THE SHINING SAVIOR
His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light (Matthew 17:2).
Jesus probably wasn’t much to look at. Paintings and films may picture him with piercing eyes, handsome features, and a splendid bearing, but it seems Jesus was at best ordinary looking and perhaps downright homely. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,” says the Bible, “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).
Jesus’ looks weren’t impressive, and neither were his clothes. He grew up in a poor family; throughout his ministry he received no paycheck and had no fixed address; so he probably didn’t wear the kind of expensive clothes that would make him look fashionable, charming, or important. Also, Jesus was often on the move, walking from place to place, so his clothing was probably sweaty and dirty much of the time.
If clothes make the man, then Jesus wasn’t much of a man. But of course clothes don’t make the man, and neither does a handsome face. Jesus may not have looked or dressed like a movie star, but when he opened his mouth, wisdom poured out such as no one had ever heard. When he reached out his hand, miraculous power went forth such as no one had ever seen.
Still, Jesus remained a plain-looking man in plain-looking clothes, and before long, his looks and clothes would be worse. His face would be swollen, his hair matted with blood, his beard tangled and flecked with other people’s spit. His clothing would be stripped from him, and his naked body, torn by nails, twisted with pain, splayed out on a cross, would look so disgusting that you’d want to hide your face (Isaiah 53:3).
In death Jesus looked awful, and in life he look ordinary at best. Even his best friends had a hard time seeing beyond appearances. They didn’t always have a sense of divine beauty and majesty when they were around Jesus. This humble, plain-looking man seemed too ordinary to inspire awe.
But one day something happened that showed Jesus in a whole different light. That plain, unimpressive face of his suddenly shone like the sun. Those worn, dirty clothes of his suddenly became “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). This event, called the Transfiguration, happened in the presence of Jesus’ three closest friends, shortly after he had warned them that he would be rejected and killed. Here’s how the Bible describes it in Matthew 17:1-9.
Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up to a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters–one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one but Jesus.
Now, this isn’t just a strange tale from long ago about an ordinary guy who somehow lit up like a large lightbulb for a few minutes. It’s a true story, and it reveals a great deal about Jesus and about how you and I may sense Christ’s radiance and glory still today.
Jesus was–and is–as human as you or I. He had the same feelings; he faced the same temptations (though he never sinned); and when it came to looks, he was also one of us–and perhaps less attractive than many of us. He was born in a stable, not a palace–and he probably looked more like a stable than a palace!
Jesus was the lowliest of men, but he was also the eternal Son of God. He cloaked his divine nature during his time on earth, but he still kept it, even though it was hidden beneath his humble humanity. The Transfiguration provided a peek at the hidden truth of who Jesus was all along: the Son of the living God. And it was a preview of his coming glory.
Imagine a mighty, majestic king who has to deal with citizens in one of his far-off territories who are in rebellion against him. He could bring his army and wipe them all out, but rather than do that, he decides to forgive and win the hearts of many of them. He takes off his sword and crown and royal robes, puts them in a travel bag, and dresses himself in rags.
He leaves his palace, travels to the rebel territory, and moves into a hut in a village of poor peasants. There he spends time with his neighbors and makes a number of friends. Often he meets hungry people who can’t afford a meal or poor people who can’t afford a doctor, and he buys them what they need. They can’t understand how a poor man can do such things. They don’t realize he’s drawing from royal gold that lies hidden in the travel bag with his other kingly possessions.
He speaks to anyone who will listen, explaining the real meaning of the king’s laws. He even hints at the beauty of the royal palace and the happiness of those who love the king. Some people don’t like him and want to get rid of him, but many are drawn to him and wonder, in light of all he says and does, whether he has a special connection to the king. His friends begin to wonder whether he might even be the king.
One day he asks his friends, “Who do people say that I am?”
They reply, “Some say you’re one of the king’s great nobles, perhaps one of the ambassadors who used to come here.”
“What about you?” he says. “Who do you say I am?”
“You are the king!” one of them blurts out.
The king smiles and nods. Then he warns them not to tell anyone just yet. He goes on to say that before long, his enemies will seize him and dump him into a dungeon from which no one has ever escaped. He says he’ll somehow escape that dungeon, visit his friends briefly to let them know he succeeded, and then make his way back to his palace. Once he’s done that, says the king, he wants his friends to tell everyone they meet that the king has been among them and is calling them to change and be his friends. The day is coming when he’ll return to the far territory, not in rags but with his armies. He’ll give his friends a place in his palace, but he’ll crush those who remain his enemies.
When the friends hear him say all this, they’re puzzled. They don’t understand. This man may be the king, but why is he still wearing rags? And why would he let himself be thrown into the dreaded dungeon of no escape? They don’t understand his plan at all, and he still doesn’t look very kingly in his rags.
A few days later, the ragged king takes his travel bag and invites a few of his friends to come with him. When they get to a remote hillside, he reaches into the bag, takes out his crown, and sets it on his head. He puts on his royal robe and straps on a gleaming sword. Two impressive-looking strangers dressed as nobles step out from hiding. They talk with the king about his upcoming plans. It turns out that the nobles are two of the king’s great friends who long ago had come to the far territory as ambassadors and spoken on the king’s behalf.
The peasants are amazed at the majestic sight of their ruler. So this is who he really is! This is how he will look when he returns with his armies! Excited and afraid, they bow before him, hardly daring to look.
The next thing they know, he is helping them to their feet. The ambassadors are gone. The crown, robe, and sword are back in the bag. All they see is their humble friend wearing his rags.
That may give you some sense of who Jesus is and what he’s done and where the Transfiguration fits into it all. The Son of God, the King of creation, came to his rebellious world as a peasant. He lived among lowly people and befriended them. He was completely human, yet he remained the divine King. He carried his hidden divine powers with him and used them to give miraculous help to people in need. He preached the good news of God’s kingdom and explained the true meaning of God’s good and holy Law. Some people opposed him, but many others thought he might be one of God’s ambassadors, one of the prophets, and his closest disciples came to know he was even more than a prophet. When Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). At that point, once the disciples knew who he was, Jesus began telling them about his upcoming suffering and death.
The disciples were puzzled. They couldn’t figure out what Jesus was talking about, and they still found it hard to sense the splendor and majesty of God in this plain-faced, poorly dressed teacher. That’s when Jesus led three of them up to a high mountain and showed them his kingly splendor. His face blazed with stunning brightness, and his clothes shone with dazzling whiteness. Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of the divine radiance that burned within Jesus’ humble, homely humanity, a preview of the splendor their lowly friend would receive in his resurrection and ascension to heaven, the glory Jesus will one day display for all the world to see when he comes in majesty to judge the living and the dead.
In the Transfiguration Jesus spoke with two friends from heaven, Moses and Elijah, who centuries earlier had been his ambassadors on earth. During their earthly lives, both Moses and Elijah had encountered God’s glory on a mountain and had not been able to look directly at it. But now that they had been living in the glory of heaven, they didn’t have to hide their faces. They felt at home standing with the Lord in his shining majesty.
Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet, were talking with the Messiah whom the Law and the Prophets were pointing to. What did they talk about with Jesus? The Bible says “they spoke about his departure” (Luke 9:31), his death and resurrection and ascension which were soon to take place. The Lord’s great sacrifice and salvation, which Old Testament heroes had only glimpsed from afar, was being set in motion. Jesus’ death would pay for the sins of all who trust him, and his resurrection and ascension would provide the basis for his people to conquer death and live forever in heavenly palaces.
Meanwhile, Peter, James, and John weren’t sure what was going on–but whatever it was, it was great! It was wonderful to see their friend Jesus looking so splendid and impressive. It was a thrill to see and hear Moses and Elijah in person. It was frightening, of course, but it was also fantastic to have this mountaintop experience of heaven on earth. Peter didn’t want it to end. He offered to put up three shelters–one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah–so they could stay awhile.
That’s what may happen if you get a glimpse of the glory of Christ and a taste of the sweetness of heaven. You may be shaken with fear, but the spiritual experience is so awesome you don’t want it to end. You want to do whatever you can to make it last. But you can’t make it last. It must end, at least for now. Later the glory will come again with greater abundance and without any end, not in tents we build for Moses and Elijah, but in the everlasting mansions Jesus is building for us.
We can’t make a mountaintop spiritual experience last. What’s more, we also shouldn’t assume that if we’ve had such an experience, it means that anything we think and say is right. I’ve heard it said, “Some people have their theology, but I have my experience.” Well, experience is no substitute for understanding. Some experiences are phony, and even if you have a genuine, spiritual experience of Christ and his glory, your thoughts and behavior can still be muddled.
Just look at Peter. His experience was real, but he was carried away and “didn’t know what he was saying” (Luke 9:33). He suggested building places for Jesus and Moses and Elijah to stay, but Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were talking about Jesus’ departure. Peter liked it on the mountaintop, but Jesus was preparing to go down into the valley of death. Peter was overcome by his experience and didn’t understand God’s plan.
So don’t think you know what you’re talking about just because you’ve had a certain experience, and don’t believe every teaching of other people just because they’ve had a tremendous experience. Even if the experience was genuine, that doesn’t mean they always know what they’re talking about. Peter didn’t.
To understand the truth we must have not just an experience but the Word of the Lord. There on the Mount of Transfiguration, God didn’t just shine; he spoke. A bright cloud enveloped Jesus and Moses and Elijah. In Old Testament times, a bright cloud was often a sign of God’s glory and presence, and here again God came in a cloud, gloriously present and yet mysteriously hidden. The divine glory hid Jesus and Moses and Elijah from the disciples. Then came an awesome voice from the Father saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
That was God’s Word to them. The disciples may have been impressed by Moses and Elijah, but God was telling them, “Don’t be too impressed by Moses and Elijah. Your humble friend Jesus is far greater than they!” Moses and Elijah were great ambassadors, but Jesus is the divine Son, the king of the universe, the final judge of all people. The prophets were the first faint rays of dawn; Christ is the noonday brightness. The light which glimmered in Old Testament heroes is absorbed and outshone by the dazzling radiance of Christ and his gospel.
God’s Son is the one the Father loves from all eternity, and he is the channel through which God’s love flows to others. No one on earth is loved apart from the Father’s love for Christ. The Father takes eternal, infinite pleasure in his Son, and it is only through the delight he takes in his Son that his delight and favor overflow to those who belong to Christ. God’s Son is the Father’s final Word to us, and so, in order to know God’s truth and his way of salvation, we must listen to Jesus. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When those words from the Father sounded from that bright cloud, it was more than Peter, James, and John could take. They fell facedown to the ground, terrified.
And what happened next? Jesus came and touched them. He helped them to their feet and told them not to be afraid. The three disciples looked around and saw only Jesus: not Moses, not Elijah, not a bright cloud, but Jesus only–with his plain face, in his everyday clothes.
Listen to John Calvin’s comment on this: “We see how weak our nature is, which is so afraid to hear God’s voice… As soon as we feel God’s majesty it must of necessity cast us down. But it is Christ’s office to raise up the prostrate; for He descends to us so that believers, led by Him, might boldly appear in the sight of God and that His Majesty, which otherwise would consume all flesh, might no longer be terrifying to them.”
What a friend we have in Jesus! How terrible in his majesty, yet how tender in his mercy! When the power of God and the splendor of heaven are too much for us to bear, he comes in his humble humanity. He touches us, lifts us to our feet again, calms our fears, walks and talks with us in our everyday world, and helps us prepare to meet him when he comes again in glory.
Somehow, having only the humble Jesus is just as satisfying as having Jesus plus Moses and Elijah. Everything Moses and Elijah could offer are found in Jesus. And somehow having Jesus in his humility is as encouraging as seeing him in his power. It is a marvel to see or sense his splendor, but the most splendid thing Jesus ever did was when he left that holy mountain and headed for a shabby hill shaped like a skull, a place called Golgotha, or Calvary. It was not in the radiance of Transfiguration but in the darkness crucifixion that the Lord Jesus Christ did the greatest thing that God has ever done. There he was nailed to a cross and poured out his precious blood, of which one drop is worth more than the world and the entire universe. There he laid down his life, so that sinful, rebellious people might be forgiven and live with him forever.
He didn’t have to do it. Jesus could have made himself immune from death, just as easily as he entered into heavenly glory on the mountain. He could have remained in the divine splendor on the mountain and returned directly to the throne of heaven. But he came back out of the glory for us, to lay down his life us! Jesus walked from his Father’s love on the mountain to endure God’s wrath on Calvary, from his Father’s pleasure into punishment, from his Father’s delight into death–all to make us God’s beloved children with whom he is pleased and who enjoy his pleasure forever, with the final result that the Lord’s glory and goodness might shine all the more brightly.
We must believe and trust Jesus in his humiliation and death, but make no mistake about it: we must also worship the Lord in the splendor which he revealed on that mountain. The risen Christ has entered heaven and taken the throne, surrounded by Moses and Elijah and countless other saints and angels. The king has said he will come to earth again, and when he does, his dazzling glory will be seen by all of us, to the unspeakable joy of all who trust and love him, and the unending terror of any who continue to refuse the Lord in spite of all he has done.
At the Transfiguration, the divine splendor that had been in Jesus all along shone forth. In a sense, Jesus was like a house that was brilliantly lit inside but with shades and curtains drawn to keep the light from being seen on the outside. At the Transfiguration God lifted the shades and threw open the curtains for a few moments, allowing the light to flood out and be seen by those outside the house.
Today we need something similar, except that (if I may reverse the picture) we are inside the dark house of our own soul, with shades and curtains blocking every window. Christ, the light of the world, shines brightly, but the shades of our souls must be lifted and the curtains must be opened before the light of the world can flood into our hearts.
The Bible speaks of a veil over people’s hearts and says that “only in Christ is it taken away.” The gospel “is veiled to those who are perishing,” says Scripture. Satan “has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Sinful blindness doesn’t lessen Christ’s brightness, but it does mean that we need the veil of blindness to be taken away. That’s what happens Christ is preached and believed: the Lord removes the veil, opens our eyes, and his light pours in. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:14-4:6).
Then we see the Bible not just as words on a page but as a glowing revelation from God. Then we see Jesus not just as a person about whom we happen to know certain things, but as the shining Savior. The eyes of our soul begin to see the Redeemer’s radiance. The ears of our heart begin to hear Moses and Elijah and all the Bible as a conversation with Jesus concerning his death and resurrection and reign. And in our spirit we sense the Father’s bright cloud and his mighty voice confirming that Jesus is truly divine, that he is the one who will judge the world, and that he is therefore the one we must listen to.
This supernatural, saving light is spiritual, not physical. But it is just as real as the divine light which shone on the mountain, for it is the light of the Spirit of Christ himself.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.