“Best Picture: The Transfiguration of Our Lord” (Matthew 17:1-9)
Tonight will be the Academy Awards ceremony coming from Los Angeles. Tonight they’ll give out the award for, among other things, Best Picture of the year. I don’t know which one will win, but I want to tell you, this morning here in the church, we get to see a far better “Best Picture,” and it is none other than “The Transfiguration of Our Lord.”
The picture we see at the Transfiguration had its share of special effects–lighting, sound, and so on. And there were a couple of guest stars making a cameo appearance–Moses and Elijah. But clearly the leading man in this story is our Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is the star shining most brightly. Who Jesus is revealed to be and what he’s about to do for us from this point on–that is why Jesus is the one who makes the Transfiguration the Best Picture you’ll see today.
We heard about it in the Holy Gospel for today. Jesus took three of his disciples–Peter, James, and John–up a high mountain. There he was transfigured before them. His appearance was changed–that’s what “transfiguration” means. How so? It says, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”
So what is this picture telling us? “His face shone like the sun.” He who created the sun–and the moon and the stars–now shines with the brilliance thereof. Christ is revealed in his divine glory as the very Son of God. “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” This is a glory which Christ always had from eternity, from before the foundation of the world. But it is a glory which had been hidden once the Son of God became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Jesus did not always or fully manifest his glory during the days of his earthly ministry. But on this day, on this mountain, he did. He pulled back the curtain, so to speak, and his disciples were shown that this is indeed the eternal Son of God. They beheld the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in his divine majesty. The one “by whom all things were made, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven”–this man Jesus is here revealed as true God in the presence of his disciples.
“And his clothes became white as light.” This shows the holiness, the purity, of the Son of God come in the flesh. Jesus is without sin, unstained by transgression or misdeed. He is perfect in righteousness. Jesus perfectly kept all the commandments. As a man, he fulfilled God’s law. Jesus loved the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. He fulfilled the law. He loved his neighbor as himself. Righteous, holy, spotless, unblemished–that’s who Jesus is, and his white-as-light clothes here reflect that fact.
But what if we look at our own garments in that light? What do we see? We see that our clothing is soiled, stained with sin. And we cannot get that stain out, no matter how hard we try. The Bible says that all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. “All our righteousnesses!” If even our best deeds, done in the flesh, are considered filthy rags in God’s sight, where does that leave us? Sin is a permanent stain that even our most noble efforts cannot remove.
But the good news is that Jesus kept the law in our place. He did what you and I cannot do. He kept God’s law of love perfectly. Love for God, love for neighbor. We don’t do it as we should. But Jesus did. And he did it for us. His righteousness gets transferred to our account.
So the first picture we see in the Transfiguration is that of Jesus, his face shining like the sun and his clothes as white as light. Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God in the flesh, revealed in his divine glory.
Now what else do we see? “And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” Moses and Elijah appear. What are they doing here? They haven’t been around for centuries! But now, for this unique occasion, God brings them into the picture. Moses, the great deliverer, who led Israel out of bondage in Egypt, and up to the Promised Land. Moses, the great law-giver, who at Mount Sinai gave Israel the Ten Commandments straight from God. Moses, the greatest of the prophets, but who also told Israel, “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.” And now, here that prophet is, the one who would be even greater than Moses. That’s why God has Moses standing there next to Jesus. It’s as though God is saying: Here he is, the one Moses was talking about. The one you now must listen to. He will fulfill the law for you. He will bring you out of bondage, the bondage of sin and death. This Jesus will lead you to–and into–the Promised Land of heaven. Yes, here is one greater than Moses.
One greater than Elijah also. Elijah, another great prophet from Israel’s past. In fact, all of God’s dealings with Israel, all of salvation history, finds its goal and fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. He is what it all was pointing ahead to, driving at, moving toward. That’s what the presence of Moses and Elijah here is signaling. All of Israel’s history leads to this man, Jesus. For later, when the disciples look up, they see “no one but Jesus only.”
“No one but Jesus only.” If you want to know where to look for your salvation, look to no one but Jesus only. If you want to know what the focus and the purpose and the point of the whole Bible is, look to Jesus. Look to Jesus, not as a law-giver. We already have Moses for that. Look to Jesus, not as an example, at least not primarily. Look to Jesus for who he is and what he came to do. Who is he? He is your Savior, the Savior of the world. What did he come to do? To do what you and I will never be able to do, and that is, to save us from our sins and to give us his life, his righteousness, forgiveness for our sins, and life with him forever. Who is able to do this? “No one but Jesus only.”
Then there is one more thing we see in the picture at the Transfiguration. A cloud. “Behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them.” Notice that, a “bright” cloud. Not a dark and threatening cloud, like the storm clouds on Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. No, this is life-giving Gospel, not condemning Law. A bright cloud. The presence of God, but not in a threatening way. In a saving way. The presence of God surrounding us with his love, his protection, his presence to guard and guide us–like the pillar of cloud that led Israel through the wilderness. In Christ we have the presence of God with us, to lead us all the way through the wilderness of this world, all the way home to heaven.
So there is the picture. Jesus shining like the sun, his clothes white as light. Moses and Elijah there, telling us that Christ is the goal and focus of God’s plan of salvation. The bright cloud of God’s presence, his saving presence surrounding us. That’s the picture, that’s what we see.
Now what do we hear? Are there any words? A voice comes from the bright cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” This of course is the voice of the heavenly Father. The Father’s voice, testifying to his Son, approving of this Jesus. “This is my beloved Son.” The Father loves the Son with a perfect love. Always has, always will. But especially does he testify to his love for the Son precisely as Jesus goes forward now with his saving mission, which is to go to the cross, to save sinful mankind. As Christ now sets his face to go to Jerusalem, to suffer and die on our behalf, the Father is saying that he is well pleased with his Son. God’s good pleasure is shown in sending him to do this great work.
God is telling us here to what measure he would go to rescue us. He’s saying he would give his only-begotten Son, his beloved Son, to die for us. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
And so the Father says of Christ, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Yes, listen to him! Listen, disciples, as Jesus now tells you he must go to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. For this journey to Jerusalem, this way to the cross, is how God’s plan of love will be carried out. Yes, sinners, one and all, listen to God’s beloved Son Jesus Christ, when he says to you today, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Yes, church, listen to Jesus. And keep on listening. For he alone has the words of eternal life.
Today we have been with the disciples on the holy mountain for the Transfiguration of Our Lord. What have we seen? Here we have beheld our bright and shining Lord, our beautiful Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God come in the flesh. He is the goal and focus of all salvation history. In him we are surrounded by the bright cloud of God’s gracious presence. We lift up our eyes and see no one but Jesus only. And what do we hear? We hear the Father’s voice, testifying to his beloved Son. And so we hear how much God loves us, that he would send his Son to suffer and die for us. And God tells us to listen to Jesus, and to keep on listening, for our Lord has more words for us to hear, our whole life long.
Today it is on the Mount of Transfiguration, not in the glitz of Hollywood, that we see what truly is the Best Picture. Pictured for us in the Transfiguration of Our Lord is our glorious Savior, Jesus Christ, showing us exactly who it is who will go to the cross for us. And if it is God’s own Son who suffers and dies and rises again for us, if it’s Jesus who speaks words of life for us to listen to–well, that’s the Best Picture we can see.