1-29-23 Transfiguration

Bible Text: Matthew 17:1-9 | Preacher: Pastor Andrew Richard | Series: Epiphany 2023 | Jesus had begun 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 be raised again on the third day. He had said this in response to Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The disciples had come to know who Jesus was – not just a man, but God in human flesh – and so Jesus began to speak of what He, the God-man, had ultimately come to do: suffer and die and be raised. Peter did not like this. He could only think of suffering and death as bad things. And so he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” Jesus straightened Peter out right away, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” And then Jesus said to all the disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” In other words, “Not only must I suffer, but, if you would be a Christian, you must suffer with Me.”

After this conversation, the very next thing we hear about is the Transfiguration of our Lord. Six days after Jesus foretold His suffering, and Peter objected, and Jesus rebuked him, Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And I’ll tell you right now why Jesus did this. The disciples needed to understand that His suffering was going to be a good thing, that their suffering as Christians would be a good thing, and that all this suffering had as its purpose the happy dwelling together of God and man in eternal glory.

Consider what happened on that mountain. Jesus was transfigured, meaning His appearance changed. “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light.” Jesus here displays His divine glory. He is indeed God, and if God says He must suffer and die, then it’s going to be a good thing, because God is good and only does good things. Moreover, Moses and Elijah appear, and, as it says in Luke’s account of this event, they “spoke of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Moses, as the one through whom the Law was given, and Elijah, as representative of the Prophets, speak of the suffering and death of Jesus. And this is not the first time the Law and the Prophets have spoken of our Lord’s suffering and death. The Old Testament Scriptures are full of such words about the suffering of the Christ. And if all Scripture testifies to this suffering, it must be a good thing.

Peter sees the goodness of the glory that surrounds him. He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tents: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter understands that it is desirable to be and remain in the glory of his Lord. And he’s not wrong, not in the least. “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God,” as it says in Romans 5. It is our goal to be with Christ in glory forever. So it’s no wonder Peter sees the good in this and wants to stay there. But the ultimate point of the Transfiguration is not to show the goodness of the glory of God. His disciples understood that already. What they didn’t understand was the goodness of Jesus’ suffering. They didn’t understand that man has no hope of the glory of God without that suffering.

And so there was more to come on the Mount of Transfiguration. “While [Peter] was yet speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!’” The Father’s voice booms from heaven, commanding the disciples to listen to Jesus. To hear God’s voice is a dreadful thing. After the Lord spoke the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, the people of Israel begged Moses, “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die” (Dt. 18:16). In answer, the Lord said to Moses, “What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him” (Dt. 18:17-19).

Jesus is that Prophet who speaks the Word of God, and man is duty-bound to listen to Him. Jesus spoke of His suffering, death, and resurrection, and Peter was disturbed and did not listen to Him. Now, as the Lord had said, “I will require it of him.” On the mountain, God does not vent His full wrath against Peter. His rebuke is rather gentle and His rod falls lightly as He reminds Peter that he must listen to the Prophet, he must listen to Jesus. Yet even at this light rebuke, the disciples “fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.” And it is chiefly in this that we see the necessity of the suffering of Christ.

Without the suffering of Christ, the glory of God was not enjoyable to the disciples. They cowered and were afraid, and this heavenly glory seemed to them to be the depths of hell. Without the suffering of Christ, man cannot stand before God or enjoy His presence. Without the suffering of Christ, then, as the Lord spoke through the prophet Amos, “What good is the day of the Lord to you? It will be darkness, and not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him! Or as though he went into the house, leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him!” (Amos 5:18-19). And so the disciples found it to be.

There is one hope, there is one comfort for them as they try to hide from the wrath of God: “But Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Arise, and do not be afraid.’ And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” The disciples felt Jesus’ hand. They felt the body of God deal gently with them, the same body that was going to Jerusalem to suffer many things and die and be raised, the same hand that would be pierced and nailed to the cross for them. And they were comforted by that hand. They heard the voice of God speak kindly to them, the voice of God coming from a human mouth, a human mouth that would be struck, a human mouth that would cry out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me,” so that they would never have to be forsaken, a mouth that would cry, “It is finished,” so that they could have assurance of redemption. And they were comforted by that mouth. Then, when the disciples looked up, Jesus’ face was no longer shining like the sun. His clothes were no longer white as light. Certainly this Jesus was still God, but when they looked, they saw a man, a man who could suffer and die, and they were comforted by that man.

Jesus is our comfort, and we have no hope of glory apart from His words, “The Son of Man must suffer” (Mk. 8:31). This is a wonderful thing. Consider what we would say about suffering apart from Jesus. We would say that suffering is pure misery and could do nothing but lament it. But in Jesus we say something far different about suffering. We call the Friday on which Jesus suffered and died “Good Friday.” We call His suffering and death good, because by the suffering and death of Jesus our guilt was taken away and our sin atoned for. We say, “Thanks be to God for the sufferings of Jesus! What glorious wounds and excellent pains! How precious is the blood that flowed from head and hands and feet and side! How blessed is His anguish!” And we say this because we deserved it all. We deserved to suffer for our sins. We deserved to spend eternity cowering before God and receiving from Him not just a single rebuke, but never-ceasing condemnations, along with everlasting blows from His rod of iron. But Jesus has borne it all for us! He has suffered for us, and since by His sufferings He turned disaster away from us, we delight in those sufferings.

Delight in suffering. Who would have thought such a thing possible? Truly our Lord can use all things for good and make every bitter cup sweet. And if we say such good things about the sufferings of Jesus, what shall we say of our own sufferings? Understand this first of all, that Jesus has told us to take up our cross and follow Him. This means that the Christian life will be marked by suffering. Loved ones will die, men will hate and persecute us without cause, we will be sick and worn out with labors and physical trials, we will see the prosperity of the wicked and the poverty of Christ’s Church, and we ourselves will die. We take up our cross and follow Jesus. But those words also mean that we can talk about our cross the way we talk about Jesus’ cross, and we can talk about our sufferings the way we talk about Jesus’ sufferings, not that we credit our sufferings with the power to forgive sin, but that we use the same simple adjective to describe them both: good. Our sufferings have this in common with Jesus’ sufferings, that they are good, as it is written in Psalm 119, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted” (Ps. 119:71). The Apostle Paul says, “I now rejoice in my sufferings” (Col. 1:24), and again, “I am exceedingly joyful in all our tribulation” (2 Cor. 7:4), and, speaking for all Christians, he says, “we also glory in tribulations” (Rom. 5:3).

And why do we call our sufferings good and rejoice in them? The psalmist says, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Ps. 119:71), and again he says, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I keep your word” (Ps. 119:67). In this we see that our sufferings are meant to draw us to the Word of God. There’s a story behind our hymn of the day that relates very well to this point. “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star” was written by Philipp Nicolai, who was a pastor in Unna, Germany toward the end of the 16th century. During the time of his service there, a plague ravaged the town. In the span of half a year, more than 1,400 people in Unna died. Nicolai suffered the loss of congregants, a student, and members of his family. During the worst of it, two dozen bodies were buried daily in a cemetery near his house, and he had to wonder if he would be next. In the midst of this suffering, he turned to the Word of God and reflected on the blessed doctrine that we confess at the end of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the life everlasting.” As he pored over the Scriptures and reflected on God’s gift of eternal life, he says that he was “cheered at heart, joyful in spirit, and completely at peace.” Suffering drove him to the Word of God.

And as suffering drives us to the Word of God, it drives us away from other things that hold no promise or hope of glory. How easily our sinful flesh is enticed by the things of this world! We have what is eternal, and yet desire what is temporal. We have the riches of heaven and then have the stupidity to pant after the riches of earth. We have been seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, and then down here on the ground we’re proud of ourselves and long to hear people speak good things of us and can’t bear it when someone finds fault, not even when we need to hear a rebuke. Our Lord has promised that the meek will inherit the earth – the whole earth! – and then we become obsessed over mere trinkets that will be consumed with fire on the Last Day, if they even make it that long. “Fool!” God says to the rich man who took refuge in earthly things, and that word “fool” echoes in our ears as well.

Pastor Nicolai recognized this failing of the flesh, and he also knew by what means God breaks us of it. He wrote, “But because we…all have by nature world-seeking and earth-loving hearts which long more for the temporal than the eternal, and are more attentive to perishable goods than to the imperishable, our dear God, according to His most wise, fatherly council, has prepared and ordained the dear, holy cross (which He lays on His children) as a salutary means by which to turn them away from the world and worldly cares and incline them to Himself for their own good and eternal salvation.” And at the end of the little book in which he wrote those words, he included three hymns he wrote, one of which was the hymn of the day, in which we sing, “Thy Son hath made a friend of me, / And when in spirit Him I see, / I joy in tribulation.”

So you see that God has made suffering very serviceable to us, both in the sufferings of our Lord and in our own sufferings. So when you find yourself in the midst of tribulation, don’t let the devil tell you that God is far from you, as if the Lord and the cross are strangers to each other. Rather know and take comfort that, as the Father laid a cross on His beloved Son with whom He is well pleased, so the cross that He lays on you is a sign of His favor and a proof of your sonship and a blessing from heaven. God is good and only does good things, and the Law and Prophets testify about the suffering of the saints as well as the sufferings of Christ. So rejoice that God is being good to you and that His Word is being fulfilled in you. And when you find yourself sorely afflicted, don’t let the devil lead you to feel sorry for yourself and mope. By such trickery the evil one blinds us to God and blinds us to our neighbor, so that we neither look up in faith nor look outward in love, but dwell miserably in darkness. When you are suffering, it is therefore all the more important to come to Church, to hear the Word, to get counsel from your pastors, to pray, to fulfill the duties God has given you to do, and to show concern for your neighbor. You will find the truth of the psalmist’s words, “I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me” (Ps. 119:75).

And our Lord has taught us something else very important about our sufferings by His own suffering on the cross. Jesus was on His cross for six hours. Now He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns for all eternity. What are those six hours of cross compared to eternal glory? Thus the Apostle Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). The time is quickly coming when, at the end of life or at the end of days, our Lord will lead us up His holy hill, and we will never have to descend into a place of suffering again. At that time not only will there be tents, but mansions. The glory of the Lord will shine, and we will not cower, but rejoice. At that time we will fully comprehend that the suffering of Jesus was a good thing, and our suffering as Christians was a good thing, because we will see the purpose of all that suffering fulfilled and enjoy that happy dwelling together of God and man in eternal glory.

The disciples came down the Mount of Transfiguration, and they did not understand everything yet, but then Jesus’ words were fulfilled and the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and they understood. Peter understood. And he became a great teacher of the doctrine that you have heard today, and I’ll close with Peter’s words from his first letter: “Beloved…rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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