Why the Transfiguration? Matthew 17:1-9


St. Paul warned Timothy: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (1 Tim. 3:12); and Jesus warned His disciples: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me” (John 15:18-21).

And it’s true, the world is becoming more and more evil. Though many churches are accepted by the world because they no longer preach and teach all that the Bible teaches, believers who hold fast to Christ and His Word are suffering rejection and persecution and may even face death in this world.

And the true preaching of the Gospel? It’s seldom heard in churches any more. The number of faithful preachers has become fewer and fewer so that, in most places, a gospel of “God loves and accepts everybody as they are” is being preached, and the people feel good about their version of Christianity even though they continue on in mortal sin and stand condemned by God! And when the truth about our sinfulness and the condemnation of the Law is preached, and when the Gospel of a righteousness and forgiveness which become ours through faith alone in Jesus Christ is preached, who listens, who cares to hear?

And to those who continue to hold fast to salvation through repentance and faith alone in Christ Jesus and His atoning sacrifice on the cross, to those who continue to preach the Word of God in its truth and purity and rightly administer the Sacraments, this world has become a pretty discouraging place. We might even be tempted to think all is lost, the Church in this place has been stamped out, all our efforts to preach the truth are for naught.

Now think about what Jesus had just told His disciples. In Matthew 16:21 and 24, we read: “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day … If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

Jesus had promised eternal life and the glories of heaven to all who placed their faith in Him and now He tells His disciples that He would suffer many things, be killed and be raised from the dead on the third day! And He tells them that they too would be persecuted and suffer as His followers.

So, was all lost? Would there be no heaven and no glory? Was the faith they were preaching without hope!

That’s where Jesus’ transfiguration comes in (Matthew 17:1-9; cf. Mark 9:1-9; Luke 9:28-36): “Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!’ And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Arise, and do not be afraid.’ When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.’”

Jesus took Peter, James and John, His inner circle of disciples — perhaps so that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Deut. 19:15) — with Him on a high mountain alone. And there, Jesus’ appearance changed. Instead of seeing Jesus in His humble state in which He did not always or fully use the divine power and glory which were His as the eternal Son of God, Jesus appeared in His divine glory. Mark describes it this way: “He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:2,3).

Though Jesus’ disciples had seen glimpses of His divine glory through His miracles, they had not yet seen Him in the glory He possesses as the eternal Son of God — the glory in which we will see Him when He returns on the Last day!

And Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in glory and talked with Jesus about the sufferings and death to atone for the sins of the world which He would accomplish in Jerusalem (cf. Luke 9:29-31).

Moses, through whom God gave the Law (also the human author of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible), led the children of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness. And because of their unbelief and rebellion against God, Moses saw a generation of them die in the wilderness, and he too was prohibited from entering into the land of promise because of his anger against the unbelief of the people (cf. Num. 20:1ff.). He was only allowed to see from across the Jordan, and then he died and was buried in the land of Moab by God (Deut. 34:1ff.).

Elijah, a prophet of God, lived in a time in Israel’s history when most had turned away from following the true God. He challenged the prophets of Baal and proved Jehovah God to be the true God and then had to flee for his life because of wicked queen Jezebel (cf. 1 Kings 18 and 19). Elijah despaired and thought he was the last true believer in Israel until God told him He still had 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Elijah was taken alive to heaven in a fiery chariot (cf. 2 Kings 2:1ff.).

Moses and Elijah, who called upon God’s people to repent of their sinful ways and directed them to look in faith to the coming Messiah and Savior for forgiveness and life, did not receive glory during their earthly lives and ministries, but on the Mount of Transfiguration, they appeared with Jesus and shared in His glory.

And when “Peter answered and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ … a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!’”

God the Father testified of Jesus that He is none other than the eternal, beloved Son of God! He exhorted Jesus’ disciples and all of us to hear Him — to listen to His Word of truth and to place our hope and confidence in Him, for He alone is our Savior!

What’s the point of the account? And why do we revisit it each year on Transfiguration Sunday?

1. First of all, it reveals to us who Jesus really is. Though He is true man, born of the Virgin Mary, He is also true God, conceived by the miraculous working of the Holy Ghost. Here on the mount, through the eyewitness account of Peter, James and John which we have recorded for us in the words of Scripture, we see Jesus for who He truly is: Jehovah God in the flesh. His miracles and His revealed glory on the mount prove it!

2. Secondly, lest we become overwhelmed with doubts about ever receiving glory, we see Jesus in glory and we see Moses and Elijah in glory. In this world, they endured suffering and tribulation, but in the world and kingdom to come, glory! It is as St. Paul writes (2 Tim. 4:6-8): “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” (Cf. John 16:33; also Rev. 7:9-17 for a similar revelation of the saints in glory.)

3. Thirdly, we have the assurance that our faith rests upon God’s truth — the Holy Scriptures are true. Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:16-21: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

4. Fourthly, God the Father testifies to the identity of Jesus — His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased — and urges and commands us to listen to and hear Jesus’ words. And, it is through Jesus’ Word and His Sacraments that we are brought to faith and preserved in the faith in Christ Jesus (cf. John 6:63; 8:31-32). Thus, we are to “hear Him” and heed His Word, because only in Him and in the truth of the Gospel is there salvation for sinful human beings like you and like me.

5. Fifthly, even though Peter and his fellow eyewitnesses desired to stay on the mountain and see Jesus in His glory, God had them go down from the mountain into the dark and sinful world below — they were not even allowed to speak of what they had seen until after Jesus’ resurrection. And so, we must live our lives in this dark and sinful world and bear witness to Christ Jesus and the glory that He has prepared for all who trust in Him. Christ still sends His ministers of the Gospel not to mountaintop monasteries but to the nations and peoples below to disciple the nations by proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom and baptizing in His name.

It was on a mountain in Galilee, after Jesus’ death and resurrection and just before His ascension, that Jesus said to His chosen disciples: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).

We live in the valley now, in a dark and sinful world that knows little of Jesus and His glory, and that knows little of the salvation He won for all by His atoning sacrifice on the cross. As His Church, we have the command to call and send men to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments in Jesus’ name that the Holy Spirit might bring people to repent of their sinful ways and look to Jesus and His cross in faith for God’s mercy, forgiveness and the everlasting joys of heaven.

In this life, in this world, we can expect no glory — only suffering and persecution from the enemies of the truth. But glory will come when Jesus is revealed again in glory. It will come to all who trust in Jesus’ name, as it came to Moses and Elijah!

God grant that we hold fast to Christ Jesus, trusting in Him alone for pardon, forgiveness and the eternal glories of heaven. And though, in this world, we know no glory, all who trust in Christ Jesus will be glorified with Him when He comes again in all His glory!

O God of all glory, we thank You for revealing to us on the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus in His divine glory, and Moses and Elijah with Him in glory. Grant that we hear Him and His Word and bear witness to Him in this dark and sinful world until we too, join Him in glory. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

[Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]

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