first have to understand what happened and why it happened. (We’ll also look at Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts.)
Imagine waking up to something like this! This is a thoroughly supernatural event! Mark says that Jesus was “transfigured”—metamorphoo speaks of a dramatic change in form (e.g., CATERPILLAR to BUTTERFLY). It isn’t that Jesus is illuminated by God’s external glory (SPOTLIGHT), but that he is radiating his own inner glory.
They also see Moses and Elijah. These men, who departed 1400 and 800 years before respectively, were two of the most revered figures in Jewish history. Here they are—alive, in splendor (reflecting Jesus’ glory?), and conversing with Jesus!
And then finally, the disciples experience the glorious presence of God. The cloud is not some ordinary cloud; it is a manifestation of God’s Shekinah (cf.Ex.24:15,16). And then they actually hear God speak to them in their own language!
What an utterly astounding experience! It is so bizarre that I would be inclined to dismiss it as a dream or tall tale or fabrication—except that it is reported by credible eye-witnesses, the most reliable source of historical knowledge. Luke insists that his sources were eye-witnesses (1:2). Years later, Peter, about to be executed for his insistence that Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord, insisted that he witnessed this event (2Pet.1:16-18). This is why only radically skeptical scholars reject the historicity of this event. The question is, why did this happen?
Why did this happen?
It is obvious that God sovereignly orchestrated this amazing event. For whose benefit did he do it? Some speculate that he did it for Jesus’ benefit—to fortify him for his trip down to Jerusalem and the ordeal of the Cross. But Mark says that Jesus was transfigured “before them” (Mk.9:2). Moses and Elijah “appeared to them” (Mk.9:4). God the Father spoke to them. This event was all about Jesus—but it was for the disciples.
Why did God do this for them? To resolve an argument between them and Jesus—an argument about Jesus’ identity and mission. A few days earlier, Jesus asked them who he was (9:20a), and Peter answered correctly that Jesus was the Messiah (9:20b). But then Jesus said something that stunned and angered them—he had to go to Jerusalem to be rejected and killed (9:22). Matthew says that Peter was so angry that he rebuked Jesus for planning something that was clearly not God’s will for Jesus (Matt.16:22). They believed that the Messiah must come as a King who would destroy his enemies—not be executed by them. But Jesus responded by rebuking Peter for being committed to his own goals rather than God’s (Matt.16:23). The next few days were a silent stand-off—the disciples insisting: “If you are the Messiah, you cannot get killed. If you get killed, you cannot be the Messiah,” and Jesus insisting: “Because I am the Messiah, I must be killed.” Who was right and who was wrong? The answer came “some eight days after these sayings” (9:28a) on the mountain. Every supernatural detail of this event is God’s emphatic agreement that the disciples were wrong and Jesus was right.
Why did God transfigure Jesus? The disciples knew that the Messiah would come in glory to establish God’s kingdom (Dan.7:14). So God provided them a preview of Jesus’ glorious coming to confirm that Jesus was the Messiah even though he insisted that he must be killed.
Why did God bring Moses and Elijah—and then wake the disciples up to hear their conversation with Jesus? So they would understand that what they viewed as crazy (Jesus’ insistence on going to Jerusalem to die), these two great Old Testament figures viewed as a victorious “departure” (lit. exodus) that would “bring to fulfillment” the greatest promise of the Old Testament.
Moses was the one through whom God gave his Law. God’s Law is bad news because it condemns us all by exposing our violations of God’s moral commands (e.g., LYING; STEALING; COVETING). But the good news is that God’s Law foreshadows the way God would extend forgiveness to all of us—he would provide his chosen substitute whose death would pay for our sins. Moses knows that Jesus is the ultimate Sacrifice—the “lamb of God” whose death will fulfill the sacrificial system.
Elijah was one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, who predicted not only that the Messiah would come in glory to establish God’s kingdom, but also that he would first come as a Servant to fulfill the sacrificial system by voluntarily dying to pay for our sins (Isa.53). They predicted when this Servant would come (Dan.9:25,26), where he would be born (Micah5:2), how he would be killed (Ps.22)—and hundreds of other details. Elijah knows that Jesus is the One who fulfills all of these predictions of the Messiah’s death.
Why did God speak to them: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him!”? Listen to what Jesus says about what? About his identity and his mission! The disciples believed that a killed Messiah was a contradiction, but the Father agreed with Jesus—he is the Messiah and he must be rejected and die so that we can be forgiven.
What lessons should we learn?
Let’s spend the rest of our time on what we can learn about following Jesus from this event. It is clear that Peter’s response to this experience was problematic, because it warranted God’s correction. Let’s see if we can learn from Peter’s mistakes...
Peter said: “Let us build three tabernacles—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter didn’t intend to dishonor Jesus by putting him on the same level as these two great Old Testament heroes. But it is clear from the Father’s response (terrifying cloud; verbal rebuke) that he had (unintentionally) blasphemed him! Moses and Elijah were God’s prophets, but Jesus was God’s Son. Moses and Elijah pointed to Jesus, so their ministries were ultimately meaningless apart from Jesus. This is why after God’s rebuke, they faded from the scene, leaving only the One toward whom they pointed.
Here’s the first and most important lesson: Jesus is God’s unique Savior—not one among many prophets, religious leaders, etc. This is the message of the entire Bible about God’s Messiah. This is the essential requirement for being a Christian—that you confess that Jesus is the Lord (Rom.10:9), the only One who can bring us back to God (Jn.14:6). And this positive affirmation implies a negative affirmation, that no one else—not Moses or Elijah or Buddha or Krishna or Muhammad—is on Jesus’ level.
The Roman Empire had no problem with the early Christians worshipping Jesus, as long as they also worshipped Caesar. But they died by the thousands because they insisted that Jesus alone was Lord (ICTHUS). In India, Hinduism is glad to embrace Jesus as one of thousands of Hindu gods. But thousands of Christians are being persecuted because they refuse to dilute their confession.
In our culture, there is strong pressure to agree that Jesus is one of many ways to God—that it is disrespectful to other religions to take any other position. But this is disrespectful to Jesus, because it either twists his words about himself, or it subtly dismisses his claims. “But,” you may say, “How could I ever know if Jesus’ claim is true?” Millions of people—many of them way more intelligent and educated than you and I are—got enough evidence to satisfy them. Do you say this because you have carefully investigated the evidence and found it insufficient? Or is it that you are afraid that you can know? Is this a convenient excuse for avoiding an investigation that may call on you to surrender the control of your life to him? That’s why I avoided honest investigation for many years. And I can tell you this: When I was willing to relinquish control, I got plenty of evidence—and so will you.
The second lesson we learn from this passage is that we should listen to all that Jesus says, not just the parts that we like. Peter wanted to listen to what Jesus said that appealed to him—the part about Jesus being the Messiah meant power and glory for Peter. But he wanted to disagree with what Jesus said about being rejected and crucified, because that meant inconvenience and suffering for Peter. The Father is saying: “He is my Son; he speaks with my authority. Therefore, listen to everything that he says!” To only listen to what you agree with is actually not to listen at all. It is to tell Jesus to listen to you! But following Jesus involves being willing to let his Word correct your perspective instead of ignoring or twisting what he says when he differs with your perspective—no matter what the issue is.
What about your view of human sexuality? Do you agree with him that it is a precious gift of God, but reserve the right to disagree with him that it is to be reserved exclusively for heterosexual marriage? Listen to him!
What about your view of money and possessions? Do you agree with him that he gives these for us to enjoy, but reserve the right to disagree with him that we should give generously of our money and possessions to advance his cause and help the poor? Listen to him!
What about your view of forgiving offenders? Do you agree with him that he will forgive you even though you offend him daily, but reserve the right to disagree with him that you should forgive your offenders daily? Listen to him!
What makes us so prone to ignore Jesus’ Word when it disagrees with our perspective? I know what it is with me—it is because I mistrust that he is loving and/or wise. I believe that I must have whatever the thing is or I won’t be truly fulfilled. But I am only a man, and I have often regretted trusting my desires. Jesus is the Lord, the Good Shepherd who all-loving and all-wise—and I have never regretted trusting his instruction. Why would this area be any different than the others?
Peter said: “It is good (excellent; beautiful) for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles...” It must have been a wonderful experience. No wonder that, as Moses and Elijah were leaving, he tried desperately to keep everyone there. He had had a “mountain-top experience” (the origin of this term?), and he wanted to stay there. On one level, we cannot blame him. But following Jesus meant going with him down the mountain to Jerusalem to deliver a demon-possessed boy, and to go to the cross so that we could be forgiven. To try to stay on the mountain was to miss the whole point of this experience!
This is a very important lesson: Don’t try to preserve special spiritual experiences; go with Jesus to serve others. We should enjoy and thank God for every spiritual experience that he grants us. It is wonderful to experience God’s love in a powerful way as a new Christian, and subsequently. It is wonderful to experience dramatic experiences of God’s guidance and empowering. These experiences (like this event) are God’s “down-payment”—foretastes of when we enter his kingdom and experience never-ending and ever-increasing joy in the presence of his infinite love.
But don’t make the mistake of trying to “stay on the mountain-top.” The same Jesus who sometimes takes you up to the mountain also calls you to follow him back down the mountain into a dark and dangerous world to serve broken and needy people in his name. If you try to stay on the mountain, you will become weird and tarnish Jesus’ reputation. Let him decide what experiences to give you, and stay close to him wherever he leads you. He will give you everything you need!
The very words of this statement are a quotation of God’s voice through Old Testament prophets. “This is my Son” comes from Ps.2—a prophetic psalm about the victorious King Messiah coming to rule the nations. “Whom I have chosen” echoes Isa.42:1—the opening words about the Suffering Servant whose death would atone for human sin. Who is Jesus? He is both King Messiah and Suffering Servant!