Have you ever thought “I wish that would happen to me?” Perhaps someone you know won a prize of some kind or you heard of someone who found a great bargain or perhaps a team mate scored a hat trick or something else that you desire happened to someone you know.
Does it ever happen when you read the Bible?
In Acts there is great story about a man who fell asleep in church. That in itself is not remarkable, it happens all the time and I can usually see who is sleeping. His problem was that he fell asleep in a window and when he fell asleep he fell out of the window to the ground three stories below and died. Paul went down and threw himself on the man and wrapped his arms around him and announced that he was not dead. What happened was a resurrection right in the middle of a worship service. Don’t you wish that you were around when something like that happened?
Paul also tells the story in II Corinthians 12:1-4 of a man he knew, we suspect it was himself, who was caught up to the third heaven. This man had some kind of a divine encounter in which he saw things from the heavenly perspective and I am sure that many of us would like to have an experience like that.
We desire a divine encounter. We would like to know more about heaven. We would like to have assurance of God’s presence in a more visible, physical form. We would like to see the glory of God.
Today we will look at Matthew 17:1-9 which describes an encounter with God. There is an important message embedded in this event which encourages us that we already have the privilege of a divine encounter in our relationship with Jesus.
Matthew 16 ends with the promise of Jesus, "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.” Some commentators suggest that this promise was fulfilled when Jesus took three of his disciples up on to a high mountain and was transfigured before them.
This was not the first time that these three disciples were invited to a special experience with Jesus. On another occasion, they were the only ones invited to be with Jesus when he healed a little girl. At the garden of Gethsemane they were the only ones who were invited to be close to Jesus while He prayed. This experience was, however, greater than the others in that they were participants in a divine encounter. They had a meeting with God.
The meeting with God had characteristics of other meetings with God and so we recognize the unique nature of this experience. It was not merely a dream or a vision, but an actual encounter with God.
It happened on a mountain just like the encounters which Moses and Elijah had with God. Although we are not told which mountain it was, I believe it was likely Mount Tabor, which is in the northern part of Galilee where Jesus was ministering at this time. Moses and Elijah had met God also on a mountain, but on a different mountain, on Mount Sinai also called Horeb which is in the extreme southern part of the country. Although God is everywhere and meets people everywhere, special manifestations of His presence have often happened on mountains.
The divine nature of the meeting with God was also demonstrated in what happened. Jesus was transfigured before them. The evidence of his being transfigured was that his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. There was a brightness about Jesus that was compared to the sun, the brightest thing we know of in this physical world. However, the source of the light was not the sun, but the Son Himself because the true nature of Jesus as God came shining through. In Revelation when we read that there will be no need of the sun in heaven because of the brightness of God’s presence, we begin to understand the brightness of the light of God’s presence and Jesus shone with that light. When Jesus was transfigured and this brightness appeared we know that He became what He had been before coming to earth and what He would become again following His ascension. These three disciples had an encounter with God and saw Jesus for who He really was.
The divine nature of this encounter is also seen in the cloud which accompanied God’s presence. In many stories in the Bible whenever God appeared, He appeared in a cloud, for example when He gave the law to the people of Israel at Sinai; when He entered the temple after it was dedicated by Solomon and also at other times. The cloud, although it obscured the presence of God from them was not dark. I have often imagined this scene as a dark scene, but everything in the text tells us that it was very bright. The image that comes to my mind is that it must have looked like when you have strong winds following a snow storm on a sunny day. Everything is obscured, but extremely bright. I suspect that is what it looked like.
It was also a divine encounter in that God Himself spoke to them to help them understand the true nature of Jesus.
This truly was a divine encounter! What an amazing experience this was and I wish I could have been there.
God was present and they met Him! We have already seen that this was a DIVINE encounter, but now I would like to emphasize that it was a Divine ENCOUNTER. What was the meaning of this meeting?
As we have already seen both Moses and Elijah had had encounters with God that were similar. Both of them met God on Mount Sinai.
Earlier in the service we read the passage from Exodus 3 in which God met Moses at Horeb, which is also called Sinai. Although the cloud was not present in that encounter, the voice of God speaking was. On another occasion when God met Moses on Sinai to receive His law he returned to the people with his face shining, as recorded in Exodus 34:29-35.
Elijah had also met God on Mount Horeb. His experience is recorded in I Kings 19:7-18 and in that encounter it is the voice of God that is emphasized. In that meeting God did not speak to Elijah in the earthquake or in the wind but in a still small voice.
As I have already said, the presence of a cloud to veil the presence of God was also a common experience in encounters with God.
So in the transfiguration we have features of previous meetings with God that others had had. But there was a great and significant difference in this encounter. The uniqueness and the importance of this meeting with God is that it centers on Jesus.
When Moses met with God his face shone when he came down and he had to put a veil over his face when he met with the people. The meeting with God caused his face to shine in a lingering reflection.
When Peter, James and John met God upon the mountain, Jesus face also shone; but there is an important difference in that shining. Jesus was transfigured before them and when His face shone, it shone not as a reflection of the brightness of God who lives in unapproachable light. The face of Jesus shone with its own light demonstrating to the disciples that Jesus possessed a glory which was, as Augsburger says, “authentically his own.” When Jesus was transfigured before them He became what He really was and they had the veil removed for a few moments to experience a revelation of the true Jesus. This experience was meant to point to Jesus.
The story tells of the conversation which Moses and Elijah had with Jesus. Of all the people from the Old Testament, why these two? This story is about a communication with God, an encounter with God in which He has a message for people. The two great ways in which God had spoken to His people before that was through His written word and through the prophetic word. Moses was the one who had given the people the written word and Elijah was the first great prophet. When Peter suggested that they make three shelters He made a big mistake. It is a mistake that many have made. The mistake was that he put Moses, Elijah and Jesus on the same level. When people today teach that there are many great prophets and that Jesus is among them they make the same mistake. When they say that Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus are all great prophets they make the same mistake. When Muslims identify Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad all as prophets and suggest that Muhammad is the last great prophet, they make an even greater mistake. God’s response to Peter’s suggestion speaks loudly about the unique difference of Jesus. He is not just another law giver. He is not just another prophet. He is not even the last great prophet. Jesus is none other than the Son of God, the one who is in a special relationship with God, the one who in his transfiguration is identified as God. The message of God is that although He has spoken to His people through Moses in the past and through prophets like Elijah in the past, His clearest and most significant communication is through His Son and that message is communicated powerfully when He says, “Listen to Him.”
Already in the Old Testament this truth was predicted in prophecies like Psalm 2 where the Son of God is installed as King and given the nations as His inheritance and where all the kings of the earth are warned to “kiss the Son” in other words to bow down to Him and listen to Him. It is about Jesus.
This truth was perceived by other New Testament writers like the writer of Hebrews who said in Hebrews 1:1-3, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven."
In verse 9 Jesus warned the disciples as they were going down the mountain following this experience that they should not tell anyone about it until after Jesus had risen from the dead. The reason for this call for silence is that they had experienced a truth that was beyond their understanding at this time. If the truth about Jesus had been so clearly known before the events of the passion, people would have been terribly confused about who He was, particularly as He was arrested, tried and put to death. After His death and resurrection, the truth revealed in the transfiguration was much more clearly understood and much more powerfully supported. In that way this experience pointed forward to the glory and the victory that was about to happen. It once again reinforces that it is about Jesus who is not just another lawgiver or another prophet, but the Son of God who has gained the victory over sin and death and reigns for all eternity.
Later Peter interpreted this event and wrote in II Peter 1:16, "We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty." As He was affirming the truth of the gospel of Jesus He was able to look back to the transfiguration as support for the truth of the message which must be followed because Jesus is the final truth about how to relate to God.
So this was the divine encounter which the three disciples had. What an amazing experience it must have been. Don’t you wish you could have been there?
How do you respond to a divine encounter?
Peter’s first response seems to arise from confusion. He realized that this was a powerful and significant experience, but he had no idea what it meant. Out of that confusion and with his characteristic rashness his response was to do something. He said, “Let’s build…” We can criticize him for his personality or his rashness or his confusion, but the reality is that we often respond to God in the same way.
Barclay writes, “Peter was always the man who must be doing something. But there is a time for stillness; there is a time for contemplation, for wonder, for adoration, for awed reverence in the presence of the supreme glory…It may be that sometimes we are too busy trying to do something, when we would be better to be silent, to be listening, to be wondering, to be adoring in the presence of God.”
There is a time to do things, but if doing prevents us from listening to Jesus, we are just as fuzzy and confused as Peter. In fact it is possible for us to substitute doing for really knowing God. Doing is safe, we understand it and it deals with things we can control. A divine encounter involves something we cannot control. God rebuked Peter’s plan to control the situation by doing something. Sometimes we need to stop doing and wait for God and listen to God before we do something.
The second response we see in this story is the response of all three disciples when God spoke to them. The light of Jesus’ transfiguration didn’t dazzle them so much that they feared, but the voice of God did and the text says that “they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.”
The Bible often calls us to fear God. But we need to be careful to understand what that means. Sometimes, when we treat God with familiarity, we have too little fear of God and bring Him down to the earth. Although God is our Father, if we call Him “pops” we have probably stepped over the bounds of what is appropriate. If the voice of God caused the disciples to fear so greatly, we should be very careful not to treat God with common carelessness.
However, Jesus responded to their fear and we read that he comforted them with His touch and encouraged them with His words, “Don’t be afraid.” Fear is one thing; being afraid of God is another. Fear of God is appropriate; being afraid of God is not needed for He is our Father.
When the disciples got up from their prone position, the text tells us “they saw no one except Jesus.” We have already noted that this story centers on Jesus. With this statement, this story directs our focus to Jesus as the one who makes it possible for us to come to God. We no longer follow Moses. We no longer listen primarily to the voice of prophets. We listen first and foremost to the voice of Jesus. God’s command to His disciples and to us is “listen to Him!” The response to which we are called is to listen to Jesus.
The disciples had experienced a mountain top experience. The implication of Peter’s suggestion to build three tents was, “let’s stay here.” But they had to go down the mountain again. When they went down the mountain they were immediately plunged into the difficulties of life and ministry on earth. But something had changed and that change is still a reality for us.
Although we may envy them for their mountain top encounter with God, the message of that encounter was that in a relationship with Jesus, the encounter with God is always with us. Jesus is God and when we know Him and have a relationship with Him, there is one sense in which we never come down from the mountain. The Divine Son of God is our Saviour and our Lord and our Friend and our Companion. Daily as we live in a relationship with Jesus, we live in a divine encounter.
If that is the reality in which we live, then the question for us every day is are we living our Christian life “listening to Him?”
The Bible is loaded with wonderful words which encourage us that we live in a divine encounter every day in our relationship with Jesus and that our Christian life must continue to be lived daily in that relationship with Jesus.
What a blessing to know the reality presented in I Corinthians 2:16, “‘For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ."
1 John 4:15, 16 encourages us, "If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him."
Hebrews 3:12-14 challenges us, "See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first."
If we live our Christian life only at the level of doing, we are missing the best part. If we live our Christian life seeking encounters and experiences we are missing what is before us. Instead we are to live our daily life “in Christ.” That is the message for us when Christ is revealed as the Son of God and when God tells us to “Listen to Him.”
In some ways we could say that if we long to have an encounter with God like the disciples had upon the mountain, we long for something we have.
This morning, I would invite all of us to live in the divine encounter; that is to live in relationship to Jesus
When we are rejoicing we can talk to Jesus giving thanks
When we are tempted we can talk to Jesus seeking strength
When we are discouraged we can talk to Jesus seeking comfort
When we are in trouble we can talk to Jesus asking for help
When we are confused we can talk to Jesus and look for guidance
We are invited to be always in love with Him; always living in obedience to Him; always seeking Him and His way.
The most powerful description of our relationship with Jesus is probably found in the phrase which describes our reality, “in Christ.” It is used often in Scripture and we are encouraged by passages such as II Corinthians 2:14 where we read, "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him." May we all remember and live the reality of being in Christ.