The first Sunday of the month is my favorite Sunday because it is the week that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Communion. The elements of this custom are on the table – the bread and the wine, or grape juice in our case. We craft the whole service to help everyone prepare their hearts to share in the visible signs of Jesus’ death for sinners. And I always seek to use the passage of the day to point to that, which isn’t hard because the whole Bible is about Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of God’s people. And the passage our sister just read to us is no exception.
As my son, Ben, got in the car to move to Iowa for his first job, he said to his Mom and me, “Well, I’m goin’ ta find me a corn-fed gal!” And that’s what he did. He married a lovely girl named Rachael whose parents and grandparents are all farmers. Now my father had quite a garden in my youth but I never really talked to a farmer until I talked at length one day to one of her grandfathers. He described plowing fields in the Spring and preparing to plant. On the day you plant, the field looks to most people just like it did before you planted, but you go ahead and water and fertilize. Depending on the kind of seed planted, it may take up to three weeks before you see any visible change. But one day you go out to your field and there are a carpet of little green sprouts. Then the changes begin in earnest and two to four months later, you are ready to harvest the fruit.
Jesus himself taught to think of the truth as a seed that is planted in the heart. In the mystery of germination, all we can do is water and feed that seed; it is the sovereign work of God in the heart to germinate the seed and produce fruit. That’s a picture of the work of God in the heart.
In this story just read to us we see that going on in three of the apostles: Jesus takes his closest followers up a high mountain and there they experience something no one else experiences. But rather than having the full truth of that event dramatically transform their whole experience of life, it becomes like a seed planted that lay dormant underneath the exterior of their lives.
One of the things that convinces me of the truthfulness of the lifestory of Jesus that is written in the four gospels is the clear fact that his followers were so unaware of who they were really dealing with. But he came to change their whole worldview – to change it from being the one they had built themselves in life to one that would allow them to see all of life in a different way. That very slow process is uncovered for us in the gospels.
Now, the gospels weren’t written simply to tell us what happened; they were written to show us how God works and how we can expect that he will work in our lives as well. The forming of a well-developed world view that can stand the test of time and help us to face the storms of life with trust in God doesn’t happen overnight – but ultimately it is God’s work that we participate in as we live the Christian life.
In this event, the disciples were exposed to three truths – three facts about Jesus that, if taken seriously are life-altering, vision-building, and momentous in their consequences. But they don’t seem that way to the apostles. It’s only over time that we can see how these facts germinated in their hearts and produced fruit.
Jesus took Peter, the evident leader of the apostles, along with two brothers, James and John, who were (we know from other places in the gospels) Jesus’ cousins. They went up on a high mountain and there Jesus was transformed so that he appeared to be shining with brilliant light – not as though a bright light were shining on him but as thought the light were shining out of him. Along with him appeared Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Now, there’s little question that Moses and Elijah represented the law and the prophets, which is one way of dividing up the content of the Old Testament. Moses was the agent of God who delivered the law to the people in the first five books (which are called, the Torah, or Law) and Elijah was the first prophet – the one who appeared before the rise of what we call the writing prophets. He left no written record of his work but it is recorded for us in First and Second Kings.
The first truth they were meant to absorb from this is that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets; he is the completion of all that the Old Testament looked for. In fact, at the end of his life, Moses said to the people,
Deuteronomy 18.15: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen!”
And the people were waiting for this new prophet. So, the significance of this event is to underline the fulfillment of that promise.
But what does Peter do? He puts them on the same level – “It is good that we are here,” he says. We’ll make some shelters so that you three important people can be out of the sun while you converse.”
Now, this happened six days after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. If the foundation upon which anyone can build the Christian life is a recognition that Jesus is the Savior, Peter had that recognition. At least Jesus said he did in the last chapter: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” But that acceptable confession did not mean that he had the full comprehension of the Son of that discipleship would require of him.
Later, Peter would write in his first letter that the prophets of the Old Testament revealed both the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.
1 Peter 1.12: “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
That conviction is what Jesus is building… but at this point, he’s only planting seeds. More of life would have to unfold for Peter before those seeds took root and produced fruit.
But, in that same event, the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and prophets is not all that was revealed. The transfiguration reveals that Jesus is the Lord of glory. That’s the second fact displayed.
Of Moses, we are told that, when he met with God, he would come down from the mountain with his face shining brilliantly. He reflected the glory of God in an evident way that the people could see. God spoke with him face-to-face, we are told. But Jesus’ transformation shows him to be greater than Moses – he is the Lord from glory. What they were allowed to glimpse was the eternal glory of the second Person of the holy Trinity (which the disciples were incapable of understanding at that point); the undimmed grandeur of the living God who was present in Jesus but whose human nature hid it during his earthly life. They glimpsed the King in all his beauty, the one who has always ruled over creation and always will. To use the words of Jesus promise at the end of the last chapter, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son and Man coming in his kingdom.” (Mt 16.28)
To have insight into this truth is to see into the eternal purpose of God, to see the plan of salvation. This is the unfolding story of the Bible that God, because of his love for sinful people, was determined to save a people for his glory. And in eternity past, the second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, offered himself as the substitute, to come and live and die for those whom called would call to himself. And in time, the Spirit, the third Person, offered to draw them to himself so that, at the proper time, he might save each one.
But, they weren’t ready for that. Instead, the fact that they were in the presence of the Lord of glory, just like the fact that Jesus had come to fulfill the law and the prophets and to bring all things to completion in God’s purposes, was not clear. It was a seed that God planted. It would lay dormant for a time, but as the life of death of Jesus came about, the meaning of this event would dawn in their hearts like the sun rising on a cloudless day.
Later, one of the apostles, would write these words about the eternal plan of God:
1 Corinthians 2.8: “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
Jesus came to fulfill all the predictions and promises of the Old Testament, and Jesus is the Lord of glory.
And, as Peter was saying his foolish words, “Let us build some shelters for you,” the voice of the Father is heard from heaven. And he says the exact same words he said at the beginning of Jesus earthly ministry on that day when John the Baptist baptized him in the Jordan River:
Matthew 17.5: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
This whole passage is just saturated with Old Testament allusions and this sentence in particular.
- “This is my beloved Son” is a reference to Psalm 2, one of the psalms that particularly points toward the Messiah, in which God says to the anointed king, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” He is the Messiah-King.
- “With whom I am well pleased” comes from Isaiah 42.1, one of the servant songs in Isaiah. God says of the Messiah, the servant of the Lord, “Behold my servant…in whom my soul delights.” The Messiah is the suffering servant of Isaiah.
- “Listen to him!” refers to Moses words about the Prophet like him, “It is to him you shall listen!”
- In other words, God is underlining for them things that they are trying to put together in their minds. They expected the Messiah to come, they believe Jesus is him… but how do they square that with a whole way of looking at life that they had built? How could he suffer? What does this “rising from the dead” mean that he keeps talking about?
There’s a tag-ending on this story – a conversation about John the Baptist and how he fulfilled the Elijah promises of the Old Testament. It only serves to underline how little they understood about these things. But the event was clear in its content: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament; Jesus is the Lord from glory, come to save his people, Jesus must be worshiped and obeyed because he is the Messianic King AND the Suffering Servant.
At the end of his life, Peter wrote his second letter before his death in Rome at the hands of Nero. And at that point, the seeds of this event had germinated and borne rich fruit. Churches dotted the land from Jerusalem to Rome. And Peter wrote this:
2 Peter 1.16–18: 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.
Jesus didn’t come to be a flash in the pan. He wasn’t interested in making a momentary impact that got his name in lights for a day or even a year. He wasn’t interested in being famous for being famous, like the Kardashians. Jesus came to save sinners – eternally!
What that meant in the gospels is that he took twelve normal, working people, and he transformed their whole understanding of life. In the process of that, he brought them to faith in himself as the Redeemer. But that faith, at least in the beginning, didn’t answer all their questions or change all their attitudes.
Discipleship for us means the same thing. It starts with faith in Jesus as our sin-bearer, the one who by his death and resurrection has saved us from our sins. But it is meant to grow and develop and bear fruit, over a lifetime. To do that, he plants seeds in us – just like these three disciples. Those seeds like a newly planted field lie dormant below the surface. All we can do it water and feed them – God has to make them grow at the right time.
None of us has arrived. We are all on the journey of discipleship. In a contemporary world, we all have many questions. Questions about sexual morality, marriage, capitalism, justice, the place and power of science, government. What Jesus seeks to do is build within us a fully-developed world view that is capable of fitting all of those issues into a coherent whole so that the answers aren’t just based on how we feel at the moment, or what our friends tell us is right but are based on God’s word and God’s wisdom. And he gives us his word, and his Spirit, and one another to help us to grow in that throughout our lives.
But if Jesus is what this event reveals him to be, then our life is a mere preparation for eternity and everything we are about should have our future in view.
So take the long view of things and water and feed the seeds and let him do his work.