Topic Scripture: Matthew 17:1–8
After 256 regular season games and eight playoff games, we’ve come to the NFL’s “final four.” Today we’ll learn who will play in Super Bowl LIII on February 4. But will we remember who wins the game a year from now? Who won the Super Bowl last year? (The Eagles.) The year before? (The Patriots.) The year before that? (The Broncos.)
We all want to live a life that matters. In our study of Peter’s life and legacy, we’re learning how God can use us to make a difference for today and for eternity.
This week, we’ll learn that what happened on a mountain in Israel twenty centuries ago has profound relevance for our world today. Here we find three words that will change our lives today, if we’ll let them.
Where do you need wisdom from God? Direction? Hope? Help? Let’s learn how these three words are God’s invitation to you today.
Climbing up to God
Here’s the setting: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves” (v. 1).
“After” is after Caesarea Philippi, where Peter pronounces Jesus the Messiah, and Jesus says that his church will assault the gates of hell itself. Peter made one of the most significant declarations in human history that day.
Now Jesus takes Peter, James, and his brother John to be with him. Why these three? Peter would one day be the first to preach the gospel; James would be the first apostle to die for his Lord; John would give us his gospel, letters, and the book of Revelation. And so, Jesus is equipping them to fulfill his purpose for them. That’s because God does not call the equipped; he equips the called.
He “led them up a high mountain.” Tradition said this was Mt. Tabor, but it’s too far from Caesarea Philippi to be the likely place and is not a high elevation. Probably this was a mountain in the range of Mt. Hermon, fourteen miles from Caesarea Philippi, 9,400 feet tall. The mountain is so high it can be seen from the Dead Sea, at the other end of Israel, more than one hundred miles away.
What happens next occurs at night, as Luke’s gospel tells us the disciples were sleepy (9:32), and that they spent the night on the mountain (v. 37). He leads them “by themselves.” Our most profound moments with God are typically those times when we are alone with him.
Now comes the miracle: “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (v. 2).
Because Jesus was “transfigured,” this is called the Mount of Transfiguration. The word means that his appearance changed, not his essence. He was and is God, the Lord of all creation. But here he pulled back the veil to show these three special apostles the glory which was his from eternity and for eternity.
And so “his face shone like the sun,” and not for the last time. When Jesus revealed himself to John on the island of Patmos, “His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance” (Revelation 1:16 NIV).
His clothes become “as white as the light.” Luke says they were “as bright as a flash of lightning” (9:29 NIV); Mark adds that they “became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (9:3 NIV). Jesus shows them the heavenly glory which proves that he was and is the divine Son of God.
But this incredible mountaintop experience isn’t done yet: “And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (v. 3). Moses was the supreme lawgiver and represents the Torah, the Law of God. Elijah was the supreme prophet, the most powerful preacher in ancient Israel.
Luke tells us that they “spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (9:31). They came to show that Jesus’ impending death and resurrection fulfills the law and the prophets.
Peter and his companions are asleep until the appearance of Moses and Elijah awakens them (Luke 9:32). Mark tells us that Peter “did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mark 9:6); Luke says that Peter “did not know what he was saying” (9:33).
Here’s what he does say: “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” (v. 4) He offers to build tents so they could all stay right there on the mountaintop, avoiding the valley below and the cross awaiting Jesus. So often we meet God at spiritual heights and want to stay right there. But we cannot.
Now the Father himself speaks: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (v. 5). The Father spoke these words earlier to Jesus at his baptism; how he speaks them of Jesus to his apostles.
The disciples are terrified, for no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20). They fall on their faces before him, a typical Jewish response of veneration and respect. But Jesus goes to them, touches them, tells them to get up and says, “Have no fear” (v. 7). Literally, “Stop being afraid.”
And when they look up, they see “no one except Jesus” (v. 8).
Seeing Jesus only
Years ago, I read a sermon by Charles Haddon Spurgeon on this text which got me to thinking: what if these three men had not seen “Jesus only”?
For instance, what if they had looked up and seen “Moses only”? Moses, the lawgiver—the conveyer of the Ten Commandments of God, the instrument by which God gave the Torah, the Law to his people. If it were Moses only, then you and I could come to God only by keeping the law—only by religion, by legalism, by self-justifying moralism.
Tragically, most Americans live as though it were “Moses only.” Most think that God helps those who help themselves; that if we are good and sincere, that’s enough for God. Do you believe that God hears your prayers, helps you, accepts you because you came to chapel today and try to live a good life? I did for many years. That’s seeing God through religion. That’s “Moses only.”
But it doesn’t work. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). None of us can find God through Moses. Not even Moses. Don’t choose “Moses only.”
What if they had seen “Elijah only”? He was the supreme prophet and preacher of God’s word and truth. What if it were Elijah only on this mountain with these men?
Then we could come to God only through other men. Not through the church, but its pastor and leaders. Not through religion, but through the religious. By trusting in what a preacher tells you, by depending on him to get you to God.
Do you let my sermons be your only word from God each week? Do you let the radio or television message you hear be your word from God? Or do you go to God personally, digging in his word and searching out his truth for your life? Do you meet God yourself in prayer, in worship, in spiritual commitment? Or do you let me and us substitute for him?
Elijah only doesn’t work. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God, even Elijah. Especially me, and us. None of us can find God through Elijah, or any other man or woman. Not even Elijah. Don’t choose “Elijah only.”
What if they had seen all three? Then we would have to come to Jesus through religion and the religious. Through the Law and its preachers. Through the church and its teachers.
What if they had seen no one there? What if the Father had simply taken Jesus from this mountain back to heaven, rather than from the Mount of Olives where he ascended after his resurrection? What if the Father had chosen not to send his Son to our sinful, tortured cross? To die in our place, for us all? What if they had seen no one at all?
Aren’t you glad they saw “Jesus only”? The fact that they did possesses this life-changing, power-filled relevance for us: first, Jesus is God.
How to listen to God
So, here are our Father’s three words for us today: “Listen to him.” The words are a present active imperative second person plural. In other words, they are an ongoing command from God addressed to every one of us.
Forbes published an article recently titled, “Why The Best Leaders Are Full-Time Learners.” Bill Gates reads fifty books a year. Warren Buffett says he spends 80 percent of his time reading. Learning is vital to leadership and especially to our souls.
God speaks to us in his word: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). He speaks rationally from his word to our minds and lives.
He speaks to us in his world: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). He speaks through nature and the natural world. He speaks practically through the circumstances and events of our lives.
He speaks to us in his worship: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!” (Psalm 100:4). Worship positions us to hear his voice as he speaks to us. He speaks intuitively, his “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) speaking to our spirit.
But we must listen. We must make time every day to be still and know that he is God (Psalm 46:10). And we must seek his wisdom whenever we need it, his leadership for our every decision, his purpose for our every plan.
Listening to God is a lifestyle, not an occasional experience. It is the way we walk with God and work with him.
My father had his first heart attack when I was two years old and died of a heart attack when I was in college. His health would not allow him to throw a football with me. But we could work on cars together. This became our shared love.
Dad would tell me what to do and I would do it. The more I listened, the better my car ran. And the closer my dad and I became.
Your Father made you for a personal, intimate relationship with himself. Listening is a gift you can give your soul.
Will you “listen to him” today?