Glory and Suffering
Passage: Matthew 17:1–13
Who are you listening to? We’re all listening to someone. Whether it’s music, news, a ballgame, a podcast, parents, coworkers, coaches, teachers, a good book, political commentary. Maybe it’s the thoughts in your own head. To some of those voices, we might even characterize our listening as intentional, disciplined. On a regular basis, we arrange our lives to listen. Every Sunday, you listen to the sermon and to each other sing. God even commands us to be slow to speak and quick to listen.
But are you listening to Jesus—that’s what today’s passage forces us to ask. Not, “Are your listening to Jesus among all the others?” But “Are you listening to Jesus above all others?” If you’re less familiar with Christianity, perhaps that strikes you as arrogant: “Listen to Jesus above all others? Aren’t there other good teachers? What makes his word so special?” Well, join us in Matthew’s Gospel. Hear from a few eyewitnesses. If you take them at their word, you too would listen to Jesus above all others.
The way Matthew tells the story, Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. With that confession, Jesus’ mission makes a hard turn to the cross; and the disciples are a bit shaken by this. Nevertheless, Jesus explains: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus’ suffering and death is inevitable. It’s part of God’s plan.
But what does that mean? The Messiah dying in Jerusalem? What of all the promised glory in Jerusalem? What about the kingdom and justice and a new world? If he’s going to suffer, is Jesus really the Christ? Six days later, God reveals to a few of them that Jesus is far greater than they’ve imagined. Starting in 17:1…
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.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
Reading a Gospel like Matthew differs from reading just any ancient historiography. For starters, they’re written for a Christian audience. We also get little detail about Jesus’ early life, and nearly half the material focuses on Jesus’ final week. Also, more than just reporting the facts, Gospels tend to interpret the facts. Most often this comes by connecting us to the Old Testament and how Jesus fulfills its storyline.
But there are also significant ways the Gospels overlap with ancient historiography; and one of those ways is their commitment to eyewitness testimony. Most beneficial was for the historian to have participated in the events he was writing about. But where that wasn’t possible, the next best practice was seeking the testimony of those with firsthand knowledge. Having multiple eyewitnesses was even better, as it allowed you to cross-examine their experience. Even more, if others knew the names of those you wrote about, they could double check your account of their experience.
Reading what we just did about Jesus glowing, a couple dead guys appearing, and a voice from heaven speaking—that may cause some to speculate. But just know that when Matthew’s Gospel was circulated, it was in the vein of the best history around; and others would’ve cross-examined his testimony with that of Peter, James, and John. Their purpose wasn’t to deceive but to tell you exactly what they witnessed; and what they witnessed reveals several things about Jesus’ identity and mission.
What do we learn about Jesus’ identity?
Let’s think first about Jesus’ identity. Given their testimony, what do we learn about Jesus’ identity? To begin, we learn that Jesus is the coming Son of Man. Verse 1 follows the promise of Jesus in 16:28. “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Now, last Sunday, I mentioned two viable takes on that verse. One was that Jesus anticipates some of the disciples (minus Judas) witnessing his resurrection and subsequent glory. The other was that Jesus anticipates what “some” (namely, Peter, James, and John) would experience here, six days later, in his transfiguration. That’s the way I’m taking it; and I think that’s supported by the way Peter himself explains this event in 2 Peter 1:16 as prophetic assurance of the Son of Man’s coming.
But even if you struggle with that reading, we can still drop down to verse 9 and know from Jesus’ words that what they saw was the Son of Man—“Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” Some would say this is just another way of Jesus saying, “until I am raised from the dead;” and that he means nothing more than “I.” But later in 26:64, Jesus uses this same title and connects us to the context of Daniel 7:14 and the glorious reign of the Son of Man coming with the clouds.
Moreover, notice how the disciples describe Jesus’ brightness: “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun.” Meaning, they couldn’t look on him without going blind. “His clothes became white as light.” Same Jesus—but now clothed with glory. In Daniel 7:9, the Ancient of Days has clothes white as snow. Psalm 104:2 speaks of Yahweh wrapping himself in light as with a garment. When John sees the Son of Man in Revelation 1:16, his face shines like the sun.
To this point, Peter, James, and John had only seen Jesus in the form of a servant. But here God reveals that Jesus is far more. 2 Peter 1:17 says that in this disclosure, Jesus “receives honor and glory from God the Father.” God bestows majesty on Jesus; and this is one way he reveals Jesus as his coming King. He wraps Jesus in light as Jesus will be at his glorious return. Truly, he is the coming Son of Man, who will shine with the brightness of his Father’s glory.
We also learn that Jesus is God’s supreme revelation. Verse 3 says, “There appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” Why these two guys? It could be that Moses represents the Law. Elijah would then represent the Prophets. Malachi 4:5 is the final chapter of The Prophets; and there, God promises to send Elijah as a forerunner. Together, these two figures encapsulate what Matthew repeatedly calls “the Law and the Prophets.” Their presence signifies what their message was always about ultimately—the Law and the Prophets always pointed to the glory of Jesus.
We also learn from Luke 9:31 that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his “exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” His exodus—Moses led Israel in the original exodus. In Malachi 3-4, Elijah would come to prepare the way for a new and greater exodus. He was forerunner to the coming of God himself to renew the covenant and judge his enemies. Perhaps Moses and Elijah also signify (more specifically) how Jesus brings the new and greater deliverance. Jesus will embody the coming of God himself to save and to judge.
This makes Jesus far greater than a mere prophet. Peter wants to build tents for all three. Tents may strike us as a pretty odd request. But not if you’re thinking exodus. The glory of God’s presence often filled a tent. Where Peter goes wrong is that the glory of God’s presence now dwells in Jesus. Peter also goes wrong in wanting to build three tents, as if Jesus is just “one of the boys.” But God answers from heaven and settles that. God singles out Jesus: “Listen to him,” God says.
Even Moses anticipated this day. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 18:15-19, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—to him you shall listen.” He also says, “whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” Consider the weight that gives to Jesus’ words. God will judge the person who refuses to listen to Jesus. Moses was mediator of the old covenant. But when God says, “Listen to Jesus,” he’s declaring a mediator of a new and greater covenant. Even Moses must now be understood by listening to Jesus. The superior revelation of God’s saving plan was present in Jesus. He embodied the end-time hopes of Moses and Elijah.
But even more, we learn that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Verse 5, “Peter 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.” Not the only time these words sound from heaven. The first was Jesus’ baptism. That event started Jesus’ public ministry. Now the same words start the end of Jesus’ ministry as he turns to the cross. But before taking that path, God reveals his special love for Jesus to the disciples.
The whole event is for the disciples. They need to see that the end is very good, even though things are about to get hard at the cross. They need the confirmation that he is more than just another prophet. They need the confirmation that Jesus is the one uniquely loved by God. Much of this language is like that of Isaiah 42:1. “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” When Matthew quotes it in 12:18, he uses the term “beloved.” But the focus of that prophecy is how much God delights in his Son as he fulfills his role as servant. No one carries out the Father’s will like the Son. No one deserves to shine with God’s glory except Jesus.
Those are a few things we learn about Jesus’ identity—at least by the way Matthew tells the story. He is the Son of Man coming to establish God’s reign. He is God’s supreme revelation—the Old Testament anticipates the glory of God displayed in Jesus. He is God’s beloved Son, who carries out his Father’s will unwaveringly.
What do we learn about Jesus’ mission?
But we also learn some things about Jesus’ mission. That’s the next question I want to pursue: what do we learn about Jesus’ mission? It’s doubtful that Peter, James, and John connected all these things in the moment. But the glories they had witnessed were enough to make them tremble—especially the voice from the cloud. The scene reminds us of God’s voice on Mount Sinai. It was a “voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them.” When the disciples heard God’s voice, verse 6 says, “they fell on their faces and were terrified.”
That’s a normal occurrence in Scripture—people in their sinful state tremble before the God of glory. Before his majesty, they cannot stand. If anything, such glory should’ve consumed them. Instead, what does Jesus do? He comes to these three and touches them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus. What a picture of what God is like. Sinful as we are, holy as he is—he would be right to consume us. Yet he draws near. He comes to us.
It’s like finding yourself cornered by a majestic lion that you tried to kill. He leaves you with no escape. His presence leaves you faint. He draws near for what you think is the end of your life, only to then feel a gentle nudge and lick on the face. “Rise and have no fear.” How can that be? Isn’t this the glorious Son of Man coming to claim the kingdom? Isn’t this the final prophet whose words determine my destiny—and, by the way, I just told him “Far be it from you, Lord”? Isn’t this the Christ coming to embody God’s reign and devastate his enemies? Yet he says, “Have no fear.” How?
I think the answer comes in verses 9-13. As they come down the mountain, Jesus commands them to “tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” That implies the Messiah’s death. The disciples ask him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” Malachi 4:5-6 is the backdrop: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers…”
If that restoration happens before the Messiah comes, why’s Jesus saying the Messiah will die? Jesus explains more: “‘Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”
In other words, it’s true that Elijah was coming to restore all things. But even when he came, they killed him. They will do the same to the Son of Man. Point being: majestic as Jesus is, worthy as Jesus is to receive honor and glory from God, he chooses the way of humility for our sake. That’s what we learn about his mission.
As God’s beloved Son, Jesus is glorious. But he sets aside his right to be seen as glorious and he chooses the path of suffering for our sake. That’s why he says, “Have no fear” to those who are his own. There’s no need to fear because he’s heading to the cross to die in their place and reconcile them to God. He’s going to the cross to cleanse their sins, to remove their guilt, to pay their debt, to satisfy God’s wrath. Jesus’ mission takes him from glory to the humiliation and death of a cross to resurrection from the dead; it’s through that work, that he secures our salvation before returning in glory.
Where does the Transfiguration leave us?
So, where does that leave us? Like scaling a mountain, the transfiguration takes us to the heights of Jesus’ glory. God shows Peter, James, and John the true majesty of Jesus. But in seeing his majesty, we’re awestruck at Jesus’ humility. He comes as a servant before he comes in glory.
Our God is unlike the god of Islam, who can’t be closely involved with creation. He’s unlike the god of Docetism, who can only disguise himself as human. He’s unlike the god of Deism, who doesn’t make himself known to us. He’s unlike the god of all other religions, who requires man to work his way up to God.
The true God condescends. He comes down. He’s high; but he also draws near to us. He identifies with our humanity. He becomes one of us to save us from our desperate predicament. History knows no greater condescension than God the Son taking the form of a servant, even to the point of death on a cross.
Consider the affront that Jesus’ humility is to the world’s vision of strength. The world equates strength with domination. But what do we find in Jesus? He’s King of the world, and yet he stoops to serve the world. He doesn’t assert his power at the expense of others; he uses his power to serve and to save others.
The transfiguration also compels us to listen to Jesus. God commands the disciples, “Listen to him.” Isn’t it peculiar that God tells the only ones listening to Jesus to listen to Jesus? Throughout Matthew, the disciples are the ones interested in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus told them in 13:16, “Blessed are your ears, for they hear.” Why do you suppose God tells them, “Listen to Jesus”? Isn’t that what they’ve been doing?
Part of the answer is that even those who hear Jesus don’t always give Jesus the attention he deserves. We’re sometimes like children who hear mom/dad’s voice, but with no intent to trace out the implications and act on their words. Another part is that the disciples haven’t been quick to embrace Jesus’ words, and that’s especially the case with Jesus’ words about the cross. Jesus taught about his death and Peter said, “Far be it from you, Lord.” When Jesus says hard things, even disciples can hesitate to listen.
Or maybe he speaks glorious things like, “The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” But in our suffering and pain, in the long delay of this present age, we begin to question whether he’s really coming at all. The transfiguration says, “Don’t doubt the Lord of glory, my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
When you read this glorious vision of Jesus, do you treat Jesus’ words with their proper weight? Does his word prevail over the other voices in your life? When the world says one thing and Jesus says another, do you go with Jesus? As a church, it’s crucial that we’re listening to Jesus in our gatherings. To know God, we must listen to Jesus. As elders, it’s our primary responsibility to make sure you that you’re listening to Jesus—and not just our opinions or someone else twisting Jesus’ words.
What about you? Do you listen to Jesus? Of course, he’s not bodily present for us to hear. But he has left us his written word. By the Spirit, he inspired and preserved for us his teachings in the apostles’ writings. Through their writings we also learn how Jesus treated the Old Testament and interpreted it in light of his coming. The Bible is Jesus’ word to us—he speaks to us there. Are you reading your Bible to hear Jesus’ word? Are you speaking the Bible’s words to one another?
Jesus speaks words of teaching. He commands. He exposes and corrects. He also comforts and encourages. He says, “Take up your cross.” He also says, “Rise, and have no fear.” Or “I am with you always.” Listen to all his words.
Listening to Jesus will also mean we tell others about Jesus. Notice again what Jesus says in verse 9: “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” We discussed last Sunday why Jesus tends to keep things quiet—at least for a time. Jesus doesn’t want an incomplete message spreading. He wants people following him for the right reasons—not for temporary national interests but for eternal life. He is the Messiah who chooses the path of humility and suffering first.
But here’s the deal: we’re on this side of that word “until”! Jesus did exactly as he said. He suffered, he died for our sins, and then God raised him from the dead on the third day. Jesus appeared to many for about 40 days. Matthew’s Gospel is now reporting to us the vision; and we ought to tell others as well.
If we’re listening to Jesus, he says at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey all that I commanded.” We should tell others to listen to Jesus. The day has come for us to announce his gospel and tell of his glory to all. We need to tell our Muslim neighbors that Jesus is more than a prophet. We need to tell our nominal Christian neighbors that Jesus is more than a good example. Jesus is Lord and God. He is the Christ and our only Savior, the one uniquely loved by the Father. This week, who’s someone you can talk to about Jesus? Who can you invite to the house or serve this week, and in the process help them listen to Jesus?
Lastly, rest assured in Jesus’ return. I get this from the way Peter writes about the transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16—turn there with me. Peter writes about some scoffers, who are basically saying the return of Jesus was invented by the church to control people—to make people fear judgment so they obey Christian morality. In response, Peter argues for the reality of Jesus’ coming and he supports it with his eyewitness experience at the transfiguration.
Verse 16, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” Peter understands the transfiguration to be a preview of Jesus’ second coming in glory; and that preview has eyewitness testimony backing it.
In other words, Jesus’ return isn’t a “cleverly devised myth” to control people—and he knows that, because he witnessed the power and glory of Jesus firsthand. “It’s real! It’s going to happen. I saw the trailer—I know what he will look like.”
Then he says this in verse 19: “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” Some people take that to mean the Scriptures are more certain than the eyewitness testimony. But that’s not what he’s saying. Peter is saying that his eyewitness experience at the transfiguration makes the prophetic word more certain; and because of that further certainty, the prophetic word should become in us like a lamp shining in a dark place. You ever find yourself in a dark place, wondering if things will really get better? You ever find yourself questioning if this is all a hoax? Will there be a judgment? Is Jesus really coming back? You need a lamp, and that lamp is the prophetic word—which has many reasons why it’s true—but one of them is Peter’s eyewitness testimony. He was there. He saw the preview and he heard God’s voice.
Let the prophetic word be a lamp in darkness. “Until,” he says, “the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The apostles weren’t just making stuff up to control people. God worked by the activity of his Spirit, and Peter witnessed the truthfulness of what God promised. He witnessed the future glory of Jesus on the mountain firsthand. May all the prophetic words of Jesus’ coming be a light to you this coming week.