Mark 9:2-13 “After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, 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 to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’ Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant. And they asked him, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’ Jesus replied, ‘To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done with him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.'”
So many people believe that there are no absolutes; there is no truth. Some years ago I was speaking to a teenager who worked as a secretary in the local hospital. Her grandma occasionally came to this church and she accompanied her two of three times. Later she wanted me to take her marriage service. As we talked she said to me, “I don’t think that there are such things as right and wrong.” She believed that every single action was relative – we call that outlook ‘relativism.’ Her words were such an exact statement of what has become known as ‘post-modernism’ and they came from such an unexpected source, a teenager who had left school a couple of years earlier at the age of 16. I still remember my sense of surprise. All she would need to shatter that fantasy outlook of hers is for her home to broken into, vandalised, defecation on her bed, and her money and favourite pieces of jewelry to be stolen. Then her post-modern generosity to everybody else’s attitude to choose what was right from them to do would be destroyed. She’d protest, “Who could have done that? That’s wrong!” Let them burn her baby with a lighted cigarette and she will scream out that such actions are wicked, and then she would be right. But when these people want Christians to back off, and when they want to silence the voice of their consciences, they will claim that truth and righteousness constantly change, that there is nobody who can know anything definitely; we are all spending our days in a moral smog. We live in strange times; there are moral protest movements against fox-hunting, and the war in Iraq, and racism, and the French ban on religious headgear in state schools, and equal status for minority languages, and yet in Europe, since the Enlightenment, the bland background to everyday life is this denial of morality itself.
Dr Alan Bloom wrote his famous book, “The Closing of the American Mind” fifteen years ago. On the first page of that book he says that you can guarantee any student beginning his studies in university today comes to college persuaded that every value and every fact is relative, in other words, there are no absolute and ultimate standards of truth and ethics, just this, that there are some things OK for you and some things that are OK for me. That is all that we can expect in this world. University doesn’t deliver anyone from that naive position, rather it tends to reinforce it. What is so fascinating about Bloom’s book is his argument that such relativism results in men’s minds being closed to the truth. You go to school and university and inevitably you get a closed mind for the rest of your life. How is that? It’s simply because of this fact, that if there is no standard of righteousness for anyone to aim at, then there can be no drive, no hunger and thirst to have it. If there is no truth to discover then people wouldn’t sell all they’ve got to get it. Relativism terminates the search for truth; anything is acceptable, with everything on an equal footing. Apathy rules, and so the glorious quest for life and truth and righteousness is ended. There is no Celestial City, so why bother to leave the City of Destruction to go on pilgrimage to nowhere? Every City is the same. You choose one city and I’m pleased for you, while I may choose another. People pick up that attitude and they push the doors of their minds shut, and they throw away the key. The gospel of Jesus Christ is considered “religion,” and so beneath consideration. They claim, “you can never know anything definitely” (so making an absolute statement like that, utterly inconsistently). Therefore, “So what?” And people turn in different directions with that ‘so what’. For some it’s the old vices, sex and drugs and rock’n’roll; some men are just pleasure seeking. Others follow the standard patterns because they want to make money. Others drop out of the whole business, the year out becomes a lifetime out, to get away from it all.
Modern men’s faith is that there’s nothing fixed, that there is no real truth, no ultimate reality to be known. That is why they live in their grey indistinct world. Yet in the centre of this gospel of Mark we are introduced to the glorified Jesus of Nazareth. Three disciples are taken with Christ up a mountain and while he is praying he is transfigured before them. He begins to shine with a divine glory. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appear and speak to our Lord. They had both spoken with the Lord when they lived on earth centuries earlier, and now he brings them back from heaven for a short time to speak with his Son in the presence of his disciples.
Modern man protests that this scene is a myth, that it simply couldn’t have happened, that God couldn’t have revealed his glory in such a way, that it’s impossible for God to have spoken to Moses and Elijah and to the people of God. Two things need to be said in reply. Firstly, do you think the abandonment of the supernatural Christian faith has led to a more rational or a more credulous world? Francis Wheen has just brought out a book called, “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.” That about sums up the situation. Consider two lawyers like Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair, married to a couple of the most powerful intelligent men in the world, women sharing enough brain power between them to light up Boston. We are told that Hillary Clinton achieved ‘self-healing’ in the White House by talking, with the help of two psychic counsellors, to the spirits of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi. Hillary later persuaded Cherie to get in touch with her inner self through healing crystals. Then Cherie persuaded her husband, the British Prime Minister, to join her in a Mayan rebirthing experience in Mexico. Has the rejection of the claims of the gospel writers that the Transfiguration of Christ did occur resulted in a more rational world? Not at all. People believe any mumbo-jumbo today.
Secondly, when people dismiss God speaking at the Transfiguration they are smashing more than they realise; they are destroying the very model of revelation in the Bible. If you determine to live in a world where there is no Mount of Transfiguration, and no speaking God, then you reject the structures of the God who comes and makes himself known to us men. That is why Jesus says later, “If you don’t believe Moses’ writings you won’t believe my words.”
God has spoken. The living God is there and he is not silent. If there is no speaking God then there is no rationality in human discourse. If there is no peg for speech, if there is no Creator Revealer Lord, then the very thread of speech is cut and words . . . words . . . words . . . drop off like beads and roll all over the floor. There is no continuity of meaning unless there is a living speaking God. Modern man goes around talking as though talk had meaning, as though the sound, the vocable, the mere word, the grunt, could convey meaning to man. But where, I ask you, is the ground of that meaning? Where is the reference point if there is no truth? No human philosopher can answer that question. All discussion would come to an end. Communication itself would end. We would have only a series of meaningless sounds without a reference point for truth.
Christians can say to me, “Just preach the simple gospel.” It was Francis Schaeffer who said that we have to preach the simple gospel so that it is simple to the person to whom we are talking, or it is no longer simple. We are surrounded by people like the little trainee secretary from the hospital who says that there is no truth and error, no right and wrong. She acknowledges that she doesn’t know the meaning of life, but she is saying far more, she claims that no one knows. She is lost, but she says we are all lost with no possibility of finding “The Way” because it doesn’t exist. This is the damnation of our generation, and the heart of modern man’s problem. So I begin with the personal, with this secretary, and with you, and with me, and I tell you that the personal has meaning because of the infinite personal God who made us, that you and your aspirations for this one life that stretches out before you are not meaningless, that the quest for truth and righteousness is not doomed to ultimate failure. Jesus Christ claims that he is the way, and the truth, and the life. There is a path to God, and to knowledge, and righteousness.
i] When I speak of ‘God’ I am not talking about a sacred elephant standing on the back of a giant tortoise swimming in the infinite sea of tranquillity. I am talking about the personal-infinite God, the God of unity and diversity, the God who is Trinity, who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth, the God revealed in the Bible, the God who spoke with Adam and Eve.
ii] When I talk about man I’m not talking about a naked ape, or a biological mechanism, I am talking about men and women who are made in the image of God, even though that image has been ruined by the fall of man. I am saying that God is there and he is not silent. There is no use having a silent God. We wouldn’t know anything about him. He has spoken and he has told us what he is, and that he existed before all else, and so we have an answer to the existence of what is. He is not silent. That is the reason we know, because the Lord has spoken. God spoke to Abraham – “Leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to a land I will show you.” God spoke from Sinai to Moses. He gave him ten principles of conduct telling us how men and women should live. We do know what is right and wrong in absolute terms because God has told us.
iii] When I talk about ‘love’ I am not talking about sex. I am referring to being patient, kind, not envying, nor boasting, nor being proud, nor rude, nor self-seeking, nor easily angered, not keeping a record of wrongs, not rejoicing in evil but in the truth. In other words, I am filling that four letter word ‘love’ with all the meaning it gets in the New Testament (I Corinthians 13). That is how we know the meaning of life, because God has spoken through prophets and apostles. God spoke to Elijah who was the first of the great classical prophets. Prophets like Elijah could come from the presence of the Lord to the people and tell them what was true and what wasn’t, and that is the way the people knew for themselves, and that is also how we know. What has God told us? Has he told us only about other things? No, he has told us truth about himself, and because we know about the infinite personal Creator we know truth about his creation. We have a standard to evaluate everything. He has given it to us in his word.
Let me remind you again of Frank Peretti’s illustration. A man comes to himself to discover that he is standing in utter and total darkness. He shouts and his words are muffled in the oppressive blackness. He starts to inch his way about and after a while his foot touches something. He freezes and then he puts his hand out. It is a chair. He stands holding its back for a while and then he inches away backwards three steps and then three steps forward, and there is the chair. Three steps sideways and then back, and there is the chair. He can walk cautiously in any direction and count the paces, and come back and grope for the chair. He is measuring the dimensions of the space he occupies. Then, do you know what the foolish man does? He picks up the chair and carries it with him. What has he done? He has lost his reference point. Now he cannot tell what is the size of his space because he has no fixed place from which to measure his world. The speaking God has provided us with a reference point.
The fact that God has spoken means that faith is not a leap into the dark. The Christian faith is a response to what God has told us. Imagine that Peter, James and John were on an unknown and dangerous mountain with precipices on every side, and total darkness falls, no moon, no stars and no light whatsoever. They cannot see one another. They cannot see their own hands in front of their faces; utter blackness. The temperature drops to well below freezing. They have to keep moving to keep alive but none of them has any idea where he is, or how near the edge they are. John says to the other two disciples, “Suppose I dropped off the edge, and were to hit a ledge three metres down, and there I discovered a sheltered cav. Then what would happen?” “Then you’d survive until the morning,” they tell him through chattering teeth. So with absolutely no knowledge, nor any reason to support his action, John hangs on the edge of the precipice and he finally lets go and drops into the darkness. Would that be faith? No, it is an utterly irrational response to wishful thinking.
Suppose, however, that another voice suddenly calls out to them through the impenetrable darkness, “Hello boys! Can you hear me?” “Yes! We can.” “You can’t see me, but I know exactly where you are from your voices. I’m on another ridge. I’ve lived on these mountains, man and boy, for over sixty years and I know every metre of them. I assure you that three metres below you there is a wide ledge and a cave where there is dry straw, a box of food and blankets. If you hang on that edge right there and drop you will find it just as I said. You can make it through the night and I will come and get you in the morning.” What will Peter and James do? First they will go on questioning the man to try to ascertain what he’s talking about, to be sure that he is not someone who wants to destroy them. They will ask for his name and address. They might know his family or village. They will ask him adequate and sufficient questions, and only then, when they are convinced by his answers, that he means them no harm and can be trusted, will one of them go to the edge and drop into the darkness. That is the Christian faith. It is not a leap into the dark because God is not silent. He has told us much about ourselves and about himself. Jesus Christ is the light of the world and he has preached the Sermon on the Mount. Faith is a response to hearing, and considering, and acting upon the word of God. We question the Word about the existence of the universe, its complexity, the nature of man, who he is, and why things are as they are in the world, who is my neighbour, what is the good life, what must I do to be saved. I ask the Lord for adequate and sufficient answers, and then I respond in faith because I am responding to Jesus Christ. I believe him and I bow before him. The God the disciples meet on the mountain is the God who is not silent. Notice the words on the mountain top:
1. MOSES AND ELIJAH AND JESUS TALK TOGETHER.
Luke tells us what they actually talked about, “his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:31). In other words, they were talking about his death, and the exodus from the world which he was about to fulfil. As we hear that word ‘exodus’, all those Old Testament bells begin to ring. We are reminded of how Moses led the children of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt in an exodus to the promised land. We are here meeting not only the God who speaks, but also the one who went and rescued his people. When they left Egypt, Jehovah Jesus had been there at that time leading them, but it was also a sign of what the Redeemer God would one day do for the world. It pointed forward to a greater exodus which the living Lord Christ would lead, taking all God’s people out of slavery to sin and death and into the glory land which he’s promised them. The events of the Exodus pointed to the Messiah who will be the passover lamb taking away the sin of the world. He will pass through the red waters of death in his great baptism on Golgotha. He will emerge from them when he rises triumphant over the grave. Then in glory he will lead the worship of God in singing the Song of Moses on the other side of the sea, but that song has become the Song of Moses and the Lamb. That is the great exodus of Jesus that he will bring to fulfilment as our sacrifice and sin-bearer and Saviour.
You know there was an occasion when Moses offered himself to become the sacrifice. Some of you remember that dramatic time recorded in Exodus 32 when the people had sinned against God so desperately at the very bottom of Mount Sinai, worshipping a calf made out of gold. Then the wrath of God hung over this evil people as a great black cloud about to break, and Moses pleaded for them, crying out desperately and brokenly, “Oh what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Ex. 32:31&32). What a prayer! Moses pleads for their forgiveness, and if God is reluctant to forgive them then Moses will offer himself. “Lord, blot me out! I don’t want to be in your book unless the people can be redeemed.” But even if God could have blotted out Moses’ name from the book of life what good would that have done for Israel?
Consider Elijah in his despair, feeling a total failure, no better than any of his fathers who had all failed to bring the people back to the living God. All he wanted was to die: “It is enough,” he says, “now take away my life!” What good would that have been for Elijah or Israel for him to have died by the hand of a just God? Would that have saved one person in Israel – the blood of Elijah? The blood of Moses? Not one. They themselves were both men who needed to be redeemed. But here is one who has come, the promised Redeemer, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners and higher than the heavens. He as the eternal Son of God can bear the weight of divine condemnation for the world. He, as the blameless Jesus, has no sins of his own for which to make atonement. He alone is the Lamb of God.
When Moses and Elijah meet with the Son of God on this mountain top they talk about the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Moses could have questioned him, “Lord, all the sacrifices and all the offerings in the book of Leviticus that you gave me to record, so much blood shed. Why was that?” The Lord could say to him, “You know, Moses, that they were all teaching about me. They were types pointing forward to my imminent death in Jerusalem which will be once and for all.” Jesus could have told Moses, “You know that I must die and shed my blood so that full atonement can be made. I won’t enter heaven bearing the blood of goats and calves and the ashes of a heifer but with my own blood. Through the eternal Spirit I will offer myself to God, once and for all, at the end of the ages, to do away with sin by the sacrifice of myself.” The Lord Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration explains to Moses and Elijah the nature of his death. There is no more important subject to learn about and understand, that the Son of God died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that we might be delivered from the bondage of sin.
So these two men don’t say, “How glorious you look today, Lord” Their discussion was about something in the future. Their eyes were directed to a far more glorious place. Jesus left that holy mountain and walked a long and lonely road to a shabby little hill near the rubbish dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. That hill was shaped like a skull and it was called Golgotha. There was no radiance there, but in its thick darkness the Lord Jesus did the greatest thing God has ever done. There he was nailed to a cross and he poured out his precious blood. One drop of that is worth more than the world. There he laid down his life so that Moses, and Elijah, and Peter, and James, and John and vast numbers of men and women like them might be forgiven and live with him in glory for ever.
The Son of God didn’t have to do this. Jesus could have made himself immune from death, just as easily as he entered into heavenly glory on the mountain. He could have remained in the divine splendour and returned directly to the throne, but if he had done that we would never have entered that glory. He had to lay down his life for us. He walked to Golgotha from the Mount of Transfiguration to endure God’s wrath there. He walked from his Father’s pleasure to his Father’s punishment. He walked from his Father’s delight to his own lonely death in order to make us God’s beloved children, to be with him for ever. He took no one with him there, and no voice spoke to him. When he cried, “My God, my God, why?” then there was no answering voice. The only reply is this, that there can be no light of glory for us unless there is the darkness of abandonment of the Son of God. God spared not God. The Father smote his Son, and he received the blows lovingly! God took his Son, his only Son whom he loved, and he made him a burnt-offering for sinners who hated him. O love beyond degree! So the voices of Jesus, Moses and Elijah are heard on the mountain.
2. THE VOICE OF GOD IS HEARD ON THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION.
“Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!'” (v.7). The great prophet has come, the one that God would raise up, whom he had promised to Moses, who would be like Moses but much greater. “This,” says God the Father pointing to Jesus, one who was actually with Moses there and then, “This is my Son, whom I love.” He draws their attention away from the law and the prophets. “This is he of whom I speak to you.” It is a word of demonstration and distinction which marks out Jesus Christ. There are many religious leaders in the world but there is one alone who is the only begotten Son of God. Unto which of the angels said he at any time, “You are my Son. I am your Father.”? Not one. God is the father of Jesus Christ, and so all that the Father is the Son has to be all that too. A sculptor carves a perfect likeness of his son out of marble, two similar figures of the same size are there, but he is the father of the boy alone, not the sculpture. God made the earth but he is not the earth’s father, but he is the eternal Father of the eternal Son. The Son counts it not robbery to be equal with the Father. He that honours the Father must give equal honour to the Son. A son bears his father’s likeness and this Son is the brightness of the Father’s glory and express image of his person. “I and my Father are one,” says the Son.
Does the Father say about Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love”? Yes he does. Then what a Saviour he must be! How confidently you and I must trust him. If he were an ordinary man, a good teacher and nothing less might we then not doubt him? He would be one of us, with our needs and weaknesses, but Jesus Christ is God’s only-begotten Son. It pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell. However black our sin and deep our despair there is salvation to be found in him. God loves him because he is nearest to his Father. He loves him because in all things he is like his Father. He loves him because he always does the will of his Father. He loves every hair on Jesus’ head!
It is of this One, his own Son, on this mount of transfiguration, that God speaks. Him alone, not Moses, and not Elijah. When God speaks here he doesn’t give ten commandments as once he had in the hearing of the people. Just one command is given to the church. “Listen to him!” God says. In other words, remember what Jesus says; endeavour to understand it; accept it eagerly and believe it; confidently trust in these words and cheerfully obey them all your lives. You see the authority that is given to Jesus Christ by the personal-infinite God. Imagine how impressed and awestruck these disciples must have been to be seeing Moses and Elijah. That must have been the dream of every one of their friends. Don’t we say to one another in half jest, “If only I could have visited John Bunyan in prison, or seen George Whitefield preach in the fields it would have been brilliant.”? Yet, consider what men like Moses and Elijah are to the whole nation of Israel even to our own day. But God was here inte rrupting any such train of thought and saying to these three young Jewish men, “Don’t be so impressed by those two men who are talking to Jesus. The meek and lowly Messiah is far greater than them. He is my Son. Hear him!”
They were great servants, but he is the Son! They were heralds speaking in the name of the King, but he is the King who sent them, the final Judge of all people. They were the men who promised; he is the fulfilment. They were the first rays of dawn; but from him the sun is shining in noon-day splendour. The light which glimmered in Old Testament heroes is absorbed and outshone by the dazzling radiance of Christ and his gospel.
“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness; the voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.” And the voice of the Lord says, “Hear my Son!” Not Moses. “Hear Jesus!” Not Elijah – yes, we long for a burning word from the greatest of the prophets, but God didn’t say, “Hear Elijah!” Hear Christ! The gospel so commands everyone of you here today to listen to the Lord Jesus. When people came to Pharaoh for corn Pharaoh said to them all, “Go to Joseph.” This very day God says to men, “Don’t come to me first. Go to my Son.” No man comes to the Father but by his Son Jesus Christ. “I will speak with you when you hear what my Son says to you.”
God’s Son is the one the Father has loved from all eternity. There was never a more loved Son. There was never a more loving Father. Jesus Christ is the channel through which God’s love flows to others. Everyone else on the mountain and throughout the earth is loved only as they are joined to Christ. It is only through the delight God takes in his Son that his favour overflows to all who belong to Christ. God’s Son is the final word to us, and so, in order to know God’s truth and to know the way of salvation, we must listen to Jesus; “‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!'” Peter hadn’t been hearing him a week earlier when he told Peter that he must go to Jerusalem, and must be betrayed and crucified and buried and the third day rise again. “No, Jesus, not a cross, never!” Peter had said. God says, “Peter! Hear my Son!” The pulpit must always stand beside the cross. Never forsake the pulpit! Never ignore its admonitions! Never think you’ve heard all God has to say about Golgotha. Hear him!
This is going to be your life as a Christian and my life. It is going to be very simple. I am not going to listen to politicians, I’m going to listen to Jesus. I am not going to listen to scientists, I’m going to listen to Jesus. I am not going to listen to philosophers, I’m going to listen to Jesus. I am not going to listen to my friends, I’m going to listen to Jesus. I am not going to listen to experts, I’m going to listen to Jesus. And everyone in the world is going to say to me, “Pathetic obscurantist! Fundamentalist! Escapist! Monk! Nun! You are running away from life. You are burying your head in the sand like an ostrich.” No, I am going to respect the politician, and the scientist, and the philosopher, and the expert, and my friends, and ostriches too. I’ll get what help I can from them, but I am going to listen so carefully to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, and once I have understood them I am going to obey them, and love, and adore. That is going to be my life.
Are you listening? Why do you go to church? “I go for the music,” says one. “I go for the ritual,” says another. “I go for the glow that I get,” says another. Do you hear the voice from the cloud? Hear him! Who will say , “I go to church to hear God speak.” Blessed art thou! You must hasten to the Word! See that you refuse not him that speaks, for if they escaped not – who refused him that spoke on earth – much more shall you not escape if you turn away from him that speaks from heaven. How intently must I hear him? Bring every thought into the obedience of Christ, says the apostle.
Thomas Manton the great Puritan minister has a series of sermons on the Transfiguration of Christ, and when he comes to his conclusion on this point he asks seven pointed questions to make sure that his congregation know what is involved in listening to the Son of God:
i] Do you seriously come to Christ that you may have pardon and life?
ii] Do you respect the word of the gospel, receive it with reverence and delight as the voice of God’s great prophet to you?
iii] Do you mix it with faith when you hear it so that it profits you and does you good?
iv] Do you receive it as the word of God?
v] Does it come to you not in word only but with power as the word of God’s great Mediator?
vi] Do you hear him on whatever the Lord chooses to speak to you?
vii] Do you hear him so that you prefer him to everything this world has to offer you?
3. PETER SPEAKS ON THE MOUNTAIN.
“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, 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 to say, they were so frightened.)” (vv. 5&6). Perhaps Peter experienced a blessing being on the mount of transfiguration. Certainly you can hear men speak about their ‘mountain top experiences’. They certainly exist. An apostle has been caught up to paradise. We do whatever we can to make our blessed times last, but they can’t last. They must all end, at least for now, but later they will come to us with abundance in the everlasting mansions that Jesus has gone to prepare for us. It has been said by some that Peter must have felt good being on the mountain, but I’m not sure about that. Certainly we shouldn’t assume that if we’ve had our own experiences that anything we think or say is right. I’ve heard words like these, “Some people have their theology, but I have my experience.” Experience is no substitute for understanding. Just look at Peter; his experience was real, but he was carried away and “he did not know what to say” (v.6).
But perhaps Peter didn’t enjoy the experience of being on the mountain, and didn’t want it to last, that in fact these words of his, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here” could and probably should in fact be translated as a question, “Rabbi, is it good for us to be here?” In other words, should we sinners be seeing and hearing all this? Can you find one instance in the Bible of anyone experiencing the glory of God and wanting it to be prolonged? Such occasions invariably fill the heart with fear and dread. On Sinai the people were afraid; Isaiah in the temple was under enormous conviction of sin; Jeremiah protested that he was a child; Peter in the boat cried to the Lord to depart from him for he was a sinful man; John on Patmos fell at Jesus’ feet as one dead.
What did Peter say? He offered to put up three shelters, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. How do we respond to this? Certainly Peter didn’t say, “Let’s build six.” Good on him! He knew the distinction between the three of them – mere fishermen until recently, novice disciples – and those three glorified men who were speaking together. He also got his order of priority right, one shelter for Jesus first of all, and then others for Moses and Elijah. Peter has the right perspective. The suggestion itself is also quite fascinating, three tabernacles. Why not? The Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths was the last great feast in the Old Testament year. It was a climactic feast. It was an eschatological feast, the time of the end, of everything coming to a conclusion. Everything was going to be wrapped up in the plan of God. Peter’s mind was working overtime, “In the midst of this glory on the mountain top we will set up three tabernacles and Jesus will sit inside one, Elijah inside another and Moses in the third, and then we can get away pretty quick. We will run down the mountain to the villages around Caesarea Philippi and we’ll summon all Israel to come and bear witness to this sight.” Imagine Peter jumping down the slopes like a mountain goat to be the first with the word, “Moses and Elijah are up the mountain in glory! The great Feast of Tabernacles is beginning. Glory has come to earth.”
But there is even something more than the Feast of Tabernacles here. In the Old Testament the glory of the Lord couldn’t be contained on Sinai, it could only be contained in the Tabernacle. That is why the last third of the book of Exodus is filled with all the details of the furnishings of the Tabernacle, and that Tent of Meeting is soon filled with the glory of the Lord. What had made the people quiver with fright when they saw it on the peak of Sinai they were permitted to see in the Tabernacle. God had provided a means for his glory to dwell in the midst of the people, by the altars and the sacrifices and the priest shedding blood, and the scapegoat on the Day of atonement. By this the glory of the Lord can be known, and we are not consumed. The Tabernacle is the answer to the hymnist’s question, “Oh how can I whose native sphere is dark, whose mind is dim, before the ineffable appear, and on my naked spirit bear the uncreated beam?” It was by the offering and sacrifice which God had ordained and provided. Men could experience the glory of God and not be destroyed because of the Tabernacle. That is why Peter is suggesting the erection of three tabernacles. They will contain his fear and he can dwell with the glory of God.
John later picked up this conviction but, allied to all the insight that Golgotha and the resurrected Saviour and Pentecost had given to him, he could write in the prologue of his gospel that God the Son tabernacled amongst us. We beheld his glory, he says, and it was full of grace and truth. It is by Christ alone that we can dwell in the consuming fire of God. Jesus cannot stay on the mountain in its glory with Moses and Elijah. He has a work to do. He must go down from the mountain in order to go to the cross. Are you beginning to see that? There had been a time when Satan had tempted Christ saying to him, “See from this high mountain all of the kingdoms of the world and their glory. I will give you all of that if you’ll only fall down and worship me.” Here it isn’t Satan offering Christ the glory it is Christ’s own Father pouring out his glory all over him. How Jesus must have reveled in that glory! Once you’ve tasted such glory it’s so hard to look again at the heart-rending spectacle of human unbelief. Could Jesus have gone back into that glory with Moses and Elijah? They certainly returned there. Why not him also? Because if Jesus had gone, Moses and Elijah couldn’t have gone, because the salvation of Moses and Elijah, no less than the salvation of Peter, James and John, was centred upon the work Christ had come to do. So there were no shelters built for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Peter’s theology was wrong. He was looking back to the Old Covenant to Moses and Elijah and did not understand that this was the dawn of the New Covenant when we look unto Jesus. He didn’t understand Messiah’s plan. Jesus cannot stay on the mountain. He has to go down into the valley in order to climb the hill of Golgotha to take the cross and die for sinners in his great royal death.
“Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus” (v.8). As sovereignly as the whole incident had begun so it ended. Man did not begin it – the disciples were sleeping, and man did not end it. What might these three disciples have seen after the transfiguration of Jesus had ended and his glory faded? Various suggestions have been made.
They might have seen no one at all. Jesus might have returned to heaven with Moses and Elijah. Then what a depressing future these fishermen would have faced just like some of you, without a teacher, no deliverer to save them, just with their own wits facing the future, that long day’s journey into night.
Another possibility might have been that they opened their eyes and saw Moses only, a mighty leader, but one whose life had been lived in the old days of the shadows and types. It was the law that came by Moses, and the sight of Sinai can only bring despair.
Or the disciples might have seen Elijah only. Instead of the Lamb of God they would have been companions of a lion who roared with the majesty of the Holy One of Israel. But there was no salvation in Elijah. Preparation for Christ is not Christ. Conviction is not regeneration.
Or another possibility could be that the disciples might have seen Jesus and Moses and Elijah, all three still there. Moses could have preached the law, and Elijah could coruscate with thunder and lightning, and Christ could lift up the broken hearted. Perfect? I don’t think so. It is vastly better to look to Jesus for ever and ever than to be looking to him alongside Moses and Elijah. The light of the moon is fine on a dark night, but when the day comes the sun is all sufficient. Why should we wish to see more of Moses? All the ceremonial law’s types and offerings have been fulfilled. Let Moses go. His light has shone. Elijah too can go, his preparation for Jesus’ coming is over. It is better to see Moses and Elijah in Christ than see them with Christ.
In all my library I don’t possess the beginner’s guide to joined up handwriting, and I can’t say that I miss it because I have gone beyond my need of it. We have sunk the glory of Moses and Elijah into the glory of the Saviour, just as we have sunk the glory of those first dear preachers who once brought Christ to us preciously and powerfully, into the glory of the Lord. We now glory only in the Lord.
We see no man today but Jesus only. When we preach the gospel week after week we can’t wait to tell you of Jesus only. When you apply for baptism or church membership then our great questions to you gently probe your understanding of Jesus only, your love for him, your dependence on his shed blood and righteousness. Are you satisfied with Jesus? We must decrease but he must increase. That is our one great purpose for the future.
It will be enough for you to serve the Lord Jesus. It will be sufficient if you can honour him and magnify his name and spread his kingdom. Then Jesus only will be our reward, to be with him where he is, to behold more of that glory the men saw on the mountain. There can be no other bliss, and no other way there except Jesus only.
There is a light in the smog of this world. There is truth and there is righteousness; there is right and wrong. The first Christians didn’t change the world by saying in the same breath, “Yes, yes,” and “No, no.” Their revolutionary message was not “Yes” and “No.” Paul speaks on behalf of them all when he says, “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you . . . was not ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ but in him it has always been ‘Yes.'” (2 Cors. 1:19). It’s the postmodernism of our age that sees only ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and says without any thinking, “I don’t think there is right and wrong.” But the New Testament church said, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20). The New Testament church transformed the Roman Empire by a ministry of ‘Amen!’ and it calls on you to add your ‘Amen’, the seal of the concurrence of your own heart and faith to the truth that is in Christ Jesus. I tell you, men and women, the day has come in Wales to raise the ‘Amen’ to Jesus Christ. How is it with you? Do you seal the truth of Jesus Christ with the Amen of your lips and your heart?
22nd February 2004 GEOFF THOMAS