There was still beheading ahead of James, a life of proclaiming Jesus ahead of Peter and John, a crucifixion for Peter and a long imprisonment for John. Quite literally, they had to leave the mountain and return to the valley. But don’t miss the good news: Jesus came down the mountain with them. He hid his full glory once more, but he did not abandon them. His presence was still with them, even if it was diminished from their previous experience.
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Matthew #58 . Matthew 17:1-13
Jesus ends his discussion about taking up the cross by promising this:
I assure you: There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (Matt 16:28, HCSB)
I personally believe that Matthew 17:1-13 records the fulfillment of this promise. In short, about six days after Jesus finished talking about taking up the cross, and receiving rewards, he allowed Peter, James and John to catch a glimpse of him in his glory.
The appearance of Jesus was changed. Matthew records that his face began to shine with an intense brightness, and his clothes became bright also with a white light. The description given here is similar to the visions of some of the prophets of the Old Testament.
There was a form with the appearance of a human on the throne high above. From what seemed to be His waist up, I saw a gleam like amber, with what looked like fire enclosing it all around. From what seemed to be His waist down, I also saw what looked like fire. There was a brilliant light all around Him. The appearance of the brilliant light all around was like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. This was the appearance of the form of the LORD’s glory. When I saw it, I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking. (Ezek 1:26-28, HCSB)
“As I kept watching, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took His seat. His clothing was white like snow, and the hair of His head like whitest wool. His throne was flaming fire; its wheels were blazing fire. (Dan 7:9, HCSB)
His body was like topaz, his face like the brilliance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and feet like the gleam of polished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude. (Dan 10:6, HCSB)
This business of light appears to be significant. Both the old and new Testaments describe a God who is “filled with light.”
Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. (1John 1:5, HCSB)
He wraps Himself in light as if it were a robe, spreading out the sky like a canopy, (Ps 104:2, HCSB)
So the revelation not only shows Jesus in glory, but also shows him as Divine in nature.
In a very special way, Peter, James and John were witnesses to the hidden glory of Jesus. The law of Moses require that all facts must be established by two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). Paul quotes this in a number of places, as does Jesus and the apostle John. This was an important part of Jewish culture by the time of Jesus. And so Jesus here has three witnesses to the unveiling of his glory. John does not describe this event specifically but I think he is referring to it when he writes this:
The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, HCSB)
The glory that John saw was never more fully revealed on earth than on that mountaintop. Peter refers to this event also, considering it extremely important:
For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, a voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him! And we heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word strongly confirmed. You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dismal place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2Pet 1:16-19, HCSB)
I am quite sure that Peter was thinking of this incredible transformation when he wrote that. And I think this is the first reason why Jesus did this. Some people complain that it would have been a lot simpler if Jesus simply let people truly see who he was as God-the-Son. Of course, if Jesus had done that, people would not be truly free to either choose or reject him – his glory was too overwhelming to deny. I’ve talked about this in past messages. The Lord wants our love for him to be real, and that means we have to be able to reject him if we choose. He says, “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe,” (John 20:29). But at this point, Peter had already made his confession about Jesus, and James and John, along with Peter, appeared to be the disciples with the most complete faith in him. In other words, they had already freely made their choice of faith, and so it was “safe” to let them catch a glimpse of his glory – it would not force them to love Jesus, since they had already chosen Him.
We see this idea of special witnesses throughout Scripture. God does not usually show himself to the whole world at the same time, or even often a large number of people at once. Instead, he chooses people who will be witnesses to his glory and to his truth, and who will speak his word. So he chose one nation, Israel to be a witness to his reality and truth. He chose 12 apostles. And in this case he chose just three of the 12 to witness the incredible reality of his true nature, even before his resurrection. So, although he did not show himself this way to everyone, the fact was established “by two or three witnesses.”
So this is the revelation of who Jesus truly is. For a brief moment the curtain between this world and God’s eternal presence was pulled back, and Peter, James and John got to see a reality that is deeper and more true than our own.
Actually, there were two additional witnesses to the glory and divine nature of Jesus: Moses and Elijah. The appearance of these two is fascinating in many respects, and I have often use this incident to speculate about life after death in the period before the new heavens and new earth are created. However, you have to read one of my other sermons for that. Instead, here I want to talk about the significance of these two individuals appearing with Jesus as he is transformed.
Moses, of course, is responsible for the first five books of the Bible which are known collectively as the Law, or the Torah. The rest of the Old Testament is usually referred to by the Jews as “the Prophets.” So, “the Law and the Prophets” refers to the entire Old Testament. Moses, standing here with Jesus revealed in his full glory, shows us that the Law (the Torah) is a witness to the true and divine identity of Jesus. Elijah of course, was one of the prophets. He stands as a witness for the “Prophets” part of the Old Testament. In other words, Peter, James and John would get the message that not only are they witnesses to the glory of Jesus, but also the entire Old Testament (Moses and the Prophets) is a witness to Jesus. Now back up a little bit further. Peter, James and John are representatives of the apostles. Today, we have the New Testament which is made up of the writings of the apostles. So then, we have the Law, the Prophets and the Apostles as our “two or three” reliable witnesses of the identity of Jesus. Under Jewish law, this makes his identity as the glorious son of God an established fact.
If that was all a little complex for you, let me make it very simple: the entire Bible establishes that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, Savior of the world, the only way to be reconciled to God, the only path to eternal life. He is worthy of our praise, honor and worship.
Quite naturally, Peter and the others were thrilled and awed to be in the presence of the full glory of Jesus. Peter’s suggestion that he make tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah might have been motivated by a desire to prolong the experience, to stay there in glory. Unfortunately for them, the revelation and experience of glory was temporary. Regretfully, that is always true on this earth. This world is not our home and so eternal joy will not be ours until we are done with it. C.S. Lewis once made a brilliant observation about this:
“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
— CS Lewis, the Problem of Pain
In the case of Peter, James and John, there was still the cross ahead of them. There was still beheading ahead of James, a life of proclaiming Jesus ahead of Peter and John, a crucifixion for Peter and a long imprisonment for John. In a very short time, it was time for them to come down from the mountain again. Quite literally, they had to leave the mountain and return to the valley. But don’t miss the good news: Jesus came down the mountain with them. He hid his full glory once more, but he did not abandon them. His presence was still with them, even if it was diminished from their previous experience.
And there is another sense of promise here, too. Moses spent forty years in the wilderness alone, and then another forty as shepherd to the recalcitrant sheep of Israel. He struggled and sometimes failed. Elijah had his victories, but also his great defeats, and one of the significant events of his life was a deep depression. But their struggles ended long before, and two-thousand years ago there they were, with all that behind them, sharing in the glory of Jesus. The struggles of Peter, James and John eventually ended also. Now they too are permanently living in the joy and glory of Jesus and the full power of his presence.
We may experience moments of great joy, and even moments of great closeness to the Lord. We may also have struggles ahead of us yet. However, if we are in Jesus, one day, we too will share in that never-ending experience of glory and joy with Him. In the meantime, it should help us to remember that Jesus goes with us. We don’t experience the full glory and power of his presence, yet he is here with us through the Holy Spirit, and he does not abandon us.
Let the Holy spirit speak to you today about the glory of Jesus, about the reliability of those who witnessed it, and about the continuing grace and presence of Jesus when we walk through the valleys of this world.
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