Seeing God Again for the First Time

Seeing God Again for the First Time

Matthew 17.1-8

Dr. Jim Denison

Nearly forty years ago, one night around midnight, an older African American woman was standing on the side of an Alabama highway in a drenching rainstorm. Her car had broken down and she was soaking wet as she tried to flag down a car. To her surprise, a young white man stopped to help her, unheard of in those racially charged days. The man took her to safety, helped her get assistance and put her into a taxicab. She seemed to be in a big hurry, but wrote down his address and thanked him as she left.

Seven days went by. A knock came at his door. To his surprise, a giant console color television was delivered to his home. A special note was attached which read, “Thank you so much for assisting me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes but my spirits. Then you came along. Because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husband’s bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and unselfishly serving others. Sincerely, Mrs. Nat King Cole.”

We never know when we’ll meet someone famous. Neither did Peter, James, and John. But what happened on a mountain in Israel twenty centuries ago has profound relevance for our lives today. Next to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I believe this is the most important event in his entire life and ministry. And one of the most significant for us.

Let me explain. Come with me to a mountain, and see God again for the first time.

Climbing up to God

Here’s the setting (v. 1): “after” is after Caesarea Philippi, where Peter pronounces Jesus the Messiah, and Jesus says that his church will assault the gates of hell itself.

Now he takes Peter, James, and his brother John to be with him. Why these three? Peter would one day be the first to preach the gospel; James would be the first apostle to die for his Lord; John would give us his gospel, letters, and the book of Revelation. And so Jesus is equipping them to fulfill his purpose for them—God does not call the equipped, but equips the called.

He “led them up a high mountain.”Tradition said this was Mt. Tabor, but it’s too far from Caesarea Philippi to be the likely place. Probably this was a mountain in the range of Mt. Hermon, fourteen miles from Caesarea Philippi, 9,400 feet tall. The mountain is so high it can be seen from the Dead Sea, at the other end of Israel, more than 100 miles away.

What happens next occurs at night, as Luke’s gospel tells us the disciples were sleepy (9:32), and that they spent the night on the mountain (Luke 9:37). He leads them “by themselves.” Our most profound moments with God are typically those times when we are alone with him.

Watch what happens next: “…he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (v. 2).

Because Jesus was “transfigured,” this is called the Mount of Transfiguration.

The word means that his appearance changed, not his essence. He was and is God, the Lord of all creation. But here he pulled back the veil to show these three special apostles the glory which was his from eternity and for eternity.

And so “His face shone like the sun,” and not for the last time. When Jesus revealed himself to John on the island of Patmos, “His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance” (Revelation 1:16).

His clothes became “as white as the light.” Luke says they were “as bright as a flash of lightning” (9:29); Mark adds that they “became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (9:3).

Jesus shows them the heavenly glory which proves that he was and is the divine Son of God.

But this incredible mountaintop experience isn’t done yet: “Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (v. 3). Moses was the supreme lawgiver, and represents the Torah, the Law of God. Elijah was the supreme prophet, the most powerful preacher in ancient Israel.

Luke tells us that they “spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (9:31). They came to show that Jesus’ impending death and resurrection fulfills the law and the prophets.

Peter and his companions are asleep until the appearance of Moses and Elijah awakens them (Luke 9:32). Mark tells us that Peter “did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mark 9:6); Luke says that Peter “did not know what he was saying” (9:33). He offers to build tents so they could all stay right there on the mountaintop—avoid the valley below and the cross awaiting Jesus. So often we meet God at spiritual heights and want to stay right there. But we cannot.

The Father himself speaks: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (v. 5). The Father spoke these words earlier to Jesus at his baptism; how he speaks them of Jesus to his apostles.

The disciples are terrified, for no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20). They fall on their faces before him, a typical Jewish response of veneration and respect.

But Jesus goes to them, touches them, tells them to get us and says, “Don’t be afraid” (v. 7). Literally, “Stop being afraid.”And when they look up, they see “no one except Jesus” (v. 8). Jesus only.

Seeing Jesus only

Years ago I read a sermon by Charles Haddon Spurgeon on this text which got me to thinking: what if these three men had not seen “Jesus only?”

For instance, what if they had looked up and seen “Moses only?” Moses, the lawgiver—the conveyer of the Ten Commandments of God, the instrument by which God gave the Torah, the Law to his people. If it were Moses only, then you and I could come to God only by keeping the law—only by religion, by legalism, by self-justifying moralism.


The $100,000 Coin

The $100,000 Coin

Matthew 17:24-27

Dr. Jim Denison

Frank Wallis of Mountain Home, Arkansas was having a bad week.

He had just declared personal bankruptcy, and wondered what his future held. He went to his bank to buy a roll of the new $1 coins, in hopes that they might be worth something one day. He had no idea what he had.

One of them had the new Sacagawea dollar emblem on the back, as it should, but a quarter’s George Washington on the front, which it shouldn’t. It turns out that this mistake is the first in the 208-year history of the United States mint. Original estimates placed the value of the coin at $100,000.

Unfortunately for Mr. Wallis, three other so-called “mules” have surfaced, reducing the value of the first to a mere $41,395, the winning bid on eBay recently. For a dollar coin.

What single coin could be more valuable? How about a coin worth 78 cents today? It is the single most precious coin in all of history. Let me show you why, and why this little coin matters so much for your life and mine today.

Finding wealth in strange places

Come with Jesus and his disciples back to Capernaum, the fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has been living here in the home of Simon Peter for the last three years of his public ministry.

You know how it is to be gone from home for a while—the bills are waiting. In this case, the bill collectors themselves were waiting.

From glory on the Mount of Transfiguration to bill collectors. How true this is to life.

So our text says, “the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?'” (v. 24).

Since the time of Moses the people had paid this tax to support the upkeep of the Tabernacle, then Solomon’s Temple, and now Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem.

They contributed what the Greek calls “the two drachmas.” The “drachma” was a Jewish half-shekel, more than two days’ wages. Two of these were nearly a week’s work. This was given by the Jewish people annually as the “temple tax.” In Jesus’ day it was voluntary, and especially not required of the rabbis. So the tax collectors ask Peter if Jesus intends to pay it.

What was their interest? Interest, literally. They exchanged the money of the people into the necessary temple coinage, at interest and profit to themselves. Some estimates range as high as $45,000 that these people made every year.

And so they have come during the Jewish month Adar, or March, as they did every year. Jesus and his disciples have returned home to find them waiting. Peter jumps ahead, as he does so often, when asked if Jesus pays this tax: “Yes, he does.”

Now we find our first miracle: Jesus knows Peter’s mind: “When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak” (v. 25).

Being the master teacher, he seizes this teachable moment: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?”

The logic of Jesus’ question is obvious: no ruler taxes his own family. Kings and their children don’t pay taxes—they receive them.

Peter is right: “From others” (v. 26). “Then [emphatic in the Greek] the sons are exempt,” Jesus confirms.

But Jesus doesn’t choose to offend the religious people just yet. A successful man chooses his problems.

So verse 27: “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line.” Return to the Sea of Galilee, and use your professional fishing skills. Throw out a line, literally a “hook.” This is the only time this kind of fishing is mentioned in the New Testament.

Why a hook? One fish could not possibly bring enough money to pay this tax. So we find the second miracle: Peter does it. He obeys Jesus. Even though it makes no sense.

With this result: “Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” This is the third miracle in the story. What are the chances that someone would throw a coin worth two week’s work into the Sea of Galilee? That a fish would swallow it, and then Peter would catch that very fish, on that very day? A miracle, indeed.

Now, what does this ancient event say to us today?

Is your God too small?

First, it’s a surprise. This is not the god anyone in Jesus’ day expected.

In his world people worshipped a variety of gods, none of whom were relevant to their daily lives and needs: the Roman emperor, the gods of Greek myths among them. Others have worshipped Buddha or sought his enlightenment, or Hindu gods, or the Muslim Allah. But none of them would intervene in our daily lives and meet our daily needs like this.

Nor is this the god of popular American culture. J. B. Phillips’ classic little book, Your God Is Too Small, lists succinctly the kinds of deities Americans recognize today. Here are their self-explanatory titles—see how many of them you recognize: “Resident Policeman,” “Parental Hangover,” “Grand Old Man,” Meek-and-Mild,” “God-in-a-Box,” “Managing Director,” “Pale Galilean,” “Projected Image” (with Freudian implications).

Again, none of them would meet a practical need like this one.

Most Americans would identify God with the collectors taking money for the Temple, not with the One who gave it miraculously and mercifully. Most see the church as an institution, irrelevant to our daily needs, always wanting “another name, another dollar.” God is removed, abstract, or personal and subjective—whatever or whoever you want to worship is fine with us.

75% of those who claim a faith in America do not think theirs is the only way to God; only 25% even think their faith is the best faith. God is whatever you want him to be. That’s what most Americans think. Most Americans are wrong.


The Angel Sat On The Stone

The Angel Sat on the Stone

Matthew 28:1-10

Dr. Jim Denison

Murdo MacDonald was a prisoner of war in Germany and chaplain to American soldiers. After the war was over he told how he learned of the Normandy invasion. Early on D-Day, he was awakened and told that a Scotsman in the British prisoner-of-war camp wanted to see him. MacDonald ran to the barbed wire that separated the two camps. The Scot, who was in touch with the BBC by underground radio, had often given updates on the war to MacDonald in Gaelic, which the two men understood, but the German guards standing beside them did not.

On this early morning, the Scotsman spoke a brief sentence in Gaelic, just a few words which meant, “They have come.” MacDonald ran back to the American camp and spread the news: “They have come … they have come.” And everyone knew the Allies had landed at Normandy. The reaction was incredible. Men jumped and shouted, hugged each other, even rolled on the ground.

They were still captives, but now they were certain of their deliverance. All because of three words: “They have come.”

Today we’ll focus upon three words which offer us even greater hope, help, joy, victory: “He has risen.” Let’s see why they were spoken, and why they matter so much to our lives and our fears this hour.

From death to life

The angel said, “Come and see the place where he lay” (v. 6). Let’s come together to this place, this tomb, this hallowed cave in a holy rock. Why?

It is the tomb of the greatest man who ever lived. If we would venerate the tomb of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., surely we would want to honor and respect the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Savior of the world.

It is the tomb of your best friend. If we would honor the tomb of our wife or husband, our child, our parent, our dear friend, surely we would want to honor and respect the tomb of the One who died to pay for our sins and give us eternal life.

It is a real place. We know that this tomb is real, even without the testimony of Scripture. Thallus the Samaritan in A.D. 52 described the darkness of Jesus’ crucifixion. Mara bar Serapion before A.D. 70 documented his death. Tacitus, the greatest of the ancient Roman historians, recorded that “Chrestus … suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” And Flavius Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, documented Jesus’ death clearly.

And so the angels bid us come. They invite us to this holy place.

What kind of tomb is it?

It is a costly tomb. It cost Joseph of Arimathea and his family a great deal of money. It cost Jesus far more—his life on the cross. It cost his Father as much—the pain of watching his Son be tortured and executed.

It is a borrowed tomb. It was borrowed from Joseph, and appropriately, for the One who was laid there borrowed our sins and our death on the cross.

It was cut in a rock, so there could be no fraud here. No back door. No way out except past the stone and the guards and the glare of public scrutiny. And appropriately so. But this rock and its stone were but a pebble compared with the Rock of Ages which lay inside.

And so the women come to finish anointing the dead body of Jesus (Mark 16:1). But they are shocked at what they find, and we with them.

What do we see as we come?

We find that the rock is gone. There was a “violent” earthquake—a “mega” earthquake in the Greek. An angel of the Lord has come down from heaven, rolled aside this stone, and sat down on it.

He moved the stone, not so Christ could go out, but so we could come in. He is already gone from here. He was raised from death to life while the guards stood in futility outside, as the Roman government tried in vain to keep him in the tomb. He did not rise from the dead when the angel arrived—”he has risen, just as he said” (v. 6).

All the power of the world is powerless before him. Battle-hardened soldiers from the finest army the world has ever seen have fainted dead away. The ones assigned to guard the dead themselves appear dead while the dead one is alive!

His body is gone, with no natural explanation. The tomb is empty, the grave is left clutching the clothes which had enshrouded his dead corpse, because he is alive.

Whom do we meet as we come?

We meet the angel of the Lord, who bids us calm our fears: “Do not be afraid” (v. 5). Literally, “Stop being afraid.”

Then we see the Risen Lord himself! “Greetings,” he says. Literally, “Rejoice!” We can clasp his feet, for his resurrection is real. We can worship him, for in grace he receives our faith (v. 9).

“Do not be afraid,” he says, as the angel had. “Stop being afraid.” Be not afraid, ever again, for he is alive.

What do we do after we have come?

“Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee” (v. 10). How gracious of him—to call those who have forsaken him at the cross his “brothers.”

And Mark 16:7 adds these words: “Go tell his disciples and Peter.” Peter, who denied him three times, now invited specifically to come, so that he would know he was included in the grace and mercy of our Lord.

Tell them about the risen Christ: “there they will see me.” And through them, the world.

Come and see the place where he lay. We’re so glad they did. And so honored to join them.

Are you afraid of death?

Now, let’s see why this event is so relevant to our lives and our fears today. In every survey taken of the fears Americans feel, death is always at the top of the list. Our greatest fear is that we will die, or that those we love will die.


The Man Who Left Jesus Sad

The Man Who Left Jesus Sad

Matthew 19:16-26

Dr. Jim Denison

As some of you know, I have a definite dislike of heights. Given that fact, I found this story especially interesting. On the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia in 1964, a confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia threatened the security of the region. And so British officers in Malaysia asked a group of their soldiers, the Gurkha tribe from Nepal, if they would be willing to jump from transport planes into combat against the Indonesians. The Gurkhas had the right to refuse the request because they had never been trained as paratroopers.

The Gurkhas usually agreed to anything, but they rejected this plan. However, the next day one of their leaders sought out his British officer and said they had discussed the matter further and would jump under certain conditions.

“What are they?” asked the British officer. The Gurkhas told him they would jump if the land was soft without rocks; the office stated that the area would be over jungle, and so agreed to the request. Then the Gurkhas asked that the plane fly as slowly as possible and no more than 100 feet high. The officer said that jumping from 100 feet was impossible, because the parachutes could not open in time.

“Oh,” said the Gurkhas, “that’s all right, then. We’ll jump with parachutes anywhere. You didn’t mention parachutes before!”

We’re looking at the Christ the world doesn’t know. Today we meet him at his most astonishing, as he talks with a man more like us than any other person in all the New Testament. What Jesus said to him, he says to us today.

Let’s see what it is, and why it matters. Get ready to leave your parachute behind.

Welcome to North Dallas

Our story begins, “Now a man came up to Jesus” (v. 16). What do we know about him? Matthew tells us he’s young, Luke says he’s a ruler, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say that he is wealthy. Let’s explore further.

Luke 18:18 tells us that he was a “ruler,” someone in charge of a Jewish synagogue. A layman, elected by his peers to this position. He governed the affairs of their local synagogue, selected the preachers and readers for the services, presided over the elders (a kind of board of directors), and generally ran the institution. A tremendous honor, and great religious accomplishment.

Matthew 19:20 says that he is “young.” He had to be at least thirty to be a synagogue ruler; he’s probably just that, most likely the age of Jesus. He’s successful at an early age, with his whole life before him.

And he’s wealthy. In fact, Matthew 19:22 says that he had “great wealth.” The word means that he possessed fields, houses, and other property as well as great financial means. A real estate tycoon, we would say today.

In the eyes of the world, he’s just like us.

We’re religious. In fact, your attendance at church puts you in the top 38% of America, the average weekly church attendance. If you go to Bible study, this puts you in the top 16%.

We’re not all young, but our average age is 36.9.

We may not think we’re wealthy, but we are. The average price of a home in this community is $437,000; our average household income is $143,000. Like him, most of the world would consider us to be religious, young, and wealthy as well.

But all his success is not enough for his soul: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (v. 19).

Like most Americans, he thinks that eternal life is something we get from the things we do. If you’re good and believe in God, that’s enough.

So Jesus shows him that this won’t work. “Obey the commandments,” he tells him. He lists the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 5th, and then summarizes them with Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The man says that he’s kept all these. So, Jesus shows him that he has not: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (v. 21). If you truly, perfectly, completely love your neighbor as yourself, you would sell what you have and give it to him. If you want to get eternal life through what you do, this is what you must do.

But the man won’t do it: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (v. 22). He was the only man in all the Scriptures who came to Jesus in faith and left sad.

Now Jesus’ actions must have astonished his disciples. Here, at long last, is one of the elite ready to follow him. Someone with means and influence. Someone who can advance Jesus’ movement enormously. But Jesus sends him away sad.

Now he shocks them even further: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 23). They thought just the opposite—wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and favor; the wealthy have the best chance of heaven. But they don’t.

In fact, it’s impossible: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 24). Some have suggested that the “eye of a needle” meant a small door in the city wall through which a camel could crawl. Others say that by changing one letter in the Greek word for “camel” we get “rope,” and that’s Jesus’ point. But it’s not.

When the bewildered disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” (v. 25). Jesus is blunt: “With man this is impossible” (v. 26a).

As impossible as shoving a camel through the eye of a needle. We cannot do it. We cannot keep the commandments and get to God. No matter our wealth or prosperity, our religious accomplishment or social status, our youth or energy. With man it is impossible to “get eternal life.”