Thursday 22 March 2012

The transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13)

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Jesus asked the disciples. John the Baptist (who had been beheaded back in Chapter 14), or one the prophets from the Old Testament - Elijah or Jeremiah (Matthew 16:14). Jesus was more than he appeared to be; an uneducated blue-collar worker from Galilee, touring the country, preaching to masses and healing the sick. Jesus was asking his disciples, What’s the word on the street? Who do people say I am?

But then he turns to them and asks, “Who do you say I am?” What do you guys think? You, who have been with me all this time? Peter speaks up, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It’s an amazing revelation and altogether a different answer. The Christ. Son of the Living God. Jesus was not like one of the great prophets. He wasn’t like these servants of God. The prophets spoke of him. These great men of God were his servants.

Peter didn’t have a clue what he was saying, of course. Jesus tells him plainly, “This was not revealed to you by man (in other words, you didn’t work this out yourself), but by my Father in heaven.” Just a few moments later we find Peter scolding Jesus for talking about his impending death and resurrection. “Never Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus’ reply must have stung. “Get behind me Satan!” Peter and the disciples could not conceive of a crucified Christ. It didn’t make sense to them for God to send his Son to his death. Jesus exposes their thoughts, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” In their minds, Peter and the disciples were anticipating a human kingdom; a human king.

Yet the episode ends with Jesus giving a great promise to his friends. Some of them, according to Jesus, would see this kingdom with their own eyes. “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Six days later, some of them did.

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.
Matthew 17:1-2

Jesus was revealing who he really was, but he did so to a select few. Away from the crowds; away from the rest of the disciples, Jesus brought Peter, James and John up the high mountain by themselves. Later on, Jesus would instruct them to keep the vision to themselves. Why the secrecy?

In part, they weren’t ready. There is an awesomeness to the revelation of who Jesus is; of what he really is like that would overwhelm them to the point of fear and despair (Indeed, this is the reaction we find in verse 6). But I think there is another reason. Jesus chooses his friends. Jesus chooses who he reveals his glory to and consequently who he hides his glory from. Yes, Jesus had the Twelve with him at all times but Peter, James and John - they were in Jesus’ inner circle. They were the first of his disciples; they were the first whom Jesus called. At this point in his life, Jesus reveals to them - and not to others - who he really is. And what Peter, James and John saw that day was nothing less than Jesus’ full glory.

“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Now, Matthew records this incident in such a way that it bears a striking resemblance to the events in Exodus when Moses encounters God at Mount Sinai. After God rescues Israel from slavery in Egypt, he brings them to his holy mountain to gather in worship before him. The people tremble with fear as they behold God’s glory in the form of fire and smoke covering the mountain and as they hear God’s voice speaking to them out of the cloud from the mountain. So terrified were the Israelites of God’s presence and especially of God’s voice that they beg Moses to mediate God’s word to them. “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Exodus 20:19) The people keep their distance; Moses alone approaches God on the mountain.

The result is the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant. Moses spends forty days receiving instructions from God on how Israel is to live and worship as the people of God. Now this encounter had a profound effect on Moses himself because Exodus 34 tells us how he came down the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant, not realising that “the skin on his face shone because he had been talking with God.”

So here in Matthew 17, we find the same ingredients of (a) the mountain, (b) the voice of God from the mountain and (c) an amazing transformation occurring on that same mountain. What Peter, James and John were experiencing was nothing less than an encounter with God’s presence, God’s word and God’s glory. Yet almost immediately, we see a striking difference. Unlike Moses, Jesus’ transformation was from the inside-out. His face shone, Matthew tells us, like the sun. Meaning, he wasn’t reflecting God’s glory; Jesus radiated God’s glory. Furthermore, his clothes became white “as light”. The apostle Paul, when describing Moses’ glory, equated it with something that was impermanent; something that was being brought to an end (2 Corinthians 3), whereas Jesus is called the “radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3). In other words, Moses’ transformation was external; Jesus’ glory was internal. His transformation was from the inside-out.

This was something new. This was something altogether different; from Moses’ encounter with God; from anything ever recorded in the Old Testament scriptures. There was continuity and yet a profound discontinuity with Jesus. As if to drive home this point, two of the greatest figures in Israel’s history appear next, Moses and Elijah, and they are talking to Jesus on the mountain.

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.”
Matthew 17:3-5

Notice the two sudden occurrences in these verses, marked by the word “behold”. Behold! - there appeared to them Moses and Elijah; Behold! - a bright cloud overshadowed them. The three disciples were caught off-guard. They saw two completely unexpected, spectacular visions. The bible punctuates each of these visions with a Wow! (or Wahlauweh!, if you are Chinese).

In reaction to the first vision, Peter says to Jesus, “Lord it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents.” I like how Mark explains Peter’s response: “he did not know what to say” (Mark 9:6) which is a nice way of saying that Peter was being an idiot. He had just seen Jesus transformed with light, and then Moses and Elijah appear next to Jesus; so Peter’s first instinct is ask if they would like to stay for tea and biscuits. “Lord, it is good that we are here,” Peter say, by which he is not expressing how privileged it was for him and his two friends to be there with Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Rather, what he is saying is, “Good thing you brought your buddies with you, Jesus. We got your back. I’ll just go pitch us some tents and we can all gather round the campfire, holding hands and singing Kumbayah.”

The King James Version has Peter saying, “let us make here three tabernacles.” It is the same word used to describe the tent of meeting/Tabernacle constructed during the Exodus as God’s ordained place of worship. The Tabernacle was symbolic of God’s abiding presence amongst the Israelites. The gospel writer, John picks up on this imagery when he writes, “And the Word became flesh and tented among us,” (John 1:14) meaning the Old Testament tabernacle of worship pointed forward to the New Testament incarnation of Jesus Christ. He was God with us.

Peter was speaking better than he knew. Yet his words give us insight in how his mind worked. Beholding Moses and Elijah, beholding the glory of God in Jesus Christ, Peter’s first instinct was to frame his experience in terms of religion and tradition. Firstly, he felt he needed to do something: I will build tents. Secondly, he felt he needed to ground his experience in some place: I will build tents here. Peter’s first instincts are ours too, if we’re honest. We encounter God; we have an experience of his goodness and glory - and something in us goes, “I need to do something to earn this.” That’s religion. “I need to replicate this experience.” That’s tradition.

The bible brings our focus back to Jesus and to his glory alone. That’s the purpose of the second vision, which if you notice, breaks in and interrupts Peter mid-sentence.

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.
Matthew 17:5-6

The second vision of the bright cloud is indicative of God’s presence, what is sometimes referred to as God’s shekinah glory. The Hebrew words for presence (shukan) and tent (mishkan) are closely related. Indeed, you find both recurring in the Old Testament. The closing words to Exodus describe how “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled/dwelt (shukan) on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tent/tabernacle (mishkan)” (Exodus 40:35). The symbolism carries over into the New Testament where the Greek word for tent (skene) bears a striking similarity to the Old Testament Hebrew counterpart.

As Peter tries to contain the glory of the first vision suggesting that he build three tents; three dwellings, so here God interrupts Peter with a second vision of his overwhelming uncontainable presence filling the entire scene with light; with his shekinah glory.

As he does so, God speaks from the cloud authenticating the glory of his Son. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These are familiar words to Peter, James and John. These ought to be familiar words to us if we have been attentively following Matthew’s gospel. Back in Chapter 3, these same words were spoken from heaven as Jesus emerges from the waters at his baptism. They are taken from two Old Testament sources - Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42. The first is a coronation psalm - a song that is sung during the installation of a new king where God declares that the king to be God’s Son. “The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). The second quotation from the prophet Isaiah reads, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1; see also Matthew Chapter 12). On the one hand, Jesus is the Son, meaning the true King chosen by God. He is the Christ. On the other, Jesus is the true Servant, who humbles himself under God’s rule. These two pictures of Jesus’ identity - as the Servant King - are so important for us to grasp that we find God speaking the exact same words twice to these disciples; that we find Matthew recording these words twice in his gospel.

Only this time, God adds these words, “Listen to him,” by which God is saying, Obey him. A transition has occurred from what the three disciples are meant to see, to what Peter, James and John are now meant to hear. Because the moment these three lift their eyes again, the vision is gone. No more cloud of glory. No more transfiguration. No Moses nor Elijah. Just Jesus, and Jesus alone.

The voice from heaven says Obey him; Listen to Jesus. But what does Jesus say next? Puzzlingly, Jesus instructs his three friends to tell no-one what they have just seen.

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.”
Matthew 17:9

Why does Jesus tell them to keep this a secret? Why doesn’t Jesus reveal his true nature as God’s chosen Son and King to the world? “Tell no one the vision, until the Son the of Man is raised from the dead,” Jesus says. Something needs to happen first and that is the cross. You cannot begin to grasp Jesus’ glory if you do not first come to grips with Jesus’ suffering. That’s what he seems to be saying. Peter, James and John are meant to share their experience. They are supposed to bear witness to the vision on the mountain that day. That’s why we have this account recorded for us three times in the gospels; in Matthew, Mark (Chapter 9) and Luke (Chapter 9). But after, not before, the events of the cross. Only after, not before, his resurrection from the dead.

Why? Because we cannot begin to understand Jesus’ glory without first coming to grips with his suffering. In fact, that’s the very case with these three disciples. They still don’t get it. The Son of Man must suffer, Jesus says.

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

Remember that we just met Elijah a few moments ago. He was one of the two Old Testament figures to appear next to Jesus on the mountain; the other was Moses. I’ve always wondered: Why these two? Some of suggested that together, Moses and Elijah represent the Law and Prophets - the whole canon of Old Testament scripture. That makes sense for Moses, since he authored the first five book of the bible, known as the Law or Torah. But the thing is, Elijah doesn’t really represent the Prophetic writings. He never wrote anything that became part of the Old Testament. It would make more sense to have Isaiah or Jeremiah, prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah, whom Jesus and the New Testament writers quote extensively from.

I think we find the reason for Elijah’s place on the mountain here in the conversation the disciples have with Jesus on their way down the mountain. They ask Jesus, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” This is an interesting reference from the Old Testament because if you know anything about Elijah, it is probably from reading his adventures in 1 and 2 Kings: Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal, Elijah calling fire down from heaven and barbequing the whole battalion of soldiers, Elijah raising the dead to life or Elijah when he was finally taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Those are the action-packed chapters you think of when you mention the name Elijah.

Yet the passage the disciples are referring to was written much, much later (something like 300 years later). It comes from Malachi Chapter 4.

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.
Malachi 4:4-6

Now isn’t that striking! Both Moses and Elijah are mentioned in Malachi’s prophecy of a terrible day of judgement - “the great and awesome day of the LORD”. In other words, we are not to think of Elijah, the superhero prophet from 1 & 2 Kings who stands up to corrupt dictators and Baal worshippers. Nor are we to think of Moses, deliverer of Israel from the clutches of Pharaoh. Instead Malachi warns us that it’s Israel that stands under God’s judgement. It is Israel who have turned away from God’s law; Israel who have been unfaithful to God’s love.

This much at least, the scribes got right. “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things,” Jesus says, only to then add, “But I tell you, Elijah has already come.” This day of judgement is not a future event, it’s already happened. According to Jesus, it happened with the ministry of John the Baptist, who did not perform a single miracle, as far as we can tell. Instead he boldly called for repentance. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Ever seen that on an Easter greeting card? Heard a sermon recently where the pastor got up the pulpit snarling these words - You brood of vipers? Yet Jesus points to John the Baptist, who looks more like the homeless guy standing outside your local supermarket flogging his last copy of the big issue than he does your average middle-class church pastor - Jesus points to this guy and says, That’s Elijah. No wonder Jesus says they didn’t recognise him. No wonder Jesus says they did to him whatever they pleased. He’s a nobody, they must have thought. He’s a lunatic. John was imprisoned, beheaded, thrown out like trash they thought him to be.

Who’s the they Jesus is talking about? Herod, the scribes, the bible experts, the religious leaders - the very people looking forward to the coming of Elijah. They did this John. “So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Ironically, Jesus is saying the very people expecting the coming of the Christ will reject him as the Christ. Yet by their rejection they confirm that Jesus is the Christ, he is the true Son of God.

Why does Jesus tell Peter, James and John to keep the vision of his glory to themselves until after the cross? Because the cross is the true revelation of Jesus’ glory. It is not on this hill enveloped in light with Jesus standing next to the two giants of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah; it is not on this hill that we see his true glory. No, it’s on another hill: one called Golgotha, the place of the Skull, where Jesus would be hung on the cross between two criminals, when darkness covered the whole land, when there was no voice from heaven declaring the Father’s love for his Son, but instead the loud cry of Jesus, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where the crowds of bystanders say to one another, “He’s calling for Elijah; let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” Elijah does not come. Jesus dies on the cross, rejected by man, forsaken by God.

The Son of Man will be mocked, despised, rejected. Yet it is this rejection that authenticates Jesus true identity as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. On the cross, Jesus displays his true glory - the glory of a conquering King who destroys sin, death and Satan. On the cross, Jesus displays the glory of the suffering Servant who was obedient unto death, even death on the cross. On the cross, Jesus displays the glory of grace of God who forgives the wicked, justifies the sinner and transforms them into the image of the Son he loves.

In Christ alone
I place my trust
And find my glory in the power of the cross
In every victory
Let it be said of me
My source of strength
My source of hope
Is Christ alone

1 comment:

The Good Tale said...

A gift for you from the wilderness of cyberspace Rev 12:6... Truth:
The turning of the hearts of the fathers to the children is delivered for not one child of God will be put in a hell fire no matter what their sins. It never entered the heart or mind of God to ever do such a thing Jer 7:31, Jer 19:5.
Prophecy is fulfilled, Rev 12:5, 13 the true word John 1:1 of God is now delivered to the world as a witness. Prove all things.