By Pastor Glenn Pease
It is not likely that anyone here would know that August 6th was the day on which the first human being was electrocuted in Aubrun, New York, or that it was the day on which the first American woman swam the English Channel, or the one which the first printed copies of the Constitution of the United States were made, or the day on which the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. But what is strange is that it is also unlikely that anyone here would know that August 6th is the day on which millions of people celebrate the Transfiguration. In the East this day is equal to Christmas and Pentecost and other great days, with only Easter above it. In the West this great experience in the life of Christ is neglected, and in many churches it is ignored all together. It could very well be that some of you have never heard a sermon on the Transfiguration of Christ.
One reason may be because of the mystery of the experience. It is the most unique and other worldly event in the whole of our Lord's earthly life. The disciples were so confounded by the sight they saw that they didn't know what to say. Peter tried, but he only said something foolish. We know that this event is not recorded in three Gospels for no reason, but that like all else it is meant for our instruction, illumination, and inspiration. We do not have to dive to the depths of this great pool of mystery to find treasure, for there are many precious pearls laying even on the shore, and lovely lessons like lilies floating on the surface. In other words, all we have to do to appreciate this experience of Christ is to open our eyes, and with the help of our imagination put ourselves in the proper setting. The one thing that is clear is that Jesus is the central figure in the drama of 7 personalities. We want to look at three scenes showing Christ's relationship to the other persons involved. First-
I. JESUS IN RELATION TO THE FATHER. vv. 28-29.
Jesus was a man of continuous mountain top experiences, for as the Son of Man He knew that the source of His strength came through communion with the Father. Jesus spent a good deal of His time praying in the mountains. Before He chose the 12 He spent the night on the mountain in prayer, and right up to His capture in Gethsemane we find Jesus in communion with the Father. On this occasion Jesus felt a need for communion. The previous days had been tense, for after Peter made his great confusion that Jesus was the Christ the Son of the Living God, Jesus began to make it clear that He was going to the cross to die.
Peter wanted nothing to do with such talk as that and he said, "Not so Lord." Jesus had to rebuke him and say, "Get thee behind me Satan." Jesus told them to take up the cross and follow Him, and that those who save their lives would lose them. Many feel that the weak of silence which is skipped over here were days of tenseness and loss of affection between Jesus and His disciples because of these hard saying. Jesus, therefore, felt the need to go apart from his life of activity into the mountain to pray, and so with His inner circle He climbed the slopes of Mt. Herman, and while the 3 disciples slept Jesus communed with the Father. Luke tells us that it was while He prayed that He was transfigured. We learn that mountain top experiences can only come to those who meet God on the mount.
Jesus had no sin to confess or forgiveness to seek, but He felt the need to draw apart from the rest of the world. How much more do we who are so earth bound need to find that solitude, "Where we are most alone?" How much more do we need to breathe that mountain air of communion with God to keep our face shining? Moses came down from the mountain with his face all aglow because he had been with God. The face of Jesus shown like the sun as He communed with God. The spiritual oxygen needed to keep the flame of joy burning brightly in our hearts and on our faces can only be found on the mount of communion.
Here may the faithful find their life,
It's bitter sorrows and its strife,
It's hours of dull, unchanging gray
Shot with the glories of the day.
If we smother our flame in the damp and darkened dungeon of worldliness, we ought not to be surprised if we lose the brightness of our joy. Paul said not to be conformed to the world, but be transfigured by the renewing of your mind. He uses the same word as Luke uses for the transfiguration of Jesus. When the world is at its worst Christians must be at their best, and this can only be possible by a regular communion with God.
We do not need to go to a literal mountain, but separation is essential. It is not the altitude but the attitude that counts. It is not the distance we go but the devotion we show that makes the difference in the way we glow. Devotion and attitude can be aided greatly by nature. It is true we can worship God while we shave and hang out the wash, and Jesus might have as easily prayed in the valley, but the mountain gives a view of God's creation that inspires and fans the spark of devotion into flame. Look at the stars in the heavens, and let your eye take in the grandeur of God's handiwork. Consider the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and the beauty of the natural forest, and these will be great aids in the renewal of our minds that brings transfiguration.
As Jesus prayed, Mark says His face did shine as the sun, and Luke says that His raiment became white and dazzling. Weatherhead tells of a boy who drew a picture of Jesus stilling the storm. He had high waves, black clouds, and frightened men in the boat. The teacher said, "But you didn't draw Jesus." He said, "No, I couldn't make Him beautiful enough." How much more difficult would it be to describe His beauty here. What more can human language say than that He was as dazzling as the sun? Some things just cannot be explained, but have to be experienced. Robert Browning has Paul say of his experience with Christ:
Oh, could I tell you, surely you would believe it.
Oh, could I show what I myself have seen.
How can I tell, and how can you receive it,
How till He bringeth you where I myself have been?
Even with all that Paul had experienced he saw through a glass darkly. We will never be able to conceive of the glory of Christ that broke through the veil of His humanity and showed Him to be deity, until we too shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of the Father. Meanwhile we can reflect the glory of Christ as we relate to Him through communion. Adoniram Judson, the famous missionary, reflected that which he stored up in communion. Once when he was home on furlough he walked down the street in a New England town. A boy saw his glowing face and never forgot it. When he grew up he became a spiritual leader and wrote an article called what a boy saw in the face of Adoniram Judson. The glory of the Christian life is not found in clothes or cosmetics, but in communion with God. It was true for Jesus, and it is true for us.
Paul wrote, "But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord." A growing Christian will become a glowing Christian who eventually lets the light of Christ get through, and the beauty of Jesus will be seen in them. Newman tells the story of the process by which true saints are to reveal the glory of Christ.
I saw thee once, and naught discern'd
For stranger to admire;
A serious aspect, but it burn'd
With no unearthly fire.
Again I saw, and I confess'd
Thy speech was rare and high;
And yet it vex'd my burden'd breast,
And scared I knew not why.
I saw once more, and awestruck gazed
On face, and form, and air;
God's living glory round thee blazed
A Saint-a Saint was there!
When we commune with the Father as Jesus did, we will have some of that glow of transfiguration which He had because of His relation to the Father. Next we see-
II. JESUS IN RELATION TO MOSES AND ELIJAH. vv. 30-31
The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus makes this one of the most fascinating events in the Bible. The presence of any two men who were 1500 and 900 years old would be amazing, but the fact that they were two of the greatest men of the Old Testament makes it even more so. Because of this scene we can look into the cave of immortality and see that it is not so dark as it was before this event. We were not sure what the Old Testament saints were doing all this time as history rolled on, but now we see that they have not been sleeping. They have been servants of God all along. God is the God of the living. He does not draw men to him and then let them lie is sleep as some teach, but takes them to Himself for higher service and fellowship.
Elijah, of course, never did die physically, but his body must have been changed when he was taken up in the chariot to heaven. He could now appear on earth in the service of Christ. He and Moses were not so changed, however, that they could not be recognized for who they were. In heaven we will maintain our identification so that all who knew us in time will know us in eternity. They are not angels but men, and we can be assured that we will all maintain our identity for ever.
Both of these men had great mountain top experiences in their lifetime. Moses received the law from God on the mountain and Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on the mountain by the power of prayer. Both of them suffered great discouragement. Moses almost gave up because of the stubbornness of the people, and Elijah got so discouraged that he wanted to die. Jesus needed these two who knew how hard it was to live in obedience to God's plan. Jesus was alone and could not communicate with his disciples. They would not hear of him going to the cross and dying. He had no one who understood what he was facing. Now on this mountain he has two who do understand.
In v. 31 Luke tells us they talked about what he was going to endure in Jerusalem. The cross was the theme of their conversation. The word is exodus in the Greek. They were talking of His exodus which was what he did on the cross. Here is Moses the leader of the people of God in the first exodus talking and giving comfort to Jesus before the last exodus, in which Jesus would lead all the captives of hell to freedom by means of the Red Sea of his own blood. The Old Testament saints were not fully saved until the atonement of Christ was accomplished and so it makes sense these two great representatives were there to encourage Jesus as he paid the price for the sins of all mankind. Next consider-
II. JESUS IN RELATION TO PETER, JAMES AND JOHN. vv. 32-36
Why these three were granted a glimpse of His glory we do not know. It was probably to give them greater assurance as they were to be the key leaders of the early church. There were dark days ahead and they needed all the assurance they could get. Someone said, "These rough uncultured natures were like precious marble not yet polished, but from which the great Master would bring forth a monument to His praise."
They just about missed the whole experience, however, because of their lack of expectation. When we go aside to be quiet before God and do not expect anything we will not be disappointed. We will get just what we expected. We need to come to God with high expectation. Our motto should be that of William Carey, "Attempt great things for God-expect great things from God." Many commentators feel that they woke up just in time to see Moses and Elijah departing. That is why Peter urged the idea of building three tabernacles. The idea being that he was saying don't be in a rush but stay and talk awhile. It was a marvelous experience they almost missed and they wanted more.
Simple Simon has done it again. James and John remain quiet before the mystery and majesty they beheld, but Peter has no neutral in his transmission, and so he rushes forward with his brilliant suggestion about building tabernacles. Both Mark and Luke tell us that he did not know what he was saying. He was just being his impulsive self, but he was honest enough to admit it for we know that Mark got this story from Peter. He confessed he did a foolish thing. Jesus chose Peter because he was willing to act rather than do nothing. Henry Van Dyke said, "I would rather have a man who sometimes caught fire at the wrong time, than one so damp and flabby that you could never get a spark of enthusiasm out of him." Jesus felt the same about Peter.
God gave His answer to what He thought of Peter's idea. A cloud came over them and God said, "This is my beloved Son, hear ye Him." They fell on their faces and when they looked up they saw Jesus only. In other words, do not idolize Moses and Elijah, for Jesus is all you need. Jesus alone; Jesus only, Jesus absolutely is to be the center of your attention. Turn your eyes upon Jesus and do not have saints that you venerate, for they are all His servants. They can be listened to, honored, and appreciated, but do not build any tabernacles for them, for Jesus alone is to be worshiped. Ruskin said, "The greatest thing a human soul ever does is this world is to see something." The message of the transfiguration is that the greatest thing you can ever do is to see someone, and that someone is Jesus. When we see who Jesus is and are committed to Him, then we have the greatest and highest mountain top experience.