Transfiguration and Christian life

February 9th, 2017

Fuzzy vision

When I was in fifth grade, I knew I was not able to see as well as most of my classmates. If a teacher wrote something on the chalkboard, I could not see it very well. The letters looked fuzzy. The only way I could make out the writing was by squinting; yet even then, I could not see clearly. And if I was in the back of the room, forget it. Even so, I still did not realize how bad my vision was. After all, I had become used to my way of seeing.

My parents, however, did realize that something was wrong, so they made an appointment for me to go to the optometrist. He asked me to read a chart, he checked my eyes, and he tried a number of different lenses to discover the right prescription for my first pair of glasses.

Back then, there were no opticians who made glasses “in about an hour,” so I had to wait a few days to get mine. When the big day came, I did not expect much difference when I put on the glasses for the first time. Boy, was I wrong! It felt as if I were looking at a whole new world. I could see things clearly that had been blurred before. There were some things I saw for the first time. Only when my sight was corrected did I realize how much I was not able to see before.

The disciples’ blurred sight

Jesus’ disciples did not see things clearly, even after following him for years. They knew Jesus was a special person. They had seen him heal the sick, open the eyes of the blind and enable the lame to walk again. They had heard him teach, preach and tell fascinating stories.

Peter had even declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the first disciple to state so publicly. Yet it soon became clear that Peter did not fully comprehend what kind of Messiah Jesus was. When Jesus said he would suffer, be killed, and rise to new life, Peter said, “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you” (Matthew 16:22, CEB). As it turned out, even Peter, who boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of the living God, did not see clearly.

Peter, James, and John — sometimes thought of as the inner circle of the disciples — got a clearer view on a mountaintop. It is hard for us to understand exactly what happened up there. The Gospel of Matthew states that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a very high mountain (Matthew 17:1-9). As the disciples looked on, a change came over Jesus. His clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any amount of bleach could ever get them. His face glowed like the sun, as if the presence of God was shining in him and through him. Jesus did not have to say a word; his appearance said it all. Then Moses and Elijah — probably the two greatest people of the Jewish faith — appeared, and they talked to Jesus.

While Peter’s spiritual vision may have been blurry, he grasped that this was a mountaintop experience. “Lord, it’s good that we’re here,” Peter told Jesus in a great understatement. “If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (verse 4, CEB). Peter sensed that this was an amazing time he wanted to prolong, but clearly he did not see the significance. By offering to build three shrines, he was equating Jesus with Moses and Elijah. At the time, I doubt that few people would have considered Jesus the equal of those two pillars of the faith. Yet Peter was to learn that he underestimated Jesus.

A bright cloud then appeared, an ancient symbol of God’s presence, and covered all of them with its shadow. A voice from the cloud boomed, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” (verse 5, CEB). When Peter, James and John heard the voice, they fell on their faces, awestruck. After Jesus touched them, they looked up and saw that only Jesus was with them. Moses and Elijah were gone.

Words cannot fully capture this wonderful and mysterious experience. Certainly Peter, James and John did not fully understand it themselves at the time. They still did not entirely understand who Jesus was; they would not get a fuller understanding until after his death and resurrection. That is why, as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus told them not to tell others about what happened until after he was raised from the dead.

While Peter, James and John did not completely understand what happened on that mountain, this mountaintop experience did give them a clearer vision of Jesus. Jesus was more than a healer, more than a gifted storyteller, more than a wise teacher. On that mountain Peter, James and John were able to see Jesus’ glory more fully than ever before. They knew, without a doubt, that he was more than just another person. They knew he was greater than even Moses and Elijah. They knew he was the Son of God.

Our own mountaintop

Chances are you have not had a mountaintop experience exactly like Peter, James and John. Even if we were able to find the mountain, even if we found the exact spot of the Transfiguration, we would probably not have the exact same encounter with God. The truth is, replicating another person’s mountaintop experiences is impossible.

But each of us can have a clearer vision of Jesus when we are open to God. Acts of devotion such as prayer, Bible study, worship, fasting and conversation with other Christians are not only ways to express our love for God, but they can also help us deepen our relationship with God. These spiritual disciplines help us see more clearly who God is and who we are to be as God’s people.

As central as devotion is to the Christian life, it alone is not enough. Just as Peter’s offer to build shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah and thus extend their time on the mountain was ignored, so God calls us to more than devotion.

“Listen to him!”

For me, the key to understanding the significance of the Transfiguration is right after God tells Peter, James and John who Jesus is. God then says, “Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5, CEB). Do not just stay up on this mountain. Do more than be amazed by this experience. Listen to Jesus. Do what he says.

And what does Jesus tell them? According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had already called them to turn from the ways of the world and turn to God’s kingdom (4:12-17), follow him and fish for people (4:18-22), be salt and light and thus make a difference in the world around them (5:13-16), forgive instead of seeking revenge (5:21-26; 6:14), love their enemies (5:43-48), refrain from judging others (7:1-5) and take up their cross and follow him (16:13-28).

As much as Peter, James and John wanted to stay on that mountain, they could not be faithful to Jesus if they remained there. On that mountain they saw Jesus’ true identity more clearly than ever before. They heard God tell them to listen to him. In order to do that, they had to come down the mountain, come back to everyday life, where there was work to be done. Matthew tells us that they did not have to wait long for an opportunity to make a difference. After descending the mountain with Peter, James, and John, Jesus came to a crowd. A man knelt before him and begged Jesus to do something for his troubled son. The father first came to the disciples, but they could do nothing. It was up to Jesus to heal the boy (17:14-21).

Just as there was work awaiting Jesus and his disciples when they came down the mountain, so there is work that awaits us in our everyday world. Giving money to support Christ’s work in a far-flung part of the world is needed, but so is loving our neighbor in our own neighborhood. The opportunities are limitless. When we engage in acts of devotion, we not only see more clearly who Jesus is, we also see more clearly how we can serve him by serving others.

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