Gospel Matthew 17:1-9
Kingship Before Passion
Imagine asking Peter, James, and John, those three disciples brought up the mountain with Jesus, about the glory of the Lord on Good Friday. Imagine how they must have felt: Peter who lurked in the shadows and denied Christ rather than associate himself with Jesus; James probably run off with the others; only John standing there beneath the cross, perhaps thinking back to the moment described in our Gospel text this morning, the Transfiguration. This event happens six days after Jesus has taught His disciples about the hard road that lies ahead of them. ““If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”1 And Jesus has also told them, again, of the hard road that awaits Him on that hill outside Jerusalem: “21 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.”2
Now on that mountain “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”3 What does that even mean? Transfigured into what? The disciples knew that Jesus was a man. And even though Peter has confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,”4 he does not understand the fullness of his confession because he has yet to witness the glory of our Lord. So Jesus takes them up the mountain so that they get it in full, so that could see Him in His glory and hear the Father’s voice calling Him Son, and He could show them that he was really the Son of God. He could show them that He was really divine, and that they would know that He would be glorified again. In our Epistle reading today we hear how the Apostle Peter looks back on this moment as a point of clarity when they saw with their own eyes the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying “17 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,’18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”5
So here we are on the edge of the season of Lent looking ahead to our forty day journey to the cross and we can see how fitting it is that we end the season of Epiphany with the Transfiguration. You see, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to see His glory because of what’s coming. He wants to show them the glory of His divinity because soon the God Man Jesus Christ will be hanging on a bloody cross, stripped, beaten, humiliated. And so they will be wondering, what happened? Where is the glory? But they have seen His glory revealed. No coincidence that Moses and Elijah are there, for they are witness that Christ the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. He took them up onto the mountain in order to show them His kingship, His majesty and rule over heaven and earth. He did this before they witnessed His Passion, to let them see His might power before they watched His death, to reveal His glory to them even in the midst of His humiliation. So when Jesus is taken captive and condemned the disciples would understand that it was not because of any power lacking in Christ. When it happens it will be because Our Lord freely offers Himself to His enemies, He willingly submits Himself to suffer in that way for the world’s salvation.
But as we head toward Good Friday we have an advantage over the disciples, don’t we? We know how the story ends. We are already looking past the cross to the resurrection, to His ascension and to the glory of Christ now sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. We can look at the Transfiguration with the foresight of having received this Gospel of St. Matthew in its entirety, and we can look on the vision of Christ appearing in His glory on that mountain as a foretaste of Heaven itself. But these upcoming 40 days turn our attention toward the cross. At times we look toward the cross warily, burdened with the stains of conscience that sin leaves behind, perhaps doubting the certainly of God’s promises amidst all the strife and turmoil of our lives in this dysfunctional and disordered world. We are all too susceptible to look around and begin to doubt, to question, to fear. Where is God? Why do these things happen? Why does the church decline in a world desperate for the Gospel? We also need to hear of kingship before Passion, lest we despair and lose heart.
We must therefore look to the promises of God and no where else. Does he promise us the experience of the Transfiguration? Will we be taken up a mountain to behold the glory of our Lord? Not on this side of heaven. But instead of an experience he promises to give us his Word, the Word made flesh, manifest in the person of his only begotten Son. The voice comes out of the cloud, and the voice comes to us today: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”6 The Father is present in the Son, in the brightness of our Lord. And He promises to be with us in His Sacraments, the visible Word which brings us the grace and mercy that the Father would have us receive in very tangible, though humble, means: water, bread, wine. Through Word and Sacrament we too learn of God’s glory which is revealed to us today, right here, but now not on a mountain top but on the cross, where the love of God is revealed in full. He bids us to come and follow Him where He will reveal the Word of God, to follow Him and bend our knee at the communion rail.
When Peter, James, and John behold Christ in His glory they fall down and are terrified. Amazement overtook them, fear and adoration at the same time. Because of the grace and mercy shown to us sinners God has provided for preaching of his Law and Gospel which in the same way causes fear and thanksgiving. In repentance we are first made to know the knowledge of sin and transgression that separates us from holiness and righteousness. But we are also made to know faith in the promise of our redemption in Christ, that our sins are forgiven and taken away. “17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”7 With a touch Jesus brings the Words we long to hear: “Rise, and have no fear.”8 The disciples get up and what do they see? Only Jesus. Christ alone has these Words, Christ alone is the rock of our salvation and the firm foundation upon which our faith is built.
This has been our focus during this entire season of Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ our Lord who has come to save. Think about where we have been since January 6th: we have seen the wise men come and bow down before the Christ child who they recognize as the King of Kings. We have seen the Baptism of our Lord, another glimpse of His glory when He stood in the Jordan for our sakes and received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, when the voice of the Father said “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”9 We have heard the Song of Simeon in the temple when He picked up the Christ child in His arms and blessed the Lord for the salvation now made manifest, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”10 And we have heard Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, where He announces that in His very person He is the fulfillment of God’s Word.
In all these things our focus is directed to Christ and Him alone. In all these things we perceive His glory, even as now we make the turn into Lent and follow Him to the cross. We must make this journey, we must learn to follow Him because although He does not promise us an experience, He does promise to be with us, and to open our eyes. Our walk on this pilgrimage from Baptism to heaven is full of peaks and valleys. We cross over the crest of one hill only to be confronted with another, and another, and another. But when we look back, we see how far we have come. One day we will behold His glory in person, just like on that mountain. But now hold fast and follow Him.
As we leave the season of Epiphany with the Glory of the Lord revealed to us throughout this season, let us set our sights for this upcoming Lenten season on our own transformation of and by the Holy Spirit, remembering the words of St. Paul who says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Ro 12:2). Let us observe the season in repentance and self-examination, in prayer and through Bible study, renewing our minds in faith, resting on His faithful Word, co-heirs with Christ the King in His glory.
1 Mt 16:24–25.
2 Mt 16:21.
3 Mt 17:2.
4 Mt 16:16.
5 2 Pe 1:17–18.
6 Mt 17:5.
7 Ro 10:17.
8 Mt 17:7.
9 Mt 3:17.
10 Lk 2:32.