In a world that has hundreds of different churches and dozens of different denominations, people often wonder: what’s the difference? There’s no simple answer to that question, but one way to identify the differences is to identify the questions they are looking for answers to. Much of the preaching and teaching you from so-called prophets on the radio or TV seems determined to answer the question: what is God trying to tell us in the daily news – and what can it tell us about the future? What is God trying to tell me when the National Security Adviser resigns amid scandal or when powerful storms batter California? (in short, the daily news is nothing more than evidence that Jesus was right: this sinful world is spiraling into destruction – Matthew 24.) Another strain of Christianity has sought to answer the question: what makes sense, what is a logical explanation to the mysteries of God and what do I need to do to remain in God’s grace? Broadly, we know them as those of the Reformed tradition. If you happen to know someone who attends a large Megachurch, they will probably be asking: what can the newest book or hottest, hippest preacher teach me about my finances, my marriage, my destiny in life? If a person is seeking to “feel” close to God and experience the Holy Spirit, they likely come from a Pentecostal, charismatic background. Finally, every year around Lent, you hear a lot about this denomination, because both members and non-members often wonder: what new rules or exceptions to rules is the church going to hand out this year? We know them as Catholics. (If you have any Catholic friends, challenge them on this. Ask them what the church has to say about eating meat on Fridays this year, when St. Patrick’s Day – along with its corned beef sandwiches – falls on a Friday. For help, look up Acts 10 and 11 and Colossians 2:16-18). Have you noticed anything strange, anything missing? Sadly, many churches and church bodies look for authority and answers in any and every place except the one in which God has promised to give them: the Bible. Which brings us to Lutheranism. What is the Lutheran question? The uniquely Lutheran question, the one that we ask before and above all others is: what does this mean? (with “this” referring to God’s Word.) Today, the celebration of our Lord’s Transfiguration grants us a wonderful opportunity to put this question into practice, because there are several aspects of this story that beg us to search the Scriptures for the answer to the question what, exactly, does this mean?
First, we might wonder: what does it mean that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain by themselves? Why them? Why only three out of 12? We could guess at why Jesus chose Peter, James, and John, but we are not in the business of guessing, so we’ll just admit that we don’t know. But we do know why Jesus chose three. In the OT, by God’s command, the testimony of just one eyewitness was considered unreliable. God gave these rules for Israelite court cases: one witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15) When three witnesses gave independent corroborating testimony to an event – their testimony became truth and fact under the law. This is still the case in the New Testament – Jesus states that 2 or 3 witnesses are needed both to properly practice church discipline (Matthew 18:16) and to bring an allegation or accusation against a church leader. (1 Timothy 5:19) We aren’t told exactly why Jesus picked Peter, James, and John – but we do know why he chose three disciples to witness this event: so that we could be sure beyond all doubt that this actually happened.
Our second question might be: what does it mean that Jesus was transfigured? The Greek word for “transfigured” is our English word metamorphosis. It’s what happens when a caterpillar changes into a butterfly or a tadpole becomes a frog. In Jesus’ case, what changed was not his shape or body, but his appearance. Jesus glowed with the glory of God; glory that he had hidden for 33 years under poverty and humility, under human flesh and blood. Why? Why now? What does this mean? Jesus wanted his disciples, and us, to see where His true glory lies. It’s not so much in his almighty power – although we feel his power in the rays of the sun and see it in the majesty of the stars and the wonder of new life. It isn’t primarily his sovereignty – although He has total control of nations and kingdoms and history. No, we see His glory most clearly in the fact that while he is all-powerful and all-knowing he loved us so fully and freely that he lived a perfectly obedient life for us, and then died for us – all to save us from our sins and give us the gift of glory in heaven.
The Transfiguration presents us with the reality of what it took to save us from our sins, and the contrast is striking. Jesus is God, King of kings and Lord of lords, but he became a poor, meek, weak human being just like us. He warned Adam of the wages of sin before he ate the forbidden fruit, but then he dove out of heaven to pay that price himself. Jesus, by his perfect life, had earned eternal life – but he willingly traded it for a shameful death on a cross and the punishment of hell that sinners deserved. The glory we see in Jesus’ appearance is His love for helpless sinners. Paul put his finger on the glory Jesus wants us to see: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) In other words, Jesus’ transfiguration is visible theology. It is a simple summary of the gospel: God for us.
Next: what does it mean that Moses and Elijah appeared, talking with Jesus? Moses was God’s instrument for the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Elijah was the most famous of God’s prophets in the Old Testament. Together, they represent all of OT history and the first 39 books in our Bible. There are other questions that come to mind, such as: how did Peter, James and John recognize them? We don’t know. How did they have bodies before the resurrection? Well, Elijah was taken bodily to heaven on a flaming chariot (2 Kings 2), but Moses is a little more difficult. We are told that God personally buried Moses’ body (Deuteronomy 34) and Jude 9 seems to suggest that the archangel Michael carried Moses’ body to heaven – but the simplest and best answer is that Matthew tells us Elijah and Moses were bodily present, so we simply accept that God can raise whoever he wants whenever he wants. What’s really interesting is not that these two biblical heroes were present, but what they were talking about. Luke writes: they spoke about [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:31) If these residents of heaven weren’t talking about whether the fish in heaven’s ponds were biting or what was on the menu for the next heavenly banquet or how the angelic choir sounded especially good last week – but were talking about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – does that give us a hint as to what we, who are still waging the war of faith in this life, should be talking about? They were talking about Jesus – his life, death, and resurrection! They were talking about the Gospel! So what? This answers another question that baffles many Christians: how were OT believers saved? The same way we are: through faith in Jesus Christ.
Next, we hear Peter act as Peter often did: without thinking. Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. If you ever get the feeling that you are weak in faith and foolish in action – rest assured, you aren’t alone. The New Testament gives example after example of Peter’s shortcomings. He failed in his attempt to walk on water (Matthew 14:22-36); he rashly pulled out his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:50); and even though Peter boasted about staying faithful to Jesus to the point of dying with him, he felt threatened enough by a servant girl to deny even knowing him. (Luke 22:33-34; 54-62) Here, Peter is babbling about tents in the presence of the glory of heaven. What does this mean? I am Peter. You are Peter. Like him, we are the ones who are constantly screwing up in the presence of God, making boasts we cannot back up and speaking and acting without thinking. And yet, if Jesus wasn’t ashamed to call rash and foolish Peter his friend and disciple, then there is hope for us as well. At the same time, the fact that Peter’s foolishness is written down for us provides further proof that this is a true account. If Peter, James, and John had only sat down later to fabricate this account out of thin air, they would hardly include such a foolish mistake by one of the Twelve.
There’s a cloud and a voice – what do those mean? When Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to receive God’s law, God’s presence was described as a cloud covering the peak. (Exodus 24:17) Throughout Israel’s history, God often appeared in the form of a cloud: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night as the Israelites wandered in the desert (Exodus 13:21) and a cloud of glory in the temple. (1 Kings 8:11) The cloud indicates the presence of the only true, almighty God. But what about the voice: this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him! What does this mean? This is God’s endorsement of Jesus. This is God telling the world not only that Jesus is his Son, not only that Jesus had lived perfectly in this world for 33 years, but that he is the one person who could carry the sins of the world to the cross and pay for them with his precious, sinless blood. For that reason, you and I and all people should listen to him. Don’t listen to the world’s twisted and perverted modern definition of morality, don’t listen to your heart or feelings about your standing before God, don’t listen to me or any other preacher declare pop-psychology or our own ideas to you as God’s truth – no, listen to Jesus and him alone. How? Open your Bible. It’s been said that if you stick a knife anywhere in the Bible, it will bleed red. When you read your Bible begin by asking “what does this mean?” followed by “where do I see Jesus, my Savior?” He’s there, on every page. Don’t do it because I told you to, do it because God told you to.
Finally, Jesus commands the three: Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Why not? Well, Jesus had already had people follow him for all the wrong reasons. They wanted him to be their warrior to defeat their Roman overlords, their bread-king to fill their bellies and bank accounts, their private physician to heal all their diseases. But that was not Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ mission was not and is not to fix all the problems caused by sin in this world. Jesus came for one primary reason – to take your sins and mine and the sins of the world, carry them to the cross and suffer God’s righteous wrath to pay for them. And after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter, James, and John could testify to the world that this was no ordinary criminal who was brutally beaten and hung on a cross to die; this was God’s Son, the promised Messiah, who came to take away the sins of the world. When asked how they could know this, they could say: we heard God’s endorsement from heaven, we witnessed Moses and Elijah speaking with him on the mountain, we have seen his glory!
And now, now that we know what these nine verses mean objectively, we may ask the question: what does this mean for me? Why spend an entire Sunday on an event that most churches don’t recognize and many Christians are unaware of? It is placed here, on the last Sunday before Lent because this is the point at which Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and begins his descent into the valley of the shadow of death on our behalf. The Transfiguration tells us that he was ready to face the doom we deserved. It tells us that he was the one chosen by God to carry out the job no one else could perform. It tells us that he was the one the OT prophets had promised and described. It tells us that Jesus knew exactly who he was and what he was doing when he walked into Jerusalem to be betrayed, denied, tortured, crucified and buried. And it assures us that through faith we are truly pleasing to God, because in Jesus every last one of our sins has been punished and paid for. Your sins are forgiven. You are saved. You will spend eternity in heaven’s glory with Peter, James, John, Moses, Elijah and Jesus. That glorious gospel comfort is finally the answer God always wants to give us when we search his Word for the answer to the uniquely Lutheran question: what does this mean? Amen.