Hidden Within the Transfiguration is the Greater Glory of the Cross

Matthew 17:1-9

by Rich Futrell

Our Lord’s transfiguration is a spectacular event bringing together many holy pieces. An otherworldly radiance emanates from Jesus, His body glowing with a light brighter than the sun. Shrouded in His divinity, Jesus converses with two renowned seers of old, Moses and Elijah, discussing His impending departure.

Reverence and awe fill the air as the heavens open, and a luminous cloud encompasses the mountaintop. God’s voice booms from heaven, declaring Jesus as His beloved Son. The divine glow, the prophets’ presence, and a heavenly declaration, each testifying of Jesus.

Oh, the treasures in everything the Holy Spirit puts before us today. So, we ponder the events of the three disciples gathered on the rocky peak—an awe-filled place of wonder for them. The specter of their rabbi in glorious grandeur causes them to shiver as they marvel in fear. Little do they realize Jesus’ transfiguration gives them a glimpse, a preview of His grandest glory, hidden on the cross.

Those not-yet apostles wend their way up the mountain, clambering over rocks along its rugged path. At the top, they tire, breathing in more rarefied, thinner, and drier air. More sprinters than marathon runners in the faith, they fade, lacking stamina when they need endurance. Weariness takes hold, and sleep creeps upon them as they succumb to its pulling power.

Deep in their shadowed slumber, they awaken, jolted by a brilliant light piercing past their eyes. Never privileged to witness such a celestial spectacle before, they revel in Jesus’ radiance. Too intense to contain or articulate, they don’t wish to leave the magical moment.

Two towering Old Testament prophets loom before them. The preeminent giver of God’s Law, Moses, now holds a blessed conversation with Jesus, who will redeem humanity from the curse of breaking His Law. In a lesser way than his Lord, Moses stared at death as he held firm in the face of Pharaoh and his armies. Driven by a holy purpose, summoned from heaven, he fought for the Israelites’ freedom, sometimes with only his wooden staff in his hand.

The other is Elijah, who encountered a foe in wicked Queen Jezebel. Strong, he likewise stood, denouncing her wickedness, despite the dangers and threats, risking his life. Soon after, fearing death, he flees into the wilderness, hiding in a cave. God comes to Him within a whispering wind, restoring his faith and rekindling his strength to fulfill his holy taskings. Now, Elijah is here, shining in triumph with the author of His glory, Jesus.

These two men charged with doing God’s work understand Jesus’ mission can only occur by dying. So talking to their Lord of His “departure” isn’t odd—of His approaching death and grave in Jerusalem. Didn’t those venerable preachers proclaim the prophesied Messiah and His suffering for us? Yes, they did, and here at the Lord’s mountaintop, they show Jesus shall fulfill what they foreshadowed ages ago.

Those ancient prophets long spoke of someone who will restore God’s people through His death, once preaching of the promised Sin-slayer and His misfortune for our forgiveness. So, they punctuate the air in the sacred stillness between heaven and earth, speaking of Jesus and His “departure.” On this pointed peak, they gaze, talk, and listen as their foretold words unfold.

Not so for Peter, who longs to stay atop the mountain, basking in glory. Desiring to dwell in this heavenly intersection, he pleads to fashion three tents: two for the prophets and one for Jesus. May their interval together never end. Poor, impetuous Peter, don’t you realize the hour of the Messiah is at hand? Your Lord Jesus must press on to Jerusalem to die for your sin, though Peter doesn’t yet fathom this profound reality.

Not Peter only, because those same restless yearnings brew within you and me. The enticements of honor, grandeur, and strength beckon us as we presume they can better our lives here and now. To cling to them in their outward show means we’ll miss the greater truth—our redemption comes only through Christ’s dying. Our Savior’s glorious power lies beyond the grave in His resurrection.

Too often, we only prefer the shiny, dazzling Jesus. In love with the mightier man, we’re passionate for the warrior king seated atop a grand steed. Except, Jesus came as the suffering Servant, meek and humble, riding upon a donkey. Our misguided yearning only climbs the mountain and loses itself with a cross-less Christ. Temporary gain for eternal destruction, temporal prosperity for everlasting poverty. Remember, Jesus descended to save, so unless He dies our death for us, everything is but loss.

Salvation is a gift given, but not to Christ. To be saved, we need the bleeding Redeemer. His is the face shining on the Mount, now set toward Jerusalem. Soon, Judas stretches forth to kiss Him, to take scourge and whip, dripping red by sacrificial blood flowing from His thorn-pierced brow. Upon the cross for our sins, He will hang—the only remedy for death’s sting. Bow in silent awe of the Man who dies for you.

Leave the alluring splendor of one mountain for the starkness of another. Journey to Golgotha with Jesus. Gaze beyond the shining Jesus and view Him, who anguishes on a tree. Stripped of dignity and power, He endures a sinner’s death, so we go free. Only in His demise and resurrection, do we find our Savior.

Woe must come first, paving the path to exaltation. So Jesus counseled His disciples on the road to Emmaus. “Didn’t Christ need to suffer these things to enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Such a strange paradox—affliction leading to one’s splendor. In the ultimate act of unconditional love, Jesus goes to His cross and gives Himself for us. Despite this costing Him, we receive the gift of life. In His crucifixion, Jesus endures the suffering we deserve so we can rejoice in sin’s forgiveness and resurrection.

The Father’s voice echoes from the cloud, declaring the only words the New Testament records Him speaking. “This is my beloved Son.” Next, He reprimands Peter for his presumptuousness. Wrong-headed ideas clang inside Peter, telling him how everything should be. So the command resounds: “Listen to Jesus.”

To begin, Peter missed an important fact, which you and I often don’t realize. The first, fundamental, and best approach to God is to listen. Be open and quiet before Him, for whenever Jesus speaks or shows us something where He pledges to be, He does so for our profit. Receive and take in His precious blessings as He manifests Himself in Word and Sacrament as He promises.

Panic now washes over Peter, James, and John as the Almighty’s voice confronts them. Unbidden, dread overcomes them as they tremble, awestruck by divinity. The fear of God is where wisdom begins, Proverbs instructs (9:10), and from the knowledge of ages past, the start of a repentant heart. God’s Word penetrates their hardened hearts and softens them to faith.

A sober realization strikes the disciples, and they recognize their plight. The magnificence seen in the transfiguration isn’t enough to save them. Despite Jesus’ divine presence shimmering in the sky, no salvation shines forth for them inside this monumental juncture of heavenly wonder. At last, they understand—Christ Jesus must go to bear the cross and transfigure it by suffering. The Jesus, who meets sinners in their death, fills us with abundant life.

The moment is gone: The Father’s booming voice is silent, leaving a vacuum in its wake. Splendor departs, the two prophets vanish, and the cloud envelops them no more. Again, the stark ordinariness of earthly existence sets before them. Oh, but Jesus remains, the road to His glorification running through the abyss of suffering and impending execution.

The brilliant radiance of the transfiguration illuminated Jesus’ divine identity, God in human flesh. Such power, authority, and presence left everyone who viewed this reeling back, stunned yet amazed. Except, hiding inside this awe-inspiring event lay something greater—the sacrifice of the forthcoming cross. In His generous gift of Himself to save humanity from their sins, Jesus unfurls His unfathomable love. Regale in Christ’s true majesty on those two wood beams of slaughter. First glory, next comes suffering, opening the way to, yes, a grander glory.

In His perfect passion, Jesus delivers from sin’s terror, lifts from eternal despair, and brings you and me to the shores of salvation. No more enslaved to the darkness, He banishes our shadows of shame and sin, so we revel in His glorious light. The power of His grace perseveres, saving us for everlasting joy, bliss, and life. Yes, the likes of you and me will one day share in Christ’s magnificence and majesty.

Today, our paths still wind through the bitterness and sorrow of a fallen world. Fret not. Be stout of heart since our Savior trod similar roads of adversity and loss. In the depths of such despair, Jesus is with you, nourishing your faith and strengthening your soul as He frees you for never-ending life. So draw close, near to Him, and rest in His presence. Listen to His voice, for His power to save is mightier than your suffering.

The circle goes and comes back around, where Christ Jesus works another’s evil for our eternal well-being. Shrouded once in warfare on crucifixion Friday, Jesus unveils His path of peace. Your sinner’s debt, now paid. Our Lord’s blood-soaked wood of death pours forth His crimson draft of life. From His spear-pierced side flows living water, quenching our thirst into everlasting exaltation. Those holy wounds become our glorious balm of healing. In the end, the love of Jesus triumphs. Amen.

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