A Vision of Heaven
The Transfiguration of our Lord| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 20, 2013| 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
What do you think of Jesus? He was the greatest teacher who ever lived, the greatest of all prophets. He is the only man who ever lived a perfectly holy life, never sinning in thought, word, or deed. He healed the sick, stilled the storm, changed water into wine, and even raised the dead. Jesus did as no one ever had done or has done since.
“But who do you say I am?” That’s what Jesus asked his disciples as recorded in the chapter of Matthew just before our text for today. Peter gave the Christian answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus told Peter he was blessed to know that, that God the Father had revealed it to him. But shortly after Jesus said Peter was blessed he called him Satan. That was when Jesus told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed, and rise from the dead and Peter said no, this must not happen. Jesus called Peter Satan because he was promoting a satanic doctrine. It is the doctrine of fallen and sinful humanity that rejects suffering and death and insists on enjoying glory without the cross.
But there is no glory without the cross. What were Moses and Elijah talking about with Jesus? They were talking about his death. Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes were as white as light and they were talking about his impending death.
Moses and Elijah weren’t just two guys taken at random. They represented God’s word, both written and proclaimed. Moses wrote. He wrote the first five books of the Bible. These books were known as the Law of Moses and they were the written standard by which all other prophets and their writings were to be judged.
Elijah preached. He was a fearless and uncompromising preacher, most famous for his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. The false prophets of the false god couldn’t get their god to answer their prayers, but the Triune God answered Elijah’s prayers and sent fire from heaven.
Moses and Elijah were both prophets. Moses wrote. Elijah preached. They were there with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration because Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the prophetic word. The written and the preached word of God focus on Jesus. He is the chief topic of the Holy Scriptures. He is the chief topic of Christian preaching. He is why we come to church. He is why we read our Bibles. If you want to know what God has to say listen to Jesus. If you want to see God, look to Jesus. If you want to know God you must know his only begotten Son, for he alone reveals him to you.
Jesus must go to the cross to take away our sin. That’s what Jesus was discussing with Moses and Elijah. But before he went to the cross God showed Peter, James, and John something he wanted them to see and later to write about so that we could see it through their words. Look at Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration and see who he is.
He is God. This is shown by his face shining like the sun. The glory of God shines through him. St. John wrote of him, “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” This is the mystery of Christmas revealed in unimaginable beauty. Christmas was in the original instance a very humble kind of affair. After all, Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. But here on the mountain his glory shines forth. His true nature as the eternal God is not hidden under humility and weakness. It is revealed clearly. Look at Jesus on the mountain and see God.
His clothes are white. Listen to what God said through the prophet Isaiah:
“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord,
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.”
White is the color of forgiveness and thus it is the color of innocence. White signifies cleansing. But Jesus needs no cleansing. He has never sinned. We have sinned. We have broken God’s commandments. We stand before God guilty and condemned unless he forgives us our sins for Christ’s sake. His white robes signify our forgiveness. This is why pastors wear white robes. They are appointed by God to preach the forgiveness of sins. So look at Jesus wearing dazzling white, a white that is whiter than any white you have ever seen, and see in that bright white the absence of all sin. See yourself, dear Christian. For he belongs to you. He gives himself to you. His robe of righteousness covers you and makes you righteous.
Now listen. You have seen his face shining like the sun. You have seen the clothes as white as light. You have seen. Now is the time to listen. “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” Hear him. Pay attention to what he says. Peter was talking about setting up some tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – save the moment because that was a moment to save, was it not? A vision of heaven is what it was! Peter was talking and God interrupted him. Peter stopped talking and listened. That’s what you should do when God interrupts you. Be quiet and listen.
You can’t listen when you’re talking. Most religious talk is wasted words not worth speaking. That’s because when people draw from what lies within them – their own religious impulses and feelings – they invariably get it wrong because they don’t think like God even if they think they do. Peter undoubtedly thought he had a bright idea with the tents. God had a different opinion.
“This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear him.” That’s what God the Father said. It frightened them. The voice from the Father in heaven frightened them. St. Matthew records that they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus touched them, told them to get up, and said not to be afraid. Moses and Elijah were gone. The voice from heaven was no more. Just Jesus was there. The Father speaks to us through Jesus. The written word of God is all about Jesus. The preached word is the word Jesus himself preaches through his ministers and the subject matter is always Jesus. Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. That’s what God the Father said on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus revealed his divine glory.
After the Father told the three disciples to listen to Jesus, Jesus said two things. First, he said, “Don’t be afraid.” Then he said, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” These two sayings go together. Don’t be afraid. And don’t tell anyone about Christ’s transfiguration until after he is risen from the dead. Fear comes from sin. The resurrection from the dead is God absolving us of our sin. Don’t talk about heaven until you have talked about sin and the forgiveness of sin.
The white robe of forgiveness, innocence, and purity is the robe we wear to gain entrance into heaven. Heaven is a place of perfect peace. There will be no sin or consequences of sin. This is why there will be no death, no pain, no disease, no sorrow, no mourning, no guilt, no regrets, no disappointments, no bitterness, no hatred, and no remorse. All these things come from sin and there is no sin in heaven. That’s what makes it heaven. Jesus on the mountain is heaven promised. When the Father pronounces his verdict of approval on his beloved Son he pronounces his verdict of approval on all who belong to him.
But Jesus didn’t gain heaven on that mountain. This we must understand. Jesus gained heaven on the mountain where he suffered for sin. If his glory were ever to become our glory so that we could share with him in the joy and the love and the perfection of heaven, he had to suffer the shame of the cross. This is why Jesus told his disciples to tell no one about what they saw on the mountain. Don’t talk about glory if you won’t talk about the cross.
Take these words to heart. They are intended for you. You want to go to heaven? Listen to what Jesus said as recorded by St. Matthew just a few verses prior to our text for today:
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
To pick up your cross and follow Jesus means to deny yourself. Whatever heaven requires, you cannot do it. Yet it must be done. Whatever is necessary to gain it is beyond your abilities, yet it must be gained if you are to have it. Deny yourself. You want to save yourself? Try to save your life and you will lose it. You must lose your life. Admit your sins and that you deserve death and that there is nothing you can do but mourn your failure. Then you will find the life you lost in Christ. He gains your life for you by going to the cross. He suffers in your place. He takes away your sin. He dies as the sacrifice for your sin or you don’t have a prayer of making it to heaven.
The Mount of Transfiguration is a promise. But it is a conditional promise. It is not conditioned on anything we achieve. It is conditioned on the suffering of Jesus. He has to go to the cross of Calvary to obtain the glory of heaven for us. Not for him. He earned nothing for his own sake. It was for us. All of it was for us. The suffering that takes away our sin is what brings us to glory.
What keeps us out of heaven? It cannot be our sins. Our sins were washed away on Calvary. What keeps us out of heaven? It is our unbelief. It is our insistence on justifying ourselves. It is rejecting the suffering and death of Jesus and laying claim to glory without the need of the cross. But Christ’s cross is needed. There is no heaven for anyone without it.
We don’t live on the mountain in glory. We live here on earth under the cross. The cross we bear is to lose everything else in life but Jesus. It hurts to lose what we love. But only Jesus’ words of forgiveness and salvation will remain. Everything else we love will be taken away. Thus God cures us of idolatry by smashing our idols. That hurts. Everyone we love dies. Everything we own is lost and destroyed. Only the word of God remains. Only Christ remains. So we live under the cross, looking for the glory that must remain hidden underneath Christ’s suffering. In that suffering is forgiveness for all our sins. That’s where heaven is to be found. If we won’t find heaven there we won’t find it. So we live under the shelter of the cross. God may give us a glimpse of heaven now and then while we live here on earth, but then perhaps he won’t. But he will give us the voice of his Son, telling us not to be afraid and inviting us to find refuge in his suffering and death for us. That’s what we do as we wait for the glory to be revealed in us when Christ returns to take us home. Amen