The Transfiguration of our Lord
February 10, 2019
St. Matthew 17:1-9
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, "Arise, and do not be afraid." When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead." St. Matthew 17:1-9
The people of Israel could not look at Moses’ face after Moses talked with God. Moses hadn’t seen God face to face, but he was up on the mountain talking to God. That was enough. God’s glory shone very dimly on Moses’ face, but it was too much for the people. He had to put a veil over his face after he talked to God or the people could not bear to look at him.
Jesus, on the other hand, showed forth his glory in all its brilliance. He was transfigured before his disciples. His face shone like the sun. His true nature shone forth. St. John writes that he was “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9) His clothes became as white as light. Jesus revealed more glory than Moses! But the people couldn’t bear seeing the glory in Moses’ face, while Peter wanted to build permanent shelters up on the mountain so that he and the other two disciples could keep on looking at Jesus in all his glory.
This is the difference between the glory of the law and the glory of the gospel. God gave his law through Moses. God’s glory is revealed in his law. His law is his will for our behavior. It is the permanent and unchanging standard that shows us the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. What is sin? What is righteousness? His law tells us. At no other time or place did God express his perfect and permanent moral law as clearly as he did on Sinai where he gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
The glory of the law reveals the shame and guilt of our sin. You shall, God says. But we didn’t. He says what we are to do. When we don’t do it the glory of God reveals the sin in our hearts. The law shows we did not do the deeds kindness required. We did instead what hatred desired. Sins bubble up from the sinful ferment deep inside of us. The face of Moses frightens us because we see a glory that we do not have. Whenever we see the law we see our own sin.
This doesn’t make the law bad. It makes us bad. So we turn our faces away from Moses. We think of God and we think of the law. So we are afraid of God. When he talks, we cower in fear, just like Peter, James, and John. But when they look at Jesus’ face shining like the sun and his clothes as brilliantly white as white can be they are gazing on God’s glory and are unafraid. Then the voice comes from heaven. It comes out of the cloud that signifies God’s presence. God speaks, and they fall down on their faces in fear.
After the Father identifies Jesus as his beloved Son in whom he is well pleased and after he says to hear his Son, what happens? Jesus touches them and speaks. He says, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” The Father’s voice terrified them. The voice that terrified them told them to listen to a different voice, the voice of Jesus. The voice of Jesus does not terrify us. It tells us not to be afraid. Why shouldn’t we be afraid? When God spoke his law through Moses, the people saw his glory reflected on Moses’s face and they were afraid and when the Father spoke from the cloud, the disciples were afraid. But the words that come from Jesus take away our fear. Why is that?
John, one of the three men up on the mountain with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, explains. In his introduction to his Gospel, he writes:
Peter, James, and John saw Christ’s glory. It is the glory of the only begotten of the Father. It’s God’s glory. But this glory doesn’t make us afraid. Christ is the Word made flesh. In him is grace and truth. His glory is the glory of grace and truth. If you strip grace away from Christ’s glory, his glory will terrify you. But when you join glory to grace, it will forgive you, rescue you, comfort you, strengthen you, and bring you to glory.
But you cannot join glory to grace. Only God can. In Jesus God’s grace and glory are joined together. Jesus is God in the flesh. Our God is our brother. As our brother he brought God’s glory to us. What was Jesus talking about with Moses and Elijah? St. Luke, in his account of this event, tells us that they were talking about Christ’s death. Moses and Elijah were the most courageous of all the Old Testament prophets. Moses stood up to Pharaoh – the most powerful man in the world – with nothing but God’s word to sustain him. He defied Pharaoh and became God’s instrument in setting Israel free from slavery.
Elijah was a true prophet surrounded by false prophets. He condemned idolatry when doing so could get a man killed. But God did not permit his enemies to kill him. Elijah never died. Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus on the mountain where he revealed his glory to Peter, James, and John. They talked about Christ’s impending death on the cross for the sin of the world.
Moses and Elijah represent the Old Testament. Peter, James, and John represent the New Testament. They all speak of Jesus. They all proclaim his crucifixion. They teach us about God’s grace, his undeserved kindness, his love for the unlovable, and the full and free forgiveness of sins that flow from his death into our lives.
God’s glory apart from Jesus is the glory of the law that condemns us all to hell. God’s glory in Christ is the glory of the gospel that forgives us all our sins and sends us to heaven. On the mountain, his clothes became as white as light. White signifies the forgiveness of sins. Through Isaiah, God said:
In Baptism, we put on Christ as a white robe that covers all our sins. St. Paul writes, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:26-27) To be washed in baptism is to be washed in Christ’s blood. St. John describes the saints in heaven in Revelation 7:14, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
God is glorified today. When a baby is baptized, God is glorified. A little baby who cannot talk, cannot work, cannot do anything but receive is perfectly situated to receive God’s grace. As St. Paul put it:
Peter was a religious busy body. The church has plenty of those! Let’s do something! Build three tents. Capture the moment! Be quiet Peter, you can’t listen when you’re talking. You can’t receive God’s grace when you’re busy doing all sorts of pious looking stuff God never told you to do. You need to be like a little child. You need to be helpless.
Just as the eternal Word hid his glory in the human nature he assumed from the Virgin Mary, so he hides his glory in the ordinary water of the font. When joined by God’s promise to the death and resurrection of Jesus it becomes a washing of rebirth unto eternal life.
Listen to Jesus! He’s your true teacher. He teaches the law even more strictly than Moses. Jesus says that lusting in your heart is committing adultery. He tells us to love our enemies. He says if we refuse to be reconciled with the brother we have wronged, we will be put into a prison from which we cannot escape. He teaches us to love those who hate us. No one preaches the law more strictly than Jesus.
But when Jesus tells you what to do, he is not consigning you to punishment. He is reminding you of your identity. Be what you are. You are washed in the blood that cleanses you from all sin. You are righteous. You are holy. You are a saint. Jesus doesn’t scare the devil out of you. He crushes the devil’s head under his heel. By his suffering, he bore all of the sin and all of the guilt and all of the punishment against the sin of all people everywhere. We glory in the cross of Jesus’ suffering and death because that’s where our sins are washed away. It’s where God’s glory is most clearly revealed. God is glorified in being gracious to us in our need. When the Father identifies his only begotten Son as the Son he loves and in whom he is well pleased, he is speaking to us. God is pleased with us who have put on Christ in Holy Baptism. He is well pleased with us who wear the white garments of salvation,
Don’t tell anybody about this, Jesus said, until after he has risen from the dead. Don’t talk about glory until you talk about suffering. He must go to the cross. He must be shamed. He must be forsaken. He must be punished. He must die for the sins of all sinners. After he rises from the dead, having defeated death, he will be glorified forever and ever. But there is no short cut. His road to glory sent him to suffer and die for us.
So it is for us who are baptized in Christ’s name. We die to sin every day. We die to this world. We die to our own sinful desires. Every day God raises us up to new life. He forgives us our sins. He covers us in a robe of forgiveness that is as white as light. The glorious transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain foreshadows the glory that God will reveal in us. Here we die with him. There we will be glorified with him and enjoy peace with God and with one another forever and ever.
Rolf D. Preus