Posted by: Brian Musser | April 11, 2016

Revealing God

Matthew 17: 1 – 9

On April 7, 2016 I had the privilege of sharing with Drexel Students for Christ’s large on the Transfiguration.  Here is the manuscript of that message.  Check it out.  Be warned that there is a poem at the end.

Allow me to tell you the story of the Elephant.  In this story six blind men visit the palace of the Rajah and encounter an elephant for the first time.  Each one touches the elephant and announces his discoveries.

The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the Elephant.  “How smooth!  An elephant is like a wall.”  The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant.  “How round!  An elephant is like a snake.”  The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant.  “How sharp!  An elephant is like a spear.”  The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant.  “How tall!  An elephant is like a tree.”  The fifth blind man put out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant.  “How wide!  An elephant is like a fan.”  The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant.  “How thin!  An elephant is like a rope.”

The blind men began to argue about what the elephant was like.  Each made claims that their perception of the elephant was the truth about the elephant.  Until the Rajah calls out, “The elephant is a big animal.  Each man touched only one part.  You must put all the parts together to find out what the elephant is like.”

The blind men were enlightened by the Rajah’s statement and reached the agreement, “Each of us knows only a part.  To find the whole truth we must put all the parts together.”[i]

This story has two problems when it comes to Christianity.  The first is just a flat out philosophical/logical problem.  The basic moral of the story is that nobody has special knowledge when it comes to God.  We are all blind men just trying to put the pieces together.  However, the only way that the story comes to that conclusion is with the help of a sighted Rajah who has the true knowledge of what an elephant is like.  The only way we can come to a conclusion that we are all wrong about God is if there is someone who is right about God.  This story is very similar to the Philadelphia Eagles.  It is self-defeating!  The idea that we can’t really know anything about God is an idea that is trying to say something very specific about God that it says we can’t actually know.  To expand this out to its modern day version of “there is no absolute truth” is a statement that seems to be promoting a truth that is absolute.

Now as Christians that isn’t our only difficulty with the story.  On some levels we would be able to agree with the idea that when humanity tries to figure out who God is on our own we always get it wrong.  Our ideas about who God is will in their best forms fall short but most often be in flat out wrong and on our bad days be truly evil.  But with one simple change we can have a Christian story.  In Christianity our elephant can talk.  Our elephant can speak to us in ways that help us understand who the elephant is.  When we get stuff wrong our elephant can correct us.  You see the story of Christianity is not a story of blind men trying figure out what God is like but it is a story of God explaining to blind men his true nature.

Throughout Christian history we have a consistent record of God revealing himself to us.  You see at the very beginning of all things God speaks and the universe comes into existence.  And we can learn a portion of what the creator is like through how he has revealed himself in creation.  And then throughout ancient history we see God speaking to and through certain individuals systematically revealing himself to all of humanity.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.[ii]

And we have the ultimate revelation of God in Christ Jesus.  John chapter one uses the idea of the “word” to describe how Jesus reveals God to us.  And Colossians uses the “image” to connote the revelation of God through Jesus.  Jesus is both the verbal and visual culmination of God’s communication of himself to humanity.  If you want to know what God is like then look towards God’s revelation of himself to us through creation, through scripture and through Christ.  Peter in his second letter puts it this way:

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. 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,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [iii]

As you hear Peter saw Scripture and prophecy “fully confirmed” in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As you all have been walking through Matthew this year we are now going to look at the event that Peter references in this letter:  The Transfiguration.  It is described in detail in Matthew chapter 17 verses 1 – 9.  Some of the story continues in 10 – 13 but we won’t have time to cover that tonight.  I also apologize for only covering part of this chapter but if you want there is nothing stopping you from reading it on your own.  Bibles and Bible apps are able to be open outside of scheduled group meetings just in case you were wondering.  So let’s read through our text and wrestle with the revelation of God through Jesus the Christ.

1 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.[iv]

“After six days” So what happened six days ago?  Two huge events occurred.  First Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Son of the Living God.  Then second Jesus started talking about His death.  The most basic outline of the book of Matthew can be split into two parts; before Peter’s confession of Christ and after.  But if you want a more detailed delineation we have:

1 – 4 Introduction

5 – 16 Public Ministry

17 – 20 to Jerusalem

21 – 28 the Passion Week and Resurrection

28:16 – 20 Epilogue

Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16 is a pivotal point.  After several years of ministry one person understands who Jesus is and believes.  One person gets it and verbally acknowledges what probably many of the other followers were thinking.  One person, Peter, has faith.  One person has come to the point that he no longer is trying to fit Jesus into his belief in the Messiah but is now trying to wrap his understanding of the Messiah around his belief in Jesus.

Going back to the story of the elephant so often we approach God like a blind man and mutter out loud “God is like a wall.”

Then God responds “I’m not a wall.  I’m an elephant.”

“God is a divine wall that can talk.”  We exclaim.

Frustrated God replies, “Aren’t you listening?  I’m not a talking wall.  I’m an elephant.”

“Our divine talking wall,” we say quivering, “is angry.  Maybe if we paint the divine wall it will be happy.”  So we get out our paint brush and start painting the side of the elephant.

As we do this an aggravated elephant gets tired of our refusal to listen and silently walks away.  We sit down sad because our divine talking wall has disappeared and we wonder if it ever existed in the first place.

Through Peter’s experiences following Jesus for the last three years, he has begun to understand that Jesus defines the Messiah and not the other way around.  This is immediately tested by Jesus’ prediction of his death which Peter fails.  But then it is confirmed by our passage on the Transfiguration.  Now that Peter trusts in Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus can start revealing more of himself to Peter.

“And he was transfigured before them.”  Six days after Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, Son of the Living God, Jesus shows off his glory in front of Peter, James and John. Can you imagine the excitement within Peter at this moment?  Six days prior Peter voices this grand confession of Jesus as the Messiah and then he has his belief miraculously confirmed.  This event is so important to Peter that at the end of his life as an old man writing his last letter he uses the Transfiguration as the apologetic for belief in the trustworthiness of God’s revelation to humanity.  Peter, when answering the question of why people should believe in the Old Testament prophecy and ultimately why they should believe in the God behind the Old Testament, he does not point to any of Jesus’ miracles or teachings or the events of Pentecost or the history of the new Christian church or even the resurrection but to this moment, his experience of Jesus’ glorious appearance and the divine voice of God from heaven during the transfiguration.  When Peter is making his argument in 2 Peter 1:16 – 21 he leans on the Transfiguration as the confirmation of prophetic revelation.  That is how important this moment was to Peter’s faith.

It is important that this undeniable display of Christ’s divinity comes after Peter’s confession.  Incontrovertible proof is often seen only through the eyes of the faith-filled.  (Except maybe in the case of Paul) God does not force us to belief.  Often I have wondered about this.  Why God doesn’t more demonstrably make himself know to humanity?  Why does it seem that God chooses to hide semi-obscured behind a partial veil?  Sure God can be glimpsed in his creation and God is present through his scriptures and God came to us in the flesh as Jesus but why is there debate over this?  Why didn’t Jesus just appear in front of everyone as he his transformed, shiny, lit-up self?  Why were there only three witnesses to the transfiguration, three witnesses who were already on board with the program, who already got the memo about this Jesus is the Messiah thing?  Why doesn’t our elephant force our eyes open and demand that we see Him as He truly is?  Why is this God satisfied with playing a cosmic game of hide and seek when humanity’s eternal destination is on the line?

Now we know that someday in the future every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord.  We understand and believe that God is capable of showing Himself in such a way that forces everyone to know Him as He is.  Some day at the end of all things, when time is ticking that last few moments of this history, Jesus will come again in His glorious form and will crush all resistance to His Lordship.  On that day the mysterious God will be fully revealed and some of humanity will bow in victory and others will bow in defeat but we all will bow.  And woe to them who are only brought down to the confession of Christ through sheer force at the uttermost end of things.  Unimaginable and eternal despair is the future of those who only bow to the King when there is no longer a choice.  Blessed are we, like Peter, whose first encounter with the true glorious nature of Christ comes after our faith in Him.  And I fear for you who will refuse to bow until it is the only option.

“There appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”  So what’s up with the two old guys?  There are some interesting similarities between Moses and Elijah.  In Exodus 33 and 34 Moses while on the Mountain of God experiences God’s glory pass before him.  In 1 Kings 19 Elijah on the Mountain of God hears God’s still small voice.  In Deuteronomy 34 Moses dies overlooking the promise land and is buried personally by God.  In 2 Kings 2 Elijah is transported to God’s presence by a whirlwind.  But most importantly Moses is the person who best represents the Law of God and Elijah is the quintessential prophet of God.  Moses and Elijah bring the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament viscerally present with Jesus on the Mountain of God so that they can talk to him about his impending death.

As we have been discussing revelation, the God we glimpse in creation is met within Scripture through the Law and the Prophets.  And the God introduced to us by Moses and Elijah is known more fully through Jesus.  And Peter, James and John in this moment are given a brief encounter with Jesus Christ’s glory revealed.  The entire revelation of God works together and feeds off of itself showing us a spectacular picture of the divine.

Peter talks like Peter was known to do not exactly knowing what he was saying.  Luke’s parallel passage allows us to see this.  As Peter is saying just words God the Father interrupts him with “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him.”

There are some great things we can learn from the Transfiguration but ultimately this moment was not primarily intended for us.  The Transfiguration’s purpose was to prepare Jesus for the cross.  Because soon Jesus would appear so beaten, bloody and crushed, this moment was a reminder of the glorious image that was His true identity.  Because soon chaos, corruption and evil would have its day, this moment was a reminder that it was all a part of God’s story predicted in the Law and the Prophets.  God the Father speaks encouragement over Jesus here on this mountain and at this moment because of the necessary silence that must happen soon while Jesus is hanging on the cross.  This moment is the fortification of Jesus in preparation for His coming sacrifice.

At the end of tonight’s section you have this curious admonition to “tell no one the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”  Why would Jesus want this powerful display of His divinity be kept silent?  And it not only occurs here but several times throughout Matthew 8:4, 9:30, 12:16 and 16:20 which is immediately following Peter’s confession of Christ.  It is interesting to note the difference in this command to keep quiet is that it is the last one and the only one with a time limit to the gag order.  Of course it is the only one that occurs after Jesus’ first prediction of his death and resurrection.  So it would have been problematic for Jesus to don’t tell anyone until after I rise from the dead before he mentioned that he was going to rise from the dead.  That would have been cart and horse all mixed up.

Sometimes it is a matter of faith for me to trust that God has revealed Himself to us in the optimal way but this passage helps.  We see Peter, James and John, Jesus’ closest followers, terrified when confronted with Jesus in his glory, the representation of Scripture through Moses and Elijah and the divine voice of the Father.  What would have happened if someone who wasn’t prepared like those three had been there as a witness to the transfiguration?  Would it have brought them to faith or would it have destroyed them?  I have to trust that how God has chosen to reveal Himself to us in creation, scripture and Christ is the best way possible.

Finally, I want to return to the word “transfigure.”  That word is only used four times in Scripture.  Matthew 17 and Mark 9 are basically the same passage.  And then the other two uses are in

2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV) And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

And Romans 12:2 (ESV) Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

This Scripture talks about followers of Jesus transformed (which is the same word as transfigured) into the image of Christ.  Which I find extremely meaningful.  In partial agreement with the story of the elephant we are not able to figure God out.  He must reveal Himself to us.  We know Him by how He has made himself known to us.  God has chosen to reveal Himself to us through creation and Scripture and ultimately through Christ.  Peter, James and John got a very special opportunity to see Christ in all of his glory at this moment when he was transfigured.  More than anyone else they received the blessing of seeing Jesus as the exact representation of God, Christ as the likeness of God made known to humanity.

But as we walk as Jesus followers we are called to be Christ like, to be transformed and transfigured into His image so that we can represent and reveal Him to others.  We should be Christ-like so that those around us can know what Christ is like.  We need to know Jesus so that we can make Him known.

I have been the Adam and tasted the fruit
I have been Eve and denied the truth
I have been Joseph’s brothers selling their kin
I have been David peeking in
I have been Moses striking the rock
I have been the hired hand ditching the flock
I have been Peter before the cock crows
And I have been the house on sand when the wind blows

But that’s not who I am supposed to be
When others see me that’s not what they are supposed to see

Let me be David a man who has your own heart
Let me be the servant who is faithful from the start
Let me be Joshua and be certain of my choice
Let me be Elijah and hear your small voice
Let me be Peter and follow you until the end
Let me be Paul and take your word wherever you send
Let me be Moses and let me see your face
Let me look like your Son and display your grace

Transform me so that I look like you
Transfigure me so that others, instead of me, see you

Someday I will see your glory
Someday I will walk more closely
Someday I will follow truly
Someday I will stand in Godly light
Someday I will show your glory
Someday I will be made holy
Someday I will know you fully
Someday I will look like Jesus Christ

[i] Lillian Quigley, The Blind Men and the Elephant (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1959).  Possible original sources of the story are the Jarkata Tales, a collection of Buddhist birth stories, and the Pancatantra Stories, Hindu religious instruction fables.

[ii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Heb 1:1–2). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[iii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (2 Pe 1:16–21). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[iv] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 17:1–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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Responses

  1. great poem


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