Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 2/12/95
Luke 9:27 "But I say to you truthfully that there are some of those standing here who shall not taste death until they see the kingdom of God." 28 And some eight days after these sayings, it came about that he took along Peter and John and James and went up to a mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face became different and his clothing became white and gleaming. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him; and they were Moses and Elijah, 31 who, appearing in glory, were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep, but when they were fully awake they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 And it came about that as these were departing from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not realizing what he was saying. 34 And while he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud , saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!" 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen. 37 And it came about that on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great multitude met him. 38 And behold, a man from the multitude shouted out, saying, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only boy, 39 and behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams, and it throws him into a convulsion with foaming at the mouth, and as it mauls him it scarcely leaves him. 40 And I begged your disciples to cast it out, and they could not." 41 And Jesus answered and said, "Oh unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here." 42 And while he was still approaching him, the demon dashed him to the ground and threw him into a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy and gave him back to his father. 43 And they were all amazed at the greatness of God. But while everyone was marveling at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, 44 "Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men." 45 But they did not understand this statement, and it was concealed from them so that they might not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask him about this statement.
We come today to one of the strangest and most eerie stories in all of Scripture. Only our familiarity with it blinds us to its mystery and dulls the sense of awe we should have as we read it. In my attempt to explain its significance this morning, my outline is as simple as one, two, three: what it meant to the One (Jesus), to the two (Moses and Elijah), and to the three (Peter, James, and John).
This event in the life of Jesus takes on added meaning and importance if we look at it, not just as an isolated episode, but as it appears in the context of Jesus' life. When we think of it that way, we realize how many different threads of Luke's narrative it pulls together. We begin by recalling Jesus' baptism, for when Jesus came up out of the water he heard the same voice giving him the same message (Luke 9:35, cf. 3:22). "This is my beloved Son." This cannot be a coincidence. What was happening at the baptism? If you recall our treatment of that passage, Jesus was submitting to a baptism for the remission of sin--a baptism he did not personally need. Yet he insisted on being baptized because it was a symbolic way of identifying himself with his people, whose sins he had come to atone for. It was an act of commitment to his ministry conceived as that of the ultimate Sin-Bearer. To this commitment the Father responds with approval and encouragement: "This is my beloved Son! I am pleased with him." That this was in fact the meaning of that experience to Jesus is confirmed by the fact that it is immediately followed by the Temptation in the Wilderness, in which Satan specifically tries to get Jesus to question his unique divine Sonship and renounce the way of the Cross. That temptation continues through the crowd, who want Jesus to be a military messiah, and even through his own disciples, who share the same hope and cannot understand all this dark talk about being delivered into the hands of the Gentiles, suffering, and being raised the third day. Now the multitudes have begun to forsake Jesus because he refuses to be their ongoing meal ticket, Peter has confessed him to be the Messiah without understanding anything about what that confession means, and his efforts to convince the disciples about the necessity and meaning of what lies ahead have met with nothing but blank stares and denial. We are poised on the very brink of the chain of events that leads inexorably toward the final resolution, for coming right up in Luke 9:51 is that chilling statement that Jesus "resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem." That is his response to what happens here!
When we look at the Transfiguration in this light, it is easy to sense the psychological and spiritual weight of the Cross beginning to grow in Jesus' mind, much as the weight of the One Ring grew in Frodo's as his steps took him closer to Mordor. He tries to share it with the disciples, but unlike Sam Gamgee, they just can't deal with it; it goes right over their heads. It is at this critical juncture in Jesus' life that the same Voice that had expressed its approval when he had formally committed himself to this mission at the River Jordan returns with same message here on the Mount of Transfiguration. He had gone up to the mountain to pray. We can now see this prayer as a step on that journey that would eventually lead to Gethsemane. The Calvary Road has never been taken without a struggle--not even by our Lord himself! Was he already beginning to say, "If it be thy will, let this cup pass from me? Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done"? At the very least his human nature needed strength and assurance--and understanding. And so the Father gives him both encouragement and reassurance. He unveils his Son's glory for a moment to remind him of what lay on the other side of the Cross. He sends Moses and Elijah, two men who did understand what he was going through and what he had come for, back from the dead to speak with him of his imminent "departure." And then he himself descends in the traditional manner so familiar from the Old Testament. The same Cloud that hovered over Mount Sinai, the same Cloud that had overshadowed Tabernacle and Temple at their dedications, that had overshadowed the virgin Mary at her conception (no wonder the disciples were afraid to enter it!) now descends on the Mount of Transfiguration, and the Voice itself speaks from the Shekinah. "This is my Son, my chosen one!" And then it has a pointed word for the disciples, who had not been doing so very well: "Listen to him!"
If the Lord himself needed strength, encouragement, understanding, and assurance as he took the Calvary Road, how much more do we! As he prayed for it, how much more should we. And if Moses and Elijah were sent to meet these needs, how much more should we be sensitive to them in our fellow believers. If your path presents you with no such needs, I think you must question whether you are indeed on the path of discipleship. For as we have seen, it is the path of those who have denied themselves and taken up their Cross to follow him. "Shall I be carried to the skies / On flowery beds of ease / When others fought to win the prize / And sailed through bloody seas?" A spiritually stouter generation was wont to ask itself questions like that. We should do so again. Such needs are met for believers, as they were for their Lord, in a manner that is sometimes nothing short of glorious. But first they must be felt, as they can only be by those who have taken up their cross to follow Jesus.
As Jesus prepares to set foot on the last journey to Jerusalem and the cross which would usher in the New Covenant, two representatives of the Old Covenant show up to see him off. How did the disciples recognize them? Perhaps they appeared as they were traditionally remembered in Judaism; perhaps Jesus spoke with them by name. In any rate, they appear as walking synechdoches (a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole), representing not only the Old Covenant in general but specifically the Law and the Prophets, that is the Old Testament in its totality. The New American Standard says they spoke of the "departure" that Jesus was to make at Jerusalem. Literally, the word is Exodus. The Exodus from Egypt was God's greatest deliverance of his people up to that time. Moses himself had been there! So they come as living synechdoches and they speak of a life-giving synechdoche, for the deliverance from bondage in Egypt stands for all of God's redemptive acts. And the point was that what was about to happen in Jerusalem was going to be the ultimate fulfillment of what had happened at the Red Sea.
So Moses and Elijah were there for Jesus' sake, as we saw above, but also for their own. For they had a stake in what had been prophesied (that was Elijah's emphasis) so long ago. Their own salvation ultimately depended upon it. Peter, perhaps remembering this event with greater understanding, would later explain how "As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and enquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow" (1 Peter 1:10-11). Therefore they came to say, "We appreciate what you're doing" (the disicples didn't--yet); "We understand what you are doing" (the disciples didn't). In fact, Moses, who gave us the sacrificial system that Christ was about to fulfill; who had, like Jesus, experienced rejection by the very people he had come to deliver; Moses was in a position to know better than any other man or angel what our Lord was going through. Of course he wanted to be there to encourage him. For in doing so, he could lift up his own head, finally knowing that his own redemption was drawing nigh.
The disciples, inner circle of the apostolic band though they were, were at the time pretty clueless about the meaning of what they were seeing and hearing. And Peter was typically clueless with his mouth open. Nevertheless, had they been paying better attention, there were a couple of things they might have profitably noticed (and would later notice as they remembered these things after the resurrection). One is that they were experiencing the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy in Luke 9:27. "But I say to you truthfully that there are some of those standing here who shall not taste death until they see the kingdom of God." This verse has often been trotted out as an example of error in Scripture if not in Christ himself, for obviously the kingdom has not come even yet and none of the disciples are exactly still waiting for it among the living. But even a little attention to the context would make mincemeat of this arrogant assumption. Notice how verse 27 flows into verse 28. These three disciples were granted to see Jesus as he would not be seen again until John's prophetic vision of his Second Coming in the Book of Revelation. They were granted, before their deaths, to see the kingdom in the glory of the King as it will not be seen again until it comes indeed. And it is possible--just possible--that there are some alive in this generation who will not taste death until they see that same vision. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!
There was another important lesson for the disciples in the contrast between what they experienced on the Mountain and what was happening down in the Valley. In fact, this experience of theirs has become a paradigm, a pattern, and a prototype for a kind of experience that God still grants his people to encourage and inspire them along the way. It is because of this passage (as well as Moses' trips up Mount Sinai) that we still speak to this day of "a mountain top experience." Peter did what was very natural for someone having that kind of experience. He wanted to preserve it, to live in it, to prolong it. That was the point of building the "tabernacles." But meanwhile the other nine disciples were in trouble down in the valley. Up Jesus and the three had gone, but back down they had to come to deal with the realities of ministry and of life.
People make two mistakes regarding such a mountain top experience. One is Peter's: to try to hold on to it, prolong it, or (even worse) control it so we can repeat it at will. Some of our charismatic brethren have fallen into that rut, I'm afraid, and it produces only a caricature of real spiritual experience. The other and opposite error, often fallen into in reaction to the first one, is to despise it, debunk it, or at least patronize it. Here one thinks of those denominations who have tempted us to call them "God's frozen people." I am convinced that one reason Peter James and John were up on that mountain is so they could learn better than either, for the Lord knew how badly the Church was going to need that lesson. The Lord's example is obviously that both Mountain and Valley are essential to genuine and authentic Christian experience. But how do they relate to each other? What the disciples had the opportunity to learn by experience has never been better explained than by Paul Stookey in one of the songs he wrote after his conversion:
And I wonder if you've ever been to the mountain To look at the valley below? Did you see all the roads tangled down in the valley? Did you know which way to go? Oh the mountain stream runs pure and clear And I wish to my soul I could always be here, But there's a reason for living way down in the valley That only the mountain knows.
"There's a reason for living way down in the valley / That only the mountain knows." That line is too profound to be ruined with an explanation. So let us be glad for our foretastes of eternity because in their light we may better serve the Lord here and now. That way, and no other way, we may finally become so heavenly minded that we may be of some earthly good. May God make it so for our good and his glory. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams