It (Trans)figures

Matthew 17:1-13

 

Words can be very funny.  Recently, my wife, Kelley, stumbled upon a list of things our boys said in their earliest days of talking.

We had forgotten many of them, and it was a fun stroll down memory lane.  Our boys also participated, and enjoyed learning about the way they used to talk.

Some of our favorites included Andrew’s word for yogurt.  He loved yogurt as a toddler.  For some reason, though, the word always came out “haush”.

We aren’t really sure why.  Maybe he was thinking of the word “sauce”, but we really have no way of knowing.

Our best from Caleb came from his earliest days of talking.  Anything below the ankles was referred to as “rahr-rahr”.

His feet were his “rahr-rahrs”.  His socks were his “rahr-rahrs”.  His shoes were his “rahr-rahrs”.  This reached the peak of hilarity one time when his grandma called.

We told him Grandma Sus was on the phone.  Apparently thinking we said, “shoes,” he looked at us curiously and asked, “Rahr-rahr?”

Deep down, I think he knew what he was doing, trying all along to be funny.  Deep down, I think Caleb always knows what he’s doing.

 

I’m sure many of you have similar stories from little ones in your lives.  It’s fun dealing with made-up words and silly languages.

Even to this day, you may still have some sort of concocted language or “insider” words with close friends or loved ones.

But do you know what I find most interesting?  I always love it when real words sound made-up.  Do you know what I’m talking about?

My dad was the king of this sort of thing.  I suspect it’s because he works on and excels at crossword puzzles on a regular basis.

I remember once playing golf with him.  We were at a new course.  We stepped onto a particularly large and difficult-to-navigate putting green.

He commented, “Boy, this green is really undulating.”  Being a teenager at this time, I was quite adept at sarcastic looks and snarky comments.

I quipped something to the effect of, “When did you come up with that word?”  It sounded like a dad-word if I’d ever heard one.

But he insisted it was a real word, referring to a wavy or up-and-down sort of surface.  I got home later and looked it up.  Bingo, there it was.

 

He had many others, too numerous to count or name off here.  But, more times than not, I would find that the words he used were, indeed, actual words.

I’m talking about in-the-dictionary actual words.  Do you want to know another source of these sorts of words?

I’m talking about those words that, though they sound made-up, are actual words.

It’s the Bible.  First of all, 97% of the names seem completely ludicrous.

I’m pretty sure that, if you pronounce some of the cities or people groups wrong, you’ll inadvertently say a swear word.

But there are also those big words that seem to be either silly or falsified.  To be sure, nobody you know ever uses those words in this day and age.

Today, we’ll be looking at one of those words.  It’s found in the seventeenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew.  I invite you to turn there with me.

The word I speak of is “transfiguration”.  If you are at all familiar with typical church and Bible stories, you probably recognize the word.

But I dare say you’ve never used it outside of a church or Bible context.  And yet, this event known as the transfiguration was a very significant one.

I hope that, today, we’ll learn just what the word means.  I hope we will also be able to understand the context surrounding this event.

Finally, I hope we’ll see what this event means for us today.  So I invite you to look along as I read, beginning with verse one.  (Read Matthew 17:1-13.)

 

If you are wondering where this comes in the chronology of the gospel, let me see if I can help you.  Remember what we have been doing as we lead up to Easter.

Incidentally, Easter comes at the end of this month.  We have been exploring the earthly ministry of Jesus, and things took an interesting turn last week.

We took a closer look at Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, in addition to mentioning that this essentially kicked off Jesus’ journey toward the Cross.

We were looking in the gospel of Mark last week, but of course are in Matthew this morning.  Interestingly, Matthew places today’s passage in close proximity.

Were we to flip back to chapter sixteen, we would read Matthew’s account of Peter’s confession, in addition to the subsequent predictions of Jesus concerning His death.

It is within this context that Jesus, accompanied by His “inner circle” of disciples—meaning Peter, James, and John—ascends a certain mountain in the area.

 

Immediately, we read our word for the day.  It’s found in chapter two.  Jesus was “transfigured” before them.

We aren’t informed as to the process which brought this about, but we are given some details regarding the effects of this transfiguration.

Jesus’ face shone like the sun.  His clothes became as white as the light.  Commentator Craig Blomberg holds that the brilliance of it all suggested “glory, sovereignty, and purity.”  We might rather say Jesus was transformed.

It was still Him in the middle of all this dazzling brightness, but this was definitely something new.  There was an unquestioned change.

The disciples saw Jesus in His holiness, in His divinity, and in His purity and righteousness.  The encumbrances of humanity no longer shadowed Him.

 

As if this scene weren’t enough, two heavenly visitors appear to converse with the transformed Jesus.  We read that the two beings are Moses and Elijah.

It would appear that the gospel writers not only understood that these were the two visitors, but that the disciples also understood their identities.

While Matthew offers up no details, Luke gives us a glimpse into this conversation.  The two men spoke with Jesus in regards to His departure from the earth.  This departure would come following Jesus’ accomplishment of His mission in Jerusalem.

Given the context we have already seen, this is basically what happened.  Moses and Elijah came to talk with Jesus about His impending death and resurrection.

So what exactly is going on here?  Well, a lot, actually.  First of all, it would appear that Jesus is receiving a blessing and some encouragement.

We must never forget that He took on the limitations of humanity when He was born to Mary and Joseph.  Paul writes in Philippians that Jesus “emptied Himself”.

He left His glory behind.  He laid it aside.  But now, at least to a degree and for a brief time, it would seem as though His glory had been restored.

Perhaps He was getting a tiny glimpse of the glory He once shared with His Father in heaven—a glory He would soon recapture.

In addition to that blessing, it would seem as though these two stalwarts of the Old Testament had appeared to help strengthen His resolve to see His mission through.

After all, they did speak with Him about that mission.  A third, though certainly not minute, issue at play here is the effect this had on the disciples.

 

Remember, they had recently heard Jesus make a shocking and disheartening prediction.  He would be rejected, arrested, and killed by their own people.

This one that they knew—or at least presumed—to be the Messiah was suddenly appearing very weak and vulnerable.

Perhaps it even appeared as though He was wavering.  He certainly wasn’t looking the part of the valiant and victorious warrior, whom they were expecting.

But now, up here on this mountain, they get a glimpse.  God, from time to time, gives us glimpses of glory.  They aren’t necessarily frequent.

Nor does one person getting a glimpse mean that you are entitled to one.  Blomberg puts it like this.  Our question shouldn’t be, “Why don’t we get glimpses?”

Our question should be, “Why would we ever get a glimpse to begin with?”

 

Peter, speaking for the others and overcome with the emotion of the moment, declares this to be a good place to be.

I’m sure he speaks not merely of the physical place on the mountain, but also of the circumstances that surrounded and blessed them.

He recommends building three shelters—one for each of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.

His thinking, it would seem, is that they ought to stay in this good place and this wonderful moment for a lengthy period of time.

Mark mentions that Peter, as he shared these comments and ideas, didn’t know what he was saying.  Understandably, there was some confusion over it all.

Peter, as is always the case, is never afraid to speak up.  But Peter, as is often the case, speaks with little tact or understanding.

 

How can they spend any length of time up on that mountain when Jesus’ mission—the mission Moses and Elijah just spoke of—is at hand?

He must descend and go to Jerusalem—and they must go with Him.  Too often we see these glimpses of God’s glory and try to, in our own power, make them last.

We want to build our own shelters, or perhaps our own bubble, if you will.  We want to stay on that mountain when, in reality, life is often lived in the valley.

Or, at the very least, on the level ground.

In the midst of Peter’s confused excitement, another being steps onto the stage.

Matthew states that, while Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them.

This is a presence distinct from the heavenly presences of Moses and Elijah, and even distinct from the transfigured Jesus.

A voice booms from within the cloud: “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.  Listen to Him!”

These words call to mind similar words that were heard at Jesus baptism, which doubled as the inauguration of His earthly ministry.

There can be no mistaking this.  God the Father is speaking.  He speaks to encourage God the Son.  He also speaks to open the eyes of the disciples.

 

“Listen to Him!” the Father commands.  Jesus has already given a prediction of His suffering and death and resurrection.

He will continue to give more, up until the time He reaches Jerusalem.  These disciples must pay attention to what He’s saying.

Perhaps they had their own notions of what being “messiah” meant, but that didn’t matter.  Jesus embodied the Messiah.  He knew best.

And, as we read last week, He was beginning to teach them all about it.  So they should listen to Him—and so should we.

They should observe how He carries Himself—and so should we, as we read His word.  And they should get down from the mountain.

The predictions of Jesus’ suffering could not be carried out from there.  As the old song goes, He must needs go to Jerusalem.

 

If the transfiguration and the two visitors didn’t shake the disciples to the core, the last person—the voice from the cloud—certainly did.

Matthew says that they fell facedown to the ground and were terrified.  This was probably a combination of worship and legitimate, pants-wetting fear.

Notice what happened though.  Jesus touched them.  He comes over to where they are, cowering in fear, and reaches down to place His hand on their shoulders.

“Let’s get moving, friends,” He says.  “Don’t be afraid.”  Commentator Leon Morris states that “this human touch must have been very comforting.”
He goes on to say, “They realized that the Master was still with them and that He felt for them.”  What a glimpse of Jesus they just received!

They took in His power and His glory.  They observed His deep intimacy with the Father in Heaven.  And still, they also felt His personal touch.

What a sensation to be terrified and comforted by someone, all in the same moment!

 

Notice what Matthew writes, once the disciples raise their heads to look around.  They saw no one except Jesus.  He is the focal point, and always will be.

Yes, Moses and Elijah were there.  Moses was always associated with the Law.  Elijah has always been foremost among the prophets.

But the Law and the Prophets were simply building up to Jesus.  They find their fulfillment in Him.  The disciples’ world is being shaken.

Their preconceived notions about messiah have been contested.  The Jewish priority of the Law is falling by the wayside.

All things sum up in Jesus.  All things find their center in Jesus.  We read that passage, a bit earlier, from Revelation.

That picture of Jesus is similar to the one we see the disciples experiencing here on this mountain.  Jesus summed Himself up quite nicely in that passage.

He is the Alpha and the Omega.  He is the first and the last.  He is the beginning and the end.  He is not some mere add-on to your life.  He is your life.

He is the One who, were you to see Him in all His glory, would frighten you down to the very core of your being.  And He is also the One who gently touches you.

He gives you awe-inspiring glimpses, and yet He leads you down the mountain and into the world of everyday life—the world where you faith finds its legs.

 

Jesus instructs these three men to speak nothing in regards to what they witnessed on the mountain—at least, not until His resurrection.

Already, His death and resurrection is a foregone conclusion in His mind.  It needs to start becoming a foregone conclusion in the minds of the disciples as well.

It is then and only then—following the resurrection—that things start clicking for the disciples.  Through the Holy Spirit, they begin to put two and two together.

As it is right now, they are still largely unable.  They are beginning to scratch the surface, but their next question to Jesus shows they aren’t there yet.

 

After all that they witnessed on that mountain, stunningly their first question is about Elijah.  Here we go, back with the old standby Jewish religion.

Jesus had already taught them that John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Messiah, in the person and character of Elijah.

He denounced the wickedness of the surrounding culture, much as Elijah did.  He called for life-change, much as Elijah did.

But their questions about Elijah aren’t as misguided as they might seem at first glance.  After all, the prophet Malachi predicted Elijah as the forerunner to the coming of the Lord.  He would also bring about restoration

Perhaps the disciples were wondering about this predicted restoration.  Had it already come about?  If so, why might Jesus still need to suffer and die?

 

Jesus is blunt with these three men.  Elijah did already come, much as He taught them earlier in regards to John the Baptist.

John was the forerunner for Jesus—the one who paved the way for the Messiah.

It would be Jesus who would bring about the restoration—in fact, though it was not complete, it was in the beginning stages.

Already we have seen examples of Jesus’ restoration of the natural world in His miraculous healings, expulsions of demons, and raising the dead.

But, just as John was a forerunner of Jesus in his character—full of the Holy Spirit—and message—repent, for God’s kingdom is at hand—so was he a forerunner of Jesus in the way he was treated.

John was mistreated.  His message was largely ignored by the religious elite, and the secular king, Herod, had him brutally murdered.

So would be the case with Jesus.  The disciples were to prepare themselves for the senseless violence and wickedness that was coming Jesus’ way.

In the meantime, they were to hold on to this experience on the mountain.  It would serve them well and encourage them in those dark days that lay ahead.

We, too, should hold onto our glimpses of glory.  We should hold onto those moments of awe-struck fear.

We live in a world where, all too often, even Christians fail to fear the Lord.  We tarnish His name and His glory and His standard as though He were nothing special.

We should also hold onto those personal touches from Jesus.  The world burdens and batters us, and we need to remember that our Savior is right there beside us.

 

And, most importantly, we are called to turn to this blindingly brilliant Lord, this merciful friend and Savior.  We need His companionship.

We need His fearful glory.  In short, we need Him.  Have you turned to Jesus?  If so, do you need to again?  If not, why not now?  (Pray.)