In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And after six days Jesus took with Him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves” (Mt 17:1). “And after six days”—if a story starts like that, doesn’t it feel like you’ve come in somewhere in the middle of the story? What had taken place six days earlier? And why did Jesus wait six days from that event —whatever it may have been—before taking three of His disciples “up a high mountain by themselves”? And why just three? Why not all twelve? Why just these three, Peter and James and John?
If we go back a bit in Matthew’s Gospel account, to chapter 16, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (vv 13–14). Some of those answers aren’t really all that surprising, considering that there had been such notions going around among the people for quite some time. Through the Prophet Malachi the LORD had foretold, “Remember the Law of My servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes, and he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal 4:4–6). There the LORD names two significant figures from Israel’s history: Moses, who had received the Law, the Torah, from God in person on the mountain, who had given them manna to eat in the wilderness; and Elijah, the great prophet, who had encountered the LORD on the mountain in the Voice, and who in the strength of the bread of God defeated the prophets of Baal. They were also connected by the ends of their earthly lives. Moses did die, but he was buried by God. Elijah was taken up into heaven and did not die. Based on Malachi’s prophecy, and with some added speculation, rumors circulated among the people that Elijah would return, or that God would raise Jeremiah or another prophet from the dead, Moses perhaps. So people wondered, about John the Baptist, and about Jesus. Even John from his prison cell sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus (Mt 11:2–3), “Are you the Coming One, or shall we look for another?”
These disciples of Jesus have seen some amazing things. They could tell John’s disciples of His healing a man of leprosy, just by touching him and speaking. He healed the paralyzed servant of a centurion without even going to the house. He cast out demons, sending a legion of them into a herd of swine. He calmed a violent storm while at sea, simply by telling the wind and the water to cease. He made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the mute to speak. He fed a crowd of five thousand with five loaves of bread, and then four thousand with seven loaves. He even raised a dead girl back to life. Through it all, Jesus has looked like … an ordinary man.
The LORD had worked great wonders through other ordinary men, His prophets of old, men like Moses and Elijah. So Jesus isn’t the first to do great miracles. Through Moses the LORD promised and sent manna and quail to feed His people, and Elijah raised a widow’s son from the dead. Both of them performed miracles with water, just as Jesus had done. So is Jesus special? Just who is He?
Back in Matthew 16, Jesus asks that question of His disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:15–17). So that should have settled the matter for these disciples, shouldn’t it? Except that, after that great confession and affirmation, Jesus begins to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed and on the third day be raised. Oh, and what’s more, He tells them, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mt 16:24). Suffering and death? What sort of a future is that for the Son of the living God, or for those who follow Him?
Now the three disciples are up on the mountain with Jesus. Suddenly, He is transfigured before them. His whole appearance is of brilliant white light. He’s not reflecting it; He’s radiating it. His face shines like the sun, with unborrowed light, and His clothes are white as pure light. This ordinary-looking man is starting to look like … God. As if that sight weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah also appear before them, talking with Jesus! A lot of people have wondered, “How did the disciples know that these figures were Moses and Elijah?” It’s not as though their portraits were hanging in a Prophets Hall of Fame. On the bulletin cover, you can tell which one is Moses, because he’s the one holding the stone tablets of the Sinai Covenant. That’s a bit of artistic license; the tablets were kept in the Ark of the Covenant. So how did they know? It was probably revealed to them by the Holy Spirit.
Peter offers to make three tents, one for each of the three glorious figures, because he wanted to make the event last. He didn’t want it to end. With those two Old Testament “superstars” present, who would want the experience to end? The three disciples may have come with Jesus, but now they also get to see Moses and Elijah! Oh, following Jesus has been great, but these guys are BIG! Moses, the one who was on the mountain in the fiery presence of the LORD forty days and forty nights receiving the Law! Elijah, the one who defeated the prophets of Baal, even though he was outnumbered 400 to 1, and who was carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot!
When the focus is on Moses, the focus tends to be on the Law, and the emphasis is on keeping the Law. The Christian life becomes all about your obedience to God. When the focus is on Elijah and the Prophets, the focus tends to be on signs and wonders, especially on signs foretelling things to come. The Christian life becomes all about miracles and warning of destruction to come upon God’s enemies, upon sinners (that should cause all of us to fear and tremble). During my vicarage in Mount Morris Township, near Flint, Michigan, days before Transfiguration Sunday, there had been a tragedy at a Mount Morris public school. A little girl, a first grader, had been stabbed by a classmate with a pencil. In a frightening coincidence, that girl had the same first name as a girl in the congregation where I did my vicarage. It was discovered that the boy who did the stabbing was being raised in a drug house. The reactions in the community were to be expected. Some were asking, “Where were the police? We need laws to protect our children from things like this!” Others said, “Couldn’t anyone have seen this coming? The boy who did this needs psychological help.” To where was everyone turning for answers? To the Law and a modern-day version of the Prophets, to solve or even prevent problems.
That’s what we do. We try to solve problems, in our lives, in our families, in our church, in our school, at work, in our businesses, in our society, in our nation. And we Christians have something that the world out there, society at large, lacks. We have the Bible. It has the answers. But are we asking the right questions? And do we really want the answers that Scripture supplies [often in the form of more questions]? One example. It’s been said by many commentators that the Book of Job deals with the question, “Why do the innocent suffer?” If that’s the main question, then why doesn’t God ever answer that question? In four whole chapters, the LORD asks Job all manner of questions about the created order, yet not once does He explain why Job had suffered so. The LORD restores Job’s fortunes and, at Job’s pleading, forgives Job’s friends for their simplistic, unwise declarations about God and His justice.
With a focus on Moses and Elijah, Law and Prophets, you could try to change everything about yourself or your family, a church could try to change everything about itself, a community could try to change everything. There is one problem about you that you can’t change, no matter what, no matter how hard you try. It’s that you are a sinner, conceived and born. Spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God is how you came into this world. And that sinful nature, that rebellious flesh, that Old Adam is with you until the day you die. The Law and the Prophets declare this truth loud and clear.
We need our focus corrected, changed. God did that with the three disciples on the mountain. The Triune God reveals Himself for them, and for us. While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit descended as the bright Cloud that overshadowed them. God the Father spoke as the Voice from the Cloud, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him” (Mt 17:5). The disciples fell on their faces in fear and trembling. Looking up again as Jesus touched them as bade them, “Rise and have no fear,” only Jesus remained. He is the Focus and the Center of the Scripture. Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus, signifying that the Law and Prophets speak of Jesus. In the pages of the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is the Word of the LORD, He is the Presence.
As we have just extended a Divine Call for a new senior pastor, and whenever we embark on other endeavors here at Hope, let us remember to keep the Main Thing the main thing: the proclamation of the Word of God, the Law in all its sternness, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its sweetness. As Jesus led the disciples back down the mountain, He kept the Main Thing front and center before their eyes and in their ears: “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” Jesus has set His eyes on Jerusalem, and on another mountain, Golgotha, also known as Calvary, the Place of a Skull. On the sixth day in the beginning, God made man, Adam, without sin, in full fellowship with God; but the First Adam rebelled. On this sixth day, Jesus is shown with the glory that Adam [and all of us] should have possessed. On another sixth day, Jesus, the Last Adam, will bear the full brunt of the wrath of God against all sin. On the cross He is still the I AM, the LORD, God Almighty, even as He dies on behalf of His creatures. The font is all about Him, for there in water and the Word you are washed clean by His blood. The altar is all about Him, for there you receive His body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Keep your focus on Him of whom Moses and the Prophets, and Peter and all the Apostles and Evangelists, testify: the I AM, our Triune God in Christ Jesus, your God and Savior who came to suffer and die for you.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds by His Spirit in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.