If you were to ask Peter what the most impressive miracle or experience with Jesus was during his ministry, he certainly would have a long list from which to choose. Jesus was constantly healing the sick and casting out demons. The raising of the dead – such as Lazarus was certainly amazing. The feeding of more than five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish is the only miracle recorded by all four Gospels, so certainly this made a great impression. The stilling of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus’ later walking on water and calming another rough sea were definitely remarkable.
But if he were to choose just one of them, we may get a hint about which one made the greatest impression from our epistle lesson. There Peter writes: “For we did not follow 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. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
Peter refers to what happened at the Transfiguration of Our Lord. And of course, he mentions only one aspect of this event, for in addition to hearing the voice of God the Father, Peter, James, and John, briefly saw Jesus in his divine glory, and also saw Moses and Elijah. Having experienced this glorious event with Jesus, imagine the shock that Peter must have felt as Jesus hung on the cross on Good Friday. And yet, this shocking contrast – this shocking contradiction – is what stands at the heart of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. It shows us how God has worked salvation for us. And it also gives us insight and encouragement about how we are to view our own lives.
Our text begins by saying, “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” Matthew’s Gospel very rarely says anything about the timing of events, so the “after six days” should catch our attention and prompt us to ask, “Six days after what?”
The answer is two-fold. First, after asking the disciples about how people were identifying Jesus – to which answers were given like John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets - our Lord had asked: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter had replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus then answered, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God – a confession made possible only by God the Father. And second, right after this Matthew tells us: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Our Lord says that he is going to suffer and die.
This was too much for Peter. In Jewish thought, by definition the Christ – the Messiah – couldn’t die. Such a death was the proof that a person wasn’t the mighty and victorious Messiah. Peter responded by saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But Jesus turned and rebuked Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Jesus has been correctly confessed as the Christ, the Son of God. He has said that he has going to suffer and die. This is the background as Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain. Then Matthew tells us, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”
We learned at Christmas that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary he is God in the flesh – true God and true man. Yet here for this brief moment, Jesus allows his divine nature to shine forth. He reveals his glory – the glory of the Son of God who is the second person of the Holy Trinity.
And then there was still more, as Matthew adds: “And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” The disciples saw Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures in the Old Testament, talking with Jesus. Both had encountered Yahweh at Mt. Sinai. Both were associated with end times.
The experience must had been overwhelming. So 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.” The problem with this statement was that it seemed to place Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. And in contrast to the general impression that Jesus was a prophet, six days earlier Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Indeed, Jesus stood before them at that moment shining in divine glory!
And then God acted to set aside any such confusion. Matthew tells us, “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.’” The bright cloud indicated God’s presence, and the Father identified Jesus as his beloved Son and told the disciples to listen to him.
The Father’s words should sound familiar. They are the same ones that we heard at the beginning of the season of Epiphany when we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord. There we saw that these words from Isaiah chapter forty two identified Jesus as the Servant of the Lord. At his baptism, Jesus took on the role of being the suffering Servant – the One who would bear our sins. As the prophet said in chapter fifty three about the Servant: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
This is why Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed. As Jesus will say later, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus died on the cross to give us forgiveness.
A crucified Christ was a contradiction in terms. But Jesus had not only spoken about his death. He had also told the disciples that on the third day he would be raised. Our Lord stands transfigured in glory, and his transfiguration points forward to his resurrection. Yes, Jesus will suffer and die for our sins. But a death that simply ended in death could not overcome what sin has done to us. Instead in his resurrection on Easter Jesus was vindicated by the Father as the Christ and defeated death.
The Transfiguration of our Lord shows us that in God’s way of doing things, suffering and glory are not contradictions. Instead, Jesus passed through suffering and death in order to carry out the Father’s saving will for you. And by passing through these, he emerged in the resurrection as the exalted Lord who declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
But this is not only a description of Jesus’ ministry to save us. It also is true of everyone who follows Jesus and believes in him. Just after predicting his own suffering, death, and resurrection our Lord went on to say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Our Lord says that to follow him will mean being willing to suffer. It may even mean dying – for that is the reason a person took up a cross. There is nothing about “your best life now” here as we live in this world. Yet the reason Jesus can say this is because he is the One who has risen from the dead. He has defeated sin and death. He has given us eternal life. His resurrection is the guarantee that suffering and glory are not contradictions for the Christian. Instead the way of suffering and death follows in our Lord’s steps and we know where they lead because on Easter the tomb was empty. Jesus has risen from the dead, he has ascended into heaven and is exalted at the right hand of the Father.
Suffering and glory are not contradictions for the Christian. This truth extends beyond explicit suffering for the sake of Christ and the Gospel to our life in general. Our natural reaction in the face of suffering and death is to question God. After all, who wants these things? More often than not, we can’t explain why he has allowed them to be present in our life.
Yet in the transfiguration of Jesus, we see that this is how God works. For God, they are not contradictions. Instead, God is the One who works through the cross. Because we are fallen sinners are who are always inclined to turn away from him, he allows these things in our lives that show us we must place him at the center of our life. He crucifies the old Adam in us by these experiences in order to lead us to trust and believe in him more.
God works through the cross. But this is not a contradiction with his love. It is not, because he has already revealed that love in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is the source of God’s love and life that gives us strength and meaning as we face these times.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus has just been confessed as the Christ, the Son of the living God. He has just predicted his suffering, death … and resurrection. In the transfiguration Jesus reveals his divine glory, and God the Father speaks words that remind us of his sacrificial mission to save us. Jesus will die, but the glory of the transfiguration points forward to the glory of the resurrection on Easter. As they were going down the mountain Jesus told the disciples, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
We live in the knowledge that Jesus Christ did rise from the dead. His resurrection gives us the assurance that times of suffering and loss in our lives are not the absence of God’s love. Instead, they are God at work to draw us closer to himself. And in the resurrection of Jesus we learn that suffering and loss will come to an end forever. It will when the risen Lord returns in glory on the Last Day. The resurrection of Jesus sustains us in this hope. As Peter wrote at the beginning of his first letter: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”