Transfiguration– Labor Day – Matt 17
It’s Labor Day weekend-and somehow another summer has flown by! I always think that around Memorial Day weekend in May the weather is getting nice-summer’s on the horizon and there’s all the time in world-but it’s like you blink and it’s gone! But hopefully you’re enjoying the weekend and anticipating fall. But as you think back on the summer-I hope you had some fun memories and enjoyed some great vacations. Several families in our church traveled to some exciting places. We ended up staying local because we had lots of family come visit so we were at the beach and in the city. I got my lobster roll on the way back from Montauk and we climbed up the Vessel in Hudson Yards and had lunch at the Sugar Factory-so it was a great summer. There’s so much to see and do here on Long Island we love it-except going to the mountains. Did anybody travel to the mountains this summer? Standing on the beach is great looking across the horizon-but there’s something really majestic and awe-inspiring about the mountains.
Prior to having kids Monica and I did the classic backpacking trip through Europe-and we’ll never forget one of our days in Switzerland, as we were hiking in the Alps, coming up over a hillside we heard all these bells ringing. It was like some sort of weird outdoor concert or bell choir practice-we couldn’t figure out what it was. We’d just left the village, so it wasn’t anybody from town-we didn’t know who it was or why there was a concert on the hiking trail-but once we came over the hill what we saw spread out before us was a field of cows grazing away, all wearing those big cow bells-and it was an alpine symphony. We both said using our camera for a photo was fine, but it was a bummer we didn’t have a tape recorder to capture the sound-and we certainly didn’t have a way to take a video-as this was the pre-smart phone era! Obviously tough days for all of us! But maybe you’ve had some similar adventures or fond memories of hiking through the mountains-the places you explored, the things you saw. There’s just something that beckons us to hike a mountain. For example-why do so many people spend thousands of dollars to trek up Mt. Everest? What’s up there? What are you going to see? Apparently the lines to reach the top of Mt. Everest are getting longer and longer. Earlier this spring this now famous photo of Mt. Everest’s summit was taken. There were over 320 standing in line waiting for hours in the chilling cold to reach the top-in fact several people didn’t make it and died. But if you do make it to the top reports say that on average people only get 10 to maybe 15 minutes if you’re lucky. It takes all that work to get up there, all that hiking and preparing and waiting to reach the highest point on planet earth-and you get about 10 min to take in that glorious sight. Now obviously it’s got to be amazing and incredible-but this morning we’re going to look at a passage where the disciples do a little hiking up a mountain and see something incredible. In fact, they get to see the greatest sight the universe has to offer-something they’ll never forget!
Turn in your Bibles to Matthew 17 where the story picks up-Matt 17:1. These 3, Peter, James and John, are the closest disciples to Jesus, sort of like best buds-so at various times in the gospels they’re with Him alone. In this case, they’re taking a hiking trip with Jesus. Maybe they’re thinking it’s a male bonding time, sort of a guy’s getaway, a leadership retreat-but they hike up this tall mountain together-and a lot of Bible scholars assume it’s Mt. Hermon which stands at about 9,000 ft. So it’s tall, but certainly not the 14,000 ft. peaks in the Rockies or Mt Everest at 29,000 ft. But after a hearty day’s hike they get to the top and if the disciples were thinking it was a chance to relax and catch their breath, they were in for a surprise-v. 2a. Pause a moment-because that word transfigured isn’t one we use every day. Dying your hair or getting a tattoo or growing a beard doesn’t transfigure you. But the Greek word used here is from the verb, metamorphoo-it’s where we get the English word, metamorphosis-and it literally describes a change of form, something radical and altering in appearance. Jesus changed from the natural back into the supernatural, from the human to the divine. Remember the words of Phil 2:6-7. That’s the essence of who He is-fully and completely God but taking on human form to be born as a man on planet earth. Well for this moment on the mountain-it was reversed. Jesus changed from His human form back into the form of God, as the transcendent, eternally-existent, all-powerful, second person of the Trinity. The cloak of humanity that normally covered His glory on earth was momentarily removed so the disciples got to see Jesus’ actual identity and glory-and it was awesome! Quite the opposite from the Wizard of Oz. Remember him-that glowing, green face speaking in the booming voice-until Toto the dog yanks down the curtain with his teeth and we see a regular guy speaking into a microphone. His true form was quite disappointing. But that’s not the case with Jesus. Here the curtain is pulled back and the disciples get to see him for who He really is-Matt 17:2.
So here’s Matthew’s attempt at trying to describe the indescribable-and he uses two powerful images to do it. The first is the sun. Let me ask the question-who wore sunglasses on their drive to church this morning? A lot of us-but why do we need sunglasses? Because that burning ball of gas in the sky is so intensely bright it hurts our eyes! None of us are foolish enough to go stand outside and stare directly into the sun. How long can you even do it? We’ll have to shield our eyes or turn away. A couple of summers ago there was that solar eclipse that cut across the country-and myself and the kids drove a couple hours away to see it-but we had to have official eclipse glasses-otherwise you’ll go blind. The only time you could take the glasses off was during the 1.14 minutes of totality when the sun was fully blocked. But here Jesus’s light isn’t being blocked or shielded-here on the mountain He’s producing the light, it’s emanating from Him, shining from His face in glorious form! Can you imagine what that would look like? We can’t-but the best example Matthew gives us is the sun. You want to stare at it but you can’t-it’s that brilliant!
Now this isn’t the first time in Scripture someone’s face has been shining with bright light. Put your bulletin in Matthew, but flip back to Exodus because we’ll camp out here momentarily. Remember Moses, from Ex 34:29-30. When Moses was with God on the top of the mountain, He was also transfigured-but unlike Jesus, Moses wasn’t producing the light, His face was simply a reflection of God’s light-much like the moon reflects the sun’s light. So that means while Moses pointed to the glory of God, Jesus is the glory of God in human form. Heb 1:3 And that radiance wasn’t just seen on Jesus’ face because Matthew’s second description of the transfiguration said that Jesus’ clothes shone with pure whiteness. There wasn’t a hint of fading or darkness or shadow or even a slight bit of gray, but perfect, clear, unblemished whiteness. I love how Mark says it-Mk. 9:3. That’s some seriously good laundry detergent! Can you picture that? I don’t know about you, but I’m notorious for spilling on my clothes, and white shirts make me really nervous. I never like to eat red pasta with a white shirt on! But try to imagine intense, dazzling white. The essence of whiteness-what’s that like? It’s an image that certainly describes glory and radiance-but it also points to purity and holiness and perfection-something that is very foreign to us on earth as fallen, sinful humans. Pure whiteness, which represents pure holiness, is something that we’ve never been able to see in our mortal state.
Take a look at Isaiah’s experience-Isa 6:1-5. In the midst of God’s glory, all Isaiah could see was his own sinful, mortal frailty; the fact that he was so small and impure in the presence of a holy God. He didn’t say Hooray for me to see this vision-but Woe is me. I’m done for and ruined being in the presence of a holy God. Or let’s go back to Moses-Ex 33:18-23. Moses was not allowed to see God’s face-why? Because sinful, mortal man cannot be in the presence of a holy, immortal God-as God said, “You cannot see my face and live.” That’s the reality we face-our sin creates a separation, a division, a disconnect from God. We can’t endure His holy presence, it would destroy us. Yet something happened on the mountain of transfiguration in Matthew that didn’t happen on Mt. Sinai here in Exodus. While God had to spare Moses from seeing His glorious face lest he die; Peter, James and John got to see that glorious face in all its radiance and live. Jesus did something that had never happened before. He revealed His unveiled glory to mortal man. He let 3 guys see the essence of who He was.
And what was the reason? Flip back now to Matt 17 and we’ll see it-Matt 17:2-4. I love Peter’s suggestion. He’s saying-We can all sit around the firepit tonight and have a cookout and some s’mores! But I think Peter is just babbling on, trying to say anything in the midst of this incredible moment as the other two disciples are probably standing there stunned. But when you’re in the presence of Moses, Elijah and Jesus who isn’t going to feel a bit intimidated! That’s some serious company-but check out v. 5a. And this is the grandest interruption of all time. Clearly it’s not good manners to interrupt people-I’m sure your mother taught you that. But in this case I think it’s okay for God the Father to interrupt someone, that’s His prerogative as the Almighty-and I bet Peter got real quiet real quick! Because listen to what God says-v. 5b-6.
Here’s a pic-one artist’s rendering of the moment. The disciples are shaking in their boots, hands trying to cover their faces, collapsed on the ground. Because here’s Jesus in all His blinding glory, Moses and Elijah, who are long since dead have returned to earth, and God’s voice is thundering from the heavens interrupting Peter-talk about an intense moment! Who wouldn’t be terrified-literally petrified! The disciples are probably thinking they’re going to die. That this is it for them. And yet they don’t. In the midst of this monumental, heavenly transcendent meeting of the ages, these 3 mortal humans aren’t destroyed. In the face of all that glory and brilliance their bodies aren’t zapped, their breath isn’t taken away. So what happens? v. 7-8. Hey guys, it’s just me-Jesus. Should we keep on hiking? But all of a sudden-just like that-all that weight and glory and wonder and brilliance are gone-and it’s just Jesus standing there. The guy they started this journey with.
So Pt1:What Do We See? Jesus alone is the bridge between God and humanity. There’s a lot to be seen in these verses-all that glory and brightness and light. But what is essential to really see? Previously mortal man could not stand in the presence of God’s glory or see it-as we saw in Exodus and Isaiah-but here in Matthew it’s completely different. These 3 mortal guys were there and did see it-and that’s because of Jesus. Because the disciples are with Jesus, they can be in the midst of all that glory; they can behold His face and hear His voice. They can stand where man wasn’t able to stand before. It’s no accident Jesus says-Rise and have no fear. And Jesus isn’t just saying-Rise and have no fear now, in this moment, but ultimately rise and have no fear for your life, have no fear for your eternal destiny, because I am here. And verse 8 reiterates what it means to believe in Jesus and trust Him-v. 8. He’s the one they’re looking to-obviously with their physical eyes-but ultimately with their heart. Jesus alone is who they see and trust in. Moses is gone-and he represented the law; Elijah is gone-and he represented the prophets-and now it’s just Jesus. All those things-the law, the prophets-are now funneled down to Him, as Jesus said earlier-Matt 5:17. And this is the moment when that becomes official. What did God the Father command the disciples-look back at v. 5. God is saying-Yes the law is good, yes the prophets are good, but what you need for eternal life, what you need in order to stand in my holy presence is to listen to Jesus my Son-to know Him, to trust Him, to follow Him because He is the way.
And that’s Pt2:Where Do We Stand? Eternal life isn’t gained by standing on our good works, but by standing with Jesus. Think about it-God’s command to humanity isn’t to just read more of the OT law in your Bible and think that’s sufficient. His command isn’t to pronounce judgement on people like the prophets and thereby try to paint yourself in a better light and think God must be happy with you and how well you’ve lived. His command isn’t to prop yourself up with good works and hope that God will accept you for all you’ve done and all the Bible knowledge you have. And yet, isn’t that the primary way of thinking in the world? If you went out this afternoon and asked people why they should go to heaven when the die, what would be the common answer you’d hear? Because I’ve tried my best to be a good person and live a decent life. I haven’t killed anybody, I haven’t done anything too awful. I’ve tried to go to church and read the Bible and be kind to others. Isn’t that good enough? Most people envision standing before God with this ledger in hand, hoping that the column of Good Deeds is just a little longer than the column of Bad Deeds and God says-Okay, looks like your good outweighs your bad, you’re in. But that’s not how it works. And this passage declares it fully. In the midst of God’s awesome presence, in the midst of the transfigured Jesus and all His glorious brilliance, Peter, James and John had nothing to stand on, nothing to cling to, nothing to assert themselves with, they simply collapsed in fear and terror-and it was Jesus who reached down saying-Rise and have no fear. They had nothing but Jesus. And it’s the same for you and me. At the end of our lives, standing before God’s glorious throne on judgment day, you and I won’t have any of our good works to cling to, any of our charitable efforts or record of church attendance or how we think we lived a better life than the guy sitting next to us at church. None of those things will last or ever be sufficient to stand on-they’ll all evaporate and crumble, all our good works are a drop in the bucket compared to our holy God. As Romans 3 says-For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all stand there empty handed.
It’s like when you’re at the checkout counter at the grocery store and the clerk has rung everything up-said here’s the total-and then you realize you forgot your wallet. Have you done this before? You have literally nothing to pay with, nothing to give or offer-you’re standing there empty handed and stuck-while the guy behind you in line is getting upset because you’re desperately trying to figure out what to do. That’s us before our holy God. We all stand there with nothing to give Him, we fall short and can’t pay for our sins. Back to Pt2. Instead of our response being nothing to stand on, instead of having no way to pay for our mistakes or make ourselves right before God, we can say to Him-The reason I can be here and stand before you is not because of me, it’s because of Jesus. I have nothing of my own to cling to or claim. There’s nothing I’ve done, it’s all Him. Jesus paid for my sins, He faced my punishment on the cross. He’s the way and the truth and the life and I’ve listened to Him and trusted in Him. So He is why I’m here. As you will one day stand in your frail humanity before God, like the disciples you’ll have nothing but Jesus-v. 8. And yet He is entirely sufficient! Lewis, Weight of Glory. And Jesus is how we get in, He is the door. He is the one you have to trust in, to begin a relationship with. He alone is all you need-for salvation and eternal life. Why? Look at the net verse-v. 9. That’s remarkable! The One who’s transfigured into brilliance and glory beyond anything our world has ever seen-is also the One who went to the cross and gave up His life for us. What an incredible contrast! He is the One for whom life exists and He is the One who will be raised from the dead bringing eternal life for all who’ve trusted in Him. Jesus is someone so glorious-and yet so humble. And that brings us to only one place possible-and that’s worship.
Don’t forget that the story of the transfiguration at its core is a story of worship. Here the disciples see who Jesus really is, the curtain of this world is pulled back and for a moment they get to glimpse His true glory, and they’re left in this state of electrified wonder and unspeakable awe. Peter might have been babbling on earlier, but he’s left in silent amazement now-and their hearts worshipped as they came down the mountain. And so Pt3:Who Do We Worship? The One who’s momentary transfiguration reveals His eternal reality. It’s way too easy to think of this story, as just that, a story, a temporary thing, one day the disciples saw Jesus’ face and clothes light up, it was awesome, they could have used some sunglasses, and then it was over, back down the mountain. But that misses the point entirely-this short story reveals an eternal reality where Jesus’ transfiguration will not be temporary, but permanent. This story is what the future is all about. It’s a taste, a glimpse, a foreshadowing of heaven, where Jesus will dwell in His glory-not just a few moments on a mountaintop-but forever. And as His followers we will be there, seeing Him, worshipping Him, sharing in that glory-1 John 3:2. Or look at the description of eternity. Revelation describes the eternal city of God-and what does it say-Rev 21:23. That’s Jesus. All His brilliance and glory will be shining forth. Forget the days when the sun sets earlier and earlier and it’s dark by 5:30 and we’re all grumpy. His light fills the city-and the description goes on-Rev 22:3-5. If you’re a follower of Jesus and have trusted in Him as your Savior that’s your destiny-right there. It’s a destiny of worship and glory-and we get this amazing preview here on the mountain with the disciples. Might that glimpse capture your heart with longing and joy-just as it did for them-Owen, Glory of Christ, 2, 22. Is there any better sight than Him!
People spend lots of time, effort, preparation and money to go to the Himalayans and hike up Mt. Everest. It’s about $45,000 to do it-between the permits, supplies, sherpas, travel fees, etc-a lot of money to get there and see that grand sight-for about 10-15 minutes. But will your heart take the time to behold the even greater and more glorious sight of Jesus your Savior? A glimpse of Him by faith now lasts for all eternity! So set the eyes of your heart on Him, listen to Him as God told the disciples, trust in Jesus and soak up the wonder and glory of knowing Him. Have you done that? Are you standing with Jesus, worshiping Jesus and seeing Jesus? As we come to the Communion Table this morning, that’s what we want to do-to see the glory of Jesus as we remember the depth of His sacrifice on the Cross.