Friday, January 31, 2014

Matthew 17: The Transfiguration of Jesus


Matt 16:28 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."
Matt 16:1-13 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And 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. 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." 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." When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear."  And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, "Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead."  And the disciples asked him, "Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?" He answered, "Elijah does come, and he will restore all things.  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."  Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. 

This transfiguration event took place immediately after Jesus told his disciples: "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" (Matt 16:28). The word for "coming" (Greek: erchomenon, from erchomai) can also be understood as "appearing." So, Jesus is saying that some of his disciples would get to see Him in his kingdom glory before they died.

And what they saw at the mountain of transfiguration was Jesus as He is without the shielding of his human flesh. They saw Jesus as He is now in heaven: "And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light" (Matt 17:2). His appearance was quite similar to what the Apostle John saw of the heavenly Jesus in a vision while he was on island of Patmos: "Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength." 

Unlike the Apostle John's vision, what Peter, James and John saw that day on the mountain was an actual appearance of Jesus in His full glory. It was not a vision of Jesus but the "real" Jesus behind his human flesh: so 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" (John 1:14). So, what they saw was the Word without the flesh in its unveiled glory like His Father. So Jesus was not just a good-man telling us how to be live a good life but a God-Man revealing to us who God is in a way that would not overwhelm us by His glory.

The appearance of Christ in His glory has left a deep impression on Peter because decades later he wrote about this even when he was in his eighties: "We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain" (2 Peter 1:16-18). So, Peter is telling us here that the Christian faith is not founded on myths but on facts as recounted by eye-witnesses who saw Him and ultimately gave their lives for the truth of their testimony, viz., that Jesus is the Son of God. 

But what was instructive about this event was the appearance of two Old Testament saints with Jesus, viz., Moses and Elijah. We are told by Luke in Luke 9:30-31 that they were discussing with Jesus about his impending "departure" (death) in Jerusalem.  We may ask why Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and not other OT saints like Abraham or David? While different reasons have been offered for why Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, my own reason is more straightforward: These two men represent the entire Old Testament often described by Jesus as the "Law and the Prophets". Moses was the Law-giver and Elijah was the prophet par excellence because he never died. The fact that they were discussing about Jesus impending death suggests that the entire OT Scriptures have been looking forward to this event. 

In fact, after Jesus rose from the dead and walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he explained his own death from the OT Scriptures: "He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:44-47). 

In other words, the entire OT Scriptures can only be understood in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: from Genesis 3:15 about the "seed of the woman" all the way down to Malachi 4:5 prophecy about the coming of Elijah can be interpreted and understood in terms of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection in order that mankind might be redeemed. So, right from the early dawn of history, human access to God the Father has always been "by grace through faith" in lieu of what Jesus would do in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago. OT believers were looking forward to the Cross-event; but NT believers were looking backward to the Cross-event. While NT believers have a better understanding of how and why we have been reconciled with the Father through the shed blood of Christ, the efficacy of the Cross is not based on human understanding but faith. The Cross-event was primarily for God, not for humans. From His eternal perspective, Jesus death has already made it possible for Him to turn His face of wrath away from us so that He could deal with us sinners with mercy, not judgment. If not for the Cross-event, humanity would have been totally wiped out right from the Garden of Eden.

We thank God that in Jesus, we see the compassionate face of God because He would be the One who would die for our sins. What Jesus spoke was what God spoke. We should never soft-pedal Christ's teaching in favour of Paul's, for Paul and Jesus were speaking to different target audiences. Jesus' primary target audience were the Jews who were under Moses' Law, and his priority was to apply the Gospel within their religious-social context. Paul, on the other hand, is preaching to Gentiles who were without the Law and his priority was to keep the Judaizers from imposing the Moses' Law on Gentiles.

Be that as it may, once Christ has come, everything has to be re-interpreted in terms of Jesus' teaching and his suffering, death and resurrection. So, in the Transfiguration, we see the Law and Prophet met Christ to discuss His impending death, telling us that Christ is the fulfillment of OT Scriptures. We now interpret Moses' Law, the Prophets and even the Psalms in terms of what Jesus has done at the Cross and also what He has taught us in the Gospels.

Father, thank You that everything in the OT Scripture was clarified by Christ, both in his teachings and his suffering, death and resurrection. May we seek to imitate Christ in His obedience as the first Son of the Kingdom. Amen.

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