We Beheld His Glory!
Scripture: Matthew 17:1–17:27
Synopsis: Matthew 17 is an amazing, puzzling, intriguing passage of Scripture. It represented a “mountain top experience” not only for the disciples, but for Jesus himself. It made a lasting impact on the three disciples who were present. “We Beheld His Glory!” the Apostle John wrote many decades later. Listen to this sermon to gaze into the mysteries and to contemplate the eternal truths on display.
In a speech trying to predict the future actions of a particular nation, Winston Churchill once said “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
That quotation came to my mind this week as I was studying Matthew 17 and preparing for this message. This is one of the more mysterious and puzzling chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, and I must confess to feeling, after hours of study, almost as puzzled as I was when I began.
The chapter begins with a description of one of the most mysterious events in Jesus’ life. We read it in the Scripture reading this morning. Jesus took three of his followers with him up onto a mountain. There he was “transfigured” before them. The word in the original text was “metamorphomai”. It is the Greek word from which we get the word “metamorphosis”. A dramatic, inside out change. A change in which the outer form is transformed to represent an inner reality. In this transfigured state, Jesus is described as radiating light. His face shone as bright as the sun and his clothing became as white as light.
This was amazing and mysterious enough, but there was more. Two men appeared to the three disciples as well. Not just any men. They are identified as Moses and Elijah. The disciples saw them talking with Jesus. This raises a multitude of questions. How did they know they were Moses and Elijah? Did they wear name tags? (“Hello. My name is Moses!) Why Moses and Elijah? Why not Abraham or David or Isaiah? How long were they there? What language did they speak? Ancient Hebrew? The Aramaic of Jesus’ day? Some heavenly dialect? I don’t know the answers to these questions.
In speculating on why it was Moses and Elijah rather than other Old Testament believers, it is intriguing to note that during their earthly lives, both of these men had experienced dramatic encounters with God and his glory on a mountain. Both men came to the end of earthly life in somewhat mysterious circumstances. We are told that Moses died, but his body was buried secretly by God himself. Elijah did not die, but was transported to heaven on a fiery chariot. All this only increases the sense of mystery about what is happening in Matthew 17.
In the awe and mystery of the moment, we are told that Peter opens his mouth. “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.”
It is difficult to even know what Peter was proposing or why. I guess that shouldn’t surprise us. In fact Mark’s gospel even says that Peter himself “didn’t know what he was saying.” He just felt the need to say something, to do something, to propose something.
Then the mystery deepens. We are told that a “bright cloud overshadowed them.” Then, even more amazingly, a voice spoke out of the cloud. In a voice and with words that resonated with divine authority came the pronouncement: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
The three disciples fell on their faces in terror. We don’t know how long they lay that way. The next thing they experienced was the gentle touch of Jesus. “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, the cloud was gone. Moses and Elijah were gone. Only Jesus remained, now returned to his normal appearance.
Surely it is one of the most mysterious episodes in the Scriptures. The mystery lies in the intermingling of the two worlds revealed in Scripture; the natural, physical, visible world that we experience every day with our five senses, and the supernatural, spiritual and normally invisible world. These two worlds are always in existence and always interrelating in countless unknown and unseen ways. But on certain occasions like this one, God sees fit to pull back the curtain and allow us a glimpse into that other world – to see flashes of his glory and to audibly hear his voice. The glimpses are brief, and they usually leave us with more questions than answers, but they give intriguing, sometimes reassuring, often frightening intimations that reality is much greater, much more complex, much more awe-inspiring than we can even begin to comprehend.
That is the most dramatic incident in this chapter. We will come back to it in a moment. But there are several other encounters or conversations that also leave me a bit puzzled. There isn’t time to explore them in detail, but let me just highlight the content.
First we are told that Jesus strictly warned the three disciples to keep what they had seen on the mountain a secret until after his resurrection. I am not sure why he told them that; probably because the rest of the disciples were not yet ready to absorb the impact of such a profound experience.
The encounter on the mountain and the appearance, particularly of Elijah, had raised questions in the minds of the three disciples. There was a prophecy found in Malachi 4:5-6 which read:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Now they are trying to make sense of what they have just seen and Elijah’s appearance with Jesus on the mountain, in light of this prophecy. “Why do the scribes teach that Elijah must come first?” they ask. Jesus confirms the veracity of the prophecy and then explains it in this way:
He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
This explanation also includes another prophecy of Jesus’ own coming suffering.
Then they arrive at the foot of the mountain. That’s the problem with mountain top experiences, isn’t it? We have to descend again into the valley. For Jesus, it was no exception. What he found there was a quarreling crowd, a desperate father, a demon-possessed boy and his own powerless followers. It was a scene of chaos, confusion and despair.
I can’t help but compare what Jesus found and the experiences of Moses and Elijah and what happened when they came down from their own mountain top experiences. Moses came down from his time in God’s presence to find the Israelites singing and prancing around a gold idol. Elijah prayed down the fire from heaven, only to find himself the next day fleeing from the wrath of Queen Jezebel.
Jesus found a similar scene of chaos. His words are harsh: “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” In Matthew’s account, it is easy to read this as a rebuke of his disciples. But I believe it is more than that. Mark’s account gives us a little more context when he tells us in Mark 9:14: And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them.
So when Jesus addresses them as a “faithless and twisted generation” it is the whole crowd, including the arguing scribes that he is talking to. After healing the boy and casting out the demon, he does instruct the disciples on the source of their own powerlessness; a lack of faith.
The next recorded incident in the chapter tells of Jesus’ second clear pronouncement to his disciples of his coming suffering and death:
22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.
Then there is one final paragraph that is just as puzzling as all the other enigmas in this chapter. It is a rather cryptic story in which Jesus is challenged on whether or not he has paid his temple tax. There is some verbal jousting in which Jesus raises the question: “Should the son of the King pay tax?” But then Jesus instructs Peter to go down to the lake, cast a line into the water and “take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” I will be the first to admit that the purpose of such a miracle remains as obscure to me today as it did when I first read this story as a child. It remains one of the questions on my list to ask about when I get to heaven.
So what shall we make of such a chapter, with its mysteries, riddles and enigmas? When we step away from the canvas the artist has painted, and cast our eye over the big picture, mysteries remain, but there are certain truths that are clear; certain realities that resonate here, which, if we are prepared to receive them and believe them, are able to feed our souls, inform our theology and shape our world view.
We know that this experience had a life-altering effect on the disciples who witnessed it. Nearing the end of his life, the aging Apostle Peter wrote these words in his second epistle:
16 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. 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. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:16-19)
Peter had lived with Jesus. He witnessed his miracles, He watched him die. He experienced him in his resurrection body. But still it was this vision of Jesus in his majesty and the words of God himself that he cites here as the source of his confidence and authority. It had a profound effect on him that never faded.
It also had a powerful effect on the Apostle John. He wrote these words in John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
When did John see Jesus in his glory as the only Son from the Father? Surely he had the vision on the mountain in mind as he wrote those words.
So what do we learn; what do we take away from this chapter and what took place on the mountain that day?
Truth # 1: The identity of Jesus as the Son of God.
Surely this is truth number one to take away from this chapter. It is a truth that has been stated before. It was confessed by Peter in his Great Confession in chapter 16. But this is the ultimate testimony. This is the voice of God himself, as heaven drew near to earth that day, and God spoke out of the cloud. And his words could not be more plain or more clear. This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.
What greater witness or testimony could we require or expect? I believe that this is what John has in mind when he wrote these words in 1 John 5:9-10:
If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.
What is God’s testimony? His own voice spoke out of the cloud, “This is my Son.” If we refuse to believe his words, we make him out to be a liar. It’s that simple.
You might say: “But that didn’t happen to me! I didn’t see the vision or hear the voice.” No, and neither did I. But we have the words of two eye-witnesses. And by what self-centered arrogance do we say to the God of the universe, “Now do it again for me, and then I will believe!”
We walk by faith and not by sight. But with that faith comes a greater blessing. Do you remember what Jesus said to Thomas following his resurrection? Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Truth # 2: The pre-eminence of Christ.
Peter didn’t know what he was saying when he suggested that he make tents or booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Some suggest that the time of the Feast of Booths was approaching. The word for tents that Peter used was the same word used for the temporary shelters that the people of Israel would live in during the Feast of Booths, during which they remembered their Wilderness Wanderings. Whether that was in his mind or not, we do not know. We do know that he made one crucial error. That was in ranking Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah. He meant no disrespect. Moses and Elijah were high in the ranking of Israel’s spiritual heroes. Peter was in awe to be in their presence.
But the rest of the story puts this into perspective. The voice came out of the cloud and it did not speak of Moses or of Elijah, but only of Jesus. “This is my Son…Listen to him.” Jesus is the Son. His is the name that is above every name. The name at which every knee will one day bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Truth #3: The centrality and necessity of the cross.
I said a little while ago that I had many questions about what happened on the mountain. What language did they use? How long did they talk? But I did not include in that list of questions, “What did they talk about?” We know the answer to that question, because we are told in Luke’s account. In Luke 9:30-31:
30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
It is interesting that in the original Greek, the word translated “departure” is the word “exodus”. Now that is an interesting thing for Jesus to talk with Moses about, isn’t it? What does his “exodus” or “departure” refer to? All that was about to happen in Jerusalem. Central to that, of course, is his suffering and death, followed by his resurrection – and then his ascension.
That is powerful. Moses, the law giver; Elijah, the powerful prophet of God; they meet on the mountain with Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. And what do they talk about? The cross; Messiah’s great work of redemption. All the threads and great themes of Scripture find their unity in the cross. The theme of Jesus’ suffering and death is woven throughout this chapter. The reference to his suffering in the same way that John the Baptist suffered; the second prophecy of his coming suffering death and resurrection in verses 22-23. And of course the reference to his resurrection when he tells the three disciples not to tell anyone of their experience until “the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” The cross and then the resurrection. The cross and then the glory. The cross must precede the crown.
Can I add just one more?
Truth # 4: The certainty of the coming glory.
What is described in Matthew 17 is just a brief glimpse, a tantalizing preview of what is the current reality in the spiritual realm and what lies ahead for all who trust in Jesus as Savior. It’s like the voice-over at the end of a television show: “Stay tuned for scenes from our next show.” I believe what the three disciples witnessed on the mountain that day was a “scene from the next show.” The Finale. The Glory.
Back in chapter 16:27, Jesus made this promise: For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father,
Let’s look at some other Scripture references to the coming glory and the reality that we, as followers of Jesus, will share in it.
In his great High Priestly prayer in John 17:24, Jesus prayed these words: Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
We, too, will be eye witnesses and see Jesus’ glory.
It is a promise that puts all of the struggles of this present life into perspective, as Paul tells us in Romans 8:18:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
We will not only see Jesus in his glory. The promise is that we will share it, as Paul tells us in Colossians 3:4: When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
It is a promise that is made to everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation as we are told in 2 Timothy 2:10:
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
So, what is the relevance of this scene on the mountain? Consider it a preview of what lies ahead for us as Christ’s followers. Jesus standing again upon the earth in all his glory. We will be there, too, in new and glorified bodies, just like his glorified body. We will be able to talk with Jesus, just like Moses and Elijah were talking with him that day. It is not only a scene of glory. It is a scene of intimacy and friendship and conversation. And we will share it, if we believe in Jesus and in the testimony that God bore to him that day out of the cloud:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
- Read Matthew 17 together.
- What stands out to you in this chapter? What questions does it raise?
- Why do you think it was Moses and Elijah who appeared with Jesus?
- In the message, Pastor Cam only touched on the incident in verses 14-21. What are the lessons you think we should take away from these verses?
- What is your reaction to the story in verses 24-27?
- In spite of the questions this chapter leaves in our minds, the message points out some clear truths to be found. Discuss the relevance of each one. Are there other truths to take away?
- The identity of Jesus as the Son of God
- The pre-eminence of Christ
- The centrality and necessity of the cross
- The certainty of the coming glory