You never know what is around the corner when it comes to God’s plans. During these days of Covid lockdowns and restrictions, life can be a bit mundane – but watch out! God’s providence and sovereignty and ability to transform and change circumstances may catch you on the hop! Such an encounter equally took three of Jesus’ disciples by surprise at the transfiguration.
The transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain (probably Hermon) near Caesarea Philippi is interesting, not just because of the dynamics of the supernatural involved, but because of the valuable insights that it offers. Every page in scripture speaks of God’s great purposes and plans, and provides unambiguous glimpses into His character, mercy and kindness and this is no exception. Here in one complete account of such a moment (Coming from three contributions; Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36) is a valuable, compelling and challenging story.
The transfiguration of Jesus is spectacular, but in the sheer pace of the gospel narrative it can be overlooked as the writers engage the reader’s attention ever towards the Cross, Christ’s death and resurrection. Here in the accumulated story, what is immediately interesting is that the apostle James and John who were both eye witnesses to the event, do not contribute to this story (but in John’s epistles later there is a subtle clue): “And after six days Jesus took with him, Peter, and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves, to pray.
And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white, white as light – his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him, who appeared in glory. And they were talking with Jesus and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
This is not a normal, dozing off that might happen on Sunday morning
Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said. He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, my Chosen One, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And when the voice had spoken, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.”
Only Christ shines brightly
What has to be said unhesitatingly about this narrative is that the focus is on Christ alone. Others who are in attendance are incidental and even James (the younger brother of Jesus) remains barely visible in the events that unfold. This is a crucial issue for the prophetic ministry – everything that is done and said points to us setting our devotion and focus on Christ alone, not on our ministries. It is not mentioned that Moses and Elijah had any glory of their own either, all of the attention here is being drawn to Christ and any sideways glance serves only to show His purposes and the disciples folly as they continue walking in discipleship. As they discover and learn about Jesus they also learn much about themselves, mostly in retrospect and in reflection.
Have we really seen Jesus?
The transfiguration was a spectacular and intimate moment where Christ did not so much transform into someone resplendent with glory, but there was the revealing of ultimate reality. Christ was seen for a brief moment as He genuinely is. The veil of human carnal discernment momentarily lifted revealing the intense presence of Christ’s blinding glory. The response of the disciples was an understandable one, and yet so distant from a few misguided testimonies of some today who, in a carefree manner talk of encountering Jesus with little or no concern – as if meeting with a friend. (Selah!) In contrast, the disciples were terrified.
Sleep well, the glory is coming!
Does the tangible Presence of God and overwhelm the disciples?
Peter, James and John seem to have a particular trouble keeping awake when Jesus is praying. Here, as in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prays deep sleep seems to descend upon them. I wonder about this. Are they describing something of the weighty presence of God that the word ‘Chabod’ (glory) refers to? This is not a normal, dozing off that might happen on Sunday morning after a long night previously – they were heavy with sleep. I have a prophetic friend who has felt suddenly very tired during the day, and while succumbing to sleep has had insights from God into situations that others face.
It is worthwhile considering the encouragement of Joel’s prophetic word that one of the principal ways of God’s revelation to mankind, particularly the old, is that they dream dreams. It is worth considering that the heavy sleep that brings sudden dreams could surely be akin to this kind of sleep. (As an aside, have you considered that as Christ intercedes, that the Father and the Spirit respond to the Son’s petition and the full, weighty Presence of God is present? Does that suggest something here, and at Gethsemene, that the Presence is tangible and overwhelms the disciples?)
Issues at hand
The focus of the transfiguration and the conversation that Jesus has with Moses and Elijah is Jesus’ departure which was shortly to take place in Jerusalem. Nothing of the content of that discussion is reported, and none of the disciples allude to it in any apparent or indirect way. But it is a primary focus and the gospels are keen to show that, despite all the phenomena of Jesus’ ministry, in the background all of the time is the impending suffering of the cross.
I perceive that behind all that we see that is happening in this day in the international church in terms of preaching, salvation, signs, wonders and miracles is the overwhelming and magnificent call for us to radically ensure that Christ is central and glorified in everything we think, say and do. In sober terms, only Christ is worthy of, and actually capable of receiving all glory. Only God can carry the immense weight of glory on His shoulders that He alone is worthy of – expressed best by Revelation 7:9-11
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:
“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
Holding His Presence
If the disciples fell asleep, it could have been a 20-minute ‘power-nap’ !
We are not told how long the entire transfiguration episode lasted. If the disciples fell asleep, it could have been a 20-minute ‘power-nap’ but as the glory slowly appeared to diminish and the encounter looked to be ending Peter comes up with an idea that will last an hour or so, “Let me build a tent or tabernacle for you.” The Scripture says that Peter said this, not knowing what he said. This story is not bad. There are times when God moves that we simply have no framework of reference as to what to do next. Or even if we should do anything.
Part of the problem during the Toronto outpouring of the Spirit and other times of renewal or refreshing is that we have often tried to control what God is doing, and to fit it into our own convenient structures. This is a challenge as we emerge from pandemic days where the Church has found new ways of functioning, and where other opportunities are evolving and being tried and tested. We are in uncharted waters where we do well to avoid attempting to scramble for the solace of the old ways of doing things. There is reward for the times where we pursue God with faith and courage, avoiding our own civilised propriety so that the Kingdom of God may advance through, not in spite of us.
[Away from the topic a little, but Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development is interesting as you see how we are making progression in church life during lockdown. The “forming–storming–norming–performing” model of group development suggested that for business, that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for a team to grow, face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work, and deliver results. It’s a business model, but worth thinking about!]
Back to Peter. Peter must have felt at this moment (when the glory begins to lift), that he had done something akin to touching the Ark of the Covenant. A sudden luminous cloud overshadowed them, fear gripped them and then a voice from the Father spoke resulting in them falling on their faces, terrified. And then suddenly everything was back to the normal, ordinary, standard way of life. It is almost like a scene from a C.S. Lewis adventure. It is an incredible, bewildering, perplexing and amazing moment, and as quick as it came it was over. God encounters, however intense, impact you forever.
Touched by Jesus
Having heard the testimonial message of the Father concerning the Son, the disciples in their terror, will no doubt have been profoundly impacted by the kindness of Jesus. They had seen Jesus in gentle compassion reaching out his hand and touching men, women and children bringing comfort, encouragement, genuine forgiveness and blessing. Other times Jesus has reached out his willing hand in healing the blind, the deaf, the leper – the dead. And now, here comes Jesus who reaches out his hand and touches them. As they lay on their face in terror, He came and touched them and reassured them to ‘rise and have no fear.’ He is an incredibly kind saviour. History concurs.
This event revealed Christ as whom He really is…
There is a complication with these verses to do with the presence of Moses and Elijah. Some broach the issue of Moses being dead and yet is alive and talking to Jesus. The historian Josephus tried to explain away the issue of Moses’ death by saying that Moses did not die, but just wrote that he did so that the Israelites would not idolise him. That would be deception – so we can dismiss that. We must always keep Scripture and not reasoning as the authority for what we say and do. Josephus ignored the scripture where God says, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel”. ( Joshua 1:2) Some say we are talking of a vision and not a real event, but this limits God’s ability to do what is beyond our comprehension. The story ends with Jesus and the disciples walking away from the Mountain and Jesus pressing the disciples to say nothing about the event until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.
Do you think they understood what He meant? There is a lot of content in this story that raises other questions: the law, the prophets, Moses and Elijah. These are valid questions, but distraction comes easily to us – the focus is Christ. This event revealed Christ as whom He really is. Conceivably our challenge is to see His transfiguration in life and society today. Not as someone who He will be, but grasping how He has been depicted by our age and culture (and the Church) and reveal Him as He truly is. The gauntlet thrown down by J.B. Phillips is an excellent place to end here, posing the question from the title of his book – “Your God is Too Small”.
Let’s see our great God for whom He truly is and begin to disciple the nations.