Text: Matthew 17:1-8
They say that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. These things go together, smoke and fire. Smoke is the result of items burning in a fire. There are a number of things that always go together, but I am reminded of fire this week by what the Holy Spirit said through St. Matthew. He said that at the Transfiguration Jesus’ face, “shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light.” The sun is the primary source of light on earth and is itself a great big ball of fire, burning millions and millions of miles from here.
Fire is destructive element, but fire can sometimes also result in good things. Shortly before I was born, there was a wildfire in Yellowstone National Park. Roughly 794,000 acres burned in 1988, some 36% of the whole park. The fire consumed many trees and a few buildings. But after the fire, the park abounded in wildflowers and new tree growth as the fire left the soil rich in nutrients. I read that after the fire, they didn’t even have to do any replanting because of how quickly and widely regrowth set in. The fire was destructive, but it brought a new beauty to the park; a new sense of glory, maybe. In the Transfiguration, we receive a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected glory, but the full revelation only comes through the cross.
Before we talk about the Transfiguration in the proper sense, it’s important that we hear its context. As Lutherans, that’s near our number one rule for interpreting the Scriptures: take passages in their context and allow Scripture to provide its own interpretation. St. Matthew invites us to do this when he begins the text, “And after six days Jesus took with Him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” In Matthew’s Gospel, there’s nothing symbolic about saying, “after six days;” it just serves to connect the Transfiguration with what came before it. What came before Matthew 17 is Matthew 16. Matthew 16 is where the Holy Spirit led Peter to give his great confession of the Christ. Jesus asked the Disciples who people said He was. Then He asked them who they thought He was. Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
From that time (when Peter said that Jesus is the Christ), St. Matthew wrote that Jesus began showing the disciples what being the Christ meant. It meant that, as the Holy Son of God, He would go to Jerusalem. There, He would suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes; He would be killed. But, after three days, He would rise. The Scriptures long promised that the Messiah would bring the gifts of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. These things would come through the brutal death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. But, you know how Matthew 16 goes: Peter makes his great confession of faith, Jesus explains that being the Christ means He’s going to die, and Peter takes Jesus aside to rebuke Him and tells Jesus, “This shall never happen to You.”
Six days after that, Matthew said, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him up a high mountain. “He was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him.” The Greek word metamorphosis, which is translated as “transfigured,” means to be changed in a manner visible to others. And, so, Jesus was. His face was shining, His clothes were bright as light. This is the same language used to describe Christ in His glory in the books of Daniel and Revelation. In the Transfiguration, we get just a glimpse of Christ’s resurrected glory.
Moreover, Moses and Elijah appear there and were speaking with Jesus. St. Luke tells us they were talking about Jesus’ upcoming exodus, meaning, His upcoming death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins. Now Peter, who struck out a week earlier when he forbid Jesus from dying, again, has something to say. “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.’” Peter intends that they should stay on that mountaintop and revel in the glory. Totally understandable. When something great is happening, you don’t really want that greatness to ever end. Peter is mid-sentence when God the Father speaks from heaven. He said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” The disciples were terrified when they heard this, but after Jesus comforted and raised them, they saw nobody else there – just Jesus.
When God the Father spoke from heaven that the disciples should listen to Jesus, what do you think He was referring to? What did Jesus say that they should listen to? The Holy Spirit through St. Matthew provides the answer. Remember what we said a few moments ago, the first step in understanding a passage is taking it in context. Just before the Transfiguration, Jesus taught that, as the Christ, He would go to Jerusalem, suffer, and die. As the eternally-begotten Son of God, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus had no sin. The death He died was the perfect, full, and complete atonement for our sin. By faith, His resurrection means our resurrection. In the Transfiguration, we receive a glimpse of Christ’s glory – glory that we will see with our own two eyes – but that glory only comes after the cross.
God the Father teaches us to listen to what Christ says about His cross, but we should also listen to Him about our own crosses. Jesus also taught the disciples right before our text saying this, “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.” Jesus speaks of the crosses His followers, we, bear: the crosses of self-denial and persecution. The life of a Baptized Christian is a life of continual confession and absolution, seeking to love and serve Christ and neighbor and putting to death in ourselves that which is contrary to God’s Word. Fighting against sin and denying it a place in our lives is a battle, and it’s made even harder by a world that trivializes it and makes fun of us. The world mocks both our beliefs and we who believe.
Jesus said that whoever loses his life for His sake finds it. Just as He died and then rose from the dead in glorious victory, we who die and rise in Him will also live eternally. We will see with our two eyes the glorious majesty of our God. But, for us, that only comes after death – and that, after crosses of various sorts. Such as it was for our Lord, so, also should it be for us. St. Paul said in the Epistle last week, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” This is true. Thanks be to God. Amen.