The Feast of the Transfiguration
Beloved. Today we come to the highpoint of the Epiphany season—Jesus’ Transfiguration. The season of Epiphany was all about Jesus revealing Himself, showing Himself to be who He really is—the very God Himself and the Savior of the world. In Epiphany we see beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Baby born in Bethlehem is not only true man, a human being like you and me but He is also the very God Himself. We saw Jesus in the Gospels this Epiphany season do things only God can do—control nature when He calmed the storm, undoing the devil’s work by healing disease; we saw Jesus at a wedding turning water into wine. And if there was any doubt left in our minds, we have today’s Gospel—Jesus’ transfiguration. Transfiguration is not really a word that we use commonly today, but oddly enough, the original word used in the Greek text may actually be a bit more familiar to us: metamorphosis—a complete and utter change like when a caterpillar goes into its cocoon and comes out a butterfly. We read in today’s Gospel: His face was shining like the sun. His clothing became as white as the light. St. Luke [9.29] puts it this way: And as [Jesus] prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. There was that great change. Jesus’ divinity was shining forth through His humanity. Normally Jesus kept His divinity “hidden” under His humanity, but not at His transfiguration! There was now no doubt that Jesus is who He said He is—the very God.
It is very fitting that we conclude our Epiphany season with the account of Jesus’ transfiguration. Not only does it show us very clearly who Jesus is, but it also points us ahead to the upcoming seasons of Pre-Lent and Lent. Our Gospel account concludes: As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Do not tell anyone what you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” We are reminded of Easter but before we get to Easter, we go through the penitential seasons of Pre-Lent and Lent that prepare us for Easter. Only in the light of Easter would the Transfiguration make any sense to these disciples. We are truly blessed as we, by Spirit worked faith, know what Easter is and what Jesus’ Transfiguration is and that prepares our hearts and minds for the upcoming penitential season, so that without any timidity we can examine heart and life to recognize, repent and root out sin.
Another vital part of Jesus’ Transfiguration is the Father’s pronouncement on Jesus, His “stamp of approval” on Jesus and His work: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The Father had said the same thing at Jesus’ baptism as He began His public ministry and now, shortly after His Transfiguration Jesus begins to make His way to Jerusalem to suffer and die for the sins of the world. St. Luke [9.51] records: Now it came to pass, when the time had come for [Jesus] to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem. But there is one difference between what the Father said at Jesus’ baptism and now as Jesus begins to make His way to Jerusalem to suffer and die. And that is, He adds the words: Listen to him. And these words continue to resound down through the ages, down to us today: Listen to him! There is no one/ nothing else we should or is worthy of listening to. Elsewhere, on another occasion, St. Peter spoke for all Christians saying to Jesus [Jn. 6.68]: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And as if to emphasize these words of the Father, Listen to him, we read in our Gospel: When they opened their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus alone. In the midst of the world’s cacophony of voices let us listen to and see Jesus alone.
Our text today is a wonderful companion to the account of the Transfiguration. St. Peter writes it several decades after the Transfiguration, after he has had time to reflect on the Transfiguration; and now in our text he refers back to it and applies it. In this letter, St. Peter is addressing false teaching and false teachers, with a special emphasis on those who deny and mock the fact that Jesus will return in glory to judge on the Last Day. St. Peter defends this doctrine. And hearing an echo of the Father’s words that day of the Transfiguration, Listen to him, St. Peter writes these Christians: we were not following cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the powerful appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. What were the apostles doing? They were listening to Jesus alone; they saw no one except Jesus alone. In other words, by the working of the Holy Spirit, they were passing down exactly what they had been taught by Jesus. They did not add to it their own thoughts; they did not embellish it to make it their teaching and to stand out more. They were not teaching the trivialities of man but the certainties of God. St. Paul writes the same thing [1 Cor. 15.1-5]: Brothers, I am going to call your attention to the gospel that I preached to you. ... For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Notice, that faithful delivering/ handing down of what was received. That’s when we listen to Jesus and see Him alone—when the word is faithfully passed down and we in simple faith hear it and believe it. The Apostles faithfully spoke that message/ taught that doctrine and they saw to it that it was written down. Right before our text St. Peter writes: And I will make every effort so that after my departure [St. Peter refers here to his death] you may be able at any time to recall these things. These writings of the Apostles—these teachings of Jesus that they received and faithfully passed on-- were read in the churches and shared and read and became known among the Christians and eventually became our Bible. The holy apostles and evangelists simply handed on Jesus’ teaching in simple and humble word, spoken and written so that we today hear God’s gracious command: Listen to him.
But against the argument that “talk is cheap”, St. Peter adds: we were not following cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the powerful appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when the voice came to him from within the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We heard this voice, which came out of heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. What St. Peter is passing on to these Christians, in particular here, the doctrine that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, is buttressed by eyewitness apostolic testimony. According to St. Peter here, Jesus can and will return in glory on the Last Day as judge because why? Because Peter together with James and John saw Jesus in that glory; they saw His divinity shining through His humanity; they heard the Father’s pronouncement on the Son. What Peter and the rest of the Apostles are teaching is not humanly invented teaching. They are passing it on faithfully; and not only are they passing it on faithfully, they are eyewitnesses that it is truth.
So what, then, is the Transfiguration? It is a proof and foretaste of Jesus’ coming in glory. Here He let His full glory and divinity shine forth. Just as He did it then, certainly He can come in power and glory at the end of time. As the disciples that day saw Jesus in His heavenly glory, so now we can be certain that He is now in His heavenly glory at the right hand of the Father ruling and guiding all things—in particular His Church and His dear Christians for our spiritual and eternal good. So far from being a “pie-in-the-sky” teaching that Jesus will return in glory one day and bring His Christians soul and body eternally in heaven, Jesus gave a foretaste of it. The doctrine is backed up by deed and witnesses.
The word and doctrine of God is serious business and so it must be grasped and retained in all purity. What we hear in the pages of Holy Scripture is not cunningly devised fables but the very word of God that He has/ wanted revealed to us. It’s not ours to do with as we wish but to humbly hear and listen to it; see and hear no one but Jesus alone.
And what is truly amazing and contrary to our usual way of thinking is that what we have in Scripture is even more certain than what we experience. St. Peter had just written about/ pointed to his own eyewitness experience of Jesus’ Transfiguration but then in the next sentence says: We also have the completely reliable prophetic word, or as another translation puts it more literally, And we have something more sure, the prophetic word. The word of God, be it of the prophets of the OT or the apostles of the NT, is even more sure than our own eyewitness experience. The word of God, St. Peter here says, is more certain about who Jesus is and of His work, than even what he witnessed on the mount of Transfiguration. Our thoughts, impressions, feelings, even what we think we see and experience can all deceive us. There is so much “fake reality”/ so called “virtual reality” in the world today that it is so often hard to distinguish what is real and what is false.
How dangerous this is spiritually! What we experience/ are eyewitnesses to—suffering, sorrow, guilt, sin—can all lead us down the wrong path about what God’s thoughts and intentions are toward us. That’s why we need the word of God, that something more sure. We need the something more sure for our conscience to be sure and to stand firmly. When we very much feel our sin, we need that something more sure, the word of God, telling us that in Jesus our sins are forgiven us, that heaven is open to us. When we very much feel and seemingly experience that God is our enemy, we need that something more sure, the word of God assuring us that we are His dear Christians, His dear children in baptism and grace and that He is guiding and leading us us safely to our heavenly home. And in grace upon grace, our Lord even gives us His word that something more sure, not just as something we hear but He also makes it visible to us—in the waters of holy baptism where He washes away our sin; in the Blessed Sacrament where He gives us His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sin and comes to unite Himself to us. This—His holy word and sacrament—is all something more sure, more sure than what we feel or experience.
We also have the completely reliable prophetic word. You do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the Morning Star rises in your hearts. So what are we to do then in this life, as we live our lives as Christians and await Jesus’ return, that is, until the day dawns and the Morning Star rises in your hearts? Answer, says St. Peter: Pay attention to [that something more sure, the prophetic word], as to a lamp shining in a dark place. The simple fact of the matter is that this world we live in is a dark murky place, spiritually. Yes, there is much here in grace God has given us to enjoy; yes, people have great wisdom; but spiritually the world doesn’t have, hear or believe the word of God. That’s why as we live our lives here as Christians, we must fix our eyes to that something more sure: to God’s word and sacrament and absolution alone. All else is darkness. Let us live content with the word of God, that something more sure than even what we experience; and patiently wait for our Lord’s return in glory—as St. Peter wrote his first hearers and all Christians down the centuries. When Jesus does return in glory, with the glory He as the God-man displayed on that holy mountain of Transfiguration, that glory will shine in our hearts and lift us up and fill us with joy and the glorious light of eternal life. INJ Amen