The Message of the Transfiguration
“And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only. And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead. And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:1-13)
In Matthew 17, the Holy Spirit takes us up on the mount of transfiguration. He does not tell us which mountain it was, lest foolish men make it an idolatrous “holy place.” But it was one of the high mountains around Jerusalem. There our Lord Jesus Christ was transfigured before Peter, James, and John. They saw his majesty and his excellent glory. The order in which this event is recorded is beautiful and full of instruction. It was six days after the events recorded in chapter 16. In that chapter…
· Our Lord gave words of instruction about his sufferings, death, and resurrection (v. 21).
· Peter rebuked the Son of God and was rebuked by him (vv. 22-23).
· Our Lord spoke of the cost of following him (vv. 24-26)
· And he spoke of his coming glory (vv. 27-28)
“And after six days.” — The disciples thought on these things for six days. Then the Lord called Peter, James, and John to himself and took them up on the mount. He had told them about his suffering. Now he would show them something of his glory. The hearts, which had been saddened by those plain statements regarding his sufferings and death, must be gladdened by the vision of his reward and glory.
“Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart.” — Luke tells us that they came up into this high mountain “to pray.” What a prayer meeting it was! Did you notice that Peter is still in the favored circle? Six days earlier he had greatly sinned in rebuking his Master. But Christ did not remember it. He did not bear the offence in mind. He freely forgave Peter’s sin. He loved Peter still. How thankful we ought to be for such a Savior! He will not impute sin to his own (Rom. 4:8).
“And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (vv. 2-5).
There is much in these verses which is shrouded in mystery; and we will leave it there. That which God has not revealed we are content not to know. We will not curiously pry into God’s secrets. Robert Hawker wrote…
“We know that ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). And we know also, that ‘in him,’ that is, Christ, ‘dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). All that we can possibly frame to ourselves of this transfiguration therefore is, that the Godhead shone forth in the manhood in a more than ordinary manner. The Son of God was pleased to manifest himself in his double-nature glory more than in the usual appearances of Christ in the days of his flesh. It was a moment of peculiar manifestation of the glories of his person. It was the personal glory of the God-Man, as God-Man.”
Still, there is much in these verses which is intended for our instruction and edification. We have before us a striking demonstration of the glory in which Christ and his people will appear when he comes the second time. The transfiguration was a revelation of our Lord’s true dignity. Here the corner of the veil was lifted to show Peter, James, and John the glory which awaited Christ as the reward of his agony upon the cross (2 Pet. 1:16; John 1:14). It was also a picture of the glory which awaits every believer. J. C. Ryle said, “There is laid up for Jesus, and all that believe on him, such glory as the heart of man never conceived.” (1 John 3:1-2)
These verses also give us a clear, factual demonstration of life after death and of the resurrection of the body. Moses had been dead and buried for 1500 years. Elijah “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” 900 years before this. Yet, here they stood on the mount talking to the Lord Jesus. Peter, James, and John saw them and heard them; and they knew immediately who they were, though they had never seen them or even a picture of them. That fact clearly demonstrates the universal teaching of Holy Scripture that there is life after death and that there is a coming day of resurrection. And I think we may safely infer from this that God’s elect will know one another in the resurrection.
When the Lord Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, his face shined like the sun and his garments were as white as the light. Peter later tells us that they were “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16) and heard God’s voice “from the excellent glory” (2 Pet. 1:17). But there is something better than that. Peter tells us that the written Word of God is a more sure and dependable revelation than his experience upon the mountain of transfiguration (2 Pet. 1:19). In this day of imaginary extrabiblical revelation, Peter’s words need to be remembered. We must never interpret the written Word of God by our experiences, no matter how glorious. Rather, we are to interpret our experiences by God’s written Word.
“Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias” (v. 4). — Peter was simply overwhelmed. Who can blame him for making his proposal that three tabernacles should be made? Who would not wish to abide in such a mountain and in such a state?
After seeing and hearing the things he saw and heard upon the mount of transfiguration, and after hearing such a testimony “from the excellent glory,” and after having made such a great confession of faith regarding the Lord Jesus Christ (16:15-19), who would ever have imagined that Peter would later deny his God and Savior? But he did (Matt. 26:69-75). And there is not a more blessed example in all the Word of God of that which he was later inspired to write. — We “are kept by the power of God, through faith unto salvation” (1 Pet. 1:5). Who could write those words with more force and gratitude than Peter? He knew, by blessed experience, that the safety and security of God’s elect is altogether, at all times, and in all circumstances a matter of pure, free grace.
God the Son
This event is recorded to show us, by divine testimony, that the Lord Jesus Christ is infinitely superior to all who are born of women (vv. 4-5). Peter, bewildered by the heavenly vision, suggested that three tabernacles ought to be built: one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Christ. In his confusion, Peter seems to have placed the lawgiver and the prophet side by side with Christ, as though they were equal to him. Immediately, Moses and Elijah were engulfed in a cloud, and a voice came forth from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” That voice was meant to teach Peter and us that Jesus Christ alone is the Son of God, the Savior of men, and the One in whom and by whom God is well-pleased.
As the rising of the sun eclipses every star and causes them to fade away, even so the rising of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, in the earth eclipses all who ever came before him. Once Christ has come, Moses, the law, has nothing more to say. He met the law’s demands. And the prophets, represented by Elijah, are no longer to be pried into as mysterious secrets. He fulfilled all the prophets.
“This is my beloved Son.” — With those words, God the Father publicly owned and identified himself with Jesus, the Son of Mary, as his own dearly beloved Son. The babe of Bethlehem, the man of Nazareth, the suffering One of Calvary is himself “God over all, blessed forever.” Christ is the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16), the eternally begotten Son of God (Prov. 8:22-23), and the Son co-equal with his Father (John 5:18, 10:33; 1 John 5:7).
Christ is co-essential with the Father, so essentially one with the Father that without Christ there would be no God (John 1:1-3). We who believe are the sons of God by adoption and grace; but Christ is the Son of God by nature and essence. He is the Son as none others are. This voice from heaven announced the fulfillment of the prophecies, which foretold the coming of One who would be both God and man in one Person (Isa. 7:14, 9:6; Micah 5:2; Zech. 13:7).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Beloved Son of God. God the Father loves the Son as the Son. Particularly, this is spoken to show us that the Father loves and delights in the Son because of his obedience as the Mediator and Substitute for sinners (Prov. 8:30; John 3:35; 10:17). The Lord Jesus Christ is the embodiment, revelation, and medium of divine love. God loves sinners in Christ and because of Christ (John 17:23-24; Rom. 5:8; I John 3:16; 4:8-10).
This is the first, essential thing to be learned: Jesus Christ our Savior is himself God, the eternal Son, well-beloved by his Father. It is his Godhead that gives infinite merit and efficacy to all that he does. He who is God is an all-sufficient, effectual Substitute for sinners.
“This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”— God the Father speaks from heaven to Peter, James, and John, and by them to us, declaring that he is well pleased with his dear Son, and only with his Son. Moses was there, but God was not pleased with him. Elijah was there; but God was not pleased with him. Peter was there; but God was not pleased with him. James was there; but God was not pleased with him. And John was there; but God was not pleased with him. God never has been and never can be pleased with any sinful man. But God always has been and always must be well pleased with his dear Son, the God-man.
It goes without saying that God the Father is essentially well pleased with his Son as his Son. But here we are told that God the Father is well pleased with his Son as the God-man Mediator. God was well pleased with his Son eternally, as our Surety and Mediatoral Representative in the covenant of grace (Isa. 42:21). He is well pleased, honored by, and delights in the representative life of his Son, by which he brought in everlasting righteousness for us (Matt. 3:13-17). God is well pleased with the substitutionary, sin atoning death of his Son, by which he both satisfied divine justice and put away the sins of his people (Isa. 53:10; Psa. 85:9-11). He is well pleased with the heavenly intercession of his Son as our Advocate and great High Priest (1 John 2:1-2). God is well pleased with the providential rule of his Son as the sovereign King of the universe (Isa. 42:1-4). As our Savior said of his earthly life, he might say of his heavenly rule, “I do always those things that please him” (John 8:29). And God shall be well pleased with the results of his Son’s covenant engagements and mediatoral rule (1 Cor. 15:24-28). Christ, as the Mediator, as the God-man, shall present his kingdom to the eternal Father, that God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit may be forever glorified (Rev. 19:1-7).
But the voice that was heard from heaven did not say, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” but “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” God is well pleased with his people in his Son. Imagine that! The holy, righteous, just, and true God, Lord of heaven and earth, is honored by, delights in, and well pleased with us in his Son! In our natural condition we are all displeasing to God. This is our miserable state by nature. But our God is well pleased with us for Christ’s sake, because he is in Christ. He was well pleased with us in Christ eternally (Eph. 1:6). He is well pleased with all that we offer to him and do for him in Christ (1 Pet. 2:5). And he is always, immutably well pleased with us in Christ (Jer. 23:6; 33:16).
“Hear ye him.” — The God of glory commands us to hear Christ our Surety, to hear all that he declares and reveals, as our Prophet, Priest, and King, and to hear him with confident faith, to receive and accept him in all the fulness of his person and work as the God-man, our Savior. Our God here tells us to be completely well pleased with him as the Lord our Righteousness, just as he is completely well pleased with him. He would have us, by faith, to look upon ourselves in Christ, just as he looks upon us in Christ, to reckon ourselves to be what he reckons us to be (Rom. 6:11): justified, righteous, holy, accepted, without sin, blameless, spotless, and unreproveable — well-pleasing to God!
Are you well pleased with Christ? He who is well pleased with Christ alone as his Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption, accepts Christ as all, looks to Christ for all, pleads Christ in all, makes Christ to be what God makes him, the whole of salvation, as the sole means of salvation. When the Holy Spirit declares of God’s elect that we are “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6), he is not merely telling us that God accepts our repentance, our faith, our prayers, and our works for Christ’s sake (though that is true). He is telling us that we are accepted as one with the Beloved. As such, because we are in him and one with him, “the fulness of him that filleth all in all,” we are well pleasing to our God in him. And that can never change! As John Kent put it…
“Christ exalted is our song,
Sung by all the blood-bought throng;
To His throne our shouts shall rise,
God with us by sacred ties.
Shout, believer, to thy God!
He hath once the wine-press trod;
Peace procured by blood divine;
Cancelled all thy sins and mine.
Here thy bleeding wounds are healed;
Sin condemned and pardon sealed;
Grace her empire still maintains;
Love without a rival reigns.
In thy Surety thou art free;
His dear hands were pierced for thee;
With His spotless garment on,
Holy as the Holy One!
Oh, the heights and depths of grace!
Shining with meridian blaze;
Here the sacred records show
Sinners black, but comely too.
Saints dejected, cease to mourn,
Faith shall soon to vision turn;
Ye the kingdom shall obtain,
And with Christ exalted reign.”
“Hear ye him.” — With these words, God the Father also informs us that Christ alone is the great Prophet and Teacher in his kingdom. No voice is to be heard in the church and kingdom of God, but the voice of Christ. His doctrine alone is the doctrine of his church. His Word alone is our authoritative rule of faith and practice.
In verses 6-8, Matthew gives us a beautiful picture of the experience of grace.
“And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.”
I am certain that I am not stretching the text when I tell you that the things described in these three verses is a beautiful, spiritual picture of what happens when the Lord Jesus comes to sinners in his saving power and performs his saving operations of grace. Here is the power by which sinners are born of God in regeneration. — “Jesus came and touched them.” When touched by his omnipotent hand, we were called by his omnipotent voice. — “Arise.” And being called, he assures us that all is well, saying, “Be not afraid.” And, as soon as sinners are born of God, raised up from the dead by him, hearing his voice, “They see no man, save Jesus only” as Savior and Lord (1 Cor. 1:30).
“Oh! for grace,” wrote Hawker, “to possess such faith in Jesus, as may raise our souls above all fears, while conscious of a union with Christ, and acceptance in Christ. The sudden departure of Moses and Elias may serve to teach us, that none but Jesus can be our abiding comfort. Everything here below is short and transitory. Oh! What a blessed thought it is. Jesus hath said, ‘Lo! I am with you always’ (Matt. 28:20).”
“And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist” (vv. 10-13).
Here our Lord explains the ministry of John the Baptist. Malachi prophesied, that prior to the Messiah’s coming, Elijah would come again to prepare the way for him (Mal. 4:5-6). Here, our Lord states plainly that Malachi was talking about John the Baptist. Indeed, like Elijah and John the Baptist, all true Gospel preachers are sent of God as forerunners to prepare the way of the Lord by declaring to men the gospel of God’s free, sovereign, saving grace in Christ (Isa. 52:7; Rom. 10:13-17).