Speaker : John Johnstone
Most of us would say that we have experienced a small number of events which we would describe as being life-changing. Such events stay with us for the rest of our lives, shaping our identities, beliefs, and characters. Some are joyous, like the day we became a Christian, our wedding day or the birth of our children. Others are tragic, such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness or a breakdown. There are also times where we might just have an epiphany of some kind or other, and realise the truth of something which we just didn’t see as clearly before, and this sets our lives on a new and better course. Sometimes these things happen as we have been reading God’s Word, and are praying in response, and something just hits us- God’s Spirit has been at work.
For Peter, James and John, the transfiguration was a life-changing event. Most of us know that Jesus is both 100% God and 100% human. That’s the Christmas story: Jesus who has always existed as God, became a human being in order to rescue the world from sin and enslavement. It is astonishing, but God entered our world as a real human baby and grew into a man. Jesus is God and man in one person. Almost always, however, Jesus’ identity as God was hidden, shrouded by his humanity. When he walked along the street, you wouldn’t know he was God. He looked like an ordinary man. The Bible says ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ (Isaiah 53:1)
But on this memorable day, just for a time, Jesus’ appearance changes so that his face shines like the sun, and his clothes become as bright as a flash of lightning. In other words, the normally-hidden deity or godness of Jesus coming bursting out of him, while he is praying. It is important to say that Jesus is not changing into something which he was not before, but rather this is a revelation, a revealing, of who Jesus really was, the eternal Son of God. It wasn’t like an external light was shining onto Jesus, like a spotlight on a stage, but this was Jesus’ own inner glory radiating out of him.
‘The ordinariness is replaced by extraordinariness.’ (Donald Macleod)
This was a stunning, supernatural event. The transformation of Jesus indicates clearly that he is none other than God the Lord. The Bible says ‘God is light’ and here, light comes flowing out of Jesus. Were this not enough to convince us that Jesus is God, we also have the voice of God the Father underlining the fact: ‘This is my Son’. And two special guests appear from Heaven, Moses and Elijah, reminding us that there is an eternal world, which exists alongside our world, which is normally hidden from us.
1. What impact does the transfiguration have on Peter, James and John?
John looks back at this event as one of the clearest evidences of Jesus’ identity as God. Remember the way John begins his gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…’ (John 1:1-2)
‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14)
Similarly, we read in John’s first epistle, ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.’ (1 John 1:1)
Likewise, Peter comes back to this event as something foundational for him. Because he witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus, he has no doubts whatsoever about the truthfulness of Jesus’ claim to come back again one day to judge the world in power. Listen to how he links all this together. ‘ For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.’ (2 Peter 1:16-18)
This has been a life-changing event for both James and John. They know Jesus is who he claimed to be, the Son of God. And they know Jesus is totally trustworthy and will do whatever he has promised to do, including coming back to this world in power and glory one day.
In the context of the passage, just before the transfiguration, Jesus has been making some astonishing claims and demands. He has just claimed that he would die, and then rise again on the 3rd day. He’s been speaking of how demanding being a Christian disciple really is, because we must carry our crosses, and suffer for his sake. He claims that saving our lives eternally is bound up in our response to him, and that he will come back one day in power as Judge. These are massive claims! Can we trust them? ‘About eight days after Jesus said this…’ (verse 28) Said what? It’s as if after all this talk of suffering and glory and eternal life, Jesus’ trustworthiness is underlined by this supernatural transformation. The transfiguration proves Jesus is who he says he is, and that he is able to do what he claims he is able to do. He is able to save us. He is able to change our lives.
Almost all of Jesus’ disciples were martyred. What kept them going? What put steel into their bones? Surely this event was part of that, along with the resurrection itself. So, in the storms of persecution, in the midst of their suffering and in the face of martyrdom, this incident continued to fuel their faith and they were sustained.
2. What impact does the transfiguration have on Jesus?
It’s all too easy for us to forget the human nature of Jesus. He had needs as we do. We see this in the garden of Gethsemane when he sweats droplets of blood, his whole being recoiling from the horror that awaited him on the cross. God the Father knows Jesus laying down his own life is the toughest mission anyone ever had or ever would face and so he encourages his Son when he needs it the most.
He encourages Jesus by reminding him of his own identity and glory. I love the way Donald Macleod describes this: ‘For a moment, his appearance and his circumstances befit his status as the Son of God: a reminder, on the threshold of the cross, that although death had a right to him as the Sin-Bearer, it could have no authority to hold him.’
Jesus would have been greatly encouraged by the appearance of Moses and Elijah. In verse 31, we’re even told the main subject of their conversation together- Jesus’ departure. This word ‘departure’ is actually the word ‘exodus’, not the normal word for death (thanatos, like euthanasia). The death of Jesus is the most important event in the whole of human history. For us, Jesus’ death means everything- our forgiveness, atonement, justification, sanctification, glorification, eternal life and much more.
The first Exodus led by Moses freed God’s people from slavery in Egypt. They were brought through the Red Sea and into the Promised land. Jesus’ exodus, his death, would set us free from slavery to sin, and bring us into the promised land of Heaven. The first exodus was but a signpost to the second. The Passover lambs which died and whose blood was painted on the lintels of the doors pointed to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who would die to take away the sin of the world.
When Jesus tried to talk to the disciples about his death, they didn’t get it. Read on to verses 44-45: ‘Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.’ But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.’ But Moses and Elijah understand what Jesus’ death will achieve.
Perhaps most encouragingly of all, Jesus hears the voice of his own beloved Father: ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’ (verse 35) The Father uses words of Scripture to encourage Jesus. ‘This is my Son’ comes from Psalm 2:7, where Jesus is God’s promised King who will rule the nations. Jesus is the chosen one; this comes from Isaiah 42:1: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.’ Jesus is the servant of the Lord who will bring freedom for those held in captive. ‘Listen to him’; this comes from Deuteronomy 18:15, where the Lord promises that a prophet greater than Moses would be raised up: ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.’ What encouragement these words must have brought Jesus, as he entered the last and hardest stage of his ministry.
The glory cloud would also have bolstered his confidence in what he was doing, as this cloud reminded Jesus of the presence of the Father with him. The Father is expressing his delight in what his Son is about to do, in the giving of his life for others. Remember too, at the beginning of Jesus ministry, at his baptism, Jesus also heard words of encouragement from his Father. So, at the beginning and towards the end of his ministry, Jesus is encouraged, before he faces total humiliation.
3. What impact should the transfiguration have on us?
Like the disciples, our faith can be strengthened when we see the glory of Christ. This begs the question, where can we see the glory of Christ. Of course, the answer is in the Scriptures. In the Bible. The disciples are enabled to have a visual experience of Jesus’ glory. For us, the experience is verbal, in written form, but nonetheless it is powerful. So, when we read of the description of Christ in Revelation chapter 1, ‘…whose eyes are like blazing fire and who has a double-edged sword coming from his mouth…’ our faith is fed as we meditate and consider all this tells us about our Saviour.
Or we read in Colossians: ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.’ (Colossians 1:15-18) Are you gazing on the glory of Christ? Do you take time to do that?
We are also reminded of the importance of encouragement. Even the Lord Jesus needed and received encouragement in life. What a blessing this encouragement was to him. If our heavenly Father is an encourager, should we not seek to do this too? ‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:11) Even though we have to socially distance, perhaps we should try to gather more after the service, inside with masks on, or unmasked outside, and take the time to encourage one another in our lives. Let’s bring the importance of mutual encouragement back onto our radars.
Perhaps there is a lesson here that the ‘spiritual highs’ of the Christian life cannot be prolonged. Peter seems to want to prolong this experience, by having tents put up. But it was never meant as a lasting experience. In fact, the disciples are brought back down to earth with a bump the next day (v38) when they encounter a demon-possessed boy. Sometimes we are encouraged by Christian camps, receiving the Lord’s Supper, seeing conversions, and making particular progress, but we cannot hold onto these times, but must go back down into the valley of normal life, work and domestic chores.
Finally, let’s see the centrality of Christ in this passage. Moses and Elijah fade away, and who is left? Jesus is there standing alone. He is the preeminent one. He is the one the Father tells us we must ‘listen to’. Remember the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians: ‘For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ (1 Corinthians 2:2) It’s worth taking up our crosses and following him. We’ve been given a sneak preview here of the glory with which he will have when he comes back to the earth as he has promised. And it’s this same glory which we will have a share in.
‘… we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2) I hope this incident strengthens your faith. Imagine what happened that day. Imagine Jesus being changed. And then be assured that he is truly God the Lord, and his death has won us forgiveness and freedom.