Heroes on the Mount — Transfiguration Sunday

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Download Bulletin for Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021

17 After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother and brought them up to a high mountain alone, 2 and was transfigured before them. His face shone as the sun, and His garments became white as the light. 3 Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.
4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If You wish, let us make three tabernacles here: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, suddenly 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.”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were filled with awe. 7 But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” 8 When they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
9 As they came down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”

Today we have white paraments to celebrate the Feast of Transfiguration – one of the events during Jesus’ earthly ministry that most clearly testified to his divinity and importance. It also highlights Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament, and to the Old Testament’s great heroes, Moses and Elijah.

There’s an old icebreaker, a good way to get a conversation going, if you happen to need that: What famous person from history would you most like to meet? Many people will pick US presidents, or other famous people, like Martin Luther, or possibly a legendary military figure like George Patton, or Napoleon. A lot of people might even say Jesus Christ himself!

But imagine that you instead are a Jewish man living under Roman rule. Who are the people from your history that you would most look up to and admire? There are surely some great figures from the Old Testament. The Jews often took pride in being the sons of Abraham, and worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But two of the most remarkable miracle workers in the Old Testament were Moses and Elijah. Interestingly, Moses and Elijah are both important in the Jewish celebration of the Passover, at least today. It is quite impossible to tell the story of the Passover, the tenth plague, without talking about Moses; and Moses would later give the Law that would require the Jews to eat the Passover once a year, until the Messiah would come. But in the Passover as practiced today, a cup is also set aside for Elijah.

This seems to be a very old tradition. Elijah, possibly because he was carried alive into heaven, was a symbol of the coming redemption, which we understand to be Christ. John the Baptist himself was asked if he was Elijah, to which he said “no” – the Jews were expecting Elijah to return in some way to prepare the way for the Messiah – this was prophesied by the prophet Malachi (4:5ff: 5 See, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreaded day of the Lord. 6 He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.)

Elijah was certainly a larger than life figure – larger in the sense that he himself did many miracles, including raising the dead (1 Kings 17:17ff). He called down fire from heaven in the competition with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:16ff). He was taken into heaven on chariot of fire, one of the very few human beings so far to not experience death (2 Kings 2). I am not sure that Christians today fully appreciate how significant Elijah was as a figure the Jews thought of and admired.

And what of Moses? We know his story much better, I think. He turned a staff into a serpent and back before Pharaoh; the ten plagues that smote the Egyptians were all miracles of a sort. He parted the Red Sea, allowing Israel to cross on dry land, but drowned the mighty Egyptian army. In the forty years of wandering, Moses would go on to get manna and quail for the Israelites, to lift up the bronze serpent, and do many other things. And all of those years Israel was in the shadow of the pillar of cloud and fire.

But as great as Moses and Elijah were, Scripture also records for us their flaws, their doubts and their failings. Elijah despaired after the incident on Mt. Carmel, and expected to die there (1 Kings 19:10). Moses was initially unwilling to heed God’s call from the burning bush, despite clearly understanding that he was on holy ground. (Exodus 4:1-14). Even after that, Moses failed to circumcise his sons according to the Law, and God almost killed him because of it (Exodus 4:24ff). Moses let his temper flare at the Israelites when they needed water, and God told him that he would not enter the promised land because of that (Numbers 20:12). They certainly were not perfect in and of themselves, even if they were great men of faith, great prophets even.

It is very easy for us as people to get wrapped up in the pomp and circumstance of the moment. Peter thought it was great that Moses and Elijah were back, during the actual Transfiguration – he wanted to build tents for them so they could stay longer! But the Transfiguration was not about Moses and Elijah, it was about Jesus.

Moses and Elijah pointed forward to the Christ. We see the failings and the weakness of them both; it is very important to both of their stories. Because while these men were great heroes, and did great things, they were no better, ultimately than we are. I doubt that any of us will ever stand in front of the ruler of the mightiest nation on Earth and tell him to “let my people go,” as Moses did. I do not think that any of us will call down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice, water drenching the sacrifice, and even the stones of the altar itself as Elijah did. But they did not put their confidence in the things that they did to give them hope of life everlasting with their God and ours. Just as Abraham before them (who was also a very flawed man in certain respects), they believed God, and it was credited to them as righteousness.

Their confidence was not based on God simply letting their sins and their failings slide, or ignoring them. They heard, they proclaimed, and they believed in God’s promise to Abraham, and to us, to send a savior, who would pay the ransom for our sins, who could live a perfect life that we cannot live, who could die, sinless and innocent, and that death would pay the price for our sins and theirs.

But what about Peter, James, and John? They were certainly present on the mountain too, and while they may not have been heroes yet, they certainly would all go on to achieve “hero of faith” status. We get to see a lot more of Peter’s failings than the others. We know very little of James, and we do not see John’s failings in quite the same light as Peter’s – Jesus never told any of the other disciples to “Get behind me, Satan” and only Peter denied Jesus three times. But James and John were the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3). And we know that James and John would later doubt Jesus’ resurrection and hide in the room where Jesus would appear to them. Peter and John between them were responsible for writing quite a lot of the New Testament that Paul did not write – Peter, by tradition, was the key source for the Gospel of Mark, and he wrote two letters of his own. John wrote his Gospel, three letters, and Revelation. These men also, despite their faults, were heroes of the faith.

Peter and John would go on to write New Testament books, and would mention this event in their respective writings. John almost certainly was thinking of the Transfiguration when he wrote: John 1:14 The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, the glory as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. The Greek word there, which we translated as “dwelt” literally means “pitched his tent” – possibly a little jibe at his old friend Peter, who wanted to pitch tents for Moses and Elijah.

Peter himself would later write: 2 Peter 1:16ff. 16 For we have not followed 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 He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to Him from the majestic glory, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”[a] 18 And we ourselves heard this voice, which came from heaven, when we were with Him on the holy mountain.

So this event clearly left an impression on them – and where do they place their focus? What do they remember most about this? Is it the fact that Moses came back from the dead, and Elijah came back to earth? Do they focus on the greatness of those two men, possibly the two greatest prophets of the Old Testament?

No, they focus on Jesus, and so should we. The voice comes from heaven while Peter is still speaking, and says the words they had heard once before at Jesus’ baptism – “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Jesus touches them, and tells them not to be afraid, because they have fallen face-down – and when they look up, Jesus is back to “normal,” and Moses and Elijah have gone.

Jesus gives them a curious instruction – not to tell anyone about this vision until after he has risen from the dead. He does not explain this. But, certainly, after his resurrection, they told many people – and they wrote the words that the Holy Spirit helped them write and that we still read and learn today.

As great as it must have been for them to see Moses and Elijah, their focus was clearly on Jesus. John mentions Moses, but only to make it clear that Jesus is greater. Peter does not mention Moses or Elijah by name at all – and he even goes on to say that the written word of Scripture is more sure than those visions. Clearly God the Father speaking from the cloud elevates Jesus above Moses and Elijah – for we are told to listen to Jesus, not to listen to them. And then they disappear, but Jesus remains.

But does “listening to Jesus” mean completely ignoring Moses and Elijah? It does not. The Holy Spirit has caused the Old Testament to be preserved as well as the New Testament. And the “surer prophetic word” that Peter refers to in his epistle is clearly the Old Testament. No, the answer to that question I think we get from John – “The Law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Christ” – we still need the Law, because while it is easy in general to admit that we are not perfect, it can be very hard to get more specific than that. And we need the Law to remind us, specifically, of what we have done wrong and what we can do to improve. If we see the presence of Moses and Elijah as referring to the entire Old Testament as a kind of metaphor, then in some ways the New Testament does indeed fulfill the promises of the Old, and the Jewish civil and ceremonial laws have indeed been set aside. But think how much poorer our lives of faith would be without Moses, Elijah, and the Old Testament. We would know far less of God’s will and how he actually works and worked in real people’s lives, and throughout history. We would not see that golden thread of His promise, made right after the fall in the garden of Eden, to send the savior who would crush the serpent’s head; the savior he would again promise to Abraham, and to David, and through all the prophets.

And so we honor Moses and Elijah, great prophets and men of faith; we honor Peter, James, and John, apostles, and two of them authors of books of the New Testament, all great heroes of faith. But we worship and adore the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah that Moses and Elijah hoped for, that Peter, James and John walked with and served. As God the Father said, we will listen to Him, and from him we expect to receive grace upon grace, as he has promised and as only he can fulfill.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

[Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, Modern English Version. Copyright © 2014 by Military Bible Association. Published and distributed by Charisma House.]

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