The Transfiguration of our Lord, 2017
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
How would you define suffering?
How would you define glory?
I’m not sure if there are two words that are as different as those. No matter your definition of suffering, your definition of glory is the exact opposite.
And yet, for St. Matthew, author of the first account of the Gospel, author of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ suffering and glory are to be seen as two sides to the same coin.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this, though. In Romans, Paul writes that “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3-5).
It’s our definitions of suffering and glory that should surprise us, because if we compare St. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration with his account of the Crucifixion, the intentional parallels, the similarities and even the specific differences, stand out as an obviously purposeful comparison.
But—we don’t usually read Scripture this way.
Generally speaking, we read Scripture, line by line, verse by verse, heading by heading, chapter by chapter, a few minutes at a time. Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian apologists, described Sunday worship this way: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (ANCF vol. 1. LXVII, par. 1912-13).
Rarely does our current attention span yield the beauty and purpose the Author of Scripture intended.
On Wednesday, at our LWML meeting, I led a devotion examining a literary device commonly found in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin literature, including the Old and New Testaments of the Bible: the chiasmus or chiasm.
It’s an important term—especially for today’s Gospel lesson.
Open your Bibles to Matthew 17, and tell me the most important thing that happens in verses one through eight.
If you read it like the paragraph it is, it’s very likely that you’ll conclude that the most important even in St. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration is the Transfiguration.
If you know what a chiasm is, however, it’s very clear that the most important even in verses one through eight is when the Father speaks from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
That must be the most important thing to happen, because St. Matthew designed his writing to emphasize those words.
Verse one is an introduction to the narrative.
Verses two and three are the descriptions of Jesus’ Transfiguration.
In verse four, Peter responds.
In verse five, the Father speaks from heaven, identifying Jesus as His Son, exhorting us to listen to Him.
Notice—now—how everything is the mirror opposite.
In verse six, the disciples respond. It was Peter, in verse four.
In verse seven, Jesus speaks. In verses two and three, it was Jesus who was transfigured.
Verse eight is the conclusion of the narrative.
Hearing me spout those verses off to you may not make sense. So, at home, look at it again. Write each verse out, and draw a line connecting the ones that are similar in “who’s doing what.” The only one that stands out is verse five, where God the Father speaks: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
And I’ll make the same point in a different way.
We know how to read rhyming poetry.
We recognize it right away, and our ears are trained to expect certain rhythms and certain sounds.
For example: from stanza two of the hymn “Jesus Priceless Treasure,” we sing and pray to God:
“In Thine arms I rest me; / Foes who would molest me / Cannot reach me here. / Though the earth be shaking, / Ev’ry heart be quaking, / Jesus calms my fear. / Lightnings flash / And thunders crash; / Yet, though sin and hell assail me, / Jesus will not fail me.”
The English language doesn’t get more beautiful than that.
You weren’t surprised by any of the rhymes, because you know how to read and hear rhyming poetry. We just get it.
Chiasm is to Hebrew, Greek, and Latin literature what rhyming couplets are to English poetry.
So, according to the form the author chose to record these words, the most important thing about the Transfiguration isn’t this miraculous looking, sparkly Jesus. That’s what we want.
We want the signs and wonders. The mountaintop.
We want proof that God is who He says He is—more and better than what His Word declares.
We don’t want the simple words the Father speaks, which are the most important words of the Transfiguration:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
There are two obvious reasons why the Father says these words.
First, He’s already sort of said them. And He needs to say them again.
When Jesus is Baptized, “immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17).
Then, the Father didn’t say, “Listen to Him.”
So why does He add that? Probably because the Disciples don’t listen to Jesus.
Immediately before—and immediately after—today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus predicts His death and resurrection.
In Matthew 16, Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
Peter—on of the Twelve, their leader—rebukes Jesus.
They’re not listening as they should. Like us, they want the “heaven-on-earth” mountaintop experience to last. Peter offers to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah thinking just that—that this vision might stay put.
Later on in Chapter 17, when God the Father has spoken, exhorting Jesus’ disciples to listen to Him, “Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.’ And they were greatly distressed” (Matthew 17:22-23).
They’re still not listening as they should.
So, as we should, let’s listen.
The Father tells us to listen to Jesus.
Jesus tells us He’s going to suffer, and die, and on the Third Day be raised.
So, let’s look at the account of His Crucifixion and death.
In chapter twenty-seven, St. Matthew provides a very detailed description of the events.
Jesus’ trial and Crucifixion are a public spectacle.
His Transfiguration was a private epiphany.
In His Crucifixion, Jesus is surrounded by two, no-name criminals.
In His Transfiguration, He’s surrounded by Moses and Elijah, two of the most important figures in the Old Testament. Moses prophesied that God would raise up a prophet like him who would reveal God’s divine will (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-19). And Elijah was the forerunner for the end times (cf. Malachi 4:4-6).
When Jesus is Crucified, He’s crucified naked, in shame. His garments have been stolen. Men gambled to win them.
When He’s Transfigured, His garments glisten in glory.
When He’s Crucified, those around Him are afraid of God’s revelation. Literally, it says that the centurion and those with him “feared greatly” what was happening (cf. Matthew 27:54).
At His Transfiguration, “When the disciples heard [what the Father said], they fell on their faces and [feared greatly]” (Matthew 17:6). Literally, that’s what it says. The same words.
And at the Crucifixion, who calls Jesus what?
After the centurion and those with him had “feared greatly,” they say this: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).
And at the Transfiguration, God the Father makes the same confession.
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
Comparisons like this are done on purpose. It’s not an accident. This is the depth of Scripture. The plain truth of Scripture.
The Transfiguration isn’t about the Transfiguration—or else we’ll walk away from that mountain wanting our own.
Instead, the Transfiguration is only to be understood in light of the Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.
“As they were coming down the mountain…” that’s exactly what Jesus means when He says: “’Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead’” (Matthew 17:9).
If we listen to Jesus, then when we hear of His Transfiguration, we’ll remember His Crucifixion and death—and His resurrection.
And then it’ll all make sense. Jesus’ suffering and Jesus’ glory really are two sides to the same coin.
Whenever we suffer, we do well remember Jesus’ Transfiguration. That’s the glory we have to look forward to.
But better than that, when we suffer, we do well to remember Jesus’ Crucifixion and Death and Resurrection.
That, too, is the glory we have to look forward to.
We don’t need miracles, because we have something better.
It’s St. Peter—and isn’t that great!—who describes the prophetic word as “more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19), meaning—better than the stuff they saw.
It’s St. Peter who exhorts us to “pay attention [to the prophetic Word of God] as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). He knows what he’s talking about, because he was just there—not listening as he should.
He wants you to hear—and believe—and be saved.
He wants you to see that you have something better than signs and wonders. Something better, even, than the fleeting glory of the Transfiguration, which was momentary.
You have something that endures forever. Something that will never fail you.
You have the Word of God, the promise of salvation to all who believe in Jesus Christ, who cling to Him for salvation.
You have Jesus, the beloved Son of God, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
So, whether the coin of your daily life lands on heads, suffering, or tails, glory, it’s the same coin.
“This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. [The things we hear and believe.] For the things that are seen are transient [fleeting], but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
You have Jesus, who suffered—who died—who was raised.
And thunders crash;
Yet, though sin and hell assail me,
Jesus will not fail me.”
So, listen to Him.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!