It was a big moment.
After some time spent together and witnessing amazing acts of healing and teaching, Jesus’ disciples are having an important conversation with Jesus. This wasn’t the usual conversation. Jesus asks his disciples a very direct and personal question: “Who do you say that I am?”
The question came after Jesus asked them about what the people saw in him. It was Peter who would speak for the entire group, as was the case many times in their three-year journey with Jesus. He announced that Jesus is, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah. The One who would redeem the people and establish God’s kingdom.
This was a big moment for the disciples and Peter. It signified that they were beginning to understand Jesus’ identity and the work he came to do, even if they didn’t understand fully what this meant. Jesus celebrates Peter’s affirmation by saying he would build his church upon his confession. He also takes the opportunity to further explain what his Lordship meant. Jesus said he must go to Jerusalem, be rejected, crucified, and raised to life three days later. Peter refused to hear this, which led to Jesus’ rebuke of Peter standing in the way of Jesus’ movement towards the cross.
Fast forward now six days later. That conversation and moment may still be fresh on the disciples’ minds as they approach Mount Tabor. This is the traditional setting for what Matthew describes for us in Matthew 17:1-9. What takes place is a high moment in Jesus’ ministry, and one that would leave his disciples amazed.
Matthew tells us that Jesus brings his inner circle – Peter, James, and John – with him to the top of the mountain. When they reached the mountaintop, Jesus’ appearance changed before their eyes. His face shone like the sun. His clothes became white. Peter, James, and John then saw Moses and the prophet Elijah speaking with Jesus. A voice was heard telling them to listen Jesus. Then it was over. Everything returned to the way it was, but nothing was the same.
It was a powerful scene. One the disciples did not expect. It was, however, one they would remember for some time, especially after the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the years sense, we have referenced this scene as Jesus’ transfiguration. An event we recall every year on this Sunday before Lent as a way to focus us on the journey ahead.
Admittedly, as powerful of a scene this is it is also one of the most difficult to understand. What exactly took place on the mountaintop and what does it mean for us today? In order to answer these questions, I believe we must be willing to walk with Peter, James, and John and interact with this scene as, perhaps, they did so many years ago. As we do, we will see that Jesus invites us on a journey that comes out of this mountaintop experience.
We begin our walk with Jesus’ inner core at the foot of Mount Tabor. Jesus invites these three to join him at the top, which might have been only a couple hundred feet above sea level. To go to the mountaintop was symbolic of something important to faith. In the Jewish culture of the time, a mountaintop experience signified being close with God and being near the Lord’s presence. Think of Moses’ journey to the top of Mount Sinai where he received God’s law and saw God’s back as he walked past him as indicative of this. The mountaintop was a place where deep spiritual encounters occurred.
Going to the mountaintop with Jesus was nothing new. He has gone to the mountaintop to teach, such as was the case with the Sermon on the Mount. He has also gone to the mountaintop for renewal and rest. Each time we see a mountain referenced in Jesus’ ministry, we are cued into the fact that something important is about to occur.
Maybe Peter, James, and John expected something important to happen when they walked to the top of the mountain. They might have expected a time of renewal and conversation with the Lord. A conversation that might have continued their discussion about Jesus’ divinity and its implications.
They likely did not expect what would happen once they arrived at the top. Jesus’ appearance changed. His face shone like the sun and his clothes turned white. These are expressions of purity and holiness. They are also symbolic of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus reveals his full divinity to Peter, James, and John. It is a holy moment that allows those who experience it, the disciples on the mountain and us today, to see Jesus as he truly is as the Son of God and Messiah.
As if this was not enough, Peter, James, and John witness two key important leaders of Scriptures. Moses and the prophet Elijah appear and begin to talk with Jesus. Luke’s version tells us they were talking about Jesus’ exodus, or his eventual death on the cross. This is going on in front of the disciples and they are amazed.
An amazement and experience the disciples didn’t want to end. Peter asks if Jesus wanted them to build three shelters, one for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He understands the importance of this moment, and wants to make sure that all have provisions and a place to rest. He also wants to stay in this place with them and continue this experience. However, as soon as Peter speaks a voice is heard from a cloud that overwhelms them. The voice is similar to the one heard at Jesus’ baptism. This voice from God tells the disciples that Jesus is the Son of God and they should listen to him.
What Peter, James, and John experience is a time of confirmation. The transfiguration affirms Jesus’ teaching about his mission and calling. His changed appearance confirms that Jesus is truly divine. The presence of Moses and Elijah confirm that Scripture anticipated Jesus fulfilling his Messianic calling in the way as he does. The voice of God confirms Jesus is doing what God desires.
To experience this would have been a powerful and, yes, frightening. It would have been overwhelming to witness what Peter, James, and John saw. So, they hid. Who could blame them? Their faces are covered as Jesus approaches them. He touches them, his appearance now as it has always been to the disciples, and tells them to “Get up.”
It is an interesting choice of words for Jesus. I do not believe Jesus is simply telling the disciples to rise to their feet. No, I believe Jesus invites the disciples to “get up” and get ready to move forward. Their time on the mountaintop was over. It was time to head down the mountain and experience what is to come. Jesus invites the disciples to join him on the journey down the mountain that would lead to Good Friday.
They cannot stay on the mountaintop. Jesus does not stay in this transfigured appearance. There is work to do. Jesus leaves this mountaintop ready to face the rejection, abuse, abandonment, suffering, and loneliness he would experience in the movement towards Jerusalem. From this moment on, Jesus is fixed on the cross. Nothing would distract him from fulfilling his purpose of redeeming creation. Every step he takes from the top of Mount Tabor downwards leads him toward Golgotha. Jesus’ transfiguration anticipates his suffering and death on Good Friday and the hope of the resurrection on Easter.
The disciples are invited to join Jesus on this journey off the mountaintop and into the suffering. He invites the disciples to walk with him as he is rejected for the sins of the world. Jesus wants Peter, James, and John to walk with him where he walks and experience the suffering for themselves. He invites them to experience the lengths Jesus is willing to go to reconcile the world with God. He invites them on a journey centered on trusting Jesus and his proclamation of the divine mission, which included his death and resurrection.
Like Peter, James, and John, we are also asked to walk with Jesus from the tops of Mount Tabor towards Golgotha this morning. We cannot stay on the mountaintop forever. We want to. These powerful experiences are deeply emotional. We don’t want to walk away from the mountaintop, because we know what awaits us on the other side. However, Jesus invites us to walk with him where he walks and to go where he leads. It is a walk that asks us to sacrifice of ourselves, to let go of our own wants and desires, so that we may be renewed in Christ’s love.
The season of Lent begins Wednesday. It is a season of renewal and rededication of our lives with God. In this season, Jesus invites us to leave the mountaintop and to surrender ourselves, so we may experience our own spiritual transformation as we become more centered and connected in Christ’s love.
We cannot stay on the mountaintop where we have had this powerful experience. We have to step off the mountaintop and go where Jesus is leading us. The question is, will we go where Jesus leads us and experience a time of renewal this Lenten season?