The transfiguration of Jesus
Sermon: Sunday, 14th March, 2021 Luke 9:28-36
Two of the most life-changing questions we can ever ask are these: who is Jesus, and why did come? Or to put another way, it’s crucial that we all understand both the identity of Jesus and the mission of Jesus. If you’re not a Christian yet, this is what you need to know. And if you are a Christian already, this is what you need to return to again and again. This astonishing event in Jesus’ life, his transfiguration, does reveal to us both his identity and his mission, and that makes this passage of the Bible so important, so helpful, and so instructive for us.
1. Who is Jesus? His identity
In Luke 8:25, Jesus performs an amazing miracle calming a storm on the lake. He literally commands the wind and the waves. Understandably, the disciples are frightened and amazed. Straight away they ask this question: ‘Who is this, for even the wind and the waves obey him?’
In Luke 9:9, king Herod hears about Jesus’ miracles and teaching and he asks: ‘Who then is this I hear such things about?’
In Luke 9:18-20, Jesus asks who the crowds say he is, and then he asks the disciples point blank, ‘But what about you, who do you say that I am?’
Peter gives the wonderful answer: ‘You are the Christ of God’.
It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the theme of Jesus’ identity is so important in the gospels. Because if he’s just an ordinary man, or a fraud, or someone with delusions of grandeur, then we can ignore him. However, if he is the Messiah, the Saviour, the Son of God, then everything changes for all of us: we must listen to him, take him seriously, and follow him.
In our passage this morning, the question of Jesus’ identity is answered definitively by God the Father: ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’ (Verse 35) The question is also answered by the supernatural event in itself, as for a short time, the normally hidden glory of Jesus comes radiating out from inside of him. His face shine like the sun, and his clothes like a flash of lightening. Can we really question who he is after that? He is God, the Lord, the maker of Heaven and earth. He’s the Saviour. Of course, apart from this moment, Jesus looked like an ordinary human being. He was 100% human but he was, and is 100% God; however, the fact that he was God-become-human was hidden. We often sing the carol Hark the Herald, and the words, ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity’. Jesus divinity was normally veiled. But here on the mountain, the veil is removed, and something of the eternal glory and majesty of Jesus comes bursting out.
Jesus’ appearance changes, and it’s not a change into something he wasn’t before, but it’s a revealing of what he already was, and always has been. For Jesus is God. We’ve all seen a spotlight shining onto an actor on the stage, when an external light is shining onto someone to make them more visible. But there’s no external light shining on Jesus here. Rather, this is his own internal glory shining out of him. His deity, for this brief time, comes shining through his humanity. What a thing for Peter, James, and John to have seen: ‘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)
Let’s focus for a time on the words of God the Father – the voice from Heaven. After all, surely this is the best commentary on this wonderful, supernatural event! ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’ (Verse 35)
There are several Old Testament references here which it is helpful to unpack.
‘This is my Son.’ Psalm 2 speaks of God’s chosen Son, who is appointed to rule over the nations of the world. He will punish those who reject his rightful rule, but will be a refuge to those who shelter in him. He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’ (Psalm 2:7) Jesus is this royal Son, spoken of in Psalm 2.
‘Whom I have chosen.’ Jesus is the one chosen by God to be the Saviour of the world. This echoes the words in Isaiah 42:1: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.’ So, in the transfiguration, God the Father is telling us that Jesus is the chosen servant, the suffering servant.
‘Listen to him.’ Where do we find these words in the Old Testament? Well, in Deuteronomy 18:15, it says: ‘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.’ Jesus is the prophet far greater than Moses, and each one of us must listen to him. Why? Because Jesus is God. He is God the Son. He is the chosen one, the Saviour. He is the one we must listen to, no one else.
For us in 2021, perhaps the most important lesson from the transfiguration is that today all human beings have a responsibility to listen to Jesus. That was true of the disciples, who first heard the voice back then, but it is equally true for all of us today. We all urgently need to listen to Jesus. Only he has the solution to the need we have of forgiveness. Only he, as our Creator, has the blueprint of how we ought to be living our lives. The meaning of life, the value of life, the purpose of life will not be found in a woman’s magazine, lad’s mag, blog, false religion, political party, or even from your inner self. God created us, and so we need to listen to him, in order to understand why he made us, and the way we can live in a beautiful way, in a God-glorifying way.
Jesus’ disciples needed to listen to him. They kept getting things wrong. When Jesus told them that he must be crucified and after three days rise again, they thought this was nonsense. They thought they knew better than Jesus. Peter said: ‘No Lord, this shall never happen to you’. But Peter, and all of the disciples needed to be corrected by Jesus. They were wrong and needed Jesus to correct their thinking. They needed to listen to Jesus. Today we are exactly the same. We so often have wrong-thinking about our lives and how we should live. Sometimes we think God is unfair and that we know better than he does. Sometimes we listen to the wrong voices, voices which say: there’s no life after death, and no need of forgiveness, just live life any way you want! Today, we need to listen to Jesus’ voice, by reading the Bible, and he says: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6)
This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him. Are you taking your daily Bible reading seriously? Are you listening to Jesus? And when Jesus tells you do live life quite differently from most others in the world, you have a choice to make, to listen to him, or to the other voices. Which will it be? Let me encourage you to choose the voice of Jesus. Why? Because he is God.
Jesus’ supreme standing is endorsed, not only by Peter, but also by Moses, Elijah and God the Father. This means that when Jesus speaks about denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following him, we can trust him. When he speaks to us of the need to forgive others, we can trust him. When he speaks to us of his second coming, when he will judge the world totally fairly, we can trusty him. When he says, For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life… we can trust him.
2. Why did Jesus come? His mission
It’s perhaps less obvious how the mission of Jesus is outlined in this passage. For this, we need to consider the extraordinary conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. This is extraordinary at many levels. For one thing, Moses had been dead for 1500 years, and Elijah has been taken to Heaven 900 years prior to this event. Yet, here they are in conversation with Jesus. This is proof to us that there is indeed life after death. There is far more to life than what we can see with our eyes.
Death was not the end of Moses, but rather the very gateway to an eternity spent in the presence of God. This is a timely reminder for us today, as we remain in the grip of a pandemic. We must remember that even if the vaccine programme goes as smoothly as possibly, nevertheless, one day each one of us will die. Hebrews 9:27: ‘Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment…’
It is important for each one of us to be vaccinated, yes. But it’s far more important that we are ready to meet God, as each one of us must do at our death. And the only we can be ready is to have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Wouldn’t we love to know more about what Moses and Elijah and Jesus spoke about that day? I certainly would. All we do know for sure is this: ‘They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.’ (Verse 31) In other words, they speak about the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. They spoke about his mission, to die on the cross for sinners. There are many things which they could have spoken about, but they choose, unsurprisingly, the most important thing.
In fact, the word ‘departure’ in Greek is the word ‘exodus’. Moses knows all about what was meant by an exodus. After all, he had led the Israelites out slavery in Egypt, to freedom, and towards the promised land. Moses knew about the Passover lambs which had to be offered up as sacrifices, in the place of the Israelites, so that their sins could be atoned for. Now the greater Leader is here, Jesus Christ. He is the Passover lamb, who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is the one who will rescue us from the slavery of selfishness, sin, and fear of death, and who alone is able to set us free, and lead us into the promised land of Heaven.
‘If saints in glory see in Christ’s death so much beauty, that they must needs talk of it, how much more ought sinners on earth!’ (J C Ryle)
How true these words are. Once we realise that our forgiveness is 100% based on what Jesus has done as our substitute, and that we cannot ever earn God’s forgiveness, then the cross means everything to us. It’s what we glory in as God’s people on earth. And it’s what the saints sing about in Heaven: Revelation 5:9: ‘And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.’
Surely Moses and Elijah would have been encouraging Jesus. His ‘departure’, his ‘exodus’ was going to bring about the salvation of countless numbers of people. God’s love would be on display to the world as never before. Through Jesus’ blood there would be reconciliation with God. This is what they were discussing. The cross would be hellish, quite literally, but it would be worth it. It is remarkable that just before Jesus commences the hardest part of his mission, his death, he is given encouragement by Moses and by Elijah and by his Heavenly Father.
We all need encouragement to keep going. Jesus needed encouragement and he is receiving it here. We don’t know what Moses and Elijah said exactly; Donald Macleod writes, ‘They would have certainly expressed gratitude, and assured them of the interest (and astonishment) of heaven.’
And of what this must have meant to Jesus he writes: ‘On the very threshold of the passion, he is fortified with both the Father’s acknowledgement and the Father’s promise.’ He is God’s Son; and beyond the cross there lies transfiguration and glory.
What an encouragement this event must have been, not only to Jesus, but also to Peter, James and John. It would stay with them all through their lives. We see this in the words of Peter in 2 Peter 1:16-18: ‘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.’ What is Peter saying here about the transfiguration? He’s saying that he is certain of the Second Coming of Jesus, because he has already witnessed something of Jesus’ glory first-hand, and in a sense, the transfiguration was a preview of Jesus’ future glory.
Today we cannot be eye-witnesses to this event. But we’ve been reading about this historical and supernatural event today, so may it increase our faith in the Second Coming too! May it remind us that there is life after death, and that there is glory which will follow suffering. May we be encouraged by the implications of the transfiguration, just as Peter, James and John were, and just as Jesus was. For this event really is confirmation of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and that all he claims shall come to pass.
All of us will face hardships in this life, and times when our faith will be tested. What will get us through? Focusing on who God is and what he has done – his identity and his mission. The event of the transfiguration helps us to focus on just that.