Jun 9, 2013

The Transfiguration

Luke 9:27–36

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus showed His closest disciples a sight they would never forget: the unveiled glory of the Son of God. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Luke’s gospel by describing one of the most marvelous moments in all history.


This morning we will continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will read from Luke 9:27–36 today, which is Luke’s version of the record of the transfiguration of Jesus:

“But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God.”

Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. Then it happened, as they were parting from Him, that Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were fearful as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” When the voice had ceased, Jesus was found alone. But they kept quiet, and told no one in those days any of the things that they had seen.

The magnificent record of this moment in the earthly ministry of Jesus comes to us through the inspiration and supervision of God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, whose Word cannot be broken. Please receive it as such. Let us pray.

Now, O Lord, as we once again give our attention to Your Word, we rejoice in the full assurance we have that it will not—because it cannot—return unto You void. So, we ask that in this hour You would fill this Word in our hearts. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jesus’ Cryptic Prophecy

I am sure that when most preachers rise to exposit the biblical text, they suffer from a sense of personal inadequacy. That is certainly true for me every time I open this book before you. To speak from such a text as we have heard this morning only exacerbates that sense of inadequacy, because this text brings us face to face with one of the most profound moments that ever took place on the earth. For me to try to plumb the depths of this text in just a few moments is not only a herculean task but an impossible one. So, we all need the help of God as we contemplate this marvelous event of the transfiguration of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Before Luke gives us the record of the transfiguration, he mentions, almost in passing, the words of Jesus in verse 27: “But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God.”

There is no consensus as to what moment or event Jesus referred to in this somewhat cryptic statement, but there are many who suggest that, since Luke placed it right before the transfiguration, Jesus was referring to their witnessing the transfiguration only a few days later.

Others have suggested that Jesus was referring to the resurrection; still others, to His ascension; still others, to the day of Pentecost; and still others to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, which is the view I favor. Just in passing, I note that the language that our Lord uses here involves what we call a “particular negative proposition,” signaled by the use of the word “some.”

In the canons of logic and the laws of immediate inference, when a particular negative is expressed, it assumes also the opposite and equal particular affirmative. In simple language, what that means is that when Jesus says, “Some of you who are standing here will not taste death until this event takes place,” it strongly suggests some of them would taste death before this event would come to pass. This makes it highly unlikely that, just a few days hence, this prophecy would come to pass.

It is unlikely that Jesus said, “Something is going to happen in the next six to eight days, and some of you aren’t going to live to see it,” when we know that all of them did live to see it. Having said that, let me dismiss out of hand the idea that our Lord was referring to the transfiguration and move on to the transfiguration itself, where Luke’s account goes like this: “Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray,” and then the description of the transfiguration.

The Inner Circle of Privileged Witnesses

If you are like me, you sometimes like to speculate what it would have been like to live during the days of Jesus’ ministry on this planet, and how wonderful it would have been to witness what He did during those years—to have seen the transformation of water to wine at the wedding feast of Cana; to have seen the resurrection of the widow of Nain’s son, or Jairus’ daughter, or Lazarus; to have seen the other miraculous healings He performed; to have witnessed the resurrection, the ascension, or even the cross.

When I think about those events and try to rate them on a scale of excitement, it is hard to think of wanting to see anything more beautiful than the resurrected Christ. Short of that, one event in all human history that I wish I could have witnessed is the one we read this morning—that moment when God removed the veil, where the concealed deity of Christ burst through the cloak of His humanity, displaying itself in nothing less than the pure radiance and refulgence of divine glory.

Only five human beings were privileged to witness that event: three contemporaries and two who had been brought there from the past days of history, namely Moses and Elijah. We are told that it was only the inner circle of disciples—Peter, James, and John—who were invited to go with Jesus as He went up on the mountain to pray.

Jesus’ Radical Transformation

The transfiguration took place not during Jesus’ conversation with the disciples, but while Jesus was conversing with His Father, presumably on His knees speaking to the Father. Peter, James and John were merely onlookers and “on-listeners,” as it were. Suddenly, what the Greeks called a “metamorphosis” took place before their very eyes. It was a radical transformation of the visage of Jesus Himself.

We read that, as Jesus prayed, “the appearance of His face was altered,” metamorphosized, changed. They were looking at Him as He was deep in thought, communing with His Father, and while they were looking at Him, before their eyes, Jesus’ face began to shine. If we look at the other accounts of this event in the rest of the Gospels, the shining of His face was as intense as the brightness of the sun.

Before I go any further, let us think for a moment of another episode in biblical history where somebody’s face began to shine like this. Thousands of years before the transfiguration, in the days of Moses, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to meet with God. After meeting God and beholding a portion of His glory, as Moses began to descend from Mount Sinai, his face became radiant. It shined with such a high degree of brightness that when he appeared to Joshua, Aaron, and the others, they were terrified, because his face had been altered and his countenance was now radiating with heavenly glory.

Those who saw Moses asked him to put a veil over his face, because when people came close to Moses, the intensity and brilliance of the shining glory frightened them. In that episode in the Old Testament, the refulgent glory coming from the face of Moses was simply a reflection. It was not the glory of Moses. It did not come from inside of Moses, but was bouncing off of Moses. The glory reflected there was a heavenly glory, a divine glory.

Christ’s Divine Glory

The Bible says that there are different levels of glories, of dignity and weightiness, that God assigns to creatures. There is a glory to the sun, a glory to the moon, a glory to the animals, and a glory to human beings. Those are different levels and stages of creaturely glory, none of which can ever begin to approach the transcendent majesty of divine glory.

There is a glory, a kavod of weightiness that belongs uniquely and singularly to God Himself. It is His eternal glory, which is made manifest throughout history in different times through the appearance of the shekinah, the cloud of radiance and brightness that blinds those who look at it. It is the heavenly glory that God says He will share with no creature: “‘I will share my glory with no one,’ saith the Lord.” He does not even share His glory with Moses; He displays it. It is so bright that the face of Moses cannot absorb it. Moses can only reflect it.

The difference between what happened with Moses and the transfiguration of Christ is that, in the transfiguration, the radiance on the face of Jesus was not a reflection. It was not a glory from outside of Him that was refracted and bounced back by His human nature. It was the divine glory coming from the second person of the Trinity, who shares in the fullness of the divine glory.

As we sing, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be,” the eternal glory of the Son of God hidden by the frame of His humanity burst out. They saw it on His face and on His clothes. His clothes were altered as well. They became white, whiter than any launderer could make them; white that is pure, without any defect, without any blemish.

An Unforgettable Impression

On the Mount of Transfiguration, as Jesus was praying, Peter, James, and John watched all of this take place. They saw the glory of God, the divine nature right before their eyes. This experience, beloved, left an impression on these men that they never forgot.

John, who was there that day, began his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Then he went through the rest of the prologue, and at the end he said, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). John could not write his gospel without first saying, “We saw His glory.”

Later, when Peter wrote to the church in 2 Peter 1:16–17, he said this: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.”

It is true that during the ministry of Jesus, and even after His death, resurrection, and ascension, Peter had his well-known moments of lapse. But the one thing he never forgot is what he saw on that holy mountain when Christ was transfigured before him.

Moses and Elijah

“And behold,” we read, “two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah”—Moses, who represents the Law, and Elijah, who stands at the head of the long line of Prophets. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the divine nature broke through in the presence not only of the disciples but of the Law and the Prophets, of Moses and Elijah, who had called the people’s attention to the One who would come.

The transfiguration came right after the Caesarea Philippi confession, when Peter had said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” He confessed that the Messiah was not just be an anointed human being, but He the divine Son as well.

One of the ironies of this text is that Moses, at the end of his career as the mediator of the Old Testament, the one through whom the angels gave the Law to be presented to the people, was not allowed to enter the promised land. He could look at it, but God took his life before he could enter the promised land. Now, hundreds and hundreds of years later, he gets into the promised land.

There also is Elijah. Both of these men took a brief vacation from heaven, where they beheld the glory of the Father day and night, and came to the earth to behold the glory of the Son. Moses and Elijah appeared in glory, the glory they brought with them, and spoke of Jesus’ demise, or “decease,” which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Jesus had said after the Caesarea Philippi confession that He had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Now, as He was about to make that journey, the Father sent Him Moses and Elijah, probably in answer to His prayer. The Scriptures do not say what Jesus was praying about, but given His passion, given the intensity of His prayer in Gethsemane, I can only guess—and it is just a guess—that He was praying about the cup that the Father had placed before Him. The Father sent Him Moses and Elijah to comfort Him and encourage Him concerning His coming death.

Basking in Glory

“Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. Then it happened, as they were parting from Him, that Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it’s good for us to be here.’”

Peter says: “Let’s pitch three tents. Let’s have three houses. I don’t want to leave. This is a mountaintop experience I’m never going to get over. I have no interest in going to Jerusalem. I have no interest in going back and preaching. I have no interest in doing anything but to stand here and bask in this glory.”

How like all of us Peter was, wanting to stay there on the mountain: “‘We’ll make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, one for Elijah. We don’t mind sleeping on the stones’—not realizing what he had said.” With all his attempts to encourage Jesus, once more, Peter was trying to dissuade Him from His destiny.

Hear Him

“And while he was still speaking, a cloud came.” Was it the Shekinah, or an ordinary cloud? Luke does not tell us, but he goes on: “A cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were fearful as they entered the cloud [which makes me think it was the Shekinah]. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!’”

Only three times in the New Testament are we told that God speaks audibly from the heavens. The first time was at the baptism of Jesus, when the dove descended, the heavens opened, and the Father spoke, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Now, the message changed slightly. The same affirmation of sonship was given: “This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him!” How could you not pay heed and want to hear every word that came out of the mouth of the One who has just been transfigured in front of you? If you have ever tasted the glory of God, if you have ever had the slightest glimpse of the majesty of Jesus Christ, why would you not want to hear everything He has to say?

Here came the cloud, and that was scary enough. They had just seen the glory, and that terrified them. Now, the coup de grâce: the voice from heaven: “Peter, James, John! Do you know who this is? Do you know who this One is who has just displayed His glory before your very eyes? This is My beloved. This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!”

The Next Transfiguration

“When the voice had ceased, Jesus was found alone. But they kept quiet, and told no one in those days any of the things they had seen.” Later, of course, they could not stop talking about it, and told everyone. But, for now, it was not time for talking. It was time for hearing, which they did.

Beloved, every one of us who is in Christ Jesus will one day see this same glory. It is inherent in Jesus. The author of Hebrews says that Jesus is “the brightness of God’s glory.” When we enter into glory, and our mortal eyes are overwhelmed by the brilliance of the light which we enter, and we try to peer into that light and try to find the source of that light, we will see Jesus, not for a moment, but forever, in the blinding glory of God. We missed the transfiguration the first time, but God willing, we will not miss it the next time.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.