When We Really Need to See God
Transfiguration Sunday comes every year just before Ash Wednesday. There are only three Gospel texts which tell about the Transfiguration, so it becomes a challenge to repeat a story we have heard so many times. The accounts are quite similar. Luke adds that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about Jesus’ exodus which was about to happen in Jerusalem. This Greek word “exodus” is often translated “decease” or “departure.” However, the use of the word “exodus” in Greek rather than some other more common Greek word which Luke could have used would be apparent to any Jew. Jesus was going to Jerusalem to be the Passover Lamb. He would arise and then ascend back to glory. By doing so, he leads us on the new Exodus, this time from Jerusalem rather than Egypt. He leads us to the Promised Land. But He has to go to Jerusalem first to die. Luke also adds that He called Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. There they fall asleep. This is what they also did at the Garden of Gethsemane when they should have been awake. There is also the sense that they saw God the Son in all of His glory and heard the voice of the Father. Seeing the glory of God is a very unsettling and frightful experience. When others saw a vision of God in the Bible, they would cry out that they were undone or going to die. Others fell as dead. Sleep is often used as a metaphor for death. No one can see God and live.
The only detail that Matthew adds is that Jesus reassured the terrified disciples after the vision by touching them, something Jesus would do again for John after his initial vision on the Isle of Patmos. When God reveals Himself from behind the veil of His humanity, it is not to kill, but rather to assure. Manoah’s wife was discerning enough to assure her husband that although they had seen the LORD ascend in the sacrifice, that they were not going to die. Rather, they would be comforted by having a son, Samson, in their old age whom God had set apart for a special mission of deliverance.
The details of the story are familiar enough. Jesus in 9:1 as well as in Luke and Matthew had told that “some” of them would not taste death until they saw the Kingdom come in power. The Transfiguration of Jesus after six days was that fulfillment. The three got a glimpse of who Jesus really was. We must remember that it was just a few days earlier that Jesus had asked the disciples who people thought the Son of Man was, referring to Himself. Some said Jesus was John the Baptist, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. We must be reminded that after the Transfiguration, after they had seen Elijah, they asked Jesus about Elijah coming and restoring all things. Jesus answered that this role in prophecy was fulfilled by John the Baptist who had come in the spirit of Elijah. So in a few short verses, we see both Elijah as well as John who had come in the spirit of Elijah. Elijah was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Later Jesus would ascend to the Father in an even greater spectacle.
The other person who appears with Elijah was Moses. Together they represent the Law and the Prophets. Jesus said that the Scripture testifies about Him, everything that is written in the Law and the Prophets. Moses is the man God chose to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land during the first Exodus. Now the second who was greater than Moses was about to lead the Children of Israel out on the second Exodus, a theme which is drawn out in the Book of Hebrews. Moses could not lead the Children of Israel over Jordan. It was left for his protégé, Joshua, to do that. Joshua’s name translated into Greek is where we get “Jesus” from. Now the greater Joshua was there to lead them into the true Promised Land.
The fright the disciples felt did not start at the Transfiguration. They were all euphoric I would suppose when Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah and gets commended. I use the Hebrew “Messiah” here even though the Greek “Christ” is used because their concept of the Messiah had political tones to it. They were expecting an immediate deliverance from Rome. They had seen Jesus raise the dead, feed an enormous crowd of people with a few loaves and fish. They had seen Him silence and exorcise demons. All they felt was needed at this point was to go to Jerusalem and seize the prize. There Jesus, the Son of David, would claim the crown, overthrow the Romans, and give the disciples their well-deserved reward. So when Jesus immediately begins to tell them that He was going to Jerusalem to be rejected by the authorities there, there at first was no alarm as these leaders were corrupt anyway. They were going to be the new leaders. But then Jesus tells them that He is going to be put to death, the alarm bells started ringing. They probably did not even hear that Jesus would rise on the third day. Peter took Jesus aside and tried to straighten Jesus out. But it was Peter who had the wrong narrative, and he suffered one of the greatest rebukes in history, being called Satan.
Jesus further instills fear by telling them that if they really wanted to follow Jesus, they would have to deny themselves and take up the painful and accursed cross. Crucifixion was a most feared way of execution. This was completely contrary to what they had expected. They were not ready to follow Him to the death. How could one find life by losing it, and how could one lose his life to save it? Certainly, the words of Jesus would rattle around their brains for the next several days. They heard Jesus say that at least some of them would escape death and that at some point victory would come. They hoped that it would be they who escaped this death. But how could they victorious and rule in the end it Jesus was dead? The disciples were in distress and really needed to see God.
So, God appears to Peter, James and John on the mountain when Jesus is fully revealed as God the Son. They really needed to see this. They really needed to know that God is in charge. But Peter, James, and John were equally terrified that they had seen God. But they really needed to see God. We all need to have this vision of God come to us as well. We don’t need it so much in normal times. But when our lives are turned upside down, that is when we really need to be assured. When John the Baptist was put in prison and stayed there not knowing when the axe might fall on his head, he needed assurance. He sent his disciples to ask whether he had got it right about Jesus. Jesus sent back to John that he had no reason do doubt or be ashamed. John had gotten it right. The proof was that the Gospel was being preached, the lame were walking, the blind were seeing, the dead were rising, and demons were being cast out. In other words, John the Baptist saw what Jesus had come to do. He had a vision of God in being told about the works God was doing. It is not necessary to see God in person like Peter, James, and John did, but God can make Himself known to us and strengthen our spirits. Jesus told John not to be ashamed of Jesus. In like matter, He warned the disciples not to be ashamed of Him in this evil and adulterous nation. The same is true for us. The world will always try to shame the Christian or get the Christian to be ashamed and deny his Lord.
The road to Jerusalem would become increasingly difficult. They came to the Garden of Gethsemane. Again, they had a vision of God, although they did not yet know it. They thought they saw a fully human Jesus start to break down in prayer because Jesus knew what was about to happen. The disciples were called to pray and fell asleep. Here again we see there was a vision of God. They saw Jesus, the Son of God, this time God in utter weakness rather than the vision of God in power they had seen on the Mount of Transfiguration. As Jesus predicted, He was arrested. His disciples were terrified and scattered. But Jesus would later restore the eleven. It is so good to know that it is Jesus who keeps us and not ourselves. The disciples knew Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. John and some of the women told them. They were again in craven fear. But Jesus arose from the dead on the third day, just as He had told them.
The eleven would get one more vision of God. They would see Jesus ascend back into glory. This time, the vision just left them staring into the heaven in awe. They were mildly rebuked by an angel. They had a mission to do. They would soon be empowered by the Holy Spirit to undertake a dangerous mission to preach the Gospel Jesus had been crucified for. They also would eventually be visited by death. They needed this one last vision of God. They had heard on the Mount of Transfiguration the voice of the Father commending His Son to them. It had been said at Jesus’ baptism as well. They need all this in their memory so that they might stand in their trials for the Gospel. The Holy Spirit gave them the boldness with which Jesus ministered.
So the Transfiguration is for us as well. We need to be assured that God is with us, that by faith we are His beloved children, although in a different sense as Jesus. In a way not only do we need to see the glimpse of the glory, we need to be transfigured as well. We think of the words of Julia Ward Howe in “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord.” One of the verses states: “with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.” The Greek word here is “metamorphosis.” We use this term to describe how a caterpillar is transformed into a beautiful butterfly. Peter, James, and John were transfigured from cowards to bold proclaimers of the faith. May this happen to us as well.
God appears so often in the Bible and visits people in their distress or when He commissions people to do difficult tasks. God appears to elderly Abraham to comfort Abraham in the promise that he would have a son. God appears to the timid Gideon to encourage Him to take on the vastly superior Midianites. He appears to Isaiah in a dramatic theophany and tells him to preach to people who might as well be deaf and blind. He appears to comfort Paul when persecution arose at Corinth. As we noted earlier, He appeared to John on the prison island of Patmos. If God has sent, He will equip. So we need to find the vision of God in the Scripture. We need to find a vision of God in our prayer. These are increasingly trying times. If we ever really needed to see God, the time is now.