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CHRISTIAN LIFE: Climbing the Heights

Lessons from the Transfiguration…..

Not every reader of this magazine will have engaged in mountain-climbing, but many will have enjoyed a marvellous view from a vantage point. When travelling by car in hilly countryside it is possible to turn a corner and encounter a spectacular view across a wide valley to distant hills. Aerial views can be breath-taking too, as you look down from a great height upon islands or mountains on a clear day. None of this, however, equals a view that can be enjoyed after climbing to the top of a steep hill. It may not be exactly a mountain-climb, but the effort of plodding on to higher ground can be rewarded when the goal is reached. Some of us may have sat down, after our climb, to enjoy the view across the open countryside. We knew the physical effort expended had been worthwhile.

 

At the invitation of the Lord Jesus, Peter, James, and John climbed an unnamed mountain. Bible commentators suggest that it was most likely Mount Hermon which was near to Caesarea Philippi, though some prefer to identify it as Mount Tabor – but this seems less likely as it was further away. Hermon has a number of slopes. They would not have reached the summit of the mountain as this would have taken too long. Instead, the Lord Jesus would have taken the three disciples to an elevated and lonely peak. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe the occasion, but only Luke mentions that Jesus was taking the disciples with Him to pray (Lk.9:28).

 

 

THOSE THREE

Peter, James, and John are often regarded as privileged disciples. They had been with the Lord Jesus in the home of Jairus and had witnessed Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter being restored to life and health (Lk.8:51,55). Later, the same three disciples would be taken further than the others into the Garden of Gethsemane.  Matthew 17:1 and Mark 9:2 both refer to “Peter, James, and John” – in that order. We assume that James is named before John as he was the older of the two brothers. Luke reverses the order, placing John’s name after Peter’s (Lk.9:28). As Jewish law required the testimony of two or three witnesses, the Lord chose three of His disciples who were probably the most receptive to divine truth. They were not only going to pray but were also to witness the coming “kingdom of God” (v.27).

 

The account is described in Luke 9:28-36. It would seem that they began their climb in the evening as Peter and his companions later became “heavy with sleep” (v.32), and their return to lower ground was not until “the next day” (v.37). From the descriptions given by historians we can picture the group walking through vineyards, cornfields, and woodland as they began their ascent. As they climbed higher they would have encountered rocky ravines with dwarf shrubs, and later they might have seen patches of snow which would have shone brilliantly in the clear moonlight. The Lord Jesus had a purpose in taking His disciples up to the higher ground. He also wants to take us up to higher spiritual ground so that we might enjoy an undistracted time with Him and see more of His glory, by faith.

 

 

TRANSFIGURED

Having reached the heights, the Lord Jesus began to pray. As He did so, His external appearance altered noticeably. His clothing also became “white and glistering” (v.29) – resembling lightning. The word translated “raiment” (KJV) was used for stately robes and is therefore very appropriate for the occasion. Matthew 17:2 tells us that His face shone like the sun, while Mark 9:3 refers to His clothing which was whiter than any fuller could make it. Both Matthew and Mark use the word “transfigured” to describe what happened to the Lord Jesus. The Greek word is like the English word metamorphosis and means to be changed into another form. Luke does not use this expression, perhaps because Gentile readers might have misunderstood it from their heathen background.

 

Why would the Lord Jesus have been praying? The subject of His prayer was probably His death upon the cross, for this is mentioned in the context (Lk.9:22,31). We have already noted that while He prayed, He was changed. Although this was a unique incident, it remains true that we can be changed through spending time in the presence of the Lord. It has often been said that prayer changes things – but it changes people too. As we view His glory by faith, we can be changed as well (2 Cor.3:18). 

 

While the Lord Jesus prayed, two men appeared and talked with Him. Initially Peter and the two brothers were heavy with sleep, but as they woke they saw the Lord’s glory as well as Moses and Elijah who had miraculously appeared. Moses had died centuries before and had been buried by God (Dt.34:5-6). Disobedience had prevented him from entering the Promised Land, though he was permitted to see it from afar (Dt.32:52). But God is gracious, for now Moses was actually in the Land! Elijah, on the other hand, had never died. He had been carried up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Ki.2:11). Interestingly, both Moses and Elijah had been associated with mountains in the past (Ex.24:18; 1 Ki.19:8). If Moses appeared at the Lord’s Transfiguration as a representative of the Law, Elijah was present as a representative of the Prophets. (“The law and the prophets” are connected in Matthew 7:12).

 

 

ANOTHER EXODUS

Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory, and spake of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk.9:31). Both men could be seen clearly by the disciples. The topic of their conversation was, literally, the Lord’s “exodus” from this life at Jerusalem. Moses, you will remember, had led the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt – described in the Old Testament book with that name. The Passover, which was closely linked to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, was on Old Testament illustration of the time when the Lamb of God would offer His own perfect life as a sacrifice for sinners. The prophets of old had looked ahead to that moment, so it is hardly any wonder that Moses and Elijah would converse with the Lord upon such a significant theme. The Lord Jesus had come to “accomplish” (meaning to carry out) His “exodus” at Jerusalem. This was His mission. Jerusalem was the city where the temple stood – and a place where countless animals had been sacrificed.

 

Before proceeding further, some important observations need to be made. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have all recorded the transfiguration scene, but John omitted it. Perhaps the reason for the omission is that the whole of Christ’s life upon earth was a manifestation of the divine glory – not this one scene alone. John 1:14 would bear this out. There is also a close connection between suffering and glory. The Lord explained this to the two whom He met on the road to Emmaus (Lk.24:26). The Lord’s death and coming kingdom are therefore connected too.

 

The Lord Jesus had already told His listeners that some would not taste death until they had seen the kingdom of God (Lk.9:27). In the transfiguration scene we have a preview of that coming kingdom. Christ, the King, is there, shining in all His glory. Moses represents those saints who have died but will be raised in glory to share the kingdom with Him. Elijah, on the other hand, represents the “raptured saints” who will not die but will be caught up alive to meet the Lord in the air when He returns (1 Th.4:17). The three disciples present represent Jewish believers who will be alive at the time the Lord returns to earth and will enter His Kingdom. Below the mountain others awaited the return of the Lord and the three disciples. This group represents other people who will come into blessing when the Lord Jesus reigns.

 

Glory was seen and enjoyed by those who were upon the mountain. The Lord’s people today have also been promised glory. In fact, according to John 17:22 we have been given it already!  But while those who were present on the mountain were basking in glory, they were talking about the Lord’s death. What He has done for us at the cross will be our eternal theme of praise as we sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” (Rev.5:12). If we will be occupied with His praise in that coming day, should not that same theme occupy us now? We ought to be thinking about it, talking about it, and praising the Lamb that was slain for us!

 

 

CAN’T WE STAY?

It was hardly surprising that Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep. The climb up the hillside must have been physically demanding, and the hour was late. The strong mountain air would have been having an effect upon them as well. All too soon Moses and Elijah began to disappear. This was the last thing Peter wanted to happen! Recognizing how good it was for them to have been together, Peter suggested making “three tabernacles” so that the scene might be prolonged (Lk.9:33). In this way Jesus, Moses, and Elijah could all be accommodated – though Peter did not really know what he was saying. Actually he was making a big mistake. The three did not stand as equals; the Lord was far greater than Moses or Elijah. A cloud of glory overshadowed them for a moment, filling them with fear. From the cloud the Father’s voice was heard, “This is My beloved Son: hear Him” (Lk.9:35).

 

Moses and Elijah faded from the scene, and “Jesus was found alone” (Lk.9:36). An important lesson had been taught. Great men may have their place, but the Lord Jesus is greater than all others. We must hear Him – and we must fear Him! God the Father would direct our attention to His beloved Son. Peter never forgot those sacred moments which almost seemed out of this world. Later he wrote of being with the Lord upon “the holy mount” and witnessing His glory (2 Pet.1:17-18). Imagine the darkness of the night vanishing as Moses and Elijah appeared in glory, and then the brilliance of that glory-cloud which overshadowed them. It must have been rather like the Shekinah (glory-cloud) that was seen over the Tabernacle (Ex.40:34). Truly, it had been a mountain-top experience!

 

Being on the mountain-top can be something beyond compare. We might like to stay up there, as Peter wished. But we have to come down to lower levels. A world of need lay beneath the Mount of Transfiguration, as the three disciples discovered. When they had descended the next day, they found a distressed man who was pleading for help on behalf of his demon-possessed son. In the absence of the Lord the other disciples had been unable to offer any relief (Lk.9:37-40). Filled with compassion, the Lord Jesus met the desperate need and healed the boy. Those present were “all amazed at the mighty power of God” (Lk.9:43).

 

 

HIGHER GROUND

Like those disciples, we have our mountain-top and our valley experiences. The Lord has sent us out to minister with compassion in a world of need. However, we can only be effective if we spend time in His presence. Worship can prepare us for service. In fact, worship ought to precede service. Time spent in the Lord’s presence is never wasted. By waiting before Him we can be equipped to minister effectively in a needy world. We can also be transformed by the Spirit of God as we linger in the presence of the Lord Jesus.

 

Spending time before Him also enables us to develop a correct perspective. Those three disciples heard about the purpose behind their Master’s death upon the cross, and they also witnessed His glory. In addition to this they were shown, in miniature, His coming Kingdom. They learned more about Him and more about God’s purposes for His own Son. Time in His presence will give us a correct perspective too.

 

Johnson Oatman (Junior) wrote a beautiful hymn entitled “Higher Ground”. Some words from his hymn seem a fitting conclusion to this “mountain meditation” from Scripture.

 

I’m pressing on the upward way,

New heights I’m gaining every day;

Still praying as I onward bound,

“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”