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Jesus had been traveling to all the towns and villages of Galilee, preaching and teaching, healing every sickness and disease, and casting out demons. It must have been a glorious time to be a disciple. But Jesus hinted that winds of change were coming. He asked the disciples who people were saying he was. When he asked them who they believed he was Peter confessed that he believed Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah, the Son of God. That was a glorious confession, an indication that the Holy Spirit had worked faith in Peter’s heart. But when Jesus explained what it meant that he was the Messiah, that he would go to Jerusalem where he would be betrayed, beaten, crucified, buried, and then rise from the dead, Peter objected. He didn’t want to hear about inglorious things, he wanted the glory of the miracles and large crowds to continue.
A week had passed and we are told that Jesus took Peter, James and John up on a high mountain, just the four of them. Luke tells us that they went there to pray.
Think about how often Jesus went off by himself, to a solitary place, to pray. He got away from all those begging to be healed. He got away from all the crowds who wanted to get a glimpse of him. He shows us how important it is for us to make time to talk with God away from the TV, the music, the cell phones and tablets, to turn everything off and spend time reading God’s word and talking to him about what you have read and about everything that’s on your mind.
There, on that mountain, Jesus was transfigured before them. His clothes became radiant, dazzling white, whiter than anyone on earth could bleach them. If they had been amazed at the glory of Jesus shown as he taught and healed and cast out demons, imagine their reaction to seeing Jesus suddenly shine like the sun. They had heard of the “cavod Adonai”, the glory of the Lord, appearing in the past; the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led and protected Israel in the wilderness; the bright cloud that descended on the tabernacle and on Solomon’s temple when they were dedicated. They understood what it meant that Jesus began to shine like the sun, but if they had any doubt, the Father’s voice from heaven made it clear. He proclaimed, This is my Son, whom I love.
Behold the glory of Jesus! He is what Peter confessed him to be. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. He is just who he needed to be in order to save the world. He is our brother, born into this world as we are. And, at the same time his is true God, one with the Father from eternity. He is under the law as we are, but unlike us, he could and did keep it perfectly in our place. He was able to feel pain and to suffer and die as we do, but because he had lived without sin, he was able to offer himself as the once-for-all-time sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Almost as amazing as seeing Jesus in glory, shining like the sun, was seeing Moses and Elijah talking with him. What a glorious sight! Moses and Elijah, two of the great prophets from the Old Testament, two men who had been dead for hundreds of years, yet there they were, talking with Jesus. What a glorious confirmation of what Jesus had been teaching these disciples. When he talked about Abraham he said that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He didn’t say God was their God, but that he is their God, because he is the God of living, and to him, all are alive. Their bodies had died, but they were still alive, living and reigning with God in glory. When he talked with Martha at the tomb of Lazarus he reminded her that whoever believes in him will live, even though they die. Behold the glory of those who have died trusting in God’s promise of everlasting life. What a comfort the Transfiguration provides when we think of loved ones who have died trusting in Jesus!
Peter was never at a loss for words. James and John seem to be so full of fear and amazement that they couldn’t speak, but Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. He suggests that they build three shelters on the mountain, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. He wanted to be able to hold on to this little bit of glory on earth as long as possible. He didn’t want this experience to end.
We can’t blame him. We often give in to that temptation too. Maybe we understand that the glory of having lots of earthly things, money, home, cars, doesn’t last. But, like Peter, we think that being a follower of Jesus should mean that we have a glorious life. Peter didn’t want to hear about suffering and crucifixion. He wanted the glorious teaching and healing to continue. He didn’t want to leave the mountain and go back to real life, he wanted to stay on the mountain and bask in the glory that was being revealed there. Like Peter, sometimes we don’t want to interact with the real world; we don’t want to think about pain, or sickness, or death, or persecution. We just want to bask in glory, we want faith to mean that we get to have a little heaven on earth. But that’s not what God promises. It’s not what Peter experienced. Anything earthly doesn’t last, it’s glory quickly fades. After the Father spoke, Moses and Elijah were gone and Jesus was no longer shining like the sun. If we seek to hold on to a little glimpse of glory on earth we will miss out on the eternal glory of heaven.
As is often the case, the real glory of Transfiguration wasn’t only what the disciples saw that was glorious, but what the disciples heard was even more glorious. Luke tells us what Jesus was discussing with Moses and Elijah. They were talking about his departure which was about to happen in Jerusalem, the very things Jesus had just explained to Peter and to which Peter had objected. They couldn’t stay on the mountain because the real glory of God was going to be displayed on the cross. On the mount of Transfiguration we see the glory of Jesus’ holiness and power as God shining through. But on the cross we see the even greater glory of his saving love and mercy. At any time God could reveal himself in his full power and holiness, but seeing him in is full glory as God would destroy us. In love and mercy he chose to hide his glory in flesh and blood. In love and mercy he chose to be considered anything but glorious, to human eyes he seemed to be a criminal executed on a cross. But because of his suffering and death in our place we are now able to look forward to the time when, like Moses and Elijah, we will be able stand in the full glory of God without fear. We can look forward to the time when we no longer have a fading glory on earth, but a glory that lasts for all eternity.
The Father’s word to Peter, James and John was Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. Your sinful nature craves earthly glory. The most common belief among those who claim to be scholars is that Messiah will usher in a glorious earthly kingdom. Don’t listen to them, listen to Jesus. It might not seem to make sense that he talks about suffering and death. You won’t understand what he means when he asks you not to mention what you saw until after the resurrection but listen to him! He has the words of eternal life.
Years later, after the resurrection, near the end of his life, Peter wrote about the things that he saw and heard on the mount of Transfiguration. He says that everything happened just as Moses and the prophets had foretold, just as Jesus had said they would. Having seen the fulfillment of their words, Peter says that the words of the prophets are certain, they never fail. He reminds us that what he and others wrote about the things that Jesus did, and SAID, were not made up, but inspired by the Holy Spirit. Still today we get to do what the Father told Peter, James and John, Listen to Jesus. Don’t look for glory in the outward, perishable things of earth. Don’t try to hold on to a little piece of glory on earth. Remember Elijah- the glory of his victory over the prophets of Baal only lasted a day. The next day Jezebel was trying to kill him and he was running for his life. Listen to Jesus tell you that the real glory is in the cross. It is only because he suffered the punishment you deserve that you will be able to stand with him in glory on the last day. And, because we are his followers, his disciples, our lives on earth won’t always be glorious. If they hated him, they will hate us too. If the persecuted him the will persecute us too.
As we come down the mountain with Peter, James and John, we travel with them and Jesus to Jerusalem. The glory of the transfiguration soon fades as Jesus’ enemies plot against him, as Judas betrays him, as he is arrested and beaten and finally crucified and buried. But, in the midst of suffering and the cross, don’t forget the glory of Jesus shining like the sun. He is true God, hiding his glory in flesh and blood for you. Listen to him. Listen to his promise that whoever believes in him will live even though he dies. See the glory of his resurrection and trust that one day you too will get to stand with Moses and Elijah in his glorious presence forever.