Topical Scripture: Matthew 17.1-8
Nearly forty years ago, one night around midnight, an older African American woman was standing on the side of an Alabama highway in a drenching rainstorm. Her car had broken down and she was soaking wet as she tried to flag down a car. To her surprise, a young white man stopped to help her, unheard of in those racially charged days. The man took her to safety, helped her get assistance and put her into a taxicab. She seemed to be in a big hurry, but wrote down his address and thanked him as she left.
Seven days went by. A knock came at his door. To his surprise, a giant console color television was delivered to his home. A special note was attached which read, “Thank you so much for assisting me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes but my spirits. Then you came along. Because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husband’s bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and unselfishly serving others. Sincerely, Mrs. Nat King Cole.”
We never know when we’ll meet someone famous. Neither did Peter, James, and John. But what happened on a mountain in Israel twenty centuries ago has profound relevance for our lives today. Next to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I believe this is the most important event in his entire life and ministry. And one of the most significant for us.
Let me explain. Come with me to a mountain, and see God again for the first time.
Climbing up to God
Here’s the setting (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.
Now he 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—God does not call the equipped, but 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. 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 100 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 (Luke 9:37). He leads them “by themselves.” Our most profound moments with God are typically those times when we are alone with him.
Watch what happens next: “…he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the 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).
His clothes became “as white as the light.” Luke says they were “as bright as a flash of lightning” (9:29); Mark adds that they “became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (9:3).
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: “Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (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). He offers to build tents so they could all stay right there on the mountaintop—avoid 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.
The Father himself speaks: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him 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 us and says, “Don’t be afraid” (v. 7). Literally, “Stop being afraid.”And when they look up, they see “no one except Jesus” (v. 8). Jesus only.
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 church 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?” 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 your Sunday school teacher’s lesson, or your devotional book, or 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.
He’s not just the great teacher, preacher, and healer we saw him to be last week. Many in human history have been great teachers, preachers, and healers. But not a single person in all of recorded history has ever claimed what happened to Jesus here—that he or she was transfigured into heavenly glory in the presence of Moses and Elijah, while the Father from heaven spoke his words of glorious affirmation and love. No one, except Jesus only.
Jesus is God come to us. He came for Peter, who would deny him three times. He came for James, who would abandon him at the cross. He came for John, the humble fisherman, as well. If he would come to them, he comes to us. Jesus brings God to us. We couldn’t get to him through Moses or Elijah, so he brought God to us.
He comes to you today, if only you’d believe that he is God and bow before him in reverent faith. Wherever you are, whoever you are, Jesus is ready right now to bring God to you. He is God come to us.
Last, Jesus only is God come to us. He was crystal clear about this: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Jesus only brings us to salvation and eternal life with our Father in heaven.
Jesus only brings us the word and will of God, guiding us through the decisions we must make and the trials we must endure.
Jesus only gives our lives meaning, purpose, and hope.
I’m reading Jeremiah right now as part of my personal Bible study. Tuesday, God spoke to me profoundly through these two verses of his word: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, or the strong man boast of his strength, or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight” (Jeremiah 9:23-24). Of what are you boasting today? Is it Jesus only?
This Mount of Transfiguration proves that Jesus is God, God come to us, the only way to go to God. Jesus is our only source of wisdom, joy, and significance in life. He is available to every one of us, right now.
So, is your life built on Jesus only today? Do you speak with him all through your day? Do you seek his will for your every decision? Do you seek to please him in what you say and do? Are you living for Jesus only?
If it is, then you are walking in the abundant life which Jesus only can give. And one day, you’ll be in heavenly reward and glory, and you’ll hear the Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” All because you lived for Jesus only. The best is yet to be.
A friend sent me this beautiful true story. A woman was diagnosed with cancer and given only three months to live. She asked her pastor to meet with her, so they might arrange her funeral. She selected scriptures to read and hymns to sing, decided the clothes she would wear, and showed him her favorite Bible which she wanted to hold.
Then she made a strange request: she wanted to be buried with a fork in her right hand. He was puzzled, of course. And so she explained: “In all my years of attending church socials and functions where food was involved, my favorite part was when whoever was clearing away the dishes would lean over and say, ‘You can keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming. Dessert was on its way. So I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand so all who come to my funeral will know, something better is on its way.”
At her funeral, over and over, the pastor heard people ask, “What’s with the fork?” During his message he explained. And she was right. When you live for Jesus only, something better is coming. You can keep your fork.
This is the word of God.