Review series topic. We have been looking primarily at Jesus’ early public ministry, which took place primarily in Galilee (MAP). But today we will look at an event that occurred later in His ministry, as He and His disciples travelled down to Jerusalem for the last time (MAP) it is known as Jesus’ transfiguration. No one knows for sure exactly where this event occurred, but it was so noteworthy that Matthew, Mark and Luke all record it. Let’s start by reading Luke’s account (read Lk. 9:28-36). Before we can learn personal lessons from this event, 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 dramatically 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, 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 unusual 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 (2 Pet. 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 that occurred eight days earlier (9:28a) 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 He 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 evidently 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: “I am the Messiah, and I must be killed.” Who was right and who was wrong? The answer came on the mountain. Every supernatural detail 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 (Micah 5:2), how He would be killed (Ps. 22) – and dozens of other details. Elijah knows that Jesus is the One who fulfills all of these predictions.
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 mission! They 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 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 is the first 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 – He is God’s unique Son, and the only One who can bring us back to God (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12). And this positive claim implies a negative affirmation, that no one else – not Moses or Elijah or Buddha 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. 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. (Ironically, it also dismisses the other religions, because they also make unique truth claims.)
This is the essential requirement for being a Christian – that you confess that Jesus is the Lord (Rom. 10:9). Have you made this confession? If not, why? Is it because you lack evidence? If so, you’ve come to the right place (EXPLAIN)! Is it because you fear what He will do to you if you follow Him? He died for you, so you can trust His love for you. Ask some Christians if they regret following Jesus as Lord. Is it because you fear how other people will react if you do this? Is that a good reason for missing the boat?
The second lesson we learn from this passage is that we should listen to all that Jesus says, not just the parts we like. Peter had selective hearing – listening to what Jesus said that appealed to him (the part about Jesus being the Messiah) because that meant power and glory for him, but dismissing what Jesus said about being rejected and crucified, because that meant inconvenience and suffering for him. The Father says: “He is my Son; He speaks with my authority. Therefore, listen to everything He says!” To listen only to what you agree with is actually not to listen at all. 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 His precious gift, 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 to enjoy, but reserve the right to disagree with Him that we should not aspire to wealth, and 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 forgiveness? 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 selective listening when it disagrees with our perspective? For me, the answer is as old as the Garden of Eden – because I am listening to Satan and mistrusting that God is loving and/or wise. I believe I know best, and that I must have whatever the thing is or I won’t be truly fulfilled. But I am only a fallen human, and I have often regretted trusting my desires. Jesus is the Lord, the Good Shepherd who is 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 (kalos – excellent) 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,” 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 foretastes of when we enter God’s 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, possibly self-deceives, 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!