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.