Intro – This passage is not easy, but I love it and its message. From our earthborn perspective, it is almost bizarre. But that is exactly the point. This is an other-worldly event. This is the kingdom of God in preview.
This event purposely follows what came just before. Note v. 28, “Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” “After these sayings,” refers us back to Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus commends Peter but then immediately announces that He’s going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. That knocked the disciples for a loop. These things were utterly incompatible – the coming of the kingdom and the death of the King. Didn’t compute. It’s like someone saying, “Hey, Bronco fans. Here’s Peyton Manning to lead us to the Super Bowl,” only to have Manning announce he has terminal cancer. Both can’t be true. 2 plus 2 is not adding up to 4. The disciples are stunned.
But it gets worse. Jesus says in v. 23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” He’s saying, “Guys, I’m going to die, but if you follow me, you must die also -- die to self in favor of my agenda, my mission, my will and my way.” Then in v. 26 He tells them that one day He will come “in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Then in v. 27 he says “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” In a matter of minutes Jesus affirms He is a Messiah who will be executed. He calls them to follow Him by dying to self. Then he talks about coming in glory with the holy angels. By that time their heads are spinning like a top. They’re not exactly Phi Beta Kappa to begin with, but even they know a dead man can’t lead a revolution.
Now, a week later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a mountain. As Jesus prays, they snooze, a harbinger of things to come in Gethsemane. But when they awake, all heaven has broken loose. There’s Jesus in dazzling white – everything – His clothing, His face, everything. He is sitting in a blaze of glory. And He’s not alone. He’s conversing with two men -- Moses and Elijah and what are they discussing? His coming death. Talk about bizarre. Must have taken a minute to get their bearings!
They were seeing an amazing demonstration of God’s kingdom – the kingdom in preview. Matt, Mark, and Luke all place this right after the comment in v. 27, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” These privileged men are getting a preview of coming attractions! But for what purpose? Why this demonstration and why now? Two reasons: 1) to show God is in charge and 2) to show it will all be worth it. God is showing the glory at the end will justify the pain to get there. This is a hope-generator for them and for us as well, to light a fire in their hearts and ours. That’s our topic for today – the Purpose for the Preview. In weeks to follow, we will look at the Person of the Preview and the Portents of the Preview. Wonderful passage. Hang on.
I. Purpose for the Preview
A. Encourage Disciples
These guys are mentally rattled. Messiah has just told them He is going to die and so must they. They are asking, “Really? Is this going to be worth it? This is nothing like we anticipated.” Their question is ours. Is the Jesus we worship big enough to overshadow everything in life? Is He big enough to live for and maybe to die for? Is He? Is Jesus bigger than what we are giving up for Him? How big is our Jesus?” Can He be trusted when we don’t understand?
Os Guiness. Brit by birth. American by choice. Author of scintillating books on Christianity and culture. Observes that Americans are in a stupor of ease and comfort. Secular to the core even in the church. We’re using worldly methods; appealing to worldly desires. We are the frog in the pot who does not realize the temperature is rising until it boils us to death. Not long ago he wrote this, “We have too much to live with and too little to live for. Everything is permitted and nothing is important.” When we finally see that Jesus demands everything, like the disciples we ask, Is it worth it?
So, let’s look: “28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James (truth is confirmed by 2 or 3 witnesses) and went up on the mountain to pray.” What is driving this need to pray with these men? A big hint comes a few weeks later on the night before His crucifixion. In Matt 26:36: “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” In His humanity, Jesus is recoiling from the death that awaits when the iniquity of us all will be laid on Him. No harder task has ever been asked, and Jesus is seeking help to face the challenge.
Now, rewind to this event. Jesus’ public ministry is winding down. He’s just weeks from the cross. Lu 9:51, “51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” His coming death haunts Him. He also knows the confusion of the disciples; He prays for encouragement for Him and them – and what an answer! “29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” This sets a new standard in amazement!
The disciples are trying to decipher how a dead man can lead to the kingdom. Yet here are Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus about the death the apostles could not understand. So they know too?! Moses and Elijah are in on this, too. Wow! Peter tries to speak, but the Father interrupts: “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” “Peter, shut up and listen!” Amazing! They don’t understood it yet, but they knew this – The OT saints, Jesus and God the Father all saw Jesus’ death and the glory of the kingdom as being somehow compatible with each other, so who were the disciples to argue the point anymore?! This is hope in bright lights!
In 1952 Florence Chadwick stepped into the Pacific off Catalina Island aiming to be the first woman to swim the 26 miles to the mainland of CA. It was foggy and chilly; she could hardly see her support boats, yet she swam for 15 hours. Eventually she begged to be taken in, but her mother urged her on and she kept going. Finally, however, physically and emotionally spent, she just stopped and was pulled out. She was devastated to find she was less than half a mile from her destination. She explained, “All I could see was the fog. I think if I would have seen the shore, I could have made it.” That’s exactly what the Father is doing here – showing us to see the shore.
The disciples never forgot this day. John later wrote in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” He got the message and it changed his life. Peter wrote in II Pet 1:17-18: “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,’ 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” Lives, changed forever by seeing the shore. Take courage, Beloved. Yes, He is worth whatever it costs to follow Him.
B. Encourage Jesus
But what of Jesus Himself? He was sobered by the human cruelty that awaited Him. But far worse, He knew He was about to become sin for us. The anticipation of that fact was becoming a mind-boggling burden. So He did what He always did. He prayed. And the Father answered with this amazing display to reassure Jesus He went to His destiny with the Father’s full approval. We will never understand the cost to Father and Son. But they were in perfect concurrence about the necessity and urgency of what must be done. So the Father addresses the Jesus’ human need for encouragement in 3 ways.
1. Encouraged by the Glory to come
V. 29: “And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.” Here is the deity of Christ on display for one brief shining moment of kingdom preview. And the impact on Jesus was one of great encouragement. Briefly He experiences the glory He shared with the Father before time began as a reminder of what awaited the completion of His mission. How this motivated Him is seen in His prayer in John 17:5, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” As He prepares for the cross, He anticipates the permanent restoration of His glory as God. Heb 12:2 tells us that Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus knew the cross wasn’t the end. He endured the cross because He knew what was coming. This foretaste encouraged His heart.
2. Encouraged by those He will save
Jesus shares what is coming with those He loves best – and they insist He is wrong. No one gets it. No one shares His burden or offers comfort. He’s like Hemingway who wrote, “I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.” The difference was, Jesus knew where to plug in! He goes to the Father. And not only is He transfigured, but “behold two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah” (30). Where did they come from? They’d been dead for centuries! At least Moses had. Elijah never died. God sent the limo for him – chariots of fire (II Kings 2:11). These men were straight from heaven!
We’ll talk more about the implications of this later, but note what they were discussing. V. 31: “who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Departure is death. We even speak of the “dearly departed”. No doubt they discussed that these men were in heaven on credit. Great as they were they didn’t deserve to be there. They were sinners like all of us. They had offered sacrifices under the system Moses initiated, but Heb 10:4 reminds, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” So in sending these 2, the Father is reminding Jesus – “This is what it is all about. These men are with me on credit, but now the bill must be paid. What bulls and goats can’t do, you must do. The time is now. The future of these men and millions like them depends on you.”
Heb 2:10 tells us God made “the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” At the Transfiguration God tells Jesus, “You’ve done the first part. You have been made perfect through suffering. You have met every challenge without sin. You are the lamb who can cover once and for all the sins of these men.” Beloved, if you don’t think God loves you; if you are holding some grudge against Him, you don’t get redemption. At infinite cost to Himself and to His Son, He sent Jesus to the cross. And here He encourages Jesus – “This is the reason we must bear what we are going to endure – you the cross, me the unbearable burden of placing on you the punishment that belongs on every person. You must go so these men can retain heaven and so can billions to follow.” If this doesn’t send chills down your spine, you’re not getting it.
At the Transfiguration the Father is reminding Jesus of those He will save by His obedience – that He might, in Paul’s words, “be the firstborn among many brothers.” Among those brothers are Moses and Elijah. But they and we could only have heaven if Jesus would go to the cross. He is saying, “I’m willing.”
3. Encouraged by the Father’s Affirmation
V. 34: “As he [Peter] was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” This is holy ground. They are suddenly enveloped by a cloud. But this is no ordinary cloud. They all knew it and were scared to death. Moses recognized it immediately. This is the Shekinah glory of God – the visible representation of God’s presence. This is the cloud that led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, the cloud that overshadowed Mt. Sinai as God gave the Law to Moses. This is the cloud that came over the tabernacle and took up residence above the Mercy Seat. It is the cloud that entered the temple that Solomon built. This is the cloud that left the temple in Ezekiel’s time as God withdrew from His idolatrous people. This is the cloud that had not been seen by human eyes for 600 years – and now it envelops the whole group. This is the sovereign God affirming the supremacy of His Son.
There are 3 recorded instances when the Father voices His approval for Jesus. Once at His baptism. Here at this point as He is preparing to head to His planned destiny in Jerusalem. And once more in the last week of His life in John 12:27, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” How precious and meaningful must these affirmations have been to Jesus. Just when He needed it most, there was the voice of God saying, “You’re on the right track; you’re doing the right thing; you’re focused on saving others rather than yourself, aligning yourself with our great eternal purpose, and I am delighted in you.” At the end of his first day of school a rowdy 6-year-old came running home and burst excitedly through the door shouting, “Mom, Mom! Guess what? They want me back!” This is what the Father is communicating to Jesus operating in His human nature. “I share the extreme pain of what you must go through next. But I want you to know, you’ve done your job to perfection. There is no alternative to the cross, but then – I want you back!” It was that affirmation that sent Jesus on His way to purchase redemption for all who will believe.
Conc – My beloved congregation, are you getting that Christianity is not easy – not for the faint of heart – not for those who “accept Christ” and then expect Him to deliver a life of ease. No, no, no. It is for those who will “deny self, take up their cross daily and follow Him.” His is not an easy path. But the Father encouraged Jesus Himself on His way to the cross as He encouraged those early disciples and as He encourages us with the hope that lies beyond. That’s why Paul wrote in Rom 5:2 that we “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” You have to look way beyond here and now to do that, but this kingdom preview is intended to help us do exactly that. Paul prayed for the Ephesians that, “The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18). The Transfiguration is intended to lift our eyes beyond the sacrifices of today to the riches of tomorrow and say, “It will be worth it all.”
George Guthrie in Read the Bible for Life tells of watching a children’s movie with his daughter when she was young. As the scary part came, the music changed, everything went wrong and Anna became upset as she snuggled in close, eyes shut. But he turned to her and explained, “It’s okay. This is the crisis, but things are going to get better!” Then he remarks, “Knowing the ending of the story changes everything.” That’s what the Transfiguration is about – God’s great hope-generator -- letting us glimpse the end of the story because that changes everything. Let’s pray.