"A Preview of His Majesty"
(Delivered Sunday, July 15, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
I think that the best way to begin this morning's sermon is by making a confession. There's something you need to know about your pastor. (Don't worry—it's not about anything bad. But I'll bet that I've your attention now!)
I confess that I enjoy scary stories. I really love them! Now please understand; I'm not talking about those sick, violent, 'chainsaw' stories. Nor am I talking about the kind of stories that celebrate things that are blatantly satanic. I don't believe those are ever appropriate. But what I'm talking about is the eerie, uncanny type of stories that leave you with the haunting feeling that you're surrounded in life by something far bigger than you.
I'm talking about the type of stories in which people who are going about normal, natural, every-day life are suddenly confronted with the supernatural—leaving them with a mixture of awe and mystery and fear. I love the old Twilight Zone shows. I love reading Ray Bradbury's short stories. Signs is one of my favorite movies. I love the "dark and stormy night" stories—the "there's something creepy out there in the fog" stories—the "strange sounds in the moonlit night" stories—the stories that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and that make my skin crawl a little.
I've tried to understand my attraction to such stories. And here's what I've come to understand about myself. (And it's not that I need counseling, by the way!) I believe that my delight in such stories reflects a built-in need we all have, as human beings—a need for contact with something 'transcendent' and 'eternal' and 'other-worldly'. It's an expression—to an imperfect degree—of our need for an encounter with our Creator's glory and majesty.
The Bible tells us that God is "the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity" (Isaiah 57:15). And it also says that God has put "eternity" in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). It's a part of our natural make-up to be fascinated with that which is 'transcendent' and 'above' the natural—because we were made by the One who inhabits eternity for a relationship with Him. That inclination has been damaged by the fall, of course; but it is nevertheless there. The 'mystery' of God's majesty scares us; but it also strangely draws us.
And sometimes, when God meets that inclination in us in a personal way, and shows us something of what He is really like—when He, as it were, opens our eyes and allows us to see the depths of the mystery of His majesty and glory—it's far more startling than a mere 'scary story'. The real, genuine experience God's self-revelation shocks us, and terrifies us, and shakes us to the core of our being.
And then, it leaves us changed forever.
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This morning, we come to just such a story. When I read it, it gives me—if I may coin a new phrase—"holy goose-flesh". It's mysterious. It's uncanny. It confronts us with the realization that we are in the presence of Someone who is greater and more "other-worldly" than we realized. And it's meant by God to so impact us with the mystery of the glorious majesty of Jesus Christ, that we are changed forever.
Turn with me to the seventeenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel; and let's look at this story together. In it, we find that Jesus gave a startling, shocking, soul-trembling, life-transforming manifestation of His own kingdom glory to His beloved friends.
In Matthew 17:1-9, we read;
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First, let's consider . . .
1. WHAT THE CONTEXT OF THIS STORY WAS (16:28).
You find the context expressed in the last verse of chapter 16. Jesus tells His disciples, "Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom" (Matthew 16:28).
Now; the first thing you need to know that I believe about this verse is that it's in the wrong chapter. The text of the Bible, of course, is the very word of God. But I hope that you know that the chapter divisions didn't come down from heaven. Men—human editors and publishers—separated the text into chapters and verses. And in this case, the chapter division gives the impression that Matthew 16:28 is somehow separate from what follows it.
Some of you have commented that, in some of my previous messages, I left this verse out. And this is why. I believe it is best understood as belonging to our passage this morning.
Let me show you why this is so. Think back with me once again to the things we've already seen in the past few weeks. First, we've seen that Jesus was clearly identified for us in the confession that Peter made concerning Him—"you are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). We've called this "the blessed confession"; because it immediately received Jesus' own blessing after it was uttered. We were told that it is the very revelation of God the Father concerning His Son. In fact, we even read in our passage this morning that the Father Himself again expresses it; “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!”
Then, we read that this same Jesus—who is declared to be the Christ, the Son of the living God—must go to Jerusalem and die on the cross. In verse 21, we read that [f]rom that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day." It was the set purpose of the Father that Jesus—His own beloved Son—must die on the cross for sinners. You may remember that Peter could not accept this. He dared to take the Savior aside and rebuke Him for saying such a thing. But Jesus affirmed that He would not be drawn away from the cross.
And then, we read that Jesus turned to His disciples and told them;
Put it all together. Here is Jesus—affirmed to be "the Christ, the Son of the living God." He is God in human flesh—destined to be revealed as King of kings and Lord of lords. But He also must first suffer for sinners and die on the cross. And He insists that anyone who would come after Him must do as He was about to do—deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him. They are to be willing to do so, trusting that the Son of Man will come to earth again one day, in the glory of His Father, and will reward each according to their works.
And then comes this strange verse—one in which He speaks a truth that is solemn and serious. "Assuredly", He says—or literally, "Amen"—"I say to you, there are some standing here"—that is. some from among the twelve disciples who had just been called upon to deny self, take up the cross, and follow Him—"who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."
The simplest way to understand this verse, then, is as a promise from the Lord Jesus to His disciples of that remarkable event that Matthew tells us about next. Some of the disciples standing there—three of them, to be precise—would be taken aside and be given a private glimpse of the glory of the One who was calling them to follow Him by way of the cross. They would be given a vision of His kingly majesty before they themselves left this earth; so that they could testify to His glory as eye-witnesses; and could then pass on the assurance of His kingly reign to those of us who would yet live, and who would also hear His call to "follow" and lay down our lives for Him.
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As it turns out, this promise from our Lord was fulfilled only six days after it was given—and the "preview" of the majestic glory of King Jesus, in which He will one day come to this earth and reign, was granted to witnesses who would then pass it on to us.
This leads us, next, to consider . . .
2. WHO THE EYE-WITNESSES WERE (17:1).
Matthew tells us, that "after six days Jesus took Peter, James and John his brother", and "led them up on a high mountain by themselves" (Matthew 17:1).
It may surprise you to know this; but Jesus didn't treat all the twelve disciples equally. Among the twelve, He had a special relationship with these three. They were with Him at some of the most important moments in His earthly ministry.
Perhaps you remember, for example, the time that Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus the ruler of the synagogue. The man's little girl had died; and when Jesus arrived to the house with His disciples, "He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl" (Luke 8:51). They alone, at that time, were witnesses of His resurrection power.
Or perhaps you remember the dark evening of our Lord's betrayal. We're told that Jesus and His disciples came to that place called Gethsemane; and He told them, "Sit here while I go and pray over there." Then, we're told that "He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He told them, 'My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me'" (Matthew 26:36-38). Once again, then, we find these three in close companionship with the Savior at some of the most crucial moments of His ministry.
And now, once again, we see that He draws these three aside to Himself. It was to them that He chose to reveal His glory. Why three? Perhaps it was so that, as the Scriptures say, ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established' (Matthew 18:16; see also Deut. 19:15; 2 Corinthians 13:1). Why these three? Perhaps we can't entirely know the reason for the Lord's choice. But the Lord clearly knew who it was that He could trust to serve as eyewitnesses and faithful reporters of this remarkable event. And the past two-thousand years of the church's testimony through their written witness has proven that choice to have been providential and wise.
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Jesus took them apart from the others and led them up a high mountain by themselves. He didn't wish to give this revelation to everyone—but just to them. He didn't do it publicly—but in solitude. Luke tells us, in his account of the story, that it was "to pray" (Luke 9:28); but Luke also tells us that the three were "weary with sleep" (vv. 32-33), and so it must have been at night.
Imagine the scene. It was dark and quiet—high upon a ridge of a mountain. The evening had fallen; and no doubt the trees and tall rocks created an envelop of darkness. They were far away from anyone else; and there was hardly a sound. The Lord was praying, and the disciples were sleeping.
And it's then that the vision came. This leads us to
3. WHAT THE THREE WITNESSES SAW (vv. 2-3)?
Matthew tells us that "He was transfigured before them". His external form was changed. We're not told very much about this; and perhaps it's best that we're not. We are told, however, what God has wanted us to know.
We're told that the Lord's face "shone like the sun" (v. 2). Can you imagine what that must have been like, during that dark night in that secluded place? Were the disciples awakened by the brightness? Did they think, at first, that they had overslept and that daylight had fallen on them? Did they have to hold their hands to their eyes to shield themselves from the brightness?
The Bible tells us that, long ago, Moses face shone. We're told that when he came down from Mount Sinai from the presence of God, with the law in his hands, "that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him" (Exodus 34:29). Aaron and the children of Israel saw it; but were afraid to approach near Moses because of it. But it also tells us that "the glory of his countenance was passing away" (2 Corinthians 3:7).
Moses' face shone with the glory of God; but it faded away because it was only a "reflected" light. Moses, if I may put it this way, was like the moon. The light with which it shines is only a reflected light, borrowed from the sun. But here, we're told that Jesus' face radiated—not from being in the presence of God; but because He truly was God. His was not a mere reflected light; but was like the sun itself in its brightness and strength. This stressed the very resurrection glory of Jesus that we read about in Revelation 1:16—where we're told that "His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength."
And we're also told that our Lord's "clothes became as white as the light" (v. 2). Mark, in his Gospel account, tells us that His garments became "exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them" (Mark 9:3). In Revelation 19:14, we read of the armies of heaven that will accompany the Lord on the day of His glorious return; that they will be "clothed in fine linen, white and clean." Perhaps this is meant to convey to us the unspeakable purity and holiness of our Lord in His glory.
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It's hard to grasp what a stunning and shocking sight this must have been! And that's not all that the three disciples saw. Matthew writes, "And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him" (v. 3).
There's a question that preachers are sometimes asked: "Will we recognize our loved one's in heaven?" I've always responded by saying; "Well; you recognize them now, don't you? And aren't you going to be even smarter in heaven?" But if anyone needed scriptural proof, I would suggest that here it is. How did the disciples know that this was Moses and Elijah? They hadn't seen pictures of them before. Jesus didn't seem to make any introductions. And they certainly weren't wearing name-tags. As these two Old Testament saints appeared to them in glory with the Lord, the disciples simply 'knew' who they were. I have no doubt that we'll know our loved ones in glory too.
Stop and think of who it was that was that spoke with the Lord. Moses was the great Old Testament giver of the law. And Elijah was among the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. And I would suggest that their presence with the Lord was symbolic of how Jesus Himself is the subject of the two great divisions of the Old Testament scriptures—that is, of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus spoke to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection; and "beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself" (Luke 24:27).
And what's more, Luke, in his Gospel, tells us what it was that they were talking about—that Moses and Elijah "appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). Moses and Elijah—the representatives of the Law and the Prophets—appeared and spoke with our Lord concerning the work for us that He was about to accomplish on the cross! As Jesus once taught about Himself; "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matthew 5:17-18).
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What a revelation this was of our Lord in His glory! He is what Peter said He was—the Christ, the Son of the living God! God walked on this earth in human flesh! The Man who died on the cross is the theme of the Scriptures! And here, on this mysterious and wonderous night, He pealed back the flesh of His humility to reveal the splendor of His deity to His friends.
And now, let's notice . . .
4. WHAT THEIR REACTION WAS (vv. 4-6).
As you read the Bible, one of the things that you notice is that Peter is usually the first one to step forward and blurt out something—whether it was a good idea to say or not. I think that's why I love him so. I am all too much like him. Sometimes, my problem is that heart may be in the right place . . . but my foot definitely isn't.
As he beheld the glory of the Lord Jesus on display, and as he saw Moses and Elijah in glory talking with Him about His coming sacrifice for us, Peter was overwhelmed. He said to Jesus; "Lord, it is good for us to be here" (what an understatement!); ". . .if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" (v. 4). When Luke told this story, he added that Peter said these things, ". . . not knowing what he said".
First of all, Peter was right to say that it was good to be there. It certainly was! Jesus' glory was on display! Moses and Elijah came and spoke to Him! Peter, James and John were in a very privileged place! And it's understandable that Peter would think to put some tabernacles up, and want to stay.
But once again, Peter was missing the point. Jesus was not going to stay on the mountain-top—as wonderful an experience as it was—and put His glory on display in this way forever. He was still committed to the Father's purpose for Him—the very purpose about which Moses and Elijah had come to speak with Him. There was still the "decease" that He about to accomplish. He still needed go to the cross.
And second, Peter erred terribly in wishing to build "three tabernacles": one for the Lord Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Peter erred in placing them all on equal standing. If anything, Peter, James, John, Moses and Elijah—all five—should have built a tabernacle for Jesus. Those glorified Old Testament saints were simply the servants in the house; but Jesus was the Master of that house. The apostles and prophets are the foundation; but Jesus alone is the chief cornerstone.
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And I believe that there are a few spiritual lessons for us in this. For one thing, we may wish to linger in the moments of glory. We may wish to 'build tabernacles on the mountain-tops', and stay in those wondrous moments forever. But we can't. That was not the Father's purpose. It was enough that Jesus' glory is revealed. That assures us that we will share in that eternal glory with Him forever. But for now, so long as we walk on this earth, we need to come down from the 'mountain-top' times, and take the truth about Jesus into the world of hurting people below.
Second, notice that the glory of Jesus at that time was so wonderful (though frightening) that the disciples would have rather left everything behind and stayed there for as long as they could. And if such a temporal display of the glory of Jesus was so wonderful, then what must heaven be like--where we will see the full display of His glory forever?
And finally, we need to remember in all of this that Jesus is being put on display as unique. He does not share status with anyone else—not even the greatest of saints, such as Moses or Elijah. They were great messengers of God; but their message was about Jesus Christ. And it's Him—not His servants—that should receive our attention and worship.
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That last point is made very clear to us in what happens next. We're told that while Peter was still speaking those words, "a bright cloud overshadowed them . . ." (v. 5). This was no ordinary cloud. It was a "bright cloud"; and it seemed to encompass them—as if to silence them and place a holy veil over the things that they were then seeing. Can you imagine, given all the things that had already occurred, what a terror this would have put them into?
It's hard not to see, in this cloud, a reminder of the glorious cloud—the Shekinah glory—that covered Mount Sinai at the giving of the law (Exodus 19:18); or that later filled the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 40:34-35), and the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 7:10-11). And now, as the glory of Jesus Christ—God in human flesh—is being revealed, this cloud once again comes as a covering.
And it was from the midst of this cloud that God the Father spoke. The voice of the Father rumbled from within this cloud to the three trembling disciples, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" (v. 5). And as a result, the disciples spoke no more! They fell on their faces and were greatly afraid (v. 6).
This is the second time in the Gospel of Matthew that we're told that the voice of the Father spoke. The first time was at Jesus' baptism. And at that time, He said essentially the same thing: "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). Here, however, He stresses the command, "Hear Him!" The Father, speaking from the cloud, says the very thing that Peter confessed—the very confession that Peter was told didn't come from 'flesh and blood', but that had been revealed to him by the Father Himself—that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Before everyone else—before every other human teacher or preacher—even before Moses and Elijah themselves—we must let Jesus Christ be heard! The Father has pointed out Jesus and said, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" If only people who scramble around the world, and claim that they were seeking "truth", would learn from this story! Their search would be over!
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So; consider what has happened. The awesome, kingly majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ was put on display. Select men were given a preview of His majesty. Moses and Elijah appeared with Him in glory, and spoke with Him about His upcoming sacrifice. A bright cloud—the very Shekinah glory of old—covered the scene. And the voice of the Father in heaven announced Him to these three witnesses.
And that's when we see . . .
5. WHAT THEY WERE TO DO WITH WHAT THEY WERE SHOWN (vv. 7-9).
They were cowering in fear. But when it was over, Jesus came, touched them, and displayed great gentleness to them. He told them, "Arise, and do not be afraid" (v. 7). He wasn't there to cause them more terror. They had seen what they needed to see; and had heard what they needed to hear. It was all over now. And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Him. Moses was gone. Elijah was gone. The cloud was gone. The voice of the Father was gone. All they saw was Jesus—with the words of the Father, "Hear Him!", still echoing in their ears.
And it's then that Jesus leads them down the mountain. And as He leads them back to the crowds below, He gives them a strict command: "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead" (v. 9). They didn't understand. Mark tells us that "they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant" (Mark 9:10).
I suspect that the reason Jesus commanded them to tell no one until after His resurrection was the same reason He commanded them to keep silent about Him after they affirmed Him as the Christ, the Son of the living God (v. 20). His divine destiny—His purpose from the Father—remained the same. Though His glory had been displayed, He still must go to Jerusalem, must suffer in the hands of unjust men, and must die on the cross for our sins. What meekness our Savior displays in this! He possessed such power and glory as was displayed on the mountain—and yet, He hid it all and willingly went to the cross for us!
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What a strange, scary story this was! But every word is true. Everything happened, just as it was reported to us.
And it's one of those strange, mysterious stories that is meant to take us up beyond ourselves, and give us an encounter with the 'transcendent' power of God. It is meant to shake us down to the core; and give us "holy goose-flesh". It's meant to change us forever. It is meant to inspire us with the overwhelming sense that Jesus Christ is everything that He said He was; and that we can invest our eternal destiny in Him. It's meant to remind us that He truly will come in the glory of His Father, with His angels, and reward each according to his works. It's meant to teach us that we can safely deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.
At least, that's the conclusion Peter himself came to. Many years after this event, just before he laid down his own life as a martyr for the Lord Jesus, Peter sought to urge his fellow Christians to keep on following Jesus. He sought to remind them of the things they had been taught. And he added 'punch' to his appeal by saying these words:
For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but 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. And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts . . . (2 Peter 1:16-19).
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