We said last time that Peter’s confession of Christ represents a watershed in the Gospel history. At this point the story takes a dramatic turn. Well that watershed, that turning point, is not simply Peter’s confession; it is his confession together with the transfiguration that followed a week later. We said that understanding was dawning in the mind of the disciples but there is a great deal that they had not yet grasped. The revelation of Jesus’ divine glory was the crucial next step. Though, as we will see, the three disciples who were privileged to see Jesus’ glory hardly grasped the full meaning of what they saw at the time, upon reflection they would themselves regard the transfiguration as a supremely important moment in the revelation of Jesus to them. John would speak in the first chapter of his Gospel of having seen the divine glory of Jesus. [1:14] Moses saw the glory of God on the Mt. Sinai; John saw it on another mountain, but saw that glory emanating from Jesus himself. Peter would later speak of being an eyewitness of Jesus’ majesty [2 Pet. 1:16], again an attribute of God, almost certainly a reference to the transfiguration, which Peter, interestingly, sees as a foretaste of Christ’s second coming. That makes sense when you think about it; for never again in the Gospel history was Christ’s divine glory revealed as it was on the mount of transfiguration. Not even after his resurrection. It will not be until he comes again that we will see Jesus in his glory as Peter, James, and John saw him that night north of the Sea of Galilee.
The high mountain reminds us of Mt. Sinai, where Moses beheld the glory of the Lord. It is probably Mt. Hermon which is not far from Caesarea Philippi where the previous scene occurred and which is a high mountain. Mt. Tabor, the traditional Mount of the Transfiguration is neither high nor near Caesarea Philippi, in fact it is south of the Sea of Galilee, not north of it. What is more, the summit of Mt. Tabor was inhabited in Jesus’ day. [Edwards, 263]
Mark’s account is characteristically brief, with less detail that we find in either Matthew or Luke. Mark doesn’t mention Jesus praying beforehand or the subject of the Lord’s discussion with Moses and Elijah. But suddenly and unexpectedly Jesus himself shown with divine glory – Matthew and Luke tell us that his face shown with glory and his garments became luminous as well. We tend, I think, to imagine that the transfiguration occurred at night. The Gospels do not tell us that; it apparently happened in the daytime, which makes the radiance of the divine glory all the more remarkable.
Why Moses and Elijah in particular appeared to speak with him is a question long discussed. They were both great prophets and the prophets testified to Jesus. Some have said they represent the law and the prophets, but that may be over-subtle, as both Moses and Elijah cared about the law and both were prophets. Both had magnificent moments on mountains, both had enjoyed direct encounters with God, both were associated with Mr. Sinai, the great mountain of Old Testament history. Further, both men are mentioned in Malachi 4, in a passage that anticipates the coming first of a new Elijah, who proved to be John the Baptist, and of the coming of the Messiah.
In any case, the presence of Moses and Elijah manifestly indicates that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the very purpose of God for the world that had been revealed in successive stages throughout the history of Israel. As one commentator puts it, “Jesus is not walk-on” in this history. [Edwards, 265]. He is the fulfillment of all the salvation history that came before him and the culmination of Israel’s history.
Peter’s proposal is taken in the other Gospels to represent a similar state of mind as was revealed in the previous episode. He wanted to preserve the remarkable moment and continue to bask in the unearthly thing that was happening. He wanted the crown for Jesus, not suffering and death, which was the subject of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, as we learn in Luke.
The cloud, remember, is often in Scripture a symbol of God’s presence and glory. When Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to meet with God a cloud covered it. God is drawing near. And then he speaks, as once before at Jesus’ baptism (1:11). Neither Moses nor Elijah ever had God identify him as his son. The “listen to him” in context refers to the things that Jesus has been saying about his impending suffering and death that the disciples had not wanted to hear.
This is the last of nine commands to silence in the Gospel of Mark. After this, as it were, the wraps come off. Jesus doesn’t try to keep the people’s enthusiasm in check. He is going to his death. The “until the resurrection” reminds us that it is only from the vantage point of the cross and the empty tomb that one can really understand the ministry of Jesus. Once again we are reminded how imperfectly the disciples understand what is happening around them.
The Lord takes the opportunity afforded by the disciples’ question about Elijah to reiterate that the Messiah must suffer just as Elijah did, the reference being, of course, to John the Baptist who had already been beheaded by Herod Antipas. You cannot rise from the dead unless you have first died and that death lies ahead of the Messiah as it had before John the Baptist.
There is nothing like the transfiguration anywhere else in the Bible, in Jewish literature, or in the religious literature of the Greco-Roman world. It is utterly unique; and no wonder! It is the single, if momentary revelation of the divine glory and authority of this man Jesus of Nazareth. Mark has presented Jesus in several respects as a divine figure in his Gospel so far, but always rather indirectly. Here there is nothing indirect. The divine glory shines from him. Here Jesus is distinguished from any and every other man, even from the greatest of men, Moses and Elijah. This man is God and the proof of it is that divine glory shines from him, not as a reflection – as it did on the face of Moses from time to time when he came away from the presence of God – but as emanating from him. Glory and majesty are his, however much hidden during the days of his suffering for our sin.
Last Lord’s Day morning, in our consideration of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, we pointed out that the church of that day, from the theologians to the laity, expected the Messiah to be a very different figure than Jesus appeared to be. They were expecting a political deliverer, not someone who would save them from their sins. They thought they knew how to get right with God; what they needed was deliverance from Rome! People were amazed at what Jesus said and did, but he did not meet their expectations of the Messiah. But it was their expectations that were faulty. Jesus was the Messiah and the only Messiah there would ever be. It was his role, in this his first visit to the world, to save his people from their sins by suffering and dying in their place. He came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. People were not expecting that.
Well, in the same way, they were expecting that the Messiah would be a man; a great man, but a man nonetheless. Jesus was indeed a man. But he was also Yahweh, God the Son, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sovereign Lord of the universe. This the people did not expect. Apparently virtually no one expected the Messiah to be God himself, no matter what the OT prophets had written about the coming king being the Might God and the Everlasting Father. Amazing as Jesus’ works were, the people never gathered that he was more than a human being. After all, other men had performed miracles by the power of God. Moses had; Elijah had. Jesus, they thought, was another man like those great men. That there was something more to him, that he was much more than a prophet; that he was more than simply the servant of the Lord; that he was the Lord himself did not occur to them. Indeed, it does not seem to have occurred to the disciples either, even after they realized that Jesus was indeed no one less than the Messiah himself.
And, of course, a similar failure to grasp the fabulous uniqueness, the stupendous mystery, and the breathtaking significance of the incarnation – that in Jesus of Nazareth God himself had entered the world and become a man for men and their salvation – continues to this day. People believe Jesus to have been a man, even a very great man; they do not believe that he was and is the Living God. This is the failure of Islam which regards Jesus as simply a prophet of God, not God himself. It is the failure of many Jews, whether observant, religious Jews, or secular, unbelieving Jews.
I read recently that some years ago, when the famous pianist Artur Rubenstein, a non-observant Jew, paid a visit to Israel, he was reported in some of the Christian press to have said that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that he had become a Christian himself. It was not true, of course. He said in response to the report, “For me, Jesus was the greatest Jew who ever lived. But…the Son of God? Forget it!” [In F. Mohr, My Life with the Great Pianists, 57]
Albert Einstein would say similar things. “I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.” When asked if he accepted the historical existence of Jesus, he replied, “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.” But, of course, Einstein did not believe in a personal God who created the heavens and the earth, and so he did not believe in the incarnation of God and did not believe that Jesus was God. Much less did he believe in salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection or the existence of heaven or hell. [Isaacson, Einstein, 386]
And that is, frankly, what vast numbers of people think about Jesus, to the extent they think about him at all. He was undoubtedly a great man; perhaps a very great man. But he was not God, if by God you mean the great being who called everything in to being and rules over the entire creation.
But however complementary, such assertions of Jesus’ greatness utterly fail to do justice to who and what he is or to the mystery of his existence. The Christian doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ is that, at the incarnation, at the moment he was conceived in the womb of his virgin mother, God the Son, the second person of the triune God, the Maker of heaven and earth, became in addition a true and authentic man. The way this has been said for most of two-thousand years is that Jesus is one person with two natures, one fully divine and one fully human. How this can be no one has ever explained, nor does the Bible ever attempt to do so. We use such words as person and nature and such a phrase as two natures in one person, not because we fully understand what we are saying but because it is all we can say. But that this is who Jesus was and is is the fact of the Gospel history and the teaching of the rest of the Bible.
There is no doubt that Jesus was a man. He was born a baby in the way that all human babies are born. He grew up through childhood to adulthood. His life was a human life in every respect. He looked like a man, dressed like a man; he ate and drank, worked and slept like any other human being. He needed a haircut every so often. No doubt he had a beard; most Jewish men of the time did. He walked and talked. He grew weary from exercise, got sick from time to time; he knew some things and didn’t know others, he learned by observation and study just as any other human beings. He laughed and wept. When he hit his thumb with a hammer in his carpentry work, he reacted in pain like anyone else would. He knew fear as all human beings do, and exasperation, and melancholy. When the time came, he bled like any other man and died like any other man. His body went limp, stiffened with rigor, and then went limp again.
He was so completely a man, his life so ordinarily a human life, that even when he began to say things and do things that simply took the breath away, it never occurred to people to think of him as anything other than a man, a human being like themselves, however endowed with unusual power and authority. He was so much a man and so ordinarily human that even when Peter saw the glory of God shining from him he didn’t refer to him as “Lord” or “my God,” but still as “Rabbi!”
But there was a side to Jesus that people did not see; that his own disciples did not see. There were moments when anyone should have wondered if there were more to him, such as the voice from heaven at his baptism, but we are too used to human beings to mistake one for anything else. But this was something altogether different. To have a man suddenly glowing with dazzling light, to have Moses and Elijah appear to speak with him, to have a cloud envelop them – like the cloud that represented God’s presence in Israel’s history – and to have again the voice from heaven identify Jesus as the Son of God, now we are not any longer talking about simply a very great man, even the very greatest of men. Now we are talking about someone who transcends humanity.
It is more than this, in fact. From the rest of the Bible we learn that the brilliant light that emanated from Jesus was really only a glimpse of the divine glory. Had the glory of God actually been manifested in anything like its fullness, it would have destroyed the three disciples and Moses and Elijah with them. The Bible makes that point many times. No man can see the glory of God and survive. It is overwhelming, consuming. The cauldron, the furnace of the sun and still much greater stars – that produce a light we cannot look at without going blind and a heat that we cannot endure even when still millions of miles away – are but poor reflections of the glory of God. You and I will never see the glory of God. We will not see it even in heaven. We will see its periphery; we will touch its outer edge; we will feel its warmth at a distance; but the Bible lays it down as a general law that no one can see the glory of God and live. We will see the man Christ Jesus with a measure of the glory of God upon him when he comes again and in heaven; but we will never get anything but a glimpse of the glory that is the glory of God.
What Peter, James, and John were being shown is that Jesus is much, much more than the Messiah they had imagined. He is Yahweh himself making an appearance in this world as a man. His glory was hidden – that was his humiliation and suffering, the price of our deliverance from sin – but Jesus, from the moment of his conception to his ascension to the Right hand forty days after his resurrection, was God the Son, the very person of the Godhead who had called the universe into being by the utterance of a word, the one who had walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, the one whose wrath had destroyed the world in the days of Noah, the one who had called Abraham to faith in himself, the one who brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt, sweeping aside Pharaoh the great king like a bug, the one who met with Moses at the top of the mountain and gave him the law.
Now we Christians are familiar with the historic Christian assertion that Jesus was both God and man in a single person. Too familiar perhaps. We use the word “God” and imagine that we know what we mean by it. But, as Augustine wisely put it in a sermon long ago, “if you can grasp it, it isn’t God.” To be sure, much has been revealed about God to us in Holy Scripture, but it is one thing to understand the words, another thing altogether really to grasp the meaning. We can understand the meaning of the words when we are told that such and such a star is so many millions of light years distant from the earth – the distance light, traveling 186,000 miles per second, travels in a year; and millions upon millions of those! – I say, we can understand the words but we hardly grasp the reality; we can only shake our heads at distances so vast. We know it is very great but it does not drink up our powers as it should. We nod and go on with scarcely a thought to the astonishing, overwhelming thing we have heard.
And so it is with God himself. Those distances are nothing to God, a speck of sand, nothing more. The power he wields we can describe with a word like omnipotent, his limitless knowledge we can confess when we speak of his omniscience, his transcending of time can be expressed with the term eternity but it is one thing to state those truths, another altogether really to grasp them. We are too small, our minds far too limited, our natures too confined really to grasp the glory and the majesty of God. Finitum non capax infinitum: the finite cannot comprehend the infinite.
One of the finest theologies of the Christian faith ever written begins with these magnificent sentences:
“Mystery is the vital element of [theology]. …the idea that the believer would be able to understand and comprehend intellectually the revealed mysteries is … unscriptural. On the contrary, the truth which God has revealed concerning himself in nature and in Scripture far surpasses human conception and comprehension. In that sense [theology] is concerned with nothing but mystery, for it does not deal with finite creatures, but from beginning to end raises itself above every creature to the Eternal and Endless one himself.” [Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, ii, 1, trans. W. Hendriksen]
It is God, the high and holy One, the one from whom all existence of any kind draws its life; God who conceived and framed nature in all of its glorious complexity and wonder; God the holy judge who has implanted his will in the conscience of every human being and promises to bring every life into his reckoning; God the merciful father and Savior who with a love greater than anyone has ever begun to measure has extended himself to recover fallen and rebel mankind; God whose messengers are flames of fire; God who inhabits eternity and dwells in unapproachable light; God who does what pleases him in heaven and on earth; it is this God who was not only present in the person and the life of Jesus of Nazareth but was Jesus of Nazareth.
His divine glory, Paul tells us, was hidden from view precisely for the sake of his humiliation, which humiliation is precisely the only punishment he could endure in our place to deliver us from the guilt of our sin. It was precisely his willingness for his true nature to be veiled, his willingness for his own creatures to treat him as a mere man and not even a good man, it was precisely his willingness to forsake his divine privileges and stature that produced such a stoop, such a descent from the highest heaven to earth as to be the just equivalent of the punishment we all would bear for our sins in the world to come. The cross was its culmination, to be sure, but the cross is only the cross because the one who hung on it came down from the impossibly great heights of divine glory to this ignominy, shame, and despair.
Jesus the man was magnificent beyond words. He lived a life of moral perfection. He did good to everyone. He was in flesh and blood the complete embodiment of truth, faithfulness, honesty and love. But none of this would have secured a single day’s release from sin and guilt for anyone had he not been at one and the same time the living God come into the world; if his manhood had not been joined to eternal deity. Only a man could bleed and die; but only a man who was also the eternal God could die a death of sufficient worth to pay for the sins of everyone who would ever live in this world no matter how much longer the world shall last.
We are two weeks from the beginning of Advent, that time of year when we think of the incarnation, the coming into the world of God the Son, his taking flesh or human nature for us and our salvation. It is the great thing that has occurred in history. It is the mighty truth that our faith proclaims: God himself has come among us to save us from our sins. If this is true then it is the greatest truth of all.
As Dorothy Sayers put it:
“From the beginning of time until now, this is the only thing that has ever really happened. When you understand this, you will understand all prophecies and all history.” [The Man Born to Be King]
We are also now about to come to the Lord’s Table. And in respect to the living presence of the same Lord Christ among his people, both God and man, the poet does even better:
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?
No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine.