TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 22, 2015
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”
— Matthew 17:24-27, ESV
You are no doubt familiar with our founding fathers. Names like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin ring a bell. But do you know James Otis? He was an original New England patriot, a Harvard graduate, a lawyer and leading legislator in the fledgling colonies that created the United States of America. John Adams said of him, “I have never known a man so important and essential to the cause of his country as Mr. Otis.” What did he do? In 1761, he famously said, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” It was the fuel to the fire of American independence. The rest is history.
Biblical history records a lot of taxation, too, and often without representation. Jews in Jesus’ day were taxed heavily by their Roman overlords, and by one another. The temple tax, called into question in this passage, was a rite of passage for males in Israel once they entered the age of adulthood. Required only once, it was asked for often. There was no law in the Bible nor any other books that would have required Jesus to pay this tax on this day, but Simon Peter spoke up for Him and obligated the Lord of the Temple to pay up to the temple taxers. What we have here is yet another case of taxation without representation.
Matthew, the former tax collector, fittingly is the only Gospel writer to recored this episode. It puts taxation in a peculiar light, shines a dim light on Simon Peter, and pours abundant light on the Light of the World, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Necessity of Paying Taxes
The lessons learned in this account accrue in importance, so let us pursue the lesser of two evils first. Between death and taxes, I’ll take taxes. We don’t like them. Some go to extremes, even illegalities, to avoid them. But we all, or at least we all should, pay them. And, it’s a good thing.
The temple tax provided for the upkeep of, what else, the temple. Like the tabernacle in the Exodus, for which this tax was originally excised, the temple in Jerusalem was the focal point of the true worship of the true and living God at that time. To contribute to its maintenance was a responsibility and a privilege. The same can be said for tithes and offering that go in large part to provide buildings and staff to support the structure of the New Testament church. Though not every penny is perfectly spent, is is far from being a waste of money. Giving to God through the church puts our treasure where our hearts should be, namely in the worship and service of Almighty God.
Other due revenues do other good things. Some tax monies are wasted, to be sure, but most of it is put to good moral and civic use. Taxes provide for the good laws, good lawmakers, and good law enforcement officers in our municipalities and country. They provide for the common defense and create community with other countries. They allow us to drive on good roads and fly in safe airplanes and eat uncontaminated food. So the next time you think of 101 reasons not to pay your taxes, think of the 1,001 good things that the treasury provides.
And, think of Jesus, who did not balk one inch from making this meager contribution to the temple tax. Our Lord did not wish to offend, but rather make an offering. Even though technically, He did not have to do so, until Simon Peter spoke up in His place.
The Impetuousness of Simon Peter
Lesson one: pay your offerings, tithes, and taxes, without strenuous criticism or complaint. Lesson two: don’t speak for the Lord until you’ve spoken with the Lord. Once again, Simon “foot-in-my-mouth” Peter unwittingly helps makes a sharp point.
The imminent apostle was approached by temple tax collectors. As an ambassador for Christ, Peter spoke up on Jesus’ behalf, albeit without Jesus’ permission. Though the obligation he made caused no offense to Jesus, the mild rebuke he received from the Lord demonstrates that Peter would have been better advised to speak with the Lord before speaking for the Lord.
This is not a lesson for apostles only, but also for pastors and preachers. No preacher should ever preach without first praying. Speak with the Lord before speaking for the Lord, amen. But this is not a lesson for pastors and preachers only, but for every member of the church, every citizen of the heavenly kingdom, every child of God.
You would look before you leap; therefore, you should pray before you speak. In minor and major matters, in all things, before any commitment, take time to talk with the Lord. You will avoid embarrassment. More importantly, you will avoid embarrassing Jesus. Some impetuous leaps and loose lips are relatively innocuous, like this slip of Simon Peter’s tongue. But others, like his upcoming denials, are more damaging. Learn to talk to God about the little things, then you will automatically approach Him about the big things, so that all things can be done for His glory and according to His will.
Pay your tithes and taxes. Talk to God. And, know that the God with whom you are talking is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Deity of Jesus Christ
Lesson one: pay your offerings, tithes, and taxes, without strenuous criticism or complaint. Lesson two: don’t speak for the Jesus until you’ve spoken with Jesus. Lesson three: when you talk to Jesus, you are talking to God.
The purpose of this passage is to make a way for a miracle to magnify the humanity and deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was a man, a devout, temple tax paying Jew. Jesus was God, who could make a shekel pop out of the mouth of a fish. Jesus was, is, and always will be the God-man, the Messiah, the Lord, the manifestation of the true and living triune God.
Jesus proved His deity by what He did. He did something that only God can do. He omnisciently listened in to the conversation between Simon Peter and the tax collectors. He omnipotently made a particular fish swallow a particular coin, then bite onto a hook that particularly belonged to one Simon Peter. Omnipresence is something we generally believe Jesus forsook to accomplish His messianic mission, but was God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who somehow got to the bottom of the Sea of Galilee and stuck that shekel in the fish’s mouth so that all four drachmas of the tax could be paid in full. Some say the devil is in the details, but I prefer to believe that it is God. Jesus did here precisely what only an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God can do. Jesus is Lord!
Jesus proved His deity by what He said. Liberals claim that Jesus never claimed to be divine. The Bible begs to differ on many occasions, including this one. Christ’s point to Peter was that king’s sons are exempt from paying the king’s tax. Who is the King of the temple? God. Who is God’s only begotten Son? Jesus. Jesus did not have to pay the tax in full, but He did. Jesus did not have to pay for our sins on the cross in full, but He did. Jesus raised tax money from a fish’s mouth, and on the third day after He was crucified, Jesus arose from the dead, just like He said. Jesus is Lord!
If it is true what the Bible records about Jesus, and I believe it is, and if the words Jesus spoke about Himself are true, and I believe they are, then Jesus is Lord. If Jesus is Lord, He is the only way of salvation. If Jesus can be trusted with your soul, He by His Spirit and His word can be trusted to lead you through life. If Jesus can be trusted with your soul and your life, then give Him your all. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all” (Isaac Watts).
Tomorrow you may not remember that James Otis complained about taxation without representation. Next month you may not remember to pay every penny of tax or take every deduction. Some days you may not remember to pray about every little decision that you have to make. But remember this: Jesus is Lord! Let Him represent you before God. Trust in Him, and you will have abundant and eternal life, tax free!
THE GOOD NEWS GIVES YOU THE BLUES
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 15, 2015
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.
— Matthew 17:22-23, ESV
The best music can break your heart. Good, honest songwriting combined with good, skilled musicianship can give you a good, therapeutic case of the blues. At least that’s the way it is with my favorite songs, and my favorite story.
My favorite story is the greatest story ever told, the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is good news, lyrically, literally, and eternally. But even the good news can give you the blues.
Three times in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives His first followers a pre-release version of the complete gospel (ref. 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19). The big three — Peter, James, and John — mar the first and third versions. But in this second coming of the song, the disciples get it just about right. As Matthew remembered it, “They were greatly distressed,” or, they got the blues from the good news.
If You Love Him
The good news can give you the blues, if you truly love the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you love Jesus? I’m sure you do.
The twelve, minus one, had developed an especially intense love for Jesus. It was forged over significant time spent in spiritual combat, fruitful ministry, and jovial fellowship. Soldiers who spend one year together on a tour of duty become a band of brothers for life, so imagine how it must have been for them at this stage of their three-year tour. They loved Him. They could not imagine life without Him. Then, they were told He was about to be killed.
The first time Jesus told them, Peter went into denial. The third time He tells them, James and John get plum giddy by asking for the best seats at the marriage supper of the Lamb. But in this concert, as Jesus sings the gospel to them, they get a good, healthy case of the blues.
Blue should be the first color you see when you hear the gospel. Realizing all the Old Testament sacrifices are pictures of the crucified Christ, reading Isaiah 53, traveling through the Gospels and arriving at Good Friday, and listening to certain gospel songs should grip your heart like a vise. If you love Him, if you realize the terrible pain and suffering He endured, if you believe He was killed in the manner in which He predicted and the biblical writers recorded, then it should make you sad, at first. But then, it gets worse.
If You Have Betrayed Him
The tune of the gospel turns truly forlorn when you go back and listen again to the first verse. Before “they were greatly distressed” and before Jesus revealed the shocking stanza, “they would kill Him,” He told them what would precipitate it all. Jesus was “delivered into the hands of men.” The killers conspired in the religious and political courts of the day, to be sure, but their dirty work could not have been done without inside help. One of the ones who claimed to love Jesus “delivered” Him over to the authorities, literally handed Him over, or as some translations say, betrayed.
This sour note cannot be attributed to Judas Iscariot alone. Forever inscribed in Scripture as the ultimate traitor, this devil deserves his due. He loved Jesus, when he thought Jesus shared his own political and economic views of how things ought to be. He followed Jesus, when he thought there was some prime position in it for him. He sang the song so well that all the others thought he was a leader in the band, until he bailed out at the last minute for another record contract that paid him thirty pieces of silver. Thanks to Judas, Jesus was betrayed, delivered, arrested, punished, crucified, killed. Or, at least that’s how the song goes.
I’ll ask you again, do you love Jesus? Sure, you do. Have you ever betrayed Him, denied Him, or otherwise turned your back on Him? Judas Iscariot did. Simon Peter did. I did, too. And, so have you. It’s a song called sin, and we can all sing it in the wrong key.
Critics of Christianity castigate us a guilt-mongers. Who can blame them? One of the great advantages of being a Christian pastor, Christian parent, or Christian witness in general, is that you can heap out a serving of old-fashioned guilt hot or cold. However, we must remember that guilt without grace is not the gospel. But neither can their be redeeming, divine grace without real, human guilt.
When the gospel is sung, there is a part of it that clearly says we are all guilty. It is not just the traitors, not just the serial killers, not just the war criminals. We are all sinners, we have all betrayed the Lord, we have all disobeyed His word, which is a supreme betrayal of love. While we may not have hammer the nails into His hands and feet, we put the nails in the hands of those who did.
The good news puts forth that fact that bad people did bad things to Jesus. Each one of us stands among those bad people. So when the gospel is sung, those of us who love Him and have sinned against Him should be touched with more than a tinge of the blues.
If You Can’t Sing the Chorus
Everyone loves Jesus. Everyone has sinned against God. Everyone can sing these parts of the song. Therefore, everyone gets the blues from the good news. But, not everyone gets to keep them, unless you stop short of the chorus. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the chorus to the gospel. It gives you the blues, then chases them away, all in the same album.
Jesus’ death was not accidental nor incidental. It was the intentional plan of God that allowed for the sinful choices of man to put the sinless Son of Man, Messiah, Lord Jesus Christ to death upon a cross. The melody for this part of the chorus is written by the doctrine of double imputation. The blues deepen as our sin is placed on the back of our sin-bearer and Savior, but the blues disappear as His righteousness is applied to our account, making us rich and right before God.
It is the miraculous manner in which the great double imputation of a person’s sin upon Christ and Christ’s righteousness upon a person can take place by grace through faith.
Jesus’ resurrection was real, bodily, visible, and this same Jesus will really, bodily, visibly return to earth one day. When He does, even Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” will not do it justice. But the saints of all time, those saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, will sing a heavenly new song that will melt the blues faster than a popsicle in hell. It should forever be sung in the key of salvation.
Love without repentance and faith will leave you with the permanent pain of the blues. Sin without salvation makes those blues even darker and deeper. But your acceptance of the atonement, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, is the chorus of the gospel. It is the good news that blows the blues away.
In the immortal words of Isaac Watts:
When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all!
WHAT YOU SAY WHEN YOU PRAY THE RIGHT WAY
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 8, 2015
And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.”
— Matthew 17:14-21, ESV
One of the most complicated subjects in all of Holy Scripture is prayer. God is sovereign. His eternal decrees are immutable. Yet time and time again, God’s people pray and their prayers seem to move the heart of God and make good things happen.
Prayer is complicated in the Old Testament. Prayers we offered as an act of worship and then turned around and used as a weapon. The saints prayed for the blessings of God to be bestowed upon them; meanwhile, they prayed for the infants of their enemies to be dashed upon the rocks. They praised God in psalms and prayers for His nearness and comfort, then questioned Him openly about His apparent absences. They prayed for prosperity, but were often answered with severe trials and tribulations. What good did it do to pray, and did they pray the right way?
Prayer is paradoxical in the New Testament. It seems to be both resignation and reform. The Lord taught His disciples to pray to the Father, “Thy will be done.” Yet there are other verses, like the ones at hand today, that seem to indicate that the prayer of faith enables you to name it and claim it from God. How do you take these lessons and pray the right way?
Jesus, who always shows us how to do everything the right way, teaches us what to say when we pray the right way. Complex problems can be put through a simple formula that produce an outcome that glorifies God and brings good things into our lives. Hopefully, from a desperate man and our sovereign Lord, we can all learn to pray the right way.
The Complexity of the Problem
The problem that prompted the prayer in this passage is a complicated one, as complex as the relationship between the scientific and the spiritual. Was the boy simply sick, with epilepsy or some other organic defect? Was he literally possessed by an evil spirit, a devil, who constantly tossed and tortured the boy? The word translated “epileptic” in the ESV is literally the word “lunatic” or “moonstruck,” perhaps indicating that the little boy was more than just a little bit crazy. So what is the problem here, and is it a problem that should be handled with prayer?
People get sick, and sickness should always be handled with prayer. However, scientific discoveries and medical breakthroughs are a gift from God. If you have a known medical condition for which there are known medical remedies, then know this: prayer that neglects proper medical attention is not spirituality, it is stupidity. But the father in this story was not stupid. Modern medical attention was not available in his day. And while most people superstitiously ascribed strange mental and physical behavior to the gods or the devils, this father brought his son and his illness to the feet of the true and living God, the Lord Jesus Christ, which is where every problem and prayer should be brought.
People get demon-possessed, especially people who were around during the public ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is not a better time to pray than when you are beset by devils. Jesus said an evil spirit was involved in this problem, and I take Him at His word. I do think demonic activity was much more pronounced in Jesus’ life than in our every day lives, but I do not discount the possibility that an evil spirit can take hold of a life that is not filled with the Holy Spirit. Can demons trigger epilepsy or other illnesses? It is not unprecedented for God to allow the devil to afflict a person He loves, like in this account of this particular young man.
The overarching problem, however, is that people have problems. People’s problems are complex. We don’t often understand them ourselves. We get sick. We are tempted by the devil. We go crazy. We sin, and people sin against us. Such problems have always been proverbially referred to as mountains. To move mountains or at least climb over them, we must pray, but we must pray the right way.
This is the purpose of this episode in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, this little man, and his lunatic son. God allowed a seemingly insurmountable problem, or mountain, to grow into the life of this family, so that Christ could teach them, teach His old disciples, and teach His present-day followers, the right way to pray.
The Simplicity of the Prayer
Consider the simple and orderly way in which this man prayed. Though the ESV doesn’t like to use the word in Matthew’s account (they omit verse 21, citing correctly that it is not found in the best manuscripts), the parallel account in Mark puts the focus squarely on prayer. The man kneels before the Lord, a popular and appropriate posture for prayer. He pours out his heart to God over a problem, a medical condition, a spiritual need, which is fair fodder for a prayer. In the end he receives an answer to prayer as his son is delivered and cured. Seems simple enough, right? Allow me to make the matter a little more complex.
This prayer was not answered because of some formula Jesus gave to His disciples. You cannot just name the name of Jesus and claim deliverance from any or every problem in your life. Obviously, the disciples had tried this while Jesus, Peter, James, and John were up on the Mount of Transfiguration hanging out with Moses and Elijah. True, the Lord had previously sent them out two-by-two and given them authority over diseases and devils, but such methodology did not work in this case. Why? Jesus said it was because of their lack of faith.
But wait, this prayer was not answered because of faith, either, at least on the part of those who prayed. The father admitted his lack of faith (in The Gospel of Mark’s account). The son’s plate was too full to dish out any faith. And the disciples of Jesus clearly lacked faith in the matter. This shoots holes in the modern “word of faith” movement that takes texts like this out of context and makes it a magic bullet for holding a gun to God’s head and getting anything you want. Furthermore, why do all those so-called faith-based preachers wear glasses and ask for money, if health and wealth is simply a matter of faith and prayer?
At the end of the day, this was a simple prayer answered in affirmative action. It occasioned some complex teaching from the Lord concerning God and the devil, faithless and flawed people, prayer and fasting (fasting is also not mentioned in the best manuscripts, but throughout Scripture is seen as an intense, prolonged manner of prayer), and making mountains move. So how can we get a similar outcome? What do we say in order to pray the right way?
The Complexity and Simplicity of Saying the Right Things When You Pray
Prayer begins with the honest and humble admission that there is a problem. The crew of the Apollo 13 moon flight would have never been saved it they had not first admitted, “Houston, we have a problem.” Prayer cannot move a mountain if you are in denial that the mountain exists. We are all faithless and twisted at various times and in various ways, and none of our problems are unique. So we should never be embarrassed about bringing them to God, even in the company of other believers who can pray along with us. So first of all, bring your problem to God in prayer.
Then, admit to God that you are totally incapable of solving it on your own. Actually, we cannot do anything on our own, but not everything needs to be a matter of pronounced prayer. When the light turns green, go. When you are in a hole, quit digging. When the Lord’s Day rolls around, come to worship. While you always need God, you don’t always need to pray. However, a mountain we cannot climb often comes into view. Then it is time to pray, pray hard, and pray that God will move that mountain.
So after telling God that you can’t, tell Him that He can. Be assured He already knows this, but He likes to hear you say that you know it, too. The Lord criticized His disciples here for having a little faith. Big faith believes in a big God, a God who can do anything, anytime, for anyone. All of our prayers should be characterized by a faith that believes in the bigness of God, the sovereign power of God, and the perfect character of God which causes Him to always to the right thing.
Finally, understand that the right thing may or may not be the very thing you are asking for in prayer. Sometimes this is hard to understand in the short term. In this case there was a beautiful congruence. What the man wanted, healing for his son, was the very thing God decreed and delivered. But this is often not the case. Loved ones die, children get sick, the spouse leaves, finances crumble, all in spite of fervent prayers marked by a big faith. The prayer of faith pleads for immediate relief, but yields to the long-term, redemptive, wisdom of God. So what do we say, when we pray the right way?
One of the greatest scenes in the whole Bible involves four men, including three Jews named Hananiah, Mishael,and Azariah. You might know them better as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When they prayed to the real God rather than the idol set up by King Nebuchadnezzar, they were threatened with death. Their response in the face of this fire was, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods” (ref. Daniel 3:17-18). They survived, of course, when they found out that the fourth man in the fire was the Lord Jesus Christ. But if God had taken them home to Heaven, rather than back home to Babylon, the three faithful prayer warriors would have been equally, or rather superiorly, blessed.
The Lord Jesus Christ is with you in your fire, at the foot of your immovable mountain, at the funeral of a family member, at the hospital bed of your child. He is able to deliver you. Pray that He will. Believe that He can. Then, whatever He does, know that in the long run of redemption it is the right thing to do. Praise Him. Worship Him. And on the next occasion, pray to Him again, always in the right way.
THE REVELATION OF THE TRANSFIGURATION
AS AN ILLUSTRATION OF SALVATION
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 1, 2015
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “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.” He 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.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But 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. And 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.” And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
— Matthew 17:1-13, ESV
Was it an actual event? Did Jesus really turn white? Did Moses and Elijah come down from Heaven and stand on the mountain for a while, then disappear? Or, was it entirely a vision? Did fatigue, sleep, and the Spirit of God overcome the three friends of Jesus and give them a scene of blinding light and centuries-old saints? Did they wake up and discover it was just a dream?
I’d say it was a revelation, a combination of reality and reverie. Four climbed the mountain, six conversed, One spoke. The message of the cross, so strong at the close of the sixteenth chapter, gives way for a moment to a glimpse of glory, then back down to the cross again. This is real. God is here. The gospel is gloriously illustrated. Now man has to decide what to make of it all.
The Transfiguration of God
The first question to be asked of any passage in the Bible is, “What does this teach us about God?” The story of the transfiguration tells us quite a lot, and leaves us with a lot of questions, too. It is recorded by Matthew, Mark (ref. Mark 9:1-13), Luke (ref. Luke 9:28-36) and reflected upon by Simon Peter (ref. 2 Peter 1:16-18). It is predicted by the psalms (ref. Psalm 2:7) and the prophets (ref. Isaiah 42:1ff) and built upon the bedrock biblical principle that the one true and living God (ref. Deuteronomy 6:4) never changes (ref. Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).
Yet in the transfiguration, God changed, and it was not the first time. “Transfigured” is literally the word “metamorphosis,” which speaks of cataclysmic change. A caterpillar changes into a butterfly. An embryo changes into a fetus and then into a child. The God of the universe changed into the veritable form of a vertebrate, born in Bethlehem and raised in Galilee. And for a moment, in the transfiguration, the humble human Savior of the world flashed His true appearance as the brilliant Lord of Heaven and earth. No, God’s essential essence never changes from its eternal perfection, but God changes persons and appearances in order to communicate a message to mankind.
At the transfiguration, God spoke, in two persons plus. At the baptism of Jesus and at His transfiguration, God the Father said the same thing. This time, however, He adds the caveat, “Listen to Him.” The Son had already spoken and will speak again. The silent member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, speaks through the writings of Matthew and the other God-inspired authors of Holy Scripture. Yes, there is one true and living God who speaks with one voice, but the sound is a symphony of three voices, two spoken and one silent. God’s triune nature is evident here, as well as in many other biblical passages and episodes, but why?
With the transfiguration, God offers questions and answers. What are we to make of the unchanging God changing Himself in and out of glory? What are we to think of the one God who communicates to us in three persons? What is the purpose of the Trinity? The answer to all of these questions and more is the gospel.
The Presentation of the Gospel
The transfiguration is a dramatic presentation of God and a glorious illustration of the gospel. The Old Covenant, represented by the lawgiver and the prophet, give way to the New Covenant, embodied by the Messiah. The paradox of the person and work of Christ is put on display in high definition. The cost of the gospel provides bookends to the transfiguration, but the transfiguration itself reminds us of the reward of gospel faith.
The person of Christ, the combination of His humanity and the deity, is starkly presented in the transfiguration. The man Jesus walked up the mountain with Peter, James, and John. The Lord Jesus appeared and talked with Moses and Elijah. No lesser God would have ever condescended to walk with man, and no mere man could have transformed Himself into divine light. The person of Christ is fully man and fully God. But remember, the person of Christ only the first half of the gospel.
The second half of the gospel is Christ’s work. Jesus spoke of His suffering and death just before the transfiguration, during the event (according to Luke), and picks up the conversation of the cross immediately afterward. The love of God demanded that Jesus make the trip to earth, while the holiness of God demanded a full sacrifice for the sins of the forgiven. Our Lord did not did not show off in showing His glory, but quickly reminded His closest friends and followers that before He flashes His brilliance again for them to see, He will die on a cross for all the world to see.
But the transfiguration is more than a mere illustration of the person and work of Christ, of the basic tenets of the gospel. It is also about the reward. There is a radiance of light and life that these mere mortal bodies cannot contain, not just for Jesus, but for His followers, too. There is a reward for those who believe God the Father and listen to God the Son by the power of God the Spirit. There is much more to this life, this Christian life, than just believing in God and following Jesus and yielding to the Holy Spirit. There is a mountain we will all climb, a veil of death we will all pass through, a metamorphosis we will all experience. But before we can be transfigured in to heavenly bodies, we must be transformed by the power of the earthly gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Realization for Man
God is preeminent in this story. But man is there, too. And in the end, man must decide what to make of God.
Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, John, and John the Baptist were men. We think of them as outstanding, and in many ways they were. God gave the Old Covenant law through Moses and used him to lead His people into the previously promised land. Elijah was the great miracle-working prophet, who was taken up in a fiery chariot into Paradise. His spirit, God’s Holy Spirit, remained and continued to preach, and did so unbrokenly in Elisha and ultimately in John the Baptist. Peter, James, and John were Jesus’ inner circle, privy to many special moments with the Lord like this, and they were primary in building Christ’s church.
All these men lived extraordinary lives, but they were ordinary men, too. Moses was given to pride, Elijah to murderous anger, John the Baptist to extreme doubt. Peter put his foot in his mouth all the time, including during this event. James and John tried to kill a whole village of people and then wanted the best seats at Christ’s table, even though Jesus taught them that the right path led to peace and the pursuit of lesser seats. These men were saints and sinners, climbers while fallen, all who had one thing in common. They all had a transfiguring, transformative moment with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ordinary men and women are all prone to sin and suffering, yet salvation is offered freely to us all. Ordinary men and women will one day die, yet there is the opportunity for eternal life. Ordinary men and women have many reasons to fear, yet there is One who touches us and takes away our fear, dread, and doubt. Ordinary men and women can be transformed into extraordinary people with a glorious, never-ending future, through the transfigured God and the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In 2008 I was in the nation of Israel in the region of Galilee. I climbed the very mountain upon which it is believed that Jesus was transfigured. A big church building sits on it now, with a gaunt gallery of portraits of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. I do admit I was changed by the visit to this and other sites along the pilgrimage. But I was not transformed.
Transformation for me occurred much earlier, in 1982. It was not on a mountain top, but in a modest college apartment. I did not see visions or experience ecstatic emotions. I simply listened to Christ, through the preaching of the gospel. I did not become radiant, I did not become perfect, I did not become anyone that anyone else particularly would want to follow. But I was changed by the light of the truth, forgiven and cleansed by the blood of Christ. It effected me deeply, personally, and made me a part of the corporate body of Christ, His church. And one day, I believe, I will be transfigured into the appearance of Christ, with Him, like Him, loving and worshiping Him, forever and ever. It is a reality and a real a miracle, the miracle of the gospel.
This is the power of the transfiguration, a real, notable, powerful miracle of the Lord. This is the power of the gospel, the true, cleansing, eternal life-giving message of Jesus Christ. Believe the gospel and be transformed by it today.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org