Matthew 16:21—17:13, To See Christ in His Kingdom

[February 3, 2008] With the Transfiguration, we come to the turning point of the Gospel story. The Galilean ministry is over. Jesus takes His disciples to the northern border of the land of Israel, to the neighborhood of Caesarea-Philippi, and there Peter confesses who Christ is for the first time: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”; and Jesus says to him, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in the heavens. And I also say to you that you are Petros (a stone), and upon this Rock (petra) I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Not only do we have the revelation of Christ for the first time, but we also have, along with it and inseparable from it, the announcement of the church for the first time.

From that time” Jesus begins to show to His disciples that He must be crucified and rise from the dead. This is also the first time Jesus explicitly reveals this. Who Christ IS, the church, and the CROSS of Christ go inseparably together. Try to imagine the disciples. To have Jesus reveal to them that He was the Messiah whom all Israel was waiting for, and that they were to be built as stones upon the foundation of Himself (His self-revelation) to be His church, His assembly, must have profoundly excited them, even inflated them, especially after they had seen their Master rejected time and again by all the big people who seemed to matter. But then for Him to immediately announce that He would suffer and be killed—what must they have thought?

From Jesus’ own temptations in the wilderness until the present, the vision of the Macabbees and the model of the “zealot” had been before them, and Jesus had consistently rejected it. But what was the alternative? It seemed that their Master was contemplating utter defeat. Peter takes Him aside and rebukes Him.

But then Jesus turns to him and says the most damning words that He could say to anyone. In fact, initially He speaks right past Peter, as though Peter were only the mouthpiece of His arch enemy: “Get behind Me, Satan!”

Then He says to Peter, and to us if we would be tempted to think like Peter, “You are a stumbling block—an offense—to Me,” for Jesus indeed saw again Satan himself calling Him away from God’s will and purpose. “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.”

What was so wrong with what Peter did to earn this strong rebuke? We need to really examine ourselves to see if we do not think the same way he did. In fact, we DO think this way. It is our “nature,” the disposition of our unregenerate self. We do not accept the way of the cross. After the fact of Christ’s death and resurrection, we might say, Alright, it was necessary and okay for Jesus. But we certainly do not think it is okay as our own way. It was what He had to do, not us. Okay, it may also be what special people, apostles and saints and professional clergy (maybe) have to do, but not for us. I still want my life, and as the advertisers tell us constantly, I DESERVE my life, to have things MY way. After all, what is the alternative? To die to my own life and simply accept God’s will for me? Surely God must want what I want! He wants me to be happy doing things MY way. This is how we think.

Yet we are wrong. “If anyone wants to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his soul shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul for My sake shall find it. For what shall a man be profited if he gain the whole world, but forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Jesus says very clearly that if ANYONE would want to follow Him, to be a disciple, to be a Christian, he or she must be willing to die, to lose their soul—all their worldly dreams and ambitions—if they have any intention of keeping their soul, that is, if they do not want to end up losing EVERYTHING. You too, each of us, must be willing to give up our life and the things of life for the sake of Christ.

But we are too busy, we say. I give Christ enough when I let Him have Sunday morning and the five or ten minutes that I pray each day. And I need all the money I earn. Life is hard, especially the way the economy is doing. But this is the talk of an unbeliever, of someone who has never been won over by Christ. Christ is not asking you to squeeze Him in. If you think that way, you do not get it. He is asking for ALL OR NOTHING.

But what does He want of ME? we ask. If we really want to know, we would study the New Testament (at least) to find out. It was written plainly for ordinary people to understand. If we do not “search the Scriptures,” it can only be because we are not serious; we are still playing with Jesus. If we ARE serious, we would cry out—even with tears—and beg Him to show us the way. It will become clear enough almost immediately, IF we are willing (John 7:17).

No one, probably, would threaten your life because you follow Christ. But what are we willing to sacrifice short of life? God gives each of us a job so that we can serve and glorify Him. But if our job prevents us from serving Christ, we need to examine our relationship with our job, maybe even change it. The same goes for the friends we keep, and anything in our life. The same also goes for our home. Our home must serve Christ, which means that even if it is our fortress from the world, we must still use it for hospitality. Our door must be open for His sake. To follow Christ means to take control of our life, and if things really are beyond our control, it means to be faithful to Christ in our circumstances no matter what the cost.

“For the Son of Man is to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will repay each man according to his doings.” This refers to the judgment seat of Christ before which believers must appear (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10-12; Revelation 22:12). The eternal judgment seat of God is a different matter. When Christ returns, we will all be summoned and judged according to this standard—whether we have sought to save our soul or have denied ourselves for His sake.

When Christ comes in glory, this is the same as “the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” The Transfiguration was letting Peter, James and John—only three of the twelve—have a glimpse of His coming.

They were given a heavenly vision of Christ, a vision that kept them going, that inspired and motivated them, that guided and (not by force) “controlled” them until they departed this life. Like Paul said, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19).

It is SEEING who Christ is, on a deep interior level, that puts everything in perspective so that we know what matters and what does not. It is this seeing Christ, and having this vision seared into our spirit, that enables us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.

Jesus unveiled Himself and the church and the cross in the neighborhood of Caesarea-Philippi, a town at the foot of the snow-covered Hermon mountain range that stretched northeast of the land of Israel. After He rebuked Peter and set the disciples straight about the cross—His own and theirs—the disciples must have been confused and disheartened.

He took Peter, James and John several miles on a foot trail that led up the slopes of Mount Hermon. They did not go to the top but probably high enough to have a view of the land of Israel. They went up rocky ravines to where the soil was dotted with dwarf shrubs, and after crossing the first ridge of snow, they saw turfy banks and gravelly slopes and broad patches of snow. Probably the moon shone brightly and cast shadows around them.

There Jesus prayed, and for a while the three disciples prayed with Him, but as verbal prayer merged into silent contemplation, they fell asleep, emotionally exhausted as well as tired from the journey and the thin air. Probably Jesus was praying for them, that they might see Him in His reality.

But now they are aroused and they see Jesus transfigured before them, His face shining like the sun and His who body bathed in light, His garments glittering, far whiter than the snow that the moon shone on. Two others appeared with Him, whom the disciples recognized, perhaps from their speech, to be Moses and Elijah, representatives of the Law and the Prophets and of all the vision and hope of the people of Israel.

According to Luke 9:31, Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about His exodus or departure, literally, His “way out” (in Acts 13:24 the beginning of His public ministry was called His eis-odus or entrance, literally, His “way in.”), or in other words, His crucifixion. Jesus was the fulfillment of all that was revealed before Him in the Torah and the Prophets, and Moses and Elijah were privileged to witness this. This vision (this is what Jesus calls it in Matthew 17:9) not only was for the disciples, but it also strengthened Jesus for the journey ahead to Jerusalem, for after this Jesus “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). From then on, His journey to Jerusalem is called “the Way.” The purpose of this vision for Jesus was, thus (at least partly), the same as for the disciples who witnessed it.

The disciples want to hold on to this, distracted by the experience itself.

But presently another voice is heard. A luminous cloud covers the mountain and envelopes Jesus and Moses and Elijah, obscuring them from view, and next engulfs the disciples. It is the Presence of God, as reported in the Old Testament, and the voice of God speaks in it: “This is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found My delight. Hear Him!” It is the same Voice that spoke to Jesus (and John) at His baptism, singling out Jesus alone and at last. Now the Voice speaks in the hearing of the disciples and directs their attention to Jesus as alone the One whom God delights in and whom they are to hear, the ONLY One they are to hear in the voices of Moses and the prophets.

The disciples were ‘slain’ as it were. We do not know how much time passed before Jesus touched and aroused them and told them not to be afraid.

For the disciples, this vision of Jesus is a vision of not who He will be, but of who He already was, though hidden from their eyes. He was God with Us, the Kingdom of God in our midst. And He is so now, as Paul and the apostle John later saw. He is the revelation of God, the God revealed to Moses and the prophets.

This was a vision of the coming kingdom as well. For in seeing this, they understood the resurrection. He can overcome death by resurrection. In resurrection, He was not merely resuscitated, but it became clear that His life, that which animates Him, is the divine life, the life of God, and death cannot hold His human form. Indeed, in resurrection, His human form is divinized, that is, it shares in God’s own nature and substance.

And this is what we will share when we enter the kingdom and receive the inheritance of eternal life. So what was revealed to the disciples was not only Christ, but their own share in Christ, that is, their own resurrection in Him. Once a person sees this, there is no fear of death and the matters of this life come into perspective. There is no longer a question of wanting to save the soul, because the value of things in this culture, in this life, become worthless in comparison to the divinization of created things in Christ.

We need to answer one final question. How does one obtain such a vision? It is always a gift, as it was for the three disciples, and Paul and John. But the key is the heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” and “if your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light,” and “when the heart turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (Matthew 5:8; 6:22; 2 Corinthians 3:16). How do we turn our heart to the Lord except by doing so, and calling on His name? Many people around the world in our day have to pay the ultimate price. The Lord Jesus has not failed those who turn to Him for almost two thousand years. He will surely be faithful to you and me today.

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