Our text is today’s Gospel (Matthew 17:1–9): 1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And 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.” 5 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.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” (ESV)
Exodus 34:29–35 29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. 34 Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35 the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (ESV)
The face of Moses is shining with a glory that does not come from within. The glory shining on Moses’ face comes from God. It is only because Moses had been talking with God that his face shines with glory. It is a reflected glory, like the light that the moon reflects from the sun. As the moon does not generate its own light, so Moses is not the source of his shining glory. God is.
But it is different with Jesus. Jesus generates His own glory; He is the source of His own glory. For He is God. Jesus, in His own person, shines with glory like the sun, for He is the Son of God.
Two very different kinds of glory. But Peter does not see the distinction. Now, Peter would have know the Bible very well. He would have known of Moses’ face shining in glory. And he would have known of how Elijah did not die but was carried to heaven by chariots of fire, and that too was a spectacular kind of glory. And now, Peter sees Jesus shining in glory. But he does not see the distinction between the reflected glory of Moses and Elijah and the divine glory of Jesus. And so he says something stupid.
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. Peter speaking this comment is stupid on two levels. First, seeing Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet, talking with Jesus, who was shining in divine glory, the only proper response would have been for Peter to kneel and bow in reverent silence. But Peter just has to say something. Our text says that Peter was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud spoke. The fact that God the Father had to interrupt Peter is a strong indicator that Peter should not have opened his mouth to begin with.
Some of our Lutheran churches have kneelers attached to the pews. There is something very wholesome and edifying about bowing and kneeling before God in reverence, perhaps not in complete silence but at least refraining from speaking our words and instead speaking God’s words, such as the Lord’s Prayer, back to God.
And then, Peter’s comment is stupid in a more serious and harmful way. 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. Do you see Peter’s mistake? He is lumping Jesus together with Moses and Elijah, as if these three are on par with each other. Peter intends to give each one a similar shelter, with the implication that each of these three are worthy of the same honour.
Peter fails to make the distinction between the two kinds of glory, between the reflected glory of Moses and Elijah and the divine glory of Jesus. You see now why God the Father had to interrupt Peter, don’t you? Peter, here, is not speaking the truth. Just six days before, Peter had made the true confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16). But before Easter, none of the disciples were really 100 percent clear on just what that confession meant. And so, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter starts to lump Jesus together with Moses and Elijah. And God the Father has to stop Peter in his tracks!
Speaking from a bright cloud, the Father says: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him. Actually, our English translations do not quite carry the full force of the Father’s words. The original Greek text gives an even stronger emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ: This One is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him. It is as if the Father is saying: “Peter, not this man, Moses, and not this man, Elijah, but this One, this Jesus, is uniquely My Son—true God and true Man. And with Him I am well pleased; listen to him”.
It is certainly good for us to honour and praise the saints who have gone to heaven before us. We honour and praise them for their faith and their holy living and we strive to imitate their godly example. Every so often here at Trinity, I conclude the Prayer of the Church with this petition: We remember with thanksgiving those who have loved and served You in Your Church on earth, who now rest from their labors, especially those most dear to us, whom we name in our hearts before You. In my heart, I always name my parents, William and Laverne, who brought me up in the faith, as well as other loved ones who have died in the Lord. And I also mention a few of the great saints of old, such as St. John and St. Mary. This reverent remembering of departed saints is a God-pleasing way of honouring them. But just as the glory of Moses and Elijah was different from the glory of Jesus, so too we must make a distinction between how we honour the departed saints and how we honour Jesus.
In Holy Baptism, you and I have received holiness from God; we have been made saints, God’s holy ones. And so, when we honour and praise the saints, we are really thanking God for all that He has given His saints and for all that He has accomplished through His saints. But when we honour and praise Jesus, we are thanking Him for who He is, the eternal Son of God, come to save us. We honour Jesus for His dying and His rising again; for His becoming our Brother in Baptism; for His keeping us in fellowship with all His saints and bringing us at last to the joys of His heavenly kingdom.
Jesus is God’s Son, not a saint. And so our honour and praise of Him far exceeds the honour we give to our fellow saints. The honour we owe Jesus is His exclusively. We owe Jesus an honour that cannot be shared with Moses, Elijah, or any other saint. And the honour we owe Jesus most certainly cannot be shared with the gods of this world. No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and [the gods of this world] (Luke 16:13).
When God the Father says This One[—this Jesus] is my beloved Son, He is calling us all to repent of all the ways we lump other objects of worship with Jesus. What are your idols? Well, I can tell you of a very common idol we tend to worship as we age. It is the idol of independence. You see, all our lives, we have been independent. And then the day comes when we can no longer depend upon ourselves. We lose our hearing, our mobility, our clear minds, our health. And we have to start depending upon others. And we become frustrated, angry, and resentful. “Why, God! Why is this happening to me?” We think we deserve to remain independent—able to manage on our own—until the day we die. But do you see? We have made a god, an idol, of the independence we once had. And God calls to us and says: “This independence is not your true god, and so repent of your idolatry. And trust in this One—this Jesus—, who is My beloved Son and your Saviour!”
In the Book of Revelation, St. John sees a vision of a host of angels saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12). In their worship, the angels are not lumping Jesus together with other gods. And the same is true in our worship. We do not lump Jesus with the gods of other religions. Rather, we worship Jesus, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, as uniquely worthy of our highest honour and praise. As we sing in the Gloria in Excelsis: Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, are most high in the glory of God the Father.
From the bright cloud, God the Father proclaims the uniqueness of His beloved Son. And then He commands Peter, James, and John, to listen to His Son. Up to now, the disciples had not really listened all that well to Jesus. Just six days before Jesus was transfigured, He had begun show[ing] 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. And Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But [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.” (Matthew 16:21-23). Jesus was telling His disciples the whole purpose for His coming to this fallen world. And the disciples just were not listening.
Six days before the Transfiguration, Jesus had also told His disciples God’s purpose for their lives: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:24-25). And these same words Jesus speaks to you as the purpose of your life. And so, listen to Him!
To the disciples Jesus was showing the necessity of the cross. Jesus must go to Jerusalem and must suffer death on the cross. And the disciples of Jesus must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Jesus, losing their lives so that they may find their lives in Christ.
But, like those first disciples, you and I do not like to hear all this cross talk. We want to hear about receiving glory now, in this life. Of course, we do receive a glory now as God’s dear saints, but it is a glory hidden in suffering. It does no good for us to complain, worry, and get angry over our troubles, for we cannot change the pattern set by Jesus. First comes suffering of one kind or another, then comes the glory we have in Christ. First comes the losing of our lives by denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus. And then comes the finding of our lives in Jesus for all eternity.
Jesus gives you a purpose worth living and dying for—the purpose of living in the God-given glory of salvation hidden now in life’s suffering so that one day you will know and experience a glory that is no longer hidden.
The greatest revelation of Jesus’ glory was not when He was transfigured, but rather when He died on Good Friday for sinners, when He died for you. Oh, His glory was hidden in His suffering, but the love that He showed us sinners by dying in our place to save us from our sins—that bloody love was the greatest display of God’s glory the world has ever known. In His words and His deeds, Jesus showed that suffering comes before glory, both for Himself and for His disciples.
This message caused Peter, James, and John to fall on their faces in fear. And it is not exactly a comforting message for us either. The thought that taking up our crosses and suffering has a place in our lives—well, who among us really wants to hear that? The truth that we all have crosses and sufferings to bear can easily cause us to become anxious and fearful. But then, our crucified and risen Jesus comes to us and tells us to rise and to have no fear. He comes even now through His Holy Word and Supper to forgive us for the times we have not honoured Him and listened to Him. And He comes to give us the strength to praise Him even as we suffer, to praise Him as the Eternal Son of God, who came to suffer the greatest death in all the world—the death we all deserved because we are sinners—so that we may share in His glory forever! Amen.