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“The Transfiguration”

Matthew 17:1-8
Bob DeGray
March 19, 2017

Key Sentence

Fixing our eyes on Jesus’ glory and learning to listen to him changes everything


I. Seeing His Glory (Matthew 17:1-3)
II. Hearing the Father and listening to the Son (Matthew 17:4-5)
III. Walking with Jesus without fear. (Matthew 17:6-8)


There is a technique in literature and film called the reveal, or the big reveal. It’s usually character focused. Some character has an element to their story or back-story, their personality or abilities that may have been hinted at in the story itself, but is now made plain. A classic use of the big reveal is a character who is really someone different than they appear to be. A few weeks ago we talked about Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. He appears to be a weather-beaten ranger, but is really the rightful heir of the kingdoms of Middle-earth.

That king thing is fairly common. In one of my favorite books, Tales of the Kingdom the king often appears as a beggar or a peasant, or as a plain young man. But at certain times he is revealed to be the king. In this case it’s not a reveal to us the readers so much as it is a reveal to the characters in the story. The boy who is the so-called Hero of the story – his name is Hero – has trouble seeing the king. On sighting day, when the king walks in his disguises among his people, Hero sees a peasant, who walks into the cottage wearing a collarless shirt and worn breeches, and takes Hero’s quiet little brother on an outing.

But his brother returns with a young man, who has succeeded in helping the little child see the king. One of my favorite lines from the book is when the young man says “Then we watched the grapes grow.” He motioned to a bowl of fruit on the table. Hero had thought they were plums, but now he saw that they were huge grapes pluck off the stem. “Uh, we watched too long – I was telling a story. Sorry, but they’re still good. Try one.” Later Hero goes to where the king is supposed to be caring for the sick, outcast and disabled, but he sees only a poor beggar hunched among them in a brown cloak and hood. It’s not until the beggar looks him in the eye that Hero realizes the peasant and the young man and the beggar have all been the king walking among his people.

The point is that we too have a king, and in his incarnation, he did not appear as he really is. He was clothed in the ordinary, in flesh, in humanity. Yet he was still the Son of God, full of glory, worthy of reverence, and changing everything for his people. Only once in his ministry did three of his closest followers get to see a glimpse of Jesus with the veil removed, his glory revealed. And it just reinforced that seeing him and hearing him changes everything. Like the disciples, we need to remember today that fixing our eyes on Jesus’ glory and learning to listen to him changes everything. This episode is called the transfiguration. It’s short. I want to read the whole thing and then break it down into three stages. It appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

We’ll use the Matthew version as our primary text. Matthew 17:1-8 After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4And 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.” 5He 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.” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

The first three verses are about seeing the glory of Jesus revealed, seeing him as the king of glory. Matthew comments that this occurs six days after the previous episode, which was Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and Jesus’s revelation that he would be a suffering, dying and rising Messiah. Jesus had said that some standing there would see his glory, and all three of the synoptic Gospels make it a point to tie that prophecy into this event, the transfiguration.

During those six days they travel to a high mountain. Mount Tabor, the traditional "high mountain," lies south of Galilee; but it is not at all "high" and it’s not on the way from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum. Mount Hermon, rising above Caesarea Philippi, is an option, but it is so high and cold at its summit, it seems a strange place to spend a night. And after their descent Jesus and disciples met crowds that included "teachers of the law.” This is unlikely at Mount Hermon in Gentile territory. So commentators suggest Mount Meron, the highest mountain in Israel, on the way from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum.

Those Jesus took with him were Peter, James, and John, the inner circle of the Twelve. These are the same three who would later be with him in the Garden of Gethsemene, and who were there at the raising of Jairus’s daughter which we saw last week. Luke says when they reached the high place Jesus prayed, which was deeply characteristic of him. We see him doing so over and over at key moments, from the initial temptation to the Garden of Gethsemene.

We need to take that seriously: if Jesus needed to pray, who are we to neglect prayer? Are we more spiritual, more righteous, more inherently blessed by God than Jesus was? Of course not. So if he needed to pray, in ongoing dependence on God, how much more should we seek the Father in prayer. In fact, when I say that we need to keep our eyes open, one of the things that figure of speech means is prayer. It is one of the ways he uses to reveal himself as king.

In this case, as Jesus was praying, he was transformed or transfigured; the word is ‘metamorpho’ as in ‘metamorphosis’, the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. The word is used in marvelous ways in Scripture. It can indicate a change that is outwardly visible, as when the face of Moses was transformed after he had been with God on the mountain. But it can be invisible. The word is used of our metamorphosis, Romans 12:2 when we are no longer conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ.

Jesus was morphed “before them,” these three disciples, and largely for their sakes. Whatever confirmation the experience may have given Jesus, for the disciples it was a revelation. As they would come to realize, they were being allowed to glimpse some of his pre-incarnate glory, to preview his coming exaltation. The contrast between what Jesus had just predicted would be his fate, the cross, and this glorious sight would cause Jesus' disciples to marvel at his self-humiliation and then rejoice at the height to which he had was raised in his resurrection and ascension. “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” “Therefore the Lord has highly exalted him.”

The glory of Jesus became temporarily visible to them in his face and his clothing. Matthew says ‘his face shown like the sun’. Luke can’t find a word. He simply says ‘the appearance of his face became other’. His clothes, Matthew says, became white as light; Luke says ‘bright as a flash of lightning’. Mark says ‘whiter than any launderer on earth could bleach them’. The truth was simply greater than words could convey - they were seeing, in Jesus, the same glory God revealed to Moses on Sinai, in the tabernacle, and to the prophets. In fact, many details of this episode echo events in the lives of Moses and Elijah, and these two who now appear with Jesus. Verse 3 “And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” In that moment of glory, two people appeared with Jesus. Luke gives the most detail: “Two men, Moses and Elijah, 31appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”

Moses and Elijah. Why? Why not Abraham and David? First, they represent the law and the prophets, the two sides of God’s communication in the Old Testament. Second, they were the two leaders who saw God’s glory on a mountaintop. There are a lot of parallels here to Moses’ experience on Mt. Sinai, including the shining of his face and his clothes, the cloud of God’s presence and his voice. Elijah had his great experience of God’s glory, presence and power on Mt. Carmel. But more important than either of these is probably the fact that Elijah and Moses were the two Old Testament figures whose ‘return’ was associated with the coming of the Messiah. Scripture taught that Elijah was to come before the great and glorious day of the Lord.

And based on the prophecy in Deuteronomy 18 of ‘a prophet like Moses’, the Jews of Jesus’ day associated Moses with the same period. So in a sense this event is a sign that the end is near. Luke says they were talking about the exodus, or departure that Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Moses had his Exodus from Egypt, Elijah had his exodus in the chariot, and Jesus would have his exodus in his death, resurrection and ascension. Just to complete the picture, it’s my conviction that the two witnesses of Revelation 11, who in the end times prepare for the return of Jesus are the same two, Moses and Elijah.

The first part of this experience is to see Jesus glorified. The same experience is featured in Tales of the Kingdom. The king is transformed, is seen as he really is during the Great Celebrations. Probably my favorite story in the first book is “Dirty,” about a girl who would rather live with the pigs than receive the love and care of the kingdom at the hand of the old woman, Mercie “So Dirty lived in the pigpen in back of Caretaker's cottage and never left it, except to creep into Deepest Forest on evenings of the Great Celebration, when the people of Great Park gathered to enjoy the presence of the King. Dirty loved to watch the dancing, the singing the feasting and the joyful fellowship.” But the part where the King’s subjects passed through the sacred flames and were revealed for what they really were made no sense to Dirty. She refused to go.

“One night, Dirty hid in a hollow stump, and watched. Looking through the dancing fire, she could see that banquet tables were being spread with glorious foods. She had brought a dried ear of corn from the pig trough and was munching on its hard kernels. Suddenly, she heard someone cry, "Alms! Alms for the poor!" She peeked her head out of her hole and saw a beggar, ragged and threadbare. Too late! The beggar had peeked into the black hollow of the stump. "Aren't you coming to the Great Celebration?" Dirty climbed out. She got down on all fours and pushed her nose into the dirt. She snorted. She made a pig call, "Hoi-soi-soi-soi-hoi!" The beggar was not fooled into thinking she was a pig. "Come," he said. "Come through the flames and be my guest at the banquet table." Dirty looked at him. She showed her teeth. She grunted again. She said, “Go with you? You're nothing but an ugly beggar! I'd rather be with the pigs!"

The beggar touched her gently on the shoulder. Dirty drew back, but her arm felt warm where his hand had been. "Oh, Dirty," he said. "Don't you know? All The subjects of the King are nothing more than ugly beggars." With that, he moved off. Dirty watched the beggar pass through the flames. She heard the Rangers salute. She watched the beggar become real. Through the flames, she saw that he was the most wonderful man. He was the King himself. And he had said to her, "come with me..." At that moment, Dirty, unwashed and smelling of the pigpen, began to love the King. Longing filled her heart.

I think that’s the same thing Peter, James and John were experiencing, wonder and awe at their king revealed. Verse 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter was so enthralled with the revelation that he wanted to make it last. So he speaks. It could be one of the things that keeps us from hearing and recognizing the glory of Jesus is that like Peter we talk too much. Mark says “He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.” Luke says “He didn’t know what he was saying.” Somebody paraphrased this as ‘Peter, not knowing what to say, said . . .” Too often we speak when we should be listening and miss the glory Jesus intended to reveal.

It’s not that Peter’s heart isn’t in the right place, at least this time. He recognizes that it is a privilege for he and his fellow disciples to be present. He wants to hang on to the experience. So he offers to put up tents or shelters for Moses and Elijah. Moses had been given the Feasts of Booths or Tabernacles, shelters where the people of Israel would live for a week to celebrate what God had done. Peter may have wanted to build shelters to celebrate God’s revelation of Jesus in his glory and his provision of Jesus as the Messiah.

Peter’s idea is interrupted by God himself. Verse 5 “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.’” A cloud is often a sign of God’s presence. Exodus 24, for example, says “When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud.” Matthew emphasizes the brightness of the cloud, indicating the shining glory of God. As in Exodus, God speaks: ‘This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ This is nearly the same thing He said at the baptism of Jesus.

Notice that God’s words are not really a response to Peter: they are a revelation that overshadows what Peter was asking. Remember this whole section started two weeks ago with the question ‘Who is this Jesus?’. Peter answered the question by recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus answered the question by asserting that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise. Now God answers the question by saying that this suffering Messiah was His Son doing his will. The revelation of Jesus’ glory, awesome though it was, would have been incomplete without this word from God, the communication of truth in words that can be heard and understood. It was one thing to see Jesus transfigured, with His clothing and His appearance brighter than the sun—that was frightening to the disciples. But it was quite another thing to hear a voice from heaven confirming that Jesus is the Son of God. The voice affirmed their faith.

The presence of this account in the Gospels should confirm our faith. If you believe in the supernatural, a heavenly confirmation of Jesus, with eyewitnesses should carry weight. The God of the universe affirms this person Jesus and says ‘Listen to him’. Fixing our eyes on Jesus’ glory and learning to listen to him changes everything. I think that has two very practical implications. First, the Bible never says listen without meaning ‘obey’. God isn’t saying ‘let these words of Jesus tickle your ears; philosophize about these words’. He’s saying ‘hear and obey’ these words. Those who hear in the way of obedience are the ones who see Jesus’ glory. When we do things his way we see him at work.

The other practical implication of this command is that the place where his words can be found is between the covers of your Bible. If you and I are not listening to the Scriptures we’re not listening at all, because God has chosen to give us his concrete written word, and the Holy Spirit has chosen to use that word as the objective foundation for all he wants to speak to our hearts and for all the obedience and fruit he wants to achieve in our lives. If you want to obey God’s command to listen, the only place you can turn is back to this word: taking it seriously, studying it carefully, applying it whole-heartedly, letting it dominate your life. The true revelation of the Glory of Jesus to your heart won’t happen apart from the obedient immersion of your mind in Scripture.

That’s where Peter ends up after this event. Years later he makes a great commentary on the transfiguration. 2 Peter 1:16-19 “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." 18We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. 19And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Peter affirms the historical truth of the event we’ve just studied, uses it to argue that Jesus is to be taken seriously, affirms that he received glory and honor from God the Father at that moment. But he doesn’t just say ‘take our word for it’. Instead he points his readers to Scripture, to the words of the prophets ‘made more certain’ by the testimony of God and the accounts of these eyewitnesses. And he says ‘listen to it’; ‘you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place’. If you’ve got eyes to see and ears to hear, this glory, this light shining in a dark place, will be revealed to you in Scripture.

In A Girl Named Dirty, Dirty realizes that having seen the king she wants to be clean. She tries. She cleans herself up, but when the woman, Mercie, commends her, she says “No, no! I've washed and washed, but I'm still dirty. I'm all pig inside. The King will never love me. It's too late!" Mercie shook her head knowingly. "We shall see what the King has to say about that." So Mercie took the pig girl to the next Great Celebration. Rangers stood watch all around the rim of the Circle of Flames. Dirty pulled on the cloak of one and asked, "Is the beggar coming tonight?" When the tall man shook his head, no, her heart sank.

Dirty followed Mercie, who had stepped into the fire. The heat seared the pig girl's heart. She felt as though everything inside of her was being burned. Mercie put her arms around her. "Don't be afraid, The pain is only for a moment." "It's no use! It's no use!" Dirty cried. "The King is not coming! He is the one I must see. No one else can make me clean." Mercie took the girl's hand. "Let me tell you a wonderful secret," she said "All the people of the Kingdom know it. It is one of the first lessons they learn. The King does not have to come in order for us to see him. He is always present." Dirty stopped crying. She looked at Mercie. "I don't understand what you mean." "Listen," said Mercie. She held her finger to her mouth for silence. "Listen and you will hear him speak." Dirty wiped her tears. She closed her eyes and listened as hard as she could. Yes, there was something. It was the voice of the Beggar King. He was saying, “Come, come with me. Be my special guest at the banquet table.”

Dirty kept her eyes closed. His guest . . . She could feel something pouring over her. It flowed down through her, starting with her head, than behind her eyes, all through the knots and gnarls of her insides. It was warm, gentle, caring. Mercie whispered, "It's kingslove, Dirty. Kingslove." Dirty could hear the voice again. The King was laughing. The warm flood had reached her toes. Dirty felt as if she were being held by the king. Mercie was right: you did not have to see the King to be surrounded by the power of his love.

We see his glory. We hear his voice. It doesn’t take a physical miracle or a physical voice. We see and hear supernaturally, spiritually, and it changes everything. Verses 6 to 8: When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

The disciples were terrified. What they had seen, the glory of God and what they had heard, the voice of the Father, caused them to fall down in fear. This is a fairly common Biblical response. Daniel records a vision of a man “clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold,” with a body like beryl, the jewel and arms and legs like burnished bronze and a voice like the sound of a multitude.

The men with Daniel fled in great fear and trembling. Daniel says “I was left alone and saw this great vision, and no strength was left in me.” “Then I heard the sound of his words, and as I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face in deep sleep with my face to the ground.”

This is the kind of fear that an encounter with the living God can cause. But Jesus. One of the things I love about this passage is that having seen his glory and heard his words, the disciples are left with only Jesus. He not only shows them the extraordinary, but is with them in the ordinary. That’s awesome. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” His glory is awesome, his words are wonderful, but he is also Immanuel, God with us. The big idea of God’s Big Story is you will be my people and I will be your God and I will walk and dwell among you. So, even when we are giving a glimpse of the king in his glory, there is a greater wonder yet, that like a friend he comes and speaks to us in our fear and raises us up and walks with us.

“And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” The theologians use the terms transcendent and immanent. Think about what the disciples have just seen as you listen to the definition of ‘transcendent.’ “beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience; surpassing the ordinary; existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe.” Synonyms are “incomparable, matchless, peerless, unrivaled, inimitable, beyond compare, unparalleled, unsurpassed.” That’s what we saw in this passage, someone unparalleled and beyond compare. But – he is immanent, present with us, with his creation, not a God who is far off. Jesus is transcendent and glorious. Jesus is immanent and touches us, lifts us up, dispels our fears. He says ‘come to me.’ He says ‘behold I am with you always.’ And so our fears, all kinds of fears, are dispelled when we look at Jesus only. They lifted their eyes and beheld Jesus only.

Today is sighting day. We see Jesus as he really is, the king in all his glory. But we also see Jesus near to us, Jesus only walking with us. In Tales of the Kingdom¸ Hero has never heard his little brother say a word. The trauma of their beginnings in the land of the enemy had broken and silenced him. But on sighting day, when the young man came back to the cottage, the little child spoke for the first time and said “I see the king. I see the king.” And eventually Hero saw him too. It’s not only in the circle of sacred flames, in the revelation of his transcendent glory. In everyday life, as we listen to him saying ‘do not fear’ we can lift our eyes and see nothing else but Jesus only.