The Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-8)

Sermon by Daniel L. Sonnenberg | March 2, 2014


Mat 17:1-8 1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.  3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.  7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”  8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

  • Often in the Christian life, once the newness of becoming a believer in Christ has worn off a bit, you are faced with the reality of what more God has called you to be and to do as a disciple of Jesus.
  • Perhaps like many, in the beginning, you naively thought that becoming a Christian would solve all your problems, that the teachings of Christ and his healing power would carry you unscathed through every situation in life.
  • Then suddenly, out of the blue, you’re faced with a dilemma for which there seems to be no immediate answer found in his Word, no immediate healing, no immediate reconciliation.
  • You find yourself in a dark and lonely place.
  • You experience an unresolvable conflict with someone in your family, your school, your work, or your church.
  • You endure a significant failure of some kind.
  • You suffer a serious illness or endure a substantial loss.
  • You were on top of the world at one time, but now, it seems the world has come crashing down on you.
  • You had high hopes, but now, your hopes are dashed, the future seems dark and dismal, confusing and painful, sad and empty.
  • You are standing in the shadow of the cross.
  • Your situation is similar to that of Peter, James and John a week before our story begins.
  • They’ve been following Jesus as he teaches and preaches to thousands, performs miracles, heals the sick and delivers the demon-possessed.
  • And these three have been trained and sent out among the twelve on successful short term mission trips to do the same.
  • Peter has just confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and Jesus has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against them.
  • But suddenly Jesus seems to turn a corner they weren’t expecting.
  • He appears to to be going a different direction, to be proclaiming a different message.
  • But what the don’t know is that the revelation of Jesus and his kingdom has reached a pivotal point.
  • Jesus is no longer going about Galilee doing good, but has set his face toward Jerusalem in order to die.
  • In chapter 16, verse 21 we are told, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (v21)
  • And his disciples are just beginning to discover that participation with him in his kingdom includes their own suffering and death.
  • Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
  • For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (vv24-25).
  • And he ends their conversation mysteriously saying, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (v28)
  • They must have been thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought this thing was going great!
  • Why all this talk about death, his death, our death?
  • Why now?
  • And during that next week they must have experienced a measure of disenchantment and disillusionment.
  • They needed some good news.
  • Six days later, with Jesus’ words still ringing in their ears, and true to his cryptic promise, he invites his three closest disciples to a private mountaintop meeting, which when completed, will in fact enable them to face their coming suffering with greater hope in their hearts.
  • In the shadow of the coming cross, they are given a glimpse of heaven.
  • They are enabled to see a vision of glory and hear a voice of grace which confirms the identity and the destiny of both Christ and themselves as together they face the cross.
  • As we prepare for our Lenten journey in which we focus on Jesus’ sufferings, we too would catch a glimpse of heaven that will give us renewed hope in the midst of our own sufferings as his disciples.
  • May we also see his glory and hear his gracious voice.
  • When God has something particular to say to his people, he often takes them to a lonely place.
  • You’ve already noticed the obvious similarities between this event and Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3.
  • However, one of the differences is that this event is a private meeting.
  • Its purpose is to further reveal the identity and the destiny of Christ to his disciples in order to strengthen them in the face of their upcoming suffering.
  • At Jesus’ baptism, it was a public event, open to all.
  • John the baptizer and whatever crowd was gathered there at the Jordan River witnessed the inauguration of his kingdom.
  • At his transfiguration, however, only three of Jesus’ closest disciples are the intended audience.
  • Notice the repetition of the word “them” throughout the passage. In vv 1-2 “Jesus…led them up the mountain by them..he was transfigured before them…”
  • And in vv 7 and 9, “Jesus touched them…Jesus commanded them…”
  • Notice also the location of the meeting.
  • They’re up on a high mountain, not easily accessible by the masses, only the few, only by invitation.
  • Jesus knew these three must be virtually alone to receive the revelation necessary to prepare them for what was ahead.
  • This is not the first time God has invited his chosen servants up to a mountain.
  • In Exodus 24, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’
  • So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God.’” (vv 12-13).
  • God invites us into a lonely place sometimes that we might see and hear more clearly who he is and what he has done.
  • And thus to better understand who we are and what he has called us to do.
  • Has God ever taken you to a lonely place?
  • Are you in that place right now?
  • What are you thinking and feeling?
  • It can be both frightening and wonderfu
  • That’s what is was for Peter, James and John that day.
  1. A vision of glory
  • To see us through our times of testing and suffering, God enables us to see a vision of glory, a vision of the risen and exalted Son of Man coming in the clouds, victorious over sin and death.
  • What did they see that day? They saw Jesus transfigured.
  • Look at verse 2 “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”
  • T. France writes, “…They saw the same Jesus, but with an added dimension of glory…for their eyes, the dullness of earthly conditions were temporarily stripped away so that they caught a glimpse, a foretaste, of the true nature of God’s beloved son.”
  • Jesus had told them six days before, “…some of you will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (16:28)
  • This was not a myth or legend.
  • Peter, reflecting later on this in his second letter to the churches wrote, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
  • For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2Pe 1:16-18).
  • John was likely thinking of this experience in part when later in his Gospel he wrote, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
  • These three were eyewitnesses of his glory that day.
  • They were with him on the mountain. They saw Jesus transfigured.
  • They also say Moses and Elijah.
  • Look at verse 3. “And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”
  • Jesus appears here not coming in the clouds with his angels, but with glorified human beings, Moses and Elijah, both of whom pointed forward to Messiah.
  • Moses delivered Israel out of Egypt in the exodus.
  • Hebrews confirms Jesus as a greater deliverer.
  • “Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant…but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house whose house we are. (Heb 3:5-6).
  • Elijah is connected with the coming of the Messiah in the last chapter of the OT.
  • “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. (Mal 4:5)
  • So both point forward to the coming of Messiah and their conversation with Jesus confirms him as the fulfillment of that expectation in him.
  • Jesus’ disciples are given a vision of glory in order to sustain us through our times of testing, suffering and death.
  • Ralph Wood, having served as Professor of English at Baylor and Wake Forest Universities, is a Tolkien expert.
  • He writes in his essay, “Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited,”
  • “Near the end of their wearying quest, Frodo and Sam are alone on the slopes of Mount Doom.
  • All their efforts seem finally to have failed.
  • Even if somehow they succeed in destroying the Ring, there is no likelihood that they will themselves survive, or that anyone will ever hear of their valiant deed.
  • It is amidst such apparent hopelessness that Sam — the bumbling and unreflective hobbit who has gradually emerged as a figure of great moral and spiritual depth — beholds a single star shimmering above the dark clouds of Mordor:
  • The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of that forsaken land, and hope returned to him.
  • For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing:
  • there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach
  • Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him.
  • He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep and untroubled sleep.
  • Sam understands that light and shadow are not locked in uncertain combat.
  • However much the night may seem to triumph, it is the gleaming star which penetrates and defines the darkness.
  • These hobbits cannot name their source, but they know that Goodness and Truth and Beauty are the first and the last and the only permanent things.”
  • George MacDonald, a 19th century Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister, was a pioneer in the field of fantasy literature, and his writings have been cited as a major literary influence by many notable authors including S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien.
  • In The Fisherman’s Lady, we overhear a conversation between two characters concerning the fear of death.
  • “But, sir, isn’t death a dreadful thing?” asked Malcolm.
  • “That depends on whether a man regards it as his fate or as the will of a perfect God.
  • Its obscurity is its dread.
  • But if God be light, then death itself must be full of splendor–a splendor probably too keen for our eyes to receive.”
  • That day on the mountain, the darkness of Jesus’ coming death was overcome by the light of his glory that will follow.
  • In a vision of his glory, his disciples were given the gift of light beyond the darkness and hope beyond the grave.
  • But it was not only what they saw that day.
  • It was also what they heard.
  • Not only did they see a vision of glory, they heard a voice of grace.
  1. A voice of grace
  • God not only enables us to see vision of glory, but also to hear a voice of grace to see us through our times of testing and suffering.
  • And who can speak that word truly to our hearts except Jesus, the beloved Son, who is both the authoritative word of God and the suffering servant of God.
  • This experience in itself is somewhat of a test for Peter.
  • Just six days before, Peter boldly confessed Jesus as the Christ. (16:13).
  • But here in v 4, Peter is caught up in the moment seeing Jesus and Moses and Elijah together.
  • He suggests building three tabernacles for them, implying that the three of them – Jesus, Moses and Elijah – exist on the same level.
  • But verse 5 tells us, “He was still speaking when a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (v5)
  • The point of the correcting voice from heaven is that Jesus is the fulfillment of that which Moses spoke in Deut 18:15,
  • “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers– it is to him you shall listen– (Deu 18:15),
  • and Elijah was merely the forerunner of the coming Christ.
  • Thus Jesus is in a totally different class from both Moses and Elijah.
  • God’s people of the new age are to hear the voice of God through the words of Jesus (France, p. 650)
  • But notice the first words out of Jesus’ mouth to the embarrassed and terrified disciples.
  • Look at verse 7, “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”
  • He didn’t berate Peter for his silliness, his compulsivity, his implicit denial of himself as Messiah.
  • Jesus does what he has done to the leper, to Peter’s mother-in-law, and to the two blind men: he touches them.
  • Then he speaks words of reassurance.
  • It’s another of the countless examples of Jesus’ incredible grace shown to fearful, fumbling followers, of divine patience with impatient, confused disciples.
  • When fear and shame would overtake you in times of testing, remember the grace-giving touch and words of Jesus here.
  • In our times of testing, it’s right to reach out to other people for help, God can use the touch and the words of our friends or family or counselors.
  • Yet your ultimate source of comfort must be the words of Jesus as found in the Scriptures.
  • I know a Christian woman who experienced a clinical depression in her 30’s when her children were very young.
  • She had been very active in her church, after the onset of the depression, for nearly a year, she was not able to be around people except for her immediate family, she not able to sleep except a few hours a night.
  • She spent many hours sitting on a big porch swing in the backyard talking to God, reading her Bible and listening to God.
  • During that dark and lonely time, she wondered if she was going crazy, if she would ever get better.
  • But she also realized that God loved her – even when she was doing nothing for him in the church.
  • She realized that her identity, her relationship to God was not based on what she did for him, but on what Christ had done for her. She needed to hear that, to know that, to feel that. It set her free.


  • At the outset of the journey is this word of confirmation—that the one who is to suffer and die, whose call the disciples have followed, is no less than the glorious, beloved Son of God.
  • But suffering is not to be romanticized.
  • Rather, the story of the transfiguration is a pledge, God’s commitment to resurrection, to the promise that the various roads to Jerusalem that faithful disciples take are glorious ways to life.


Categories: 2014, Epiphany, Matthew, Sermons, The Life and Ministry of Jesus

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