The following is the my Sermon I preached in chapel on the Orlando Dunnam campus on February 9, 2010 and in Estes Chapel in Wilmore, Kentucky, on February 11, 2010. You can listen to the address on iTunes by clicking here.
This Sunday is the Sunday when the church around the world remembers the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. It marks the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is the more neglected of the seasons of the church year. Everyone seems to know about Advent, Lent, Pentecost, but poor Epiphany seems to draw empty stares. But, not at Asbury – we believe in joining Jesus each year as we circumambulate around the year, remembering the life of Jesus from prophetic promise (Advent) to birth (Christmas) to manifestation (Epiphany) to ministry leading to passion (Lent) and Resurrection (Easter) and the coming of the Spirit (Pentecost).
Epiphany means the great manifestation or appearing, referring to the magnitude of God’s revelation to the world in the coming of Jesus… for God so loved the world that He gave… Even the early church was in awe that Gentile kings – magi from the East – came and laid gifts at the feet of Jesus. Unlike our modern celebration which telescopes the coming of the Magi into the Christmas narrative, the biblical text in Matthew (which, by the way, is the only gospel that records the visit of the Magi), makes it clear that the Magi did not come to the manger. The saw the star at the birth, but by the time the magi make the long journey to Bethlehem Jesus is probably 1 or 2 years old, a small child living in a house (Matt. 2:11), not in the manger. The early Christians understood this and wisely separated the celebration of the birth (Dec. 25) from the celebration of the Epiphany (Jan. 6). That is the date we celebrate Jesus’ revelation to the Gentile world – the nations streaming to Jesus in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 60:3, “nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The season of Epiphany runs from the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentile world all the way to the Transfiguration, another one of the great manifestation moments in the NT and it is here that our text resides today.
On the eve of the passion, the gospels remind us in the Transfiguration that even in His humiliation, He is the exalted One. The eternal Son of God, who came from the bosom of the father and walked among us in meekness and in humility, this Jesus Christ did not leave behind his deity when he walked among us, He only veiled it. But here, in this text, the veil is dropped for a moment and we, along with the disciples, catch a glimpse not only of His own divine dignity, but even something of the inner life of the Trinity…. it was one of the unforgettable experiences of the disciples and something which makes us stand back in awe and reminds us why you as Trustees, faculty and staff have given yourselves to support the ministry of Asbury Theological Seminary and why you as students are here to be equipped to be his faithful ambassadors into the world.
The memory of the Transfiguration spills out into the entire New Testament. The account is recorded in Mathew, Mark and Luke, but even John alludes to it in his gospel. You may recall that it is the Apostle John who declares in those opening words to his gospel in an almost certain reference to the Transfiguration, he says, “we have seen His glory.” (John 1:14)… It is John’s way of saying, our forefathers in the wilderness saw the Shekinah glory – the cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night… it is what led them through the wilderness…they testified to that glory… we thought that glory would never return to guide the people of God through the wilderness of our own making… but now we see that even that Shekinah glory was a mere shadow compared to what we have seen… “we have seen His glory….” This glory will lead us out of a much more profound wilderness… not just the desert, rocks and barrenness of the Sinai… but the wilderness of our sin – the barrenness of our lives without God, as we are wandering about without God or without hope in the world – Christ comes to us and leads us to a far greater promised land than the Israelites could ever have imagined.
Peter alludes to the Transfiguration in his epistles. This is what Peter is talking about in his 2nd epistle:
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Peter is saying, I know our proclamation about Jesus seems incredulous… Jesus – fully God and fully man – but we are eyewitnesses… we have seen His majesty…. on the mountain, the veil was lifted for a moment… the curtain was drawn back and we saw His majesty – Even the mountain was made sacred by it… he calls the Mt. of Transfiguration the sacred mountain. … They saw Moses and Elijah… and they heard the commendation from heaven… “This is my Son, whom I love…listen to Him.”
Let me try to put this account into its context in Mark’s gospel. We are at the turning point in Mark’s gospel where he records three times Jesus predicting that He must suffer. It occurs in Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31 and Mark 10:33 – it occurs with almost identical wording in each of the times Jesus talks with his disciples:
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and then he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
He is preparing the disciples for His rejection, His passion and suffering and the horror of His crucifixion. The declarations of His coming are alternately juxtaposed between manifestations of His glory:
Peter’s confession of Christ.. thou art the Christ…. 1st prediction of suffering (8:31)
Transfiguration …. 2nd prediction of suffering (9:31)
His power and wisdom: Ministry of miracles and teaching … 3rd prediction of suffering (10:33)
Even in His humiliation, He is the exalted One.
The inner circle of disciples, Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to a High Mountain. Any good Jew hearing these words about Jesus going up a high mountain would have brought to mind images of Moses going up on the Mountain – Mt. Sinai – He or she would be remember about the amazing Shekinah glory which Moses entered into on the Mountain. That glory was so bright that Exodus 34 tells us that Moses’ faced glowed when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the stone tablets… the Ten Commandments- his face was radiant.. (Exodus 34:30). He had to cover it with a veil lest the people be afraid of Moses.
The Apostle Paul later uses this imagery to describe the glory which should appear in the face of every Christian – as you reflect Christ into the world… we with unveiled faces reflect the glory of Christ and – Paul even uses the word – as we spend time with Jesus we are ‘transformed’ or ‘transfigured’.
Like Moses, Jesus also goes up onto the mountain… But unlike Moses, Jesus does not reflect anyone else’s radiance…We are like the moon – we may reflect some light from the sun – but He is the source of light and life. He is not a mirror… He is the source of the glory. He is the radiance of God… the true radiance of Jesus manifest itself on the mountain… the Shekinah Glory begins to spill out.
“He was transfigured before them.” Peter, James and John were eyewitnesses of this. Jesus became so bright, they grasped for some analogy that people would understand. They said it was whiter and brighter than when you bleach your clothes… it is such a crude analogy, it is another one of the great signs that it is based on an eye witness account. These are real people trying to describe something for which there are no categories…. bleaching your clothes was the whitest thing they knew in the ancient world
The disciples are overwhelmed and the text keeps building, because if it was just the transfiguration that would have been enough to talk about for the rest of your life, but there are actually three parts to the transfiguration… first the manifestation of the shekinah glory… but right on the heels of that comes the second wave of the Transfiguration… the appearance of Moses and Elijah.
This is, indeed, a remarkable event…why Elijah and Moses? Why not Abraham? Why not Isaiah? Why not two angels as with the resurrection? Why Elijah and Moses? This is not some haphazard choice… the Lord didn’t look around heaven and say, ‘who is available today’ – no, these two and no other were chosen… why?
Moses, was the one who ascended that other mountain, Mt. Sinai – Moses is the one who first saw a glimpse of the shekinah glory in the burning bush… Moses is the one who led the Israelites out of their Egyptian bondage and to the promised land…. but most importantly, Moses was the one who gave them the Law – the Ten commandments which summarized the Law and the expansion and application of those ten in the entire structure of the Jewish law. Every Jew worth their salt would know that Moses represents the Law…. In Moses, the entire Jewish Law is embodied and in Moses the Law is coming to pay homage to Jesus who finally fulfills and completes the Law.
Elijah you will recall from the OT did not have an ordinary death. At the end of his incredible ministry he was caught up in a whirlwind… chariot of fire and horses of fire (2 Kings 2:11, 12) – It is the Shekinah glory again… the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night…. Elijah was caught up in that glory and transported directly to heaven – there is nothing quite like it – the closest thing would be Enoch… this was a dramatic departure. Just as Moses stands at the head of the Law, Elijah, in Jewish reflection, came to symbolize and represent all the Prophets. All the prophets who came after Elijah acknowledge his uniqueness and his importance – – echoes in John the Baptist’s question, “are you Elijah?” the belief was that somehow Elijah would return and testify to the Messiah…and certify that the Messiah fulfilled all the Messianic expectations.
Do you remember how the entire Old Testament ends… everybody knows how the OT begins… “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” but do you remember how the OT ends?
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I strike the land with a curse.” – Malachi 4:5
This why they keeping asking John the Baptist when he begins his prophetic ministry after a 420 year gap of prophetic silence…. between Malachi and John the Baptist… they ask him repeatedly, “are you Elijah?”
Elijah represents the Prophets. So in Elijah all the Prophets are symbolically on the mountain. So in Moses and Elijah we have the entire OT – the Law and the Prophets symbolically present to worship and acknowledge that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets.
So we have now had two major experiences on the mountain…. the transfiguration of Jesus revealing His divine majesty through the Shekinah Glory, the appearance of the two seminal figures of the OT…the third is yet to come…but the disciples are overwhelmed and they begin to talk nonsense.
They suggest that they erect three shelters – one for Jesus, one for Elijah and one for Moses… they erected shelters in the wilderness… this is totally out of place…and the text acknowledges that they were speaking nonsense. But to this day, we so much want to capture God’s presence in a building or a structure or a denomination or a bureaucracy – we want to manage God’s presence…. Jesus will have none of that… but before they have time to fully absorb the foolishness of their suggestion, the third and final part of this experience occurs… they are suddenly enveloped in the cloud of God’s glory.
They heard the divine voice: This is My Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!
It is one of only three times that the Father speaks audibly from heaven to Jesus during his earthly ministry… but this is the most dramatic. It not only is a specific fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy that God would raise up a prophet like him from their own midst and “you must listen to Him”… the Father says, “listen to Him.” Much can be made of that… but, more importantly, it reveals something of the inner life of the Triune God. The love of the Father towards His eternal Son, Jesus Christ… One of the fundamental truths which separates Christianity from all other religions is that we believe that God by nature is relational. There is love and community and affection even within the Godhead.
Finally, the disciples look up and the text says, profoundly, that they see only Jesus. This is our passion for our students here at Asbury… that they would graduate and look only unto Jesus. We may assist you, we may plant some seeds, we may water, but God causes the growth… look only unto Jesus. Jesus has fulfilled and taken over all of the cherished signs of the OT covenant. All the “pearls of great price” which they leaned on, the law, the temple, the prophets, the messiahship, the kingship, the city of Jerusalem, the prophets, the covenant…all of those wonderful pearls must be traded in for the one pearl of great price, Jesus Christ. He fulfills and completes all other signs… there is no need for any of the other. You no longer need the temple, or a king, or a fiery cloud… we have Jesus Christ. Amen.