The Definitive Answer to the Ultimate Question
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “There are three things that you need to know about real estate: location, location, location.” It emphasizes the importance of one factor—location—when it comes to assigning value to real estate.
There is a similar three-fold principle for correctly understanding the Bible: context, context, context. The interpretation of every word and passage of Scripture must be in agreement with its context. This includes the historical context—the circumstances of the world in which it was written; and the immediate context—the verses preceding and following the passage in question.
This is especially true with regard to our text for today, Luke 9:28-36. Luke carefully links his account to the previous exchange between Jesus and His disciples: “Now about eight days after these sayings [Jesus] took with Him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.”
What sayings? Well, Peter’s great confession of faith, Jesus’ prediction of His suffering and death and resurrection, and Jesus’ description of the demands that discipleship would place on those ready to follow Him. All of “these sayings” really focus on one question: “Who is this Jesus?”
The crowds suggest Jesus is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or perhaps, one of the prophets of old risen from the dead. Peter’s answer: “The Christ of God,” is correct in so far as it goes, but falls short in expressing His true nature. Jesus seeks to correct such misunderstandings of His identity by explaining His mission and work: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day raised.”
Eight days later, an event occurs up on the mountain near Jerusalem that provides the heavenly Father’s answer to the question: “Who is this Jesus?”
As Jesus prays, He is transfigured. He appears in heavenly glory (at least as much heavenly glory as sinful human beings are able to look upon and live). Moses and Elijah appear with Him, representing the Old Testament—the Law and the prophets—all of which testify to Christ. Both prophets had enjoyed intimate fellowship with the Lord. Both had left this world under unusual circumstances. Both were “mountain men” of sorts.
The Lord had empowered Elijah to do mighty wonders and speak boldly on His behalf as he defeated the 450 prophets of Baal and Asherah at Mount Carmel. The Lord had strengthened the prophet, providing food and drink for him in the wilderness. Elijah had cried out to the Lord at Mount Horeb. The Lord had answered him in a whisper and promised to be with Him. And then a little later, the Lord took Elijah into heaven with a whirlwind, so that he did not see death.
The Lord spoke to Moses from the burning bush at Mount Horeb. He gave the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai. Moses was given the ability to do miraculous signs and speak on the Lord’s behalf—leading them through the Red Sea, feeding the people with bread and meat from heaven, giving water from the rock.
Today’s Old Testament lesson tells us that the Lord Himself buried Moses on Mount Nebo after giving him a glimpse of the Promised Land. It also makes the point Moses was special: “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to do.” But earlier in Deuteronomy, Moses had spoken of a greater prophet yet to come: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to Him you shall listen.”
As Jesus, Moses, and Elijah converse on the mountain, they speak about the very subject Jesus had introduced eight days earlier to His disciples’ shock and horror: His departure. Or as the Greek renders it: His exodus. Moses had been the leader of the exodus that had brought Israel out of the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land by way of the Red Sea. Jesus is the leader of the new exodus from the slavery of sin into the promised land of heaven by way of the cross.
I used to wonder, with all this commotion going on, how Peter and his companions could possibly grow so heavy with sleep that they almost miss the whole scene. It will happen again on the Mount of Olives when Jesus asks them to pray with Him in Gethsemane. But I think I can understand now. As He often did before important events, Jesus was praying; and we know that Jesus would, on occasion, pray all through the night. The lack of sleep and the down time from all the recent activity of Jesus’ ministry would be enough in itself to make one tired.
But something more is happening here. Prayer is hard work. It is spiritual warfare. And any one of you, who have engaged in prayer during a crisis situation or chronic condition know just how difficult it can be just to keep awake even in the middle of prayer, or a sermon. That’s our spiritual lethargy at work, our sleepiness and deadness to God’s Word and prayer. And proof certain that we dare not rely on our own prayers to enter the kingdom of God, if even Peter, James, and John can’t pull it off in the visible presence of Jesus in His glory.
When Moses and Elijah are about to leave, Peter tries to perpetuate the experience, to capture the moment. It’s as though Peter pulls out his cell phone and says, “Could you guys pose for a quick picture so I can get it up on Facebook. My friends will never believe this!” We do that. We want to preserve the “religious moment.” The mountaintop experience. The feeling. The vision.
Peter is still babbling when the mountain is enveloped by a cloud. This is not your average, ordinary cloud—but a very Old Testament cloud—the kind of cloud that led the people of Israel out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and through the wilderness. The kind of cloud that descended on Mount Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. The kind of cloud that filled the tabernacle and the temple, driving out the priests because of its glory. No, this is no ordinary cloud; rather, it indicates that God the Father has come on the scene, to answer the question for Himself of who this Jesus is.
At the Baptism of Jesus, the heavenly voice addresses Him directly: “You are My Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.” Now the Father repeats this identification for the disciples’ sake: “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him.” Jesus is more than some prophet like Moses or Elijah to whom people are bidden to listen. He is God’s Son, the Incarnate Word of God. The author of Hebrews affirms this: “Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself… Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a Son.”
As quickly as the vision had come, so quickly it is gone. The disciples are left alone with Jesus. It is a thrilling but frightening experience—one they do not share with others until after Jesus has risen from the dead. For it is then they begin to understand what they have seen—a glimpse of Christ’s glory, a preview of the resurrection. Here is God’s definitive answer to the ultimate question: Who is this Jesus? Christ’s true identity as God’s Son and the Son of Man, our Savior can only be fully understood in the shadow of the cross and the light of His resurrection.
And so… now that we’ve looked at this passage and have seen it in its proper historical and immediate context, we must address another question: What does it have to do with you and me? After all, we weren’t there on the mountain. It was not our eyes that beheld the unveiled glory of Christ or who saw Moses and Elijah. It was not our ears that heard the voice from the heavenly cloud. So, just what does this mean for you and me and for all other believers throughout history?
By nature, we are all theologians of glory, that is, we prefer our religion to be one where we can judge the actions of God by what we see and the way we think and feel. We want a God who is big, and powerful, and audacious; therefore we expect Him to manifest Himself in displays of power. But with a few notable exceptions—such as His Transfiguration—God does not work this way.
God generally works graciously in the lives of His people through lowly, everyday, little things: words, water, bread, and wine. Our various vocations and stations in life, by trial and tribulation. The Lord displays His power in weakness, His glory in suffering and shame. Even on the mountain, He makes it clear that He does not want His disciples to be fixated on the glory, but to look to the cross.
Today, we remember Christ’s Transfiguration, when He reveals His divine glory before His disciples. But as exciting as that metamorphosis is, God has something even more important to teach. Amid the stirring spectacle, God directs Peter, James, and John to something that seems rather dull and insignificant: words. He tells them, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”
“Listen to Him!” Listen to this Prophet greater than Moses. The Father does not point the three disciples to what they see and feel. It is what they hear that is important. For it is ears, not eyes, that bring salvation. As St. Paul writes in Romans 10:16, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” No matter how glorious the display of His majesty, God doesn’t save by His glory apart from His Word. His glory may convince man of His existence and power; but He uses His Word to give them faith to believe that He is gracious and merciful.
On the mountain, the disciples see a glimpse of Jesus’ glory as He pulls aside the veil of human nature. It is a glory Jesus always had, the glory of God from eternity, which He doesn’t lose when He takes on humanity. Left to themselves, the disciples would be perfectly content to just bask in that glory for a while. It is, after all, a bit of heaven here on earth. Certainly much better than that “departure stuff,” with all of its talk of suffering, rejection, cross, and death.
What about you? Are you really so different from the disciples? Do you get tired of hearing Christ and Him crucified, week after week? Would you rather look for something more relevant? Something more exciting?
If you’re honest, you must confess that you’re no stranger to the disciples’ wish to stay high on the mountain, to revel in the glory. Your sinful nature seeks music that stirs the heart, even if it starves the soul. It seeks a message that tickles your ears with helpful hints and warms you with fuzzy feeling, rather than the Word that is sharper than a two-edged sword dividing down to the marrow with Law and Gospel. Like the disciples, your Old Adam wants anything and everything in religion but suffering, death, blood, and talk of sin.
Jesus’ disciples see and experience the flash of light and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and they think that is the point. But they are wrong. The disciples miss what is most important—and it isn’t what they see. It is what they hear. God tells them, “This is My Son, the Chosen One; listen to Him!”
Seeing Jesus in His glory doesn’t tell the whole story. On the Last Day, everyone will see Him in His glory. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. But only those who recognize Him as their Savior—the One crucified and risen for the forgiveness of their sins—will bow down joyfully.
Eight days before His Transfiguration, Jesus had spoken of the cross. If the disciples had been listening, that’s what they would’ve heard in the heavenly conversation of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. They were talking about His “departure,” His cross. Moses and Elijah can’t stay, for Jesus has work to do: bloody, hard work that only He can do—His work of cross and death.
And so the moment of glory ends. The disciples look up and see only Jesus, for Jesus is all they need. They go down from the mountain and Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem,” where He will be led to another holy hill, Mount Calvary. To the unbelieving eye it looks anything but glorious; but there Jesus displays Himself more glorious than He ever has shown Himself before.
To glorify is to lift up. And the Roman soldiers unknowingly glorify Jesus on the day He destroys death. That’s why the disciples keep silent, for God doesn’t want the Mount of Transfiguration to replace the Mount of Calvary. For the true glory of Jesus is metal, bone, and whip ripping through the skin and muscle of His back, not the light shining through His face and clothes. The true glory of Jesus is the hammering of nails through His flesh and vein. The true glory of Jesus is the sharp thorny crown piercing His innocent brow. The true glory of Jesus is Him hanging between two thieves, not hanging out with Moses and Elijah.
God in the flesh must go to Jerusalem and face the full force of man’s hatred and brutality. He must endure the blasphemous lies of the Sanhedrin and the pragmatism of Pilate. He must bear the sins of man and the righteous wrath of God. Jesus takes on human flesh for one purpose: to be the Sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. The Messiah must pay with His life.
Christ, and Him crucified! That is this definitive answer to the ultimate question! The cross! That’s where the glory is! That’s how God loved the world. That’s where Jesus shows the Father’s love to us, where He shows us what mercy truly is. The crucifixion is where Jesus defeats the devil, where He pays the debt for sin. It’s where life and righteousness is won for us fallen creatures. Jesus will not have us see His Transfiguration unless we see it through the lens of the cross. In His death, He shows His true glory. For it is from the cross that all forgiveness and life flow. And even from the cross we are to hear His words. Listen to Him! Jesus says: “Father, forgive them.” And He cries out: “It is finished!” Christ has won the victory and conquered death so that you may live forever.
And that’s why Jesus’ disciples must listen to Him: He has so much more for us to hear! Jesus will pray and teach us to pray. He will give us more of the Word and teach with authority. He will correct and rebuke; He will encourage and forgive. He will speak the words of His Supper. He will give the Church His Spirit and the power to retain and forgive sins. He will give His Baptism into His death and resurrection. And He will promise to be with us always to the end of the age through His means of grace.
So, what about you? Are you awake? Are you listening? After all, you’ve been hearing Him for years, right? Is there anything that dazzles the eye, which draws your attention off of what Christ wants to give you? Is there anything that would draw your focus off of Christ and Him crucified for your sins?
If so, repent! Confess your faithlessness and unbelief. Recall your Baptism daily, putting to death that old sinful nature that the new man might rise and live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever. Sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to His Word. Eat the very body and drink the very blood that was given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Hear the gracious promises of the Gospel as if your life depends on it. Because it does! Your life does depend on His Word—not just now but for eternity!
Listen to Him! For in Christ crucified and His holy Word you have the definitive answer to the ultimate question; that is to say you have salvation and eternal life. Indeed, in Christ, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.