If you have your Bibles I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew 17. As we have studied in Matthew 16 together for the last few weeks, we have seen there Peter's confession of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, therefore acknowledging that He is the divine Messiah prophesied by God in the Old Testament to come and save His people. Immediately upon that confession, beginning in verse 21 of Matthew 16, Jesus begins to teach His disciples the truth that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer. It is something that He has spoken of to them before about, it is something that He has hinted at, it is something that He has spoken of implicitly now, at this stage of His teaching He begins to teach it explicitly. But it is very troubling to the disciples, the disciples are bothered. They are having a hard time putting together two truths, that He is the divine Messiah, the very Son of God, and at the same time, He must die, even at the hands of the religious leaders of their people. And those two things were very difficult for the disciples to put together. And so, in Matthew 17, a balancing truth is set forth alongside that disturbing truth for the spiritual welfare of the disciples.
Before we look at Matthew 17, verses 1-13 together however, I'd like to point to verse 28. Do you remember what it says there, in verse 28 we see this recorded. “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Liberal critical scholars have used that verse to say, you see, Jesus thought that His second coming was going to occur basically within the lifetime of some of the disciples. And since it didn't, that is another proof that Jesus really wasn't who He said He was, and there are flaws in the Scripture. But of course, John knew that particular liberal critical theory two thousand years before it was formulated in our own time. And in his gospel he explicitly says that there were some who had gotten the false impression that Christ was going to return before His death, and that that was wrong, that was not what Jesus ever meant.
In this passage, Jesus is not talking about any of His disciples seeing His second coming, He is talking about them seeing the manifestation of His coming kingdom in various events. It is not a mistake that Matthew, Mark and Luke, all the synoptic gospels, tell us about the transfiguration right after they tell us about this particular statement of the Lord Jesus. For the transfiguration itself is the first of a series of manifestations of Christ's coming kingdom in glory. It is not the only manifestation, only some of these disciples of course will see the manifestation of Jesus' transfiguration. So Jesus' words are precisely accurate, but also some of these disciples will see the manifestation of Jesus' glory in the resurrection, in the ascension, in the events at Pentecost, in the signs and wonders that follow. All those are signs of Jesus' coming glorious kingdom, and He is saying to His disciples in verse 28, some of you will see those signs. And so indeed He was absolutely correct.
Now with that as a preface, let's turn our attention to Matthew 17:1-13. Hear God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word.
Our Lord and our God, we ask that by the Spirit You would grant us spiritual understanding of the truth as we study it today, so that we would not only have a deeper apprehension in our minds of the glory of this truth, but so that in our hearts our wills would be transformed by the very obedience which You work in us by the power of the Spirit. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
This record of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ is vital to our Christian experience. And there are two or three things that are clearly set forth in this passage. This is a mysterious passage, there are many things that we don't know the answer to in this passage. We don't know why Jesus picked Peter, James and John. We don't know what mountain it was that Jesus took these disciples to. We don't know exactly what it means in all its ramifications that Jesus was transfigured. We don't have a clue how Peter, James and John, who were only ‘x’ number of years old, immediately recognized Moses and Elijah, who had been dead respectively for 1400 and 700 years. We don't know the answer to any of those questions, but we must not let the mysteries of this passage deflect our attention from the clear truths which it sets forth, and there are two or three of those that I would like to think through with you this morning.
I. The Christian hope is contingent upon Jesus’ glory.
For one thing, we see in this passage that Jesus' glory is at the heart of our Christian hope. Surely that is one of the great focuses of the transfiguration itself. For the Lord to reveal Jesus' glory, and thus to strengthen the hope of His disciples. We also learn in this passage that Jesus' glory has a practical implication, and that practical implication is that we ought to believe Jesus. That is a conclusion which the Lord himself, God the Father, draws in His words to peter, and to the other disciples. And we also learn in this passage that Jesus' cross and Jesus' glory cannot be separated. They go together. The way to glory is the way to the cross, and therefore no disciple can enjoy the presence of Christ's glory apart from grasping it. All those things are set forth in this passage, so lets study it together.
First I'd like to draw your attention to verses 1 -3 where we see here a description of the transfiguration and learn something of its meaning and its purpose. In the wake of Peter's confession of Christ, Jesus had not only confirmed that Peter was correct about who he thought He was, who he declared, who he believed He was, but He went on to teach the disciples at least two other important things.
First He began to teach them about His atoning death, He said, ‘I must go up to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the religious leaders of my people and eventually be killed, and then raised on the third day.’ That was an incredibly troubling thing for the disciples to hear and they wrestled with it as is manifested in Peter's words to Jesus. Peter immediately responded by saying, ‘Well Jesus, God forbid, this should never be, we don't want this to happen to You.’
To make matters worse, Jesus went on to explain to the disciples that His suffering meant that if they were going to truly be His disciples and follow in His way, they too were going to have to choose the way of suffering, of self-denial for His sake. And so He teaches them two very hard lessons at the end of Matthew chapter 16 and then He comes in Matthew 17 verses 1 through 13 with this counterbalancing truth. He takes these disciples away for a time of reflection and instruction and this counterbalancing truth about the Lord Jesus Christ is revealed to them.
We don't know, as we've said, exactly why He chose Peter and James and John. We could make some guesses at that. It's very interesting, isn't it, Peter was always the spokesman for the disciples. When the disciples wanted to say something to Jesus, usually they would appoint peter to represent that particular concern or question to Jesus and Peter continued to have a central role in the proclamation of the gospel throughout the days of the early church as the book of acts and especially the first eleven chapters of Acts revealed. So he is an obvious choice for this type of situation. John, on the other hand, we are told numerous times in the gospel of John, was an especially beloved disciple of Jesus. Apparently they had extremely close relationship and fellowship, he was a beloved disciple, and so perhaps that is one of the reasons why he was chosen.
Why James? Well, we don't know, again. But you remember that Acts chapter 12 verse 2 tells us that James was the first disciple after Pentecost to have the privilege of being martyred for the Lord Jesus Christ. So, these three men, all of whom were going to play central roles in the building of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, were given the privilege of being with Jesus, alone on this mountain, at the time He was transfigured. We are told here that when Christ was transfigured His face shone like the sun and His garments became as white as light.
What is happening there? Basically this, for a moment, for an instant, for a few minutes, the disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in the fullness of His glorious nature. Remember the Apostle Paul in Philippians chapter 2 had reminded us that Jesus had emptied Himself. Now does that mean that He had emptied Himself of His divinity and of His divine attributes? No, but it does mean that those things were veiled for a time. They were obscured to us. We did not see Him in all His glory, as He walked through the world in His weakness and in His humiliation. But for a few moments these disciples were allowed to see Christ in all His glory, His true glory was momentarily unveiled, it was like a curtain was being pulled back and they were allowed to see Jesus as He is. They were allowed to see Jesus as the Father sees Jesus.
Now, of course, the whole passage is designed to remind us of encounters between great leaders of God's people and the Lord Himself, in the Old Testament. The fact that Moses and Elijah are present when this happens is very interesting. Moses and Elijah, both had encounters with the presence of God on mountains. We don't know where Moses' grave is, no man knows where his grave is, and Elijah has no grave. We are toldthat apparently the Lord Himself buried Moses, and He took Elijah to the skies before He died. Moses and Elijah had preeminent roles in the Old Testament. Moses is the lawgiver and Elijah, the great representative of the prophets of God.
And both Moses and Elijah factor into the book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Covenant which heralds the role of this coming Elijah who will prepare the way of the Lord. So, as this whole event reflects and calls the disciples to think back on these great events of the Old Testament, they are actually shown the superiority of Jesus Christ.
Think for a moment of Moses on Sinai. Moses had to veil His face so that the people would not be blinded by the reflected glory that he apparently had absorbed by his very presence with the Lord on the mountain. Here on the mount of transfiguration, it is not a reflected glory that Jesus unveils, it is an essential glory, it is His glory, not someone else's glory, it is His glory that is made manifest. And so as Moses the great lawgiver and Elijah the prophet representing the law and prophets are there on either side speaking with the Lord Jesus, we see that they are outshined by the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Mount of Transfiguration, as we reflect upon Mount Horeb and Elijah, and Mount Sinai with Moses, we see that Christ's glory is a greater glory. By the way, Luke tells us what they were talking about. All Matthew tells us is that they were talking with one another. Luke tells us that they were talking about the death of the Lord Jesus Christ in Jerusalem which was going to accomplish a new exodus for His people. That is what they were talking about.
And let me say, hold that in the back of your mind because that is going to come into play with what God the Father says to Peter and the disciples in a few minutes. Now what was the purpose of this transfiguration.
Well, there are many things we could say about this, but let's isolate ourselves to this: each time God the Father spoke audibly to His Son and to the circle of those disciples around him in the gospels, the message had a two-fold effect.
To encourage the Son in His work of mediation, and to encourage the faith of His disciples. So let's think about four specific things that occurred because of the transfiguration.
First of all, the transfiguration was a reminder of the Father to the Son of His love. Notice that the words in the transfiguration are the same as the words of the Father to the Son in the baptism, this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. The Father, publicly announces again to the world, this is My Son and I love Him. And in the very manifestation of Christ's glory, the Father reminds Christ of the glory which is set before Him as the Son begins to plunge Himself into the suffering which will lead up to His suffering at the hands of the Romans and of the Jews and eventually His crucifixion. And Hebrews 12 verse 2 tells us that it was precisely that glory set before Christ which enabled Him to despise His suffering and to endure it on our behalf. Because of the glory that was set before Him. And so, this transfigurating event would have been an encouragement to the Son in His suffering.
Notice also that this would have been a confirmation of the faith of Peter, and James and John. In response to Peter's confession that Jesus was the divine Messiah, Jesus had said, ‘Peter, you're right, the Father has revealed that to you.’ But now the Father himself comes to Peter, James and John and says, ‘Yes Peter, you're right. He is the divine Messiah, and this is what He looks like, this is how glorious He is; you don't know the half of it, Peter.’ And so the Father Himself confirms the expression of truth made by Peter. So now both Jesus the Son and God the Father have confirmed the truth of Peter's confession.
Thirdly, Calvin reminds us that the transfiguration teaches us that Jesus' death was voluntary. Now let's walk through that argument for a minute because that may not be immediately apparent. When you see Jesus on the way to Jerusalem to suffer and die, you may be tempted to think that Jesus was the victim of wicked leaders of Israel, and of the Romans, and that He's simply fallen into the hands of people who have overpowered Him. You may be tempted to think that something has gone wrong, that there is an accident happening here. But as you stand and you see Jesus the Son as He is in the transfiguration, it becomes clear to you that no one could overpower this man. If He dies in Jerusalem, He dies because He has chosen to. And the transfiguration reminds you of the essential power and glory of Christ and therefore you must remember that when He lays down His life at the cross, He doesn't do it because He has accidentally fallen into the hands of men, He does it because He wanted to. And remember Jesus' own words, “No man takes My life from Me, but I Myself lay it down.” That is precisely what the transfiguration teaches; no one could have taken Jesus' life as He is revealed in all His power and glory in the transfiguration. He was no victim. He willingly gave himself for us.
And, of course, here in the transfiguration, fourth and last, we have a counterbalancing experience of the spiritual truths which are being taught at the end of Matthew 16. As the disciples are depressed by the thought that their Christ, their master, must go to Jerusalem and die and suffer, and as they are depressed at the prospect of their own self-denial and suffering, here we see the picture of the glory, not only the glory which their Christ has, but the glory in which they will share. We have in these verses a striking pattern of the glory in which Christ and His people will appear when He comes the second time; the glory that you see here is the glory that Christ has determined that you will share in if you have trusted in Him.
And you'll never understand the cross until you understand that the glorious Christ of the transfiguration is the Christ who was crucified on the cross. When we look at the cross through the eyes of the gospel writers, and as the gospel writers describe to us how the mob looked at Christ, we see a condemned criminal; we see a man who is perhaps deranged, a lunatic, we see a pitiful figure, a victim. But that is not how God the Father sees His Son on the cross. God the Father sees the glorious Son rendering Himself up voluntarily for the salvation of His people. That is the Christ who died and until you see that Christ, you will never appreciate how much sin deserves to be punished, and you'll never appreciate how much grace has been shown to you in Jesus Christ.
It is the glorious Christ who was crucified for our sins.
No man ever errs on the side of giving too much honor to God the Son, and no man ever thought too much of Christ, as J.C. Ryle said, “When you see the transfiguration you see the truth of that.”
II. The glory of Christ ought to impel Christians to trust and obey Him.
We learn a second thing in this passage, if you'd look at verses 4-6. Here is the disciples response to the transfiguration, and here is God the Father's response to the disciples. Peter, of course, blurts out thinking as He goes, responding to this great event. And we shouldn't be too hard on Peter, I mean, what would you have said if you'd been there at the transfiguration. Peter was at a loss for words, he was grasping for them and unfortunately, he was speaking those words as he grasped them. I've done that myself before. But Peter's words were inappropriate because they reflect a desire to experience the glory of Christ without and apart from the experiencing of the suffering of Christ. And God the Father interrupts Peter in his statements about what has happened to the Lord Jesus, and says, as it were, ‘Peter, stop talking and listen to what My Son is saying. Listen to what My Son is saying about His death.’
Now let's go back and think again about what Moses and Elijah and Jesus were talking about. Luke tells you in Luke chapter 9 that they were talking about the death of the Son. Now when the Father says to Peter, ‘Listen to what the Son is saying,’ He is saying, ‘Peter, the first act of a disciple of My Son, in view of His glory, is to listen to what He says, to trust what He says, to believe what He says, and to obey what He says.’ Now Peter, you rebuked My Son for telling you that He was going to die. You listen to My Son. You stop talking, you be quiet for a moment, and you listen to My Son. The Father Himself reinforces the importance of the disciples listening to the truth which Christ was teaching, however uncomfortable it was, about His mission, because it was at the very center of His work on their behalf.
God says in effect, this is who My Son really is, this is what He looks like, and so you listen to His teaching about the cross, and about His suffering, about the exodus He is going to accomplish, about the resurrection from the dead. And of course, these words are a striking lesson to the whole church. We all have a tendency to want to speak ourselves, or to listen to what men have to say. Here is God the Father saying, ‘No, you listen to what the Son has to say.’ That is the first step forward in the Christian life.
III. Christ's glory is not to be proclaimed apart from the cross.
One last thing we see before we close. If you'll look at verses 7 through 13, we have a description of the aftermath of this transfiguration. Jesus and the disciples making their way back down the mountain in a theological discussion, in a Bible study, if you will. After warning these disciples not to tell anyone about the vision. Why? Because the vision of His glory is not to be proclaimed until the reality of His suffering and death has been accomplished and His resurrection has occurred. Why? Because the cross must be proclaimed as the glory of Christ is proclaimed. There can be no glory apart from the cross. And so Jesus says to the disciples, ‘Don't you talk about this until the resurrection is done. Then, you can weave together the proclamation of both the cross of Christ and the glory of Christ.’
And then, the disciples as they are walking down the mountain with Christ, they say to Him, they ask Him a question. You know, the scribes, the religious teachers of our people, tell us that Elijah is coming before Messiah, and that he is going to restore all things. Jesus responds to them. In verse 11, Jesus repeats the teaching of the scribes. Elijah is coming and will restore all things. Now if you will look at the very first words of verse 12, you will notice that Jesus uses the same juxtaposition here that He uses in the Sermon on the Mount. You remember when Jesus says, “You have heard…but I say. You have heard, but I say.” Well, here again, the scribes teach Elijah is coming and will restore all things, but I say Elijah has already come. So what Jesus is saying is this. The scribes were right to think that Malachi predicted that Elijah would come to prepare the way for the Lord, but they were wrong in not recognizing that John the Baptist was the Elijah predicted by Malachi. They rejected his teachings, just like they rejected My teaching; they put him to death just like they are going to put Me to death.
He is saying to His disciples, ‘Don't think because you have seen Elijah in the flesh today, that this means now that I am going to reign in glory apart from the cross for now. The true Elijah predicted by Malachi, he was beheaded. I'm going to be crucified, because the way to glory is the way of the cross. Martin Luther once said “There is not a word in the Bible which is extra crucem, there is not a word in the Bible which can be understood apart from the cross,” and this is precisely what Jesus is pressing home again here. There can be no appreciation of His glory apart from the understanding of the cross. This glorious Christ is the crucified Christ. That is the Christ we proclaim, that is the Christ we trust in. May God enable us to believe in Christ as He is offered in the gospel, and that is the glorious Christ who was crucified.
Let us pray. Our Lord and our God, we bless You for Your word, and we ask that You would bless us by a spiritual apprehension of Your truth for Christ's sake, Amen.