Luke 9:27-36 “‘I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’ About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’ When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no-one at that time what they had seen.”
At the centre of Luke’s gospel, at the very heart of this revelation of the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, we see the fierce light of glory shining forth. We meet a glorified Christ. The Lord Jesus has reached a pivotal point in his ministry. He has laid down some great requirements for discipleship. Then Jesus tells them he will come again in his Father’s glory with the holy angels, and they themselves are going to see the kingdom of God coming with power.
The whole gospel of Luke is now redirected. It has, as it were, gone over the watershed of its development, and from this moment on the narrative drives towards Golgotha and resurrection. It is at this point that the Lord Jesus takes his disciples aside. He selects three of them, Peter, James and John, and he takes them with him up a high mountain with absolutely no one else about. It is Luke alone who tells us that Jesus has gone there to pray (v.28), and it was as he was praying, “the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (v.29).
We are being told here of an occasion when the veil between heaven and earth was lifted and heaven appeared on earth. Think of it! When the mortal body of Jesus was transfigured, when the spirits of just men made perfect appeared and talked with Christ, and when the voice of our great Creator God was heard declaring the Lord Jesus to be God’s own beloved Son. Think of it! This scene is too high for us. Its grandeur gives us a sense of oppression. Its mystery surpasses our comprehension. Its glory is ineffable.
This narrative in Luke 9 comes to us accompanied by those ringing words which George Frederick Handel took up and put into his Messiah, the cry of the prophet Isaiah to the church, “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee”(Isa. 60:1). Handel scores that as a great aria, and then the whole choir rises to respond, “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” What Isaiah predicted has here been fulfilled, and it is time for the church to heed the prophet’s words, to arise, to shake off dull sloth, to remove our lights from under their bushels, and lift them high. We have the grandeur of Christ to show to mankind; God’s own glory has been revealed in this world. Behold your glorious Lord!
The world has nothing in which to glory; fading is the worldling’s treasure, all his boasting, pomp and show. Here is lasting glory, and we Christians must be the first ones to be blinded by it, if the world is ever going to get a glimpse of it. We need to rise up as men of God, seeing afresh how utterly glorious the Lord Jesus Christ is – for our own individual lives’ sakes we must. What a plodding life it would be, just to be ‘religious,’ never to survey the beauties of the Son of God. Who do you think you are serving? Some guru? A wise teacher? Far more than all of that: Jesus Christ is the doxa, the glory of God. We need to see this for the ministry of evangelism in our age. It is not enough to have friendship evangelism, indispensable though it is; the age demands glory evangelism. Are the Bible studies that pass as sermons in many evangelical pulpits today showing to the world the glory of the Lord? Peter did not speak about himself and the wonderful mountain-top experience he had. Men might have asked him to tell them what it was like to be on the mountain with Jesus. “How did it feel?” He would say, “I was so afraid . . . I didn’t know what to say . . . my ‘feelings’ are not important . . . but let me tell you about Jesus Christ. He is the glory of God.” We need to understand that once, 2000 years ago, in the midst of this created world, the glorious Creator revealed himself to men in his glorious Son Jesus Christ. Philip Doddridge sings of this evangelistic motif:
Perish each thought of human pride,
Let God alone be glorified;
His glory let the heavens resound,
Shouted from earth’s remotest bound.
We are often tempted to give up serving Christ because it is unrewarding and frustrating. The sight that the gospel writers give to us here of Jesus’ transfiguration is a great remedy for such despair; it is a ‘divine cordial.’ This scene on the mountain top is God’s gracious pledge to us of what lies in store for us: “When Christ, who is our life shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Cols. 3:4). The top woman cyclist in Wales is Nicole Cooke, and one day she says she felt so weary, battling it out mile after mile up and down the mountain roads of Wales, pumping her legs round and round relentlessly in a pack of road racers, aching and gasping for breath, trying to handle that stitch in her side. Then she saw a sign that someone had painted on the side of the road and it lifted her spirits. This is what it said, “Pain is temporary: Glory is everlasting.”
Consider the concept of everlasting glory, glory that never wearies or bores, glory without any frustration or repetition at all, glory that is newly minted each moment, in fact growing more enthralling as time goes by. Consider it for a moment, that it could exist and that it is absolute reality. I am asking you this: don’t you honestly, in your heart of hearts, long for that eternity rather than give a shrug of bravado saying “You’ll take ceasing to exist?” Come on! Be honest and real! Being snuffed out? Surely your ambition in life can’t be annihilation – so that you . . . cease . . . to . . . be? “I . . . . shall . . . be . . .nothing!” What horror! Nothing at all! Not that goal – surely that can’t be your hope? No, not that. We are looking here at the glory of heaven. There must be some longing for that in your heart? Hear this – “In they presence is fullness of joy, and at thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.” “Well, if it existed,” you say grudgingly, “of course I would want it.” Would you? I want to assure you that it does exist, because we have been given a divine guarantee of its existence. It is this incident which has been read in your hearing. This is not a cleverly invented story. This was not a theatrical stunt, a trick being played on these three men and Jesus, with actors pretending to be Moses and Elijah with cotton wool beards, and a man hiding behind a rock with a deep voice saying, “This is my beloved Son” and special lighting effects highlighting a pious kneeling Jesus all in front of the three gawping yokels, eyes popping out like organ stops, scared stiff! Get real! This happened on this planet, in calendar time, and in space – where a degree of latitude crossed a degree of longitude, and three sharp young men saw it.
If one man should say to you, “I think I’ve seen a ghost,” then you’d look at him for a long time with an eyebrow raised. We would all be properly sceptical, but if three fishermen down at the harbour, in dead earnest, with a look of fear about them, all said to you in deep seriousness that they had seen a ghost, then you would know that they had certainly seen something unusual.
Let me read to you what one of those three men, Peter, later recorded in his second letter, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Pet.1:16-18). Peter was an eyewitness. He was there at the time, and both Matthew and Mark report the same incident in their gospels just as Luke does here. Three times it is recorded in the New Testament, and, unusually, it is also one of the few incidents in the life of Jesus which is referred to in an epistle. The biblical writers are all uncomplicated men, hardly the kind who could build up a whole tissue of lies that would obfuscate thousands of people. These were men who would lay down their very lives for the facticity of these things that the apostles had seen and heard. Remember that James, one of these three eyewitnesses, was to be killed by Herod in a few years’ time for preaching Jesus the Son of God. Do you think he could be a party to deception on the grandest of all scales and then let himself be brutally killed for the sake of a conspiracy?
You don’t need me to remind you of the importance of eyewitness testimony in deciding the truthfulness or falsity of cases coming up to judgment. Our own faith as Christians and our gospel is based upon history, upon witnesses who were sensible people observing what happened and out of their depth. You see how Peter did not know how to respond and so he suggests to Jesus that he erect three shelters. Luke tells us “He did not know what he was saying” (v.33). What a ring of reality that provides. What has been read in your hearing from the New Testament actually happened, and so all of life changes. We are saying to you this, that men on this earth have actually glimpsed the glory of heaven.
This is what John later wrote, “And we beheld his glory, as the glory of the only-begotten Son of God” (Jn. 1:14). We are affirming that it was not necessary for Peter, James and John to die to discover what lies after death. It is not necessary for you to have to wait for death to know what lies beyond. If you are a follower and servant of Jesus Christ then know this, that glory lies beyond the grave. Peter had been an eyewitnesses of heaven’s glory as a young man. Henceforth he had no fear of death, and certainly he had no temptation to believe in reincarnation did he? Here was Moses who had breathed his last 1400 years earlier. He is still Moses. He has not metamorphosed many times over the centuries in a cycle of deaths and rebirths into many different people or even animals, while Elijah is still Elijah almost 700 years later. Peter saw them and he saw Christ transfigured by the glories of heaven. That is what lies before us all if we are joined by saving faith to Christ – a meeting with this Christ. This one who was seen by Peter we proclaim to you today in the good news. We are saying to you that this is true truth, and so it is ultimate reality; this is what life is all about, glorifying and enjoying God. Peter said that it was good for them to be there (v.33) – there in the presence of a God who speaks to men. He does not say that it was dreadful and he was unhappy. There is a wonderfully satisfying moral goodness about heaven.
There is a city bright, closed are its gates to sin,
Nought that defileth; nought that defileth, ever can enter in.
The only alternative to that great glorious goodness of the living God is to find something inside your own heart and life. I was shown something that the film star Melanie Griffith wrote in a letter to herself on her website: “Dear Inner Self, if it is your will, please reveal to me in a dream the secret of my success in order to become closer to you. With love and respect – Melanie.” How sad. What is this Celebrity X-factor? It is monstrous self-belief. Why do modestly talented entertainers say such overblown, pretentious things? Has no one said to Ms. Griffith, “Don’t say that; it’s seriously silly. Just read Mark’s gospel through and get in touch with reality.” You cannot find an explanation for life if you simply go in and in and in and explore the caverns of your own souls. The only map to them is the Bible. The singer sings, “I can’t fight this feeling any more” O yes you can. You fight greed and anger and retaliation and envy and lust and hatred and bitterness and self-pity every day of your life with the help of God, and you never stop! Trying to make the journey of life without the Scriptures is like arriving in a foreign country not knowing a word of their language and without a guide and without a map. You get nowhere fast. Please don’t give the impression that this is where everyone is and anyone who wants to be taken seriously has to admit this sooner or later – we are all lost, there is no map and no one knows why we are here. That is not profound, and it is not true. It is a lie from the pit. Come here to the mountain! We must all become like children, recognise our vulnerability, and look to places outside our own little circle for answers. The world must come here first of all, to the Mount of Transfiguration; there you will find your deepest questions answered. God is light and in him is no darkness at all, and his Son Jesus Christ manifests his own bright glory to the world.
1. JESUS WAS TRANSFIGURED BEFORE MEN.
Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (v. 29). That is, as he was in the presence of God, in communion and fellowship with his Father, this metamorphosis occurred. It was not while he was eating or sleeping, and not while he as at a feast or at a wedding reception that this event occurred. Such activities were lawful for the Son of Man, as they are for us, but there was no transfiguration in them. It was as Jesus drew apart from the world, and went into a quiet and secret place – Mark tells us “they were all alone” (Mk. 9:2) – and there, while in prayer, this glory came upon him. Now none of the evangelists tell us what Jesus was praying about, but there is the old adage, “If you desire to understand what follows, remember what went before.” In other words, look back and see that Christ had been telling these three men and the apostles in Caesarea Philippi that he must go to Jerusalem, and he must be rejected and killed (v.22). The shadow of the cross had fallen over him. Then he had spoken to them of his future glory, when he came again at the end of the world.
So Jesus then goes for a season of prayer to his Father with these same themes on his heart, and the transfiguration is God’s answer. God confers this honour and glory upon him in this unique way. The same pattern is to occur later in the garden of Gethsemane. The cup of death was present there as it is here. The cross was visible to Jesus’ spiritual eye and he prayed for resolve to take what was God’s will for him, for courage to drain the cup to the dregs. The same three disciples were present with him in Gethsemane as they are here on the mountain. He didn’t want to be absolutely destitute of company when in that lonely place with that burden of Golgotha on his heart. When he has prayed God sends an angel to comfort him. So the transfiguration is God answering prayer in a remarkable way, “Yes. Carry on your redemptive mission.” The Father is giving to the Son special strength and patience, coming to our meek and lowly Saviour and pouring the glories of heaven all over him, and then bringing the greatest of the inhabitants of heaven to speak to him. Finally speaking himself, God repeats aloud – so that the three men can hear him – what he’d said at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my Son and I love you so much. Now you listen to what my Son says” (v.35).
2. HOW JESUS WAS TRANSFIGURED.
So how was the Lord Jesus transfigured? What happened was this, as we understand it, that there was a glorious alteration in the appearance and qualities of Jesus’ body. There was no substantial change, that is, in the substance of his body – his breathing, his brain, his internal organs – none of them changed. His particular likeness didn’t change – the disciples still recognised him as Jesus of Nazareth. That is still, and eternally will be, who was there on the mountain with them, the man Christ Jesus. He didn’t cease being a true human being, but this occurred: in the outward form of the body there was a divinely wrought change, giving it a coruscating glory and majesty than it had not had throughout Jesus’ entire life until that moment.
In other words, the change was not in Peter, James and John’s perception of Christ, that now they better understood how glorious he’d always been. No. There was little change in them as Peter’s subsequent response indicates. The change was uniquely in him. The change was not in the imagination of men, it was a metamorphosis in our Lord Christ himself. When King Herod Agrippa once sat in garments made out of a cloth of silver, and the sun shone upon them (so Josephus records), and he made a speech to a vast crowd then that Rentamob cried in response – so Luke tells us – “The voice of a god and not of a man” (Acts 12:21-23). That was all a stage-managed pantomime, the sort of behaviour orchestrated by every infamous dictator to the present day.
It was not like that with Jesus. His very appearance changed beyond description. The apostle John, who had been on the mountain top, was to be given another sight of this glorious Christ many years later when he was an old man on the flat prison island of Patmos. There on one Lord’s Day the glorified reigning Christ came to him there. He can only describe the glorified Christ by one simile after another: “His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters . . . His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance” (Rev. 1:14-16). The sight was such that John fell at his feet as though dead. That is something of how Jesus appeared to John on the mountain top. Let us notice three things about the change that took place in the Lord Jesus:
i] Jesus’ face changed. Luke is the gospel writer who emphasizes that fact; “the appearance of his face changed” (Lk. 9:29). I don’t suppose that that was unique to the Lord Jesus except for the degree of the change. I am saying that other men in the Bible who were moved with great zeal for God have also had a change of countenance. Moses’ face was so bright after meeting with God that the people were terrified to look at him and he needed to put a veil over his face. Stephen was speaking to the Jewish council and we are told, “All that sat in the council, looking steadfastly upon him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). Knowing God can affect the very appearance of men and women, like knowing sin hardens and degrades a person’s face. We are told by Solomon in Ecclesiastes 8:1 that “Wisdom brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance.” Haven’t we seen what conversion can do to the whole mien of a man? There is no one more careful than Iain Murray in talking of physical phenomena, who hesitates about exaggerating and giving the outward a special significance. We all know that those are the easiest things for the devil to counterfeit. But Iain Murray kept visiting Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones up to the last month of his life and he said quietly, in my hearing, that there was an illumination or a glow that seemed to light up the Doctor’s face at that time. He was being changed from one degree of glory to another, and that was registering in his very appearance. Such changes may happen more often than we are aware. There was a change in Jesus’ face.
ii] Jesus’ whole being was changed. With our Lord it was not his face alone, he himself was transfigured before them. It was the Son of Man himself who was being glorified. Whatever phenomenon was this, or whatever the three men actually saw as they looked and looked at the transfigurated Jesus, it is important for us to grasp that this description is not talking about a shaft of light that shone on Jesus from the outside. Luke is talking about a light that shone from within our Lord. This was no stage-managed spectacle with bright lights and carefully directed spotlights directed upon him. This illumination came from within Jesus. This was a display of the eternal and essential glory of the Son of God, which he had had with the Father before the creation of the world.
Again, let us also see this, that this transfiguration was not a statement about what Jesus was about to become. It wasn’t a declaration about the exaltation that awaited him, although it is certainly no less than that. Pre-eminently it is a statement about the glory that had always belonged to him. A glory that is inherently and natively his as the eternal Son of God who is very God of very God. So that before this holy one, and before no other, we can bow the knee and we can say of him, “The Lord of glory! My Lord and my God!”
iii] Notice also this, that Jesus’ “clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (v.29). There was no man or woman in the whole world who could produce clean clothes which shone as Jesus’ clothes did there. This reference to his clothes is important. The New Testament pays some attention to the clothes Jesus wore. In his infancy he was wrapped in swaddling clothes and put to sleep in a manger. On the cross he was stripped of all his clothes and they gambled for the robe. In the tomb he wore grave clothes. You will remember that the narrative of the Fall of man also draws our attention to clothes, to the fact that God clothed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. One of the effects of the Fall was not only that they had become conscious of their nakedness but they were ashamed and embarrassed by it. They had been conscious of being naked before this time, but they were not fazed by having no clothes. Then the Fall had this immediate affect of distorting the whole psychology of Adam and Eve so that they were ashamed of themselves and their nakedness. They couldn’t handle this development. God’s provision of clothing for them was through his own great grace. Even in the words of judgment, when he had to drive them out of the Garden, responding in his own holy rectitude to their rebellion and their breaking of the covenant, God was yet gracious to them and he clothed them.
Isn’t it a remarkable thing that in the New Testament we meet a divine Saviour who is clothed? Why does he need to be clothed? He has taken a human body and human nature and a reasonable soul. He is here in the world of men and he is identifying with sinners, yet he’s not sinning. He is not capable of sinning, and he is not ashamed of who or what he is. Jesus is not ashamed of his own nakedness. He perfectly accepts his own body, and loves it and thanks God for it as it is. There is in him no shame at all. The Lord Jesus was not like those exhibitionist naked ramblers or cyclists who walk or cycle cross the land getting arrested and fined many times. How pathetic and utterly misguided and slimy it all seems. The Son of God was clothed, and part of the reason he was clothed was because he identified himself with sinners. He stood in solidarity with sinful men and women. But the very clothes that he wore – covering a body that had been prepared and given to him by God – are a reminder to us of the fact that when he came into this world the divine glory that belonged to him was eclipsed. He is God the Son, eternal, infinite and unchangeable in all he is and does. When he became man and took a true body and a reasonable soul, he didn’t lay aside his glory. However, he did veil it; he was eclipsing his glory.
Let us be accurate on that point. Jesus laid aside nothing, and yet he veiled everything. He became man, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient to death even the accursed death of the cross, and yet the full deity was there – eclipsed – all the time. Here in our text we see him on a mountain top with three men watching him. Here he is, the seed of the woman. He is a man among men, and yet here he is transfigured man, his glory bursts out, and this phenomenal transformation affects the very clothes he has put on. His glory shines through the form that he has taken in incarnation.
So the events of the mount of transfiguration occur to encourage our Lord; he is given there a foretaste of the glory that awaited him. This great reward for his agony and bloody sweat, his obedience to death, is his. What he has spoken about to his disciples, coming again “in his glory, and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (v.26) received this wonderful ‘Amen” from his Father. God lifts him up to heaven, and his face shines like the sun. “Soon you’ll enter an eternal joy which is set before you.” He has solemnly spoken to them and said to them, “‘I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’” (v.27). They see it! King Jesus, glorified and exalted. The greatest men of the Old Testament coming to see him. God the Father speaking acknowledging his sonship and the special love he has for him. That is the glory of the kingdom of God, Jesus Christ exalted in the midst of apostles, the representative of the prophets and the law-expounder.
The repeated theme of this incident is the emphasis on what a sight had come to the eyes of the disciples. The ‘appearance’ of Jesus’ face changed before their eyes. His familiar lovely forehead and eyes and cheeks and mouth and chin were slowly transformed. They began to glow; they became dazzlingly bright with heavenly glory. Then we are told that those disciples beheld Moses and Elijah with him. They saw Christ’s “glory and the two men standing with him” (v.32). You too have seen this today as the word of God has come to you. This is what happened on the mount and I am glad that you have seen it, but seeing it is not enough. The apostles saw it but they didn’t understand the spectacle. In fact they distorted it. Seeing in not always believing. So, from emphasising what they saw, Luke in this chapter tells us it is important to hear the explanation of what we have seen. There is a voice that comes from heaven that they all heard, and the voice is the voice of God, and God says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (v.35).
Who is this one being transfigured on the mountain? It is Jesus their teacher. Who is Jesus? He is God’s Son. Who says? Peter? James? John? No. Does he claim it? Yes, but not here. It is God speaking and owning his Son. Are there not times when you want to acknowledge your family, when you are so moved by their goodness and great achievements that you say to people, “He’s my son”? Then the Christ you have seen today transfigured on the Mount is the only-begotten Son of God. And when God is speaking of him he says to you, “Listen to him.” God may say, “Listen to the preacher,” if I speak the truth, but he certainly says, “Listen to my Son” because he says everything that the Father gave him to say. He always speaks the truth. So when he says, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (v.26) then listen to him. Do not be ashamed of Jesus and his words. Listen when he says, “You must be born again!” Listen when he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Listen when he says, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Listen to God the Son!
8th November 2009 GEOFF THOMAS