The transfiguration of Jesus that we read today from Matthew chapter 17 is so important that St. Mark and St. Luke also give us an account of this event. It is an astonishing story with a lot of moving parts, and sometimes it’s not quite so easy to see how all of those parts mesh together. After all, we have Jesus appearing as his followers on earth have never seen Him – radiating with His true divine glory. We have the great prophets Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. We have a bright cloud hovering over the mountain and the voice from heaven. And there are the three disciples – Peter, James and John – not knowing or comprehending or understanding what, exactly, they are witnessing.
You all know the basics of the story. Jesus selects three of the 12 disciples to accompany Him to the top of a high mountain. Our text tells us: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” Moses was revered by the Children of Israel as the greatest of God’s prophets, and Elijah was the great prophet who never suffered bodily death and was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.
One interesting footnote here is that without artistic representations or the benefits of modern photography, there’s absolutely no way that those disciples could have known what Moses and Elijah had actually looked like when they lived on earth so many centuries ago. And yet – even though they still won’t understand yet exactly what is happening – God allows them to know that they are seeing those two great prophets.
Think about how incredibly overwhelming this must have been for Peter, James and John. By this point they had been with Jesus for over three years. They had been with Him and seen Him day in and day out. But they had never seen Him like this! They had never seen Him with Moses and Elijah! So how did they react? What did they do?
Peter, as is often the case, was the first to speak. And when he spoke, all he said was that he wanted to build some tents. One for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Tents? Really? What was he thinking?
Actually, the Greek word spoken by Peter refers to a very special kind of tent – a tabernacle. Like the Tabernacle built by the Children of Israel when they were in the wilderness for 40 years. That Tabernacle was incredibly ornate, and it was built the way it was built because it was built to be where Almighty God would reside on earth and would meet with His people.
We don’t know and can’t tell if Peter was actually making that connection when he spoke on that mountain, but what is clear is that he wanted all six of them to stay right there on that mountain. He wanted, in effect, to freeze that moment and never leave it behind. Faced with these three men arrayed in heavenly glory, he wanted Jesus and Moses and Elijah to stay where they were and stay just as they appeared.
Just like Peter, I think we all, to some extent, sometimes prefer the shining Jesus. The Jesus of power and might. The smiling Jesus. The victorious Jesus. The “Jesus take the wheel” Jesus. The “help me prosper and get ahead” or “let my team win this game” Jesus. We want a Jesus – just like Peter – who shines in our presence. This is where the health and wealth preachers get it all wrong. All they want – all they preach – is the glory.
But here’s the problem. In order for us to be saved, we need the bleeding Jesus. We absolutely must have the Jesus who suffered and died on that cross. In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 17 we are not told what Jesus, Moses and Elijah were discussing, but in his account St. Luke adds the detail that they were talking about Jesus’ “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” They were talking about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Later, after the resurrection, Jesus meets up with two men walking to Emmaus and rhetorically asks them: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” The plain fact of the matter is that we need Jesus to suffer and die for our forgiveness because we need God’s forgiveness before we are ready to live in God’s glory.
In the midst of this incredibly glorious event, things quickly change. Matthew tells us: “He” – Jesus, that is – “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.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.”
“Listen to him.” In particular, listen to what Jesus told you six days ago when He said 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.” Listen to everything that He says – not just the things you want to hear.
Peter was the type of person who often spoke before he knew what he was going to say. He had his own ideas about how everything should be. He was the type of man who gets caught up in the moment and just has to say something – even if what he says could not be more wrong or more inappropriate. I have no doubt that Peter thought he was making a gracious offer when he said that he would build those three tents. But what he was actually doing – without ever realizing it – was trying to stop Jesus from his journey to the cross and tomb. A Jesus who forever stays shining on the mountaintop is never going to endure a painful, shameful, blood death. That is why the words of the Father spoken from above the mountaintop – “listen to him” – are both a testament about His Son and a direct rebuke to Peter. He didn’t want to listen to Jesus six days ago and he still doesn’t want to really listen to him. He still has nothing but visions and dreams of glory – earthly glory and heavenly glory, all mixed together.
But hearing the voice of the Father immediately puts Peter as well as James and John into their right minds. They hear the voice of Almighty God … and they are afraid. “They fell on their faces and were terrified.” Terrified as in literally and figuratively scared to death.
Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The disciples begin to realize that they need more than the glory of Jesus that was revealed to them in the transfiguration, because this glory does not save them. When confronted with the true glory of God they can only fall on their faces in terror. Just as we miserable sinners must fall on our faces in terror before the holy God.
Verse 7 of our text: “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’” In just a moment, all of the glory is gone. Moses and Elijah are gone. The cloud is gone. The brightness shining from Jesus’ face is gone. Jesus comforts them with His touch and His words: “Rise, and have no fear.” The disciples can stand with Jesus unafraid, for the true glory of the cross is now ahead. Jesus – in His humility – saves and comforts them. Just as He saves and comforts us.
From this moment on, Jesus sets His face to go to Jerusalem, where His true glory will be revealed in His death and resurrection. For just a brief moment, Jesus allowed the three disciples to see Him as He really is – God in our flesh.
But before long, the terrible humiliation of the cross will be revealed as Jesus’ true glory, because there He is our Savior. When He is lifted up on the cross, we see His great love.
In the final verse of our Gospel lesson we read: “And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one of the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.’” Many people are confused by this. After all, why wouldn’t Jesus want to fill the other disciples in on what just happened? Wouldn’t this be proof positive to the naysayers and unbelievers that He really was the Messiah? Why the secrecy?
It’s because Jesus does not want the account of the transfiguration to go out apart from the news of the cross and tomb. He does not want to be known as the Messiah who put on a show on top of the mountain – but as the Savior who died and rose again. And now we – you and me – can look forward to sharing His glory because His great love we see at the cross has purified us from the sin that so rightly terrorizes us before God.
We might think of the transfiguration as the high point of Jesus’ ministry, but it really is just a vantage point from which Jesus can see clearly where He is going. From the height of the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus looks to Jerusalem. From the glory of the transfiguration, Jesus sees the humiliation of His death on the cross. From the splendor of the transfiguration, Jesus sees the sorrow to come. And in the midst of that sorrow He sees you – He sees your forgiveness – He sees your salvation.