Matthew 17:1-9 All of the Gospel writers record Jesus’ deep and abiding prayer life—that he regularly made time for prayer—that he often sought out solitary places where he could be alone with his heavenly Father, apart from the press of the crowds. But this day was different. The Bible says that:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
Why would Jesus take disciples with him this time when he never had before? It was because he needed, and wanted, witnesses for what was about to happen—people who could testify to what they saw and heard that day on the mountain.
In our epistle lesson today we have that testimony from one of the men who were there, from Peter, who says that: he and James and John were eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty—that they heard with their own ears the words of the Father, proclaiming Jesus his Son, because they were with him on the holy mountain.
Jesus never talked about what happened to him that day—he never used these events to strengthen his ministry—he never drew attention to the glory of God that shone forth from his human flesh as he was transfigured—but his disciples (the eyewitnesses) did talk about it—not just to encourage their fellow disciples-- but to encourage every Christian in every time and place, down to the folks sitting in these pews today.
Jesus took Peter, James and John with him so that we could see through their eyes and we could hear with their ears all that happened that day—so that our faith in Jesus and our confidence in the Word of God could be strengthened by his transfiguration. The Bible says that Jesus:
…was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.
When Moses came down
Mount Sinai after receiving
the Ten Commandments, the fact that he had been directly in the presence of God
was as clear as the nose on his shining face that still reflected the glory of
It is that same divine light that shines, not on Jesus as it did upon Moses, but through Jesus and from Jesus upon those around him.
Jesus said of himself that he is the Light of the world. John, who was also with him on the mount of transfiguration, said that Jesus is the light that enlightens all men. These words were literally true that day as the glory of God shone forth from Jesus.
It’s not as if the glory of God had not always been there in Jesus. The angels proclaimed the reality of the glory of God in Jesus Christ at his birth when they sang “glory to God in the highest" as the star shone upon his crib. Every miracle Jesus performed revealed the glory of God.
But there that day on the mount of transfiguration, in the presence of witnesses, the glory of God was revealed in Jesus in a way that all could see it so that he could be known for who he is: the promised Savior of us all. The Bible says that:
There appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. And Peter said to him, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
There were others there that day besides Jesus and the disciples and they were present to bear witness as well. They were there to give witness from the past—to identify Jesus of Nazareth as the one whom the prophets had always been talking about when they told of the Messiah to come.
Moses was there to bear witness that Jesus was the greater prophet he had promised—that Jesus was the Seed of the woman he had written about in Genesis—that Jesus was the living, breathing embodiment of those stone tablets that Moses had held in his hands on
Elijah was there to speak for the prophets—to bear witness that: the suffering servant of Isaiah and the humble king of Zechariah and the refining fire of Malachi were the same person—the humble man who stood between them, clothed in light.
Later on his ministry Jesus would say that all of the Law and prophets testified of him-- and so it was that day as the past found its fulfillment in Jesus.
But Moses and Elijah were also there to testify about the future—to show by their living presence what Jesus had come to do.
Sin had brought death into the world for all people—even for those closest to God like Moses and Elijah. But Jesus came to bring life-- and their presence that day testified to that saving work that Jesus would accomplish by his death and resurrection.
Moses and Elijah were there to bear witness to the fact that in Jesus’ presence death has to give way to life—that death is not the end for God's people--but there is life to come for all who trust in Jesus like Moses and Elijah.
One of these days, we too will take our place there at Jesus’ side along with Moses and Elijah and Peter, and James, and John and all who have trusted in the Lord and we will all testify that life, real life, eternal life is God's gift to all of those who listen to his Son. The Bible says:
Peter 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.”
On the day that Moses went up upon Mount Sinai, there was a great cloud filled with the brightness of lightning, and from this cloud (which was the very presence of God) came the words of God—the commands that he wanted to God’s people to follow-- but also the testimony of his own saving work that he had already accomplished in setting them free from slavery in Egypt.
It is that same divine presence who appears on the mount of transfiguration—also with commands and the testimony of God’s saving works.
On Mount Sinai God said: "Listen to me!" On the mount of transfiguration God says: "Listen to my Son!" and there is no conflict between these two commands. To hear the voice of Jesus is to hear what God has to say to us.
Again and again throughout his ministry Jesus said that he had come to do his Father’s will and speak his Father’s words. And so then…
All doubts and questions about: who Jesus is- and are there other ways to heaven- and what does God desire of me as his child- fall by the wayside there on the mount of transfiguration in the bright, shining presence of the transfigured Christ.
Jesus is mediator between God and man. He is the way that leads to life. We are to listen and obey what he says. Jesus is God in human flesh and to see him is to see God- and to hear him is to hear God- and to know him is to know God. The bible says: When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.
There would be other moments like this in Jesus’ ministry—moments when the disciples would shrink back in fear.
Early on in his ministry when the disciples had the great catch of fish, Peter begged the Lord to depart from him because he was a sinner. Later on in his ministry, when Jesus appeared before the disciples after his resurrection and their guilt still rested heavily upon them, they shrank back in fear. It happened in the Old Testament as well when Isaiah came into the presence of the Lord and fell on his face, certain that he would die because he was a sinner.
The reaction of Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration -and the reaction of Isaiah in the presence of the Lord-- is the natural, normal reaction of sinners when they are cast into the presence of a holy God. But in what happens next we see the perfect picture of what Jesus came to do. The Bible says that:
Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
When Adam and Eve sinned and hid from God in guilt and shame and fear-- he reached out to them- and clothed them by a sacrifice- and covered their shame.
When Isaiah was struck down by fear in the Lord’s presence the angel of the Lord came to him and touched his lips with a burning coal and purged away his sin.
When the disciples hid out in shame and fear Jesus appeared before them and proclaimed peace—holding out his pierced hands and side to drive away their fear.
The natural, normal reaction of sinners to the presence of God is fear—but Jesus came to take that fear away. There on the mount of transfiguration was a preview, a prophetic picture of his saving work: Struck down by fear—unable to rise under the load of their sinful weakness—Jesus came to the disciples, touched them—and lifted them up.
So he would do for us all at the cross. We could not come to God and so Jesus condescended to come to us. He took upon himself our flesh and became a servant to us all—God in flesh laying down his life for us on the cross—taking away our sins so that we have nothing to fear from entering into the presence of our holy God.
The words he spoke that day are spoken here today: Rise and have no fear. Rise up from the burden of your sin for I have taken it upon myself. Have no fear of death for there is only life in my presence. Rise and have no fear.
And just as Jesus put flesh and blood on those words that day by reaching out and touching the disciples, so he does the same for us here today—feeding us with the same body and blood that was there that day on the mount of transfiguration—the same body and blood present on Mount Calvary—the same body and blood that came forth from the tomb on Easter morning. The bible says that:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John so that there could be witnesses as to his true identity--that he was God in human flesh--but what that meant for the world had not yet been reveled--that would only come after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It is only when Jesus has gone to the cross and suffered and died for our sins—only when he has risen from the dead-- that we understand the greatness of God’s love in sending his Son—that he was sent to live and die and rise again for us and for our salvation.
Who Jesus is—and what he came to do—are the whole story of salvation and that story still needs to be told. May God empower our witness to what we have seen and heard in Jesus Christ! Amen.