Seeing God Again for the First Time
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.