1-24-21 Transfiguration

Bible Text: Matthew 17:1-9 | Preacher: Pastor Andrew Richard | Series: Epiphany 2021 | The season of Epiphany concludes today with the Transfiguration of our Lord. Throughout Epiphany we’ve been seeing more and more clearly who Jesus is. Today we hear the Father’s voice, once more identifying Jesus as his beloved Son. In addition to this we learn that Jesus is the Son of God who must suffer.

In order to understand exactly what’s going on at Jesus Transfiguration, we must back up a chapter in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew 16 Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples repeated the various answers that people were giving: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus rejoiced at his answer, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

The disciples understood who Jesus is, and after their confession that he is the Christ, Jesus started telling them something that he had not revealed before. “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

At this, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” “The Christ can’t suffer! Suffering is a consequence of sin. Sin is bad, and therefore suffering is bad. And if someone suffers it proves that person is a sinner. Jesus, you can’t suffer. If you do then you can’t be the Christ, the Son of the living God. If you suffer and die then you’re no different from me. If you suffer that means others are mightier than you. Jesus, if you suffer then all our hope is gone, and all that’s left for us is suffering.” Or so our frail minds reason.

I suppose it makes sense that we associate suffering and death with sin. It says in Romans 6, “the wages of sin is death.” What we have a hard time wrapping our minds around is that in Christ suffering isn’t inherently evil. In Christ, suffering can be good and necessary and beneficial. Yet our gut-level reaction is still, “No! No suffering! Suffering is evil. Prevent it! Avoid it! Make it stop!” But then we’re all to apt to forget what great good Christ has done us through suffering. Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

The disciples would not be able to grasp Jesus’ saying about his suffering and death until after his resurrection. Nevertheless, the disciples stood in need of comfort and continued instruction about Christ’s suffering. And that’s what the Transfiguration is all about.

“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” The word “transfigure” means “to change form or appearance.” Jesus went from looking like a regular human being to looking like God. The Father revealed the divinity of his Son, as if to say, “This is who Jesus is. No man alive is going to be able to make him do anything. No one will be able to impose suffering on him. If he suffers, he is still almighty, even in the midst of it. If he suffers, he suffers willingly.”

“And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” Moses and Elijah are representatives of the Old Testament, of the Law and the Prophets, respectively. In another account of the Transfiguration in Luke 9 it says Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” The Law and the Prophets speak of Jesus’ suffering, and death, and glory, as Jesus would later say on the road to Emmaus, “‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

The Old Testament is a comfort us, because the suffering of the Christ has been made known from of old. The suffering of the Christ is not a cause of despair, but of joy, because the Scriptures are being fulfilled in him and the hope and anticipation of God’s people is coming to fruition.

Peter sees the glory of Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah, and he wants to remain there. “Peter said to Jesus, ‘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.’” We can’t fault Peter for wanting to keep the glory rather than depart from it for suffering. We likewise long to behold Christ in his glory and never depart, and we shall in eternal life. But we shall behold Jesus as the Lamb who is slain, who bears in his flesh the marks of the nails. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus’ death was yet to come, and the revelation of his glory there was a preview of the full glory of Christ crucified. It was not time to remain in that glory. To do so would have kept Jesus back from his suffering and death.

“He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” The Father speaks the same words that he did at Jesus’ Baptism, once more affirming Jesus’ divine nature, and expressing his pleasure at what his Son is doing and saying. The Father is pleased that Jesus has begun showing his coming suffering and death. And the Father adds a phrase to what he had said at Jesus’ Baptism: “Listen to him.” In other words, “What Jesus says is right and true. You ought not contradict him or act as if his words were wrong. Rather listen to him. Heed his Word. It is for your good.”

“When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.” They got a taste of what the glory of God is like without the suffering of Christ, and it’s not like the joy of heaven. It’s like the terror of hell! The Father does not destroy the disciples with his glory, but he teaches them that something must happen before they can experience his glory profitably.

The disciples cowered in terror. “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’” When the disciples looked up they did not see the cloud. They did not see Moses or Elijah. They did not see a face shining like the sun or clothes white as light. “And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” They saw a man who looked just like them, a man with flesh that could suffer and bleed and die. And this man took away their fear.
They descended from the mountain, and Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem. He foretold his death twice more. The disciples did not rebuke him or contradict him, yet they were still distressed at the thought of Jesus suffering and dying. This aversion toward suffering and death would not go away until Jesus had fulfilled all that he had foretold.

And now that Jesus has fulfilled all things, we can see his suffering and death in the proper light. Jesus was arrested, condemned to death, and crucified. And none of this happened because he was weak. None of this happened because he had sinned. Jesus suffered and died because that’s what had to happen for your salvation.

The prophet Isaiah had seen it long before: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we considered him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed… Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”

That’s what Jesus was doing in his suffering. He was healing you with his wounds, justifying you by his suffering, forgiving your sins by his death. And as Jesus hung upon the cross suffering, where would he rather have been? On the Mount of Transfiguration? No, strange as it may seem, Jesus didn’t want to be anywhere else but right there on the cross. From the anguish of his soul he was satisfied, as Isaiah said, because he knew that many were being accounted righteous for his sake.

And what shall we do? Shall we look at his suffering and call it evil? No, we understand that Jesus’ suffering was a different sort of suffering, a suffering that changed forever how we view suffering. In Christ, suffering itself was transfigured from punishment for sin into the means by which God does his greatest work. Certainly it’s proper for us to avoid suffering in that we avoid sinning against God and bringing his wrath on us. Yet Christ gives us other sufferings in this life, sufferings that aren’t the result of our sins, sufferings that like the cross bear the caption, “God at work.” It might be a cancer diagnosis, a house fire, the loss of a child. But we interpret these sufferings in light of Christ’s suffering. We do not look at Christ’s suffering and call it evil; neither do we look at our own sufferings and call them evil. Instead we receive all things as a gracious gift from our heavenly Father, even when it hurts. And we have confidence that, just as the Father took the greatest suffering of all, the suffering of his Son, and brought about from it the greatest possible good, the salvation of mankind, so also our Father in heaven can take our little sufferings and use them for our good as well.

In such cases we pray for endurance in the midst of suffering, but we don’t jump straight to praying God to make it stop. God will bring about an end of suffering in good time, after he has done and given through it what he intends. In such cases it is as Paul writes in Romans 5, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Especially when people insult us and mistreat us for being Christians do we rejoice in our sufferings, as the apostles did in Acts 5 after being flogged: “they left the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

As much as we may rejoice in these present sufferings, we also rejoice that Jesus’ sufferings did not last forever. He passed through suffering, and rose from the dead in glory. So also we shall be raised from death, never to suffer again. This hope keeps our brief period of suffering in perspective, as Paul says in Romans 8, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” When the Father revealed the glory of the Son in his Transfiguration, he revealed you in glory as well. He shall bring you up his holy mountain and clothe you in white. You shall speak with Moses and Elijah, with all the saints, with Jesus himself. With Peter you will say, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” And we shall set up our tents, and never have to come down again. Amen.

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