Transfiguration: Revelation not Reflection

Christ Covenant Church
Rob Aldridge
3 March 2019
Transfiguration / Last Sunday of Epiphany

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Introduction

As most of you know, I am currently in seminary.  I have been in seminary now for about three years and have had the great privilege of taking a wide variety of classes.  A few semesters ago I took a course on evangelism. As part of this course, I had to contact a certain number of non-Christians and talk with them about Jesus, ultimately sharing the gospel message with them if the opportunity presented itself.  I spent much of my time for that class at a Starbucks near the SMU campus in Dallas. Over the course of the semester, I had many opportunities to speak with all sorts of people about Jesus.  I spoke with young people and old people.  I spoke with people from Texas and people from all over the United States.  And I also spoke with a fair number of people from other parts of the worlds as well. I met a few fellow Christians, but mostly I tried to find non-believers to talk with.

As you might expect, people’s reactions varied as I talked with them about Jesus. Some people were receptive to hearing about Him. Some were ambivalent.  And some were really quite hostile.  As the semester wore on, and I spoke with more and more people from more and more places, one thing became increasingly clear – people are confused about who Jesus is.  Some thought He was just a moral teacher whose example we should follow.  Some, like several Muslims I spoke with, thought He was only a prophet.  Still others thought that Jesus was one of many ways to salvation.  I remember one girl in particular, and she grew up here in Texas, she simply didn’t know who Jesus was.  She had heard His name and that was about it.  So, people are confused about who Jesus is.  And because people are confused about who Jesus is, they are also confused about what He has done.  And because they are confused about who He is and what He has done, they don’t know what to make of His claims.  There are a lot of competing voices today making claims about ultimate truth and most of the people I spoke with simply didn’t know who they should listen to. They just didn’t know if they should listento Jesus.

Being confused about Jesus’ identity isn’t anything new. Our sermon passage is set in a time during Jesus’ ministry when people didn’t quite know who He was or what He was doing.  That really shouldn’t surprise us though, as it is God who reveals who Jesus truly is and what He has done.  And that is exactly what He does at the transfiguration.  The transfiguration helps us see who Jesus is, what He has done, and also how we should respond to Him.  And it’s these three things that we’re going to look at as we consider Luke 9:28-36.

We’ll begin by looking at what this passage says about who Jesus is.  Then we’ll look at what this passage says about what Jesus has done.  And finally, we’ll look at how we should respond to Jesus. So our outline is basically this – Identity, Mission, and Response.  As we consider each of these topics, we’re going to spend a fair amount of time looking back at the Old Testament, which I think will help add clarity to Luke’s transfiguration account and will also help us to see how allthe Scriptures point us to Jesus.  So, if you have a Bible, I would invite you to turn to Luke chapter 9, but also be ready to jump back into the Old Testament from time to time. If you don’t have a Bible with you tonight, the sermon text is also printed in the order of worship for your convenience.

Sermon Text

The Word of God reads:

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed 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 told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.[1]

Sermon Body

Identity

Luke begins his account of the transfiguration in chapter 9 verse 28 by telling us that the events he is going to describe occurred “about eight days after these sayings.”  As we start to consider what the transfiguration tells us about Jesus’ identity, I think it is important to understand that Luke is both grounding his account in history and also providing the context in which this event occurred.  Primarily, when he refers to “these sayings,” Luke is referring to things which occurred previously in chapter 9.  This includes, among other things, both Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ and also a widespread confusion among the general public as to who exactly Jesus is and what He is doing.

So, it is within this context, that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a mountain to pray.  A couple of things we might want to notice here.  First, Jesus is taking a specific group – Peter, James, and John – rather than all 12 of His disciples.  These three seem kind of like an inner circle of the twelve, and the Gospels record them accompanying Jesus for key moments in His ministry apart from the others. For example, when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, he allowed only these three to accompany him, apart from the girl’s parents.[2]  And Mark records Jesus taking Peter, James, and John with him to pray in Gethsemane before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion.[3]  So, when we read about these three disciples going with Jesus apart from the others, we should pay close attention.

The other thing that should we should notice here is that Jesus is taking them up on a mountain.  Mountains were the setting for a number of important events in Jesus’ earthly ministry.  The Sermon on the Mount is one good example of this, but there are many others.  So, we should take notice when we read of Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up on “the mountain.”

But, perhaps more important for our current passage, mountains are often places of revelation and encounter with God in the Old Testament.  For example, it was on Mount Horeb that the LORD appeared to Moses in the burning bush and sent him back to Egypt to lead His people out of bondage in the Exodus.[4]  It was on the same mountain, also referred to as Mount Sinai, that Moses received the Ten Commandments, and where the covenant was confirmed, and where Moses entered the midst of the cloud for 40 days and nights as the glory of the LORD appeared like a devouring fire on the mountain top.[5]   It was on this mountain that the LORD hid Moses in the cleft of a rock as His glory passed by because he could not see the LORD’s face and live.[6]  And where, many years later, fleeing from Jezebel, the prophet Elijah stepped outside of his hiding cave, wrapped his face in his cloak, and stood with shielded face as the LORD passed by.[7] So, mountains are places where God revealed Himself to His chosen servants. And here as we are told that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on the mountain to pray, this history of God revealing Himself on mountains should be in the back of our minds. Although the three disciples don’t know it yet, the mountain of transfiguration will become the mountain of revelation without equal.

Luke tells us in verse 29 that as Jesus prayed, His face was altered and His clothes became dazzling white.  If we look at Matthew’s account, he tells us that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun” and that “his clothes became white as light.”[8]  Here at the transfiguration, Peter, James, and John were getting a glimpse of the glory of our Lord.  For a brief moment, these three of the inner circle of the disciples saw the exalted glory of the eternal Son in a way that was covered in His state of humiliation. This description of Jesus’ glory at the transfiguration bears a striking similarity both to Jesus’ blinding appearance at the conversion of Saul on the Damascus Road in Acts chapter 9, and also to John’s description of Jesus’ face “like the sun shining in full strength” in Revelation chapter 1.[9]  The great theologian Gregory of Nazianzus said of Jesus’ transfiguration, “He was bright as the lightning on the mountain and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.”[10]

But there was more happening on the mountain than the transfiguration alone. Luke also tells us that Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah, who “appeared in glory.”  The appearance of Moses and Elijah is interesting for a couple of reasons.  For one, as we have already talked about, Moses and Elijah both encountered God on mountain tops during their ministries, although neither were allowed to see His face. And so, it is interesting that they appear here on the mountain as Jesus’ glory is revealed in the transfiguration with His face shining like the sun.  But it is also interesting because, as I mentioned earlier, people were confused about Jesus’ identity.  As you remember, some people actually thought that Jesus was Elijah, or that He was John the Baptist come back to life, who had been fulfilling the Elijah role in preparation for Jesus’ ministry and who Herod beheaded.  And others thought Jesus was another prophet of old come back to life, some might have thought that Jesus was Moses, Israel’s greatest prophet. And so here, we see these two great men of God appearing in glory, alongside the gloriously transfigured Jesus, and speaking with Him.  And, as we will see, they do not appear as equals in any way.  Instead, Jesus is shown as being far, far superior.

I think it is worth noting here that  Moses’ face also shone after he came down from talking with the LORD on Mt. Sinai, and then also every time after he spoke with the LORD in the tent of meeting.[11]  Exodus chapter 34 tells us that Moses would veil his shining face after telling the people the commands of the LORD.[12]  Moses’ face had radiated the glory of LORD because he had been in His presence.  His shining face was a proof, of sorts, that he had been speaking with the LORD, and was a sign that Moses was God’s authorized covenant mediator.[13]  And it is here, with this in mind, that we see the absolute superiority of Jesus to Moses. While the shining of Moses’ face was a reflection of God’s glory, the shining of Jesus’ face is God’s own glory being revealed.  And the shining of Moses’ face could be blocked by a veil.  But Jesus’ face was shining like the sun, as Matthew mentions. Try blocking the sun with a veil. The radiant glory of Jesus Christ cannot be blocked by one veil or a thousand veils or a million veils.  As Phillip Ryken comments, “his glory is not reflected; it radiates from his own divine being.  Jesus shines with all the glory of God.  In him there is a fullness of glory, compared to which the glory of Moses was only a flicker of light.”[14]

So, as Peter, James, and John, who had fallen asleep, woke up and saw the transfigured, glorious Jesus speaking with these two men, there could no longer be any doubt that Jesus is not only notMoses or Elijah, but instead someone far, far greater than the greatest of Israel’s prophets.

As Moses and Elijah were “parting” from Jesus, Peter makes an interesting suggestion.  He wants to build three tents, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus.  There are a number of suggestions as to what Peter means by this.  Luke himself records that Peter didn’t know what he said.  But that doesn’t necessarilymean that he was speaking senselessly, it might mean that he didn’t understand the depth of what he was saying.

So far, as we have considered what Luke’s transfiguration account tells us about whoJesus is, we have seen a lot of Old Testament imagery being used, especially imagery from the ministry of Moses and from the Exodus.  And, this imagery continues here, although it is not entirely clear in all English translations.  The word Peter uses for tents can also be translated “tabernacles.”  Looking back to the time after the Exodus, the tabernacle was the moveable house of God.  It was where God dwelled among His people in the wilderness.  In the ancient Greek translation of Exodus, which Luke certainly would have been familiar with, the same word is used for the tabernacle that Peter uses here.  And, interestingly, the verb form of this same word is used by John in his Gospel where in chapter 1 verse 14, he writes that “The Word became flesh and dwelt…[literally tabernacled]… among us…” So, Peter’s suggestion that they build tabernacles at Jesus’ transfiguration, at the revelation of His glory on the mountain, might not be as senseless as we at first think.

Even so, Peter did not quite understand what he was saying and, as he was making his suggestion, the cloud of God’s presence came over the mountain and overshadowed them.  As the men were enveloped in its midst, all confusion about Jesus’ identity was removed. Luke records the Father’s voice speaking, “This is my Son, my Chosen One…”[15]  Regarding the cloud of God overshadowing the mountain at Jesus’ transfiguration, James Edwards, a New Testament scholar notes, “the ‘cloud’… that descends on Jesus recalls the cloud of God’s glory that descended on and inaugurated the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exod. 40:34). Luke’s transfiguration narrative is a visual depiction of…” the verse we just read from John’s Gospel about Jesus, the Word, dwelling among us…[16]

Luke’s transfiguration account removes all confusion about Jesus’ identity.  He is not Moses.  He is not Elijah. He is not John the Baptist or some other prophet come back to life.  He is greater beyond all imagination.  Jesus is the Son of God.  The Eternal Son.  The third person of the Trinity.  Fully God and fully man.  He is the Chosen One.  He is the Messiah.  This is who Jesus is.  This is His identity.  There is no need for us to be confused.  The transfiguration shows us clearly who Jesus is.

Mission

We’ve seen few things the transfiguration shows us about Jesus’ identity, and now I want to briefly consider what it tells us about Jesus’ mission. One of the really interesting things about Luke’s account is that he tells us the topic of Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah.  The ESV says in verse 31 that they were speaking of Jesus’ “departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  Most English Bible translations use the word “departure” here, although some use the word “death”.  But the Greek word is really interesting, especially considering all the Old Testament imagery in this passage and all the Old Testament references which we have talked about so far.  The Greek word which Luke uses here is exodus (ἔξοδον).  If you are using the ESV, this is pointed out in a footnote in verse 31. Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah about the Exodus which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Certainly this is a term loaded with significance, and while it no doubt refers to Jesus’ death it gives us more insight into what His death means and accomplishes for us, as God’s people.

If you have spent much time reading the Bible, you have probably noticed how the Exodus from Egypt looms large throughout the pages of the Old Testament and into the New.  You can read over and over again in the pages of Scripture reminders of how God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt by His mighty works. The book of Exodus recounts how, through a series of ten signs and wonders, often referred to as plagues, God showed His great power and glory, bringing the kingdom of Egypt to its knees and delivering His chosen people, who had been enslaved and mistreated in terrible ways by Egypt’s king – Pharaoh.

Speaking of Pharaoh – does anyone know what symbol was on his crown?  Kids, this might be a good question for you if you’ve studied ancient Egypt in school. Well, on the front of Pharaoh’s crown, in the center, and facing forward, would have been a serpent.  So Pharaoh identified himself and his kingdom with the serpent.  The sign of Pharaoh’s authority, you might say, was the serpent.  Keep that in the back of your mind for a moment, because I want to quickly discuss Genesis 3:15 before we get back to Luke and the Exodus which Jesus was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.

In Genesis 3:15, immediately after our first parents, Adam and Eve, willfully sinned against God and fell from original righteousness, God cursed the serpent, the devil, and put enmity between the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman.  God then promised that one day the offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent.

Looking back at the Exodus from Egypt, and especially the Red Sea crossing, we see a foretaste of the ultimate fulfillment of this promise. Here, Pharaoh, on whose head was the symbol of the serpent, was crushed under the waters of God’s judgement, along with his armies.  At the same time, God delivered His people safely through the very waters which destroyed His and their enemies.  In the Exodus from Egypt, in a way rich with imagery pointing us back to God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, God delivered His chosen people from the physical dominion and slavery of the serpent king, who He crushed along with his army under the waters of judgement never to rise again.  Never again to enslave or harm His people.  God’s people were freed from the dominion of Pharaoh forever.  But, was physical slavery their biggest problem? No, not long after the Exodus Israel fell into idolatry.  They were still sinners.  Sin was their biggest problem.  And so, another Exodus, a greater Exodus was needed.  Not a physical Exodus, but a spiritual Exodus.  A spiritual deliverance.  And in the same way that Israel could not deliver themselves out from under the dominion of Pharaoh, neither can anyone deliver themselves out from under the bondage of sin, death, and the devil.  Like the first Exodus, the second Exodus had to be the work of God.

And so, the Exodus from Egypt looks forward to an even greater Exodus, the true Exodus in Jesus Christ.  It prefigures the work which Jesus will accomplish on the cross for all of God’s people, delivering them out from the dominion and slavery of sin and death and safely into God’s kingdom, and at the same time destroying the devil and his works.  And it looks forward to the day when all the enemies of our Lord will be cast into the Lake of Fire, overwhelmed and overcome by the fires of God’s judgement, in much the same way that Pharaoh, the enemy of God’s people, and his armies were overcome by the waters of God’s judgement in the Red Sea.   So in many, many ways the Exodus from Egypt points forward to the greater Exodus of Jesus’ once for all work on the cross for the forgiveness of sins and salvation for all of God’s people.  By using the term exodus here in reference to Jesus’ mission, Luke reminds us both of God’s promises and His mighty saving works in the past on behalf of His people, and also points us to the fulfillment of all His promises in the most mighty Person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Response

We have seen what Luke’s transfiguration account can tell us about Jesus’ identity, and His mission, but what does the transfiguration tell us about how we should respond to Jesus.  In verse 35, after the Father’s voice speaks from the cloud telling Peter, James, and John that Jesus is “my Son, my Chosen One,” the Father continues to speak, telling them, and us, to “listen to Him.”  Looking back, once more, to the ministry of Moses, we can read in Deuteronomy chapter 18, of the LORD’s promise to one day raise up a prophet like Moses, from among the people of Israel, who would speak all that God commanded and to whom God’s people must listen.[17]  Peter, James, and John had already seen the superiority of Jesus to Moses and to Elijah.  And now, as the voice of the Father commanded then to listento Jesus, they certainly must have understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of this promise – the great end-times Prophet to whom all God’s people must listen.  The One who would be like Moses, yet so much greater.

As we consider the Father’s command, we need to pay close attention.  The voice of the Father doesn’t just tell us to hearJesus, but to listento Him.  Now, some older translations do read “hear Him,” but in this context, and using modern English, the best way to understand the Father’s command is to listen to Jesus.  Hearing and listening aren’t the same thing. There is a difference, at least in modern English.  Kids, do your parents ever just ask you to hearthem?  They might ask if you heard them, but what they want you to do is listento them, right?  Now to be sure, hearing is a part of listening, but there is more to it. Listening also includes paying attention to what is said, to everything that is said, to obeying what is said, to submitting to what is said.  So, we are not just to hear what Jesus says, we are to listen to Him.

And here is the question – are you listening to Jesus? Not just, ‘Do you hearHis words as you read Scripture?’  Not just, ‘Do you hear His words when you sit under the preached Word?’ But are you listeningto Him?

Jesus tells us things like where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.[18]  He tells us that discipleship is costly, and that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, worth more than everything we have.[19]  He tells us that we will be hated for His name’s sake, and He tells us that He will be with us always, even to the end of the age.[20] He tells us that we must be born again, and that He is the bread of life, and that all who believe in Him have eternal life, and that He is the only way to the Father.[21]  We are to listen to everything that Jesus says.

You might be asking yourself, how do we listen to Jesus, where do we hear His voice?  We listen to Him as He speaks in His Word.  Hear His voice in the Scriptures and listen to Him.  And remember that He speaks to us not only in the red-letter sections of our Bibles, but throughout all the Scriptures. All the Scriptures point us to Him. Both Peter and Paul remind us that all the Scriptures are the very words of God.[22]  We hear His voice in the Old Testament as well as the New, but in the New Testament we have the final unfolding of God’s plan of redemption in Jesus Christ.  As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”[23]  In these last days, God has spoken to us by Jesus.

Hear His voice.  Listen to Him.  Trust Him. Obey Him.

Listen to Jesus as you read and meditate on the Scriptures – the written Word. Listen to Him in the preached Word. And as you come to the Lord’s Table, listen to Him in the visible Word of the sacrament.  And know that as you listen to His voice and trust Him, as you rest in Him as He is offered to you in the Gospel, that He is faithful to all His promises.

Closing

I want to close by reading from 2 Peter chapter 1. Peter wrote this letter shortly before being martyred in Rome some thirty plus years after the transfiguration.  And as Peter penned what he knew would be his final words to the church, he reflected back on the transfiguration.  Peter had seen the glory of Jesus firsthand, on the mountain.  And I want us to see what application Peter gives the church as he considers this event and writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Peter doesn’t tell us to seek additional miraculous mountain-top experiences for ourselves or to look for some new revelation.  Instead, Peter tells us to pay attention to the Scriptures, to listen to the Scriptures, which are the very words of God.  We see the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ most clearly in the Scriptures and we listen to Him by listening to His Word.

In 2 Peter 1:16-19, Peter writes,

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…[24]

 

[1]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Lk 9:28–36.

[2]Cf. Luke 8:49-56.

[3]Cf. Mark 14:32-34.

[4]Cf. Exodus 3:1-22.

[5]Cf. Exodus 19-20; 24.

[6]Cf. Exodus 33:12-23.

[7]Cf. 1 Kings 19:9-18.

[8]Matthew 17:2

[9]Cf. Acts 9:3; Revelation 1:16.

[10]Arthur A. Just, ed., Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 161.

[11]Cf. Exodus 34:29-35.

[12]Cf. L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the LORD: A biblical theology of the book of Leviticus(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 93.

[13]Cf. Phillip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 1018.

[14]Phillip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 1019.

[15]Luke 9:35; cf. also Isaiah 42:1 and also the entirety of Isaiah chapter 42.

[16]James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2015), 284.

[17]Cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-19.

[18]Cf. Luke 12:35.

[19]Cf. Luke 9:57-62; Matthew 13:44.

[20]Cf. Matthew 10:22, 28:20.

[21]Cf. John 3:1-8, 6:41-51; 14:6.

[22]Cf. 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21.

[23]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 1:1–2.

[24]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Pe 1:16–19.