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Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Peeking Behind the Veil" - (01/24/10)

There is something in most of us humans that makes us want to see what is hidden.  We want to see what is behind the curtain.  We want to lift the veil to see what it hides.  We want to know what is in those packages under the Christmas tree.  I had one uncle who was famous for sneaking down in the middle of the night and carefully unwrapping his presents to see what is inside.  Then, just as carefully, he would wrap them back up again and sneak back to bed.
Moses wanted to see the Lord.  While he was up on Mt. Sinai Moses asked God to reveal Himself to him.  I believe that in part, Moses was just curious to see what God is like.  They had talked, the Bible says, “…as a man talks with his friend.”  But finally, Moses asked to see God’s face.  You remember the story.  The Lord told him, however, that no human could look upon God and live.  So the Lord allowed Moses to see just a little bit of His glory, His Shekinah.  And even that was so powerful that Moses glowed in the dark for weeks to come and had to cover up his face with a veil because the effect continued long after he came back down from the mountain.
In our passage for today the Lord Jesus drew back the curtain for just a few moments and allowed three of His disciples to see Him as He really is.  He did not do it merely to satisfy their curiosity, however.  He did not do it in response to any request by them.  He did it so that later on, after His death and resurrection, they might serve as witnesses of what they had observed and experienced, to bear witness to His divinity.
Oh, they thought they already knew everything about Him.  They had walked and talked with Him, eaten and slept with Him, sat at His feet and looked into His face but never before had they seen Him like this.  They had never seen His glory, the glory He shared with God the Father from eternity past.  For a few brief moments they got to see Jesus as we will one day see Him when we step from this earthly life into His glorious presence.

            The Transfiguration account is recorded by three out of the four Gospel writers: Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36.  The three accounts are almost exactly alike with just a few minor variations, which taken together, give us a very full understanding of what took place there that night.

Verse 1: And He was saying to them, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste of death until they see the Kingdom of God after it has come with power.” 
  • The chapter division at this point here in Mark is unfortunate because this verse is clearly the conclusion of the discourse recorded in the last 5 verses of chapter 8.  Moreover, we see from the next verse that there was a six-day interval between verse 1 and verse 2.  Matthew and Luke’s accounts both place it with the previous discourse.  And what was Jesus saying in those verses?  He was talking about what it means to be a true disciple of His, and the fact that the day would eventually come when His true glory and majesty would be revealed for all to see.  That statement in 8:38 leads directly to this one in 9:1 and they tie together.
  • However, the content of this verse has confused many people over the years.  Some claim that Jesus was referring here to the future destruction of Jerusalem.  Others say that He was speaking of the beginning of the Church at Pentecost.  Still others believe that Jesus was speaking of the end of the age, when He will return to set up His Messianic Kingdom.
  • But I don’t believe He was talking about any of those things.  Look again carefully at His words.  He is speaking of a soon occurring event that will obviously reveal the power of God’s Kingdom.  He says that some of those standing there that day would witness this demonstration of the power of God.
  • So what was He referring to?  Here’s a hint: in all three Gospel accounts the thing that immediately follows these words is the Transfiguration in which Jesus revealed His glory.  I believe that He was referring specifically to this event, and apparently so did Matthew, Mark, & Luke.
  • Moreover, Peter, who was one of those who was “standing there” referred to the Transfiguration using the very same words.  He writes in II Peter 1:16-18, “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.”  Indeed he was there.

Verse 2: And six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves.  And He was transfigured before them; 
  • “After six days” means six days after Jesus uttered the prophecy in verse 1.  And here, at least for the three disciples who witnessed it, was yet another fulfillment of what Jesus had said.  They got to see a foretaste of the glory that Christ had, and will have again in Heaven.
  • Luke is the only one of the three Gospel writers to tell us when this event occurred.  In Luke 9:32 we read, Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him.”  From this we conclude that this all happened at night.
  • Notice who was orchestrating this event—Jesus.  He chose Peter, James, and John.  He chose the place where this would occur.  He isolated them and prepared the scene by getting them alone.  But why didn’t He take all 12 disciples along?  I don’t know.  Several times He singled out these same three men for further training or instruction, perhaps because they were His key leaders and He knew that this experience would give them status in the eyes of their fellow disciples.  Or maybe out of the 12 they were the three who were most spiritually perceptive.  I don’t know.  Or perhaps is was because of the “3 witnesses” rule in Judaism, referred to in Matthew 18:16 quoting Deuteronomy 19:15 (see also Deut. 17:6), which states: “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” 
  • “He took them to a high mountain.”  No one knows exactly where the Transfiguration occurred.  Some believe it happened on the slopes of Mt. Tabor.  Others think it occurred on one of the spurs of Mt. Hermon.  The mountainous area around Caesarea Philippi is the third, and perhaps the most likely possibility, given the fact that that’s where they were in chapter 8 (cf. 8:27).
  • “He was transfigured before them.”  The Greek word used here is the verb form of the word used in the field of Biology to describe the process of transformation by which a worm turns into a butterfly.  We call that metamorphosis.  It means a radical change in the very essence of the creature in question, not merely a superficial change of outward appearance.  As the disciples watched Him Jesus changed before their very eyes.  In that moment Christ’s human body was glorified.  Everything about Him was suddenly different—His body, His hair, His clothing.  It is in this glorified body that He will one day come to set up His Kingdom.  The details of the change are given in the next verse.

Verse 3: and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. 
  • This Greek word metamorphóō is the same word used in II Corinthians 3:18, which says, “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.”  Paul uses the same word in Romans 12:2 where he writes, 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.” 
  • Only a moment before His garments looked pretty much like everyone else’s clothes.  His robe was probably light brown or tan.  But now, suddenly, He is clothed in shining, dazzling white raiment, as white as snow.  But this wasn’t the most shocking thing.

Verse 4: And Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were conversing with Jesus. 
  • This verse has drawn much criticism.  Peter, James, and John could obviously just look up and see that there were two other men with Jesus, and that they all three glowed.  But how did they know who the two men were?  Well, perhaps they didn’t in that exact moment.  But remember, after this was over they talked these events over with Jesus.  Moreover, there may have been something in the way Moses and Elijah were dressed that gave away their identity.  Nevertheless, we know that they were indeed the two great men from the OT.
  • Why Moses and Elijah, rather than, say, Joshua and Daniel?  That’s easy!  The Jews thought in terms of basically two categories of Holy Scripture: The Law, and The Prophets.  Moses was the famous Law Giver.  Elijah was the prince of the Prophets.  They were perhaps the two most respected men of Scripture.
  • Luke 9:30-31 says, And behold, two men were talking with Him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of His departure [lit. exodus], which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  So apparently Moses and Elijah were discussing with Jesus the events which would take place in Jerusalem a short time later, including His death, burial, and resurrection.  This should have proved to the disciples that the death of the Messiah was in no way incompatible with the Old Testament scriptures.
  • Seeing Christ’s Transfiguration as a kind of preview of the Messianic Kingdom (cf. 16:28) the great Lewis Speery Chafer, in his fine commentary on this passage, points out that Moses (who had died and been buried by the hand of God – Deut. 34:5-6), and Elijah (who was taken to Heaven in a whirlwind without passing through death – II Kings 2:11) represent the two groups that Christ will some day bring with Him to establish His Kingdom: dead saints who are resurrected, and living saints who have been “translated.”  I don’t know if that’s why these two were chosen by the Father to come and comfort and encourage Jesus, but it’s an interesting theory.

Verses 5-6: And Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.  Let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  6 (For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified.) 
  • Have you ever been so scared or so beside yourself that you lost track of what you were saying?  Have you ever been in a situation where you heard yourself saying stupid things but didn’t know how to shut off the flow?  I have.  And I have also been on the receiving end, when people in their desire to comfort me, said stupid stuff and made ridiculous comments.  It would have been far better and much more comforting if they had said nothing at all.  Here we see Peter “loosing it.”  He was beside himself because of what he had just witnessed.  He was, as my dad used to say, “running off at the mouth.”
  • Peter offered to build three little shrines, one for Jesus and one for each of His heavenly visitors.  What was that about?  Poor old Peter was so shaken up that all he could think to do was to build a monument.  That’s what the Jews did whenever God did something amazing.  He parted the Red Sea so they built a monument.  He gave them the Law so they built a monument.  God led them across the Jordan so they built another monument.  It’s what they always did so that was the only thing Peter could think to do.  Interestingly, Jesus didn’t even comment on Peter’s offer.  He knew that Peter was beside himself.
  • However, the show wasn’t over yet.  Just when they thought it couldn’t get any better, God Himself spoke to them in an audible voice.

Verse 7: Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud: “This is My beloved Son.  Listen to Him!” 
  • Matthew’s account adds a couple of other little tidbits of information: He [Peter] 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.’  And when the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were much afraid.”
  • Apparently Peter was cut off in mid-sentence by the cloud and the heavenly voice.  His voice was stopped by God’s voice.  But that’s how it is—when God speaks, everybody else shuts up.  Peter was just running off at the mouth, but God had something important to say.  I’m afraid that sometimes we are so busy speaking that we neglect to listen for His voice.
  • This “cloud” was not some kind of fog or a mere rain cloud.  It was the Shekinah, the visible manifestation of God’s glory, which throughout the OT always marked the presence of God (cf. Exod. 13:21-22; 40:38; Num. 9:15; Psalm 99:7; Isa. 4:5; II Chronicles 7:1).

Verse 8: And all at once they looked around and saw no one with them any more, except Jesus only. 
  • Can you picture this in your mind?  Only a second before they had witnessed Jesus and His two back-from-the-dead companions glowing in the dark amidst a heavenly radiance that defied description.  For Jews to be in the presence of Moses and Elijah would have been a breathtaking experience.  But now, to suddenly realize that Moses and Elijah were mere servants who had been sent from Heaven to minister to Jesus must have been mind-boggling.  This one with whom they had been living, eating, conversing, and traveling was far greater than the OT law-giver and the greatest of the prophets.  WOW!

Verses 9: As they were coming down from the mountain, He gave them orders not to relate to anyone what they had seen, until the Son of Man should rise from the dead. 
  • Matthew 17:9 is even clearer: “And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.’”
  • This is odd.  It was His idea to take them up on the mountain in the first place.  It was His choice to reveal Himself to them in that way.  So now why would He tell them that they have to be quiet about it and not tell anyone?  Can you imagine what a burden that put on those three men?
  • Apparently this was in keeping with Jesus’ policy of restraint in order not to add fuel to the fire of the inaccurate and erroneous Messianic teachings that were already floating around and the possibility of the disciples inadvertently inciting a popular uprising.

Verse 10: And they seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what “rising from the dead” might mean. 
  • In spite of their desire to run out and tell everyone what they had witnessed, from what we can tell, Peter, James, and John obeyed the Lord’s instruction.  Only after the resurrection did they share this story with the other disciples.  But it must have been a very difficult secret to keep.
  • They didn’t understand the “why” behind His command but they obeyed Him, nevertheless.  There is a lesson here for us.  Obedience is based on trust, not on full disclosure.  Sometimes God does not tell us all the reasons for what He does, but by experience we have come to know and believe that His way is always the best way.
  • But their vow of non-disclosure didn’t keep them from whispering to one another.  Jesus really confused them by His “rising from the dead” speech.  They didn’t know what to make of it.  They analyzed the words.  They parsed the sentence.  They studied the context and the syntax.  They tried to come up with theories of what He could possibly mean by those shocking words.  However, at this point in the story they still did not get the fact that He had come to die on the cross to save sinners.

          I believe that this passage is holy ground. In it the veil between earth and Heaven is parted for an instant and we get a chance to see Jesus the way He will look when we next lay eyes on Him, in all His glory, surrounded by the hosts of Heaven. This is a foretaste of glory, a preview of coming attractions. It is similar to the experience of Moses on Mt. Sinai when the Lord allowed him to see just a glimpse of the Shekinah glory of Jehovah.
          Peter, James, and John were not participants in this story—they were there merely as witnesses. However, the day will come when we will indeed share in Christ’s glory because His Word promises that we too will be transformed, in the twinkling of an eye. We will all be changed, transformed; We will no longer be sinners but will indeed be saints. Our mortality will be changed into immortality. Everything will be made new. I John 3:2 puts it this way: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He [Christ] appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.”

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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